Forever Yours… Faithfully.

This is the drasha I delivered this morning at Kesher Israel congregation.


Shabbat Shalom.

This week’s parsha is Hayei Sarah, and it is notable as the favorite portion for anyone giving a wedding or sheva berakha talk.  Of course, the rationale for this popularity is the description of hashgaha pratit – Divine guidance – in finding Rivka for Yitzhak, and the lovely descriptions of her character as the qualifiers.  Left unstated is that in this, Yitzhak gets Lavan as an in-law, setting the template for touchy relationships with in-laws down through history, but be that as it may, Yitzhak and Rivka are still one of the shining examples of a Biblical couple who behave like a couple in love.

But that story of a match made in heaven is not the only thing in the parsha.  There’s Avraham’s purchase of Ephron’s cave to bury Sarah in Hevron, which is the first evidence of actual Jewish ownership of land in perpetuity.  There’s Avraham’s awareness of his own mortality and realization that Yitzhak has not found a wife, Avraham’s later marriage to Keturah, and then his death.  His burial briefly rejoins Ishmael to the family, and then we have the descendants of Ishmael listed.  The days are just packed!

But what really caught my eye as I looked this week was the character of Eliezer.  We first met him two weeks ago in parshat Lekh Lekha – known in the south as “go on, git” – just before the Brit bein ha-betarim (the covenant of the pieces) where Avram is talking with God, and upon hearing that he will be blessed asks “what are you going to give me, given that I have no children, and Eliezer of Damascus will be my heir?”

God promptly rejects this notion, and gives Avram what must have felt like a rather improbable promise – that his own child rather than his servant will inherit him.

Eliezer, thus, gets disinherited by Heavenly decree, and continues to serve Avraham faithfully for decades more.  Along the way, he silently watches Avraham have several more adventures, up to the births of Ishmael and Yitzhak, and the circumcisions of everyone present.  And then he sees Ishmael exiled with Hagar, and following that, sees Avraham take Yitzhak up to the top of a mountain to offer him as a sacrifice.  It should be noted that this is not a recommended tactic to address youthful rebellion.  Let’s take a moment to consider Eliezer’s perspective of the Akedah: maybe he’ll be inheriting after all?  Perhaps what he’ll have to do is just out-wait Yitzhak, and then the full blessing will pass to him?

Anyway, when Avraham comes down the mountain with Yitzhak, Eliezer is back where he started: disinherited, but continuing to serve as the majordomo for Avraham’s estate.  And then come the events of this week’s parsha.  Avraham not only makes Eliezer take a vow, he does so in a highly personal way (putting their hands under each others’ “thighs”), and regarding what?

Eliezer has to go find the wife for Yitzhak to make sure that his lineage will continue.  Avraham specifically made Eliezer the instrument of his own disinheritance.

And what does Eliezer do?  He collects more information about what’s precisely required from Avraham, making sure that his instructions are clear, and then prays for Divine assistance – even to the point of giving God conditions – so that he’ll recognize the signs that God sends.

And what happens after that?  He faithfully proceeds to carry out Avraham’s wishes.

This is remarkable – the modern day analogue here is a person who is laid off being asked to train his or her replacement and then does an awesome job of it.  I know for myself, that wouldn’t feel too good – it would be an extra kick when I was down.

So why is this here?  What are we supposed to be learning from this example?

Let’s take a look at what Antignos of Sokho says in Pirkei Avot (1:3):

“Be not like the slaves who serve the master for the sake of receiving a reward, but be like the slaves who serve the master not for the sake of receiving a reward – and let the fear of Heaven be upon you.”

I must confess that for a long time, I didn’t really grasp that verse – I couldn’t see how you could truly serve God without being influenced by the promise of God’s blessing for obedience and good conduct, but right here in front of me was an example of precisely how to do that exact thing.

When Rivka sees Yitzhak in the field, many commentators discuss her dismounting as a sign of various positive attributes, but largely unnoticed is the fact that Eliezer at that point refers to Yitzhak as “my master.”  Up until that point, he had used the term to refer to Avraham.  By this subtle transference of authority, Eliezer demonstrates that his service is not merely to an individual – even to the holiest of holy men – but rather, his service is to the Jewish people.

Eliezer serves Avraham and Yitzhak in exactly the manner described in Pirkei Avot: loyally, faithfully, even to the point of self-abnegation.  We too can endeavor to serve God in the same way – loyally and faithfully, even when our own interests must be overridden.  May we have the strength and merit to put God’s will before our own, even when it is personally difficult.

Shabbat Shalom.


Dayeinu (“It Would Have Been Enough for Us”)

This is the drasha (sermon) I delivered on the eighth day of Passover this year.


Shabbat Shalom and Ḥag Sameaḥ,

If you asked what the main theme of Passover is, an obvious answer would be “freedom.”  After all, that’s what we’ve been mentioning in every amidah – z’man ḥeruteinu is the time of our freedom.  Another obvious answer would be “matzah” – it is ḥag ha-matzot, right?  Other choices could  be “love” – between individuals as we read in shir hashirim today, including the allegorical love between God and Israel as per some commentators; or perhaps the might of God – that for the sake of redeeming Israel He was willing to wholly upend natural law in such a dramatic manner.  Those are all great topics, but what I’d like to explore a bit is something else which finds its way into a few places: gratitude.

First, the most obvious example, from the seder, we read dayeinu – it would have been enough.  After each of a list of remarkable things God has done for us, we say that that itself is sufficient.  But in truth, if God had split the sea but not brought us through it dry, we would have ceased to exist as a people.  If He had brought us to the desert and not fed us, we would have starved and ceased to exist as a people.  And so on for most of the elements in the song.  So a literal reading doesn’t make a whole lot of sense here – it has to be getting at something a bit deeper.  I’ll get back to what that is after we go to another part of the service.

We read what the rabbis call the “Egyptian Hallel” – psalms 113-118 – at the Seder and every morning.  It acquired this name, in contrast with the other psalms featuring “Hallelujah”, due to the presence of psalm 114 – B’tzet Yisrael me-mitzrayim “When Israel came out of Egypt,” and the thematically-aligned section Min ha-meitzar – “In my distress,” but more literally “out of the narrow places”, and the word meitzar is closely related to mitzrayim – Egypt.

When I look at this collection of psalms, a few verses jump out at me, specifically some from psalm 116:

Mah ashiv LaH, kol tagmulohi alai – How can I repay the LORD for all His goodness to me?  A good question.  And then the end of that psalm we see the answer to the question: Lekha ezbaḥ zevaḥ todah, uv’shem H ekrah; nederai LaH ashaleim, negda na l’khol amo; b’ḥatzrot beit H, b’tokhaykhi Yerushalayim Hallelujah – to You I will bring a Thanksgiving offering and call on the LORD by name; I will fulfill my vows to the LORD in the presence of His people, in Your midst, in Jerusalem, praise God.

I would like to suggest that this phrasing is no mere poetic flourish – it’s instructional rather than metaphoric: the way we repay God for His goodness is (1) by bringing an offering, (2) calling on Him by His proper name, (3) fulfilling our vows (4) in public, (5) at the temple.  So of these five concepts, the first (bringing an offering) and the last (at the temple) are not doable today, in absence of a functioning beit hamikdash, but what about the other three?

We do call upon God by name: every time we say Shabbat Shalom at a minimum, we greet each other with God’s name “Shalom” – but is that what it means in this context?  I would suggest that in the context of thanking God for goodness, it would mean “properly attributing to God those things which are His blessings”.  And what might those blessings be?   From the prosaic rain in its season, to the memory of the deeds of the good people who have gone before us, to the small daily miracles evident in the created world, to our awareness of the created world itself.  God’s handiwork is quite clearly apparent the the warp and weft of existence.

How about fulfilling the vows?  Well, we’re instructed that our yes should be a yes, and our no should be a no – and we should endeavor not to vow at all.  So where is the instruction for gratitude in the verse?  The vow in question is that of bringing an offering, but we have to remember Shmuel’s admonition: Haḥafetz laH b’olot u’zevaḥim kish’moah b’kol H? Hinei: sh’moah mizevaḥ tov lehak’shiv mayḥaylev elim – Does the LORD desire offerings as much as He desires listening to the Word of the LORD?  Behold: to obey is better than a good offering, and attention is better than the fat of rams.  So perhaps today, where this leaves us is that consciously following God’s words is the the way to fulfill the vows undertaken by our ancestors.

The final element – “in public” is obvious: while much good can be done and should be done privately, each act of public thanks for blessings stands as a testimonial to God’s goodness and Hashgaḥa Pratit – the Devine guidance of human affairs.  We even name those acts kiddush Hashem – a sanctification of God’s name.

So with these three elements in hand – that we obey God, attribute our blessings to Him, and thank Him publicly, let’s return to Dayeinu.

This liturgical prayer serves a very specific purpose in its place in the Haggadah: by saying that these steps would individually have been enough, we’re saying that our cup of blessing has run over, and are embracing Ben Zoma’s dictum from Pirkei Avot: Mah Ashir? Hasameaḥ b’ḥelko – “who is rich?  One who rejoices in his portion”.

It’s a moment where we publicly count our blessings, and thank God for them individually and collectively.  But there is a challenge here – can we behave with gratitude and appropriate thanks for all of the individual blessings we have been given, or will we blind ourself to what we have and where we are in the glare of eventual promises?

I speak of the last line of the song, which captures where we are now: eilu hikhnisim l’eretz Yisrael v’lo-vanah lanu et beit habeḥirah, dayeinu– If He had brought us to Eretz Yisrael and not built for us the Temple…


Tefillat Ḥagigit services will be on Wednesday, April 22.

May we merit to fulfill all the commandments of God in gratitude.

Shabbat Shalom and Ḥag Sameaḥ.

This is the Place (Vayeitze 5771/2010)

I gave this drasha four years ago at Kesher Israel, and wanted to rescue it from my old blog.

This week’s parsha is vayetzei, and it’s chock full of drama: the scheming of Laban, followed quickly by Jacob’s use of sympathetic magic in animal husbandry; the struggle between Leah and Rachel, and the births of nearly all of their children, culminating in the decision to return to the promised land. However, I’d like to focus on an incident at the very beginning of the story: Jacob sleeps, and receives a vision in a dream – he sees angels ascending and descending a ladder, and hears the voice of God reiterating and reaffirming the Abrahamic promise to him. He awakes, and famously says: Akhen yesh H’ bamakom hazeh; v’anokhi lo yada’ti (“Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know”).

There are several interesting questions raised by this verse. First, what is it that Jacob did not know? Rashi says that Jacob didn’t know that this was a holy place, and that if he had known that, Jacob would not have slept there. This isn’t completely satisfying to me: if Jacob had followed Rashi’s advice, would he have received the vision which came in a dream? Further, the words Rashi uses, makom kadosh (“holy place”) are qualitatively different from the words of the text itself.

Jacob didn’t say that the place was kadosh – sanctified, he said yesh H’ bamakom (there is God in this place), and there is a hint at a deeper significance in the difference. It seems to me that what Jacob did not know up until that moment was, as the p’shat (plain meaning) says, that God was in that particular place.

But what precisely does that mean?

A basic property of an object is location, and a presumption of both ancient and modern physics is that two different objects can not occupy precisely the same space. This is the essence of what it means for something to exist. The atoms described by Democritus and the electrons and other fermions described by Wolfgang Pauli with his exclusion principle demonstrate their solidity by excluding all other substances from their borders. One of the things which these basic physical understandings teach us about objects is that the location of the object can be described as the set of all possible locations, minus the set of of all of the locations where the object is not.

Is it possible that Jacob meant “I did not know that God was here,” with its implications that the error was merely one of geography – that God would be in the place he had been, and in the place he in which he had just found himself, but perhaps not in some third place? This would imply that his lack of knowledge was the equivalent of not knowing whether one has cinnamon in one’s pantry: a simple, easy matter which can be verified empirically. This understanding does seem to fit the plain meaning in the text, and Jacob’s subsequent action of erecting a pillar as a memorial at that place is consistent with this approach, but is inadequate in the face of the larger challenge of Jewish faith: Maimonides’ third principle of faith states that God not only does not have a body, God is entirely unlike anything which is actually embodied.

As we’ve seen, one of the necessary properties of “embodiment” is location. God’s disembodiment implies that the set of locations where God is not has to be empty – God must be everywhere, everywhen, in all places and at all times.

So perhaps then Jacob’s error could be the presumption that there was a place where God was not.

The idea that there would be a human-comprehensible place in the absence of God should not be confused with the concept of Hester Panim – literally, the “hiding of the Face of God” – but which is metaphorically understood to mean the freedom and space which God gives to His creations to use their free will. In Hester Panim, the presence of God is still announced by the countless miracles which are required for life to continue – helium fusion causing solar energy, photosynthetic reactions, the Krebs cycle of respiration, and replication via meiosis being but the most obvious. When there is Hester Panim, God is hidden – He is not missing.

Jacob would have had ample precedent in treating God as having location: all of the prior occasions when God makes his presence known to people are couched in anthropomorphic terms: walking with God, God appearing, and of course God sending a variety of human-shaped messengers. So then, if Jacob would have had said precedent, why would his reaction have been so extreme? He says Mah norah hamakom hazeh (“how awe-inspiring is this place”), a reaction which is entirely out of place as a response to the other visions and encounters which the Patriarchs had had with God to that point.

This reaction indicates a hint of the Maimonidean insight: that what it was that Jacob had not known unto this point was not that God wasn’t in this particular place, but rather that God is in *all* places. The reason the place is awe-inspiring is that it served as the place where the full awesome nature of the Holy One, Blessed is He, was felt by His chosen patriarch.

There is another reason why the phrase anokhi lo yadati is significant. In the recorded stories of the patriarchs, we have Abraham arguing with God regarding God’s righteousness, Abraham deceiving two different foreign kings regarding his relationship to Sarah, Sarah laughing in the face of God’s prophecy, Sarah exiling Hagar and Ishmael, Abraham binding Isaac and preparing him to be sacrificed, Isaac deceiving the Philistine king about his relationship to Rebecca, Jacob bargaining slyly with Esau, Rebecca assisting Jacob in deceiving Isaac, and Jacob fleeing from Esau’s wrath. However, up until this point, none of the people in the patriarchal family had admitted the slightest error.

The admission of ignorance is the first step on the journey to wisdom, and the admission of error is the first step on the journey to righteousness: our mistakes are the best teacher, if we admit to them and learn from them. Jacob’s admission of his error and ignorance in this matter lays the groundwork for the t’shuva, the repentance, shown by Judah, and for the entire Jewish nation to embrace forgiveness and repentance as a national characteristic throughout our history.

So then, the moment which provoked Jacob to proclaim the awe he felt in the place was more than a simple thing: it is a cornerstone upon which the first flowerings of our understanding of the importance of both repentance and of seeing God’s omnipresence can be built.

A Bitter Pill

It’s been a little more than a week since my synagogue was rocked by the arrest of Rabbi Freundel.  Elanit spoke eloquently about the first-order effect on Shmini Atzeret;.  Since that time, I’ve seen all sorts; of reactions and even more additional information.

My perspective on the matter might be a bit different from some others.  I’m a convert – and one of Freundel’s converts, no less, but I didn’t have quite the horrific experience which many of the recent (female) converts describe.  I came to Judaism after a long journey through a bunch of different religions (up to and including paganism) – I was reading Rabbi Telushkin’s Jewish Literacy, and I realized that this was exactly what I had been looking for for years.  I initially contacted a nearby Conservative rabbi who enrolled me in the conversion class and gave me a reading list.  Around the time he dismissively brushed off the idea of taharat hamishpaha, I realized he wasn’t the rabbi for me. I switched sponsoring rabbis, and then finished the conversion with the Conservative movement about 2 years after I had started.
Two notes about that: first, the mohel didn’t show up, so my hatafat dam brit was performed by one of the (non-mohel) rabbis there, using a diabetic finger-stick. Relatively high on the unpleasant scale, that was. Second, of the three rabbis, one later left town after allegations about discretionary fund mismanagement, and another got featured on “To Catch a Predator” (in the wrong way).

I was attending the third rabbi’s synagogue, but quickly found myself too far to the right for the Conservative movement. When I went to a local Orthodox minyan, the gabbai checked with his rabbi, and told me I wouldn’t be counted. D’oh!

I called Rabbis Tessler and Freundel, and RBF returned my call first. When I went to meet with him, I wore a suit (dress up to meet the rabbi, ‘natch), and had tzitzit (fringes) out, and at the time had a full beard. He later told me that his first thought was “this guy must be here to talk about his girlfriend,” and that he was really surprised to hear that I wanted to convert myself. By this point I had already taken a year of Hebrew at U Maryland.

After ratcheting up my observance a bit, I converted with him about six months later (shortly after simhat torah 5758). The mohel showed up, and was one of my beit din. My big surprises were getting my circumcision inspected – to make sure that I didn’t need to go have it re-done surgically – no, that wasn’t traumatic at all, and the other surprise was that the men’s mikvah in Silver Spring wasn’t heated at all. In October. Yep, composing an impromptu declaration of faith while standing in extremely cold water was my idea of a good time.

But that was the end of the crummy part.

Sarah and I got married shortly after, and RBF performed the ceremony – his wife Sharon walked Sarah down the aisle, and we got introduced to Kesher Israel by the lovely wedding the community threw for us. We babysat for the Freundel kids when they were little, attended their bar & bat mitzvahs, and even one of their weddings. Sharon was the person we spoke to about our daughter’s name to make sure we weren’t walking into an accidental Hebrew language trap (or picking a name with bad associations).

I’ve been fully welcomed into the community, serving as a mashgiah (kosher supervisor), gabbai (sexton), ba’al tokea (shofar blower), speaker, sheliah tzibbur (prayer leader), board member and later officer, and then president of the mikvah. I’ve taught classes in practical Judaism (primarily directed for converts and the newly observant), and innumerable times I’ve been the person RDBF would send someone to talk to after their first meeting with him (generally after morning minyan) – I would tell people that they’d be evaluated by the questions they asked: “why do we keep kosher” is asked by a person in a different place in the process than “I just bought a chicken and it had a broken leg – is it still kosher?”

So I’m heartbroken. With the actions of which R’ Freundel has been (compellingly) accused, I feel like I just had a big chunk of family taken away.

The betrayal is really raw – this isn’t a private porn addiction, an affair, or the like: this is the perversion of a fundamental Jewish institution. It’s a betrayal of the years we all spent building the mikvah (especially given all of the flack we got during the construction). It’s a betrayal of all of the trust we’ve built since then.

I remember conversations with RDBF on many occasions when some Jewish religious leader or other would get into an ethical or sexual scandal – I would lament that I would wish that being immersed in the study of Torah would have served as a prophylactic against that sort of behavior – that is to say, that being learned would make someone better. He said he understood my disappointment.

He has been a mentor to me, and now that crumbles through my fingertips. I keep hoping that I’ll wake up, and this will turn out to have been the longest dream ever, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.

There are a lot of stages of grief, and I’m probably holding at anger, mostly, but in the words of a good friend, sampling of the different emotions is like a misery tapas.

It isn’t supposed to be like this, with the chief of police on the bimah – people asking (legitimate) questions like “how do I talk about this to my kids”? That just twists the knife. I don’t think I was videotaped (but it’s possible – there were men’s hours recently), but I feel terrible for all of the people who have been. I feel terrible for Sharon and the extended Freundel family, who also didn’t ask for this, and now suffer for something they didn’t do.

I’ve never been prouder of the community and our leadership – Elanit (KI) and Adela (NCM) both acted with all due speed and without hesitation. Not every institution is as responsible or as committed to ethical behavior. But I sure wish they weren’t put into the position to have had to do this. This is horrible.

It is worth noting that many articles are calling for “the keys to the mikvah to be in the hands of women” and the like. That’s nice, but that doesn’t have anything to do with this case, because 5 of the 6 National Capital Mikvah presidents have been women (including the current and immediately past president). The current president of Kesher Israel likewise is a woman. Clearly, being run by women didn’t keep the local rabbi from causing a deep hurt. However, being run by the right women – the best people for the job – meant that their responses have been clear and compelling. The problem is, as Juvenal asked, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?” (who watches the watchmen?) – when the person at the root of the web of trust defects, it is nearly impossible to prevent and is devastating.

But back to the issue – this sucks mightily. I miss my friendship, which was apparently gone before I realized it. I miss the trust I had – the sense of innocent search for truth, and the feeling that I had a friend and ally. I miss the feeling that someone was actively trying to protect converts, and actively trying to hold the center against the pull of the left and the pull of the right.

But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

I know to me it leaves an ashen aftertaste.

Parshat Bereshit 2014 (or, “From the Peanut Gallery”)

Because of the events which unfolded this past week related to Kesher Israel, I was asked on Tuesday to give the sermon this shabbat. Below is what I said.


Shabbat Shalom.

This week’s parsha, Bereshit, opens with God creating the world ex nihilo – from nothingness – and describes that primordial nothingness as tohu va’vohu – void and confused. We move through the days of creation, observing the complexity of the created world increase from inanimate objects to plants, animals, and finally the zenith of His created work – the human being. One might think this would be a story of how the perfectly created people would live in perfection.

However, it is not.

Those first human beings, in relatively quick order, manage to be disobedient, deceitful, and murderous. Hava listens to the voice of the snake, eats the forbidden fruit, and then gets Adam to do the same. For this, they are cast out of the garden with a curse. Their oldest children, Kayin and Hevel, follow suit when Kayin commits the first murder, and then lies to God upon being challenged. For this, Kayin is also cast out to wander the earth.

Our sages tell us that the reason for the sixth day being described as “very” good was that God placed in us conflicting desires: the good inclination – the yetzer ha-tov, which wants to constructively obey God’s commands, and an evil inclination – the yetzer ha-ra, which includes the impulsive, the acquisitive, the angry, and the carnal. Our task as people, and a fortiori as Jews, is to yoke the yetzer ha-ra so that our actions – regardless of their initial genesis – can serve God.

In the cases of Adam, Hava, and Kayin, it’s clear that whatever else happened in their lives, they were overcome by their yetzer ha-ra, and while God had conciliatory things to say about it – they were all punished severely for their transgressions. Their actions tore at the fabric of their (small) society, and the nature of their punishment reflected the sense in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) that that which is crooked cannot be made straight (Ecc 1:15). It was a permanent punishment – Adam and Hava never made it back to the garden in their lives, because innocence lost cannot be regained. Kayin’s wanderings likewise did not cease – no earthly repentance could repay the loss of Hevel’s life, which we judge to have infinite value.

This could be viewed as the earliest example of “you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”

These two examples have another thing in common: the transgressions and punishment completely take over the characters, so that their good qualities are all but forgotten in the stories themselves and in how they are remembered. If one were to describe Kayin, “that guy who murdered his brother” pretty much sums up the totality of how he is remembered – no attention is paid to how dutiful he was as a son, or any of the good he did his life – that one act became the defining aspect of his persona through history.

Or to put it in the words of Kohelet again, “zevuvay mavet yavish ya- biah shemen rokeah yakar mahokhmah mikavod sikhlut m’at” – “dead flies putrefy the perfumer’s oil; wisdom and honor are outweighed by a little stupidity.” (Ecc: 10:1)

Kohelet isn’t saying that the wisdom and honor go away, or that they do not matter, rather that the damage which can be done by a little stupidity will be what is remembered.

The last thing that these two examples have in common is that the people involved in them act in a similar way when confronted by God – they first attempt to escape blame, and then try to deny responsibility. Adam blames Hava, Hava blames the serpent, and God is angry with all of them. Kayin impudently challenges God with “am I my brother’s keeper?” when given the opportunity to admit what he has done. This, too, is an all-too-human trope – David famously asked “Shegi’ot mi yavin?” – “who can discern his own errors?” (Ps. 19:12)

We are charged with learning both positive and negative examples from the Bible, most famously expressed as “ma’aseh avot simanim l’banim” – the deeds of the ancestors are signs to their descendants.

What does that give us here?

We learn from their examples that the yetzer ha-ra is powerful enough to overcome the reluctance to sin even when one is right in front of God. And more – the three things I find in common here are that the individuals were drawn to follow their yetzer ha-ra, sinned, denied their own role in the sin, and were punished with exile, and the remembrances of their transgressions vastly outweighs the memory of the good they did in their lives.

Judaism teaches us that a corrective to the yetzer ha-ra is engaging the yetzer ha-tov – and we have an opportunity to do that here, now. We can increase our commitment to community service, to study of Torah, and to acts of loving-kindness. We can financially support our community efforts to repair our building, in addition to our other charitable acts. And we can call out to God for His assistance – as David wrote, “the LORD is close to all those who call upon Him in truth.” (ps 145:18)

May we merit to yoke our yetzer ha-ra to the service of God and His commandments.

Taking Care of Business (or “Don’t Wait”)

In 24 hours, I’ve been to a bar mitzvah, an engagement party, an unveiling (memorial service where a grave marker is displayed), and sent Roya & Sarah off to visit her family in Memphis (the picture is from the airport).

If this was any more “circle of life”, I’d have swarms of cartoon animals doing elaborate choreography around me.

But this got me thinking a bit on the ephemerality of the moment- we live in the unquantized “now”, and to do otherwise is considered a terrible curse (Deut 28:67). Or do we?

How present are we actually? There is a whole cottage industry right now in bemoaning how modern technology brings us out of the moment, and makes us disconnected from each other (“Look Up” is a good example of that) – although I’ve seen enough pictures of people ignoring each other on trains reading newspapers to know this isn’t truly a modern phenomenon.

But I think the essence of the thing is still true, that each of the moments we have is precious, and how we choose to spend them offers revealing insight into our characters.

So given my postulated superiority of temporal presence, what’s the actual takeaway, other than “be here now”? I think it would be “don’t wait.” Anything worth doing is worth doing now.


Fanfare for the Common Man (Shavuot 2014)

This is (more or less) the drasha (sermon) I delivered at Kesher Israel on the first day of Shavuot (Pentecost) this year. It seems to have been well received.


Hag Sameah (happy festival)

Everyone who knows me personally will understand what I mean when I say that I am deeply honored and gratified to be able to address you from here on Yom HaBikkurim (the holiday of the first-fruits).

Two young fish are swimming along, and an old fish swims up and says to them, “enjoy the water today, fellas.” After he leaves, one young fish turns to the other and asks “what’s water?”

It’s an old joke – but it sets the stage for something that caught my attention when I thought about what to say today. You see, there’s something deeply countercultural which is evident in the book of Ruth, and it’s something which I believe we overlook in precisely the same way that the young fish overlook the water.

What do I mean? Well, let’s consider the setting of Ruth – this is the period of the shofetim, the Judges, back before there were Jewish kings. This is the same time which was famously described – negatively – as “there was no king in Israel, and everyone did as he pleased.” Perhaps this is where we get our reputation as a disorganized religion.

In the surrounding world, at about the same time- dating gets a little fuzzy back then – the Trojan war is occurring. While the Philistines and other Canaanites were direct competitors for resources and land, and the cult of Ba’al and some of the other local pagan deities were religious competitors, the ideas which actually lasted from that time period tended to come out of Hellenic culture.

Specifically, there is this idea of kleos, which can be translated variously as “fame” “glory”, or as Rebecca Goldstein has it – “Acoustic Renown”. Kleos basically was the sense that by engaging in mighty deeds – in extraordinary deeds – one would achieve fame, and this would be the key to living forever. The zenith of this is the subtitle of the Iliad, which is “the Kleos of Achilles”. Kleos was at the core of living the exceptional life, and in the Hellenic mindset, the non-exceptional, ordinary life was not worth living.

In fact, Achilles, the strongest of the Acheans, considers whether he would rather live a long and happy life, without kleos, or a short life, with it, and concludes that the short life with it is the only acceptable way to live.

So this was an important concept in Hellenic culture.

But more than that, I would argue that it’s an important element in our culture as well. We live in a time where it’s easy to get Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame, and yet people clamor for the 16th minute. There seems to be no type of TV program sufficiently embarrassing that people won’t do it in search of becoming famous. Or, more darkly, consider that we can far more easily bring to mind the names of those who perpetrate heinous crimes than we can their victims. Kleos, indeed.

So what does this have to do with Ruth?

Well, Ruth seems to offer several character studies in behavior – as Rabbi Freundel has mentioned, she is one of the few figures in the Tana”kh whose commentary is entirely positive. Her relationship with Naomi also is a study in love and companionship. But for now, I’d like to focus on Boaz.

When we meet Boaz, whose name is quite literally “strength”, he acts in a thoroughly different manner. He’s just living his life – he’s a landowner, but he’s someone who makes sure to observe pe’ah– leaving the corners of his fields fallow for the poor to glean in them. When thrust into the actual story by meeting Ruth, he behaves honorably and politely toward her, inviting her to come glean.

Up until now, what we have is Boaz behaving honorably and justly, and if he had stopped there – dayeinu – it would have been enough. But the remarkable bit, to me, is what happens next: he instructs his workers to specifically leave a bit more out for her: effectively, what he’s doing is figuring a way to give her an additional bit of charity without her realizing it.

Now, this is remarkable. This is both the example of how to go lifnei mishurat ha-din – beyond the letter of the law, but just as importantly to do so privately. This is the most striking case, but if you look at each example of how Boaz behaves – sending Ruth out early to prevent her from getting slandered, representing himself before the elders, etc, the absence of a concern for kleos or its like is the dog that did not bark.

We see this developed further into places like the anonymity which figures into Rambam’s hierarchy of charitable giving. That is, the most preferable way to give charity (other than giving someone a job), is for neither the giver nor the recipient to know the identity of the other.

So why is the actual difference important? Why would it matter that they’ve got kleos and we don’t?

Let me propose a rationale: in Pirkei Avot (2:1), Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi describes the right path for a person, and says “Reflect on three things and you will not fall into transgression: know what is above you – a seeing eye, a hearing ear, and a book in which all your deeds are written.” So the deeds of people are recorded in the mind of God. Rabbi Yehudah is describing this in the context of judgement, but it also goes to the context of remembrance – God remembers small deeds, and will see even the hidden ones.

This is no less than a model of a way to live which rejects kleos as an ideal – rather than expecting that mighty deeds should live on in human memory, we should behave as Boaz and Ruth did, and as Micah says, “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before the LORD your God.”

Nowadays, it would be easy to miss the kleos in the cultural water, just as it would be easy to miss the Jewish “anti-kleos” that we have – we are concerned about all people, not just the extraordinary ones. This comes out in “All Israel has a share in the world to come…”, “Whoever saves a life saves a world” and lots of other places – so to us, the ordinary life is absolutely worth living.

Maoz Tzur

I wrote this back in 2007 back on my old livejournal (don’t laugh, you whippersnappers), but I want to bring it forward and preserve it, and it’s timely for Thanksgivikuh this year.


My all-time-favorite Jewish song is Ma’oz Tzur (no, not Def Leppard’s “Rock of Ages”). The song chronicles God’s deliverance of the Jewish people from a series of oppressive regimes in chronological order.

In prior years, I noticed something interesting in the fifth verse, the one about the salvation from the Selucids (translation from Wikipedia):

יוונים נקבצו עלי ‏‏אזי בימי חשמנים,‏
ופרצו חומות מגדלי ‏‏וטמאו כל השמנים,‏
ומנותר קנקנים ‏‏נעשה נס לשושנים,‏
בני בינה ימי שמונה קבעו שיר ורננים.‏

Greeks gathered against me then in Hasmonean days.
They breached the walls of my towers and they defiled all the oils;
And from the one remnant of the flasks a miracle was wrought for the roses.
Men of insight – eight days established for song and jubilation

The third line there is pronounced “u-minotar kankanim, na’aseh nes lashoshanim,” and as it’s spelled out in English letters, the pun becomes clear – “u-minotar kankanim” doesn’t just mean “and out from the flasks,” it also can mean “and the Minotaur is yoked to ploughs” (Jastrow helpfully provided confirmation of the uncommon usage of kankana as a plough)

I checked the assorted Siddurim (prayerbooks) around the house (Sacks, Birnbaum, Metsudah, Artscroll, Koren), and none of them mention the secondary meaning at all, so I asked RBF about it. His response was that he didn’t remember reading anyone talking about it, but that it’s obviously there. He said that the commentators would have eschewed pointing it out because that would imply that they knew something about Greek culture (!) and this was looked at as a gateway to heresy.

I think that the liturgical poets were pretty clever in their use of multilingual puns.

A suprising miss in the Wiki article is associating “Admon” (lit. “the red one”) with a specific ruler rather than with “Edom” (Esau) = Rome = the Roman Catholic Church, who were clearly the opressors of the Jews at the time of its composition – this association seems strikingly obvious to me…

Anyway, I was pleased to have caught something not much discussed.

One Year Later

Rosh Hashana just ended, and I was struck by something: Last year at this time, Sarah and I had just been through a miscarriage and were on fertility medicines which were not working, and I had a PICC line, because my Lyme disease just wasn’t getting better. I only saw blackness ahead; it felt like the sun would never come out. I didn’t say stuff like that out loud – it tends to freak people out – but I had felt really hopeless.

This Rosh Hashana was different. Sarah is 23 weeks pregnant, my Lyme is in remission, and while I’ve still got health problems, they’re not anything like what I was dealing with before. Now, I see the world through a different lens. The person who I was feels like a stranger.

But I know people who are suffering this year – who have problems every bit as crushing to them as mine were to me. Their year got worse at the same time mine got better. A few of them are open and public, and others are not.

I pray that God alleviates their suffering, and that next year, their suffering feels as distant to them as mine does to me now. Gam zu ya’avor – and this, too, shall pass.

And in the meantime, I’ll endeavor to do what I can for those whom I can help, and try to be compassionate as a principle, in the manner of “first, do no harm”.

God willing, it will be a good year for all of us.

Baseless Love

This is the talk I delivered this morning at Kesher Israel.


Shabbat shalom.


In case anyone hasn’t kept track, today is the 123rd day of the omer, which is 17 weeks and 4 days. The omer-count is something done in the seven-week period between Passover and Pentecost – it’s the quintessential example of “marking time” in the Jewish calendar.  From that period we get lots of practices, including the wait between minha and ma’ariv on holidays during which questions about whether Commander Data could convert to Judaism are considered completely reasonable.  But really, the omer period itself is defined by the endpoints – and in the way that the covenant of Avram was the covenant bein ha-betarim – “between the pieces” – so too that period between the two holidays marks the growth of the covenantal relationship of the jewish people with God from Exodus to revelation.

Now, there is a reason for remembering the omer-counting period today, which I hope will become clear in a few minutes.


So, this week’s parsha is Eikev, and it contains a lot of neat stuff.


It contains the one of the non-severability clauses in the Torah – kol mitzvotav asher anokhi mitzav’kha hayom (all of the commandments that i command you today).  Non-severability, in that context, means that we don’t get to pick and choose which commandments are important.  Rashi renders “eikev” as “heel” – specifically referring to the importance of observing those mitzvot which one would tread upon.


It’s also the source for how we sanctify our meals – after a description of how excellent the land of Israel is, we are told v’ahalta v’savata, u’veyrakhta, et A-donai Elokekha al haaretz hatova asher natan lakh (you will eat, and you will be satisfied, and you will praise the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you) – and being straightforward, literal minded people, we thus perform the commands in precisely that order.  Of course, this is followed immediately by an injunction to avoid haughtiness and self-congratulation for success, lest we come to believe that the satisfaction we experience is due to the work of our own hands rather than coming from the bountiful and open hand of God Himself.


The injunction against haughtiness leads into a retelling of the great paradigmatic communal sin – that of the golden calf, followed by one of the things which grabbed my attention the most when I started preparing; Divine reward and punishment as a concept is discussed a whole lot here.


Now, this is a very important Jewish concept – Maimonides includes this as one of his 13 principles of faith, and it’s included in the sh’ma, our basic declaration of faith, twice daily – and in fact, the paragraph from the sh’ma discussing reward and punishment is comes from this parsha.


The language used in second paragraph of the sh’ma is what I found the most interesting (Deut. 11:13-15):


וְהָיָה, אִם-שָׁמֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶל-מִצְוֹתַי, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם, הַיּוֹם–לְאַהֲבָה אֶת-ייְ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם, וּלְעָבְדוֹ, בְּכָל-לְבַבְכֶם, וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁכֶם:  וְנָתַתִּי מְטַר-אַרְצְכֶם בְּעִתּוֹ, יוֹרֶה וּמַלְקוֹשׁ; וְאָסַפְתָּ דְגָנֶךָ, וְתִירֹשְׁךָ וְיִצְהָרֶךָ:  וְנָתַתִּי עֵשֶׂב בְּשָׂדְךָ, לִבְהֶמְתֶּךָ; וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ:


Rabbi Lord Sacks mellifluously translates that as:

If you indeed heed my commandments with which I charge you today, to love the LORD your God and worship him with all your heart and with all your soul, I will give you rain in your land in its season, the early and late rain, and you shall gather in your grain, wine, and oil.  I will give grass in your field for your cattle, and you shall eat and be satisfied.


The paragraph continues in the converse: if we serve other gods, then the rain ceases, and we are punished.


Straightforward, right?  Do good stuff, get rain, crops grow.  Well, not quite.

This reward and punishment stuff is clearly important, but do we actually function this way?  Do we really believe that rain is dependent on how much we love God?


We certainly are willing to look inward for sins and blemishes after calamities  – thus we say that sinat hinam (baseless hatred) was the sin for which the second temple was destroyed.  We accept that God does act in this world as force in history.  However, are we willing to say that every everything is a direct reward or punishment?  “Eating and being satisfied” is a basic condition of normalcy – but are we willing to say that the hungry or the sick person is being punished?


Are we willing to say that droughts happen because people weren’t righteous enough, or that suffering is only a result of sin?  What about the whole book of Job, which addresses the suffering of a righteous man through no fault or sin of his own.


If we hold this way, then theodicy, the problem of evil in the world, rises to an intolerable volume.  No, I’m certainly not willing to hold that suffering is only the result of sin, and fortunately, neither are our sages.


Really, they say, the time of the true judgement is some time after one’s death – on the day of judgement, and at that time true and complete justice will be meted out.


We see a piece of this in the response to being told of someone’s death – we say “Barukh Dayan Emet” – Blessed is the True Judge.  In fact, we can see this opinion right here in ibn Ezra’s understanding of the name of the parsha itself – he renders “eikev’ as “in the end” – he sees the rewards of following the commandments as being granted in the next world rather than this one.


There is certainly precedent for using a specific language in the Bible even though it was never meant to be taken literally – consider lex talionis – “an eye for an eye” – that has always meant financial restitution, and was never intended for any sort of literal interpretation.


Great!  So problem solved, right?  All of the times where reward and punishment is brought up, we’re talking about in the world-to-come.  However, we do still have a question – why use this particular set of words, right here?


The text of the Torah refers to rain in its season, grass for your field for your cattle, and other very much this-world phenomena.  Are we then to understand that these are metaphors for next-worldly rewards?  If so, why not just say that?  There has to be more here that the Torah is trying to teach us.


I think I can propose an answer to why this paragraph is here, now, but we’ll need to go on some seeming tangents first.


Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch says that the switches in the grammar in our paragraph between the singular you and plural you (as an example, vetiroshekha versus nafshekhem)- is designed to introduce collectivism as a concept to the Jewish people – or to put it in the words of the Talmud., kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh – all Jews are responsible for one another: we are in fact our brother’s keeper.


This linking of the individual and collective experience in the way that R’ Hirsch describes fits nicely the time in which we find ourselves.  Specifically, we’re in the second of the seven weeks of consolation – the time between Tisha b’Av and Rosh Hashana, where comforting messages steadily yield to greater introspection and a desire for teshuvah (repentance).  The great sin of Tisha b’Av, as we understand it today, is sinat hinam – baseless hatred.  We’re told that the proper tikkun – the mystical reparation which can heal the damage we have caused in our relationship with God and our fellow humans – is ahavat hinam – baseless love.  I’ll get back to that.


Did you notice the number of weeks of consolation?  In the same way that the seven-week omer count provides a time-marking bridge between the Exodus and revelation, this period of consolation provides a bridge between the communal experience of tragic destruction and the personal experience of judgement.


Back to the text of the parsha, the unaddressed question is the image of rain: here, rain represents the sheer bounty of God’s beneficence, bestowed upon the worthy, no?


But here’s the catch: it doesn’t ever just rain over one field.  And there isn’t any indication that no righteous person could never have a wicked neighbor.  So the Torah is showing us, in a clear manner, that God will give rain to the wicked person’s field due to the merit of the righteous person – and like what R’ Hirsch said, we are bound up as a community – we are our brother’s keeper, but the way in which we should keep our brother is shown by imitatio Dei – we should follow in the ways of God, and act out of ahavat hinam, just as God does toward us.


So to sum up, we have a paragraph which tells us to follow God’s commandments, all about the rewards and punishments which happen in the next world if we do or don’t, and the language used directs us to consider ourselves as part of a larger community.  The here and now takeaway of that paragraph is that we can navigate the strait between the Scylla of Tisha b’Av and the Charybdis of Rosh Hashana by following the commandments of God, and behaving toward other people in the same manner that he showed us in that same paragraph: with baseless love.


Shabbat shalom.