‘Earn This’: Last Day of Passover 5782

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Over the course of the past year or so, I’ve committed to filling in what I call my “pop culture blindspots,” making a point to watch movies with a significant cultural footprint that I, for various reasons, haven’t seen. 

One of the best films I’ve seen along this journey was Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg’s award-winning World War II epic. I’m assuming that most of you have seen it, since it came out nearly 25 years ago to widespread critical acclaim and tremendous box office success; but otherwise, consider this your official spoiler alert!

The film centers on a squad of Army Rangers led by Captain John Miller (played by Tom Hanks), who, surviving the bloody American invasion of Normandy, are sent behind enemy lines to find a paratrooper, Private James Ryan (played by Matt Damon). Ryan’s three brothers have already been killed in combat, and bringing Private Ryan home would prevent his mother from having to bear the terrible burden of losing all her sons in the war. 

The orders come directly from central command, but virtually every other character in the movie, even Private Ryan himself, thinks the mission is either immoral, unwise, or both. Of course, no one wants to see a mother have to bury her children. But the soldiers tasked with saving Private Ryan have mothers, too. What is the sense in risking their lives just to save him, one unexceptional private? Underscoring this haunting question is the fact that most of Captain Miller’s squad is killed in the course of carrying out their mission. Even Miller himself dies in the climactic battle.

Throughout the movie, the viewer is forced to sit with the painful reminder that Miller (and hundreds of thousands of others just like him) died so Ryan (and countless others) could live. That message is underscored by the final order Miller gives Ryan right before dying. With his final breath, Miller tells Ryan to “earn this…earn it.” 

The movie’s final scene takes place years later, when an elderly Ryan visits Miller’s grave, he says to his fallen captain, “Every day I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. I’ve tried to live my life the best I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that, at least in your eyes, I’ve earned what all of you have done for me,” that he has tried to live in such a way that justified the sacrifice Miller and others made for him. Ryan then turns to his wife and implores her, “Tell me I’ve led a good life. Tell me I’m a good man.”

By concluding the movie with this emotional scene, it seems to me that Spielberg is making a statement that he essentially intended his entire film as a question: What is our responsibility to those who have gone before us? Specifically, what do we owe to those who have died so that we might be spared? How must we live in order to honor those who have sacrificed their lives for ours? 

Passover confronts us with a similar question. 

In yesterday’s Torah reading, we encounter the climactic moment of the Exodus story, the dramatic salvation of the Children of Israel at the Sea of Reeds. Following the horror of the tenth and final plague, Pharaoh lets the enslaved Israelite nation leave Egypt. But soon after, he has a change of heart and sends his army into the wilderness after them. The Children of Israel find themselves trapped between the charging Egyptian horde behind them and a seemingly impassable sea in front of them. But God miraculously splits the sea, enabling the Israelites to cross. When the Egyptians chase after them, God sends the walls of water crashing down, wiping out the entire host. Safe on the other side, we are told, “va-yar Yisrael et Mitzrayim met al s’fat ha-yam,” that “the Israelites saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea,” and then Moses, Miriam, and the rest of the Israelites burst into song. 

Typically, the Israelite mood here is read as joyous and jubilant. After centuries of brutal enslavement, they had finally secured their freedom; confronted with what seemed to have been certain death, their lives were miraculously saved; justice was done, with the oppressors meeting their doom, and the oppressed finally knowing liberation. 

But that’s not what the Torah says. Rather than depict the Israelites as exultant, the Torah reports, “va-yar Yisrael et ha-yad ha-g’dolah asher asah Adonai b’Mitzrayim, va-yi’iru ha-am et Adonai, va-ya’aminu ba-Adonai uv’Moshe av’do” that “the Israelites saw the great power which the Infinite had wielded against the Egyptians, and the people became afraid of (or were awed by) the Infinite, and they affirmed God and Moses, God’s servant.” 

The people’s reaction to seeing thousands of Egyptian corpses wash up on the shore was not celebration, but rather recognition – recognition of the awful magnitude of what had just occurred. 

Indeed, even the song they sing in the aftermath of this event does not express joy per se. Rather, they sing of God’s power to save, but also of God’s power to destroy. They acknowledge with amazement and appreciation that their lives were spared and that their freedom was secured. And they express their belief, or at least their hope, that God will continue to deliver them in the future. 

But they also sing at length of the extraordinary costs of their good fortune, even if those costs were just and necessary. Perhaps the Song of the Sea is best read less as a hymn than as a dirge. It is less an exuberant celebration of victory, and more a somber acknowledgement that the Israelites only live because Egyptians have died

It turns out that this reading isn’t as against-the-grain as it might seem. Many of us are familiar with the famous midrash attributed to the ancient sage Rabbi Yohanan, that when the angels saw the Egyptians drowning in the Sea of Reeds, they wanted to sing in celebration. But God rebuked them, saying, “ מַעֲשֵׂה יָדַי טוֹבְעִין בַּיָּם, וְאַתֶּם אוֹמְרִים שִׁירָה? / My creations are drowning in the Sea, and you sing songs?!” (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 10b).

To God, according to this midrash, the destruction of any of God’s creations, no matter how wicked they are or how deserving they might be of retribution, is a tragedy. After all, our tradition reminds us, every human being is unique, infinitely valuable, and so the destruction of one human life is nothing less than the destruction of an entire world. 

We give expression to this principle at the Passover Seder. During Magid, the portion of the Seder in which we discuss the Exodus story, we pour out some of our wine as we name each of the plagues that God wrought upon Egypt in order to secure our freedom. The full cup of wine symbolizes the joy of our redemption, but since people died in the course of our liberation, our joy must be subdued. The death of any human being, even those on the wrong side of a moral divide, is tragic. 

We human beings, of course, are not angels; and we are certainly not gods. We might experience joy, or at least relief, when bad people get what they deserve. Our instinct for vengeance, our desire for justice – heck, our schadenfreude – is not only natural, it can serve a useful function, reinforcing and sharpening our moral red lines, our sense of right and wrong, good and bad. 

However, by telling us that our ancestors’ joy at the Sea of Reeds about their salvation was tempered by the shock and awe of seeing the terrible sight of thousands of drowned Egyptians, and by directing us to diminish our celebration by mourning the Egyptian casualties of the Exodus, our tradition goes out of its way to remind us that our liberation came at an incalculable cost

There are several reasons for this: one is to inculcate humility, to teach us to be extremely careful when we possess the power to administer justice or wage war. While our tradition doubtlessly believes that there is such a thing as right and wrong and good and evil, that people ought to be held accountable for the crimes they commit, and that sometimes violence – even war – is justified, it tempers its insistence on pursuing justice with the reminder that a human life is as valuable as an entire world. Since we human beings are not gods, we must recognize that our knowledge and understanding is inherently imperfect and our judgment inescapably flawed. We therefore must exercise great caution in our administration of justice, especially when a person’s life hangs in the balance, and in the prosecution of even the most righteous of wars. 

But there is another, arguably more important, reason our tradition directs us to remember the terrible cost of our redemption, particularly when we are most exultant: Like Private Ryan, we must remember that we live only because others have died, that our freedom isn’t free. Bearing the burden of this reminder is meant to cause us to question whether we have “earned it”, whether we have lived in a way that would make us worthy of such sacrifice. And like Private Ryan, we are confronted with the ongoing challenge of justifying that sacrifice by striving to live our lives as well and as fully as we are able, and to do as much good as we can do – for others, for our community, for our world.

Memory is such a major theme of this holiday. It is the essence of the haggadah, a book that literally means “telling,” because the purpose of the Seder is to recount the extraordinary events of the Exodus. It is a reason that we recite Yizkor, the service for remembering our ancestors, on Passover (and also on the two other pilgrimage festivals that are tied to the Exodus narrative). Beyond Passover, the Torah commands us to recall our ancient liberation each and every day, with rituals like laying tefillin and observances like Shabbat and holidays serving as additional regular reminders. 

Our tradition enjoins us to repeatedly remember the Exodus at least in part because whenever we remember the story of our people’s redemption, we will invariably face not only its joyful outcome, but also its awful price. In confronting the cost of our freedom, we also confront the fact that we owe a debt to those who paid for our redemption with their lives, a debt that can only be repaid by making the most of the lives we have been given.

This, of course, is not just a question posed by Passover. It’s not even necessarily a uniquely Jewish question. Rather, our tradition calls us to a fundamentally human question: What responsibility do each and every one of us living today have to those who have gone before us? Like Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan, our tradition answers with a simple but substantial commandment: earn this

With the way we live our lives, we must earn the sacrifices of our ancestors, our martyrs, and our survivors. In how we treat others, we must earn the sacrifices of those who have been oppressed and killed for their otherness. In the way we strengthen our communities, in the way we contribute to the common welfare of our nation, in the way we pursue justice and make a more perfect union, we must earn the sacrifices of those who have lost their lives in the ongoing struggle of freedom against tyranny.

Today, we imagine ourselves like our ancient ancestors, standing at the shore of the Red Sea with a mix of relief and awe. Are we worthy of the cost of our liberation? Can we be? The answer, today and every day, is up to us.

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Judaism for the Wise and Wicked: Passover 5782

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Questions are perhaps the defining feature of the Seder. The ceremony, with its unusual rites and symbols, appears to have been specifically designed to arouse questions, particularly from children. 

To all these questions, let me add one that I want us to consider this morning: what is Conservative Judaism? 

This question has been on my mind lately. I was recently invited to join the Rabbinical Assembly’s strategic planning committee, a group of about fifty Conservative rabbis and leaders of diverse backgrounds and perspectives from within our movement who are charged with developing an actionable vision for the near-term future of Conservative Judaism. 

Our initial conversations made it clear to me that our task will neither be simple nor easy; in part, I think, because it will require us to articulate shared principles, to define who we are and what we stand for as a movement. What defines Conservative Judaism? What makes our movement unique?

There have, of course, been numerous attempts throughout history to define Conservative Judaism. One of our movement’s founding fathers, Zacharias Frankel, said that our defining quality was our “positive historical” approach to Judaism, that we see our tradition as a historical phenomenon that evolves, and improves, over time. Later, leaders like Mordecai Waxman said that we believed in “tradition and change.” Indeed, many people have belonged to Conservative congregations throughout history because, in various ways and to varying degrees, Conservative Judaism seeks to blend the traditional with the contemporary. None of these definitions are bad, but none have ever become, well, definitive. And as a result, Conservative Judaism still has something of an identity crisis.

On its surface, Conservative Judaism’s identity crisis would seem to have nothing to do with Passover. Yet, as it turns out, identity is a major theme of the holiday. 

Consider “The Four Children,” one of my favorite parts of the Seder. The haggadah identifies four different types of children – a “wise” child, a “wicked” child, a “simple” child, and a child “who does not know how to ask” – each asking a distinct question. 

The archetypes are rooted in rabbinic midrash. On several separate occasions, the Torah predicts that, when Jewish adults observe Passover’s peculiar rituals and practices, their children will invariably ask what it all means. The ancient rabbis interpreted this apparent repetition to mean that the Torah was actually talking about four different types of children, each naturally asking a distinct type of question about Passover, and each requiring a response consistent with the child’s disposition and capability: to the “wise” child, a “wise” answer; to the “wicked” child, a “wicked” answer; to the “simple” child, a “simple” answer; and to the one “who doesn’t know how to ask,” a basic answer.

It’s interesting to note that the Torah itself does not describe any of the children or their questions as particularly wise, wicked, simple, or elementary. The children and their questions just are. It’s only later that the rabbis characterize and categorize them. And in so doing, they even sometimes change the answers provided by the Torah itself, or else proffer altogether different answers to the questions the Torah predicts. 

So, for example, in today’s Torah portion, the special reading for the first day of Pesah, we read: 

וְהָיָ֕ה כִּֽי־יֹאמְר֥וּ אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם בְּנֵיכֶ֑ם מָ֛ה הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם׃ 

And when your children ask you, ‘What is this ritual to you?’ 

וַאֲמַרְתֶּ֡ם זֶֽבַח־פֶּ֨סַח ה֜וּא לַֽיהֹוָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּ֠סַ֠ח עַל־בָּתֵּ֤י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם בְּנׇגְפּ֥וֹ אֶת־מִצְרַ֖יִם וְאֶת־בָּתֵּ֣ינוּ הִצִּ֑יל

You shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Infinite, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when smiting the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’ (Exodus 12:26-27a).

If you’re familiar with the haggadah, you probably noticed that this is the question the rabbis ascribe to the rasha, the so-called “wicked” child. However, you may have also noticed that this is not the way the haggadah instructs the parent to answer the rasha. Instead, the rabbis emphasize the fact that the child says “to you.” The rabbis infer from this that the child sees their relationship to the holiday as distinct from their parent’s. Therefore, according to the rabbis, the child has effectively placed themself outside the tradition as a whole, as well as the family and community that cherish it. The parent is thus instructed to respond, “בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה’ לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם / It is because of what the Infinite did for me when I went free from Egypt.'” In other words, God liberated me, but not you, since you have excluded yourself from the community. One who places themselves outside the community cannot be included in the community’s redemption. 

It is a sensitive interpretation of the question in Exodus chapter 12 verse 26, and a meaningful lesson to teach. But above all it must be noted that the rabbis are making a deliberate choice to read the text this way, since they substitute the answer that the Torah itself provides in verse 29 with one from an altogether different passage, Exodus chapter 13 verse 8. 

The only other child who is given an answer that is different from the one provided by the Torah is the hakham, or wise child. The hakham asks “מָה הָעֵדוֹת וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֶתְכֶם / “What are the decrees, laws, and rules that the Infinite our God has commanded us?” This is a quotation from Deuteronomy chapter 16 verse 20. 

But the haggadah instructs the parent to respond with a very different answer than is prescribed in the biblical passage. The subsequent verses in Deuteronomy read, “You shall say to your child, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Infinite freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand. God freed us from there, in order to take us and give us the land promised to our ancestors. And the Infinite commanded us to observe all these laws, to revere the Infinite our God, for our lasting good and for our survival, as is now the case” (Deut. 16:21-24).  

The haggadah, on the other hand, says to answer the wise child, “We do not conclude the Passover Seder with the afikoman,” which is a teaching from the mishnah, a text written approximately 1,500 years after the Torah! Why does the haggadah provide this rabbinic answer for the wise child’s question, when the Torah itself already gives a perfectly good response?

The answer, I think, is because the “wise” child isn’t wise, and the “wicked” child isn’t wicked. 

Let’s start with the wise child. In Hebrew, he is called hakham. True, the Hebrew word hakham does literally mean wise. But for the ancient rabbis, hakham is a technical term, synonymous with the title “rabbi.” 

For the ancient rabbis, the term hakham denoted someone who was considered to be part of the rabbinic community, and indeed someone who was qualified to be one of its leaders. A hakham was not a generic wise person, but rather “a Sage.” So the hakham of the haggadah is not wise in the sense of possessing wisdom. Rather, he’s a hakham, a rabbinic Sage. It is only from this perspective that the haggadah’s response to the hakham’s question makes sense. His question, about the laws of Passover, is characteristically rabbinic. And since his question emerges from within the rabbinic tradition, it makes sense for the rabbis to answer him not from the Torah, but from the mishnah, from within rabbinic tradition. Neither the hakham nor his question are wise in any conventional sense. Instead, I think it’d be more accurate to call him “The Insider”. 

If the hakham is better understood as “The Insider,” then it stands to reason that the rasha, whom the haggadah implies is the hakham’s opposite, would have to be “The Outsider.” 

And indeed, from the haggadah’s perspective, the rasha does seem to stand at a remove from Jewish tradition, interrogating it as an outsider looking in, with a critical eye and a challenging posture. The rasha is therefore not “wicked” in the sense of being morally evil, but rather someone who rejects the religious philosophy, and maybe even the authority, of the rabbis, and positions themself in opposition to the rabbinic community. Like the hakham, rasha here is not used as an adjective, but rather as a noun. He’s not a bad guy. He’s just not a rabbi. He’s a rebel.

[PAUSE]

It is of course tempting to assume that the haggadah is holding up the hakham as a model and the rasha as a cautionary tale. But I actually think it is making a much more subtle point. The haggadah’s problem with The Outsider is obvious: he seeks truth but embraces nothing. As a result, the haggadah instructs the parent to give The Outsider an intellectually interesting but emotionally hostile answer: the meaning of Passover is that God liberated me, but not you, since you have excluded yourself from the community.

However, I also think the haggadah has a problem with The Insider, though you have to read between the lines to see it. The haggadah’s answer to The Insider is technically correct and nurtures communal belonging. But it also utterly misses the point of the holiday. 

I have to believe that was intentional. I can’t imagine the ancient rabbis actually believed that the correct answer to a question about the meaning of Passover is that the afikoman isn’t the last step in the Seder. 

Perhaps the haggadah is forcing a comparison between the hakham and the rasha not to vindicate the former and vilify the latter, but rather to suggest that they are mirror images of one another. 

The Insider, situated deep inside the tradition, is uncritical, but also incurious. They seem unconcerned with “why,” and instead focus on “what” and “how”. The Outsider wants to know “why”, but is unconcerned with “what” and “how”. 

As a result, The Outsider might get to the heart of the matter. But because they aren’t invested, getting to the heart of it doesn’t matter. The Insider, on the other hand, is so deep inside the system that they are unable to interrogate it. Sure, they are invested, but the investment ends up being quite literally meaningless. 

The haggadah draws our attention to the hakham and the rasha, two apparent extremes. At first glance, it would seem that the haggadah is saying one is good and the other is bad; one is right, and the other is wrong; we ought to celebrate and emulate the former, and deride the latter. 

But upon closer inspection, I think the haggadah is actually making a much more subtle point: Both extremes on their own are problematic. When we approach everything as outsiders, we risk not actually standing for anything. But unexamined orthodoxies are also toxic. Conformity at the expense of reason is dangerous. Ideally, we can find a way of being in the world that enables us to stand for something without falling for everything, to accept and doubt all at once; to interrogate while remaining faithful to the very thing we are interrogating.

It strikes me that this is Conservative Judaism’s defining quality. Ours is an approach to Jewish tradition, a Jewish way of encountering the world, that seeks to find balance between extremes, unapologetically embracing Jewish tradition while also unapologetically interrogating and challenging it. Conservative Judaism encourages us to embody both the wise child and the wicked child simultaneously, to be at once outsiders and insiders. We benefit from being rooted in Jewish wisdom, practice, and community, and also from holding our tradition up to the light of reason. 

This approach is complex. But so is our world. It resists simple answers and easy explanations. Yet so does life. Those who position themselves only as Outsiders, who challenge the tradition without being wholeheartedly committed to it, are beyond the pale. But so too are those who position themselves only as Insiders, those whose loyalty to the tradition closes their minds and hardens their hearts. Those parameters, it seems to me, are broad enough to include the diversity of belief and thought – the commitment to intellectual pluralism – that has always been one of the hallmarks of Conservative Judaism, while also being sufficiently narrow to exclude approaches that we have always regarded as out of bounds. 

This, to my mind, is the only standard that matters; the one to which I consider myself bound as both a proud Conservative rabbi and as a proud Conservative Jew: to relate to our tradition simultaneously as both an Outsider and an Insider. 

Is this wise, or wicked? Maybe it’s a little of both. But maybe, ultimately, that’s precisely what the haggadah is telling us: that redemption is possible if we embrace a way of being that unites head and heart, mind and soul, one that seeks to harmonize the wise and wicked children within each of us.

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When the Devil Comes for You: Parashat Tazria 5782

Sometimes, live television affords us moments that could never have been predicted in advance and yet, as you watch them happen, you know you are witnessing something that everyone is going to be talking about for years to come. 

Last Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony is a reminder that even today, in our balkanized and asynchronous media environment, we can still collectively experience these kinds of moments. By now, you all doubtlessly know what I’m talking about: 

About two-thirds of the way through the evening, comedian Chris Rock came onstage to present the award for Best Documentary. Of course, you’d be forgiven if you don’t remember anything about the award itself. Rather, what you probably remember is Chris Rock’s joke about actress Jada Pinkett Smith’s hair, and what transpired after. 

It’s not clear whether Rock knew that Pinkett Smith lives with alopecia, a condition that causes hair loss. I didn’t, although apparently she has been quite public about it. When the camera panned to Pinkett Smith, it was clear that she was not amused. Neither, apparently, was her husband, Will Smith, who went into the evening as the frontrunner for Best Actor. He ultimately won in that category – a recognition which many of Smith’s fans, myself included, thought was long-overdue. 

But Smith’s award would not become the most consequential moment of his night. Instead, furious over the way he perceived Rock insulted his wife, Smith walked on stage, hit the comedian in the face, and then returned to his seat, shouting profanities. 

It was such a shocking moment that I assumed, as I was watching it, that it must have been scripted. But it quickly became clear that it was exactly as it appeared: one of the world’s biggest movie stars, and the night’s favorite for Best Actor, physically assaulted a man on live television. 

There is a lot that can be said about this whole ordeal. But I want to focus on something Smith said after the altercation that struck me as profound. In his acceptance speech, Smith mentioned that, shortly after the incident occurred, legendary actor Denzel Washington, who was seated nearby, took him aside and said to him, “‘In your highest moments, be careful. That’s when the Devil comes for you.’” 

Now, I don’t know for sure what Washington meant by that statement. Maybe he was saying that there are always people who seek to knock others off pedestals. One should be on guard against these kinds of enemies, especially in one’s highest moments, because they will either try to actively bring you down themselves, or else tempt you to act in such a way that precipitates your fall. 

Maybe it’s because we Jews tend not to believe in the Devil as an external enemy like our Christian cousins, but I understood Washington as referring to an inner enemy, perhaps what Jewish tradition calls the yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination. In Jewish tradition, the yetzer ha-ra is our selfish instinct, the propensity each of us has to do what feels good in the moment, even if it is morally wrong. It is precisely in our highest moments that the yetzer ha-ra is strongest within us, because those moments might give us an inflated sense of our own importance and power, seducing us to treat others as inferior or believe we can act without consequence. It’s the mindset once infamously articulated by a different notorious celebrity: “when you’re a star they let you do it.” Or, as 19th century British politician John Dalberg-Acton famously put it, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

I’m not positive that Washington was warning Smith about the tendency of power to corrupt. But regardless, it strikes me as true and meaningful wisdom for us to consider, and it is, I think, the lesson at the heart of this week’s parashah, Parashat Tazria. 

I am certainly not the first to say that Parashat Tazria is one of the most confounding parts of the Torah for us moderns. Chapter 13 of the book of Leviticus infamously describes in great and sometimes gory detail a mysterious skin ailment called tzara’at. Despite how it appears in many English translations, tzara’at is almost certainly not leprosy. As contemporary biblical scholar Robert Alter puts it, “the symptoms do not correspond” with the disease we now identify as leprosy. Moreover, “there is scant evidence” that leprosy was even a disease with which our ancient ancestors would have been familiar, as it was not present in the Near East at the time the Torah was written. Alter goes on to write that it’s not even clear the Torah is describing one disease here, arguing that “some conditions” the Torah ascribes to “a single malady may actually have been a variety of diseases, not all of them intrinsically related.” 

All we can really ascertain about tzara’at from the Torah is that its defining feature is a loss of pigmentation in the hair and skin, and that it renders the afflicted person tamei, or ritually impure. In other words, the person who experiences a sudden loss of pigmentation in their skin or hair, in Hebrew a metzor’a, is barred from participating in the sacrificial cult until they are healed and undergo purification rites.

Why? 

According to Alter, the Torah’s language about tzara’at conveys the sense that its appearance was “ghastly,” meaning reminiscent of a ghost, or corpse. My predecessor at Temple Beth-El, the great 20th century biblical scholar Rabbi Jacob Milgrom, argued that the pervading theme in the Book of Leviticus is that “all deathlike phenomena” should be separated from the living. Since “the wasting of the flesh associated with tsara’at is associated with death,” a metzor’a must be separated from the community of the living until they are healed.

This explanation helps, but it still leaves us with a more fundamental question, namely why Leviticus is so preoccupied in the first place with separating living things (and that which is reminiscent of them) from dead things (and that which is reminiscent of them), and also what does any of this have to do with our relationship with God? 

For this question, I find the analysis of the great 20th century anthropologist Mary Douglas helpful. In her landmark book Leviticus as Literature, Douglas argues that the whole system of purity and impurity as laid out by Leviticus boils down to this: There is an immeasurable difference between God — who is supremely awesome, powerful, and majestic — and we mere mortals. Sure, we human beings may have been created in the divine image, but we are not ourselves divine. Unlike God, we are fundamentally ephemeral and hopelessly flawed. And yet, since the Torah envisions the Tabernacle as God’s home and its altar as God’s table, worship in the Tabernacle, which involved not only symbolically offering food to God but also eating a portion of the food that was offered, represented nothing less than an invitation break bread with the Divine. Douglas explains that given who we are compared to what God is, “the height and the depth of this honor,” of mere mortals being permitted to sit, and share a feast, with God at God’s table, of we human beings being invited to be in an intimate relationship with the Majesty of Space and Time, “is inexpressible.” 

The system of purity and impurity outlined in Leviticus is therefore a way of ensuring that we remain mindful of our place in the scheme of things. Because we have an invitation to be in relationship with the Divine, we might come to think that we are Divine ourselves, that there is no distinction between what it means to be God and what it means to be mortal. Even as the Torah entices us with the possibility of intimacy with the Divine, it warns us: In your highest moments, be careful. That’s when the yetzer ha-ra comes for you. It is precisely when we start to believe too much in our own greatness that our tendency to see others as inferior, or believe we can act without consequence, is strongest. One need look no further than Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine for evidence that people who fancy themselves gods tend to do a whole lot of killing; historically, they also themselves often meet their own violent ends. The more important we feel we are, the more morally dangerous we become, to ourselves and others.

“Pride goes before destruction,” teaches the book of Proverbs (16:18). “Arrogance, before calamity.” The Torah recognizes this insight about human nature and responds by training us to remember, “there but for the grace of God go I,” prohibiting us from worshiping in the Tabernacle in precisely those moments when we are confronted by our mortality — for example, when we come into contact with a dead body, when we eat fowl that feeds on carrion, or, in the case of our Torah portion, when we are afflicted with a disease that makes us look like a corpse, or that reminds us that the unique trappings of human existence, our clothing and our homes, are, like we who inhabit them, made of imperfect matter destined to decay and disappear. The Torah bars us from intimacy with the Divine in precisely moments such as these in order to remind us that our place in God’s presence, indeed in God’s world, is an undeserved gift; a privilege, not a right. Mindful of this fact, we might walk in the world not with a sense of self-centered and self-serving entitlement, but rather with the kindness, generosity, and beneficence that can only be rooted in deep humility. 

It’s striking that we always chant Parashat Tazria in the weeks leading up to Passover. Indeed, today is both Shabbat ha-hodesh and Shabbat Rosh Hodesh, a special Shabbat marking the beginning of the month in which we celebrate Pesah, the month of Nissan. The Passover story centers on a tyrant who fancied himself a god — and his nation of collaborators, enablers, and bystanders — oppressing a minority population it deemed inferior, even abominable. After the Children of Israel are liberated, they are given a system of laws that serve to guide them to create a counter-Egypt, a society that affirms the equal and infinite dignity of all, that strives for equity and fairness, and that celebrates compassion and kindness, inclusion and peace. 

Building a Tabernacle, a place where all people — not just a small ruling class — are invited into intimate relationships with God, is a major part of that counter-Egypt. So too are the laws of purity and impurity which govern Tabernacle worship, including our parashah’s strange rules about ghastly skin diseases that render one impure, because they provide a perpetual and deeply necessary reminder that our place at God’s table is an undeserved gift. By remaining mindful of who and what we truly are, even and especially in our highest moments, we can become humble and kind, gracious and generous, the kind of body politic needed to build a society, and ultimately a world, that is a true counter-Egypt. 

May we embrace that message of liberation speedily and in our days. 

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Having a Heart: Parashat Teztaveh 5782

Every single human being is God’s child. We had better handle each other with caution. 

As far as I can tell, it was contemporary author Elizabeth Stone who first said that having a child is to forever “have your heart go walking around outside your body.” It’s since become something of a cliche, a quote that frequently pops up on parenting blogs and circulates in internet memes. But, as is often the case, the sentiment has attained cultural ubiquity precisely because anyone who has ever had a child knows in their bones that it is true. 

The heart, the symbolic seat of our emotions, is literally the organ that keeps us alive. For such a vital organ, it is extremely delicate, which is probably why evolution has situated our hearts securely underneath our sternum and rib cage, some of our bodies’ toughest natural armor. So when we say that having a child is like having your heart walking around outside your body, we are acknowledging our children’s vulnerability, our own limited ability to protect them, and, at the same time, how vital their wellbeing is to our own. 

That, of course, is why our instinct as parents is to shield our children from harm as best we can. But as soon as our children are out there, walking around in the world, there’s only so much we can do. So we provide them, as best we can, with the skills, abilities, and resources they will need to protect themselves and avoid getting seriously hurt. 

But even that is not enough, because when they’re out in the world, our children will inevitably encounter other people who, whether by malice or ignorance, whether on purpose or by accident, will act in ways that put them in danger. It works the other way, too – our own children might act in ways that can hurt other people’s children. In essence, this is why human beings establish and maintain laws and social norms, so we can to the best of our ability protect our children, and indeed ourselves, from each other. 

What is true of human parents and children is also true of our relationship with God. According to our tradition, God is avinu sh’ba-shamayim, our heavenly parent. If so, then God must see each and every one of us as we human parents see our own children. God sees each and every one of us as though we are God’s heart walking around outside of God’s body. 

From this perspective, we might think of the whole Torah as God’s way of saying to each of us, “You see that person over there? Your sibling? Your neighbor? Your fellow countryman or the person who is a foreigner to you? The person closest to you or the person clear on the other side of the world? Each and every one of them is my heart, just walking around out there, vulnerable and exposed. To injure or endanger any one of them is to inflict harm on Me personally. Treat each other accordingly.”

Some of the Torah’s laws more clearly lend themselves to this interpretation than others. Take this week’s Torah portion for example, parashat Tetzaveh. Like last week’s parashah, Terumah, parashat Tetzaveh painstakingly details elements of the mishkan, the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary the Israelites carried with them during their journey through the wilderness. The bulk of parashat Tetzaveh describes the bigdei kehunah, the priestly garments, and in particular the special outfit that Aaron, the High Priest, must wear when he is officiating in the mishkan

To be sure, the colorful and bejeweled High Priest’s uniform as described in our parashah must have been stunning. But except for those of us who are fans of high fashion, the attention the Torah pays to the priest’s clothes is more than a little baffling. Our tradition insists that nothing, not even one letter, of the Torah is purposeless; everything in the Torah is there for a reason. So what could possibly be the reason for all this detail about the priestly garments?

Of all the bigdei kehunah, the Torah focuses most of its attention on the ephod, which was kind of like an apron, and the hoshen, sometimes translated as a breastpiece, a large ornate piece of jewelry that was situated atop the High Priest’s chest. So if we are to understand why the Torah gives so much precious scriptural real estate to the priestly garments, the answer is probably to be found in the ephod and the hoshen.

The hoshen had a particular ritual function: it carried sacred objects called urim and tumim. What exactly these were is a matter of debate, but most commentators believe they were a special tool used to discern God’s judgment about particularly difficult issues – matters of death and life, war and peace. 

Because it bore the urim and tumim, the more proper name for the hoshen was the hoshen ha-mishpat, the breastpiece of judgment. Perhaps it is for this reason that the hoshen was set with twelve precious stones, mounted in four rows, framed in gold; the names of the tribes of Israel etched into each stone. As we learn in Exodus chapter 28 verse 29, “Aaron shall carry the names of the children of Israel on the breastpiece of judgment over his heart, when he enters the sanctuary, for remembrance before the Infinite at all times.” 

Commentators debate the meaning of the phrase “for remembrance before the Infinite at all times.” For whom are the names of the Israelite tribes on the hoshen, which Aaron is to wear over his heart, meant to serve as a reminder? Maybe for God; but I think more likely for the High Priest himself. Since only he was permitted to wear and use the hoshen ha-mishpat, for all sakes and purposes the High Priest bore sole responsibility for decisions about the vital issues that were adjudicated by the urim and tumim; he was the only one who could be sure he was using the urim and tumim correctly, the only one who could be sure he understood their oracle properly, the only one who knew whether we was accurately reporting God’s judgment to the people. In any case, having the names of the children of Israel upon the High Priest’s heart would be a reminder that the people who will be impacted by the hoshen’s pronouncements are in fact God’s children, who are like God’s heart walking around outside of God’s body. Proceed, therefore, with caution and care.

Similarly, the ephod was adorned with shoulder pieces made of precious stones engraved with the names of the children of Israel, six names on each stone. According to the Torah, these stones, like the stones of the hoshen, were borne by the High Priest “for remembrance of the children of Israel.” For whom are the names of the tribes on the shoulder pieces meant to serve as a reminder? Again, maybe for God; but I think more likely for the High Priest himself, reminding him that the High Priest’s job is to bear responsibility for the welfare of God’s children. 

In his collection of sermons called Be’er Mayim Chaim, the hasidic master Chaim Tyrer of Tchernovitz, who lived from 1760-1816 in what is now Ukraine, emphasizes that the High Priest carried the names of the tribes of Israel specifically on his shoulders for this reason:  

So that the High Priest himself would remember to protect the children of Israel, and carry them like a father who carries his child on his shoulders (כאב הנושא את בנו על כתפיו) to save him from any dangerous obstacle out of concern that his child might trip over a stone. So too the High Priest would remember to protect the children of Israel from all afflictions and plague…with all his might and merit, and by always seeking mercy for them, sweetening whatever fate might befall them, even protecting them from harm.

Be’er Mayim Chaim, Parashat Tetzaveh

As a father who is frequently asked for “uppies,” as my kids call them, I absolutely adore and fully identify with this interpretation. Like any leader, the High Priest might be inclined to see the people he serves as an anonymous crowd that he might care about less than he would his own children. As a result, he might be more cavalier with their welfare than he would be if it were his own children at stake. Placing the names of the children of Israel on his shoulders reminds the High Priest to regard the people he serves as precious and vulnerable children. They are, of course, God’s children, but the High Priest’s job is to carry them gently and protect them steadfastly as though they were his own

Now, that may be all well and good for the High Priest, but what does it have to do with us? We haven’t even had a functioning priesthood in nearly two-thousand years, much less a High Priest. Why should we care about the priestly garments? 

Because the priesthood is in fact not limited to Aaron and his descendants. Before the revelation at Sinai, God instructs, “atem tihiyu li mamlekhet kohanim, you shall be unto me a nation of priests” (Exodus 19:6). Just as Aaron and his descendants care for the welfare of the Israelites as their own precious and vulnerable children, the rest of us are similarly called upon to care for all of God’s children. Every single human being is God’s child. And so God reminds us, whether they are like us or foreign to us, close by or far away, we should think of each and every human being as God’s heart, placed in our care. We had better handle each other with caution. 

This principle has many applications, but it’s been particularly on my mind lately. Last month, one of the first official acts our new governor took upon assuming office was to lift the requirement for faculty, staff, and students to wear masks at all times inside of schools. “A parent should have the right to make their own health decisions for their own child,” he said. 

Let’s be perfectly clear: the end of the school mask mandate while a deadly disease is still ravaging our community may be many things, but it is not about the right of parents to make health decisions for their own children. Since wearing a mask is both a way we keep ourselves from getting sick and a way we make sure we don’t inadvertently get others sick, enabling parents to send their own kids to school maskless – regardless of vaccination status, infection rates, or the percentage of the population that is vaccinated – means that one parent’s decision for their own child can and likely will undermine another parent’s decision for theirs. This executive order, like those now being issued all over the country, empowers and encourages those who embrace a cavalier, or at least careless, attitude toward the health and wellbeing of others, including other people’s children. 

This, of course, is not just about our new governor. The ongoing failure to care for one another and do what is necessary to end this godforsaken pandemic is not just about our leaders. It’s on us. Our governor, along with officials around the country, aren’t taking actions like this because they’ve been advised by medical experts that it’s good for our health and welfare. They’re doing it because they’ve determined it’s good politics. So, yes, shame on our governor and his ilk who care more about winning elections than caring for our wellbeing. But also, and more importantly, shame on us.

Too many of us – a number that appears to be growing by the day, as evidenced by the protests against safety measures that are spreading like wildfire here and abroad with the giddy encouragement of cynical and callous politicians and media personalities – have come to think about all of the health and safety measures with which we have become so familiar over these past two years primarily as methods to protect ourselves, and less as ways to protect others

For most of us, I don’t believe this is malicious or intentional. Maybe it’s cultural – as Americans, we have always tended to see things through the lens of individual rights, rather than communal responsibilities; we don’t like the government telling us what to do. Maybe we’re all just sick and tired – of having to wear these uncomfortable and annoying masks all the time, of having to constantly worry about our and others’ health and safety, of enduring all the disruptions and devastations of this seemingly endless pandemic; I know I am. Maybe it’s just human nature. 

But whatever the reason, it appears that growing numbers of us have given up on caring how our personal choices might harm or endanger others. Instead, we increasingly seem to care mostly about what makes us personally comfortable or uncomfortable, what risks we are or aren’t willing to bear for ourselves personally.

Unfortunately, that’s not how pandemics work. The decisions each of us make about these precautions don’t just impact us. They impact our neighbors, those close by and far away, even people on the other side of the world. They affect not only our children, but also others’ children. Indeed, the very definition of the Greek conjunction pandemic is a phenomenon that encompases all people. 

This pandemic in particular has repeatedly shown us how our decisions, our actions, affect all God’s children. And yet, because of our selfishness and indifference, we continue to ignore that lesson over and over again. So here we are, stuck for nearly two years in this seemingly endless cycle of anxiety, illness, and so much death. 

The only way we will ever make it out is if we heed what our parashah makes clear: we must cease being so careless about and cavalier with the wellbeing of God’s children. We, like the ancient High Priest, are to perpetually bear in mind that each and every person is God’s child. Indeed, each and every person is God’s own heart, walking about exposed in the world. We are called upon to see this in one another, everywhere and at all times, caring for one another as if our dearest lives were beating, vulnerably, in our hands. 

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What Oneness Demands of Us

The following remarks were delivered at Trinity Episcopal School in Richmond, Virginia on Monday, January 31, 2022.

Good morning, Trinity. It’s such an honor to be with you today, and I’m deeply grateful for the invitation and opportunity to speak with you today.

I am a rabbi, which is the Hebrew word for “teacher.” Rabbis like me have long been recognized as Jewish religious leaders because we have expertise in and teach the tradition of beliefs and practices that have been cherished by Jewish people all over the world for more than three thousand years. Today, there are between 15-20 million Jews in the world – which is less than half a percent of the global population. About half of the world’s Jewish population lives here in the U.S., and most, but not all, the rest live in Israel, which is a small country in the Middle East, established in 1948 as an independent Jewish state. Jews come from virtually every racial, ethnic, and national background you can imagine (as some like to say, there are Jews in all hues), and there is a lot of diversity in how different Jews think about and practice our tradition, including many Jews who don’t think about or practice our tradition much at all. 

As a matter of fact, our diversity means that there isn’t much we Jews have in common, other than a sense of belonging to the Jewish people, meaning that in one way, shape, or form we all identify as Jews. So, as I like to say, if you hate organized religion, you’ll love Judaism; we’re a very disorganized religion! We Jews disagree with each other all the time; asking tough questions, discussing and debating big ideas, even protesting and arguing with one another is not just allowed, it’s encouraged

But there is one thing we Jews do share – a recognition that the most fundamental Jewish idea of Jewish faith is this: God is One. That doesn’t mean every Jew believes in God. One can in fact be Jewish even if they don’t believe in God. But it does mean basically every Jew would agree, even if they don’t personally believe in God, that if there is one core belief in the Jewish religious tradition, it’s this belief, that God is One. 

That belief is probably most famously expressed in the holiest text in the Jewish religious tradition, the Torah, which is what we call the first five books of the Bible. We read in the book of Deuteronomy: “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ehad, Jewish people, listen: The Infinite is our God, the Infinite is One.” Many Jews recite these words each and every day in morning and evening prayers. Some even try to make sure that these are the last words they say before they die. What does this idea mean, and why has it been so central to Jewish faith for millennia? 

Saying that God is One is more than a mere mathematical statement about how many gods there are. Yes, it does mean that Judaism believes there is only one God; or, as a good friend of mine likes to put it, since one can still be Jewish even if they don’t believe in God at all, that Judaism believes there is at most one God. More importantly, saying that God is One is a statement about reality itself, a way of looking at the world. If God is One, then all is one. Everyone and everything in existence, all of us, all that is, is one. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously put it in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” We are all connected to each other, and indeed to everything in existence.

According to Jewish tradition, this belief has moral implications. If all is one, then you and me, us and them, ours and theirs is all ultimately an illusion. We may appear separate and different on the surface, but on the deepest level of reality, we are totally interconnected, manifestations of the same basic oneness, part of the same whole; all of us, brothers and sisters. 

As a result, Jewish tradition demands that we live in such a way that supports, sustains, and benefits everyone and everything. We are therefore called to detest injustice, abhor cruelty, stand against oppression, and love all our neighbors, whoever and wherever they are, as ourselves, fashioning communities of inclusion and equity, pursuing justice and peace, and protecting the planet and all its living creatures. Virtually every traditional Jewish practice is designed, as the Jewish mystical tradition puts it, l’shem yihud Kudsha b’rikh hu u-sh’khintei, for the sake of unifying all existence. Traditional Jewish observance as I understand it exists primarily to sensitize us to this calling and to help us fulfill it.

As a Jewish religious leader, as a teacher of my tradition’s values, I try to impart these ideas to my fellow Jews whenever and wherever I can. I say to my fellow Jews that, of course, we must take care of ourselves and each other. We must be concerned with the wellbeing of, and provide support to, our fellow Jews everywhere. This is particularly important as violent antisemitism, which the Jewish people have experienced over and over again throughout history, once again rises in the U.S. and around the world. Just the other week, we were reminded once again of this grim reality when Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, TX was the target of an act of antisemitic terror. We Jews must continue to speak out, remain vigilant, and defend ourselves and each other against acts of hate-fueled violence. 

But I also strive to teach my fellow Jews that we must broaden our sphere of concern to include all people, not just other Jews, and indeed the entire planet and all it contains. Jewish tradition calls on us to pursue justice and peace, for all people, in all places, and at all times, and that we must be uniquely concerned with the most vulnerable – those who live on the margins of society and thus are at special risk of exploitation and oppression, like immigrants, whom the Torah singles out for special protection 36 times. 

And I try to remind my fellow Jews that pursuing this calling is in our self-interest. Antisemitism historically rises when the broader society is experiencing widespread instability and injustice, and it often goes hand in hand with other forms of bigotry like racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and homophobia. We can’t defeat antisemitism without addressing the conditions that allow it to emerge and flourish and fester and threaten in the first place. 

We Jews can’t be safe, prosperous, and free unless everyone is safe, prosperous, and free. It’s just as Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere…Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” We Jews ultimately can’t take care of ourselves unless we also care for others. In eras of upheaval and great peril like this one, it is always tempting to retreat inward, circle the wagons, batten down the hatches, and care exclusively for our own. But relationships, friendships, love and concern for others – across boundaries, beyond borders – are in fact the pathway to a better world for us all. 

The same, of course, is true for the more than 99% of people around the world who are not Jewish, which I assume includes pretty much all of you. None of us can be safe, prosperous, and free unless all of us are safe, prosperous, and free. That means your wellbeing is bound up in the Jewish people’s wellbeing; your liberation is bound up in mine. If all is one, then we rise and fall together. 

As King T’Challa said in Black Panther, “Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth. More connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one, single tribe.”

Building bridges with and looking out for one another as a single tribe means that just as my fellow Jews must forge friendships and concern ourselves with others across boundaries and beyond borders, it is incumbent on each and every one of you to reach out to and build relationships with your Jewish neighbors. Connect with the local Jewish community in Richmond and learn more about our tradition and rich culture. You all have an open invitation to come to my synagogue any time – to sit in on a class about Judaism, to observe a Shabbat service, or simply to chat. Our doors are always open to you. Open your doors to us, too. Invite us to break bread with you, to get to know you better, and to learn more about your heritage and culture, whatever it may be; not to convert us, but to befriend us. 

As we befriend one another, we will come to better understand how to stand in solidarity with one another, to become better allies for one another, and to work hand in hand for our collective liberation. In practice, that means just as Jewish people must strive to understand how racism and white supremacy manifest in our society and commit to partnering with communities of color to dismantle those oppressive structures, so too must you seek to understand antisemitism and commit to partnering with my people to recognize, call out, and combat antisemitism, as well as working with us to repair the world. 

I want to conclude by sharing one of my favorite Jewish stories. It’s attributed to the 19th century hasidic master, Rabbi Hayyim of Zans:

A man had been wandering about in a forest for several days, not knowing which was the right way out. Suddenly he saw a person approaching him. His heart was filled with joy. “Now I shall certainly find out which is the right way,“ he thought to himself. When they neared one another, he asked, “Brother, tell me which is the right way. I have been wandering about in this forest for several days.” Said the other to him, “Brother, I do not know the way out either. For I too have been wandering about here for many, many days. But this I can tell you: do not take the way I have been taking, for that will lead you astray. Instead, let us look for a new way out – together.”

So it is with us. These are difficult times. Our world is broken. I don’t know about you, but to me it sometimes feels like each of us is lost in some forest, wandering about alone and afraid, desperately looking for a way out. I don’t know how to escape. But here’s what I do know: what we’ve been doing hasn’t worked; and alone, we are lost. Our only hope is to find our way together. 

Thank you so much for allowing me to share this space with you today. May we be blessed with friendship and peace. Shalom.

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Up Close and Far Away: Parashat Bo 5782

Photo by Una Laurencic on Pexels.com

Whenever I talk to or run into someone I haven’t spoken to or seen in a while, and they say something like, “I love seeing pictures of your family on social media; your kids always look so happy and well-behaved. I don’t know how you and Adira do it!” I can’t help but laugh. Clearly, I think (and sometimes say), they’ve never met my kids! 

That’s the thing about social media, of course – what we choose to post and what we see of others is, to use a sports metaphor, a highlight reel, snapshots of the events of our lives we most want others to see, rather than a play-by-play, a running chronicle of each and every moment, most of which are at best uninteresting, and many of which would reveal the chaotic hot mess of our lives that we desperately want to hide from the rest of the world, lest anyone see how little we actually have it all together. 

But that’s just the truth, isn’t it? Everyone looks better from far away. Up close, it’s easier to see our flaws, our more subtle imperfections, the clutter and the chaos of our lives. In fact, like a Monet painting, when looking close up, the mess may be all we are able to see, whether of others or ourselves. Only when stepping back and beholding the whole canvass from a distance can we clearly see the full, beautiful image.

Something similar is at work in this week’s Torah portion. In Parashat Bo, we read that the Children of Israel, at long last, cast off the shackles of enslavement and leave Egypt for good. It’s a story with which many of us are quite familiar. But our familiarity with the Exodus story can sometimes lead us to miss subtle details in the text itself, including the fact that the Torah appears to tell two separate stories in Exodus Chapter 12. 

Of course, the Torah doesn’t present these stories as distinct from one another, isolating or identifying one narrative as “story one” and another as “story two.” Rather, the Torah combines these two stories into one, weaving them together so that, to the untrained eye, they read as one story. 

But when read carefully, the text seems to go back and forth between verses that describe a chaotic Exodus, and passages that depict it as practiced and purposeful. 

If we separate the verses that describe a frenzied Exodus from the verses that describe an orderly Exodus, we end up with two internally coherent Exodus stories.

In one telling, after the devastating tenth and final plague, the Egyptian people come to believe the continued presence of the Israelites in Egypt poses a clear and present danger to their own lives, and hurriedly chase them out of their country, freely giving them their possessions and valuables as if to say, “Just take anything you want and go! Whatever it takes to get you out of Egypt as quickly as possible!” In this telling, the Children of Israel are made to leave in such a rush that they don’t even have time to prepare food for their flight into the wilderness, quickly baking unleavened dough into flat cakes “since they were driven out of Egypt and could not delay” (Ex. 12:39). 

The second story is distinct. In this telling, the Israelites are prepared for the Exodus. According to chapter 12, verse 42, the Children of Israel observed the night of the tenth plague as a leil shimurim, “a night of vigil,” or preparedness. As Moses commands them, each household sacrifices a lamb, painting its blood on their lintels and doorposts to keep the plague from their homes, before roasting and eating it with unleavened bread, which they make deliberately as part of this ritual meal (12:8). Moreover, the Israelites are to eat this meal in a very particular way – “mat’neikhem hagurkhem, na’aleikhem b’ragleikhem, u’malkeikhem b’yad’khem / your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand;” in other words, they were to be fully prepared to leave Egypt as they consume the paschal meal (12:11). 

Revealingly, the two versions of the Exodus describe the Israelites in profoundly different ways. In the first, more chaotic, story, the Children of Israel are described as leaving Egypt with an erev rav (12:38). That term, erev rav, is usually rendered into English as a “mixed multitude,” following the classical rabbinic commentators, who suggest that a group of people of diverse nationalities and ethnicities decide to leave Egypt with the Israelites. 

But some contemporary experts disagree. Robert Alter translates the term as “motley throng,” or “riffraff,” suggesting that it does not refer to a mixed multitude of foreigners who join up with the Israelites but rather to the appearance of the Israelites themselves, a mass of men, women, and children who, along with their “sheep and cattle and very heavy livestock,” were frenziedly, frantically, fleeing Egypt en masse (Alter 263). 

The second story describes the Israelites quite differently. In this telling, as the Israelites prepare to leave Egypt by observing the orderly ritual of leil shimurim, the night of vigil, they are told that God will bring “et tziv’oteikhem / your battalions” out of Egypt. And, indeed, after the tenth plague, as they leave Egypt, the Israelites are referred to as “tziv’ot Adonai / the battalions of the Lord” (Alter 264). Like an organized and disciplined army marches out to battle in orderly formation, this version of the story describes the Israelites departing “al tziv’otam / in their battalions” (Alter 265), or “troop by troop” (JPS 12:51). In this radically different picture of the Exodus, organized battalions of Israelites marched out of Egypt in disciplined ranks. 

Interestingly, if you read these stories carefully, you’ll notice that the chaotic version of the Exodus story that describes the Israelites as a “motley throng” is conspicuously missing something, or more accurately, some one, that is quite present in the second story: God

God is very present in the second telling. In that story, God prescribes the orderly ritual of leil shimurim before the tenth plague. It is also God who, in chapter 12 verse 51, takes the Children of Israel out of Egypt “al tziv’otam / troop by troop.” And in this telling, it is not simply as battalions that the Israelites depart Egypt. Rather, the Israelites are identified as tziv’ot Adonai, the Lord’s battalions. 

Contrast this with the first telling, which scarcely mentions God at all. In that version of the story, human beings drive all the action. Following the tenth plague, it’s not God who takes the Israelites out of Egypt. Instead, it is Pharaoh who demands the Israelites leave, and the Egyptians who urge them out, giving them all their valuables for good measure. It’s not God who instructs the Israelites to prepare for their journey by making matzah. Instead, it is the Israelites who, seemingly on their own initiative, hurriedly prepare dough and flee before it has even had a chance to rise. And it’s not God who calls the Israelites to march forth like a general summoning his disciplined troops. Instead, it is the huddled mass of Israelites who set forth on foot from the Egyptian garrison city, Ramses, along with their flocks and herds. 

To recap, our parashah weaves together two distinct stories about the Exodus. The first, which doesn’t include God, describes a harried and hectic flight from Egypt. And the second, which does include God, depicts the Israelites purposefully preparing for the Exodus before God directs them to form ranks and file out of Egypt. 

But why does the Torah include both traditions when it could just as easily have chosen one and relegated the other to history’s dustbin? 

Perhaps the Torah is trying to convey that these aren’t two different stories at all. Perhaps, instead, the Torah is inviting us to see this as one story, but told at turns from two different vantage points, seeing the same events unfold at ground level and from a bird’s eye view, from close up and from far away, from our perspective – and from God’s. 

Up close, the Exodus was a mess, a “motley throng” of thousands of disorganized and disoriented liberated Israelites trying to figure out how to make their way out of Egypt. But that was just what it looked like on the ground. If the Israelites had been able to take a few steps back, to behold the scene, like a work of art, from a bit of a distance, it would have appeared entirely different. 

From far away, the Israelites wouldn’t have looked like a teeming horde but, rather, like a resplendent and regimented army – dignified, disciplined, and determined, ready in their ranks to march forward courageously and conquer their future confidently.

But here’s the truth – it’s the exact same collection of people, just beheld from different perspectives. By only mentioning God in the majestic narrative, our parashah implies that to God, the Israelites look like a magnificent myriad. The Israelites, on the other hand, are only able to see themselves and each other up close. And from that ground-level point of view, they appear to themselves as little more than a mixed-up multitude. Is it any wonder, then, that as the Exodus story continues to unfold, as the Israelites journey from Egypt and through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land, they act more like a mixed-up multitude than a magnificent myriad? How we see ourselves always shapes how we behave, and who we become.  If only the Israelites of that generation could have seen themselves as God saw them! How different their fate might have been. 

We, however, can learn from our ancestors’ lack of vision. We can see that there is more than one way to behold ourselves and each other; not just close up, which is our default vantage point, but also far away, from God’s perspective. From far away, God sees the whole beautiful work of art that is each and every one of us, indeed that is all of us collectively, for what it truly is, for who we truly are. The question before us is: can we see ourselves and each other, as God sees us? And how would we live our lives differently and relate to one another if we saw ourselves and each other from God’s perspective?

At the same time, by fusing these two stories together, our parashah reminds us that whenever we see our own or each others’ flaws, imperfections, and failings, we are still looking at the same gorgeous canvas. It just looks different when examined up close. And moreover, we might recognize that the beautiful piece of art that we represent couldn’t look as it does without each individual imperfect brushstroke. The whole may be greater than the sum of its parts, but without the parts, the whole doesn’t exist. It is your mess that makes you you. It is our mess that makes us us. The whole may be more exquisite, but each of the parts, however unseemly they may be, are indivisible, invaluable – indeed, holy. 

Our tradition frequently refers to God as Adonai tz’va-ot, often translated as Lord of Hosts – “hosts” being a somewhat archaic synonym for armies, battalions, or legions. Though we may not realize it, in calling God by this name, we are affirming our parashah’s assertion about how God sees us. But another synonym for “host” is multitude, a heterogeneous collection of unique, imperfect, individuals. The army and the multitude are one and the same. It’s all a matter of perspective. 

It’s crucial to remember that the messiness of the multitude can also, from a different vantage point, appear as the beauty of a battalion. 

And we must also never forget that there is no beautiful battalion without the messy multitude. 

May we see ourselves and each other as the magnificent myriads we look like from afar, while never neglecting to embrace what we see in one another and ourselves up close.

Shabbat shalom.

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And Out Come the Wolves: Parashat Va-Yehi 5782

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**Trigger warning: sexual assault and violence**

It’s altogether fitting that we read Parashat Va-Yehi, the last portion in the Book of Genesis, this Shabbat, as we approach the end of the secular year. Endings are always meaningful opportunities to reflect on what has passed and to consider what’s to come. 

In Parashat Va-Yehi, the patriarch Jacob is on his deathbed. He calls to his twelve sons to give them each a final blessing. These blessings are not particularly warm or fuzzy. As a matter of fact, many of them seem to include rebukes, both for past transgressions and for future deeds. 

This year, one blessing in particular caught my eye. It’s the final one, which means it’s among Jacob’s last living words. Here’s how Jacob blesses his youngest son, Benjamin, just before he dies: “Binyamin zev yitraf, baboker yokhal ad, v’la-erev y’halek shalal / Benjamin is a voracious wolf. In the morning he consumes the plunder, and in the evening he divides the spoil.” (49:27).

The violent imagery is striking, and surprising. Benjamin is Jacob’s youngest son, the second child of Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel. As a result, Benjamin is one of Jacob’s favorite children, perhaps second only to Joseph, Rachel’s firstborn. In Genesis, Benjamin is depicted as docile, the subject of outside forces; unlike many of his other brothers, he is never an instigator or an agitator. Why then does Jacob describe Benjamin as a “voracious wolf,” a merciless hunter that, bolstered by the strength of its pack, preys on the innocent and vulnerable and literally tears its victims apart? 

The great medieval commentator Rashi proposes an answer. According to Rashi, Jacob’s blessing isn’t about his son at all. Rather, it anticipates that in the future, Benjamin’s descendants will act like rapacious wolves, and moreover that their brutality will tear the people of Israel apart. 

What is Benjamin’s violent future? Rashi understands Jacob to be referring to a story found in the biblical book of Judges, which is set many centuries after Jacob’s death.  

According to the book of Judges (chs. 19-21), when the Israelites conquer the Promised Land, they fail to establish a stable government. The result is a chaotic society where men are a law unto themselves. During this anarchic period, a Levite man traveled to Bethlehem in order to win back his wayward concubine. As the Levite made his way home, he stopped for the night in Gibeah, a town in territory belonging to the tribe of Benjamin. But the only person to offer them hospitality in Gibeah is an outsider, an Ephraimite man who happened to be sojourning in the city. 

When the Benjaminite townspeople discovered the presence of this Levite stranger in their midst, they surrounded the Ephraimite’s house, demanding that the Levite be handed over to them so they can “know him” – in the biblical sense. The teeming, pounding mob threatened to break through the barriers of the Ephraimites’ home, overrunning and overtaking it and everyone inside. 

It’s a terrifying story. But it might actually sound familiar. That’s because to this point it is almost identical to a similar story in the book of Genesis about the depraved city of Sodom, a place so rotten that God utterly wipes it out. The book of Judges thus implies that the ancient Benjaminites were just as violent and vicious as those infamous and irredeemable Sodomites (Nahum Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, p. 345).  

But the story in Judges diverges from the parallel Genesis story in important ways. In Genesis, heroic characters stop the bloodthirsty mob. However, in Judges, there are no heroes. The point of the Judges story is less about condemning the self-evidently monstrous behavior of the Benjaminites, and more about indicting the “good guys.” 

What do I mean? Let’s look at how the story in Judges continues. In order to protect the Levite, the Ephraimite instead offers the mob his own daughter and the Levite’s concubine. Satisfied with this compromise, the Benjaminite townspeople take turns raping the concubine all night long. 

Then, the morning after the mob’s horrendous assault, the Levite opens the door of the Ephraimite’s house and finds his concubine collapsed dead at the entrance. He picks up her body, straps it to his donkey, and returns home. Then, he takes a cleaver, chops the concubine’s body into twelve pieces, and sends them to each of the tribes. Although no message accompanies the body parts, the Israelites understand it as a call to take up arms against their Benjaminite brothers. In the ensuing civil war, the entire tribe of Benjamin is nearly wiped out.

And yet, despite Benjamin’s crimes against humanity, the other tribes begin to regret the severity of their response. They are war weary, eager for peace, and pained by the idea of losing an entire Israelite tribe, even one as thoroughly depraved as Benjamin. So they ultimately permit the Benjaminites to repopulate their ranks by kidnapping women from one of the towns in Ephraimite territory to take as wives for themselves. 

It’s an astonishing conclusion to a shocking story. The Benjaminites brutally assault and kill an innocent woman, causing a civil war. But after all that strife and bloodshed, things are right back where they were at the beginning of the story. Only this time, the rest of the Israelites have given the Benjaminites permission to perpetuate their violent behavior. Just as the patriarch Jacob predicted long before, like a ravening wolf, the Benjaminites divide and conquer. And the rest of the Israelites let them.

But who is the villain of the Judges story? Obviously, the savage Benjaminites are bad guys, voracious wolves that prey on the innocent. But what about the Levite and the Ephraimite who give their women over to the mob in order to save themselves? And what about the rest of the Israelites? They so nobly go to war to punish the Benjaminites for this outrageous crime, but then eventually relent and facilitate the exact same crime, only this time on a greater scale. 

This, I think, is the moral of the story: tyranny may be perpetrated by “bad guys,” but it is powered by the silence, acquiescence, and complicity of “good guys,” those who fail to defend the defenseless against the wolves who come for them, who permit the wolves to prowl the countryside day and night, who prefer peace and quiet to justice and righteousness. When liberty dies, some may be guilty, but all are responsible.

We moderns like to think of ourselves as advanced, far removed from our barbarian ancestors who lived during the era of the biblical Judges. But as I look back on the past year, I’m increasingly less certain that we are. 

As I read the story of the avaricious Benjaminite mob in Judges this year, I couldn’t help but picture the events of last January 6th, when a violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in an effort to overturn the results of a free and fair election. When I reviewed video footage from that day, the scene looked to me terrifyingly similar to the episode in Judges: a horde of thousands swarmed the Capitol, bursting through barricades, smashing through windows, and overrunning law enforcement. Rewatching the footage with the ancient Benjaminites in mind, the insurrectionists seem virtually wolflike as they prowl the Capitol’s corridors seemingly in search of prey, particularly those who wouldn’t yield to their demands, including the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Vice President of the United States, whom they repeatedly threaten with injury and even death. 

In the immediate aftermath of January 6th, it appeared that the vast majority of Americans, from virtually every walk of life and political perspective, agreed that the actions of the mob and of those who incited them were inexcusable. Personally, while I was heartbroken, fearful, and angry on January 6th, I recall actually feeling hopeful in the days that followed. True, there were certainly elected officials who, from the earliest moments following the attack on the Capitol, shamefully vindicated the insurrectionists by agreeing with their message, even if they disagreed with their methods. But much more widespread were condemnations and calls for accountability, which came swiftly and forcefully from essentially every corner of the political landscape. It seemed to me that people were finally acknowledging how close we were that day, and indeed over the course of the past few years, to losing our democracy, and mustering the resolve to restore our society.

However, as 2021 progressed, the winds shifted. Cynical leaders and media personalities began to realize that those who incited, participated in, and sympathized with the insurrectionists represented a constituency that they needed in order to pursue and retain power. They courted that constituency by endorsing (or at least refusing to disavow) the Big Lie that incited the mob in the first place, by downplaying the severity of the attack, and by advancing a revisionist version of what happened before, during, and after January 6th, all while working at every level to identify and exploit the weak points in our electoral system and emboldening those who embrace conspiracy theories, violence, and autocracy. Meanwhile, many of us, war weary, eager for peace, and temperamentally averse to incivility and division, decided to simply look the other way, turn the page, and try to move on. As Martin Luther King Jr. put it in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” we showed ourselves to prefer the absence of tension over the presence of justice.

As a result, the events of January 6th have largely receded from our collective consciousness. But as political commentator Charlie Pierce recently put it, the authoritarian ideology and violent culture that fueled the insurrection continues to hum barely below the surface of our society. And just as in the era of the biblical Judges, tyranny is emboldened and empowered by the silence, acquiescence, and complicity of those of us who prefer peace to principle, tranquility to truth, calm to commonwealth, the absence of tension to the presence of justice. 

Actively and passively, through speech and through silence, we empower leaders who tolerate authoritarianism and excuse those who are bent on subverting democracy. We so yearn for calm and comfort that we are willing to give anything, including our freedom, to have it. Like our ancient Israelite ancestors, we are proving ourselves all too willing to sell out our principles to preserve our own position and to seek out a hollow civility. Some may be guilty of dismantling our democracy. But all of us are responsible for preserving and protecting it. 

Still in our time, ravening wolves prowl the countryside. Some, like many of the January 6th insurrectionists or their sympathizers – and certain avowed white supremacists who are cut from the same cloth – are easy to identify. Others wear sheep’s clothing, cleverly, cynically, speaking the language of egalitarian, pluralistic democracy but nevertheless advancing the same predatory agenda: dominance for their pack at the expense of everyone else. As ever, today’s wolves prey upon the most vulnerable among us – the poor, the historically marginalized and oppressed, and minority communities (including our own). 

And just as Jacob predicted of the Benjaminites, the hunger of today’s wolves is never sated; ultimately they threaten everyone who is not part of their own pack – with physical violence (too often under the cover of law), with deadly disease fueled by a demented rebellion against science, with chaos sown by disinformation, with divisions deepened by a rejection of history, and with the demolition of our democratic norms and institutions.

So what must we, people of faith and conscience, do? How do we save our democracy in the year to come, when the wolves come again for it? 

Wilderness experts give this advice about how to defend against wolf attacks: Remember that wolves are hunters. If you permit yourself to look like prey, it will encourage an attack. Instead, here’s what to do – Don’t run away. Don’t turn your back. Stand your ground. Make yourself appear big and scary by shouting out loud and raising your arms over your head. It’s guidance that I hope never to have to follow out in the wild. It helps that I never go camping. 

But it’s also sound advice for us – as people, and as a community, of faith and conscience, as Americans who cherish our country’s democratic ideals and institutions, and as Jews who have uniquely benefited from American democracy. We must not be silent. We must not give up or give in. 

That means, for starters, that we must reject any politician who refuses to disavow nefarious falsehoods about the 2020 election. We must also push relentlessly to halt and reverse the campaign – launched mere days after January 6th and which continues right at this very moment – to undermine our democratic institutions, subvert our elections, and suppress the vote. We must demand with every ounce of strength we can muster that those who plotted and perpetrated the insurrection are held accountable, in order to deter those who are already planning to act similarly in the future. And, ultimately, we must continue to act as vigilant shepherds, standing up for and protecting each other against the prowling wolves who seek to divide and dominate, tirelessly pursuing our tradition’s vision of justice for all. 

Shabbat Shalom.

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Time to Live: Parashat Va-Yeshev 5782

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In the grand scheme of things, our lives are extremely short. On average, most of us will only live to 75 or 80. If we’re lucky, maybe we will live 120 joyful years. Perhaps modern medicine will help us to live even longer. But even if science ultimately enables each of us to live 200 years, we still live with the uncomfortable fact that we are inescapably mortal, our time always finite, our days ever numbered. 

Recently, I read a book called Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by journalist and self-described productivity junkie Oliver Burkeman, who puts this truth even more starkly. Burkeman writes that most of us will only have 4,000 weeks to walk this earth. When put that way, when our lifespan is framed as a number of weeks, rather than years, I find that it is easier — and much more terrifying — to recognize just how short our lives really are. Burkeman argues that the greatest impediment to living meaningful, fulfilling lives is our chronic inability to be perpetually mindful of our limited time. 

We may recognize that we only have 24 hours in a given day, or seven days in a given week, but few of us think much about how many days or weeks we actually have in total, and what we really want to do with that limited time. As a result, many of us stress about trying to fit as much as possible into each day or week, often (as I am personally guilty of) spending lots of money on books or tools that promise to enable us to fulfill our work or family responsibilities in more streamlined and efficient ways. But as Burkeman persuasively points out, the result of those strategies is often that we fill those newly freed up hours with more responsibilities, contributing to a vicious cycle. 

Rarely do we stop to ask the question: is any of this actually worth it? Is this what I want to spend my limited number of days and weeks on this earth doing? Recognizing that my time is the most finite, and therefore the most precious, resource I have, am I using it wisely, spending as much of it as I can on what is truly most valuable to me? 

That, I think, is the question posed to us in this week’s parashah. Joseph, the favored son of the patriarch Jacob, is sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers. After his master’s wife falsely accuses him of a crime, he ends up in prison. There, he meets two of Pharaoh’s servants who are both distressed because of mysterious dreams. The first, Pharaoh’s cupbearer, dreamt that he was holding a vine with three clusters of grapes. He crushed the grapes into a cup and gave it to Pharoah. The second man, Pharaoh’s baker, dreamt that he was carrying three baskets filled with baked goods on his head, and birds were eating the food in the basket. 

Joseph tells both men that their dreams foretell what was to happen in three days’ time — hence the presence of the number three in both men’s dreams. But Joseph explains that a radically different fate will befall each man after three days — the cupbearer will be released from prison and restored to his position in Pharaoh’s court, while the baker will be executed, and birds will pick the flesh off his decapitated and impaled corpse. 

Joseph, it turns out, is exactly right about what the dreams mean. Three days later, Pharaoh restores the cupbearer and kills the baker. While the Torah may be interested in establishing Joseph’s dream-interpreting bonafides, what’s intriguing to me about this story is not the fact that Joseph turns out to be right. Rather, it’s the story’s implication that the cupbearer and baker believe Joseph is correct before it’s proven. Presumably, they have no reason to believe Joseph. For all they know, he’s just a random fellow prisoner! Why do they believe him? 

It seems to me they believe Joseph because he offers them the comforting thought that they have more time. In reality, though, this comforting thought is actually a corrupting delusion. True, the baker ultimately learns that he doesn’t have much more time; just three days, to be precise. But, assuming he accepts that truth, he only does so because of Joseph’s positive explanation of the cupbearer’s dream. The baker offers up his own dream for interpretation in the first place only after Joseph has already delivered his upbeat analysis of the cupbearer’s dream. And once the baker sees Joseph as a credible dream-interpreter, he has no choice but to accept the dark truth of Joseph’s interpretation of his own dream. How deep is our desire for more time! How we long to run from the reality that our time is always running out.

But what if the baker is, in a sense, the fortunate one here? That’s hard to say, of course, considering the brutal fate that we know ultimately befalls him. All the more so because he is in the first instance comforted by the prospect that he would have more time, only to be crushed when he learns that in Joseph’s view his time was running out. Surely, one might protest, the cupbearer is much better off. His unsettling dream leaves him expecting the worst, and then the prediction that he would have a new lease on life doubtlessly lifts his spirits. And ultimately, he is released from prison, restored to his prominent position, and allowed to live. How could we say that the cupbearer is worse off?

Because only by confronting our mortality can we truly live. When we fail to recognize that our time is limited, we are much more likely to waste it. When we fail to affirm that life’s very value is in its finitude, we are much more likely to spend it frivolously. By even unconsciously approaching our lives as indefinite, we will inevitably spend too much of our limited time on pursuits that don’t matter. Only by remaining constantly mindful that the clock is ever counting down to the culmination of our all-too-brief sojourn on this earth will we treat our time as profoundly precious, and use it purposefully. The fate that befalls the baker is tragic, to be sure; but sooner or later, in one way or another, it is the same fate, death, that will befall us all. And for that reason, though the news he receives from Joseph may be sad, it’s also profoundly illuminating and extremely valuable. The baker learns the truth of his existence, and the truth sets him free. 

The cupbearer, on the other hand, doesn’t get the truth. He gets an uplifting lie, a half-truth at best. Yes, he will survive his current predicament. But he won’t survive his ultimate predicament. Sooner or later, in one way or another, he will meet the same fate as the baker. And for that reason, though the news he receives from Joseph may be happy, it’s also distorting, harmful even. His newfound sense of security is founded upon a falsehood, and the falsehood keeps him captive. 

I mean this literally. After this whole ordeal, the cupbearer immediately goes back to doing exactly what he was doing before — toiling as a servant of Pharaoh. He gets the gift of more time, or more accurately he gets the illusion of indefinite time, and in no way does he seem to reevaluate his priorities or alter the shape and texture of his life. His fortunes are restored, but he seems in no way changed. As a matter of fact, we are told that the cupbearer even forgets about Joseph, the person who gave him hope when all seemed to be lost,  once he is restored to Pharaoh’s court. The cupbearer may have a new lease on life, but clearly experiences no growth whatsoever. By buying into the delusion of deathlessness, the cupbearer traps himself in the tyranny of a perpetual present, where there can be no motion and no meaning. Sure, he’s technically alive. For now, anyway. But what is his life, really?

True, the Torah doesn’t tell us anything about what those three days are like for the cupbearer and baker, between Joseph interpreting their dreams and those dreams coming true. But I do know the difference between how people live when they know their time is limited and when they don’t. Those who know their time is running out tend to gain clarity about, and then prioritize, what is truly most important to them. Less so for those of us, like the cupbearer, who remain unaware of how little time we actually have.

The truth is that time is constantly running out, for all of us. Maybe you have most of your 4,000 weeks left. Maybe you only have a few hundred, or just a few. Whether you have a lot or a little of the time allotted to you for your sojourn on this earth, that time is inevitably, unalterably, limited, and therefore profoundly precious. Only when we accept this fact, only when we embrace it, only when we live fully cognizant of it and orient our lives in light of it, can we truly, most meaningfully, and most satisfyingly live.

That is not an excuse to shirk the responsibilities of day-to-day life. Just because your time is running out doesn’t mean that you won’t also need to spend some of that time earning a living or standing in line at the DMV. Nor is it an invitation to live recklessly. Just because you will die eventually doesn’t mean you should engage in behavior that could facilitate your demise. 

But it does mean we ought all of us reflect deeply on and clarify what matters most to us, what gives our lives meaning, and what we can uniquely contribute to the betterment of our world, and prioritize those pursuits by devoting to them the most precious resource we have — our limited time. 

The clock is ticking. Our four thousand weeks are fleeting. Right now is our time to live. 

Shabbat Shalom.

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Blessings Are Not a Finite Resource: Parashat Toldot 5782

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The first half of the 20th century heralded a building boom of public swimming pools in the US. These were not dinky little DIY neighborhood projects. Rather, communities all over the country were building grand, resort-style, pools, the kind that could hold hundreds, even thousands, of swimmers. Of course, this being early 20th century America, most of these public pools were exclusively for white people. People of color, and particularly Black Americans, were not allowed to swim in these pools.

Around the 1950’s, however, as the Civil Rights movement began to intensify, Black Americans started to advocate for equal access to these pools. After all, they argued, tax dollars from Black Americans just as much as from white Americans helped fund these facilities. Why should white people be allowed to swim but not Black people? Pretty soon, all over the country, and especially in southern communities like Richmond, courts began ordering the desegregation of public swimming pools. 

What happened next, however, was extraordinary: communities decided to drain their pools rather than let Black families swim, too. The city of Montgomery, Alabama, for example, used to have one of the finest public pools in the country which, of course, was whites-only. In 1958, courts ordered Montgomery to integrate its pool, and all other municipal recreation facilities, by the beginning of the next year. Instead, on January 1, 1959, city officials filled the pool with dirt and paved it over. And what’s more — they closed down the entire parks and recreation department of Montgomery for a decade, even going so far as to sell off all the animals in the city zoo. 

In her recent book, The Sum Of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone And How We Can Prosper Together, researcher and racial justice advocate Heather McGhee uses the example of what happened to public pools in the 50’s and 60’s to show the harmful impact of zero-sum thinking, the mindset that says, in our society, one person’s gain will inevitably mean another’s person’s loss. Drawing from a wealth of economic and political data, McGhee argues that this perspective is particularly prevalent among white Americans, who fear that demographic change threatens their share of society’s blessings, that progress for people of color has to come at white people’s expense. This fear in turn drives white Americans to embrace policies that prevent upward mobility for people of color, even when those policies are also against their own self-interest. 

You can see this everywhere, if you’re willing to look. It’s in the decades-long dismantling of welfare in this country, and our elected leaders’ ongoing refusal right at this very moment to strengthen the social safety net, even though most beneficiaries of government services are white. It’s in the fight against universal health care, even though the majority of people without health care are white. It’s in our shameful unwillingness to combat climate change, even though we all live under the same sky and are all ultimately vulnerable to its effects. It’s in the relentless push to deny women the right to make decisions about their own bodies, the ugly protests that have erupted in school districts against mask mandates and the ability of teachers to tell the truth about American history, in widespread voter suppression and disenfranchisement. Just this week we saw that agenda carry the day right here in Virginia and across the country, campaigns funded by dark money, amplified by cable news and social media, advanced by cynical or callous or cowardly politicians, and enabled by our apathy, inattention, confusion, and plain exhaustion, all designed to secure society’s blessings for some by denying those blessings for others, but in reality harming us all.

But here’s the thing I want us to remember, now and always: blessings are not a finite resource. There are in fact always more blessings to go around. 

In this week’s parashah, Toldot, Isaac is approaching the end of his life and wants to give a blessing to his firstborn and most beloved son Esau. Rebekah, who favors Jacob, contrives to have Jacob receive the blessing instead. Jacob tricks Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing. 

Shortly thereafter, Esau appears before Isaac seeking his blessing. Isaac becomes incredibly, visibly distressed, realizing that Jacob must have “come with guile” and taken the blessing for himself (Gen. 27:35). Despite this, Esau urges his father, “Bless me, too!” (27:34). 

But Isaac contends that since he already gave the blessing away, he couldn’t possibly bless Esau. “What, then,” Isaac asks, rhetorically, “can I still do for you, my son?” (27:37).

For whatever reason, Isaac clearly sees the situation as zero-sum. From his perspective, blessings are finite resources. In order for Esau to receive a blessing, he reasons, Jacob has to be denied it, or vice-versa. It’s unclear whether Rebekah and Jacob see things the same way, although, to be fair to Isaac, Rebekah related to her two sons with a zero-sum mentality, bestowing all her love on Jacob, just as Isaac bestowed all his love on Esau. But even if Rebekah and Jacob don’t believe in their heart of hearts that blessings are finite, they act as if they do, exploiting and reinforcing Isaac’s zero-sum mentality.

I want us, though, to pay attention to Esau’s response here, because he’s the only one in the story who is able to see the truth of the situation. Esau, for his part, is heartbroken, not only over discovering his brother’s deceit, but also over his father’s insistence that he had no more blessings to give. Through bitter tears, Esau asks the haunting question, “הַֽבְרָכָ֨ה אַחַ֤ת הִֽוא־לְךָ֙ אָבִ֔י / Have you but one blessing, Abba? בָּרְכֵ֥נִי גַם־אָ֖נִי אָבִ֑י / Bless me too, Abba!” 

Esau’s emotional plea breaks through Isaac’s recalcitrance. Isaac blesses Esau with a blessing that, while different from the one bestowed upon Jacob a few verses earlier, is upon close inspection no less generous. It turns out that when we open ourselves up to it, there are in fact always more blessings to go around. 

I wish I could say that they all lived happily ever after. Ultimately, everyone got a blessing, right? But the drama over Isaac’s blessing had lasting negative ramifications. Esau resents Jacob and vows to kill him. Jacob is forced to run away, never to see his mother or father again, and repeatedly receives comeuppance for his deception. The two brothers are estranged for decades, and their descendants remained hostile to one another for millennia. Isaac and Rebekah never again share a scene, much less a conversation, after this parashah. 

Treating blessings as finite resources harms everyone in the story, not only the person who is denied the blessing, but also the person who gives the blessing and even the one who conspires to receive it at another person’s expense. 

Imagine how differently the story would have played out if Isaac, and perhaps Rebekah too, had realized from the outset that blessings were in fact available for both sons, that no one had to lose in order for someone to win, that one person’s quote-unquote loss would negatively impact the other person’s quote-unquote win, that indeed everybody was going to succeed, or fail, together.

Here’s the truth our parashah reveals: When we try to secure blessings for ourselves at others’ expense, everyone ends up getting hurt, ourselves included. And when we are willing to share the blessings, we will find that there is more than enough to go around.  

True, our world’s resources are finite. It’s impossible for everyone to enjoy every blessing our world has to offer equally and simultaneously. But it’s also true that we are blessed to live in a world, and in particular in a country, and even more especially at a time, when there is more than enough wealth to go around, more than enough for everyone to have all they need, if we could only break free of our zero-sum mindset. And what’s more, when we do this, we will not only discover that many of our resources are much less scarce than we might have assumed, we will generate more through our cooperation. 

As McGhee proves in The Sum of Us, seeing each other as partners, rather than as competitors, in securing society’s blessings yields its own dividends. For example, in the years immediately following the great legal and legislative successes of the Civil Rights movement, there was a dramatic increase, particularly in the South, in things like schools, libraries, and infrastructure — public works that benefited everyone, black and white. When we cooperate instead of compete, when we try to lift one another up instead of trying to tear each other down, when we see our welfare as bound up with the welfare of others, and when we see how other people’s struggles hold us back as well as them, we will not only share in each other’s blessings, we will multiply them, and we will all reap the benefits. But to do this, we have to stand strong against powerful forces in our civic life trying to convince us that as more people share in our society’s blessings, our portion will diminish, and that the only way for some of us to succeed is for other people to lose. 

Some of you have heard me share a Jewish folktale about heaven and hell. In Rabbi Ed Feinstein’s telling of this story, a soul once arrived before the Throne of Divine Judgment, and was determined to have lived a life that was evenly balanced between good and bad. So the soul is permitted to choose between ascending to heaven or spending eternity in hell. The soul asks to see the two places before deciding, and is first escorted to hell. He is shocked to discover that hell is an exquisite palace, situated upon opulent, perfectly manicured grounds. Inside the castle is an ornate dining room, with a sumptuous banquet, replete with every imaginable delicacy, laid out upon a long table. But when the inhabitants of hell enter the hall, they are sad and emaciated. As they sit down for the feast, the soul realizes the problem — the inhabitants of hell have no elbows, so they cannot feed themselves. The soul is profoundly disturbed by the scene, and insists on being shown heaven immediately. To his great surprise, heaven looks exactly the same as hell. The same palace, the same dining hall, the same magnificent banquet. The inhabitants file in for dinner and the soul notices that, just as in hell, these souls also have no elbows. Yet unlike the inhabitants of hell, those who dwell in heaven are happy and well fed. What, then, was the difference? The only difference between heaven and hell was that the inhabitants of heaven realized that if they fed each other, everyone could enjoy the feast. 

Similarly, our world has the potential to be heaven or hell. The table is set for us all with incredible bounty, and there is plenty to go around. But we will never be able to truly enjoy the feast if we are unable or willing to feed one another. When we can recognize that there are plenty of blessings to go around, and when we can see each other as equally worthy of blessings, we can make heaven on earth.

Have you but one blessing?” Esau’s painful question from our parashah echoes still. Too many in our time are still denied the blessings others of us so readily enjoy, and all of us are the worse for it. May we see what Isaac did not. May we see that blessings are not a finite resource, and may we rededicate ourselves to sharing the bounty with each other. May we set aside the zero-sum mentality that has held so many back and has hurt us all. And may we recommit to our sacred charge of making heaven on earth.

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Introducing ‘No Time for Neutrality’

I am excited to announce the publication of my latest book, No Time for Neutrality: American Rabbinic Voices from an Era of Upheaval!

It is available for purchase on Amazon.

The book is a compilation of the best rabbinic writings from the second half of the 2010’s, an extraordinary period of upheaval in the U.S., as pluralistic democracy and human rights came under sustained assault. In this volume, a diverse group of over 35 of America’s leading rabbis (representing every major Jewish denomination, spanning several generations, and encompassing many backgrounds, and identities) diagnose what is broken in our nation and world and contribute to a vision for a just and inclusive future.

Contributors include Bradley Shavit Artson, Jonathan Blake, Sharon Brous, Geoffrey D. Claussen, Aryeh Cohen, Dianne Cohler-Esses, Nate DeGroot, Abe Friedman, Laura Geller, Rachel Greengrass, Shai Held, Corey Helfand, Lauren Grabelle Hermann, Lauren Holtzblatt, Andy Kahn, Sharon Kleinbaum, Michael Rose Knopf, Claudia Kreiman, Sandra Lawson, Andrea London, Jack Moline, Jesse M. Olitzky, Jonah Dov Pesner , William Plevan, Robin Podolsky, Victor Hillel Reinsten, Danya Ruttenberg, Sid Schwartz, David Segal, Jeremy D. Sher, Abby Stein, Zachary Truboff, Arthur Waskow, Joey Wolf, and Shmuly Yanklowitz.

The publication could not have come at a more important time. The seemingly endless COVID-19 pandemic still rages out of control. The threat to democracy in the U.S. and around the world is evident and relentless. Environmental damage is catastrophic and increasingly irreversible. Especially as off-term and mid-term election season looms in the U.S., we need the timely and timeless rabbinic wisdom contained in No Time for Neutrality now more than eve

Proceeds from the sale of this book will go to support the work of T’ruah and HIAS, two national Jewish organizations whose critical work in many ways inspired this volume and continues to inspire us to the sacred work of social justice and human rights in the U.S .and around the world.

Here is some great advanced praise for the book:

“The passionate words of these rabbis echo our ancient prophets.  They call on us to fight racism, antisemitism, and bigotry; to seek justice and equality for all citizens; and to open our hearts to all.  May we heed their call!” -Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, Chief Executive Officer, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and The Rabbinical Assembly

“At 77, I have witnessed two times of major upheaval in the United States: the 60s and the Trump presidency.  In both cases, I had serious concerns that the pluralistic, ever progressing America I knew and loved would not survive, that democracy itself would, as Plato warned, become the rule of the mob.  This book gives us keen intellectual analysis as well as forms of emotional catharsis about what happened during the Trump presidency as well as serious proposals for how to fix what was broken and ensure the continued existence and flourishing of the America that we know can be and want it to be.” – Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Rector and Distinguished Service Professor of Philosophy,
American Jewish University

“Contained in this volume is the wisdom from some of today’s leading rabbis. In their teachings, and in their actions, our rabbis guide us through a troubled world. They help us understand the roles we play as citizens and Jews, and they inspire us to act according to our values. Sometimes, the easiest way to respond to distress and conflict is to do nothing, to shirk from leadership. Some of our leaders merely make shallow symbolic gestures that play to the appetites of political hobbyists. But the rabbis who get into the trenches to bring torah and wisdom to difficult situations, they are the strength of our communities. They help empower our values.” -Eitan Hersh, political scientist and author of Politics is for Power

“As historians assess the Trump era, No Time for Neutrality will provide a unique perspective on the pushback of the Jewish left, an often overlooked, under-appreciated, yet critical part of the resistance.” – A. Donald McEachin, member of the U.S. House of Representatives

And Ruth Messinger, former president of, and current Global Ambassador for, American Jewish World Service says, “This in the book we did not know we were waiting for. it recognizes the terrors of our time—Donald Trump’s rise to power and his malignant leadershp, explosions of highly visible racism and anti-Semitism, COVID 19 in all its ugly and divisive ramifications and the Capitol insurrection of January 6, 2021—and it steers a steady course among these vast shoals, calling us to action because it is central to our faith...In each sermon and every article we are reminded by rabbis rooted in text that we have both a right and an obligation to protest injustice, to call out hate, to speak truth to power—and, yes, to do these things even when they are hard and unpopular.”

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