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The Power, Danger and Placement of Vows

I have a confession to make.

I don’t cry.  No matter what is going on, how sad or hurtful, I don’t cry.  In fact, there is only one sure way that I ever cry.  And that is when is I am cutting onions.

While I have come to accept this reality, some of my friends are quite bothered.  When I got married, some of my friends felt so strongly that I should cry under my Chupah that they brought onions to wedding and made sure that I got a good whiff!

I was reminded of my friends’ attempts to get me to cry at my wedding this week when I was putting my ids to bed.  They have been asking “Abba, why do you have an itchy, scratchy beard?  Why don’t you shave it already?”  And I try to explain to them that Tisha B’Av is coming up and it is a very sad day.  I grow my beard because we are not supposed to shave or get haircuts because we are sad, or we are supposed to be sad and this helps us to be sad.

This is an appropriate question for this week’s parsha – can our external actions really bring about internal, authentic emotions?

The parsha opens with laws of Nedarim, vows.  We are told that we are able to accept vows upon ourselves.  The Torah then proceeds to describe ways by which vows can be nullified and gets into the very technical question of whether a father is empowered to nullify the vows of his daughter or a husband the vows of his wife.  This is the subject of an entire chapter in Masechet Nedarim.

The Rashbam (R. Shmuel ben Meir, 1085-1158, France) opens his commentary on the parsha by relating a question that was posed to him in a particular city in France:

רשב”ם על במדבר ל׳:ב׳
נשאלתי ביוניוב [=שם עיר] בכרך לושרון [=שם מחוז בצרפת].

I was asked by people in some town in France, Anione

The petitioner is bothered by the opening pasuk of the Parsha:

Numbers 30:2 במדבר ל׳:ב׳
וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־רָאשֵׁ֣י הַמַּטּ֔וֹת לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֵאמֹ֑ר זֶ֣ה הַדָּבָ֔ר אֲשֶׁ֖ר צִוָּ֥ה ה’
(2) Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying: This is what the LORD has commanded:

Unlike any other section of law in the Torah which is introduced with the sentence:
“וידבר ה’ אל משה לאמר”  “Hashem spoke to Moshe saying” Our parsha opens with Moshe communicating directly to the heads of the tribes.  As the Rashbam’s questioner put it:

לפי הפשט היכן מצינו שום פרשה שמתחלת כן? שלא נאמר למעלה וידבר ה’ אל משה לאמר איש כי ידור וגו’. והיאך מתחלת הפרשה בדיבורו של משה שאין מפורש לו מפי הגבורה?

where else we find a portion commencing with the words וידבר משה, (Moses spoke…) without being told first that God had told Moses to deliver the message or legislation in question to the people.

One particularly provocative answer to this question is suggested by the Ramban (R. Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spain).

Ramban says that it would be inappropriate to teach this section of law to the masses.  If the entire people will know that there is a possibility to be מתיר נדר (nullify vows), they will not take their vows so seriously.  The Ramban goes so far as to suggest

ואולי צריך להעלים אלה החוקים מהם שלא ינהגו קלות ראש בנדרים

Maybe we should hide these laws [from the masses] so they will not treat vows lightly.

But when it comes to the leaders of the nation, there is no way to avoid teaching them the laws of nullifying vows.  So it was not transmitted with the normal fanfare by which other halachot were transmitted, but it was muted and conveyed only to the leaders.

While this is a fascinating suggestion, I’d like to focus on a different path to explain our question.

Rav Amnon Bazak, a RaM (teacher) at th Gush, says that the key to understanding why the section of vows is conveyed only to the leaders of the tribes, and not the heads of the nations, is found at the end of last week’s Parsha, Parshat Pinchas.  Pinchas ends with the description of the מוספים the special sacrifices that were brought on the holidays throughout the year.  The Torah concludes:

Numbers 29:39במדבר כ״ט:ל״ט

(לט) אֵ֛לֶּה תַּעֲשׂ֥וּ לַה’ בְּמוֹעֲדֵיכֶ֑ם לְבַ֨ד מִנִּדְרֵיכֶ֜ם וְנִדְבֹתֵיכֶ֗ם לְעֹלֹֽתֵיכֶם֙ וּלְמִנְחֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם וּלְנִסְכֵּיכֶ֖ם וּלְשַׁלְמֵיכֶֽם׃

All these you shall offer to the LORD at the stated times, in addition to your votive and freewill offerings, be they burnt offerings, meal offerings, libations, or offerings of well-being.

We are commanded to offer the Mussaf offerings in addition to the voluntary sacrifices that one vows to bring.  Rav Bazak explains that after the lengthy description of the Mussaf offerings, and indeed of the prolonged description of the Mihkan, one might come to the conclusion that the only way to come close to God, to worship Hashem is via the sacrificial system that the Torah describes.  Proper religious observance comes only by obediently following the rules.  Rav Bazak says that our pasuk teaches that this is an incorrect understanding: It hints that there is still place for man to initiate his own holiness, via his vows and voluntary offerings.

Rav Bazak says that the opening of our parsha, in which Moshe gives instructions to the heads of the tribes directly without being prompted by Hashem, drives home this point: There is room for human initiative in worshipping God and finding spirituality and holiness.

This same idea is expressed by Maimonides in a halacha that I’m sure we can all relate to.

משנה תורה, הלכות נדרים י״ג:כ״ג

 מִי שֶׁנָּדַר נְדָרִים כְּדֵי לְכוֹנֵן דֵּעוֹתָיו וּלְתַקֵּן מַעֲשָׂיו הֲרֵי זֶה זָרִיז וּמְשֻׁבָּח. כֵּיצַד. כְּגוֹן מִי שֶׁהָיָה זוֹלֵל וְאָסַר עָלָיו הַבָּשָׂר שָׁנָה אוֹ שְׁתַּיִם. אוֹ מִי שֶׁהָיָה שׁוֹגֶה בַּיַּיִן וְאָסַר הַיַּיִן עַל עַצְמוֹ זְמַן מְרֻבֶּה. אוֹ אָסַר הַשִּׁכְרוּת לְעוֹלָם.

Whoever makes a vow to fix his ways or his thoughts, it is praiseworthy.  Such as someone who is gluttonous and vows against eating meat for one or two year; or someone who someone who drinks too much wine or alcohol…

The Rambam says it is praiseworthy to make vows in order to help oneself overcome his/her personal vices.

But, as he so often does, the Rambam throws a wrench in this explanation just two halachot later:

משנה תורה, הלכות נדרים י״ג:כ״ה
(כה) אָמְרוּ חֲכָמִים (גמרא נדרים נט א) כָּל הַנּוֹדֵר כְּאִלּוּ בָּנָה בָּמָה“. וְאִם עָבַר וְנָדַר מִצְוָה לְהִשָּׁאֵל עַל נִדְרוֹ כְּדֵי שֶׁלֹּא יְהֵא מִכְשׁוֹל לְפָנָיו.

In Laws of Vows, Chapter 13 law 25 he quotes a Gemara from Nedarim:
“Whoever makes a vow is as if he has built a bamah.”  What is a bamah?  It is a personal altar built in a person’s home or in their city where they would offer sacrifices outside of the Beit haMikdash.  The rise of the bamot was quite problematic and led to much of the idolatry that led to the downfall of the Jews in ancient Israel.

So which one is it – is making a vow something that is praiseworthy or is it something comparable to idolatry? And how do we understand this analogy?

Rav Yehuda Amital, z”l, the founding Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion and whose seventh yarzheit was observed earlier this week, explains:
What is the meaning of this comparison? A bama represents a person’s desire to depart from the standard route of worship in the Temple in order to establish his personal, alternate route. Likewise, self-imposed prohibitions taken on through vows also represent a retreat from the normal world of mitzvot; the person adopts an additional track through which to worship God. Rather than remaining content with the mitzvot that God gave, the person chooses the Torah-sanctioned track of vows, thereby isolating himself from the standard world of avodat Hashem (divine service).  (http://etzion.org.il/en/vows-and-stringencies-going-beyond-halakha)

He then tells an interesting to illustrate his point:
I once rode in a car with a student in the Yeshiva who is now an important rabbi. I turned to him and remarked: “I would wager that you wear an especially large garment on which to place the tzitzit.” “Rebbe,” he responded, “how did you know?” I answered, “Since the Mishna Berura writes that a God-fearing person should don a larger garment, I assume that you see fit to heed his words. I, on the other hand, do not fancy myself to be in that exclusive category, and therefore am satisfied wearing a smaller garment.”

Hashem has given us a tremendous gift with the laws of vows – a recognition that sometimes we need extra motivation or inspiration.  Sometimes the normal channels of Halacha don’t work for us.  And we all experience this need for external factors to motivate or inspire us.  But we can’t allow that to become the norm for us.  We can’t become overly dependent on them either.

Soccer or Basketball?

Chag sameach.  We are in the midst of somewhat of a revolution. It is nothing as radical or historical as some of the other great revolutions in history, but it is still of some significance.  I am referring to soccer becoming one of the most popular sports in America.

I was recently made aware of a very interesting book which offers a fascinating way of looking at the world.  I have not read it yet, but it is at the top of my list.  The book is called The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer is Wrong, written by Chris Anderson – a former professional goalkeeper and now an Ivy League Economics professor) and David Sally a behavioral economist at Dartmouth.

One of the key theories in the book is that soccer is a weak-link game.  What this means is that a team’s success or failure will be determined by its weakest player.

What matters more if you want to build a really great soccer team – how good your best player is or how good your worst player is?  In soccer, what matters most is how good your worst player is.

David Sally, one of the authors explains: “Soccer is a game where if you get a single goal, if you just happen to get lucky, that goal might hold up.  And so mistakes turn out to be a very important part of soccer as a team sport.  That leads you to think about, ‘Well mistakes more often happen or are more often produced by weaker players on the pitch.”

Sally and Anderson did a statistical analysis.  They looked at the top soccer clubs in Europe and showed that if those teams upgraded their poorest players instead of their best players, they would score more goals and win more games.  A lot more.

“having a better superstar was of course better.  But having a better end of the bench or 11th guy on the pitch was actually more influential to whether you won matches or not.”

This is the exact opposite of basketball.  What matters in basketball is not how good your fifth player is, it’s how good your superstar is.  It’s a strong link game.  Think about basketball and whoever your favorite player is/was:  Michael Jordan, Lebron James, Larry Bird, Jerry West.  Any one of them could take over a game at will.  They didn’t even have to pass it to their teammates if they didn’t want.

As we prepare to say yizkor, and stand on the cusp of Simchat Torah, I find this discussion of weak link and strong link scenarios to be quite relevant.  

Rav Yitzchak Hutner, whose explanation of Yosef being freed from jail and learning a new language, we explored on Shabbos Shuva brings an interesting story in his volume of Pachad Yitzchak on Sukkot.  Pachad Yitzchak, Sukkos no. 57-Tells the story of the Chiddushei HaRim who watched two students dancing on Simchas Torah and predicted one student to tire before the other. He explained that one was dancing for the Torah he had learned up to this point.  The second was dancing for the Torah he would learn in the future. There is a limit to the past but there is no limit to what there is in the future.

With this in mind, we very much are the link in the chain bridging the Torah, the commitment to Judaism of the past with that of the future.  And this is felt most strongly during yizkor.  When we recall the memory of our loved ones who are no longer with us and accept the responsibility of passing on their values to our children and grandchildren.

The question to ponder is whether Judaism is a weak link phenomenon or a strong link phenomenon.  Is Judaism best preserved and passed on to the next generation through emphasizing the “superstars”/elite or is it best preserved by emphasizing the weakest link – by ensuring that EVERYONE has a part in Torah.  Should we treat Judaism and our Jewish heritage more like soccer or more like basketball?

Simchat Torah, more than any other holiday offers a resounding answer to this question.  We are absolutely a weak-link religion.  On Simchat Torah everyone gets to hold the Torah and dance with the Torah.  Everyone is called to the Torah for an Aliyah.

One of the central pesukim from the reading of Simchat Torah is

Deuteronomy 33:4 דברים פרק לג

 (ד) תּוֹרָה צִוָּה לָנוּ מֹשֶׁה מוֹרָשָׁה קְהִלַּת יַעֲקֹב:

When Moses charged us with the Torah/ As the heritage of the congregation of Jacob

The Talmud and Midrashic tradition offer two explanations of what it means that Torah is a מורשה (heritage).

On the one hand we find in Shemot Rabbah 33:7 and in Yalkut Shimoni

אל תקרי מורשה אלא ירושה

As an inheritance, we passively receive Torah.  We need not do anything to stake our claim in it.  We have no choice in the manner.

But the Gemara in Brachot 57a, Pesachim 49b has a different read:

אל תקרי מורשה אלא מאורסה

As a betrothal, following the metaphor of a marriage, we must work to strengthen and solidify our relationship to Torah and yidishkeit.

The Sefat Emet maintains that both readings are true.  Torah is an inheritance to us and it is also a betrothal.  We must honor both if it is truly to become our מורשה.

One of the ways to deal with a weak-link issue is to use the Kohler effect.  Kohler conducted experiments on members of a rowing club.

First, he tested how long each standing rower could, while holding and curling a bar connected to a weight of about 90 pounds, keep the weight from touching the floor.
Then he doubled the weight, paired the rowers and tested how long they could curl the heavier bar together. This is a weak-link task because the weight was too great for any single person to hold up: the 180 pounds would hit the floor when the weaker partner’s biceps gave out. Köhler found that weaker rowers would endure significantly longer when they were paired than when they were solo. In doing so, he had isolated one of the key characteristics of psychology: the gain in enthusiasm and effort and perseverance that comes from being on a team.

The Köhler effect occurs because weak links work harder to keep up, whether in an attempt to match their more talented colleagues or because they think their role is just as essential. These two factors are equally important in helping improve a weak link.

I have spent a lot of time talking about the voice initiative.  I sent a letter over the shul listserv right before Shabbos.  I will not go into all the details now, other than to say that I can think of no better way to show our commitment to creating opportunities for everyone to contribute and to strengthen each person’s knowledge, commitment and ability to contribute.

Chag Sameach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Contemporary Ushpizin: Shimon Peres

I have been listening to a really great podcast called “Presidential”  (https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/business/presidential-podcast/) .  They started it 44 weeks before the election and each week talk about a different president.  One of the host’s go-to questions that she asks every week is “What would it be like to be set up on a date with this president?”  It helps her interviews to think about the person in a very different way.

In the episode on Abraham Lincoln, one of the Lincoln experts that was interviewed said something really interesting.  She said that there are certainly lots of really big, important questions that she would love to ask Lincoln:

  • What would you have done in your second term had you not been assassinated? How would reconstruction have looked under your leadership?
  • What do you think of the state of racial relations in the US today?
  • Etc.

But if given the chance to have dinner, or a date with Lincoln, this expert would simply say, “Mr. Lincoln, can you please tell me a story?”  Because it was through his stories and his ability to captivate that Lincoln was truly unique.  And that is how one could best experience Lincoln.

I want to use this as a way to introduce the topic of Ushpizin – the historical, imagined guests that we invite to join us in the sukkah each day of the holiday.  Traditionally we symbolically invite a great figure from Jewish history to share the meal with us – Avraham, Yitzchak, Ya’akov, Yosef, Aharon, Moshe and David.  Many have added the custom to invite female counterparts to join us as well.

And today I would like to focus on a more recent “ushpiz” historical figure that I would love to be able to share a meal with.  That person is Shimon Peres, who of course recently passed away after a remarkable career serving the State of Israel in so many different capacities.

I will always think of Peres in terms of some unique circumstances around his funeral.  My brother works for the State of New York and was supposed to be part of the governor’s delegation to attend the funeral.  But at the last minute Gov. Cuomo was unable to attend the funeral because of the train crash that happened in Hoboken.  So my brother went by himself representing the State of New York.  That in itself is pretty cool, but after the funeral and Shabbat when my brother was supposed to fly home and then come spend Rosh Hashanah with us in Baltimore, the El Al pilots decided to go on strike.  So my poor brother was stuck spending Rosh Hashanah in Jerusalem on El Al’s dime.

Anyway, I want to share some thoughts and reflections about Peres and hopefully connect them to Sukkot.

One of Peres’ most impressive accomplishments was his ability to secure arms for the fledgling State of Israel in 1948, and perhaps even more impressive, his role in Israel to achieve nuclear capacities in 1948.  I share with you a description from Ari Shavit’s book My Promised Land.  Shavit is a very outspoken leftist journalist in Israel.  I do not agree with most of what he says, but his book was a really enlightening and sometimes painful read.  But no matter what you think of Shavit or his politics, his chapter describing Israel’s ascent to nuclear power is amazing.  As he writes:

Ari Shavit My Promised Land.  “The Project, 1967”

In 1956, only three nations possessed nuclear weapons: The US, The USSR and the UK.  Even France would produce and assemble a nuclear bomb only four years later.  In contrast to those wealthy countries, the Israel of 1956 was a fragile immigrant state of 1.8 million people not yet capable of manufacturing even transistor radios.  The mere thought that this tiny, weak nation would succeed in obtaining nuclear capabilities seemed audacious, megalomaniacal; even unhinged. And yet the founder of the Jewish State [Ben Gurion] was adamant: Israel must acquire a nuclear option… (p. 178)

There was actually much internal disagreement among the Cabinet whether Israel should pursue nuclear capacities.

Shavit continues:

Ben Gurion remained undeterred. In the summer of 1956, he sent his sorcerer’s apprentice, Shimon Peres, to Paris to wield his wand. Improbably the director general of the Defense Ministry got what he came for.  He deftly manipulated the anti-Arab sentiment of the Suez era and the pro-Jewish sentiment of a decade after Vichy, and he appealed to the bruised patriotic ego over Algeria, the demise of colonialism, and the decline of Europe.  In a very short time, the thirty-three-year-old graduate of the Ben Shemen Youth Village School – a student of the pacifist Siefgried Lehmann – pulled off one of the greatest strategic feats of the postwar years, persuading a major European power to give a minor Middle Easter nation its own nuclear option…Ben Gurion’s vision, Peres’s cunning, and the diligent work of a few other Israelis who joined Peres in Paris convinced France to place in Israel’s hands the modern ages’ Prometheus ‘fire.  For the first time in history, the Jews could have the ability to annihilate other peoples.  (p. 179)

It is just amazing to think that Peres was able to do.

Another interesting thing about Peres, and this is something that was really news to me.  I grew up with my first memories of him in the 1990’s when he and Yitzchak Rabin were championing the Peace Process.  But Peres and Rabin were actually bitter rivals for most of their lives.  They hated each other.  One of the miracles of the Peace Process is that they were able to work together.

Over Yom Kippur I read a story from Yehuda Avner’s book The Prime Ministers.  The author served as a top advisor to seven Israeli prime ministers.  In 1977 he was a top advisor to Rabin when Rabin had to resign as prime minister over a controversy involving Rabin’s wife opening illegal bank accounts.  Peres was going to take over the premiership.  Yehuda Avner got word that Peres would offer him a job as advisor, but he confided to Rabin that he would not accept the job because of his loyalty to Rabin.  “It is too difficult under the circumstances.”  To which Rabin responded:

“Shtuyot!”  Rubbish!  You were never involved in my differences with Shimon Peres, and I’m not going to let you get involved now.”

“That’s easier said than done,” I muttered.

“Maybe, but by what moral right will you say to the next prime minister of Israel that you refuse to work for him because of me?  If Shimon Peres as the same view of you as I do – and I think he has – that’s all that matters.  Must everything be a matter of personal allegiances?  What about the country?  What about the people?  You have no right to refuse him.  You’re not a politician, you’re a civil servant.  Keep it that way.” (334)

This story ties in so well with the holiday of Sukkot.  When we sit in the Sukkah we are making a statement that our material possessions are not that important.  We are far more concerned with our relationship with Hashem and keeping our priorities straight.  So we leave the comfort of our home and we live in the sukkah for a week.

This same attitude was true for Rabin, Peres and the entire “founding generation.”  They were able to maintain a sense of the big picture and do what was right.  It was that ability to keep priorities straight that helped Peres become the great leader that he was.

[Another aspect of Peres that has gotten a lot of coverage is his unending optimism.  As President Obama remarked in his eulogy:

Shimon Peres reminds us that the State of Israel, like the United States of America, was not built by cynics. We exist because people before us refused to be constrained by the past or the difficulties of the present. And Shimon Peres was never cynical. It is that faith, that optimism, that belief — even when all the evidence is to the contrary — that tomorrow can be better, that makes us not just honor Shimon Peres, but love him.

This too connects very powerfully to the idea of the Sukkah.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that the Sukkah serves as a powerful and apt symbol for the Jewish experience through most of history.  We are familiar with the notion of the “wandering Jew.” For most of our history we were without a permanent home, and we had to be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice.  As Rabbi Sacks writes:

“Sitting in the sukkah underneath its canopy of leaves I often think of my ancestors and their wanderings across Europe in search of safety…”

He continues and says with this in mind, it would have made much more sense for the Sukkah to be associated with sadness and difficulty of life in galut.  But that of course, is not the case.  Rather we celebrate Sukkot as זמן שמחתנו – the time of our rejoicing.  This is because, as he explains, the Sukkah

“in all its vulnerability symbolizes faith: the faith of a people who set out long ago on a risk-laden journey across a desert of space and time with no more protection than the sheltering divine presence.”

Rather than get depressed over his ancestors’ search for safety, Rabbi Sacks begins to understand that the Sukkah emphasizes that “faith was their only home.  It was fragile, chillingly exposed to the storms of prejudice and hate. But it proved stronger than empires. Their faith survived. The Jewish people has outlived all its persecutors.”

So much like the Sukkah, Peres’ life and his outlook teach us that we have reason to be optimistic and to trust in a better future even when the present circumstances seem dire.]

I want to conclude with one more piece of Peres’ legacy.  A friend of mine from college, Michael Koplow is a writer and thinker about Israel.  He serves as the policy direct of the Israel Policy Forum.  He wrote a very insightful reflection on Peres’ life where he notes that much of Peres’ life was marked by failure.  Peres never won an election for Prime Minister and was only chosen as President because the Knesset, and not the general public made that decision.  When Peres was Prime Minister (following Rabin’s resignation in the 1970’s and Rabin’s assassination in the 1990’s), Peres did not win reelection in what should have been slam dunk victories.  My friend Michal Koplow wrote:

Rather than become the Adlai Stevenson of Israel, he became the Shimon Peres of Israel. He understood that failure was something that you overcome rather than something that defines you…By all rights, Peres should have disappeared from Israel’s political scene decades ago, yet the more time went on and the more electoral losses he racked up, the more influential and visionary he became…

Peres will go down as one of history’s greatest dreamers, but he was able to dream big because he was willing to stand on the rubble of his own previous failures of imagination.  (https://ottomansandzionists.com/2016/09/28/the-legacy-of-shimon-peres/)

This brings us to the final Sukkot connection.  Yesterday Gavi Gershowitz asked how it is that we can rejoice on Sukkot when it comes right on the heels of Yom Kippur when we have spent all day doing viduy and confessing our sins.

Some of you may have seen, on Yom Kippur I made available copies of Rabbi Avi Weiss’ speech in which he offered a viduy (confession) for all the good things we did in the previous year.  Indeed Yom Kippur can be depressing if we see the viduy as a means of beating ourselves up for all the mistakes we have committed.  For some people this approach works and is quite powerful, but for many it just leaves a bad taste with no constructive outlet.

The other approach though is to use our mistakes as opportunities to learn, grow and change.  This is the enduring legacy of Shimon Peres.  He could have easily got hung up on his failings and been bitter and depressed.  But that was not his reaction.  Peres used his many failures as growth and learning opportunities.  He became better as a leader and as a person because of them.

This is what we do on Sukkot.  The midrash comments that we leave Yom Kippur unsure of the verdict that was passed.  But on Sukkot we carry our lulav and etrog and proudly march through the streets like soldiers bearing arms.  We are confident and we are upbeat.

There is so much more to say about Shimon Peres but our time for now is done.  Perhaps we can all symbolically invite him to our tables for lunch today and continue the conversation.

 

Satisfaction Guaranteed

Good Yom Tov.

There is certainly much to talk about.  After the latest developments in the presidential race, I am sure that there are many rabbis wishing they had waited until the last minute to write their Yom Kippur sermon.

I will not comment on when I wrote this one, but I want to speak about something far more important and much closer to my heart.  My slippers.

Yes, it is Yom Kippur and we are not allowed to wear leathers shoes, and I will touch on this in a couple of minutes.  But the reason I chose to speak to you about my slippers runs much deeper.

I have had my slippers for 7 or 8 years and I have worn them so much that at this point they are no longer really wearable.  There is a huge hole in the toes of one of them and the sole of the other has worn through in at least two spots.  But I can’t bring myself to get rid of them.

And here’s the kicker, every time I look at my slippers or put them on for what has to be the last time, I experience a serious moral dilemma.  Because if I wanted to I could easily get myself a new pair of the exact same slippers for free.

You see, the slippers were made by LL Bean.  And that means that they come with what the company affectionately calls, “The Guarantee.”

I recently heard a report about the LL Bean guarantee.

Within the company, it’s not so much policy as sacred foundational text. It’s printed on every receipt and on the store’s website. It reads, “Our products are guaranteed to give 100% satisfaction in every way. Return anything purchased from us at any time if it proves otherwise.”

I know that I can walk into any store, or send the slippers in the mail and I will get a brand new pair, no questions asked.

The report interviewed a number of people who work at the returns desk of LL Bean’s flagship store in Freeport, ME.  Here are some of my favorite stories they shared.

  • There were people who brought back a living room chair because they’d done a bad job strapping the chair to their car, so when it fell off and broke in the middle of the highway, they were upset. Or maybe they’d call it dissatisfied.
  • An older gentleman who brought some extremely worn out shirts, and t-shirts. He began the exchange by saying “I love these.  Can they be repaired?”  When Cindy Wilson, the customer service agent explains that they can’t repair the shirts but they’d be happy to give him credit for new shirts, he says “Thank you very much.” As an afterthought the sales representative asked for how long had the shirts.  “40 years” was the answer.
  • Dog collars that are returned because the person’s dog died
  • The band Phish put on a three-day show in the tiny northern town of Limestone, Maine, and 60,000 people showed up for it. It seemed like all 60,000 stopped at LL Bean on their way up to get tents, sleeping bags, stoves and whatever else they needed.  And all of them came back at the end of the concert to return their gear for a full refund.
  • But here’s the part that really got me. Jonathan Woodword, one of the salespeople described the massive amounts of slippers that are returned to the store:

“These truly disintegrating pieces of animal hide and fur that have been exposed to their feet for years and years and years of wandering around, the hide is all shiny, the shearling is totally mustard colored and damp and matted. And it smells like four years of somebody’s toes.
They put them in front of you and they say, I want to return these. And there’s no question you can ask that would– there’s no question like, don’t you think that you might have gotten enough use out of these to warrant buying some new ones? I mean, Nikes fall apart in a year, but you don’t even ask that. You just look at them and your face is totally neutral. And their face is totally neutral. And you’re going to both agree that the normal rules of retail interaction do not apply in this situation.”

As the reporter observes: it is so clear that the slippers are being returned “not because the customer wasn’t satisfied with them, but because the customer clearly loved them.”

And hence my dilemma.  I love my slippers.  If I could I would wear them for another 10 years, at least.  I cannot say that I am not satisfied with them.  But knowing that The Guarantee exists, I would feel like a total sucker if I bought a new pair knowing that I could have had it for free.

Many have pointed out that we live in a consumer society.  This is certainly seen in the world of religion and the synagogue.  Our generation is one that wants to know “what’s in it for me?” Even among the most traditionally minded, the fact is that the congregants vote with their feet.  If the rabbi says one thing to upset someone, or the president neglects to mention the graduation of Mrs. Cohen’s 7th grandchild from pre-school, that might be serious reason for someone to not come back to shul the next week.  We are a generation that needs instant satisfaction.

But the notion of satisfaction is not so cut and dry.

To give one poignant example. The Torah records:

Deuteronomy 14:22 דברים פרק יד:כב

עַשֵּׂר תְּעַשֵּׂר אֵת כָּל תְּבוּאַת זַרְעֶךָ הַיֹּצֵא הַשָּׂדֶה שָׁנָה שָׁנָה:

Thou shalt surely tithe all the increase of thy seed, that which is brought forth in the field year by year.

The Gemara questions the seeming redundancy of the phrase עשר תעשר.

Talmud Ta’anit 8b-9תלמוד בבלי תענית ח:-ט.

+דברים י”ד+ עשר תעשר – עשר בשביל שתתעשר אשכחיה רבי יוחנן לינוקא דריש לקיש, אמר ליה: אימא לי פסוקיך! – אמר ליה: עשר תעשר. אמר ליה: ומאי עשר תעשר? – אמר ליה: עשר בשביל שתתעשר. – אמר ליה: מנא לך? – אמר ליה: זיל נסי. – אמר ליה: ומי שרי לנסוייה להקדוש ברוך הוא? והכתיב +דברים ו’+ לא תנסו את ה’! – אמר ליה: הכי אמר רבי הושעיא: חוץ מזו, שנאמר +מלאכי ג’+ הביאו את כל המעשר אל בית האוצר ויהי טרף בביתי ובחנוני נא בזאת אמר ה’ צבאות אם לא אפתח לכם את ארבות השמים והריקתי לכם ברכה עד בלי די, מאי עד בלי די? אמר רמי בר חמא אמר רב: עד שיבלו שפתותיכם מלומר די. – אמר ליה: אי הות מטי התם להאי פסוקא – לא הוית צריכנא לך ולהושעיא רבך

And R. Yochanan said:  What is the meaning of that which is written tithe you shall tithe?  It teaches: Tithe (aser) so that you will become wealthy (ashir).  R. Yochanan met the young son of Reish Lakish.  R. Yochanan said to him:  “Tell me your verse.”  The boy answered him: Tithe you shall tithe.  The boy then asked:  “What is signified by the double expression [tithe you shall tithe]?”  R. Yochanan answered, “Tithe so that you will become wealthy.”  The boy asked, “From where do you know this?”  He answered, “Go and test it.”  The boy asked, “Is it permitted to test the Holy One, Blessed is He?  Is it not written Do not test the Lord?” (Deuteronomy 6:16).  R. Yochanan answered him:  “Thus said R. Hoshaya: This case is an exception, for it says Bring all the tithes to the storehouse so that there may be food in My house and test Me now through this, says the Lord, Master of Legions, if I will not open for you the windows of the sky and pour out blessing to you without limit” (Malachi 3:10).  What is meant by without limit?  Rami bar Chama said in the name of Rav:  “Until your lips wear out from saying ‘Enough!'”  The boy then said to R. Yochanan:  “If I would have reached that verse I would not have needed you nor Hoshaya your teacher.”

This passage has always troubled me – since when do we give tzedakah in order to become wealthy ourselves?!  And if the goal is to become wealthy, shouldn’t we keep our money rather than give it away?!

Many have wrestled with this question.  One answer is that it is descriptive and not prescriptive.  Giving tzedaka causes one to become wealthy because it gives a greater appreciation of the wealth—or relative wealth that we have.

Another answer – though we can’t make any promises or guarantees, by encouraging people to test the notion of עשר בשביל שתתעשר, R Yochanan insures that more tzedakah will be given.

A final suggestion I’d like to make is that the Gemara is meant to make us feel uncomfortable with the premise, and in doing so helps us to focus on the reasons why we follow Torah and Mitzvot.  We certainly stand to gain from leading a life devoted to Torah.  There are certainly personal benefits from keeping Shabbos, from being part of the Jewish community, etc But at the same time we cannot let our personal gains and benefits be the be all and end all.  We cannot become such strong consumers of Judaism that we come to expect a satisfaction guarantee like so many customers of LL Bean.

We have to realize that Judaism will make difficult demands of us.  And just because we are committed Jews is not a guarantee that life will always be easy or go our way.

Ne’ilat ha-sandal

As promised, I will also discuss the prohibition against נעילת הסנדל.  I’m sure I am not the only one who is bothered by this halacha.  I often wonder what someone on the street would say seeing everyone dressed in their finest yom tov clothing wearing Tevas or Converse All-Stars on their feet.  If we are meant to look like angels on Yom Kippur, how do sneakers help create that image?

Yom Kippur is not the only time we see a direct connection to shoes and spirituality.  The halachah mandates that anybody who went to the Beit ha-Mikdash (Temple in Jerusalem) they had to remove their shoes.  Even the kohanim (priests) who served in the Temple had to remove their shoes.  This practice is still manifest whenever we have birkat Kohanim (the Priestly blessing).  Furthermore, when Hashem appears to Moshe for the first time at the burning bush, God instructs him:

וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אַל־תִּקְרַ֣ב הֲלֹ֑ם שַׁל־נְעָלֶ֙יךָ֙ מֵעַ֣ל רַגְלֶ֔יךָ כִּ֣י הַמָּק֗וֹם אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ עוֹמֵ֣ד עָלָ֔יו אַדְמַת־קֹ֖דֶשׁ הֽוּא׃

“Do not come closer to here, remove your shoes from your feet, for the place upon which you stand is holy ground” (Shemot 3:5).

Many commentators understand the need to remove one’s shoes when entering holy space as an assurance against tracking mud, dirt and spiritual impurity into that space.  But there is a deeper message in this Halachah.  Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that Hashem’s instructions to Moshe to remove his shoes is a directive about Moshe’s own spirituality.  He explains that Hashem said to Moshe: “Instead of trying to find out about a phenomenon that lies beyond your sphere, understand and devote yourself to the loft destiny of the ground upon which you already stand.”  In other words, Moshe’s spiritual yearnings could be satisfied by concentrating on his task in this world.  True spirituality is achieved by focusing on the world around us and what we can achieve in it.  We need not climb to great heights or reach beyond our capacities.  I would argue that the same message is being sent to those worshipping in the Temple.  The Beit ha-Mikdash was a truly unique place, it is wrong to think that spiritual fulfillment is possible only in such a setting.  Rather, by removing our shoes and maintaining constant contact with the ground, we are sent a strong reminder that our spiritual energies must be focused on our life in this world.  Along similar lines, I was shown an insight from Rabbi Yehoshua Baumol, who served as Rabbi of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  Rabbi Baumol was also a founder and the first president of Agudas Yisroel in America.  He writes: “with shoes, humans are undeterred, unaware, unconcerned with what they trample underfoot.  When barefoot, they are sensitive to every blade of grass, pebble.  By divesting themselves of shoes, [they] open up new areas of sensitivity, concerns, empathy…”  The removal of our shoes heightens our awareness of the world around us, and of the little things that would literally be trampled under our feet if we did not have that heightened sensitivity.  Perhaps our feeling of awkwardness at wearing sneakers, Tevas or Crocks with our yom tov attire contributes to this heightened spiritual sensitivity.

A final lesson to be learned from my slippers.  This could be perceived as a question of letter of the law and spirit of the law.  According to the letter of the law, or the company’s carefully crafted satisfaction guarantee, I can bring the slippers back and get a full refund.  No one will question me.  No one will criticize me.  In fact, LL Bean would be happy to fulfill its guarantee with someone like me because I am the type of person who would be so moved by the guarantee as to become a customer for life.

But as we engage in the process of Teshuvah we have to go beyond the letter of the law.

Over Rosh Hashanah we mentioned one of the amazing powers the Shofar has.  Not only does the Shofar move us – humans – to great things.  It inspires us, it instills fear in us, it moves us.

But the shofar has a second, more amazing power – the capacity to move God.  The pasuk in Tehlim says:

Psalms 47:6 תהלים פרק מז:ו

 עָלָה אֱלֹהִים בִּתְרוּעָה יְקֹוָק בְּקוֹל שׁוֹפָר:

God is elevated through the teruah – the Lord through the sound of the Shofar.

The shofar is not the only time in our davening on the yamim nora’im that we mention our capacity to move God.

During this time of year, the third bracha of the amidah – the bracha declaring God’s sanctity and holiness, the bracha of אתה קדוש – is expanded.   We conclude this blessing by recognizing Hashem as המלך הקדוש – the Holy King – in contradistinction to the rest of the year when we recognize Hashem as הקל הקדוש – the Holy God.  We emphasize God’s malchut, His Sovereignty.

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we also add three paragraphs of ובכן.

The additional paragraphs end with the following:

קדוש אתה ונורא שמך, ואין אלוק מבלעדיך, ככתוב ויגבה ה’ צבאות במשפט והקל הקדוש נקדש בצדקה,  ברוך אתה ה’ המלך הקדוש.

Our machzorim translate it as: You are holy and Your Name is awesome, and there is no god other than You, as it is written (Isaiah 5:16):  Hashem Master of Legions will be lofty in judgment, and the holy God will be sanctified in righteousness.  Blessed are You, Hashem, the Holy King.

The verse from Yeshayahu –  ויגבה ה’ צבאות במשפט והקל הקדוש בצדקה can be understood many ways.

I much prefer the following translation (from JPS)

And the Lord of Hosts is exalted by judgment, the Holy One proved holy by retribution/righteousness.

The Malbim comments:

ויגבה ה’ צבאות במשפט – שע”י שישובו לעשות משפט יתרבה ה’ ויוגבה.

 By resolving to do mishpat (justice), God will be elevated.

God is moved and elevated when we see to it that there is משפט and צדקה in the world.

As we focus our efforts on Teshuva and how we can be better people, better friends, better spouses, better children, better parents, we must push ourselves to act לפנים משורת הדין – beyond the letter of the law.  We must internalize a sense of ethics and morality that inspires us and inspires others not to do only that which is within their rights to do, but do the right thing.

Giving Voice to Ourselves; Giving Voice to Others

I recently heard an amazing Podcast.  As soon as I heard it I thought of Rosh Hahanah.  It tells of a woman named Rupal Patel, a speech scientist at Northeastern University in Boston.  She works with people who are speech impaired due to head injuries, congenital disorders like cerebral palsy, or degenerative diseases like ALS. Many of them rely on text-to-speech machines, typing words that are then vocalized electronically.  The most famous person to use such a device is Stephen Hawking.  (The podcast can be found here: http://www.npr.org/2014/03/07/283452215/how-do-you-construct-a-voice.  To read more about Patel, check out the following article: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/12/donate-your-voice-to-charity/383878/)

In August 2002 she was at a conference in Denmark about speech technology.  As she walked through the exhibition hall she noticed a young woman and an older man engaged in conversation.  But their voices sounded exactly the same – they were both using the same text-to-speech system.  Once she was clued in to this one conversation, she noticed that throughout the hall the same thing was repeating itself.  People of all different ages, from different countries, different races were having conversations with each other in the same robotic voice. As Patel explains, “We wouldn’t dream of fitting a little girl with a prosthetic limb of a grown man. So why then the same prosthetic voice?”

In fact, part of her research that had brought her to the conference included the discovery that many people with text-to-speech devices prefer NOT to use the devices because they sound like robots.

This led Patel to found VocaliD (https://www.vocalid.co/), a company that develops personalized voices for people who rely on these devices to speak.  The abridged version of how it works is that Patel records whatever sound the impaired person is able to make – even if it’s as basic as “AHHH.”  Her computer program then searches the company’s voice bank – a database of approximately 14,000 voices to find the best match for the person’s melody– pitch, tempo and volume.  The computer program then takes recorded words and sounds made by the donor voice and overlays it with the melody or the voice DNA of the recipient.  The end result is a customized voice that conveys the recipient’s unique vocal identity.  She is literally helping people to find their voice and giving voice to those who did not have one.

This is a Rosh Hashanah story for two reasons.  The first is allow us to reflect on the joy of finding our own voice. It has been pointed by many that the Shofar is able to give voice to prayers that we cannot articulate.

The Shem MiShmuel (Shmuel Borenstein, 2 November 1856-8 January 1926), the second Sochatchover Rebbe writes:

 

Even though verbal prayer comes from the heart, it becomes “dressed” in the physicality of the mouth, and therefore enters the world of physicality and is therefore not as potent/meritorious as when it left the heart.  But the voice of the shofar is pure and has no physicality.

The sound of the shofar comes straight from the heart and is not adulterated by the physicality/difficulty of translating our most spiritual and emotional yearning into physical words. 

When we use the shofar as the catalyst for prayer and when we attach our prayers to the sound of the shofar then our tefilot are able to ascend up high in their purest form.

 

The Shofarot section of the RH Mussaf concludes:

ברכת שופרות של ר”ה מוסף

כי אתה שומע קול שופר ומאזין תרועה ואין דומה לך ברוך אתה ה’ שומע קול תרועת עמו ישראל ברחמים

For You hear the sond of the shofar and Yu give ear to the teruah and none is comparable to You.  Blessed are You, Hashem, Who hears the shofar sound of His people Israel with mercy.

Yitzchak Mirsky in Hegyonei Halachah Vol. II explains:

אין דומה לך – אתה לבדך מבין מקולות השופר את תפילת עמך ואין דומה לך בזה

None is comparable to You – You alone understand from the sound of the shofar the prayers of your nation.  And there is none like You in this.

The shofar brings out prayers that only God can understand.  Even we who utter those prayers do not always understand them.   And it is the prayer, the hopes and dreams that are brought out by the shofar that represent our true selves.  Who we really are.

The second reason the story of VocaliD resonates with me is that it tells of one of our key missions: to give voice to others.

In the podcast we are introduced to Shannon Ward, a 13-year old girl with Cerebral Palsy.  She was the recipient of a voice created by Rupal Patel and VocaliD.  When asked if the new voice changed her, Shannon’s mother answered:

WARD: Absolutely. It just increased her confidence, it increased her desire to want to use her device. I know, personally, that she loves to talk with her friends more. She stands out, and I think people take her differently when they hear a voice that sounds like a 13-year-old girl as opposed to a voice that sounds like a robot of an adult.

RAZ: OK, you have a 13-year-old daughter. She is now a teenager. If she’s talking more, is she arguing more with you?

WARD: Absolutely. I know it might sound so bizarre, but there are times I’m like, can we unplug the device for a little bit because I have a kid that does not stop.

One of my favorite teachings comes from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.  It is actually hanging on the wall of our home:  דע לך שכל רועה ורועה יש לו ניגון מיוחד משלו.  Each and every Jew has his or her own unique song.  This is true of every Jew – each one of us has unique life experiences, a unique set of skills and a unique perspective.  We therefore each have a unique song – a unique set of praise to offer Hashem.  Not only must we focus on our song and how we approach Hashem as individuals, but we also must make a commitment to helping others find their voice.

Thank God, we are blessed to be part of a shul community that takes this seriously.  In a few moments Avishye Moskowitz will serve as our ba’al tokeah.  You would be hard-pressed to find another shul where a 9th grader is trusted – and encouraged – to take on this awesome task.  Our shul values hearing the voices and perspectives of others and creates opportunities for this to happen.

Let me share one more thought.  The genius of what Rupal Patel is to make the voice match the body from which it comes.  The same is true for us and the voice of the shofar.  The shofar has the capacity to bring out our deepest yearnings, desires, hopes and aspirations.  And throughout the yamim nora’im there are sure to be moments when we make promises to ourselves to be better.  Where we commit to do more.  Where we will feel genuine remorse for having come up short in one area or another.

And those promises, commitments, feelings of regret are real.  But we also know that they will not last.  We may make a commitment to attend minyan regularly, but what will happen the first time we have a late night the night before?  We promise that we will get more involved in the shul or other organizations in the community.  But when we get that call to join a committee or help plan an event, we really want to say yes but this is just not the right time.  There is so much going on.  We really want to invite a new family over for Shabbos, or someone we haven’t had over….The list goes on and on.

When we have those moments of despair and disappointment, there are two things to keep in mind. Knowing that this will happen, we may feel like hypocrites when we make promises to ourselves on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  But we have to keep in mind that the promises of RH and YK were real.  Those are the reflections of who we really are.  Our challenge the rest of the year is live up to that best version of ourselves.  It is when we fail to live up to the promises that we are hypocrites.

With this in mind, I’d like to conclude with an amazing teaching from another Chasidic master, the Kotzker.

Rabbi Menachem Mendle of Kotzk once put this question to his students:  what was the hardest part of the Akedah for Abraham?  Was it the initial call, the long walk to Moriah, or the binding?  His answer:  the hardest part was coming down the mountain.

In peak moments of our lives, the immediacy, the rush of adrenaline, often carries us through.  What happens afterward is the true test of sincerity, for afterwards we must live with the consequences of our actions.  Are we faithful to those peak moments?  Do we forget them, or disregard them?

 

The prayers, promises and regrets that emerge during shofar blowing are real; they reflect who we really are.  With that in mind, we owe it to ourselves and to our loved ones to make sure we have a plan to “come down from the mountain.”  To set up our lives so that we are able to realize these expressions of ourselves.

 

As we prepare for tekiat shofar, it is with the bracha that the sounds of the Shofar help us to find our own, unique voice and that it gives us the courage and insight to help others find theirs.  שנה טובה.

Moral Outrage -Then and Now

Over the Labor Day weekend I read a fascinating article about the controversy that is brewing a little ways up the road from us in Frederick, MD (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/05/us/he-denied-blacks-citizenship-now-a-city-is-deciding-his-statues-fate.html?_r=0).  For 85 years the city has displayed a bronze bust of one of its own who left a significant mark on US history – He was the Chief Justice of Supreme Court and wrote the majority opinion on one of the court’s most famous and important decisions.  Wouldn’t any city be proud to honor such a person.  The problem in Frederick is that the Supreme Court Justice was Roger Brooke Taney (I always thought it is TAE-nee, but apparently the correct pronunciation is TAW-nee).  He is best known as the author of the majority opinion in the Dred Scot case, the landmark 1857 decision in which Blacks –even free Blacks —  were denied the right to be citizens.  The decision was seen as instrumental in the Southern States’ efforts to expand slavery and was one of the catalysts of the Civil War.  Many consider it to be the worst ruling ever issued by the Supreme Court.

Despite the controversy surrounding Taney’s legact, the city of Frederick still honored its native son with the statue perched in front of city hall.  But in October 2015 the Board of Aldermen gave in to the protests that had been mounting for years, and voted unanimously to remove the statue from its place in front of City Hall and find a less prominent place to display it – a museum or something similar.  But now they have a bigger problem.  In the midst of the debate over the statue, someone poured red paint on it.  And now they can’t give the statue away.  As the NYT reports:

“In a thus-far fruitless effort to fulfill the board’s wish that the statue not be “stuck in someone’s attic,” the mayor’s office has been scouring the local landscape for someone, anyone, willing to publicly display a 30-inch bust of a vilified chief justice. The city will also throw in the four-foot-high granite base — and will pay the moving costs.”

The city of Frederick is not alone in confronting these difficult questions.

All of these cases raise two important questions:

The first question, which is a fascinating one to explore, but not for today is that of “presentism” – the phenomenon of judging historical figures based on current moral standards?  Should be we be more lenient when assessing the actions of historical figures who lived in different times?

The second question, which I will focus on today, and which has a direct connection to our Parsha is: How do we relate to wrongs perpetuated by others?

The Torah addresses this at the very end of Parshat Shoftim with the curious ritual of the eglah arufah.  (Devarim 21:1-9)

The Torah describes the situation when a corpse is found on the road in between two cities.  No one knows how the corpse got there or who killed him/her.  We are instructed to measure to the closes city and the elders of that city perform a ritual where they behead a heifer that has not been worked at all on land that has not been worked and declare:

יָדֵ֗ינוּ לֹ֤א שפכה [שָֽׁפְכוּ֙] אֶת־הַדָּ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה וְעֵינֵ֖ינוּ לֹ֥א רָאֽוּ׃

“Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done.

Rashi quotes the Gemara in Sota 46b which asks the obvious question:

וכי עלתה על לב שזקני בית דין שופכי דמים הם

Does anyone really think that the elders of the Beit Din are murderers?!

So what is going on here?  Why the need to declare their innocence and ask for atonement?

The Torah tells us that the ceremony takes place in a נחל איתן which Rashi translates as

 אל נחל איתן. קשה, שלא נעבד:

Rough, rocky land which has never been worked.

Rabbi Yaakov Medan, one of the Rashei Yeshiva at the Yeshivat Har Etzion explains that the ceremony:

is a statement on the part of the participants that the blood of the victim must not be drawn into the ground, to be absorbed and forgotten. The corpse should really remain exposed as a sign and never be buried, in order to serve as a permanent reminder for the people to continually examine themselves and their degree of responsibility for the murder. Since in practical terms this would violate the dignity of the dead, the Torah prescribes the egla arufa as a “compromise” – but its blood must not be absorbed in the ground. (http://etzion.org.il/en/atonement-egla-arufa)

The Chizkuni has a very different understanding of נחל איתן, but agrees with the basic thrust of the message.  Chizkuni translates it as נהר איתן – a strong rushing river.  Rav Medan explains:

This would be a fertile area, with fields suitable for cultivation. But once the egla arufa is brought here – “it shall not be ploughed, nor sown.” When the murder was perpetrated, the ground absorbed the victim’s blood. A sin was committed against the ground: it was used, so to speak, in the course of a despicable act. It is for the sin against the ground that the egla arufa is brought, and this ground will no longer cooperate in bringing forth produce.

In other words, the detail of נחל איתן emphasizes that the murder of this nameless victim cannot go unnoticed.

Nechama Leibowitz’s explanation of the ritual resonates very strongly with me given the cycle of events that fill our newsfeeds.

“We know too well the indifference that prevails among people regarding the miseries of others.  Anyone hearing of a murder, either then or now, would shake his head, go his own way and the world would continue as before.”  The goal of the eglah arufah ceremony was “to shock all redisents of the neighboring localities with the tidings that a murdered man had been found in the vicinity.”

We must recognize a tragedy when it strikes.  We cannot allow ourselves to become desensitized to troubling news and events.  And we must recognize the infinite value of each human being.

Unfortunately, our ancestors were not able to maintain the sensitivity and sense of outrage that the Torah demands.  The Gemara in Sotah 47a reports:

משרבו הרוצחין בטלה עגלה ערופה

When the murderers increased the rite of the beheaded heifer was abolished.

And it is through this perspective that I return to the story of Chief Justic Taney, President Woodrow Wilson and Curly Byrd.

On the one hand we must recognize the infinite worth of every individual – even, or especially those who were marginalized by society.  It is right and proper to be upset over the wrongdoings of the past even if we had no direct part in it and even if we have no benefit.  As humans, we should be deeply concerned.  And so just like the נחל איתן where the eglah arufah ceremony took place shows that society must recognize injustices carried out we too have a responsibility to recognize the injustices that have been carried out and continue to be carried out.

I would like to conclude with the words of Dr. John J. DeGioia, president of Georgetown University, explaining the decision to try and make amends for the school’s participation in the slave trade.  His words very much embody the spirit of the eglah arufah:

“This community participated in the institution of slavery, This original evil that shaped the early years of the Republic was present here. We have been able to hide from this truth, bury this truth, ignore and deny this truth.”
“As a community and as individuals, we cannot do our best work if we refuse to take ownership of such a critical part of our history.  We must acknowledge it.”  Good Shabbos.

 

 

Channeling Our Inner Pinchas

For the past few weeks, every time we’ve come together on Shabbos there has been one tragedy after another that we’ve had to commemorate.  It has been a very difficult few weeks as terror and tragedy have struck time and again.  This week we are, thank God, able to celebrate something remarkable.  It is no coincidence that Hillary Clinton was nominated as the first woman candidate from one of he major political parties the same week that we read the story of בנות צלפחד – Tzlophchad’s daugthers who are among the earliest female heroines of the Bible.  They complained to Moshe that it was not fair that they would lose out on an inheritance of the land of Israel simply because their father had only daughters and no girls.  Many see them as the original feminists.

Regardless where you stand on politics – and I’m sure there will be plenty of time to discuss our political gripes and leniencies in the coming months, it is certainly worth pausing to appreciate the greatness of this moment.  A friend made the observation that in the life of our children there is a very real possibility that they will only know of a Black president and a woman president.  And that is something worth thinking about and celebrating.

But this morning I want to talk about something else.    I want to share an amazing story that I recently heard.  It was told by a woman named Auburn Sandstrom and takes place in 1992.   I heard it on the Moth podcast (https://themoth.org/stories/a-phone-call)  Auburn was addicted to drugs and was in a very dark place.  Her husband  — also an addict – had gone out in search of more drugs.  Auburn would have joined him in the quest except that she was stuck at home, “taking care” of their baby son, but as she says, she was certainly not in the running for mother of the year at that point.  Auburn was going through terrible withdrawal and had hit what felt like rock bottom.  She describes her downfall from a privileged girl whose parents were always there to take care of her, replenish her bank account when it is empty, paid for her college and graduate education.  In the years since she has turned to drugs she has essentially been cut off from her parents.  Her last tangible connection is a phone number her mother sent her for a Christian counselor.  “since you can’t talk to anyone else, maybe you can talk to this person.”  So at 2:00am Auburn finally musters the courage to call the counselor.

She dials the number and after a few rings a man picks up.  “Hi, I got this number from my mother.  Do you think you could maybe talk to me?”  She hears him sit up in bed, pull the sheets around himself, turn off the TV or radio that was playing in the background and he said, “Yes.  What’s going on?”  For the first time, Auburn was able to be totally honest about how desperate her life had become as she shared her story with the man on the phone.  She admitted that she had a drug problem, that her husband was at times abusive, that she was scared.  The man stayed on the phone with her all night until the sun rose.  As the call was coming to an end she felt like she had the strength to at least make it through one more day.  And as they are about to hang up, Auburn says, “Hey, I know you’re a Christian counselor.  Do you want me to read any verses in the Bible, or talk about religion or something?”  He tried to brush it off and said “I’m glad this was helpful,” but Auburn insisted.  At which point the man said: “I’ve been trying to avoid this, and I need you to promise that you won’t hang up….That number you called.  Wrong number.”

She didn’t hang up.  She never learned his name or take any of his advice.  But that conversation helped her to turn a corner.  As she tells it, “I had experienced that there was random love in the universe, and that some of it was unconditional and that some of it was for me.”

As I heard this story, I was filled with tremendous admiration for this anonymous man on the other end of the phone.  How would I react if I got a call at 2:00am from a total stranger who is drugged out and claims to have gotten my number from her mother?  I’d probably yell at her, hang up the phone, while praying that none of my kids or my wife were bothered by the call.  I might even curse her under my breath.

How would each of you react?  No one would hold it against me, you, or even the man on the phone.

Yet hearing how the story turns out, I so desperately want to think that I wouldn’t have had the knee jerk reaction of getting angry and hanging up.  I want to think that I too would have been able to help the desperate woman on the other end to literally save her life.  The man on the phone displayed what I will refer to as a Pinchas moment.

Who was Pinchas, and what is a Pinchas moment?

Pinchas is described as a קנאי – a zealot.  He witnesses a Jewish leader sinning by having sexual relations with a non-Jewish woman in public, in front of the Mishkan.  Pinchas rises to action and kills the two of them.  For this he is praised.

פִּֽינְחָ֨ס בֶּן־אֶלְעָזָ֜ר בֶּן־אַהֲרֹ֣ן הַכֹּהֵ֗ן הֵשִׁ֤יב אֶת־חֲמָתִי֙ מֵעַ֣ל בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּקַנְא֥וֹ אֶת־קִנְאָתִ֖י בְּתוֹכָ֑ם וְלֹא־כִלִּ֥יתִי אֶת־בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בְּקִנְאָתִֽי׃ לָכֵ֖ן אֱמֹ֑ר הִנְנִ֨י נֹתֵ֥ן ל֛וֹ אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֖י שָׁלֽוֹם׃ וְהָ֤יְתָה לּוֹ֙ וּלְזַרְע֣וֹ אַחֲרָ֔יו בְּרִ֖ית כְּהֻנַּ֣ת עוֹלָ֑ם תַּ֗חַת אֲשֶׁ֤ר קִנֵּא֙ לֵֽאלֹהָ֔יו וַיְכַפֵּ֖ר עַל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

“Phinehas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion. Say, therefore, ‘I grant him My pact of friendship. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.’” (Numbers 25:11-13)

Yet the rabbis are not fully comfortable with Pinchas and the idea of zealotry.  The Gemara (Sanhedrin 81b) that even though the Halacha is that in certain cases קנאין פוגעין בו – zealots may punish him, if someone asks what to do in one of those situations we do not instruct him to mete out punishment -.    הבא לימלך – אין מורין לו.  Furthermore, had Pinchas waited even one second longer to kill Zimri and Kozbi, he would have been deserving of death.  Had Zimri – the Jewish man engaged in the act of sin – turned around and killed Pinchas, he would have been justified.

As Maimonides writes in Hichot Issurei Bi’ah 12:5

וְאֵין הַקַּנַּאי רַשַּׁאי לִפְגֹּעַ בָּהֶן אֶלָּא בִּשְׁעַת מַעֲשֶׂה כְּזִמְרִי

The zealot is only permitted to punish them during the act of sin, as in the case of Zimri.

In our day, we are unfortunately witnessing the danger of zealotry is real.

It is also worth noting the insight of the Netziv.  We already quoted the pasuk that describes Pinchas’ reward as ברית שלום – a covenant of peace.  There are those who say the peace for Pinchas is so people will not seek retribution against him for having killed Zimri and Kosbi.  Or perhaps that he should be blessed with peace and not have to resort to violence again.  The Netziv says that the blessing of peace is directed inward, to Pinchas:

The Divine promise of a covenant of peace constitutes rather a guarantee of protection against the inner enemy, lurking inside the zealous perpetrator of the sudden deed, against the inner demoralization that such an act as the killing of a human being, without due process of law is liable to cause. (Netziv as explained by Nechama Leibowitz)

There is much anger, and understandable discomfort with the idea of zealotry.  But if all we do is point out the negative, we miss an important point.  Remember back to the story that I opened with, about the man on the phone who helped a stranger through her crisis.  We all agree that he would have been justified to hang out.  But he was able to be fully present in the moment and do the right thing.  He was able to channel his inner Pinchas.

Rav Amital z”l, the founding Rosh Yeshiva wrote the following:

In our generation the problem is that people are generally apathetic; nothing shakes their equilibrium. They view others desecrating Shabbat in public, and feel no twinge in their heart…
People become apathetic and nothing shocks them. We must feel zeal in certain areas. This does not mean that our zeal need necessarily be demonstrated outwardly – sometimes outward demonstrations only bring harm; one must know, from a halakhic point of view, when rebuke is necessary, when it is permissible, and when it is forbidden. However, all of that is only on the outside. Inside ourselves, we dare not remain apathetic. We must be zealous for God.

That is our challenge and our bracha this Shabbos.  On the one hand to have enough common sense to not be overly zealous, but at the same time to be passionate and zealous about those things for which we should be zealous.

Good Shabbos.