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Mishpatim — Beyond the Letter of the Law

Good Shabbos. This morning I am going to speak about the immigration debate. And following the example of Nancy Pelosi I’ve got about 8 hours’ worth of material — give or take a couple of hours – so make yourselves comfortable.
Actually, the immigration issue I’d like to speak about is not the ongoing debate in America. Rather, I’d like to focus attention to Israel where a debate about the status of African immigrants has consumed the country.
Since 2005, approximately 60,000 Africans, mainly from Eritrea and Sudan have made their way to Israel claiming to seek refuge from ongoing war and violence in their countries. This migration stopped in 2012 when the Israeli government built a fence across the border with Egypt thereby preventing the refugees from entering the country. The government has claimed that the overwhelming majority of these folks came to Israel seeking economic opportunity, and has undertaken efforts to remove them from Israel. Recently an ultimatum has been declared: The African immigrants have until March to leave Israel or face being sent to jail. The government has offered them $3,500 and a plane ticket to another country in Africa. And while the crackdown (for now) is limited to single males – women, children and families will be allowed to stay – and has excluded those from the Darfur region of Sudan, still, approximately 35,000 African refugees in Israel are facing deportation.
The debates in Israel are just as intense as the debates here – maybe even more so. As the New York Times headline summarizes it: “Israel Moves to Expel Africans. Critics Say That’s Not Jewish.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/02/world/middleeast/israel-migrants-african.html)
Many point to this week’s parsha and the Torah’s commandment not to oppress the stranger, “For you were a stranger in Egypt.” Others turn to the Holocaust as reason why the Jewish state should never expel asylum seekers.
Yossi Klein Halevi, a prominent Israeli journalist writes that this is a pivotal moment in Israel’s history:
“There are moments that touch on the core of a people’s identity and experience that transcend legal categories. When it comes to asylum seekers, international law cannot be the only measure of Jewish behavior. We need to judge ourselves by our memories and values….” (http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/shame/#.WnscJUVnAgA.email).
There have been swelling grassroots protests against the crackdown. El Al pilots have said that they would refuse to pilot the flights removing them from the country. Rabbi Susan Silverman (sister of the comedian Sarah Silverman) began an initiative called Miklat Yisrael, which is known in the English press as Anne Frank Home Sanctuary Movement. So far 500 families have signed up to adopt asylum seekers and hide them in their homes, if necessary. This has prompted a whole other debate over whether use of Anne Frank and the Holocaust is appropriate. (See here for one provocative article on the subject https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/if-israel-s-african-refugees-are-anne-frank-then-who-are-the-nazis-1.5747320)

I believe that our parsha provides a perspective on how to think about this issue and debate. With Parshat Mishpatim we transition away from the narrative of the Exodus and focus on Jewish civil law.
Toward the end of Chapter 22 we read of two cases that call for attention:

כ) וְגֵ֥ר לֹא־תוֹנֶ֖ה וְלֹ֣א תִלְחָצֶ֑נּוּ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃ (כא) כָּל־אַלְמָנָ֥ה וְיָת֖וֹם לֹ֥א תְעַנּֽוּן׃ (כב) אִם־עַנֵּ֥ה תְעַנֶּ֖ה אֹת֑וֹ כִּ֣י אִם־צָעֹ֤ק יִצְעַק֙ אֵלַ֔י שָׁמֹ֥עַ אֶשְׁמַ֖ע צַעֲקָתֽוֹ׃ (כג) וְחָרָ֣ה אַפִּ֔י וְהָרַגְתִּ֥י אֶתְכֶ֖ם בֶּחָ֑רֶב וְהָי֤וּ נְשֵׁיכֶם֙ אַלְמָנ֔וֹת וּבְנֵיכֶ֖ם יְתֹמִֽים׃ (פ) (כד) אִם־כֶּ֣סֶף ׀ תַּלְוֶ֣ה אֶת־עַמִּ֗י אֶת־הֶֽעָנִי֙ עִמָּ֔ךְ לֹא־תִהְיֶ֥ה ל֖וֹ כְּנֹשֶׁ֑ה לֹֽא־תְשִׂימ֥וּן עָלָ֖יו נֶֽשֶׁךְ׃ (כה) אִם־חָבֹ֥ל תַּחְבֹּ֖ל שַׂלְמַ֣ת רֵעֶ֑ךָ עַד־בֹּ֥א הַשֶּׁ֖מֶשׁ תְּשִׁיבֶ֥נּוּ לֽוֹ׃ (כו) כִּ֣י הִ֤וא כסותה [כְסוּתוֹ֙] לְבַדָּ֔הּ הִ֥וא שִׂמְלָת֖וֹ לְעֹר֑וֹ בַּמֶּ֣ה יִשְׁכָּ֔ב וְהָיָה֙ כִּֽי־יִצְעַ֣ק אֵלַ֔י וְשָׁמַעְתִּ֖י כִּֽי־חַנּ֥וּן אָֽנִי׃ (ס)

(20) You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (21) You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. (22) If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, (23) and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans. (24) If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them as a creditor; exact no interest from them. (25) If you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you must return it to him before the sun sets; (26) it is his only clothing, the sole covering for his skin. In what else shall he sleep? Therefore, if he cries out to Me, I will pay heed, for I am compassionate. (Shemot 22:20-26)
Nahum Sarna observes:
The exploitation of these unfortunates was so tempting, and apparently so widespread, and seemingly beyond the reach of the law, that the Torah amplifies the ordinary apodictic formulation with a passionate emphasis on the gravity of the sin in the eyes of God.
And Jeffrey Tigay, the great Biblical scholar explaining why Hashem must insert Himself writes: “the warning may imply that human government was not well equipped to protect the rights of [widows and orphans] and that God was[thus] their only recourse. ”
The Ibn Ezra notes that the Torah’s presentation of the situation is problematic.
Pasuk 21 begins in the singular: כל אלמנה ויתום לא תענו – you (plural)  shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan
Pasuk 22 then is in the singular – אם עני תענה if you (singular) will mistreat
Ibn Ezra writes
: ואחר שאמר לא תענון לשון רבים. אמר אם תענה. כי כל רואה אדם שהוא מענה יתום ואלמנה ולא יעזרם גם הוא יחשב מענה
This is because whoever sees a person oppressing an orphan or a widow and does not help the orphan and the widow, he too is considered an oppressor.

Turning to the second case which evokes God’s anger, we have the case of a debtor who is unable to pay back his loan. All that this person had to offer as collateral was literally the shirt off his back – the shirt that he sleeps in. The Torah says that it would not be right for this person to be left without his “only clothing, the sole covering for his skin.” So the creditor must return the garment to him before nightfall and collect it again in the morning.
The Sridei Eish (R. Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, 1884-1966) says that this a strange arrangement and not one in which we can reasonably expect the debtor to ever repay the loan. The person is clearly too poor, and the arrangement is rather convenient for him. The Torah instructs that this rather absurd practice should continue for days, weeks, even months…
While the Torah cannot ignore the claim of the creditor, the Sridei Eish suggests that the Torah here teaches an important lesson which should be applied to all instances of civil law: While it would be easy to issue a ruling in favor of the creditor, such a ruling would not be just. The proper response is not to insist that the law “drive through the mountain,” leaving the welfare authorities to deal with the debtor. Rather, the Torah anchors the principles of kindness and righteousness within the legal system itself.
It demands that judges be capable of observing, evaluating and understanding the person standing in judgment. It demands of them not to be right, but rather to be wise, and this wisdom is itself Divine justice…
In both instances the Torah steers us away from the technical, strict letter of the letter to a more compassionate spirit of the law.
Returning to the debate in Israel, Yossi Klein Halevi says that the debate cannot be about the strict letter of the law:
“Supporters of the deportation are right about this: It is not the responsibility of the state of Israel, which is the only designated safe refuge for the Jewish people and which has taken in millions of destitute Jews, to worry about the world’s refugees. Israeli society, already fragmented in multiple ways, might not survive a massive influx of refugees with no connection to the Jewish people. That’s the reason the government built a fence along our border with Sinai. And that fence has solved the problem: Last year, not a single asylum seeker crossed the Sinai border.
“But it’s one matter to keep out asylum seekers, however painful, and quite another to deport those who have found refuge among us.”
He concludes by pondering what Menachem Begin would do in this situation. Begin’s first act as Prime Minister was to take in Vietnamese Boat people
“In one sense it’s an unfair question: Bringing in a few dozen Vietnamese refugees is hardly of the same magnitude as absorbing 35,000 African asylum seekers. But I strongly suspect that, at the very least, Begin would have agonized over the decision. He would have understood that this isn’t just a matter of meeting the minimal standards of international law. He would have felt the weight of risking the moral capital of the Jewish people.
Where is the sign of unease from our leaders, some indication that they understand why so many Jews are tormented by their decision? Part of my feeling of shame today is the absence of shame among our leaders”
Indeed, the message of Parshat Mishpatim is that we must go beyond our legal responsibility.
Shabbat Shalom.

 

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#MeToo — Our Failures and the Failures of Avraham

Good Shabbos. There is a classical and ongoing debate among the Jewish people. Is it appropriate to criticize the אבות (patriarchs)?  Must we justify their behavior even when it seems to be wrong, or is it okay to point out their mistakes?

One of the more provocative applications/discussions of this important issue takes place at the end of our Parsha. The parsha concludes with the story of the Akedah. As troubling as the story is, there is almost universal recognition that it marks the capstone of Avraham’s career; it is the final test that he passes with flying colors.

And yet, there is a school of thought that offers the opposite interpretation: The Akedah marks a test that Avraham failed! Avraham should have refused to follow God’s instructions. After all, how could he go to bat for the wicked people of Sodom but remain silent when it comes to his own flesh and blood.

While I could spend the rest of this Drasha speaking about this idea, I mention it here only because it helped me to realize that the Akedah may not be the only test that Avraham failed.   Perhaps there are other tests that he failed as well. My understanding of Avraham’s other failed test(s) is informed by events of the past few weeks – the allegations of sexual abuse and harassment against Harvey Weinstein and so many more. The most powerful response was the #MeToo campaign in which women who have been sexually abused and harassed went public with their experiences. .

The words of NY Times columnist Charles M. Blow resonated very strongly with me:
With the recent rash of high-profile accusations of sexual harassment and assault… I found myself feeling shocked at the pervasiveness of this sort of behavior, and embarrassed that I was shocked. After all, I know all the data. (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/29/opinion/checking-my-male-privilege.html)

According to a recent survey, more than half of U.S. women have experienced unwanted and inappropriate sexual advances from men ;3in 10 have put up with unwanted advances from male co-workers…

But hearing these statistics in the abstract is very different from being able to connect them with faces that we know.

What does any of this have to do with Avraham?

In our parsha we read that Avraham and Sarah travel to Gerar.

Breishit 20:1-2

וַיִּסַּ֨ע מִשָּׁ֤ם אַבְרָהָם֙ אַ֣רְצָה הַנֶּ֔גֶב וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב בֵּין־קָדֵ֖שׁ וּבֵ֣ין שׁ֑וּר וַיָּ֖גָר בִּגְרָֽר׃ וַיֹּ֧אמֶר אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶל־שָׂרָ֥ה אִשְׁתּ֖וֹ אֲחֹ֣תִי הִ֑וא וַיִּשְׁלַ֗ח אֲבִימֶ֙לֶךְ֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ גְּרָ֔ר וַיִּקַּ֖ח אֶת־שָׂרָֽה׃

Abraham journeyed from there to the region of the Negeb and settled between Kadesh and Shur. While he was sojourning in Gerar, Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” So King Abimelech of Gerar had Sarah brought to him.

This is an exact repeat of what took place in last week’s parsha when Avram and Sarai (before the name changes) go to Egypt to escape famine.

 

Breishit 12:10-13

(י) וַיְהִ֥י רָעָ֖ב בָּאָ֑רֶץ וַיֵּ֨רֶד אַבְרָ֤ם מִצְרַ֙יְמָה֙ לָג֣וּר שָׁ֔ם כִּֽי־כָבֵ֥ד הָרָעָ֖ב בָּאָֽרֶץ׃ (יא) וַיְהִ֕י כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר הִקְרִ֖יב לָב֣וֹא מִצְרָ֑יְמָה וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ אֶל־שָׂרַ֣י אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ הִנֵּה־נָ֣א יָדַ֔עְתִּי כִּ֛י אִשָּׁ֥ה יְפַת־מַרְאֶ֖ה אָֽתְּ׃ (יב) וְהָיָ֗ה כִּֽי־יִרְא֤וּ אֹתָךְ֙ הַמִּצְרִ֔ים וְאָמְר֖וּ אִשְׁתּ֣וֹ זֹ֑את וְהָרְג֥וּ אֹתִ֖י וְאֹתָ֥ךְ יְחַיּֽוּ׃ (יג) אִמְרִי־נָ֖א אֲחֹ֣תִי אָ֑תְּ לְמַ֙עַן֙ יִֽיטַב־לִ֣י בַעֲבוּרֵ֔ךְ וְחָיְתָ֥ה נַפְשִׁ֖י בִּגְלָלֵֽךְ׃

10) There was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. (11) As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. (12) If the Egyptians see you, and think, ‘She is his wife,’ they will kill me and let you live. (13) Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you.”

Let us fully understand what is happening here. Twice Avraham and Sarah go to a new society where the expectation is that the king and those in power will forcibly take a woman and force her into marriage/sexual servitude. Avraham takes this as a given. He doesn’t even show any signs of regret. He accepts that this is the reality.

The Radak tries to justify Avraham’s actions by saying he was forced to make a choice between the lesser of two evils: If he discloses the truth he will be killed, and his wife, beautiful and unprotected in an alien society of low morality, will assuredly be condemned to a life of shame and abuse.  If, however, he resorts to subterfuge, she may be violated by some Egyptian, but at last husband and wife would both survive. 

While there may be some truth to Avraham’s dilemma as explained by Radak, I am not convinced. Remember, we are talking about the same Avraham who argues with Hashem over the fate of the people of Sodom. He is recognized and challenged by Hashem to be a beacon of צדקה ומשפט – righteousness and justice.

Breishit 18:17-19

וַֽיהֹוָ֖ה אָמָ֑ר הַֽמְכַסֶּ֤ה אֲנִי֙ מֵֽאַבְרָהָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר אֲנִ֥י עֹשֶֽׂה׃ וְאַ֨בְרָהָ֔ם הָי֧וֹ יִֽהְיֶ֛ה לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל וְעָצ֑וּם וְנִ֨בְרְכוּ ב֔וֹ כֹּ֖ל גּוֹיֵ֥י הָאָֽרֶץ׃ כִּ֣י יְדַעְתִּ֗יו לְמַעַן֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְצַוֶּ֜ה אֶת־בָּנָ֤יו וְאֶת־בֵּיתוֹ֙ אַחֲרָ֔יו וְשָֽׁמְרוּ֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ יְהוָ֔ה לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט לְמַ֗עַן הָבִ֤יא יְהוָה֙ עַל־אַבְרָהָ֔ם אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֖ר עָלָֽיו׃

Now the LORD had said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him? For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is just and right, in order that the LORD may bring about for Abraham what He has promised him.”

We are talking about the same Avraham who is described as העברי (a Hebrew/Ivri). Recall on Yom Kippur we discussed the significance of this term:

בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשת לך לך פרשה מב:ח
רבי יהודה אומר כל העולם כולו מעבר אחד והוא מעבר אחד

R. Yehudah – all the world was on one side and he stood alone on the other.

Avraham’s entire identity was of someone who stands in opposition to the culture around him. He defies authority.

The Ramban (Breishit 12:10) therefore introduces Avraham’s descent into Egypt by saying:

ודע כי אברהם אבינו חטא חטא גדול בשגגה שהביא אשתו הצדקת במכשול עון מפני פחדו פן יהרגוהו והיה לו לבטוח בשם שיציל אותו ואת אשתו ואת כל אשר לו

Know that our father Abraham inadvertently committed a great sin by placing his virtuous wife in a compromising situation because of his fear of being killed.  He should have trusted in God to save him, his wife and all he had, for God has the power to help and to save

The case against Avraham’s actions is even stronger. The great biblical scholar, Nahum Sarna in the JPS Commentary on Breishit introduces the episode with Avimelech in our parsha with the following observation:

“The story is strongly reminiscent of the couple’s earlier encounter with Pharaoh in Egypt. Here it serves to complete a literary framework. The first kidnapping of Sarah occurred after receiving the divine promise of posterity. The second takes place after the last such promise.”

Why would the kidnapping (and abuse) of Sarah be preceded by a promise of becoming a גוי גדול a great nation?

The conventional understanding is that the promise that Avraham will become a great nation is made to silence anyone who would claim that the child born to Sarah was really Avimelech’s or Pharaoh’s.

But in light of the ongoing current events, the promise of posterity from Hashem should have given Avraham the wherewithal to protest against the taking of Sara and the rampant sexism that existed in the two societies of Egypt and Gerar.  It’s as if with the promise of posterity, Hashem is telling Avraham, “It’s okay to protest against the taking of your wife and the abuse of power I have your back.”  It might be an invitation to Avraham, much as the introduction of Hashem’s telling him of the destruction of Sodom is an invitation to Avraham to protest.

Unfortunately, Avraham does not answer the call.
And this, I would suggest is another failure on his part.

As the latest revelations of rampant sexual abuse has shown, we too have failed as a society and as a community. I know that there are women in our shul who have been sexually abused and harassed and who might be listening to my speech thinking, “how can you only see this message from the Torah NOW? Where have you been all these years?” I don’t have a good answer.

We are once again being given the same test that Avraham Avinu was given twice in his lifetime. The test of what to do when living in a society that accepts as normal the abuse, harassment, and objectification of women. It is a test that Avraham failed, and it is a test that up to this point we have failed. Let this be the time that we ensure that we do not repeat his mistake again.

 

 

The Floodwaters of Noah

I wrote the following for the Baltimore Jewish Times (http://jewishtimes.com/69665/the-floodwaters-of-noah/opinion/)

One of my favorite Shabbat zemirot (songs sung at the Shabbat meal) is “Yom Shabaton,” a song attributed to Rabbi Yehudah haLevi (1075-1140). The entire song centers around imagery from Parshat Noah. The chorus begins with the line “On [Shabbat] the dove found rest,” referring to the dove that Noah sent from the Ark to test whether the floodwaters had receded. The song concludes with a promise that bad things will not happen to the Jewish people because of the promise God made to us “over the Waters of Noah” (mei Noah). The phrase mei Noah (the waters of Noah) comes from Isaiah 54:9 — “… As I swore that the waters of Noah nevermore would flood the earth, so I swear that I will not be angry with you or rebuke you.”

Why are the floodwaters attributed to Noah? Noah, after all, was a tzadik, the only person of his entire generation worthy of being saved from the flood. Why then does Isaiah say “the waters of Noah,” implying that Noah was responsible for the flood?

Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz (1902-1978) explained, “It is attributed to Noah because he did not pray on behalf of his generation.” Basing himself on a passage in the Zohar, he wrote that even if Noah knew that his generation had sinned beyond the point of no return, Noah should have still been concerned for his fellow citizens to pray for them. Noah is responsible for the floodwaters because he did not do all he could to save the world. Even worse, by not praying for them, Noah showed that he had given up on humanity. He should have shown concern and empathy for others; even those whose fate is sealed.

The message could not be more relevant for us. We must be constantly concerned for the world around us and for broader society. Indeed, the Torah states that the Ark contained a tzohar, which many commentators translate as a window. I believe that this component of the Ark parallels a ruling brought in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 90) that synagogue be constructed with windows. The reason for this is that our prayers should be directed outwards, to the world around us. Every time we enter a synagogue to pray, it should be our hope and desire to improve the world around through our prayers. By the same token, we must also allow our prayers to be influenced by the world around us. We do not pray in a vacuum but out of an awareness of what is happening in the world, and out of a real concern for the rest of humanity. With this awareness, we avoid the mistake made by Noah; we internalize the message of Mei Noah.

Rabbi Elliot Kaplowitz is the spiritual leader of Congregation Netivot Shalom.

Yom Kippur 5778 Self-Definition

 

There are certain questions that are bound to bring about anxiety.  We know the question is coming, and it is almost never asked with ill intent.  But still, we can drive ourselves crazy thinking about how we will answer the question, and then spend the next hour analyzing the answer we gave.

To give one example:  when I was the Rabbi at Brandeis I would walk on egg shells every time I ran into a senior during the second semester.  Social norms require me to ask what their plans are for next year.  But I also knew that for so many seniors whose plans were up in the air as they awaited responses from grad schools or job applications, this innocent question could bring on a full-blown anxiety attack.

Recently, I’ve acquired my own anxiety-inducing question:  “What do you do?”

As many of you know, I recently completed an MBA and during the week I work as a financial analyst.  My friends are still surprised to hear me say that I went to business school or that I have anything to do with a position with the name “financial” in the title.  People that I work with do not know what to do make of it when I tell them that I am a Rabbi.   And in the office building where I work, which is occupied 100% by Orthodox Jews, I am fairly certain that I am the only one in the building with the Semicha.  I am also the least frum person in the building.  At least in Baltimore, such a statement makes sense.

Indeed, we all face dilemmas when it comes to defining ourselves and who we are.

Yom Kippur davening offers a few models how to answer the question of how we define ourselves.

  1. Yonah – עברי אנכי

We will recall the story of Yonah:

  • Yonah is told by Hashem to go and prophesy to the city of Ninveh that if they do not improve their ways, Hashem will destroy them and their city
  • Instead of going on Hashem’s mission, Yonah runs away on a ship headed to a far-off land.
  • Hashem brings a storm.  All the sailors on the boat pray to their gods to no avail.  While this is happening Yonah is sleeping.  They wake him up and he tells them that he is to blame for the storm because he has run away from Hashem.
  • Yonah is thrown overboard and swallowed by a giant whale.  Yonah prays to Hashem and is freed from the whale
  • He goes to Ninveh and delivers Hashem’s message.  The people repent.

In his encounter with the sailors when he explains that he is to blame because he has run away from Hashem, Yonah uses an interesting term.   וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶם עִבְרִי אָנֹכִי  I am a Hebrew (Ivri)

The term עברי/Ivri   is first used in the Torah in relation to Avraham.  And R. Yehudah offers a fascinating explanation of this phrase

בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשת לך לך פרשה מב:ח
רבי יהודה אומר כל העולם כולו מעבר אחד והוא מעבר אחד,

R. Yehudah – all the world was on one side and he stood alone on the other.

To be an ivri means to stand in opposition to the world around you.

Rabbi Sacks writes in the introduction to the Koren YK Machzor:

To be a Jew is not to go with the flow, to be like everyone else, to follow the path of least resistance, to worship the conventional wisdom of the age.  To the contrary, to be a Jew is to have the courage to live in a way that is not the way of everyone.  Each time we eat, drink, pray or go to work, we are conscious of the demands our faith makes on us, to live God’s will and be one of His ambassadors to the world.  Judaism always has been, perhaps always will be, counter-cultural…The sages said that Abraham was called haIvri because all the world was on one side and Abraham on the other.  To be a Jew is to swim against the current, challenging the idols of the age whatever the idol, whatever the age.

On Yom Kippur, as we reflect on our religious and spiritual lives, we are reminded what it means to be a Jew, an עברי.    We must be prepared to answer, “What do we stand for?”  “Wat unpopular positions do I take?”  What unpooular position am I prepared to take?”

2. Nadav and Avihu

The Torah reading for Yom Kippur comes from Parshat Achararei Mot, which opens with mentioning the death of Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu.

ויקרא טז:א
וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אַחֲרֵ֣י מ֔וֹת שְׁנֵ֖י בְּנֵ֣י אַהֲרֹ֑ן בְּקָרְבָתָ֥ם לִפְנֵי־יְהוָ֖ה וַיָּמֻֽתוּ׃

The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the LORD.

Why does the Torah introduce the description of the Yom Kippur service with the deaths of Nadav and Avihu?  This is an especially troubling question when we consider that the story of their death has already been recorded with great detail in chapter 10.  So why repeat it now?

I always understood it as follows:
The Torah introduces the laws of Yom Kippur with the deaths of Nadav and Avihu to show the impact of this tragedy on Aharon. Because Aharon was so deeply affected by his sons’ deaths, he heard and internalized the details as well as the overall purpose of Yom Kippur differently.  Aharon must serve as the representative of the entire Jewish people on Yom Kippur as he seeks atonement for all sins that they have committed.  His capacity to empathize and identify with the sins and shortcomings of others was radically enhanced after he was forced to reconcile with the sin and shortcomings of his own sons.  Aharon is much better able to facilitate the teshuvah of others after he has come to terms with this tragic event in his own life and the breach it must have formed in his relationship with God.

Part of our self-definition must include the capacity to empathize with others.  Empathy means to identify with someone else – to expand the definition of the self.  This is certainly addressed by the inclusion of Nadav and Avihu in the YK Torah reading.

I came across another explanation for the inclusion of Nadav and Avihu in the Yom Kippur Torah reading in the Ba’er Heitev commentary to the Shulchan Aruch.

באר היטב או”ח תרכ”א:א
אחרי מות. והמצטער על מיתת בני אהרן ומוריד דמעות עליהם בי”כ מוחלין עונותיו ובניו אין מתים בחייו זוהר והאר”י ז”ל.

One who is saddened over the deaths of Aharon’s sons and cries for them on YK, his sins are forgiven and his children will not die during his life.

This seems a bit extreme.  How can a person have so much emotion and empathy for something that happened thousands of years ago?

R. Chaim Shmuelevitzz” l, who was Rosh Yeshiva of the Mirrer Yeshiva during its sojourn in Shanghai and again in Jerusalem, answers with a Gemara from Chulin 71a.

חולין עא.
חבל על בן עזאי שלא שימש את רבי ישמעאל

He then said to me these very words: Alas for Ben ‘Azzai, that he did not attend upon R. Ishmael.

Rashi expounds:

חבל על בן עזאי – הפסד וחבלה היא בעולם תלמיד ותיק כמותי אני בן עזאי שלא שמשתי את ר’ ישמעאל.

It is a great loss to the world that an established student such as myself, Ben Azzai, did not serve R. Yishmael.

Rabbi Shmuelevitz writes:

ואף זהו הטעם להצטער על מיתת שני בני אררן שעולם כולו נחבל ונפסד בחסרונם, ורישומו של הפסד וחבלה זו שבעולם ניכר אף לאחר אלפי שנים, כי הפסד וחבלה כזה הוא חסרון אשר לא יוכל להמנות, ועל חסרון זה יש לבכות מרה ולהצטער עד מאד, והבכיה על זה היא תקון גדול לכפרת עונות ולהצלת בניו.

This is the reason to be disturbed by the death of the sons of Aharon.  The entire world has lost out by their demise, and the impact of this loss is recognized and felt even after thousands of years.  Such a loss cannot be measured.  For this loss, one should cry and be extremely distressed.

We read of the death of Nadav and Avihu to teach of lost opportunity; what could have been had they lived.  How their teachings and leadership may have impacted the world.  Their inclusion in the Torah reading of Yom Kippur emphasizes the deep sense of loss felt over missed opportunities.

I heard an interview with Amy Summerville, a professor of psychology who runs the Regret Lab at Miami University in Ohio.  — She must be very busy this time of the year.   A distinction is made between regrets of commission – when you regret having done something and wish you hadn’t – vs. regrets of omission, where you regret NOT having done something.   (http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=550260750).

Research shows that in the short term people are more likely to have regrets of commission:

SUMMERVILLE:… And what those researchers argued is that we regret things we did a lot more in the moment. So if you say something really stupid in a job interview, you’re going to walk out and have that hand-to-the-forehead feeling of, oh, why did I say that? That was such a terrible thing to have said in that moment.

But in the long run, we tend to have things that are kind of incomplete goals stick around in our memory as kind of a mental to-do list, basically. And that – as a result, our inactions wind up getting kind of added to that mental to-do list.

While I’m sure we all have regrets of both kinds, we cannot let those regrets define who we are.  It is okay to be remorseful for things that we wish we could have done differently or for things we wish we had done, but we cannot allow ourselves to be defined by those regrets. 

3. Acting Godly

For the past two weeks, with the recitation of Selichot, and most certainly for the next 25 hours, our tefilot have revolved around the י”ג מדות רחמים– 13 Attributes of Mercy.  The source for this is a statement by R. Yochanan in Rosh Hashanah 17b:

ראש השנה יז:
ויעבור ה’ על פניו ויקרא א”ר יוחנן אלמלא מקרא כתוב אי אפשר לאומרו מלמד שנתעטף הקב”ה כשליח צבור והראה לו למשה סדר תפלה אמר לו כל זמן שישראל חוטאין יעשו לפני כסדר הזה ואני מוחל להם

The verse states: “And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed” (Exodus 34:6). Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Were it not explicitly written in the verse, it would be impossible to say this, as it would be insulting to God’s honor. The verse teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, wrapped Himself in a prayer shawl like a prayer leader and showed Moses the structure of the order of the prayer. He said to him: Whenever the Jewish people sin, let them act before Me in accordance with this order. Let the prayer leader wrap himself in a prayer shawl and publicly recite the thirteen attributes of mercy, and I will forgive them.

There is an interesting debate among the commentators:  Is R. Yochanan simply saying that we must say these words and somehow, they will achieve forgiveness?  Or, does he mean to say that not only must we recite the words of the יג מדות but we must ACT on them.  יעשו לפני (“They should ACT before Me”)– which brings us to the famous idea of imatio Dei – we must emulate God.  מה הוא רחום… Just as He is Merciful, so you should be merciful…

Whichever side is right, they both agree on a fundamental fact.  In our tefilot of Yom Kippur and the entire Yamim Noraim season we are being called upon to emulate God.

It is especially hard when we are immersed in Teshuvah, which is often accompanied by deep feelings of regret and remorse, to remember that we are created בצלם אלקים  (in God’s image).  Part of our self-definition has to be that as beings created in God’s image, we must be Godly in all that we do.

4. Kol Nidrei

Finally, we come to the prayer that we just recited – to usher in Yom Kippur – Kol Nidre.  Kol Nidre is perhaps the most “famous” prayer we have, but also one of the most controversial.

Many objections are raised on technical grounds and conceptual grounds.  It remains unclear if the intention of the prayer is to nullify vows that were made LAST year, or if we are nullifying vows that we will make in the COMING year – different versions of the prayer exist.

The legal/halachic mechanism that allows for התרת נדרים, the nullification of vows, is the notion of חרטה, regret. The vow-takers adduce that there were circumstances beyond their cognizance at the time the vow was taken that now have led them to reconsider the vows.

Kol Nidrei, then, is a reminder to ourselves and a declaration to our community that we will not allow ourselves to be victims of circumstance.  We will not let the world around us define who or what we are.  We don’t let the image of ourselves that we once held close to hold us hostage to whatever preconceived notions we hold.

There will always be questions in our lives that bring about anxiety.  Yom Kippur forces us to reflect on the essential question of who we are, what defines us and how we define ourselves.

  • We are created in God’s image and we are called upon to act Godly, even when engaged in an intense process of teshuva that could lead us to feel down on ourselves.
  • We must be prepared to act as an Ivri, and to know what we stand for and which unpopular opinions we hold.
  • Part of our self-definition is to empathize with others; to see ourselves in the other
  • We refuse to allow regrets of what might have been define who we are.
  • And finally, we make the strong statement that we will not allow our preconceived notions of who or what we SHOULD be prevent us from becoming who we CAN be.

 

Meditation before Neilah 5778 — Don’t Hold Back

The day is almost over. I know that everyone is hungry and tired. I want to share a very short thought to hopefully help us get over that last hump.

 

The Selichot that we have been saying for the past two weeks and that serve as the cetral piece of Ne’ilah are structured around the 13 attributes of mercy. Each time they appear, the section concludes with alluion to another episode in the Torah, Moshe’s asking for mercy in light of the חטא המרגלים (sin of the spies). It concludes with God’s response:

ויאמר ה’ סלחתי כדברך — And God said, ‘I forgive them according to your words” (Bamidbar 14:20). This, then becomes our focus in Selichot– Hashem forgives us according to our words; according to what we ask for.

Rabbi Soloveitchik has an interesting insight into this idea in his commentary on the Haggadah of all places. He writes, describing the slavery experienced by the Jews in Egypt:

“The real tragedy of the slave consists in the fact that he himself does not understand how shameful and horrible the experience of slavery is. the Jewish slaves in Egypt complained only about the work, the physical labor they were forced to do. However, the did not cry about the disintegration of the famil community caused by Pharaoh’s edict. They did no indict Pharaoh for denying them the basic rights that God granted to every human being…Yetziat Mizrayim would not have been a total act of redemption if god had been guided only by their prayers.

“Indeed, I always say that we would be a most unfortunate people if god were guided exclusively by our prayers. Sometmes we pray for things that are a menace to us, and sometimes we not pray for things that are of the greatest importance….” (The Seder Night. An Exhalted Evening, p. 75)

 

I was reminded of a great story that relates to this. The story comes from Randy Pausch, who was a professor at Carnegie Mellon, author of The Last Lecture. Pausch was diagnosed with brain cancer. He prepared a final lecture to impart wisdom and life lessons he wanted to share with his family. His focus of study was computer science and artificial intelligence. From the time he was a young kid, he was fascinated by Walt Disney World and one of his lifelong dreams was to work at Disney as an Imagineer. He was able to realize that dream when he was able to convince his university and Disney to allow him to spend a sabbatical working at Disney on one of their first rides employing Artificial Intelligence, the Aladin Ride. The story describes a family vacation to Disney. Pausch is with his father and his son, Dylan:

ON MY dad’s last trip to Disney World, he and I were waiting for the monorail with Dylan, who was then four years old. Dylan had this urge to sit in the vehicle’s cool-looking nose-cone, with the driver. My theme-park-loving father thought that would be a huge kick, too. “Too bad they don’t let regular people sit up there,” he said.

“Hmmmm,” I said. “Actually, Dad, having been an Imaginer, I’ve learned that there’s a trick to getting to sit up front. Do you want to see it?”

He said sure.

So I walked over to the smiling Disney monorail attendant and said: “Excuse me, could the three of us please sit in the front car?”

“Certainly, sir,” the attendant said. He opened the gate and we took our seats beside the driver. It was one of the only times in my life I ever saw my dad completely flabbergasted. “I said there was a trick,” I told him as we sped toward the Magic Kingdom. “I didn’t say it was a hard trick.”

Sometimes, all you have to do is ask.

As we say Neilah, let’s keep this in mind. Sometimes, all you have to do is ask. Hashem is listening and prepared to answer for whatever we ask for. Let’s not hold back.

 

Rosh HaShanah 5778: Getting Out of the Echo Chamber

 

On Rosh Hashanah it will be posted and on Yom Kippur it will be tweeted…

How many will unfriend and how many will send friend requests?
Who will follow and who will unfollow?…
Who will live in harmony and who will have non-stop arguments in Facebook groups?
Who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer relentless requests to play Candy Crush?
Who will have their accounts cloned and who will have theirs verified?
Who will receive hundreds of likes and who will have to go and try Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat instead?
But reading, liking and sharing this post removes the evil of the decree!  (English comedian Ashley Blaker)

There is one halacha relating to תקיעת השופר that truly resonates with me this year.  The Mishnah Rosh Hashnah 3:7 says:

הַתּוֹקֵעַ לְתוֹךְ הַבּוֹר אוֹ לְתוֹךְ הַדּוּת אוֹ לְתוֹךְ הַפִּטָּס, אִם קוֹל שׁוֹפָר שָׁמַע, יָצָא. וְאִם קוֹל הֲבָרָה שָׁמַע, לֹא יָצָא.

One who blows into a cistern, or into a cellar or into a barrel; if he heard the sound of the shofar, he has fulfilled [his obligation]; if he heard the sound of an echo, he has not fulfilled [his obligation].

The Gemara elaborates:

ראש השנה כז
אמר רב הונא לא שנו אלא לאותן העומדים על שפת הבור אבל אותן העומדין בבור יצאו

Rav Huna said: They taught this only with respect to those standing at the edge of the pit, i.e., on the outside, as they can hear only the echo coming from the pit. But those standing in the pit itself have fulfilled their obligation, since they initially hear the sound of the shofar.

Why my interest with this Halacha?  Though many of us may feel like we are living on the edge of a symbolic cliff or pit, that is not my intention.  Nor am I particularly concerned with the commentators who point out that on a technical, scientific level we are always confronted by this Halacha – the only way we hear ANYTHING is by echo.

No, my focus on this halacha, this year, is the overwhelming sense that each of us is living in our very own echo chamber.

Urbandictionary.com defines an echo chamber as: “an insular communication space where everyone agrees with the information and no outside input is allowed.”

And Wikipedia, the ultimate source for all knowledge and definitions adds, “…Inside a figurative echo chamber, official sources often go unquestioned and different or competing views are censored, disallowed, or otherwise underrepresented.”

Oftentimes we become only aware of the echo chamber when it goes wrong.  To give an example: When I was the rabbi at Brandeis I would constantly get ads in my Facebook feed telling me that single women in Waltham, MA want to meet me.  I could not figure out what was going on, nor did I think it would be appropriate to ask anyone else about these ads that kept popping up.  Until one day it hit me: Almost all of my interactions are with Brandeis students – at least half of whom were single women living in Waltham.  Facebook tried putting two and two together….
That is the echo chamber gone wrong.

Eli Pariser, author of the book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You explains: “Increasingly, you know, every website has a sense of who you are, of what your interests are, and many of them are using that information to try to extrapolate what kinds of content, what kinds of articles, what kinds of ideas are you going to be most interested in. So the filter bubble is the ideas that get through that filter and that you get to see. And what’s scary about it is there’s a bunch of stuff outside of that filter that gets filtered out and that you don’t see.”  (http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=486941582)

It is the echo chamber led to complete shock among so many of Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election.  And it is the echo chamber that has led to the phenomenon of “fake news.”  Or as Tali Sharot, an Israeli-born professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London explains in a number of TED Talks and a provocative article on CNN.com titled “Why Don’t Facts matter?”  She points to countless examples where people ignore clear evidence in favor of their personally-held beliefs.  For example:

  • Climate change
  • How many people were at the 2017 presidential inauguration?

And it is not only politics where facts don’t matter.

  • People avoid going to the doctor or being tested for illness in order to avoid alarming information.
  • People will not check their investment accounts when they think they have performed poorly.
  • And after this season of 3-day yumtifs, I’d guess that many of us will avoid stepping on the scale for a long time.

Of course not everybody avoids uncomfortable facts all of the time, but on average people are more likely to seek confirmation of what they believe.

While the confirmation bias has long been known, Sharot writes that in our digital age, “as information is more readily accessible and people are frequently exposed to different opinions and data points, this bias is likely to have an even greater role in shaping people’s beliefs – moving ideological groups to extremes.  Even more scary – Sharot writes that many would assume that holding such untrue biases is a trait of people of lesser intelligence.  In fact, scientists have discovered that those with stronger quantitative abilities are more likely to twist data at will.

Judaism has long recognized the danger of echo chambers.  In a fascintating passage, the Gemara (Bava Metzia 84a) tells us of the relationship between Reish Lakish and R. Yochanan.  Reish Lakish was a criminal whom R. Yochanan was able to bring to a life of Torah.  One day as they were studying the halachot of tumah and taharah (purity and impurity), they encountered a debate over when a weapon such as a sword or a dagger is considered completed and thus susceptible to the laws of tumah.  R. Yochanan concedes to Reish Lakish and declares, “The Bandit knows his trade.”  Reish Lakish was so hurt by R. Yochanan’s allusion to his former life that he becomes ill and dies.  R. Yochanan is deeply upset by the death of his friend and his study partner.  The other rabbis of the day decide that Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat is a worthy chavruta to appease Rabbi Yochanan and help him get over the loss of Reish Lakish.

אזל יתיב קמיה כל מילתא דהוה אמר רבי יוחנן אמר ליה תניא דמסייעא לך אמר את כבר לקישא בר לקישא כי הוה אמינא מילתא הוה מקשי לי עשרין וארבע קושייתא ומפריקנא ליה עשרין וארבעה פרוקי וממילא רווחא שמעתא ואת אמרת תניא דמסייע לך אטו לא ידענא דשפיר קאמינא

Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat went and sat before Rabbi Yoḥanan. With regard to every matter that Rabbi Yoḥanan would say, Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat would say to him: There is a ruling which is taught in a baraita that supports your opinion. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Are you comparable to the son of Lakish? In my discussions with the son of Lakish, when I would state a matter, he would raise twenty-four difficulties against me in an attempt to disprove my claim, and I would answer him with twenty-four answers, and the halakha by itself would become broadened and clarified. And yet you say to me: There is a ruling which is taught in a baraita that supports your opinion. Do I not know that what I say is good?

Rabbi Yitzchak Blau drives home the point of this powerful passage:

R. Yohanan is incredulous that R. Elazar thinks this will replace Reish Lakish.  It was precisely the ongoing argumentation between R. Yohanan and Reish Laskish that led to a flowering of Torah.  This is what R. Yohanan feels cannot be replaced.  R. Yohanan is teaching us that the ideal chavruta is not the person who quickly endorses everything his study partner says.  On the contrary!  The ideal chavruta challenges one’s ideas.  This process generates growth in learning.  We should add that the same principle also applies to other forms of friendship.  Instead of looking for friends who will always agree with us, we should seek out those who are willing to tell us when they think we have erred, whether intellectually, ethically or religiously…

Indeed, many of the rabbis in the Talmud are known to us in reference to their Bar Pelugta – literally the person with whom they disagree.  Hillel and and Shammai.  Rav and Shmuel.  Abaye and Rava.

So, what are we to do?  We all live in echo chambers and we  may even be aware of this.  But, as we have already seen, simply knowing on an intellectual level will not necessarily change our behavior or our biases.

With this in mind, I want to share with you a bar pelugta  I recently encountered:  J.D. Vance.  He is the author of a book called Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis.  Many hailed this book THE Most important explanation of the current political environment in America.  The author is a proud Hillbilly, whose family began in Kentucky and migrated to Middletown, Ohio after WWII and his book was lauded for explaining the Middle America that voted Donald Trump into office to the great shock of those living on the coasts.

Vance is able to escape the cycle of poverty and violence that has taken hold of his community.  He attended university, served in the Marines and went to Yale Law School.  He does not reject the community from which he came, despite being painfully aware of the many shortcomings and failures.

Rod Dreher wrote about the book in American Conservative:

The book is an American classic, an extraordinary testimony to the brokenness of the white working class, but also its strengths. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read…You cannot understand what’s happening now without first reading J.D. Vance. His book does for poor white people what Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book did for poor black people: give them voice and presence in the public square.

In one of the more telling passages of the book, Vance describes the deep despair felt by many in Appalachia.

I’m the kind of patriot whom people in the Acela corridor laught at.  I choke up when I hear Lee Greenwood’s cheesy anthem “Proud to be an American.”  When I was sixteen, I vowed that every time I met a veteran, i would go out of my way to shake his or her hand, even if I had to awkwardly interject to do so.  To this day, I refuse to watch Saving Private Ryan around anyone by my closest friends, because I can’t stop from crying during the final scene.

Mamaw and Papaw [his grandparents] taught me that we live in the best and greatest cocunry on earth.  This fact gave meaning to my childhood…
If Mamaw’s second God was the United States of America, then many people in my community were losing something akin to a religion.  The tie that bound them to their neighbors, that inspired them in the way my patriotism had always inspired me, had seemingly vanished.

For me, reading J.D. Vance’s account of growing up in Middle-America was a wonderful way to get way beyond the echo chamber in which I so often find myself.  Vance is a relatable character.  He is thoughtful and insightful.  And he is not afraid to point out what is wrong with his own community.  There is certainly an echo chamber that exists when it comes to politics, the news.

And it is true when it comes to Judaism and the Jewish people.  We talk about a love of klal Yisrael of אחינו כל בית ישראל. And we are surrounded by Jews of all stripes – to the right and to the left of us.

But let me issue personal challenge to all of us here today.  There is a great irony that exists in our shul and shuls like ours and in the Modern Orthodox world in general:  We are passionate and staunchly committed to our intellectual openness and tolerance.  We talk about pluralism.  Yet, for all of our talk, look around.  Think about who our friends are.  We are an extremely homogenous community.   The challenge as we prepare to hear the Shofar – the true sound of the shofar and not the echo – is for us to break free of the echo chambers in which we live.

The shofar is a powerful call to us:  There are many “voices” and “noises” that surround us all the time.  The shofar challenges us to find the sincere voices among all the echoes.  And those sincere voices exist in all communities among all types of people.

Let me end by quoting one of the most authoritative and authentic voices in America, Bruce Springsteen.  In his memoir he writes:

There are many good, even great, voices out there tied to people who will never sound convincing or exciting.  They are all over TV talent shows and in lounges in Holiday Inns all across America.  They can carry a tune, sound tonally impeccable, they can hit all the high notes, but they cannot capture the full emotional content of a song.  They cannot sing deeply.
If you were lucky enough to be born with an instrument and the instinctive knowledge to know what to do with it, you are blessed indeed

As we prepare to hear the Shofar, let me riff on this – if we are able to HEAR the sincere voices that will carry us beyond the echo chamber, then we are blessed indeed.

Shanah Tova.

A Bracha on the Eclipse? Reflections on the Eclipse and Charlottesville

With all that is going on this past week, I’m sure that some of you can understand that my mind naturally turns to the movies.  There is one scene in particular that I keep coming back to, from the great classic The Blues Brothers.

In this scene, Elwood (Dan Aykrody has just picked his brother Jae (John Belushi) up from jail.  They are making their way back to Chicago when they are stuck in a traffic jam.  There is a policeman walking among the traffic and John Belushi asks him:

Jake: Hey, what’s going on?
Cop: Those bums won their court case, so they’re marching today.
Jake: What bums?
Cop: The f@?!ing Nazi party.
Elwood: Illinois Nazis.
Jake: I hate Illinois Nazis.
At this point Elwood pulls his car out of the line of traffic, floors the gas pedal, and drives straight for the bridge, causing all the marchers to jump off the bridge into the water below.

The parallels to last week’s events in Charlottesville are obvious.

There is another, much less obvious reason I have been thinking about this scene, or more broadly about the Blues Brothers.

Before Charlottesville happened, I had been looking forward to speaking about this Monday’s eclipse.  There is another famous line from the The Blues Brothers right before the epic car chase at the end of the film.  Dan Akyroyd says:
” There are 106 miles to Chicago, we have a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark and we’re wearing sunglasses.”

OK, it may not be the strongest connection to the eclipse, you know, sunglasses…eclipse…

Many rabbis, educators, have been writing about what significance, if any, there is from a Jewish perspective to the eclipse.  The most common question is whether one says a bracha over an eclipse?   This question presents an excellent test case for the functioning of Halacha and how we as Modern Orthodox Jews bridge our commitment to Halacha and our commitment to science, nature, and the pursuit of knowledge.

For everyone, the question of whether to say a bracha on an eclipse begins with the Mishnah in the 9th perek of Brachot.

מתני׳ הרואה מקום שנעשו בו נסים לישראל אומר ברוך שעשה נסים לאבותינו במקום הזה מקום שנעקרה ממנו עכו”ם אומר ברוך שעקר עכו”ם מארצנו על הזיקין ועל הזועות ועל הרעמים ועל הרוחות ועל הברקים אומר ברוך שכחו וגבורתו מלא עולם על ההרים ועל הגבעות ועל הימים ועל הנהרות ועל המדברות אומר ברוך עושה בראשית רבי יהודה אומר הרואה את הים הגדול אומר ברוך שעשה את הים הגדול

One who sees a place where miracles occurred on Israel’s behalf recites: Blessed…Who performed miracles for our forefathers in this place. One who sees a place from which idolatry was eradicated recites: Blessed…Who eradicated idolatry from our land. One who sees conspicuous natural occurrences recites a blessing. For zikin and zeva’ot, which the Gemara will discuss below, for thunder, gale force winds, and lightning, manifestations of the power of the Creator, one recites: Blessed…Whose strength and power fill the world. For extraordinary (Rambam) mountains, hills, seas, rivers, and deserts, one recites: Blessed…Author of creation. Consistent with his opinion that a separate blessing should be instituted for each individual species, Rabbi Yehuda says: One who sees the great sea recites a special blessing: Blessed…Who made the great sea…

For many, including a large list of Rabbis living in Baltimore, the discussion ends with this Mishnah as well.

Their argument is that the Mishnah does not list an eclipse as one of the events for which one should say a bracha, therefore we don’t say a bracha.  This argument is augmented by the general stringencies that we have adopted when it comes to questions of unnecessary or doubtful brachot, as well as the strong sentiment that we are not allowed to contravene the rulings of Chazal.

As was recently published in Baltimore Jewish Life, a statement issued by the Star-K:

  1. Is a bracha recited on an eclipse? A. No. Although a bracha is recited on other niflaos haboray such as an earthquake, thunder, and lightning, a bracha is not recited upon viewing a solar or lunar eclipse.

This is a compelling argument and one which makes good sense, especially for anyone who has spent any time studying Halacha and Halachic reasoning.

The argument against a bracha is strengthened by the second sources that anyone thinking or writing about the eclipse quotes.  The Gemara in Sukkah 29a

ת”ר בזמן שהחמה לוקה סימן רע לכל העולם כולו משל למה הדבר דומה למלך בשר ודם שעשה סעודה לעבדיו והניח פנס לפניהם כעס עליהם ואמר לעבדו טול פנס מפניהם והושיבם בחושך

The Sages taught: When the sun is eclipsed it is a bad omen for the entire world. The Gemara tells a parable. To what is this matter comparable? It is comparable to a king of flesh and blood who prepared a feast for his servants and placed a lantern [panes] before them to illuminate the hall. He became angry at them and said to his servant: Take the lantern from before them and seat them in darkness.

While the Gemara continues and offers varying explanations of whether the siman ra (bad omen) associated with a solar eclipse is the same as that associated with a lunar eclipse, the Gemara believes an eclipse is a סימן רע, bad omen.    Thus, those who were already inclined to forbid saying a bracha bolster their argument by pointing out that an eclipse is a bad omen.  Why would anyone want to make a bracha over a bad omen?!

A final argument against making a bracha is that the eclipse is a natural phenomenon.  We understand exactly what is happening and why it is happening.  Perhaps in ancient times when they had limited understanding of science, they would see it is a bad omen, but this no longer holds true.  At the same time, since we understand what is happening during an eclipse, there is need to say a blessing.

This final argument is very weak.  After all we have a whole list of natural phenomena for which we do say a bracha, even though we have very good scientific explanations for all of them: thunder, lightening, earthquakes, rainbows, etc.  But still we will return to this point in a little bit.

This is a basic summary of those who argue against saying a bracha over the eclipse.

Rabbi Linzer penned a teshuva on this question as well.  Those of us who are familiar with Rabbi Linzer can already guess, his approach is quite different.  (Rabbi Linzer’s Teshuva can be found here.)

The first point Rabbi Linzer raises is to question whether the list in the Mishnah is exhaustive or illustrative.  He acknowledges the position that says it is not listed explicitly in the Mishnah.  But then he questions: Does it really make sense that a valley should get a blessing but not a waterfall? As the Talmud says elsewhere (Gittin 33a): “Do you then expect the author of the mishnah to list everything announcing his wares like a spice merchant?”

With this we turn to the deeper philosophical debate at hand.  Yes, we must maintain fealty to Halacha and the Halachic source, but we cannot ignore the question that Rabbi Linzer poses:

“What does it mean when our religious impulse to praise God and see God in the world is not able to find expression in halakhic forms, such as the recitation of brakhot?  Does this not run the risk of making halakhah an experience only of following rules?”

He cites an apocryphal story:
It is well known that when Ben-Gurion completed the public reading of the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel in Tel Aviv, on May 14, 1948, R. Yehudah Leib Fishman (Maimon) stood up and recited the she’hehiyanu blessing.

Afterwards, a man came to the Rabbi and asked, “I don’t understand. How could you make this brakhah? Where does it say in Shulkhan Arukh that you make a brakhah for an occasion like this?”
Rabbi Fishman responded, “You don’t understand. I just got a new tie. I was making a
brakhah for that.”
“Oh,” said the man, “Now I understand. Thank you.”
To which R. Fishman replied: “What are you thinking?! You would make a brakhah for a tie, but you wouldn’t make a brakhah for the founding of a Jewish state?!”

To address the argument “we already know and understand what’s happening, “we turn to the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:

“Wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious person’s attitude toward history and nature. One attitude is alien to his spirit: taking things for granted, regarding events as a natural course of things. . . He knows that there are laws that regulate the course of natural processes; he is aware of the regularity and pattern of things. However, such knowledge fails to mitigate his sense of perpetual surprise at the fact that there are facts at all. . .”

And finally, to address the argument that says we should not be saying a bracha over an eclipse because it is a bad omen.

First, it is worth noting that there are many phenomena listed in the Mishnah that have the potential to be much worse than an eclipse.

An earthquake, or as many of us experienced a few weeks ago her in Baltimore, thunder and lightning, etc.

But the same Mishnah that serves as the basis for so many to rule that a bracha should not be said over an eclipse because an eclipse is not listed, famously says:

חייב אדם לברך על הרעה כשם שמברך על הטובה

A person must bless over the bad, just as they do over the good.

The most familiar manifestation of this halacha for most of us is the bracha of Dayan haEmet that we say when God forbid a loved one passes away.

We have a religious obligation to make a bracha over bad news and over bad events.  Of course, this drives home the point that EVERYTHING comes from Hashem.  We may not always like it or understand but we recognize the Hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence) in everything that occurs in our life.

At the same time reciting a Bracha helps us to express wonder, awe, and gratitude to Hashem.  When, God forbid, the bracha is over an ominous event, the bracha helps us to focus ourselves to Hashem – for only God can help us in some situations.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe was one of the rabbis who did not allow reciting a bracha over the eclipse.  Both because the Mishnah does not mention it and because it is mentioned as a bad omen.  But, he said that while a formal bracha is not allowed, we should use the bad omen of an eclipse (and other similar ones) as an opportunity to turn to Hashem in prayer and introspection.

With this thought in mind, let us turn back to the tragic events of Charlottesville. With all the marches, protests and counter protests taking place today, taking place maybe right now, I am terrified to check the news after Shabbos.  This is not a question of politics.  If ever there was a time that our country needed the message of the Mishnah, it is now: כשם שמברך על הטוב כך מברך על הרעה.  Just as one must bless over the good, e/she must bless over the bad.  First and foremost, this requires us to be able to recognize what is good and what is bad.  What has happened this past week is not good.  And the Mishnah teaches that there is a bracha for this.   We must turn to Hashem in prayer and recognize that for this too there is an appropriate religious response.  There is a necessary religious response.

I would like to conclude by inviting you to join me in saying two brachot.  One bracha that the US will find healing and experience moral clarity that has been sorely lacking. There should be no more violence in our streets.

And I invite you to join me on Monday – at least symbolically, as we will not be in the same physical location (with safety glasses of course) to recite the bracha of עושה מעשה בראשית (Blessed is God who makes the works of creation).  In the concluding words of Rabbi Linzer:
This coming Monday, go out and view the solar eclipse. Safety first, so make sure to view it only through proper glasses; you will risk injuring your eyes if you look at it straight on. And when you safely observe the eclipse, give religious and halakhic expression to our sense of wonder when contemplating God’s glorious creation and recite the brakha of oseh ma’aseh bereishit. Truly, mah rabu ma’asekha Hashem!