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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.

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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.

Reflections on the Orlando Shooting

Before we recite the prayers for government of the United States and Israel, I want to take a few moments to reflect on the horrific shooting that took place last weekend in Orlando.  

I’ve been commenting to many people that Shavuot at Netivot was really amazing, and in particular last Monday highlighted for me Netivot at its best.  I thought that the divrei Torah and davening in shul were fantastic, the kidush celebrating the Zuckerbergs, and then the program in the afternoon celebrating the kids’ learning.  It was really an amazing example of what our shul is. 

And while we were enjoying such a glorious Yom Tov there were already some who were aware of what had happened the night before in Orlando and some – myself included – who remained in our isolated bubble. 

I chose to address what happened in Orlando at this point in the davening because the way in which we recite the prayers for the government is one of the ways that makes our shul and our community unique.  I believe that our shul has a unique response to offer in wake of the tragedy.

The parsha this week contains in it the description of the Sotah – a woman who is suspected of adultery by her husband.  The woman is subjected to a “trial by ordeal” to determine if she has in fact been unfaithful.  It is a very difficult and troubling law.  One detail of the Sotah ritual is that the curses that would befall her were written out with God’s name, ,which was then submerged in a mixture of water and was erased.  This is one of the most terrible things that can be done – to erase God’s name and many explain that it was done to impress upon the woman the severity of the accusations and of the crime if she is guilty.  But the Talmud (Shabbat 116a) gives a very different explanation.  The Talmud states that God’s name was erased as part of the Sotah ritual in order להביא שלום בין איש לאשה – to bring peace between husband and wife.  Clearly we are dealing with a  marriage under stress and the relationship between this couple is far from ideal.  And Hashem tells us that if it will help to heal their relationship, to bring peace to the world, then He is willing to let His name be erased.

It is this attitude that has to inform our reaction to what happened in Orlando.  This incident has raised many important issues that our society continues to wrestle with:  The status of those who are GLBTQ; gun control; what our response to terrorism and extremism ought to be, etc.  These are important issues that must be hashed out.  But taking our cue from Hashem, they must be hashed out with a sense of love and a desire to bring peace and compassion to the world.

With that in mind, I’d like to share a couple of paragraphs of a very powerful letter written by Rabbi Shai Held, a Conservative rabbi from whom I’ve had the privilege of learning and interacting.  The entirety of Rabbi Held’s letter is included below.  I have bolded the parts that I read in shul: (http://www.myjewishlearning.com/keshet/from-a-rabbi-an-open-letter-to-people-who-are-lgbtq/?utm_content=buffer87944&utm_medium=social&utm_source=plus.google.com&utm_campaign=buffer#)

An Open Letter to People Who Are LGBTQ

These are excruciating days in America, but I imagine that they are particularly painful for you.

I’d like to share a message that I believe lies at the very heart of Jewish theology: God loves you. (Don’t let anyone tell you that this idea is exclusively Christian; it isn’t.)

Rabbi Akiva, one of Judaism’s greatest sages, tells us that each and every human being is beloved by God because we are—all of us, without exception—created in the image of God. In other words, you don’t need to earn God’s love; it is given to you with your existence, the gift of a loving God.

No amount of hatred or bigotry can ever change that simple but stunning fact: as a human being, you matter, and matter ultimately.

One of the biggest problems with religion is that people stubbornly, insistently reduce God to their own size; they imagine that God loves the same people they love, and that God hates the people they hate. This is not just insidious theology; it’s actually idolatry, because people are just worshiping a blown up version of themselves. So let me say it simply: God’s love transcends all of that.

When your parents reject you, God loves you; when your friends or classmates make fun of you, God loves you; when your priest, minister, imam, or rabbi tells you that you are an abomination, God loves you; when politicians cater to people’s basest prejudices, God loves you. No matter how many times and in how many ways people make you feel less than human, God knows otherwise, and God loves you. When you feel frightened, or abandoned, or humiliated, I hope the unshakeable conviction that God loves you can help hold you and enable you to persevere.

What it really means to be a religious person is to strive to love the people God loves—which means, ultimately, to try to love everyone. Where this is concerned, the history of human civilization is filled with one horrific failure after another. White people still struggle to see that people of color are no less human, and no less precious than they; people who are wealthy often forget that people who are poor are no less human, and no less precious, than they; people who are able-bodied all too often fail to see that people with disabilities are no less human, and no less precious, than they; and yes, people who are straight are just beginning to see that people of varying sexual orientations and identities are no less human, and no less precious, than they. As a theologian and a pastor, I would just like to beg you: don’t let other people’s confusions and biases make you forget: God loves you, and you are no less human, and no less precious than anyone else.

As a straight man, I want to say without equivocation: I stand with you. And I hope that every person who has ever considered me their teacher stands with you as well. And I look forward to the day when humanity as a whole can stand together and say with one voice: each and every one of us is created in the image of God, and is therefore infinitely valuable. No one of us is less human, or less precious than any other.

In these dark days, I extend to you my heart as well as my hand. More people are with you than perhaps you know, or even imagine. May God bless you.

Overview of the Halachot of Purim 5776

Purim is the ultimate celebration of a nes nistar – a hidden miracle. Though God does not have an explicit role in the story, it is clear that God was very much in control “behind the scenes.” The Halachot of Purim help to ensure that our celebration has religious and spiritual purpose.
Chag Purim Sameach!

  1. Ta’anit Esther – The day before Purim is the fast of Esther. This year we observe Ta’anit Esther on Wednesday March 23(13 Adar). The fast is a minor fast, lasting from sunrise to sunset. If anyone is feeling weak or sick throughout the day or has legitimate medical reasons why fasting is not safe for them, they need not fast –since it is a minor fast we are lenient. Like all fast days, Ta’anit Esther is dedicated to prayer and penitence and should be used to help us prepare spiritually for Purim. Even those not fasting should maintain the solemnity of the day.
    Those who are able should extend their fast until the completion of Megilah reading and Ma’ariv. If this is too much of a difficulty it is okay to break the fast after 7:46pm.

 

  1. Parshat Zachor – The Shabbat preceding Purim is Shabbat Zachor, during which we fulfill our yearly obligation to read the section from the Torah describing Amalek’s war against the Children of Israel and our perpetual battle against evil and injustice. Men and women have a biblical obligation to hear the reading of Zachor.
    We will have an additional reading of Parshat Zachor at the conclusion of davening Shabbat morning.

 

  1. Megilah reading – One of the essential mitzvoth of Purim is to hear Megilat Esther at night and in the day. Men and women are equally obligated in this mitzvah. It is important to hear every word of the Megillah. If one misses a word, they may read it to themselves from a book and then catch up with the public reading (however, one must hear the majority of the Megilah from a kosher Megilah scroll). When making noise to blot out Haman’s name, it is important to not make noise at any other time.
    When answering amen to the She-hechiyanu blessing said over the Megilah, one should have in mind that the brachah covers the other mitzvot of Purim as well.

 

  1. Matanot la-Evyonim – One of the mitzvot of Purim is to distribute matanot la-evyonim – gifts to the poor – on Purim day, to ensure that they are able to properly participate in Purim celebrations. Netivot will collect funds for matanot la-evyonim to be distributed to Ahavas Yisrael.

 How much to give

The minimum that one must contribute to fulfill this mitzvah is enough to buy a meal. One may choose to gauge that based on the cost of a typical meal for you (and your family).  Another way would be based on what you are spending on the Purim Seuda (festive meal).

In making these calculations, I urge you to heed the words of the Mishnah Berurah in Orach Chayim 694:3 “It is best to increase money to the poor than to increase expenses for one’s seudah or mishloach manot to one’s friends, for there is no joy greater and more glorified than to bring joy to the hearts of the poor, orphans and widows. Thus one emulates the Shechinah (Divine presence)…” If you plan on sending mishloach manot to many friends and/or to pay money for a costume, it is important to give a comparable amount for matanot la-evyonim.

 Other forms of Tzedakah

Machatzit ha-Shekel (Half Shekel) – There is a minhag to imitate the practice in the times of the Temple of giving a half-Shekel donation to charity. This is done by offering three half-dollar coins to represent the three donations collected in the Temple. The practice is to lift the half-dollar coins provided and exchange them with a comparable amount of money (at least $1.50) and then return the coins for others to use.

Tzedakah to all who ask – The Shulchan Aruch (694:3) rules that one may not refuse to give tzedakah to anyone who asks for it on Purim. Many have the custom to carry coins with them all day in case someone asks for tzedakah.

 

  1. Mishloach Manot — Every person has an obligation to send at least one Mishloach Manot Purim gift to another Jew on Purim day. Minimally, this package must contain two types of food that are ready to be eaten. Some have the custom to hand deliver one package and send another package via a messenger.

In order to fulfill the mitzvah, you must send at least one actual package of foods. Sending through communal organizations is a beautiful way to bring joy to your friends on Purim, but does not fulfill the essential obligation. The reason is that mishloach manot must be “ish le-re’ehu” one person to another, and not through a corporation or in partnership with others.

 

  1. Seudah (Festive Meal) — The final mitzvah of Purim is to have a festive meal. The minimum requirement for the seuda is to have a meal with bread. However, it is preferable to have a festive meal with friends. Words of Torah and festive songs should be included.

The Purim seudah may be eaten all day long, though the Rema (Orach Chayim 695:2) writes that it should ideally be eaten in the afternoon after one has prayed Mincha. The Rema also cautions that though the seuda may extend into the night of the 15th of Adar, the majority of the meal should be eaten during Purim day.

 Alcohol

The Shulchan Aruch (OH 695:2) rules that a person must become besumei on Purim until they reach the point of not knowing the difference between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai.” Most authorities understand besumei to mean “get drunk on wine.” From here emerges the practice that many have to become intoxicated on Purim.

There are a few things that must be noted:

  1. The Rema on the spot says that one need not get drunk to fulfill this dictate. Rather, they should take a nap and while they are sleeping they will not know the difference.
  2. At no point does Judaism demand that we place ourselves at risk. Alcohol can be very dangerous if consumed in excess. It is crucial that one be safe at all times.
  3. There is absolutely no Halachic imperative to drink at night. The ruling applies only to the Seudah.

 

  1. Al ha-Nisim – Al ha-Nissim is recited during the Amidah and Birkat ha-Mazon. If one forgets during the Amidah, they need not repeat it.

 

  1. Aveilim/Mourners – Mourners are obligated in all the mitzvot of Purim, however the manner in which they observe them is tempered. Thus, the custom is that a mourner does not receive Mishloach Manot (though his or her family may) and a mourner should send mishloach manot to at least one Jew.
    Mourners should participate in a small, private Purim Seudah, rather than a large gathering with excessive levity.

 

 

Planning Ahead: Lessons from Rajon Rondo and Acacia Wood

Good Shabbos. This morning’s d’var Torah is inspired by a question that I was recently asked. I will come to it shortly.

In preparing my speech this week, I was reminded of a favorite story that happened several years ago. When Yisrael, our oldest child was a little baby and Toby and I were working at Brandeis, we sent him to a local daycare center. One day I went to pick him up from daycare and there was some major excitement at the center. As I went in to find Yisrael I saw three or four employees giving a tour of the center to someone. It turns out it was Rajon Rondo. That name may not mean that much to any of you, but let me assure you it was a big deal. Rondo was the point guard of the Boston Celtics. They had just won the championship and he was the team’s rising star. He wasn’t a big deal in Boston, he was a huge deal. It turns out that his daughter had just started going to the daycare center.

Well, all of the parents and teachers were awestruck at seeing this celebrity, myself included. But we were also confused because we didn’t know what we were supposed to do. Should I run up to him and ask for an autograph (nowadays, we would also have to debate whether asking for a Selfie is appropriate)? Maybe play it cool like it’s no big deal. I was tempted to walk up to him and ask if he is the one who has to wake up to change diapers in the middle of the night at his house.

In the end, no one did anything. We all stood there dumbfounded because we did not know what Rondo wanted from us. We didn’t know how he wanted to be treated in that situation.

I’ll come back to the Rondo story as well.

This week’s parsha reviews the essential components of the Mishkan. It opens with a list of all the supplies that were needed for the construction:

Exodus 35:4-9:

 

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶל־כָּל־עֲדַ֥ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֵאמֹ֑ר זֶ֣ה הַדָּבָ֔ר אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה יְהוָ֖ה לֵאמֹֽר׃ קְח֨וּ מֵֽאִתְּכֶ֤ם תְּרוּמָה֙ לַֽיהוָ֔ה כֹּ֚ל נְדִ֣יב לִבּ֔וֹ יְבִיאֶ֕הָ אֵ֖ת תְּרוּמַ֣ת יְהוָ֑ה זָהָ֥ב וָכֶ֖סֶף וּנְחֹֽשֶׁת׃ וּתְכֵ֧לֶת וְאַרְגָּמָ֛ן וְתוֹלַ֥עַת שָׁנִ֖י וְשֵׁ֥שׁ וְעִזִּֽים׃ וְעֹרֹ֨ת אֵילִ֧ם מְאָדָּמִ֛ים וְעֹרֹ֥ת תְּחָשִׁ֖ים וַעֲצֵ֥י שִׂטִּֽים׃ וְשֶׁ֖מֶן לַמָּא֑וֹר וּבְשָׂמִים֙ לְשֶׁ֣מֶן הַמִּשְׁחָ֔ה וְלִקְטֹ֖רֶת הַסַּמִּֽים׃ וְאַ֨בְנֵי־שֹׁ֔הַם וְאַבְנֵ֖י מִלֻּאִ֑ים לָאֵפ֖וֹד וְלַחֹֽשֶׁן׃

And Moses spoke unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, saying: ‘This is the thing which the LORD commanded, saying: Take ye from among you an offering unto the LORD, whosoever is of a willing heart, let him bring it, the LORD’S offering: gold, and silver, and brass; and blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine linen, and goats ’hair; and rams ’skins dyed red, and sealskins, and acacia-wood; and oil for the light, and spices for the anointing oil, and for the sweet incense; and onyx stones, and stones to be set, for the ephod, and for the breastplate.

I want to focus on the עצי שטים, acacia wood.

It was used for many of the components of the משכן and for many of the כלים.

Planks, קרשים (36:20-37)

The Aron, ארון (37:1-9)

The Shulchan שלחן (37:10-16)

The altars מזבח הקטרת (37:25-29) מזבח העולה (38:1-8)

The question arises as to where they got all of this acacia wood. The Ibn Ezra (peirush ha-aroch, Shemot 25:5) suggests that the simplest explanation is that there must have been a forest or grove of acacia trees next to Har Sinai. While this answer makes perfect sense, it is not terribly interesting. Rashi, following the Midrashic tradition gives a much more interesting answer to the question of where did B’nei Yisrael get acacia wood in the desert.

Twice in Parshat Terumah Rashi quotes the Midrashic tradition that the עצי שטים were planted by Ya’akov when he came down to Egypt. Ya’akov saw through prophecy that Hashem would require of B’nei Yisrael to build a Mishkan using such wood and Ya’akov wanted to ensure that the wood would be ready for them. According to this, B’nei Yisrael carried the acacia wood with them as they left Egypt. For example, Rashi on Shemot 25:

Rashi on Exodus 25:5:3:

ועצי שטים וּמֵאַיִן הָיוּ לָהֶם בַּמִּדְבָּר? פֵּרַשׁ רַבִּי תַּנְחוּמָא: יַעֲקֹב אָבִינוּ צָפָה בְּרוּחַ הַקֹּדֶשׁ שֶׁעֲתִידִין יִשְׂרָאֵל לִבְנוֹת מִשְׁכָּן בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְהֵבִיא אֲרָזִים לְמִצְרַיִם וּנְטָעָם, וְצִוָּה לְבָנָיו לִטְּלָם עִמָּהֶם כְּשֶׁיֵּצְאוּ מִמִּצְרָיִם:

ועצי שטים AND SHITTIM WOOD — But from where did they get this in the wilderness? Rabbi Tanchuma explained it thus: Our father Jacob foresaw by the gift of the Holy Spirit that Israel would once build a Tabernacle in the wilderness: he therefore brought cedars to Egypt and planted them there, and bade his children take these with them when they would leave Egypt (Tanchuma; cf. Bereishit Rabbah 94 and Rashi on Exodus 26:15).

And this is not the end of the story of the acacia wood. The Torah notes that on his way to Egypt, Ya’akov stops at Be’er Sheva to offer sacrifices:

Genesis 46:1:

וַיִּסַּ֤ע יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְכָל־אֲשֶׁר־ל֔וֹ וַיָּבֹ֖א בְּאֵ֣רָה שָּׁ֑בַע וַיִּזְבַּ֣ח זְבָחִ֔ים לֵאלֹהֵ֖י אָבִ֥יו יִצְחָֽק׃

And Israel took his journey with all that he had, and came to Beer-sheba, and offered sacrifices unto the God of his father Isaac.

The Midrash (Breishit Rabbah 94:4) tells us that there was a second reason for his detour. שהלך לקץ אזים שנטע אברהם זקנו בבאר שבע. – He went to cut down the trees that his grandfather Abraham had planted in Be’er Sheva. This points us back to Breishit 21. After the story of the expulsion of Hagar and Yishmael, and after Avraham makes a covenant with Avimelech, and interestingly right before we read of the story of the Akeidah, we find:

Genesis 21:33:

וַיִּטַּ֥ע אֶ֖שֶׁל בִּבְאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיִּ֨קְרָא־שָׁ֔ם בְּשֵׁ֥ם יְהוָ֖ה אֵ֥ל עוֹלָֽם׃

And Abraham planted a tamarisk-tree in Beer-sheba, and called there on the name of the LORD, the Everlasting God.

The meaning of the word eshel is unclear, and many possibilities are offered by the mefarshim (commentaries).

  • Rashi records two possibilities: either it means an orchard of fruit trees with which to feed his guests, or it means an inn to host travelers.
  • The Rashbam maintains that Avraham’s eshel was an orchard of trees where Avraham would go to pray.
  • In the Midrash Yalkut Shimoni, R. Nehemiah is cited as saying that the word eshel is related to the Hebrew word for ask (sha’al). According to this understanding Avraham would say to his guests, “Ask for whatever you would like and I will give it to you.”
  • Finally, the Radak comments that the word eshel is an acronym for the words ochel, shtia, leviah – food drink and escort. Avraham taught the residents of Be’er Sheva that to properly welcome guests into their city they must provide these three things.

Whatever, the exact meaning of the word Eshel is, it is clear that the Midrash wants to connect the trees prepared by Yaakov for the construction of the Mishkan with the eshel planted by Avraham. Not only does this create a powerful historical connection between the generation of the desert and their ancestor Avraham. It emphasizes that the same values stressed by Avraham are integral to the Mishkan as well. In the eyes of our sages, a Mishkan in which Hashem dwells among the Jewish people is possible only if it is built with a commitment to the values and lessons instilled by Avraham avinu. Though we no longer have a physical Mishkan, this is an important lesson for us to take to heart as we participate in, and build our own community.

I would like to apply this in a different context as well. The question that I was asked a couple of weeks ago was for guidance in helping someone to prepare their will and advanced healthcare directive. One of the lessons of the atzei shitim is that it shows how Ya’akov avinu was able to achieve peace of mind when confronting his own mortality. He took steps to ensure that the values and decisions that mattered most to him would be carried out by his descendants. We have an imperative to do the same in our day and age. Not just by giving tzedakah or by instilling a love of Judaism and the Jewish people in our children and grandchildren. We have a moral and halachic responsibility to ensure that our values and decisions are clear when it comes to our personal lives and well-being. One way that we can do this is to by preparing advanced healthcare directives and ensuring that our preferences are clear to those who will be entrusted with our care if God forbid anything should happen to us. I opened with the story of “meeting” Rajon Rondo at my son’s daycare.  No one knew what to do when encountering a celebrity in such an unexpected setting.   Everyone was too busy trying to get into his head to know what he wanted from us in that situation, that we all wound up looking like fools. There are bound to be lots of similar situations in life when we have to guess what it is that someone else wants from us. Too often it is the case that family members are forced into this situation around the end of life of a loved one. It does not have to be this way. Having the proper papers in place can provide clarity for our family and peace of mind for ourselves.

There are many details and nuances to be addressed when preparing documents of this nature, and now is not the time to get into those details. But now is the time to begin thinking about these issues if you have not done so, to have a conversation with family and loved ones, to make sure that everything is up to date. There are a number of templates available that account for the unique halachic concerns that arise. I am happy to provide resources after Shabbos and would love to work on putting together a more formal at our shul to discuss these issues as a community.

Just as the Halachic prenup has become normative in our community, we must ensure that health care directives become normative as well.