Sunday, September 26, 2021

Bereshit: Endings and Beginnings

For this year’s E-Torah cycle, we will approach the weekly portion as a springboard for a learning conversation.  Each week will offer a brief commentary, followed by a prompt for discussion, which you can do with a family member or a friend—or on your own as a sort of internal dialogue/reflection.

This week we conclude the Torah, and immediately begin anew.

Deuteronomy ends with the death of Moses, for whom the people grieved for thirty days.  We read that never again did there arise a prophet like him, “who God knew, face to face.”  Then, without missing a beat, we open Genesis and affirm: “In the beginning, God created. . .”

What is the connection between these most famous of endings and beginnings?  Ecclesiastes teaches that “there is a time for birth and a time for death.”  But more often than not, those times overlap significantly.  All new beginnings include loss, the letting go of what was.  Each birth is also a little death.  Each death makes room for new life.

Moses dies—and then the world is born again.

Conversation Question:

In this season so full of losses, what are you mourning?  What opportunities do you see for new life?  Or, if the grief is too immediate and intense, what sustains you from moment to moment?

Friday, September 17, 2021

Yom Kippur Morning 5782: We Become Our Choices

The liturgy for these Days of Awe can be hard on the ears and heavy on the heart; the onslaught of language around sin and judgment can be overwhelming.  Sometimes we need to find different and more accessible ways to read the ancient words.  I think this is especially true of passages that seem to focus on Divine reprimand and retribution.  Here we might note that while we often speak of punishment and consequences interchangeably, there are significant differences between the two.  Punishment is fear-based, employing physical or emotional pain to coerce behavior.  Consequences flow naturally out of our choices, whether positive or negative.  Discipline grounded in consequences helps us recognize the relationship between our actions and their outcomes.  This awareness enables us to learn and grow.  

Understanding this distinction between punishment and consequences can significantly shift our approach to these High Holy Days.  Upon first consideration, the season’s readings are saturated with fearful imagery of an all-knowing Judge who exacts retribution for our transgressions.  In Avinu Malkeinu, we plead for Divine mercy, despite the unworthiness of our deeds.  And in Unetaneh Tokef, the paradigmatic prayer for these holy days, we proclaim: “In truth you are the Arbiter, Prosecutor and Expert Witness who writes and seals the fate of every living being.”  

For some Jews, a straightforward reading of these passages works just fine.  If the doctrine of reward and punishment suits you, gey gezunterheyt, no problem.  But for me—and I suspect for many of you, too—this theology does not work.  I cannot worship a God who demands fealty through fear.  Such power comes at too high a spiritual, emotional, and psychological cost, darkening the light of our better angels and isolating us from one another. Lest you think this a radical position born of secular modernity, note that a millennium ago, Rashi wrote that it is significantly better to serve God out of love than out of dread. [Rashi on Deuteronomy 6:5]

So what might it look like to read this season’s sacred texts through a lens of consequences rather than punishment?  Can we cultivate a theology of accountability that draws upon hope instead of fear?  Might we yet envision a God who disavows coercion and, instead, runs the world as a kind of classroom that rewards wisdom gained through experience and reflection?  The subtle moral universe in this scenario evades the easy algorithm of tit for tat.  Yet it affirms an elegant ethical calculus that the poet Jane Hirschfield describes beautifully in her poem, “Rebus”:

You work with what you are given,
the red clay of grief,
the black clay of stubbornness going on after. . . 

As water given sugar sweetness, given salt grows salty,
we become our choices.
Each yes, each no continues. . . 

If we reconsider Unetaneh Tokef from this very different perspective, we might understand the text not as a threat designed to scare us into submission but as a reminder of how much our own choices determine our fate.  The God in this re-reading doesn’t author the Book of Life; instead, She metaphorically holds it to our eyes to show us the story we’ve written for ourselves:

Va-tiftach et sefer ha-zichronot u’m’aylahv yikarei v’chotem yad kol adam bo—You open the Scroll of Recollections which reads itself aloud, for the seal of every person’s hand is in it.


When we approach our own lives this way, we shift responsibility from a supernatural God to our ourselves and our communities.  In the magnum opus of Jewish medieval philosophy, the Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides leads us in this direction, suggesting that 
much—though not all—the suffering for which we blame the Creator is actually an outcome of our own poor decision-making.  As he notes: People lament over their misfortunes, yet more often than not, we are afflicted due to our misguided actions.  Were he alive today, Maimonides would undoubtedly see the worsening pandemic for what it is: less an act of God and more the result of human folly that keeps half our population unvaccinated and unmasked, thus promoting the spread of the virus and the proliferation of new variants.

Or as our Torah portion for this morning asserts, we all decide, every day, between life and death, good and evil—then deal with the consequences of our choices, which affect both ourselves and those around us. Choose blessing and life, God urges us, so that you and your descendants may endure on the good land I am giving you.  Our sacred calling is to do everything in our power to embrace the blessing rather than the curse—and to learn and grow from the times when we fall short and choose poorly.  


In this spirit, I’d like to conclude by turning to a passage we read earlier this morning.  For some of you, it may be unfamiliar, though it is an ancient Torah text that comprises the second of the traditional three paragraphs of the Shema.  You won’t find it in Reform siddurim, because the progressive rabbis and teachers who edited those prayer books could not stomach the literal message, in which, following the translation in the Conservative Siddur Lev Shalem, God proclaims:  

V’haya im shamoa—If you heard and obey my commandments. . . I will grant seasonal rain for your land, each autumn and spring.  I will provide grass for your herds and you shall eat and be satisfied. . . But if your hearts stray and you do not listen, God will close up the sky so that there will be no rain and the earth will not yield its produce and you will quickly disappear from the good land that God is giving you.

I can empathize with my Reform rabbinic forebears that chose to omit these verses because they read them as an anachronistic theology of reward and punishment that is not borne out in the world we inhabit.  Yet I believe the time has come to reconsider their decision, because if we re-read the text through the lens of consequences, its message has never been timelier.  Here is Richard Levy’s translation from our machzor, On Wings of Awe:

If we can hear the words form Sinai. . .If we can serve all that is holy, we shall be doing all that humans can to help the rains to flow, the grasses to be green, the grains to grow up golden like the sun, and the rivers to be filled with life once more.   And all the children of God shall eat and there will be enough.

But if we turn from Sinai’s words. . . then the holiness of life will contract for us.  Our world will grow inhospitable to rains from heaven, and the produce of the earth will not be ours.  Or worse, it will be ours unjustly, and our acts shall isolate us from the flowing waves of green and gold. . .  Let us therefore teach these words to our children, listening to our children teaching us—that our generation may be as numerous as the stars of heaven and the dust of the earth, as faithful as the living waters that unite them all.

With this reading, Torah directly addresses the existential question of our age—catastrophic, human-caused climate change.  The choice couldn’t be clearer, or more urgent: if we heed our better angels, future generations might yet survive and thrive.  If we turn away, they will face one disaster after another, imperiling all life as we know it.

This is not about punishment; it’s nothing more—or less—than the high stakes consequences of our decisions.  And let there be no doubt—our children and grandchildren will surely see this critical moment in that light.  If we bequeath them a dark, diminished world perpetually battered by fire, flood, and famine, they won’t fret that God is punishing them for their sins; they will, instead, angrily note that we, their forebears, knew the cost of our actions—and inactions—and nonetheless failed to change.

Our time for teshuvah is quickly ticking away and our opportunity to preserve the earth’s beauty and security for future generations is drawing to a close.  Yet if we muster the collective courage and will, we can still act on their behalf, and on behalf of all of God’s creation.

As Hillel taught: If not now, when?

My friends, this is the hour to let go of the archaic language of Divine wrath, of reward and punishment, which diminish our powers and weary our hearts.  It’s all about consequences—where the choice is still our own, and we might yet learn and grow.  The future is in our hands.  Let us hearken and choose life, for ourselves and our posterity, so that they might long endure on the good land gifted to us.

Ken y’hi ratzon

Kol Nidre 5782: The Face of Freedom Wears a Mask

On this most sacred day, I’d like to reflect on a classic Talmudic question, namely: what is our tradition’s most essential teaching?  For centuries, the Rabbis debated this matter, each making a case for a passage they identified as k’lal gadol ba-Torah—Torah’s guiding principle, which encompasses everything that follows.

One answer comes from the preeminent Jewish philosopher and legal scholar Moses Maimonides, who proposed a verse from the portion we will read at tomorrow morning’s service:

See, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil—choose life. . . 

Maimonides selected this passage because he considers free will “the very pillar of the Torah and its precepts”; without it, he insists, all the moral demands that God asks of us would be meaningless.  Since there is no virtue in doing that which is compelled, where we could not possibly choose otherwise, human freedom underlies everything.

In this argument for free choice as Judaism’s foundational ethic, Maimonides certainly has ample precedent.  The Jewish people’s formative experience, which we still re-enact every spring at Pesach, is the Exodus journey from bondage to liberation.  As the Haggadah reminds us: “In every generation, it is incumbent upon each of us to see ourselves as if we, too, went out of Egypt.”  

Avadim hayyinu, atah b’nai chorin—we were slaves, now we are free.

And yet. . . . 

However fundamental freedom may be, it is not an intrinsically good end in its own right.  We imperil ourselves when we forget that freedom is ultimately a utilitarian virtue, which is to say, its moral worth depends entirely upon how and when we apply it.  In the challenging times we’re living through, it is all too obvious that personal autonomy, for all of its importance, is easily abused—and therefore must sometimes be constrained for the sake of the common good.  This is why it is critical to read our “choose life” verse in its proper context, where Moses is addressing the entire community: You stand this day, all of you, to enter together into God’s covenant.  He directs his charge not to individual Israelites but to the Jewish people as a whole.

Since that time, our tradition has always balanced personal freedom with communal responsibility.  I could cite countless examples but this evening, will offer just a few.

For starters, Judaism strictly limits property rights.  For instance, I am not permitted to plant a tree anyplace in my own yard where its roots will eventually spread and damage a cistern on my neighbor’s land.  Similarly, anyone seeking to establish a tannery business can only do so at least fifty cubits outside city limits, lest the malodorous pollution inherent in that enterprise diminish other citizens’ quality of life.  As Talmud teaches: Kol Yisrael areivim zeh ba-zeh—All Jews are responsible for one another—partners in the brit, our enduring covenant with the Holy One (Shevuot 39a). 

That’s why throughout this Yom Kippur we will, as always, confess our failings in the plural:

Al cheyt sh’chatanu—For the transgressions that we have committed.

In both our successes and our shortcomings, we stand together.

This dynamic is evident in the Hebrew term for freedom, cherut.  The root of the word means to engrave, as in Torah’s description of the Ten Commandments as charut al ha-luchot—engraved by God upon the tablets.  Thus the Midrash teaches: “Read this as the real source of freedom, for no one is truly free except the one who lives the way of Torah.”   As Rabbi David Hoffman understands this passage: 

Relationships limit our freedom.  Lovers, friends, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons—every human relationship that we freely enter into. . . limits our choices and inevitably comes with responsibilities.  And yet we choose to voluntarily enter into these relationships, because ultimately, we believe that a life lived in relationship, deeply connected and responsible to someone, is more meaningful than a life lived where we may possess the unconstrained freedom to act.


Why does our tradition lean so strongly into communitarian ethics that balance personal autonomy with collective obligation?  Because after three thousand years, we’re all too aware of the alternative.  The Rabbis spoke with wisdom born of experience when they taught: Pray for the welfare of the government, for without it, people would devour one another alive (Avot 3:2).  They knew that freedom without responsibility inevitably descends into anarchy, where life is, in Thomas Hobbes’ memorable description, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  For a biblical glimpse of such a merciless society, one need only peruse the book of Judges, with its terrible tales of rape, murder, and civil war, since, in the absence of laws to protect the populace, everyone did what was right in their own eyes.

In a world without significant limitations on individual freedom we are all like the passengers on the proverbial boat where a man sees it as his prerogative to drill a hole beneath his own seat, thereby sinking the entire ship.  If we fail to constrain absolute autonomy for the sake of the common good, we will all go down together.  Judaism recognizes and respects this reality.


For most of its history, albeit imperfectly, America did, too.  

Founding Father Thomas Paine decreed, “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression, for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously recognized that free speech does not grant one the right to cry fire in a crowded theater, and legal philosopher Zechariah Chafee noted that “your right to swing your first ends where my nose begins.”

We, too, have zoning ordinances that constrain individual actions that diminish the neighbors’ welfare.

And the United States has a proud history of citizens who have made significant sacrifices for the public good.  Just a month before I was born, President John F Kennedy spoke to that ethos in his inaugural address, where he urged his fellow Americans: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

Alas, these sentiments now feel like quaint remnants of a bygone era. Our disastrously failed response to the pandemic reveals that America is profoundly sick, and not only with COVID, which is a terrible symptom of the larger, moral malaise of hyper-individualism and unmoored freedom that trump and trample the common good.  Our once beautiful national ideal of liberty is reduced to the equivalent of a toddler in a tantrum whining, “You’re not the boss of me.”

Nowhere is this sad state of affairs as evident as here in Idaho, where even as we speak, half the population is effectively boring holes in our collective boat, and those politically-empowered to lead cower from their most elemental calling to secure the well-being of their constituents.  

This state of our nation, and even more, our state, is insanity.  As Kwame Anthony Appiah wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “There may be something uplifting in ‘Give me liberty or give me death’ as a slogan.  ‘Give me liberty and give them death,’ not so much.”

As Appiah notes, this myth of unfettered freedom is a monstrous delusion.  Pointing to the open road as the iconic image of American liberty, he asks: 

But what does it take to roll on down the highway?  Well, a highway for starters.  The federal government built the interstate highway system, using its constitutional prerogative of eminent domain hundreds of thousands of times to keep it straight, while collecting taxes to pay for its construction and maintenance.  And then you can only speed down your lane because you know that the other cars are moving in the same direction. Governmental power, exercised through a veritable trailer-load of law, is what makes it possible to keep truckin’ on.  

The right rules are a condition of liberty.  Just as the blissful freedom of the road requires measures to pave those roads, sensible public health measures—like mask-wearing rules, which protect both the individual and the commonweal—don’t compromise liberty; they advance it.  The uncontrolled spread of infectious diseases gets in the way of fulfilling your goals and managing your life without interference. Bluntly put, there’s precious little freedom in the sick ward, and still less in the graveyard. . . . That’s why, in many places today, the true face of freedom wears a mask.

The true face of freedom wears a mask.  

Indeed.  For left unchecked, our infantile notions of autonomy unbound by communal responsibility will destroy civil society as we know it.  It’s not just COVID; racism, misogyny, hunger and homelessness, xenophobia, antisemitism, gross economic inequity and, above all, cataclysmic human-caused climate change all demand collective action.  We cannot solve any of these social ills until we, as a nation and as a world, come to see that the welfare of each and every one of us is inextricably bound to that of our neighbors, and that of the strangers on the other side of the globe as well.   As Dr. Martin Luther King eloquently summed it up: None of us is free until we are all free.


We might begin to turn toward this monumental task is by recognizing that the problem, like its solution, is bigger than any individual.  As Jamelle Bouie wrote in a New York Times op-ed:

Consider the larger cultural and political context of the United States.  We still live in the shadow of the Reagan revolution and its successful attack on America’s traditions of solidarity and social responsibility. . . This is the society we have built, where individuals are left to carry the burdens of life into the market and hope they survive.  This so-called freedom is ill-suited to human flourishing. . . . Recently, much has been made of the anger and frustration many people feel toward vaccine holdouts.  I share this frustration, as well as the anger at the lies and misinformation that fuel a good deal of the anti-vaccine sentiment.  But I also know that anger toward individuals is ultimately misplaced.  

When you structure a society so that every person must be an island, you cannot blame people when inevitably they act as if they are.  If we want a country that takes solidarity seriously, we will actually have to build one.


To construct that state, that country, that world, we will need a guiding principle.  Which brings me back to where I began, with the rabbinic debate over Torah’s most foundational teaching.  While Maimonides opted for “choose life,” the ultimate consensus view was first proposed by Rabbi Akiva.  His selection also appears in a Torah portion that we will read tomorrow, this time in the afternoon service, from the book of Leviticus.  We all know it:

V’ahavta l’rayecha kamochah—Love your neighbor as yourself.

That’s it.  Simple to say, hard to live.  

But friends, our lives depend upon it, and if our civilization is to endure beyond our own generation, we will have to learn to better fulfill this mitzvah.

Love your neighbors.  Act with their welfare in mind, together with your own.

Love yourself and love this precious world that God has given us.

Holy One, forgive us our failings and guide us toward the pursuit of genuine freedom in 5782.

Give us the courage to love and care for our neighbors as ourselves.

Ken y’hi ratzon