Nature vs. Nurture: Does Yichus or Individual Choice Win Out?

Yesterday I discussed with you different Midrashim on the giving of the Torah and from it different ways we can view the Torah’s impact on our lives.  Today I would like to shift to discussing a book from our tradition that we read today: The Book of Ruth.

I will begin with a brief summary, mostly of Chapter 1.  Ruth is a Moabite married to one of two brothers, Machlon and Chilyon, both of whom mysteriously pass away.  The brothers’ father had also died but his wife, Naomi, was still alive.  Naomi was going to leave Moab to return to Bethlehem, but her daughters-in-law would not leave her side.  With persistence she gets her daughter-in-law Orpah to leave but her other daughter-in-law, Ruth, refuses to leave, stating “Your people shall be my people and your God shall be my God.”  Ruth returns to Bethlehem with Naomi, where she marries a man named Boaz and lives the rest of her life.

This story is very peculiar me for a few reasons.  First, Ruth is not only a non-Israelite but a Moabite, one of the enemy nations of the Israelites.  In Deuteronomy 23:4 it states, “An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the Assembly of the LORD; even to the tenth generation shall none of them enter the Assembly of the LORD forever.”  This verse explicitly states that a Moabite can never become an Israelite, and yet here we have Ruth saying, “Your people shall be my people and your God shall be my God”-the ultimate conversion to Judaism and acceptance of Torah.  What makes the situation even more interesting is that we find out at the end of Chapter 4 that Ruth is the great-grandmother of King David, not only our greatest king ever but also the ancestor of our future Messiah.

The first question to answer is why is there so much hostility towards Moabites?  Yesterday I brought in a Midrash which mentioned that the Ammonites would not accept the Torah because it says one cannot commit adultery, and their essence (or origin) is adultery.  This is referring to Genesis 19, where Lot escapes from Sodom with his daughters while the city is destroyed.  They went to a cave where to their knowledge they were the only people alive, as their homeland, Sodom, was destroyed.  The daughters each give Lot wine to drink, and when he was asleep they lay with him.  Each daughter gave birth-one called her son “Ben Ammi,” meaning “son of my nation,” and he is the ancestor of the Ammonites, and the other called her son “Moab,” meaning “from my father,” and he is the ancestor of the Moabites, Ruth’s people.  This etiological story of an illicit union forming enemy nations is a source for Israelite hatred of the Moabites, which is why it is interesting that King David’s great grandmother was a Moabite herself.

Even more fascinating is the fact that this is not the only incestual union in David’s lineage.  In Genesis 38, we learn of Judah’s son Er being the husband of Tamar but then mysteriously passing away.  Judah’s second son, Onan, then becomes Tamar’s husband (through the laws of Levirite marriage) and also passes away.  The third son is withheld from Tamar, who in an effort to remarry and become pregnant dresses up as a prostitute and seduces Judah, her father in law.  Out of this illicit union come two twins, one of whom is Peretz, a 10th generation ancestor of King David.

We thus observe two incestual unions in the lineage of our greatest king ever.  I see this as indicating that one’s lineage does not unduly impact on who a person is, but rather each individual is able to make his or her own choices.  It is true that one’s genetic makeup can create a proclivity for certain behaviors, both good and bad, in that person.  David demonstrated the courage and strong leadership of his great-grandmother Ruth and of his great-great-great grandfather Nachshon, who according to Midrash was the first to leap into the Sea of Reeds when the Egyptians were coming to destroy the Israelites.  He also engaged in at least one illicit union, the affair he had with Batsheva.  However, David was his own person, and the choices he made demonstrated an independent personality.  Similarly, the choices Ruth made to stay by her mother-in-law’s side in her time of need and leave her own people to join a foreign nation demonstrate great courage and leadership.  It demonstrates that we cannot judge people wholly by what their ancestors did or by what those around them do, as while the Moabites may have been the enemies of the Israelites, we have at least one Moabite who extended a hand and found a place in the Israelite community.  From the book of Ruth, I have gained appreciation to see each person as an individual who has something to contribute, rather than as simply a product of his/her lineage.

The same is true with Yizkor. Our parents have instilled in us proclivities and habits for both good and bad, as well as teaching us values. WE remember and are grateful for who they are/were and for the experiences we have shared with them. At the same time, each of us is our own person with our own rights and responsibilities. Let us use our limited time on earth to make positive and productive choices, as Ruth did.

I have been blessed to get to know each of you as an individual over the course of my first year in Jericho.  I have shared in beautiful conversations before the Torah reading and during Kiddush, learning from you during each one.  The warmth you have shown me since the day you received me as your Rabbi last June has been incredible, and I look forward to many more wonderful years together.

Thank you to each and every one of you for all that you do to strengthen our congregation, be it coming to minyan, serving on a committee or on our Board, giving generously of yourself and contributing to our community in so many ways.  Also, thank you for your patience with me, a newcomer to our community.  I learned so much from you and have grown in confidence with your help.  Thank you for an enriching and enjoyable year.

Shavuot Day 1-Our Relationship to the Torah

Today marks the anniversary of the giving of the Torah.  If you read my bulletin article, you know that Shavuot was originally the wheat harvest as well as the harvest of first fruits.  However, it is also the day on which we commemorate Moses coming down from Mount Sinai and giving the Torah to the Israelites.

The most interesting part of the portion for me is that it says little about how the Israelites came to accept the Torah.  It does say, in Chapter 20 Verse 15, that when the Israelite nation saw “the sounds, the flames, the blast of the ram’s horn and the mountain smoking,” they panicked and told Moses that he must serve as their intermediary to God.  Moses had to tell the Israelites not to be afraid and that God’s presence will only elevate them.  However, in Verse 18 it says “The people kept their distance while Moses entered the mist where the divine was revealed.”

Why are the Israelites fearful of God?  A Midrash, found in Sanhedrin 88a, sheds light on this.  The Midrash is based off Exodus 19:17, where it states, “The people of Israel stood beneath the mountain.”  People being beneath a mountain does not make sense, hence most translators stating instead that they were “at the foot of the mountain.”  However, Tractate Sanhedrin interprets this verse literally, that God held Mount Sinai above the Israelites, proclaiming “If you accept the Torah, that is good, but if not, this shall be your grave!”  God therefore coerced the Israelites to accept the Torah under threat of death.  This adds to why the Israelites would be so afraid of God, as God threatened to kill them should they disobey.

Another take on why the Israelites would have been afraid of God is found in a Midrash from Shemot Rabbah 29:4 where God directly proclaims the first commandment, but the Israelites cannot absorb God’s deep, booming voice, and their souls leave them.  The angels revive the Israelites and they try to flee, but finally the angels force them back to Mount Sinai.  God says the 2nd Commandment and once again the Israelites’ souls pop out.  The angels revive them, and once again they try to flee.  When they are brought back to Mount Sinai this time, they beg Moses to tell them the rest of the commandments, which he does.  This is not only an explanation for why the Israelites were frightened but also a rationale for why the first two commandments are written in 2nd person and the last eight are written in 3rd person.

Here we have two Midrashim that demonstrate the Israelites’ fear of hearing the 10 commandments or of being given the yoke of the Torah.  However, there is another side in the Midrash which demonstrates the Israelites’ desire to accept the Torah.  In Deuteronomy 33:20, God said to the Israelites, “I came from Sinai and appeared at Seir and made my presence known at Mount Paran.”  This raises the question “Why did God appear at these other places and not just at Sinai?”

In Sifrei Devarim 343, the Midrash on the Book of Deuteronomy, God tried to give the Torah to the children of Esau, who lived in Seir.  They asked, “What is written in it?”  God said, “You shall not murder.”  They replied, “Our essence and the essence of our father is murder, as you can see from Isaac’s blessing to Esau, ‘By your sword you shall live.’”  God next tried to give the Torah to the Moabites and the children of Ammon.  They asked, “What is in it?” and God replied “You shall not commit adultery.”  The Moabites and Ammonites replied, “Our essence is adultery, as you can see from our origin, where Lot’s daughters slept with Lot and gave birth to Ammon and Moav” (I will refer to this story more in-depth tomorrow).  God then went to the Ishmaelites to give the Torah.  They said, “What is in it?” and God replied “You shall not steal.”  They said, “Stealing is our essence, as we see from the description of Ishmael as a wild man.”  God tried to give the Torah to each nation, with the same negative result, until God came to Israel, who instead of asking what was in the Torah said the words of Exodus 24:7, “We will do and we will hear,” meaning that they accept the words of the Torah unconditionally, later coming to understand the content of those words.

While from my perspective this Midrash is faulty, both in its categorization of these nations and in assuming that descendants will follow the behavior of their ancestors, it illustrates that sometimes we need to accept something before we can understand its value.  We live in a country that prides itself on individualism and personal choice, where people often ask “What’s in it for me?” before they commit to something.  I strongly feel that there should be personal meaning in everything that we do, religion included.  While yirat shamayim, or fear of God, is an esteemed Jewish value and is emphasized in the first two Midrashim I presented, I feel that adopting religious practices solely out of fear of God, without finding them personally compelling, is not likely to work in the long run.

With that being said, I find the approach of the 3rd Midrash, doing first and understanding later, as having value.  Things are sometimes complicated to understand, and sometimes doing leads to understanding.  In the modern day it can be difficult to choose to go to synagogue with all of the entertainments and opportunities for leisure, as well as our responsibilities.  Today is a weekday, and the fact that each of you has chosen to come to synagogue demonstrates your commitment to following the tradition that you have received.  This is not a tradition of fear but rather one of cherishing values you’ve learned to understand.

As we reflect on the giving of the Torah, let us remember past holiday celebrations.  I recall going to services with my entire family and eating a festive dairy meal.  I also remember staying up all night studying Torah at the Hadar Shavuot Retreat at Camp Ramah Berkshires and in Jerusalem at the Conservative Yeshiva, doing morning services as soon as the sun went up.  It was invigorating learning with so many young people, although by morning I was so tired that I slept until the afternoon.

What are your Shavuot memories?  Did you eat blintzes?  Did you do something special to celebrate the giving of the Torah?  Did you or your children have confirmation or Hebrew High School Graduation on Shavuot?  What did you do special on Shavuot to ensure that it was not forgotten? As Shavuot is a holiday with few rituals, containing no section in the Shulchan Arukh Jewish law code, we need something special to “make it our own”-to make the Torah will be revealed to us each and every year to ensure its continued observance. Hag Sameach.

Sacred Time

For those who are regulars in the synagogue, Torah readings 4-6 might seem rather commonplace. After all, we read them 4 times a year: twice on Sukkot, once on Passover and this Shabbat. What does reading about the holidays have to teach us, especially when we read them not on a holiday?

I see a key message at the center of these readings: the importance of marking sacred time. Aliyah 4 begins with the observance of Shabbat, the day of the week when we cease from doing our professional work and turn instead to our family, friends and our own mental health. Shabbat was described by Abraham Joshua Heschel as a “palace in time,” a source of majesty in the midst of our daily routines. Having Shabbat, having a time to cease from our work and to focus on ourselves and our families, is essential for everyone, be they secular and religious. Phil, if you don’t mind, let me use you as an example. For you, Saturday is a day to not take the Long Island Rail Road but rather to enjoy the beautiful outdoors on the golf course. That’s how you give meaning to your Shabbat, your day of rest.

The next observance mentioned by our text is Passover. In preparation for Passover (as is true on a smaller scale for Shabbat) we clean our homes, buy groceries and cook so that on the holiday itself we can sit back, relax and revel in our freedom and in the joy of being together with loved ones. After Passover begins we start the counting of the Omer, symbolically remembering a sheaf of barley which was brought to the Kohen (or priest) the day after the beginning of Passover. Though the Omer was only brought on one day, we are commanded to count seven full weeks from that day to the holiday of Shavuot (which literally means weeks). Why? Again the Bible is teaching us about the importance of marking sacred time. We mark the transition from Passover, the holiday of our liberation from Egypt, to Shavuot, the holiday on which we receive the Torah, a process which we are engaged in this time of year (today is the 35th day of the counting of the Omer).

Parshat Emor next details the holidays of Rosh Hashanah (referred to as the day of sounding the Shofar), Yom Kippur (the day of atonement) and Sukkot (The festival commemorating the Israelites dwelling in booths when they were in Egypt). Once again we are commanded to mark these times as moadim, or sacred occasions to God, and we are commanded to bring sacrifices (offerings to bring us close to God) during these holidays.

What does any of this have to do with us? So our ancestors set aside sacred occasions-how do we relate to them? I would argue that everyone needs to set aside sacred time for themselves and for their loved ones. This is especially true in a marriage. Both people in the couple need to set aside “sacred time,” time which is meant just for them. Life can be so hectic, our jobs can be so stressful, that it can become easy to neglect one’s partner and not devote the appropriate level of love and attention to him/her. Yes it’s nice to have Valentine’s Day (or the Jewish equivalent Tu B’Av) as well as one’s anniversary or birthdays but it is crucial to set aside time in addition to this so that one does not neglect his/her partner. Karina and I do month-a-versaries, trying to do something special just for us the first of each month. Some couples have a weekly date night set aside on their calendars just for them; others build time at different points in the week to check up on the other, make sure they are doing well and remind them that they are loved. Whatever approach the couple takes, it is important to build that “sacred time” into the relationship.

My Senior Rabbi told me before I got married not to sweat the small stuff with the wedding because “the weddings for them, the marriage is for you.” While I disagree regarding the wedding, I agree that the marriage to follow your wedding is about you and your ability to build love, companionship and “sacred time” into a relationship when life keeps pulling you in different directions. I know that you will be able to be there for one another and show devotion to each other regardless of the path in which life takes you. I wish you the best on your upcoming wedding as well as on your marriage-your building a home together and a life together as a couple. Mazal Tov!

What the Argentine Jewish Community Can Teach Us

What message should I impart to the congregation about my trip to Argentina? As I sat down at a quarter to five on Friday to determine this (very unusual for me, as I tend to write my sermons weeks in advance), I realized that in my 26 pages of notes I easily have enough material for 5 sermons. I could discuss the tension between the Argentine government and the Jewish community, how Marshall Meyer founded the Seminario, the bastion for the Reform and Conservative Argentine Jewish community, the relationship between synagogues and rabbis to one another or the relationship between Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Pope Francis. In the end, however, I felt that the most important story is the lessons that the Argentine Jewish community has to teach us.

I went with the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America on a 4 day mission to Buenos Aires. The Rabbinic Cabinet creates an annual mission in partnership with the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). Previous Rabbinic Cabinet missions have gone to expose rabbis to Judaism in the Former Soviet Union, where organized Jewish communities were forbidden and Jews who remained were at high levels of poverty, staying because they could not get out. On these missions I’m told it’s clear as night and day the work that the JDC does, providing Jews with food in a dignified way and helping them get secure living quarters as well as helping reestablish a centralized Jewish community. Why then would the JDC go to Buenos Aires, a country with a very strong and well-organized Jewish community, centered on the Delegacion De Associaciones Israelitas Argentinas (DAIA) and the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA)?

Marty Mehler spoke on Yom HaShoah about the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in 1992 and the bombing of AMIA in 1994. In spite of these atrocities (AMIA has been the greatest attack on any Jewish community since the Holocaust); the Argentine Jewish community persevered and continued forward. In 2001 however the Argentine community collapsed…and I mean COLLAPSED. According to a study by Harvard economists, this collapse was 4 TIMES as bad as the one we faced in 1929. Argentine went through 5 presidents in a span of 3 weeks. Within a short period of time, banks closed and people lost their life savings. The upper middle class Jewish community (quite similar to the one we had) was hit as hard as everyone else. People wearing nice suits were foraging garbage cans in search of food. One person recounted “My apartment is nice but one cannot eat the walls.”

To this chaotic situation entered the JDC. The JDC quickly discovered that the Argentine Jewish community (at that time 400,000, now 250,000) had given billions of dollars to Israel but had not set up an infrastructure to give to local needs. The JDC launched programs to help the Argentine Jews sustain themselves and they have been so successful that today only one of them is still run by the JDC.

On the last day of the mission, we went to the JDC’s program Baby Help, held at the low-income Tel Aviv School. Baby Help provides food and medicine for children aged 0-5 as well as for pregnant women. When the program began there were 30 kids who benefitted from it; 10 of them have since aged out. The JDC has helped renovate the Tel Aviv School (which at the time had dilapidated classrooms) and has enabled low-income students to continue to attend the school.

The other program we saw was the L’Dor VaDor Nursing Home. This home was nicer than any nursing home I have ever seen. It was formed when a local donor had to enroll his parent in a nursing home. The Sephardi home was full, as was the Ashkenazi home, and the third one was so deteriorated that this donor went into action and created a new nursing home. The JDC contributed 5% of the money for the home; the rest of it was raised through local fundraising. The government does not support the home at all, so everything needed to sustain it needs to come from the local community.

It’s great to see the work of the JDC but what is the take away for our community? For starters it’s that the entire Argentine Jewish community came together at the point of economic crisis. Whether one was liberal or conservative, Reform or Orthodox, the community took ownership of local Jewish institutions and worked to ensure their sustainability at a time of economic collapse. They fulfilled the maxim of כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה, that all of Israel is responsible for one another. In a community where 60% of the children go to day school, donors stepped forward to ensure that many of those day schools would continue and that students could attend regardless of financial need. It was best put by one of the trip participants, that “This is a community who knows who they are and what they value.”

We can also learn from the Argentines’ passion for Israel; and I mean TRUE passion. There were 4000 people at the communal Yom HaAtzmaut celebration on Monday (in past years there have been 8000) and there was ruach-filled dancing and singing by all ages, from the youth movements to the seniors. The Argentine community has prided themselves on Hebrew fluency, and their Hebrew immersion is something to admire. What’s remarkable to me is that in other ways this community is so much like our own, with an intermarriage rate of over 50% and anti-Zionism permeating college campuses. At the same time, the Argentine Jews have strong Jewish identities and have a commitment to Israel and Hebrew that is second-to-none. I hope that our community can learn to be responsible for and dedicated to one another to the extent of the Argentine Jewish community. I also hope that each of us will support the work of our local Federation both here and abroad to ensure that the Federation can continue to strengthen and reinforce communities which are in need. Thank you to the Jericho Jewish Center for giving me the privilege of attending this mission and of representing our community.