Thursday, February 16, 2012


Tomorrow night I get to give the adult sermon at Erev Shabbat services. It's a good thing to because I could not give this drash to the religious school kids on Saturday morning.

Hillel famously said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do unto others.” Was there an implied “unless they did it to you first” to this statement? Sometimes this “Golden Rule” is reiterated as “Treat others as you would like to be treated,” but how often do we subconsciously reinterpret that as “Treat others as they treat you.”

Just as famously, Ghandi proclaimed, “An eye for an eye will cause the whole world to go blind.” I was raised with these two adages side by side: treat others as you would like to be treated, even when they don’t equally respect you. It makes sense in theory and on a purely day-to-day level. If someone is rude to you, keep that smile plastered on and say, “Have a nice day!” But some days are harder than others, and we all have moments where we hear the snarky or angry responses coming out of our mouths before we can even think to stop ourselves. And if you think that’s hard, when we move out of the realm of the ordinary, it becomes even harder to maintain these beliefs.

I don’t remember how old I was when I first read in the Torah, “Thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe,” but I do remember this awful realization that Ghandi’s message which I held so dear was a response to a Jewish text, a correction of my holy text. In Ghandi’s phrasing, “an eye for an eye” had nothing to do with eyes. It was a wonderfully abstract metaphor for generic passivism. In the Torah, alongside “life for life” suddenly it came alive for me. What does it mean to demand such exact retribution? It added a very personalized face to it. When it came to supporting passivism in the large and distant context from which Ghandi was speaking, the rejection of an “eye for an eye” made sense. When thinking about the direct issue of the death penalty as a punishment for murder, the question gets more emotional. When Amnesty or the Religious Action Center circulates its petitions to end the death penalty, I hem and haw about joining their crusade. I am afraid to sign, because I feel bad for the people who have to look their loved one’s murderers in the eye, but I can’t not sign, because I believe in the value of every human life and the possibility of redemption. I agree with Reform Judaism’s condemnation of the death penalty, but how could I tell Annie Le’s parents or fiancĂ© that 44 years in prison was enough punishment for a 25 year old murderer, because “an eye for an eye would make the whole world blind.”

Beyond a life for a life, this week’s Torah portion also lists kidnapping and cursing’s one parents as punishable by death. Witchcraft, bestiality, and pagan worship – death. If an ox gores a person, the ox should be killed. But if the owner has been warned before about the animal’s tendency toward violence, the owner will also be killed for his negligence. Beyond this parsha, the Torah calls for the death penalty for 36 different offenses. The Reform Movement, however, has followed rabbinic interpretations that condemn the death penalty. Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 stresses the importance of presenting completely accurate testimony in capital cases, for any mistakes or falsehoods could result in the shedding of innocent blood. If any perjury were to cause an execution, "the blood of the accused and his unborn offspring stain the perjurer forever."

The passage goes on to liken wrongful executions to Cain killing Abel, concluding that it is for this reason that God created only one human in the beginning, and here is the birth of yet another famous saying: he who destroys one life, it is as though he had destroyed all humankind; whereas he who preserves one life, it is as though he preserved all humanity.

The rabbis of the Talmud ruled that capital cases required a 23-judge court, while only three judges sat for non-capital cases (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:1). Two or more eyewitnesses were required to testify to the defendant's guilt, bearing in mind that it was their hands that would, "be the first against him to put him to death" (Deuteronomy 17:6-7). In a capital case, a one-vote majority could acquit a defendant, but could not convict. Furthermore, if there was a mere one-vote majority or if any judge was undecided, additional judges were added in pairs until the majority ruled against conviction, or until one judge in favor of conviction was persuaded to err on the side of innocence (Mishnah Sanhedrin 5:5). In practice, these guidelines made applying the death penalty nearly impossible. Nearly, but not entirely, showing that the rabbis, too, had this emotional conflict with the Torah’s declaration of a “life for a life.”

In another passage, the rabbis show distaste for executions. "Said one: The Sanhedrin that puts to death one person in seven years is termed tyrannical. Rabbi Eleazar Ben Azariah says, ‘One person in seventy years.’ Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiba say, ‘If we had been in the Sanhedrin, no one would have ever been put to death.’ Rabban Gamaliel says, ‘They would have thereby increased the shedders of blood (Mishnah Makkot 1:10).’"

While the last line indicates a belief that the death penalty, if carried out judiciously, can be a deterrent, prevailing Jewish thought in every movement has followed the previous opinions, which either oppose the death penalty outright, or allow for it only in the most extreme -- once in seventy years -- circumstances. Following this line of thinking, the major Jewish movements in the United States all have specific policy supporting either abolition of the death penalty, or a moratorium on its use.

Since 1959, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) and the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) have formally opposed the death penalty. The CCAR resolved in 1979 that "both in concept and in practice, Jewish tradition found capital punishment repugnant" and there is no persuasive evidence "that capital punishment serves as a deterrent to crime." The URJ notes that: "We believe that there is no crime for which the taking of human life by society is justified, and that it is the obligation of society to evolve other methods in dealing with crime. We appeal to our congregants and to our co-religionists and to all who cherish God's mercy and love to join in efforts to eliminate this practice [of capital punishment] which lies as a stain upon civilization and our religious conscience."

For now, I tow the party line, but I continue to read this Torah passage with a furrowed brow. I pray that anyone in the position to make such a judgment call do so fairly and with the sanctity of human life in mind, and for my own peace of mind on this matter. If this Torah passage has caused your brow to similarly furrow, may G-d also grant you that peace of mind, and may our judicial system continue improve in its entirety.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Parashat Yitro

It may not hold a candle to Rabbi Goldenberg's Peace Parashat featured in the American's for Peace Now blog (, but it is for a vastly different audience.

Once there was a tiny, absolutely helpless baby who was all alone. He couldn't feed or clothe himself. He could hardly move. Left on his own, it seemed impossible for him to survive for even one day. Yet he did! How did he ever make it?

This baby was very fortunate. As out of nowhere, certain people came along and voluntarily agreed to take on the enormous expense and responsibility of providing for his every need. They took him into their home, bought him plenty of food and clothing, and even changed his dirty diapers. They spent many long and sleepless nights watching after him when he didn't feel well. They loved him and worked hard to teach him everything he needed to know to grow up and lead a good and successful life. It was a difficult task for a single person or two people to teach the baby everything that he needed to have a balanced education. The wonderful people taking care of the baby, now a big kid, sent him to school. They needed other people to share in the task of making sure he would become a competent adult. Now that the big kid was in school, the people providing for him had to have jobs to pay for his education and other needs, which meant sometimes the big kid had to rely on a babysitter after school.

When the child was grown up, he realized what these amazing people had done; he felt a tremendous sense of gratitude. He would always treat them with the utmost respect and do whatever he could to please them. He felt that it was the least that he could do. Sometimes, the child did not like his teachers, or did not want to be with his babysitter. He wished he could rely completely on the people who had taken him home from the hospital when he was a baby. Sometimes, in his frustrations, he lost sight of the importance of the roles in his life, or the sacrifices others were making to aid him in his journey toward adulthood. But in the end, as a grown up, he understood that teachers and babysitters had enriched his life, too, and that the special people who took care of him throughout his whole life wouldn’t have chosen incapable chaperones for him. Eventually, when it came time for him to take care of a baby who grew to be a child, he even realized all the reasons why one person or few people alone simply cannot do EVERYTHING. It takes a village, as they say.

In truth, each of us is that baby, that big kid, that grown up. And those special, wonderful people are our parents. In the beginning of this week's Torah portion, Moses’ father-in-law suggests that Moses appoints judges or chieftains to help him take care of all the Israelites. Of course, each individual person would rather ask Moses than anyone for advice on how to live correctly. Only Moses is so close to G-d! But they must understand that Moses alone cannot take care of all of them. Sometimes it is necessary to delegate responsibility. It also made things easier for the Israelites, making help more accessible. Besides, sometimes it’s helpful to get be able to get advice from more than one source. Our teachers and babysitters and other authority figures sometimes fill this role. They’re not our parents. We’d rather hear get the advice from, spend the time with, our parents. But they are good, smart people. If they weren’t, Moses wouldn’t have appointed them to help guide the people of Israel, your parents wouldn’t have sent you to learn from them or allowed them to take care of you.

Later in the parsha, G-d presents the Jewish people with the Torah, including the Ten Commandments. One of these ten things that G-d chose to especially emphasize was to remind us to appreciate and honor our parents. It's the least we can do. But we should remember to also appreciate and honor all of the adults who enrich our lives, just as the Israelites respected the chieftains. When teachers assign a lot of homework, remember that it is to give you more opportunities to learn. When babysitters monitor TV or internet use, remember it’s to ensure you don’t stumble upon something your parents wouldn’t want you to see. May you all learn and remember to show respect for all who deserve it.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Tu B'Shevat sermon

There's so much more to this sermon in my head, but for tomorrow's religious school tu b'shevat seder, this will have to do. Maybe in a room full of educated adults when I have next year's job security, I'll write the rest.

Tu B’shevat, or the 15th day of the month of Shevat in the Jewish calendar, marks the New Year for Trees. Ecologically, this is the general point in the year where trees in Israel begin to bud anew. Jewishly, this date is specified for the start of the new cycle of tithes relating to the budding of trees. The idea of celebrating Tu B’Shevat formerly and the creation of the seder comes from the 17th century kabbalists’ understanding of the line in Deuteronomy, For man is like the tree of the field. The full passage says, When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? I read an old Hasidic story from the 6th Rebbe of Lubavitch about a boy and his father taking a walk in the woods, and the father, gesturing around at the trees, exclaims to his son, See G-dliness! Every movement of each stalk and grass was included in G-d's Primordial Thought of Creation, in G-d's all-embracing vision of history, and is guided by Divine providence toward a G-dly purpose.

So far, now, we know that trees are really important and should not be innocent casualties of war, a man’s life is no more important than that of a tree, and G-d created the natural world perfectly, with every plant exactly where it is meant to be. As Jews, when we celebrate the New Year for the Trees, we should keep these ideas in mind.

The phrase, “making the desert green” or “bloom” has become so embedded in the images and language surrounding Israel that its origins are now difficult to trace, and we lose track of what it really means. Before the creation of the state of Israel, Jews were kicked out of many countries, oppressed, and persecuted around the world. Planting trees in Israel is a way of setting in our people’s roots as well as the plants’. But it’s really important to know that we plant the right kind of trees.

If G-d made the world as it was meant to be, than we can assume that the desert was meant to be a desert. Deserts are not green. They should not be made green. We can set down our roots in olive trees, a few date and fig trees, a cactus or two, but turning the desert green the way North America or Eastern Europe (the places where most Jews who “plant trees in Israel” are from) is just ecologically bad.

For a long time, the Jewish National Fund planted evergreens in Israel. Evergreens require a lot of water, of which there is not much in the desert, and they also deposit acidic needles which kill all other plant life that share the same plots of soil. This created a large “Green Belt” around the areas where the trees grew, making miles of land unusable for anything else. It created lasting environmental problems, and displaced a lot of farmers whose olive groves were destroyed.

There are parts of the northern country that get enough water to sustain greenery. Lebanon’s national plant is the evergreen, so planting along that border would probably have been fine. But this Green Belt was being planted closer to Jerusalem, an area that already had a lot of environmental issues due to overpopulation and substantial infrastructure, and pressures on water resources and land ownership relating the divides and conflicts between the Jews and Arabs in the area. Adding this dead zone of acidic needles was the pine cone on the camel’s back, and the JNF has subsequently been blamed for lost utility in Palestinian lands close to the West Bank/Israel border.

Now, the JNF and others have learned that we can’t make Israel look like the countries we come from. Now, more environmental awareness is spreading and people are realizing it is just as an important Jewish value as human rights. So now, the JNF has its new campaign to uproot the evergreens, and is planting desert-friendly trees in your name instead. It’s really important that we take note of this. I’m sure you all know, it’s not easy to admit such a big mistake. Their pride or legitimacy as an organization could have been damaged, but they knew it was more important to just fix it. When you send money to groups like the JNF, send a letter or note with it, saying, “Hey, we support you. Thanks for cleaning up your mistakes,” so that they know you want them to keep doing it! Spread the word, not the pine needles. And the next time someone says something about making the desert green, you say, “No, we’re making the desert healthy.” L’Shana Tova L’ilanot!