Eye for an eye, Heart for a heart “If you only give once a month, please think of me next time.” This is how consultant Simon Sinek re-wrote the sign of a homeless person seeking assistance. Donations tripled. Why? According to Sinek, most in need focus on communicating their plight. But when there is a shift from the asker’s needs to the giver’s concerns, then empathic responses can flow forth. Most givers worry about two things: 1) they can’t give every time, and 2) they wonder if the asker is sincere. Sinek’s revised sign acknowledges both of these concerns. In shifting the focus from oneself to the concerns, needs, and interests of another, fresh avenues of engagement open up. Let’s consider a similar shift with a biblical law that is often misunderstood - the eye for an eye injunction. This week’s portion of Torah introduces this concept for the first time. When a fight happens between two men and a nearby pregnant woman is harmed causing a miscarriage, then “full compensation must be paid for the loss of an eye, a tooth, a hand, or a foot” (Ex. 21:24). At face value, the notion of inflicting bodily harm that is commensurate with an experienced injury feels very harsh. Yet the ancient background behind this law offers a different perspective. Prior to the reform, resolutions between the injurer and the injured was a private matter. It resulted in uneven application. The powerless were vulnerable to exploitation. The Code named for Hammurabi’s reform actually guaranteed that punishment could not exceed the crime. The Torah’s law that initially appears to heap injury upon injury - always implemented with monetary resolution - was created to protect abuse of the
When adjacent becomes remote Rabbi Jonathan Sacks speaks of three moral voices in Torah. The wisdom voice promotes goodness, integrity, and responsibility. The prophetic voice calls us to be better, urging repair and renewal. The priestly voice preserves order, instilling habits that bring values to life. All three of these moral voices blend together in the Ten Commandments which are revealed in this week’s portion of Torah. Commands against murder, thievery, and falsehood are familiar wisdom principles. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote of the long-term aspiration of Torah: “What was expected at Sinai comes about in the moment of a good deed.” Sinai also represents the most public prophetic experience of all time. Encircling the mountain that day were between two and three million women, men, and children of the House of Israel. Before the two Tablets elaborate on the good, they teach about God. A first command expresses God’s identity. A second command clarifies God’s exclusivity. And a third weighs in on God’s influence. Heschel reminds us that although a memory of an aesthetic experience may recall enjoyment, it is the memory of a prophetic experience that evokes commitment. But it is the priestly voice that captures my attention this year. The staging and preparation for Mt. Sinai is entirely priestly in nature. Boundaries, separations, and sacred zones are priestly terms. “Set a boundary for the people around the mountain, and tell them to be careful not to climb the mountain or even to touch its edge” (Ex. 19:12). Distinctions are vital. Blurring them becomes dangerous. Unlike the wisdom and prophetic voices which are so rich in repentance and compassion, boundary breaches are lethal. This is because the slide from order to chaos is
Telling time “I used to believe that lunch breaks, naps, and taking walks were niceties. Now I believe they are necessities.” In his new book entitled When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, Daniel Pink explores our daily rhythms. In every climate, region, and culture, our positive emotions rise in the morning, dip in the afternoon, and rise again in the evening. When in the course of a day do we find ourselves making weighty decisions? Synchronizing with the time-sensitive in general can be a challenge. We sometimes overlook poignant moments and opportunities because we are focused elsewhere. And while time can sooth wounds, it also can have a colder side. Often before we realize it, the passing of time can make unique moments freeze into similarity with ordinary ones. Weeks too have rhythms. The content communicated in each Sabbath’s portion of Torah reliably makes timeless truths into timely lessons. This week’s portion is particularly action-packed. It is bracketed by battles with Pharaoh and Amalek. It features a Red Sea miracle that is fatal for Egyptian warriors but redemptive for the Children of Israel. And six of the ten trials in which the Israelites challenge God throughout the entire Torah occur in this week’s portion. Curiously, two of the six trials result from time-insensitivity. Collected manna is not supposed to be left overnight. Yet some of the Children of Israel, “left it over until morning…and Moses grew angry with them” (Ex. 16:20). Also, the double portion - which forms the basis for praying Hamotzi over two loaves of Challah on Shabbat - indicates that the Sabbath is not a lawful time to gather manna. Indeed, there is no divine delivery of manna on the Sabbath.
False and True: Lessons from Hawaii’s red alert “The alert said to stay close to the ground, so we sat with them on the floor and [I] thought this could be my last moments with the kids,” said Goodyear-Kaʻōpua, a University of Hawaii professor. “There’s the immediate shock ... and then hopelessness and [the realization] that there’s something that may be changing your life.” Last Saturday at 8:07 am, the Emergency Alert System was triggered indicating that a ballistic missile was heading for Hawaii. Throughout the 38 minutes it took to clarify the mistake and reassure the public, helpless terror pulsated through homes and communities across the Islands. The false alarm was inexcusable. It was a casualty of our communication revolution which features frenzies of falsehood. Ungrounded claims proliferate daily. We have come to expect imprecision in Breaking News. Will we soon expect inaccurate Emergency Alerts? It is noteworthy that happenings are weightier than information. Events are more crammed with marvel than are ideas. Immediate experiences are also more reliable, honest, and telling. Misinformation is worrisome. Deeply so. Yet misdeeds are a greater concern for our tradition. God’s Torah prioritizes happenings like the Exodus, the parting of the Red Sea, and the Mt. Sinai revelation, over ideas. We are not commanded to remember ideas, but rather transformative experiences. This is why every household is actively engaged in a Pascal offering and Seder happening prior to Exodus in this week’s portion of Torah. The Exodus is personal, immediate. There is nothing vicarious about our founding story. Also, the intensity of the ninth plague of darkness is viscerally described. “Let there be darkness on the land of Egypt, and one will feel the darkness (v’Yameish choshech)” (Ex.
Courage can be contagious “You are not going to be forcibly taken from this place” a Bulgarian Priest insisted when he spoke to several hundred young children who had been rounded up for deportation. “And if they do try and take you from here, I shall be walking alongside you every step of the way.” Four hours later the gates of the heavily guarded plaza where the children had been detained were opened. An announcement was made. “You are all liberated. You may return to your homes.” The religious and regional leadership had said “No” to the Nazis’ order to deport their Jews. From that day in 1943 until the end of the war, there was never another demand for Bulgaria’s Jews. What Bulgaria’s leadership did took tremendous courage. It was clearly situational. Rejecting a Nazi order was not possible in the overwhelming majority of times and places. Yet the courage to say ‘no’ is one of the legacies of Bulgarian leadership during the Holocaust. Courage can be contagious. When we witness it or hear stories about it, we can more readily act on it ourselves. This week’s portion of Torah details the drama that will lead to liberation of the Children of Israel from Egypt. A curious detail amidst the back and forth between Moses and Pharaoh points to what makes empowering courage situational. Pharaoh agrees at one point to permit the Hebrews to offer a sacrifice to their God within the land of Egypt (Ex. 8:21). But Moses does not follow through on Pharaoh’s directive because Israel’s sacrificial rite would be considered offensive by the Egyptians. “It would not be right to do this, for what we sacrifice to the Lord our God
Expect more in 2018 Seventh graders were asked to draft an essay on a personal hero. Teachers separated their papers into two piles. Atop the papers in the first pile was a note, “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper.” The second pile of essays included a different note, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know you can reach them.” 40% of those with papers in the first pile chose to revise and resubmit their work, while 80% of the students with papers in the second pile elected to do so. Expecting more, particularly in encouraging ways, can stretch us to reach further. Expecting more from our neighbors and colleagues might require assuming less about them. I find myself much more interested in learning from a presenter whose assumptions about me and the rest of the audience feel less conclusive. If a speaker is to make assumptions, let them be more generous. Instead of saying, “We all know that such a naive approach leads nowhere”, express sentiments that esteem an audience for their rigor and discernment. It’s time for a counter-voice to help rebalance expectations and assumptions. This is a specialty of the Torah. For example, ancient heroes were raised among commoners in humble settings. Only later in life do they discover that they are royalty. By contrast, Moses is raised as a prince in a palace. He matures to discover that he belongs to an enslaved people. We find such counter-myth stories throughout Scripture. The firstborn never becomes the leader. Wilderness wanderings do not produce inspiring transformation. And the land of promise remains unreachable for Moses. Indeed, the Torah schools us
2018: A year for surprise Jacob dwells for 17 years with his sons in Egypt prior to his passing. Is it conceivable that he never spoke with them about their deceptive presentation of Joseph’s bloody tunic to him so many years earlier? Although the Torah doesn’t record any such conversation, it seems very unlikely that the painful memory of their flagrant falsehood never came up. Yet there is no reference to it in the blessings Jacob bestows on his sons in this week’s portion of Torah. Why? One possible explanation: they had repented. Jacob noted their repentance and appreciated it, so there was no reason to resurrect their wrong. Jacob’s willingness to turn a corner and begin afresh can help ready us for the arrival of 2018. We’ve come through a challenging 2017. From Charlottesville to alarming revelations of the harassment and defilement of women,from disjunctive leadership changes to the opioid epidemic, it has been a year that has normalized resentment and engendered fatigue. How then can we enter 2018 with fresh vigor, wakeful, and poised for goodness? “An individual dies when he ceases to be surprised. I am surprised every morning” said Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose 45th yahrzeit is observed this Shabbat. “I don’t accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere; I’m still surprised. That’s why I’m against it, why I can hope against it. We must learn how to be surprised. Not to adjust ourselves.” The late Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who along with Heschel, spoke at Kehillath Israel in 1966, also challenged our tendency to sleep through revolutionary times. “Too many people find themselves standing in a great period of social change, and yet they fail to
Imitation is not always flattery “The culture in this part of the world is not Starbucks” suggested a presenter to our ADL Counterterrorism Seminar. In the Mideast the role of rumor, the arc of time, and the function of honor, are very different than they are in the Midwest. Our presenter concluded, “We don’t have to surrender our values for theirs, but it behooves us to understand what matters to others and why.” So too self-understanding, knowing who we are and what we value, is no less important. This week’s portion of Torah brings everyone back together. Joseph and his brothers reunite. Their father Jacob experiences a reassuring promise from God that venturing down to Egypt is permissible. “God spoke to Israel in a night vision, saying ‘Jacob! Jacob!’ ‘I am here’ he replied” (Gen. 46:2). Why does God revert to Jacob’s pre-Israel name here? Yes, Jacob is often called ‘Jacob’ long after earning the name ‘Israel’, but rarely do we see both names used in the same verse and even more seldom is a biblical figure’s name repeated for emphasis. Throughout his early life Jacob wanted to be like Esau who possessed the opposite traits and skills. Jacob was born grasping Esau’s ankle. He later gained his birthright. Then he acquired Esau’s blessing by way of imitation. Jacob overcomes this mimetic desire only after wrestling through the night to earn his identity as Israel. Yet Jacob still fears the unknown. When God calls Israel ‘Jacob! Jacob!’ God is emphasizing that the Jacob who used to be uncomfortable in his own skin need not try to pretend to be someone else. Attachment to God, instead of grasping to become the person he is not, is how
Generous assumptions “Don’t ever hesitate to ask for help” said a stranger at a Tel Aviv ATM Machine to one of the participants on our ADL Counterterrorism mission. “People in this country want to help in any way they can” he concluded after assisting a Massachusetts law enforcement officer with his transaction last Sunday. This warm encounter was refreshingly non-transactional. Some of our mission’s most meaningful conversations occurred at meals. Breaking bread with fellow law enforcement leaders of Israel’s Security Departments invited learning and bonding. Meals often offer settings for connection and content sharing. In this week’s portion of Torah a meal provided by an unrecognized Joseph with his estranged brothers provides an occasion for healing. Joseph is testing his brothers. Will they still harbor jealousy when one sibling is singled out for preferential treatment? He provides Benjamin, the only other brother born from their beloved mother Rachel, five times as much food as the rest of the brothers receive (Gen. 43:34). When they don’t appear envious, Joseph knows that they have matured beyond the days when multi-colored coats would arouse their ire. It is also noteworthy that Joseph stages this test over a meal. Years earlier his brothers had cold-heartedly partaken of a meal after having stripped him of his coat and cast him into a pit (Gen. 37:25). The resentment that animated their dining back then is repaired by their non-resentful meal provided in an Egyptian palace. One could argue that they were too terrified about the prospect of not being able to restore Benjamin back home to their father Jacob. Yet as Rabbi Michelle Fisher pointed out in our learning this week, their lack of jealousy when they were overcome with fear
Prophets and politicians "You came at a poignant time in Israel’s history” a shopkeeper at Yad VaShem’s bookstore said yesterday. She was warmly greeting one of the Police Chiefs participating in our ADL Counterterrorism Mission. Headlines notwithstanding, it has been and remains a quiet week as Jerusalem prepares to greet Shabbat. To appreciate Jerusalem’s sanctity is to know that her identity is determined less by political figures than by prophets. The prophetic passage that adorns the United Nations complex comes from Isaiah’s Jerusalem-rooted message. ““God will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks pointed out this week that too often the nations of the world forget the words that immediately precede these: “For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” No matter how remote this realization may at times feel, its transcendent worthiness abides. Often what appears conspicuous in the present takes on new meaning in the future. A biblical Joseph makes his way down to Egypt in this week’s portion of Torah. A series of events is set in motion that will culminate, hundreds of years later, with the Exodus and the birth of our Jewish People. How does Joseph get from the pit into which he is thrown by his hostile brothers down to Egypt? The Torah is ambiguous, telling us that both Ishmaelites and Midianites are responsible for conveying him there (Gen. 37:27-28). Why both groups? Because both cohorts are descendants of Abraham’s two other unions with Hagar (Gen. 16:16) and Keturah