Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Ki Tetze 5770 - Derekh Eretz and Social Obligation

(Originally delivered on August 21, 2010.)

I am about to give what may be the most unpopular sermon ever. Brace yourselves, and please note that I always welcome comments and criticism, at qiddush or any other time.

We tend to think of Judaism as a “religion,” that is, it speaks only to the holy precincts of our lives, those that deal with our relationship with God. The Torah gives us many mitzvot bein adam lamakom, obligations that matter to God rather than people (kashrut, Shabbat, holidays, prayer, etc.). But the Torah, and everything that flows from it, is a far more comprehensive document. It contains not only our national stories and religious laws, but also a good helping of commandments regarding our behavior vis-à-vis our fellow people. These are known as mitzvot bein adam lehavero, literally obligations between oneself and one’s friends/neighbors, although as we shall see, these mitzvot are also incumbent upon even those who are not our friends or neighbors. The parashah that we read this morning, Ki Tetze, is one solid block of mitzvot, from beginning to end, and many of them fall into this latter category.

For example, (Deut. 22:8, p. 1117 in Etz Hayim): “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet (or railing) for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.” Or (Deut. 24:6, p. 1129) “A handmill or an upper millstone shall not be taken in pawn, for that would be taking someone’s life in pawn.” Or (Deut. 23:8, p. 1123) “You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your kinsman. You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land.” (This might say something about why Israel has signed peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, but I don’t want to speculate any further that.)

Here are a few other relevant laws that we read today:

1. Deut. 24:14-15, p. 1130. Do not abuse a needy employee by delaying his wages.
2. 24:17, p. 1131. Do not subvert the rights of the stranger, the orphan, or the widow.
3. 24:19-22, 1131-2. Agricultural laws about leaving some of your produce for the poor.
4. 22:1-4, 1115-6. You must return your neighbor’s ox or donkey if it goes astray. By the way, this mtizvah is described twice in the Torah. In our parashah it says, “shor ahikha,” literally, your brother’s ox, but in Shemot (Ex. 23:5), it says, “hamor sona-akha,” literally, the donkey of one that hates you. The Torah is suggesting that it does not matter to whom the livestock belongs - we still must return it.

What these laws point to is the fact that in ALL of our relationships - business, pleasure, friendly or unfriendly - we are obligated to take care of each other. The principle of derekh eretz, of treating your fellow travelers along the road of life with respect, is universal. It applies not only to the people that we like or care about, but everybody. Your next-door neighbor, who tosses his leaves into your yard. The cleaning lady. The homeless guy around the corner from your office. Yes, even to the those who hate you, or whom you despise. Everybody.

I am going to pause for a moment to say that I have been warned by multiple rabbis, including my senior colleague, not to address political issues from the pulpit. Some of you might interpret the following as a political statement. But let me assure you (in advance) that my goal is not political. It is, in fact, about religious obligation to one another, mitzvot bein adam lehavero.

I thought of this recently when I read an article by regular New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. Krugman is a Nobel-prizewinning economist who often addresses economic and social issues, and yes (to tip my cards), he is of a decidedly liberal bent. But that is irrelevant to the Torah.

Krugman’s column, entitled “America Goes Dark,” was among the top five most-emailed stories for nearly a week.

Krugman’s thesis was as follows: that state and local governments can no longer afford to support some of the essential services that they have historically provided. Public voices of the past 30 years have brought us a sustained anti-tax and anti-government climate in this country, and as a result the hallmarks of American society are being gutted, and the primary victims are infrastructure and schools.

For example, transportation: the Erie Canal and the Interstate Highway System were state-of-the-art when originally built. Today, local governments cannot afford to maintain roads, and so, says Krugman, they are breaking them down and replacing with gravel.

Utilities: he mentions that the city of Colorado Springs is saving money by turning off one-third of its streetlights.

Schools: Krugman does not say this, but estimates are that as a result of budget crises in nearly every state in the Union this year, an estimated 300,000 public-school teachers will be laid off.

I remember reading elsewhere in the Times not too long ago about the state of Arizona’s drastic budget cuts: they have shut down rest-stop facilities along highways and closed more than a third of state parks, and it is the first state to eliminate the Children’s Health Insurance Program, leaving 47,000 poor children without health insurance.

Let me add to this discussion the dramatic bridge collapse that happened in Minneapolis three years ago. It was, in fact, the very day that I started work at Temple Israel, a day on which I took two subway trains, one LIRR train, and a bus to get to work (because I was still living in Manhattan at the time), and all of these crossed bridges to get me here.

A quick check of the NYSDOT website reveals that 37% of bridges in New York State are either functionally obsolete or structurally deficient. Is that a number any of us in this room are comfortable with?

Ladies and gentlemen, many of us have visited poor countries on vacation. In India, where Judy and I took our honeymoon, it is not too surprising that there are no highway rest stops with nice facilities.

But this is America, the land that our ancestors (and some of us) came to because of the opportunities that it provided. This is a wealthy nation, in Yiddish Di Goldene Medina, the Golden Land, that has always prided itself on being the most advanced in the world.

Well, says the economist Krugman, we can return to that. Or we can continue to rail against paying taxes, and watch our nation crumble, putting ourselves, our neighbors, our friends and our enemies at risk of not only spiritual, but also clear physical danger.

The Talmud follows up on the Torah’s commandment to build a rail on your roof to prevent people from falling. In Masekhet Ketubot, we learn that one who keeps a dangerous dog or an unstable ladder in one’s home is guilty of the same crime as the guy who builds a roof with no rail. Later commentators tell us that this means that we are responsible for all possible types of preventable damage or death.

If we read “one’s home” broadly as “one’s community,” a fair extrapolation, I think, then we are all collectively responsible for eliminating lurking dangers. And really, my friends, the only way that we can accomplish this is through government, and the only way that government can build more railings and repair unstable ladders is through our paying into the collective kitty.

I remember hearing not too long ago a report on NPR about taxes, in which they pointed out that Europeans pay far more in taxes than Americans do. They interviewed people on the street in (I think) Denmark, who all said, yes, we pay high taxes. But we all benefit from what the government does for us. One young woman even said eagerly that she wanted to pay more taxes, something that you would never hear anybody in America say.

But let’s face it - with taxation levels being what they are, we are not able to pay the bills to keep the Goldene Medina that attracted our immigrant forbears, functioning. Our state was among those that faced a protracted budget crisis this year; California, that most golden of golden states, is on the brink of financial collapse.

To extend Krugman’s line of thinking, we are crossing the line from saving money to creating actual danger. Ladies and gentlemen, I cannot make the case that highway rest stops or state parks save lives. But streetlights and teachers certainly do.

Bringing this back around to where I started, we are responsible for each other due to the laws outlined today in Ki Tetze, and the overarching principle of derekh eretz. From my perspective, it is truly shameful that the wealthiest country in the world is turning off lights and closing state parks, let alone laying off teachers.

Now, once again, you might read this is an unapologetically political statement, especially if you disagree with me. But please note that I said nothing about the subprime mortgage crisis, economic stimulus packages, bailing out Wall Street, corporate taxes, the war in Afghanistan, and so forth, and I did not mention any specific politician or party. But I am saying that government is the only tool with which we can fulfill some of the mitzvot bein adam lehavero, and that is ultimately its purpose.

Hevre, the Torah mandates that we take care of each other. And we as Jews are supposed to be Or Lagoyim - a light unto the nations. As such, we should be leading our own nation back into light. Government, my friends, costs money. But it does supply essential services that we cannot otherwise provide. And we need to pay for them. This is a matter of derekh eretz, and a compulsory understanding of the laws of the Torah. Shabbat shalom.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Eqev 5770 - Hakol Beseder Ba-aretz

(Originally delivered on July 31, 2010.)

A fascinating tidbit of news crossed my computer screen a few days ago. It was about a young Israeli woman named Elinor Jozef, from Haifa. She has just been inducted into the Karakal Battalion of Tzeva HaHaganah LeYisrael, the Israel Defense Force. Not such huge news, really, if you discount the fact that she is the first Arab woman to serve in a combat position in the IDF. The email that I received noted that in an interview with the Arabic language newspaper Al Arabiyya, the interviewer asked her how she felt about killing Arabs. Ms. Jozef, obviously whip-smart and surely anticipating the question, replied, “Well, it would not be the first time that an Arab has killed other Arabs.”

I think that this is a prime example of what makes Israel so wonderful and unique. It points to the fact that Israel is thriving, democratically and socially. I’ll come back to this.

Last week, I flew back and forth to Israel in the space of a couple days. On the way there, something remarkable happened. I arrived to JFK airport with one idea about a sermon, and started writing that sermon for last week. Then, after sitting on the plane for about 8 hours, I changed my mind, and came up with a second idea, which turned out to be the one I used last Shabbat (when we discussed the small differences in the “Ten Commandments” in Devarim vs. Shemot, and what they might mean).

Later still the same day (well, OK, so it was technically the next day, although it did not feel like it), after arriving in Israel, I was leaving the airport in my rental car, driving in what I later discovered to be the wrong direction, when I was struck with a third idea, and so when I sat down to dinner later that night at Yotvata Ba-Ir (a popular dairy restaurant chain; the place name Yotvata, for which the kibbutz that runs the chain is named, was mentioned today in Parashat Eqev) on the beach in Tel Aviv, I started THIS sermon. So I think that’s a record for me, if not for all rabbis ever: three sermon ideas in less than 24 hours.

Israel (or at least flying to Israel) has that effect on me.

What occurred to me as I was driving north on highway 40, rather than south, was “I’m home.” This is it. This is the land that God promised to us (most notably in the book of Deuteronomy, and quite extensively in Parashat Eqev, which we read today), and this is the somewhat flawed, but otherwise absolutely wonderful, modern state that we have today. Or maybe it was just a wee bit of post-trans-Atlantic flight delirium seasoned with the exhilaration of being in Israel and emboldened by the caffeine of my first kafe hafukh, downed in the airport after baggage claim.

I spoke more than a month ago about the existential threats facing Israel: a hostile press, the disengagement from Israel by young North American Jews as characterized by Peter Beinart in the New York Review of Books, the ongoing attempts to “aid” Gaza by various anti-Israel organizations masquerading as humanitarian groups, and of course the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement that has taken root among left-wing activists in America. Yes, all of these threats are real. Yes, Israel has what to worry about, and although I am not much of an alarmist, and generally suspicious of those who are constantly screaming about imminent dangers, still it seems like the temperature is rising.

But then, there I was in the car on highway 40, listening to Mizrahi pop (the Mediterranean-flavored rhythmic Hebrew music that is unique to Israel and favored by Israelis of Eastern and North African descent), and then later sitting by the beach at sunset, and I was reminded that Israel is here to stay. She is not a flash in the pan. If her neighbors were going to wipe her out, they would have done so by now. (Yes, of course I am afraid of an Iranian nuclear bomb with a madman behind the trigger, but so are the Saudis, the Iraqis, and the rest of the world. The Iranian bomb changes the power balance in the entire region, and nobody wants that.)

I remembered that Israel is perhaps the most resilient country in the world. The modern state was created by a dangerously slim majority vote in the UN and despite long odds survived her first 19 years; only after the 1967 did anybody even begin to think that Israel might last for 62 years or more. And it is still here.

On the other hand, nobody would apply the term “resilient” to the French. Nobody is concerned that Greece is ephemeral, that Peru or Japan or Madagascar are so beleaguered that they might not be here next year.

And you know what? Israelis feel the same way about Israel. Nobody in Israel is worried that the long list of threats, which keeps getting longer, will actually affect their daily routine. And why should they? After 62 years of wars, threats, terrorism, internal turmoil, political intrigue, and so forth, Israel’s stability is based on what is called in Hebrew “davqa-ut.” This word, based in Aramaic terminology from the Babylonian Talmud, is entirely un-translateable. You might say that it means, “necessary despite-ness.” That is, that Israel continues to thrive both in spite of and as a result of her precarious position, and it really could not be any other way.

During the Cold War years, the following story was told about Israel: How do you tell the difference between an optimist and a pessimist in Israel? The optimist is learning Arabic. The pessimist is learning Chinese. That joke is, fortunately, quite dated.

(In the wake of the recent flap over the conversion bill in the Knesset that would have put total control over “Who is a Jew” in the hands of the Haredi Israeli Rabbinate, you might say that a pessimist is learning Yiddish.)

Israelis have a prodigious talent for simply allowing life to go on. In the cafes of Tel Aviv and the malls of Jerusalem, love and commerce continue. During the rash of suicide bombings that began a decade ago, every effort was made to clean up and rebuild as soon as possible. The Sbarro pizza outlet in central Jerusalem, where I had eaten on multiple occasions prior to its having been bombed, was open for business again in a matter of months.

In the Diaspora, and especially here on the far side of the Atlantic, we are continually reminded about Israel’s existential threats. In Israel, where the threats have been ongoing since 1948, where there has always been a state of war with her nearest neighbors, where daily safety and security are preserved through constant vigilance, today’s reality is stasis. Not much changes. New leaders arise, new peace endeavors falter, and life goes on. Israelis have a wonderful talent for coping. When you are staring across the border into the barrels of your neighbor’s guns, the distant ideas of a handful of intellectuals half-way around the world hardly matter. And the rest of the time, the priority is living your life, not obsessing over somebody else’s opinion of you and your leaders.

During this visit, I remembered that life goes on in Israel as normal, regardless of BDS, the Gaza flotilla, the disengagement of young American Jews, and so forth.

From time to time I see polls pop up that show that Israel ranks quite low on a list of how various countries around the world are perceived. Canada is usually somewhere near the top (how could you NOT like Canada?), the US is somewhat farther down, and Israel is generally close to last, way down with Iran and North Korea.

But, as a testament to the aforementioned resilience of the Israeli soul (or maybe a willfull ignorance), Israelis are also relatively happy and, in the words of pollsters, “thriving.” A Gallup poll that I saw this week ranks Israelis as 8th in the world on the “thriving” index; tied with Canada, Switzerland, and Australia, just below Costa Rica and New Zealand, and just above Panama and Brazil. Not bad, right? The US is 17th.

Given the Torah’s promises about the land of Israel, some of which appeared in today’s parashah, it seems that it is the Jewish destiny to thrive in this land. We read today about Shiv’at ha-Minim, the seven species that typify Eretz Yisra-el. I am quoting from humash Etz Hayim, page 1040, verses 7-9:

“For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill, a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey; a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper.” (Deuteronomy 8:7-9)

Taken literally, this litany of agricultural and mineral resources is merely an accounting of the richness of the land. Metaphorically speaking, one might read this list in a modern context, something like this (with apologies to God and the Deuteronomist for re-writing the Torah):

“... a good land, a land with entrepreneurship and industry issuing from plain and hill, a land of software and hardware, medical technology and agricultural collectives, a land of authors and poets, theaters, universities and fantastic museums. A land where you will drink excellent coffee without stint in great cafes, where you will only lack enough money to buy a fabulous apartment in Neve Tzedek, a land whose cars will soon be electric and from whose new desalination plant you will drink plenty of good, clean water.”

Israel, my friends, does face ongoing troubles. But it always has. And at a time when the IDF feels confident enough to place one of Israel’s female Arab citizens on the front lines, when Israel’s economy is booming while the rest of the world struggles with deep recession, and when life goes on, rich, complicated, satisfying life goes on, Israel is clearly thriving. And that’s good for the Jews. Al tid’agu, hakol beseder ba-aretz. Don’t worry! Everything’s groovy in Israel.