PARSHAT REEH

(5771)

 

FREE WILL

“See this day, I sent before you blessing and curse.”             (Deuteronomy 11:26)

            The major theme of this portion is free will.  God sends before the people a blessing and a curse.  If they obey God’s commandments they will have a blessing.  If they disobey God’s commandments they will have a curse.  Each of us has free will.  As the Torah teaches Cain, “Surely if you do right there is uplift, but if you do not do right sin crouches at the door, its urge is towards you, yet you can be its master.”  (Genesis 4:7)  People have the ability to choose.

            But do we humans really have free will?  Many have argued that there is no free will.  All our actions are determined in advance and out of our control.  Some say, “The devil made me do it.”  There are malevolent forces in the universe that cause us to act in inappropriate ways.  In ancient times people would blame their actions on the stars.  That is why Shakespeare could write the words of Cassius planning the murder of Julius Caesar, “The fault dear Brutus is not in our stars but in ourselves.”  Of course today we blame not the stars but our genes.  If Shakespeare lived today, he might have written that “the fault lies in our genes.”

            Some claim there is a natural, chemical cause for everything we do.  Most egregious is the famous Twinkie Defense of Dan White, former San Francisco city supervisor.  In 1978 White murdered San Francisco mayor George Moscone and fellow supervisor and gay activist Harvey Milk.  White used the defense that too much sugar had caused his brain and impulses to work improperly.  Therefore he was not responsible for his actions.  This defense helped convince the jury to convict him not on premeditated murder but rather on the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter.  In this case, “the sugar made me do it.”  (A well-received 2008 movie Milk was based on this case, winning Sean Penn a Best Actor Academy Award.)

            Today many continue to argue that free will is an illusion.  They use scientific, philosophical, and religious arguments to teach that we have no choice.  Let me give a brief example of each:

            Science – In a famous experiment in the 1970’s, Benjamin Libet tested whether a conscious decision or neural activity comes first.  He found that motor actions begin within the body 350 milliseconds before the subject made the conscious decision to take such actions.  In other words, before we even consciously decide to act, our body is already in motion taking the action.  It is as if our body acts before our will even comes into play; what we think of as free will is an afterthought, a mere illusion.  Our body decides of its own accord.

Philosophy – Many great philosophers have denied the existence of free will.  Perhaps the most influential was the Jewish born Benedict Spinoza.  Spinoza argued that there is no real difference between the body and the soul, both are part of one reality – God or nature.  Spinoza also argued that God equals nature and nature equals God; his most famous quote is Deus sive Natura – God, or nature.  He was a pure pantheist.  Therefore when we act, it is really God, or nature acting.  Again free will is but an illusion.  For his radical views, Spinoza was excommunicated by the Jewish community of Amsterdam.

Religion – If God is omnipotent (all powerful) and omniscient (all knowing), then nothing happens without God’s knowledge.  Everything we do has already been pre-determined in the mind of God.  This creates one of the great paradoxes of religion.  Rabbi Akiba taught, “Everything is foreseen yet freedom is granted.”  (Avot 3:19)  The Bible is filled with references to God taking away free will.  The most famous was God hardening Pharaoh’s heart.  The Rabbis of the Midrash teach that if someone does the wrong thing enough times, God takes away the ability ever to do the right thing.  “Resh Lakish said … God gives a person one, two, and three opportunities to do repentance.  If he does not repent, God locks his heart from repentance to punish him for his sin.”  (Exodus Rabbah 13:3)

People who do the wrong thing can blame science, religion, and philosophy; they can blame the devil, their genes, or sugary snacks.  But this week’s portion stands up to all these ideas and proclaims, human beings have free will.  And having free will, we are responsible for our actions.

 

 

PARSHAT REEH

 (5770)

 

HELPING THE NEEDY – HOW MUCH?

 

“If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman.”                (Deuteronomy 15:7)

 

            The book of Deuteronomy, and this portion in particular, is the one most concerned with what is often termed “social justice.”   How do we help the poor?  How do we remove poverty from the land?  How do we reach the dream also in this portion that “there shall be no needy among you.”  (Deuteronomy 15:4)   Can we ever win the war on poverty, to quote former President Lyndon Johnson’s famous phrase.

            The Torah is filled with obligations towards the poor.  We are obligated to give tzedakah, often translated as charity but a word meaning justice.  The highest form of tzedakah is finding a way for a needy person to start a business or earn a living.  If we loan someone money to survive, we are not allowed to charge interest.  If our brother sells himself into indebted servitude to pay off a debt, we must redeem him.  We cannot take as a pledge on a loan the tools someone needs to earn a living.  The laws go on and on; someone else’s poverty places obligations on us.

            So how far are we expected to go to help others?  The Torah does not lay this out in detail.  I have found insights from kabbalah to be extremely helpful.  The kabbalah speaks of various sephirot, emanations or aspects of God’s existence in the material world.  Let us explore three of the sephirot: hesed, gevurah, and teferet.

            Hesed means kindness, and is the desire to give to others.  It is an outflow of bounty without limit.  Hesed is a wonderful quality, but without limit it is also a dangerous quality.  How do we protect ourselves from too much hesed and not give everything away?  How do we protect the recipient from becoming too dependent on hesed and unable to fend for himself or herself?  Is there a limit to giving?

            Gevurah means strength, but I like to translate it as restraint.  Gevurah is saying enough is enough.  I often see it as a protective wall around a person or family, guarding them and preventing them from giving everything away.  Gevurah is the inner strength to tell the other “no, I can’t do anymore.  Your are now on your own.”  Without gevurah it is easy for others to take advantage of us.   But too much gevurah and we become selfish.

            And so we turn to teferet, the third of this triad of sefirot.   There is a dialectic, to quote the nineteenth century idealist philosopher Hegel’s famous term – thesis, antithesis, synthesis.  (In fact, many scholars believe Hegel studied kabbalah in Christian translation.)  If hesed is the thesis and gevurah is the antithesis, then teferet is the synthesis.  Teferet means beauty, but I like to translate it as balance or harmony.  It is the middle ground, the balance between too much kindness and too much selfishness.    The goal is to find the balance.

            What is true for kabbalah is also true for the government?   How much should the government take from the haves to give to the have-nots?   It is a vexing question.  I have spoken to extreme libertarians who claim the government has no obligation to help the poor.  If people wish to be generous and give charity, that is a private decision.  But the government cannot use the power of taxation to take from those who have to help those who have-not.  On the other hand, I have spoken to extreme Marxists who claim that it is the role of government to redress economic inequalities.  They dream of a classless society – or to quote Marx, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.” 

            Most people avoid the extremes.  They agree that government must create a social safety net to help the poor, without raising the tax burden too much on the rich.  In other words, they must find a balance – we are back to teferet.  Economic fairness is about balance.  Perhaps we could solve our poverty problems if our politicians studied kabbalah.

 

 

PARSHAT REEH

 (5769)

 

JERUSALEM

 

“Look only to the site that the Lord your God will choose amidst all your tribes as His habitation, to establish His name there.  There you will go.”

                                                                        (Deuteronomy 12:5)

 

            When I was in college I studied for a year at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  My parents came to visit me, the only time they ever visited Israel.  My mother was a pragmatic woman who was not particularly religious.  Nonetheless, when I took my parents to see the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the holiest spot in the world to Jews, she broke out in tears.  Jerusalem has a kind of spiritual aura that affects even the most secular Jews.

            The central theme of this week’s Torah reading is the idea that God will chose a place to become the center of worship.  Only at the place where God will cause His name to dwell can the Israelites offer up sacrifices. This is the place where Jews must gather at the three pilgrimage festivals.  Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot became major religious happenings as Jews from throughout the world encamped in Jerusalem.

            The portion does not mention where this holy place is to be.  Later King David captures Jerusalem and makes it into the center of Jewish worship.  His son King Solomon builds the holy Temple on a mound in Jerusalem, a Temple that will be rebuilt after the Babylonian exile.  Today Jews pray for a third Temple to be rebuilt on the same holy spot.  Meanwhile, Jews flock to the one part of the Temple still standing (actually part of a retaining wall), the Western Wall.  Even the President of the United States wrote a prayer on a piece of paper and put it in the cracks of the wall, an old tradition that this is a place closer to God, where God hears prayers.

            The Rabbis speak about two Jerusalems.  There is the Yerushalyim shel Maaleh, literally “the Upper Jerusalem,” the spiritual place that is close to heaven.  Then there is the Yerushalyim shel Maateh, literally “the lower Jerusalem,” the actual physical place where people live and work.  That real Jerusalem is a place filled with issues.

            Perhaps most pressing is the population of Jerusalem.  About a third of the population are modern Israeli Jews, some secular, some more traditional, some Orthodox in practice, but people who serve in the Israeli army and live modern lives.  Israeli authorities worry that this population is shrinking as a percentage of the city.  Another third are Jews known as Haredim, extremely Orthodox.  They live in their own enclaves of the city (enclaves I enjoy walking through.  It is like walking into my own past.)   They zealously guard their traditions and lifestyle.  Many do not recognize the legitimacy of the modern state of Israel.

            The third part of the population is Arabs living in the eastern parts of the city, including the old city of Jerusalem.   Years ago I used to love walking into the Arab parts of the city to shop or eat.  Today I would not feel safe in many of these sections of the city.  (In truth, I don’t feel safe in sections of Miami either.)  The Arab population longs for their own Palestinian state with Jerusalem, or at least east Jerusalem as its capitol.  Israelis on the other hand say that Jerusalem will never be divided again.

            Wiser minds than my own are going to have to untangle these complex issues if there is ever to be peace in Jerusalem.  But meanwhile, life goes on.  The main street in Jerusalem, Jaffa Road, is torn apart as they put in a light rail system.  A new – some say beautiful and some say an eyesore – bridge, greets drivers as they enter Jerusalem.  And even as people go about daily lives, they breathe an air of holiness.

Part of what makes religions so special is the notion of a holy place.  Catholics have their Vatican, Moslems do a hajj to Mecca, Mormons have their temple in Salt Lake City, and Hindus bathe in the Ganges River.  For Jews, there is only one place where God allowed His name to dwell.  In my book, I called Jerusalem “a spa for the soul.”  May we all be privileged to visit there.

 

 

PARSHAT REEH

(5768)

 

DO WE HAVE A CHOICE?

“See this day I set before you blessing and curse.”                (Deuteronomy 11:26)

Who or what determines our behavior?   Do we live in a universe where everything has been set and determined from the beginning of time?   Or as this week’s portion clearly states, have we been given free will and the ability to choose?

Simone-Pierre Laplace was one of the great astronomer mathematicians at the beginning of the nineteenth century.  When Laplace wrote his book on celestial mechanics, he sent a copy to Napoleon.   Napoleon questioned him that God was missing from the book.  And Laplace famously replied, “I have no need for such a hypothesis.”  God was no longer part of the picture; the universe was made of mere material stuff which followed the laws of physics.   The universe was a machine, and we humans were simply cogs in that machine.

Laplace is also known for the statement that if he knew the position and velocity of every particle in the universe, he could in theory calculate the entire future.  According to Laplace, and many scientists right up to our own day, everything that happens in the universe is forever fixed according to the laws of physics.  There are no surprises; it is all foreseen.  Of course, modern quantum mechanics teaches that it is impossible to know both the position and velocity of every particle.  Uncertainty is built into the universe, at least at the particle level.  But groups of particles such as stones, trees, and humans beings follow statistical laws.  According to this view, our actions and our behaviors are given and unchangeable from the beginning of the universe.

This idea is known as determinism and the ancient rabbis of the Talmud had already struggled with it.  “All is foreseen [by God], yet freedom of choice is granted.”  (Avot 3:15)  It is a difficult paradox which medieval scholastic philosophers debated endlessly.  If everything is set and given, why should people be punished for wrong choices?   They had no choice; the universe itself made them behave that way.

Today many people still argue that there is no true freedom of choice.  Our behavior is determined by forces beyond our control.  Karl Marx taught that our behavior is determined by economic forces and class conflict.  Sigmund Freud taught that our behavior is determined by powerful inner drives hidden deep within our unconscious.  Atheistic interpreters of Charles Darwin such as Richard Dawkins teach that our behavior is determined by the “selfish gene” seeking to survive and reproduce itself.   

In counseling situations, many people tell me that they have no choice about their behavior; it is simply in their nature.  “Rabbi, it is in my nature to drink, I cannot control myself.”  “Rabbi, genetically I seem to be unable to control my temper.”  “Rabbi, I am victim of poverty that prevents me from ever being able to earn a living.”  Shakespeare said “the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.”  Perhaps today Shakespeare would have said the fault is not in our genes nor in our upbringing nor in our nature, but in ourselves. 

Central to the Biblical view of the world is the notion of free will.  God has given us a choice, set before us a blessing and a curse.  And we have the absolute freedom to choose which way we will act.  We are therefore liable, responsible for the consequences of our choices.  We are not, as Laplace would teach, simply groups of particles set into motion from the beginning of time.  Somewhere within us is a human soul, with the ability to decide how to behave. 

It is this idea of free will and human choice which gives us our human dignity.  When the Nazis wanted to destroy the entire Jewish people, they began by taking away their ability to choose – Jews could no longer choose where to live, what professions to practice, who to hire for business, even how to dress.  First they took away our choices, and then it became easier to take away our lives.  Psychologist and Nazi survivor Victor Frankl’s wrote in his book Man’s Search for Meaning that humans always have choices.  To quote him, "Everything can be taken from a man but ...the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way." 

 

 

PARSHAT REEH

 (5767)

 

A HOLY PLACE

 

“Look only to the site that the Lord your God will choose amidst all your tribes as His habitation, to establish His name there.”

                                                                                    (Deuteronomy 12:5)

 

            There is an old memory I have shared in the past.  I was walking the wintry streets of Jerusalem on the way to the movies when I ran into an Orthodox man I knew from London.  I invited him to join me and he responded with surprise.  “You are in Jerusalem the holiest city on earth, and you’re going to movie!”   I never made it to the movies that night; we wandered the city talking.

            The sages say that there are actually two Jerusalems.  One is the earthly Jerusalem, of businesses and traffic jams and garbage collection and movies.  Two summers ago for the first time in my life I drove a rented car throughout the city, dealing with parking and dare I say it, Israeli drivers.  On the other hand, there is the heavenly Jerusalem, the place where according to this week’s portion God caused His name to dwell.  When I am there I am living in both places at once – a little bit of heaven and a little bit of earth.

            A central theme of this week’s portion is God’s choice of a holy place where God’s name will dwell.  There are many implications to this law.  For example, sacrificial offerings can only be made in Jerusalem; the eating of meat in any other place involves secular slaughter.  (This directly contradicts the book of Leviticus where sacrificial meat could be eaten throughout the country.  This contradiction is part of the reason modern Biblical scholars teach that Leviticus and Deuteronomy were written by different authors at different times.)   Also, three times a year every Jew must make a sacred pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the three festivals.  (In Hebrew, the festivals Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot are called regalim, from the Hebrew word meaning feet.  Everyone went by foot to Jerusalem.)

            How does a city become holy?   Later commentators would argue about this point.  Many Jews, particularly the mystics, felt that there is an intrinsic holiness that can actually be felt.  Sometimes I wish there was a Geiger counter type instrument that I would call a “holiness meter” that would give off a signal as we approach a holy place.  The closer we came to Jerusalem, and in particular the Western Wall, the more intense a signal it would give off.  This view says that the holiness is present whether or not human beings recognize it or celebrate it.

            There is a second view that can be attributed to Maimonides, the extreme rationalist philosopher.  He taught that intrinsic holiness does not exist in the world.  God and holiness are totally separate from the world.  A place becomes holy because we humans, following God’s command, choose to imbue that place with holiness.  In a similar way, the Sabbath is astronomically like any other day; it only becomes holy when we humans choose to make it holy.  This argument between the mystics and the rationalists continues until our own day.  Is the world enchanted with God’s presence or is the world a mere physical place that we humans by our actions fill with God’s presence?  (An invitation – I will explore this issue in my rap with the rabbi this coming year -  “How did the universe lose its soul?”)

            The idea of a holy place where God’s name dwells applies outside Jerusalem.  We Jews imbue certain places with sanctity.  Every faith builds holy places.  But what is intriguing about Judaism is how often we have been forced to move and relocate our holy places.  Two generations ago Europe was filled with holy places where our ancestors worshipped; now due to the Nazis most of them are gone.  In America Jews built beautiful houses of worship in city neighborhoods that later became churches when Jews moved to newer neighborhoods.  As the Jewish community moves from place to place, we are building new sanctuaries where God’s name can dwell.

            For Jews, the holiness of place is portable.  Nonetheless, wherever Jews dwell, we face Jerusalem for our prayers.  Jerusalem will always be the place God chose for His name to dwell.

 

 

PARSHAT REEH

 (5766)

 

GOD’S PRESENCE AND ISRAEL’S EXISTENCE

 

“Look only to the site that the Lord your God will choose amidst all your tribes as His habitation, to establish His name.”                         (Deuteronomy 12:5)

 

            Last summer I brought a group from my synagogue to Israel.  One of the highlights of our trip was going up (both literally and spiritually) to Jerusalem.  When we first arrived in the city, we drove to the top of the Mount of Olives for a panoramic view.  We took out some food and wine and toasted a lechaim, to life, as many in our group caught their first glimpse of the city.  There were tears in the eyes of many, particularly first timers to Jerusalem.  We were overlooking what three Western faiths consider one of the holiest spots on earth.

            The beginning of the holiness of Jerusalem is found in this week’s portion.  No longer would God allow the Israelites to set up altars and worship Him throughout the nation.  There was too much room for idolatry with multiple places of worship.  Rather God picked one place to allow His name to be established.  The portion does not mention Jerusalem by name; later King David would conquer the city and make it the holy place.  From that point forward, Jerusalem would be the place Jews face when they pray.  It would become a center of pilgrimage on the various festivals.  And today it would be the highlight of synagogue trips to Israel.  That is the reason, when I planned our synagogue trip, I asked our tour operator to spend nearly half our time in Jerusalem.

            Is God more present in Jerusalem than, for example, in India, on the slopes of the Grand Canyon, or on the beaches of Hawaii (twelve time zones away.  When it is noon in Jerusalem it is midnight in Honolulu.)  Obviously God can be found everywhere on earth.  But for God seekers, God’s seems more present in the streets of Jerusalem.

            The word “Jerusalem” means City of Peace.  Unfortunately, the history of the city is anything but peaceful.  War after war has bloodied its history.  Today Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, although most countries do not recognize it.  (The United States keeps its embassy in Tel Aviv.)  If God’s presence is felt more strongly in Jerusalem, war seems to be a reality for Jerusalem and the rest of Israel.

            As I write these words, the fierce battles between Israel and Hezbollah, the Iran supported terrorists who kidnapped soldiers and lobbed rockets into civilian areas of Israel, has finally come to a halt.  There is a cease fire, sponsored by the United Nations and hopefully held together by its peace keeping troops.  There may be a temporary cessation of hostilities, but there is no real peace.  It seems that the closer we get to God’s presence on this piece of land, the more we seem to invite war and conflict.

            Why is there so much war in the land where God caused His name to dwell?  Reasonable people can argue about various political and military policies of Israel.  Was Israel wise going after Hezbollah in south Lebanon at this time?  But Israel is fighting a battle far deeper and more difficult.  For her enemies, the question is not whether Israel should change its policies towards the Palestinians and the Arab world.  The question is whether Israel should exist. 

            Israel is the only nation on the face of the earth whose very existence is open to argument.  There are regular debates at the United Nations about various Israeli policies, and she has been condemned by the world body more often than any other nation of earth, including Cuba, Iran, and North Korea.  The essence of the debate is whether Israel has a right to exist.

            On college campuses, Jewish students are often intimidated by pro-Moslem, pro-Arab, pro-Palestinian demonstrations.  Often at such demonstrations, students will hold up signs saying “End the Occupation.”  They are not talking about the occupation of cities on the West Bank; they are talking about the occupation of Tel Aviv. 

            God’s presence may reside in the Holy Land, but the presence of the people with whom God made a covenant is still open to debate.  The world continues to question whether Israel is allowed to exist.  Israel, and all those who love her, need to tell the world, “Our existence is a given!”   The sooner the world accepts this fact, the sooner there will be peace in the place where God chose to have His

 

 

PARSHAT REEH

(5764)

 

A DIFFICULT DECISION

 

"See this day I set before you blessing and curse."

(Deuteronomy 11:26)

 

This week's message is far more personal than most I have written over the past five years.

This portion deals with the choices we make.  Some choices are a blessing and some choices are a curse.  But our Torah teaches that God gave us free will to choose.  And we must live with the consequences of the choices we make.

I made a choice beginning this week.  Before I share this choice with you, I must share another choice I made when I first became a rabbi twenty-five years ago.  At that time I chose to observe the Sabbath in a traditional manner, including not driving to synagogue.  For Orthodox Jews, it is clear that driving is forbidden.  We are not allowed to burn a fire on the Sabbath, and driving a car inevitably involves burning gasoline (plus various other forbidden activities.)  The Conservative Movement permitted Jews to drive to synagogue and back only, but I chose not to take advantage of that dispensation.  I would live within walking distance from the synagogue.

There were some wonderful advantages to observing the Sabbath in this manner.  It forced me to be in a location by sundown Friday night and not leave until nightfall Saturday night.  It limited geographic movement.  The Confirmation class would walk to my home for our monthly luncheons, and observant scholars-in-residence would spend Shabbat with me and my family.  Around an Orthodox synagogue, not driving creates a community of people with shared values who walk to each other's homes; children who play together.  In a perfect world, I would continue to live by this decision I made while still in my twenties, before I was married or had children.  But the reality is that the world has changed.  In particular, my world has changed.

Observing Shabbat in this traditional manner, I found myself living in a changing neighborhood.  I was serving a congregation of members, most of whom lived several miles to the north.  Everybody in the congregation drove to synagogue.  My son was going to a high school with few Jewish children, while all his friends went to a better high school in a different neighborhood.  The time to come to consider the question - was my religious observance hurting my own family?   Would it be worth moving into a more Jewish neighborhood, where most of our friends and all my children's friends live?   I consulted my family and spoke with other rabbis.   And then I made a decision.

We have bought a new home several miles north of the synagogue.   It is in a Jewish neighborhood.  The reality is I will have to drive to synagogue and back on the Sabbath and festivals.   (This is not permission to drive to parties, the mall, or other places on the Sabbath.)   This is certainly a change in my past practice, but I believe it is the right decision for me and my family at this particular time.

I mentioned that this week's portion is about choices and free will.  We must choose between a blessing and a curse.  Too many people view choices as black and white.  You either follow God=s law or you do not, you are either part of the solution or you are part of the problem, you are either with me or against me.   In particular, young people see choices as clearly either-or.  However, with maturity, I have discovered that choices are never that clear-cut.    There are often shades of gray in any choice we make.  There are pluses and minuses, and one must balance the good and the bad.  Real choices are never simple, and one must look at both sides.   One must live with complexity.

By driving to synagogue, I have made a choice that affects how our membership views me as their rabbi.  I will continue to observe the Sabbath in keeping with the rulings of the Committee of Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly.  I pray our congregation will respect my decision.

 

 

PARSHAT REEH

(5763)

 

TWO VIEWS OF POVERTY

 

"There shall be no needy among you, since the Lord your God will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion."   (Deuteronomy 15:4)

 

"For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land."    (Deuteronomy 15:11)

 

What do you do when two verses in the Torah, one a few passages after the other, totally contradict one another?   Which is the truth?    One verse teaches that there will no longer be poverty in the land.  The other verse teaches that there will always be poor in the land.  How can both be true?

Allow me to suggest a solution to this contradiction.  It is a solution that I have not found in any commentaries.   In my solution, the first verse deals with our own poverty, the second verse deals with other people's poverty.  With this interpretation, we can discover some profound insights into poverty.

Let us start with the second verse - "For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land."   This is speaking to those who have means, who are able to earn a living.  When we earn money, we must never hide our heads from those who have less than us.  We need to see the poor, and then give to the poor.  The Hebrew word for charity is tzedaka, a word which actually means "justice" or "righteousness."  We should never say, "I earned it, it is mine, let the poor earn their own money."

No matter how affluent a society, there will always be the needy in the land.  We must always have our eyes open and put our hands out to the needy.  The second verse is how we look at other people.  It is a call to give, a call that will never cease.  Only in a perfect world can we stop thinking about tzedaka

There is a Hasidic story about a very righteous man who always gave a huge amount to the poor.  He passed away and people gathered from far and wide to pay tribute to his righteousness.  About one month later the righteous man appeared in a dream of the rabbi.  The dream was vivid.  The rabbi asked him, "Tell me, you must be in heaven, a perfect place.  What is it like?"  The righteous man answered, "It is beautiful, but I don't like it."  The rabbi was surprised, "How can you not like it?"  The man answered, "In heaven, there is no poverty, and so there is no chance to give tzedaka."  There may be no poverty in heaven, but in this world the poor will never cease and there will always be opportunities to give.

So what about the first verse, the one that teaches, "there shall be no needy among you."   This verse speaks of how people view themselves.  No one should see themselves as poor, as unable to provide for themselves.  In particular, no one should see himself or herself as a victim of poverty.  If a person does not have means to provide for their needs or their family's needs, that person should not be cursing the rich, society, racism, or some other malevolent force out there.  They should say, "I am not poor and I am not a victim."

One of our primary responsibilities in life is to be a provider.  The world does not owe us a living.  Each of us has to find a way to develop the skills, find a job, start a business, or find some other legitimate way to move beyond poverty.  To see oneself as poor can easily lead to seeing oneself as a victim, helpless before economic trends.  Helplessness and victimhood are not healthy for self-esteem.

I do a large amount of counseling of people in economic straits.  Many have lost their job during these years of recession.  Some are struggling, and some are living in absolute poverty.  I encourage them to stop seeing  themselves as victims.  What can they do to bring themselves a living, lifting themselves out of poverty?  How can they make themselves more valuable in the job market?  What kind of education can they receive?  What special skills can they acquire?   Nobody ought to view themselves as needy.

So we have two verses.  One says there shall be no more needy among you.  This is how people ought to view themselves.  The other says that will always be needy among you.  This is how people ought to view others.  In these two verses is the beginning of the solution to poverty.


 

 

PARSHAT REEH

(5762)

 

TITHES

 

"You shall surely tithe the increase of your seed, which is brought forth in your field year by year."

(Deuteronomy 14:22)

 

As everyone knows, we are going through hard economic times.  The stock market is down, corporations are under scrutiny, people’s retirement savings are cut in half, unemployment is rising.  Let me express an idea, or perhaps a dream, to jump start our economy.

What would happen if every individual took 10% of their income and gave it away.  If we earn $100 we would give away $10, if we earn $1000 we would give away $100, if we earn $100,000 we would give away $10,000.  The money would go back out into the world and start rolling again.  This is the ideal expressed in this week"s portion.

The word for giving away 10% of our income is "to tithe."  It was considered the religious ideal in Biblical times, and is still central to the religious view of the world today.

To whom do we share oura tithe?  First, it is to the poor, to those struggling to people in need.  And the most important thing we can do is to help them earn a living.  Give them money to start a business or even to buy appropriate clothing for a job interview.  Each of us would give to those most in need.  But according to the Rabbinic ideal, even the poor person who receives charity would have to tithe, giving to those who are even poorer.

After helping the poor, the next step in tithing would be to give to those institutions that help make this a better world.  Tithing includes supporting synagogues and other houses of worship, schools, hospitals, museums, the arts, and other worthy causes.  We use our earnings to help perfect the world.

Tithing is also something we do at our job.  What if every doctor treated one in ten patients, the poor and indigent, for free?  What if every lawyer did free legal work for one in every ten clients, those unable to pay?  What if every rabbi did one in ten life cycle events, weddings or funerals, for free to help those unable to pay?  What if business owners would give away 10% of their merchandise to those most in need?

Most of us fall far short of this religious ideal.  I admit that I personally have not reached this ideal.  But I try to grow in my giving each and every year.

I do meet numerous people who strictly observe the laws of tithing in their financial life.  They are as strict at giving away ten percent of their income as they are about other religious laws and observances.  Many are Orthodox Jews.  However, many more are deeply religious Christians or Mormons.  All the people I have met who are strict about tithing share something in common.  They are at peace with themselves and happy with their lives.  It is as if giving away a tenth of what we own makes us feel at one with God.

Tithing develops an abundance mindset.  It creates an attitude that the material wealth we give out into the world comes back to bless us.  I remember speaking with a rabbi who was unemployed for several years.  I asked him how he survived that difficult time.  His answer was simple.  "Everything I earned, I tithed.  And it came back to bless me."

Let us reconsider the ancient Biblical ideal of tithing.  I can think of no better way to jump start the economy.


 

 

PARSHAT REEH

(5761)

 

THE CHOICES WE MAKE

 

"Behold I place before you today the blessing and the curse."

(Deuteronomy 11:26)

 

This week's portion speaks of the choices we make.  For a number of weeks I spoke about the good and the evil inclinations - yetzer hatov and yetzer hara.  The following is taken from my new book The Ten Journeys of Life, newly published by Simcha Press.

Using Sigmund Freud's terminology, I identify the yetzer hara or evil inclination with the id, the primitive appetites that need to be controlled and sublimated. I identify the yetzer hatov or good inclination with the superego, the conscience that is imparted to us by our parents or society and that teaches us self-control, altruism, and delayed gratification.

Freud also spoke of the ego, that part of us able to consciously make decisions. We humans have the ability to choose. We also must take responsibility for those choices. Free will is God's greatest gift to us. It is the part of us that makes us most godlike and the essence of the teaching that "we were created in the image of God" (Genesis 1:27).

Remember some of the cartoons you watched as a child? A character frequently had to make a moral choice. On one shoulder stood a little devil, urging him or her in one direction. On the other shoulder stood a little angel, urging the opposite choice. It is a childish description of the profound struggle in each of us between our good and evil inclinations.

Our lives are filled with decisions. In fact, motivational speaker Anthony Robbins has built a very successful career lecturing that our lives are composed of the decisions we make day in and day out. Maturity is the ability to make the right decision, the one that will lead to the greater good. This often means delaying immediate gratification while maintaining a vision of that greater good. It means decisions based on our own community=s long-term interest, even if our appetites are screaming for us to do otherwise.

Unfortunately, in contemporary America we too often tend to pursue immediate gratification. Author and radio personality Dennis Prager has commented that we mistake fun for happiness and we search for immediate pleasure rather than the long-term achievement that will ultimately bring us happiness. In fact, in Happiness Is a Serious Problem, Prager teaches that fun and happiness are really opposites: "To understand why fun doesn't create happiness and can even conflict with it, we must understand the major difference between fun and happiness: fun is temporary; happiness is ongoing. Or to put it another way, fun is during, happiness is during and after" (Dennis Prager, Happiness Is a Serious Problem, New York: Regan Books, 1998, p. 47).

 He provides an illustration of an amusement park. Going to an amusement park might be fun, it's a diversion, it's relaxing, but after leaving the park, one's happiness has not increased one iota. A lifetime of amusement parks is not a lifetime of happiness.


 

 

PARSHAT REEH

(5760)

 

FREE WILL AND THE GENOME PROJECT

 

"See, this day I set before you the blessing and the curse."

(Deuteronomy 11:26)

 

The media has announced the first completion of the human genome project.  Certainly this is a rough draft, with much work still to be done to fill in the details.  Nonetheless, as President Clinton taught, we are finally uncovering "the language of life."

What are the religious implications of this project?  Many would say that by uncovering and mapping out the human genetic code, we humans are trying to play God.  I do not agree.  Science and technology are neither good and evil.  They can be used for great good, for us humans to join God as partners in the perfection of this world.  Or, as the story of the Tower of Babel has taught us, they can be used to challenge God and destroy God's creation.

Mapping human genes might give us the ability to cure such awful diseases as cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, or tay sachs disease.  On the other hand, mapping the human genome might be one step in cloning, or a eugenics program.  There is certainly much that is both positive and negative about this project.  There are wonderful insights we humans can learn.  On the other hand, there is much to fear.

Perhaps the greatest insight is that we humans share 99.9% of our genes with the rest of humanity.  The words of the prophet are true "Have we not one father, did not one God create us all?"  (Malachi 2:10)  As the Rabbis taught in the Mishna, God made us all descendants of one couple so that nobody can say "My father is greater than yours."  (Sanhedrin 4:5)  Perhaps we can learn from this project that, at least genetically, we are all truly brothers and sisters.

We also share most of our genetic information with the animal kingdom.  Some would see the Genome Project as proof that we humans are mere animals, qualitatively no different from the apes and the lesser animals.  If we are mere animals, what does it mean to be created in the image of God?  What does it mean to seek holiness?  Is there any unique value to being human?

One of the great teachings of the Biblical tradition is that animals do not make moral choices.  When a coyote attacks a farmer's sheep, he is simply doing what coyotes are hard-wired to do.       One would be hard-pressed to call the coyote evil, or ask the coyote to do repentance.  Or, as I often say tongue in cheek, "Horses do not need to fast on Yom Kippur."

What scares me about the human genome project is that many would say that we humans also do not make moral choices.  We are the product of our genes, and our behavior is pre-determined and hard wired into us.  Alcoholism, chemical addiction, a proclivity for violence, sexuality promiscuity, greed are no longer human vices.  They are no longer moral choices.  We are merely following our inner drives, doing what are genes tell us.

Even before this project, our society has moved from an emphasis on the moral to an emphasis on the therapeutic.  Sin has become a dirty word.  Instead, we speak about illness.  The politician caught with his hand in the till, the clergyman who cheats on his wife, the woman who steals from the mall, when caught, will confess with the words, "I have an illness."  There is no moral culpability.  It is easier to speak of illness and health rather than right and wrong.

I fear that the human genome project will be one more incentive to avoid responsibility for our behavior.  Now we can blame it on our genes.  We were hardwired to behave this way from conception.

This Torah portion teaches that we humans have a choice about our behavior.  God has set before us a blessing and a curse, and we have the ability to pick which path we will take.  Shakespeare wrote in his play Julius Caesar, "The fault dear Brutus is not in our stars but in ourselves."  Today we need to update Shakespeare's words - the fault lies not in our genes, but in ourselves.