The Land is Crying

The war in Gaza is over (at least we hope) and the time for taking stock has come. For some, the question now is “Who won and who lost,” to which there is no clear answer. And for some, the question now is “Will Hamas eventually rearm and fire more missiles at Israel to advance its Islamic fundamentalist agenda,” to which, again, there is no clear answer. The government of Israel opted not to remove Hamas as Gaza’s rulers, perhaps because the international condemnation of the military operation necessary to do so would have been too much to bear, and perhaps because there was no consensus to do so within the Israeli cabinet. Now is the time for taking stock of what Israel has gained and what it has lost from this terrible war.

On my mind is a verse from this week’s parasha, Shoftim:

When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time…you must not destroy its trees… Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you? (Deuteronomy 20:19)

The verse refers to the Torah’s prohibition against destroying fruit trees during a war. As Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno (1475-1550, Italy) taught, we cannot be so carried away in time of war that we forget the war will be over one day and people will have to live and feed their families in the place where the battle was waged. War demands restraint, decency and compassion. I believe we can be proud that when Israel is forced to wage war, it displays those qualities. Israel’s reluctance to completely obliterate its enemies is surely due to the fact that it knows the price of that victory in human and material terms. And we may surmise that Israel’s enemies, if they had the capability, would not be guided by those principles of restraint and compassion.

And on my mind is this verse from Parashat Shoftim:

You shall not move your countryman’s landmarks, set up by previous generations, in the property that will be allotted to you in the land that the Lord your God is giving to you to possess. (Deuteronomy 19:14).

This verse appears in a section that underscores how important it is for the Jewish people to create a society based on justice in the Land of Israel. It addresses an area of law known in Hebrew as Hasagat Gevul, or encroachment. Simply put, there are rules that prohibit someone from moving a fence or a land marker in order to take away land from his neighbor and add to his own. Apparently, people did this either openly or in the dark of night, and the Torah prohibits it. A society based on principles of justice demands that people respect the boundaries between them.

There’s an old story told about this verse. Two farmers were having a dispute over land, so they went to their rabbi for a resolution. The rabbi heard each person present his case, after which he got down on his elbows and knees and put his ear to the ground. The two disputants were bewildered, and they asked the rabbi for an explanation of his strange behavior. “Shhhh…” said the rabbi. “I’m listening to the land and…it’s crying.”

In the folktale, the land was likely crying because the two farmers couldn’t settle their argument. In the context of the Gaza War, I think that the land is crying because it fears that the need for its defense it not over, because Israel still has enemies who wish to harm her, and because the people of Israel were forced to do terrible things to prevent further bloodshed and destruction from taking place.

With the war apparently at an end, my prayer now is that the land will stop crying, that Israelis will be able to return to the productive task of building up the land and of making it productive and prosperous for its inhabitants, and building up the nation that lives on the land. My prayer is that Israel’s enemies will cease their interminable efforts to displace and harm Israel, and that they will see the wisdom of laying down their arms and weapons of destruction and share in the blessings of peace and abundance that the land so generously offers.

Then, and only then, will the land stop crying.

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Poverty, or Not?

In this week’s parasha, Re’eh, the Torah makes two apparently conflicting statements, both occurring in chapter 15. The first statement is “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). The second, coming a few verses later, is “If, however, there is a needy person among you…do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman” (Deuteronomy 15:7). And that is followed by “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land…open your hand to the poor” (Deuteronomy 15:11).

Is it inevitable that there will be poor people, or not? The Torah tells us that there will be no needy among us, but quickly follows that statement with two opposite statements that instruct us to be generous with the poor, for they will surely exist among us. The answer to this quandary may be found in the second part of verse 4: “If only you heed the Lord your God and take care to keep all this instruction that I enjoin upon you this day.” The first verse quoted above, the one that seems to promise that there will be no needy among us, is conditioned upon our loyal and dutiful embrace of God’s commandments, chief among these being the commandment to create a just and balanced society in which those who are blessed with plenty share what they have with those who are less fortunate. So the answer to the quandary is mixed. There may be people in need, but not for long as their needs will be addressed. Some of us will have more and some will have less, some will have good fortune and some will not, but if we create a society based on generosity and sharing, poverty won’t become institutionalized. Those in need will be taken care of.

Judaism has, from time immemorial, mandated a response to the existence of poverty. Rather than consign ourselves to the reality of the poor among us, rather than turn our backs and turn inward, we are commanded to be generous. Yes, commanded, because generosity doesn’t always come naturally. There are rules for giving tzedakah that aim both to uphold the dignity of the recipient and protect the giver as well. These rules are intended not to eliminate poverty, but to accommodate those in need by providing the basics of life to those who cannot provide for themselves. Judaism is not primarily a socialist system, in which everyone is guaranteed to have the same possessions and entitlements. Rather, we are a capitalist system which recognizes that some people will work harder, are more capable, or will have greater fortune, and therefore will have more than others. Our capitalism is modified by a large dose of compassion and mandated generosity for those who do not have enough to get by.

That system may leave us with the dilemma of knowing how much to give, to whom, and how to know that gifts to the poor will be used properly. To some degree, those questions are answered by the laws governing tzedakah. And, to some degree, they are answered by making a leap of faith when we give to the poor, a leap that is rooted in the knowledge that whatever material blessings we enjoy ultimately come from God.

Why Baseball Managers Wear Uniforms

Despite a dismal Yankee season marked by fading hopes of making the playoffs, I still like to watch the team play. I was watching the Yanks play the Orioles the other night when, absent anything to cheer about coming from my team, I began making a mental list of baseball trivia questions. Why is the third game of a series in which each team has won one game called a “rubber match?” Why do baseball uniforms have numbers? Why is second base sometimes called the “keystone sack?” And…why do baseball managers wear uniforms when coaches of other professional sports teams (hockey, football, basketball) do not? After all, baseball uniforms are pretty tight fitting and a lot of the managers are middle aged and overweight, so it’s not a very complimentary look. The answer to that last question is that a baseball manager was, at one time in the history of the game, one of the players and had to wear a uniform. Even though managers are no longer active players, they still wear a uniform. You might say it’s a tradition that won’t give way to modern circumstances or realities.

Hmmm…tradition vs. modernity and innovation. Sound familiar? That’s one of the core tensions underlying religion, and Judaism deals with it constantly. For as long as there have been Jews in the world, we have struggled with finding the right balance between tradition and innovation. It’s not a simple choice. Traditions are comforting and reassuring. They connect us to our past, reminding us that we have our place in time and history. We want to know that we come from somewhere, that who we are carries a mark of authenticity that is seasoned and has stood the test of time. I imagine that none of us would wantonly jettison our religious traditions, whether or not we observe them in a committed way. In my work as a Mohel, I make this argument to parents who are ambivalent about holding their son’s bris on the eighth day of life. This is our oldest continuously practiced tradition, I tell them. Do you want to be the first generation to abandon it? Do you want to be part of the reason that it fades away? We could make the same argument about any of our traditions—the second day of the festival as observed in the Diaspora, reading Torah from a handwritten scroll, getting married under a chupah. Our traditions connect us to a vibrant and meaningful past.

Next to that compelling argument in favor of tradition is the equally compelling argument in favor of innovation. We cannot live in the past. We must embrace the times in which we live fully and with creativity and imagination. We must continuously reinvent our way of life or it will become stale and lifeless. That has been our way for centuries. Traditions evolve by necessity; they even fade away, in favor of new practices that speak to us more powerfully and with greater relevance. We have seen the Passover Seder and Haggadah evolve gracefully over time, with new practices and ideas added that give it greater meaning and impact for our lives.

The persistent tension between tradition and change also lies at the core of the ideology of Conservative Judaism. Our denomination was founded on the idea that one could, indeed must, forge a delicate balance between honoring tradition and seeking innovation in Jewish life. It is an honorable and important challenge that we have always faced, and will continue to face. And if Conservative Judaism is to move into the future in a strong position to retain and attract members, it must embrace the challenge to balance tradition with innovation with even greater commitment. We must look carefully at our traditions and talk about their meaning and purpose in our lives. And as we do, we must honor the ideas that change must be slow, not sudden, and must represent a reasonable consensus of concerned members.

I hope and expect that we will embrace this time honored challenge in the year that lies ahead.

P.S. The third game of a series in which each team has won one game called a “rubber match” because the series victory can “bounce” either way. Baseball uniforms have numbers because they were once used to establish the batting order. And second base sometimes called the “keystone sack” because it resembles the keystone that holds an arch together.

What’s in a Name?

By all accounts, the war in Gaza was gruesome and tragic. One of the sad aspects of war, any war, is that it dehumanizes both combatants and victims. It causes people to behave in ways that are uncivilized. In modern warfare, because of the use of the skies for weapons, combatants most often do not know or see the victims of battle. Casualties are usually reported as numbers, not as human beings. I’ve been sadly struck by the way in which the human toll of war has been reported as a statistic. I am saddened by the huge losses on the Palestinian side of the conflict. Each of the people killed was a human being, created in the image of God. As a Jew and a Zionist, my heart aches for the Israelis who were killed in Gaza and Israel. I’m troubled by the lumping together of the soldiers who fell in battle into a group statistic, one that has been compared to losses in other wars. I’m troubled because each of those soldiers was a human being, a vital person pulsing with life and potential. Each of those soldiers left behind family and friends, hopes and dreams, and each of them would surely have made meaningful contributions to Israeli and human society. They are more than statistics, more than a footnote to an ugly war.

In this week’s parasha, we again read the Ten Commandments, reminding us of the moment that God revealed His essence to the People of Israel at Mt. Sinai. I think of the Kabbalistic teaching that God spoke not only to a nation, but to each individual that day. Indeed, the commandments appear in the singular, not the plural, form. Each individual was addressed personally by God. This reminds us that each person matters; each soul is endowed with Divine light and has innate and eternal value.

This Shabbat is known as “Shabbat Nachamu,” the Shabbat of comfort. Coming immediately after Tisha B’Av, a day of national mourning, Shabbat Nachamu begins a period of healing and renewal from loss and tragedy. For us today, and especially for Israelis, this is not merely a historical memory, it is a reality. On this “Shabbat Nachamu,” I ask that we pay tribute to the soldiers of the IDF who gave their lives in the defense of the State of Israel. Indeed, they gave their lives in the defense of the Jewish nation. I ask that each of us pay tribute to their lives by speaking their names. Below, I have included the list of the soldiers who were killed in Operation Protective Edge. Sometime over Shabbat, read the list. As you read each name, consider that they had their whole lives in front of them. Imagine them smiling or laughing, enjoying the pursuits in life that brought them joy. And humbly thank them for their sacrifice.

Sgt. First Class Adi Briga, age 23, of Beit Shikma.

Cpl Meidan Maymon Biton, age 20, of Netivot.

St.Sgt. Eliav Eliyahu Haim Kahlon, age 22, of Safed

Corporal Niran Cohen, age 20, of Tiberias.

St. Sgt. Moshe Davino, age 20, of Jerusalem.

NCO Sgt. First Class Barak Refael Degorker, age 27, of Gan Yavne

Cptn Liad Lavi, age 22, of Sadeh Nitzan

CWO Rami Kahlon, age 39, of Hadera

Lt. Roi Peles, age 21, of Tel Aviv

St.-Sgt. Matan Gotlib, age 21, of Rishon Lezion

Sgt. Nadav Raimond, age 19, from Shadmot Dvora

Sgt Dor Deri, age 18, of Jerusalem

Sergeant Sagi Erez, age 19, of Kiryat Ata

Sgt Barkai Yishai Shor, age 21, of Jerusalem

Sgt. Daniel Kedmi, age 18, of Tzofim

St. Sgt. Liel Gidoni, age 20, of Jerusalem

Major Benaya Sarel, age 26, of Kiryat Arba

Cpt. Liran Edry, age 31, of Ezuz

St. Sgt. Noam Rosenthal, age 20, of Meitar.

St. Sgt. Shay Kushnir, age 20, of Kiryat Motzkin

Capt. Omri Tal, age 22, of Yehud

Sgt First Class Daniel Marash, age 22, of Rishon Lezion

St.-Sgt. Guy Algranati, age 20, of Tel Aviv

St.-Sgt. Omer Hay, age 21, of Savyon

Second Lt. Hadar Goldin, age 23, of Kfar Saba

Capt. Tsvi Kaplan, age 28, of Kibbutz Merav,

St.-Sgt. Gilad Rozenthal Yacoby, age 21, of Kiryat Ono,

Maj. Tzafrir Bar-Or, age 32, of Acre,

St. Sgt. Oz Mendelovich, age 21, of Atzmon

St. Sgt. Bnaya Rubel, age 20, of Holon

Second Lt. Bar Rahav, 21, of Ramat Yishai

Sgt. Adar Barsano, age 20, of Nahariya

Maj. Amotz Greenberg, age 45, of Hod Hasharon

St.-Sgt. Eitan Barak, age 20, of Herzliya

Stf.-Sgt. Daniel Pomerantz, age 20, of Kfar Azar

Stf.-Sgt. Shachar Tase, age 20, from Pardesiya

Sgt. Max Steinberg, age 24, of Beersheba

St.-Sgt. Oron Shaul, age 21, of Poriyah

Sgt. Ben Oanounou, age 19, of Ashdod

St. Sgt. Moshe Malko, age 20, of Jerusalem

Sgt. Nissim Sean Carmeli, age 21, of Ra’anana

NCO Ohad Shemesh, age 27, from Beit Elazari

St.-Sgt. Oded Ben Sira, age 22, from Nir Etzion

Lt.-Col. Dolev Keidar, age 38, of Modi’in,

Sgt. Shon Mondshine, age 19, of Tel Aviv

Cptn Dmitri Levitas, age 26, of Jerusalem

St.-Sgt. Evyatar Turgeman, age 20, of Beit Shean

Sgt. Nadav Goldmacher, 23, of Beersheba

Chief Warrant Officer Kasahun Baynesian, age 39, of Netivot

Lt. Paz Eliyahu, age 22, of Kibbutz Evron

Captain Natan Cohen, age 23, of Jerusalem

St.-Sgt. Jordan Bensemhoun, age 22, of Ashkelon

Second Lt. Yuval Haiman, age 21, of Efrat

St.-Sgt. Shahar Dauber, age 20, of Kibbutz Ginegar

St.-Sgt. Li Mat, age 19, of Eilat

St.-Sgt. Tal Yifrah, age 21, of Rishon Lezion

St.-Sgt. Yuval Dagan, age 22, of Kfar Saba

St.-Sgt. Avraham Grintzvaig, age 21, of Petah Tikva

St.-Sgt. Gal Bason, age 21, of Holon

St.-Sgt. Guy Levy, age 21, of Kfar Vradim

St.-Sgt. Guy Boyland, age 21, of Ginosar

St.-Sgt. Amit Yaori, age 20, of Jerusalem

NCO Master Sgt. (res.) Yair Ashkenazy, age 36, of Rehovot,

I want to conclude this post with a well-known poem by a woman known only as Zelda. Born as Zelda Schneersohn Mishkovsky in 1914, this poet for the ages lived much of her life in Jersualem until her passing in 1984. One of her most famous poems is entitled “Each of Us Has a Name.”

Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents

Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear

Each of us has a name
given by the mountains
and given by our walls

Each of us has a name
given by the stars
and given by our neighbors

Each of us has a name
given by our sins
and given by our longing

Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love

Each of us has a name
given by our celebrations
and given by our work

Each of us has a name
given by the seasons
and given by our blindness

Each of us has a name
given by the sea
and given by
our death.

May the memories, and names, of Israel’s fallen soldiers be for a blessing.