The Call: Erev Rosh Hashana 5773 | Congregation Beth Am

The Call: Erev Rosh Hashana 5773

By Rabbi Janet Marder on
September 16, 2012

            Well, so there I was. It was lunchtime, as I recall, and I had just sat down to my favorite meal: barley bread, lentils, and a nice bowl of sour goats’ milk. My mouth was watering; I could hardly wait to dive in and eat. Then I realized that there was just one thing that would make this meal perfect. I opened my mouth and I was just about to yell – “Honey! Bring me a beer!” – when all of a sudden, I heard a voice.

            I’m not quite sure where the voice came from. Looking back, I can’t even describe what it sounded like. Maybe a little like my grandfather, whose voice I last heard when I was a little boy. Anyway, the voice called to me, and this is what it said: “Lech-lecha mei-artzecha…Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you. I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.…and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you” [Gen.12:1-3].

            That was it. It was over fast. I said: “What? Could you repeat that?” But the voice only spoke once. I called my wife. “Honey! Come here – I have to tell you something. And while you’re at it, can you bring me a beer?”

            Sarah came in. She was skeptical, as you might imagine. My wife is something – do you know her? 65 years old, but she looks like 19 [based on Midrash Gen. Rabba on Gen. 23:1]. Smart as a whip, too. You can’t put anything over on Sarah. So I tell her what the voice said. She says: “What? Move? You’re out of your mind.” She gives me a whole lecture on how housing prices are down and we’d be selling at a loss, and besides, what about the business? She tells me, for the umpteenth time, that I shouldn’t be such a dreamer.

            “Really, Sarah,” I say to her. “What do we have here in Mesopotamia? Not very much. The family is small. No children, to our regret. I’d like to see something of the world.”

            So that’s the long and the short of it. We pulled up stakes and headed west. We took along my father, Terach, who was too old to leave alone. We took along our nephew – I call him Lot, because he’s got a lot on the ball. We traveled for a long time. Along the way, in Haran, my father died. We were never close, but I miss him anyway. Now and then, Sarah would get frustrated. She’d say, “Remind me, Abraham – why are we shlepping around like this? What did you say was the point of all this?”

            “Not sure,” I would say. “Something about being a blessing.” Eventually, it all became a little clearer to me. Now and then I would hear the voice again: “Fear not, Abraham. I am a shield to you” [Gen.15:1]. “Look toward heaven and count the stars…so shall your offspring be” [Gen.15:5]. “Walk in My ways and be blameless” [Gen.17:1]. And then one day the voice said a little more. “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? ….For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of God by doing what is just and right…” [Gen.18:17,19].

            “Oh,” I said to Sarah. “Now I understand. The reason we’re here, the reason we’re on this journey, is to do what’s just and right.” “Such a genius you are,” my wife says. “So what’s just and right?”

            That is the question, isn’t it; what is just and right? Two thousand years ago, Rabbi Judah asks in the Mishnah [Avot 2:1]: “Ezo hi derech yeshara…What is the right and proper path that a person should choose?” It’s the question Jews all over the world ask themselves tonight as the new year begins. It’s the question our country is asking, as well, as we face the daunting challenges of our time: how to fix the economy, how to bring back prosperity, how to ensure a better future for the next generation. We all want to do what is good and right. How do we know what is right? What is the proper path for a person, or a nation, to choose?

            Judaism has something to say about this. At the very heart of our faith and tradition is the quest to build better people; to develop the moral character of the individual. But that is only a means to the larger end – social transformation. Judaism aims at nothing less than the good society, the moral community. It set out, from the very beginning, not to save souls but to save the world. All our study and prayer and rituals are devoted to a single end – to bring about the time described in our Rosh Hashana prayer: when “the rule of tyranny shall pass away from the earth” [Gates of Repentance, p.33].

            What defines an honorable person and a just society? What are the pillars of Jewish morality?

            Here are some of them. First is honesty; freedom from deceit and fraud. Leviticus chapter 19, which we read every year on Yom Kippur, makes the point emphatically: “Do not lie. Do not steal. Do not cheat one another” [vs.11]. Cheating on your spouse or lying to your loved ones destroys trust and eats away at family unity; so also, dishonesty in business and government destroys societal trust and corrodes civic unity. The Bible is especially hard on people who cheat to get ahead or make a profit, for example by using false weights and measures [Lev.19:35; Deut.25:13].  “Better is a poor man who lives blamelessly than a rich man whose ways are crooked,” says the Book of Proverbs [28:6].

            This should all be so obvious as to go without saying. But apparently it bears repeating in a country in which lying and fraud are routinely practiced at the highest levels of leadership. Writes economist Jeffrey Sachs: “Dishonesty is a contagious social disease; once it gets started, it tends to spread….Perhaps the cause is the parade of CEOs who have cheated their own companies, their shareholders, and their customers, giving us the sense that everybody in corporate America is cheating…Perhaps the ultimate cause is the nearly complete impunity of lying or costly failures in leadership. Almost nobody at the top pays a price for such behavior, even when the truth is eventually exposed….Those who are actually found guilty of violating the law typically get off with a slap on the wrist, if that” [The Price of Civilization, Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2012, pp.23-24].

            Think about a country in which the most powerful men at a major university bury child sexual abuse allegations for more than a decade, looking the other way to protect the institution and its 60 million dollar a year football program, demonstrating, as Louis Freeh said, a “callous and shocking disregard for child victims” [NY Times, July 13, 2012].

             Those simple Biblical teachings about lying and deceit and fraud bear repeating in a country where large-scale cheating is uncovered at some of the nation’s most prestigious schools – Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, the Air Force Academy, and Harvard University, where last month 125 undergraduates – almost half of those enrolled in the course – were accused of cheating on their final exam (ironically, in a government class entitled “Introduction to Congress”). One Harvard professor described the attitude he encounters like this: “We want to be famous and successful, we think our colleagues are cutting corners, we’ll be damned if we’ll lose out to them” [“Studies Find More Students Cheating, With High Achievers No Exception,” NY Times September 8, 2012].

            Judaism teaches that a good person doesn’t lie or cheat, and a good society doesn’t condone, or worse, reward deceit.

            Here’s a second pillar: hard work and personal responsibility. Chaim David HaLevy, former Sephardic Chief rabbi of Israel, said, “In the Jewish worldview, work is sacred – it is building and creating a partnership with God in the work of creation” [Aseh L’cha Rav, 2:64; quoted in Work, Workers and the Jewish Owner]. Two Talmudic Sages, Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Shimon, [Talmud Nedarim 49b] taught: "Great is labor for it honors the workman." Both sages would purposely carry burdens on their shoulders into the Study House because they wanted to show their students that manual labor should be respected.

            This view of work set Judaism apart from other philosophies prevalent in the ancient world. The Greeks and Romans looked down on work; freedom from work was a mark of status and privilege. “Labor stupefies both body and mind and deprives man of his natural dignity,” said Aristotle. “…The title of citizen belongs only to those who need not work to live” [Politics, parts 6,8,10,11].

            For the Talmud, all honest labor, no matter how menial or humble, is valuable. “Skin cattle in the street,” says Rav, “and collect your wages. Do not say, “I am a kohen and a great man; this is beneath my dignity” [Talmud Pesachim 113a].

            Our Sages believed deeply in the sense of self-worth and dignity that come from supporting yourself. This is stated most succinctly and beautifully in Psalm 128, which says: “when you eat the labor of your [own] hands, you will be happy and it will be well with you” [verse 2]. We all know that according to Maimonides, the best way to assist a needy person is to help that person become self-sufficient by offering a financial gift, an interest-free loan, a business partnership or a job [Mishneh Torah, Laws of Tzedaka, 10:7–14].

            Judaism says that a good person works hard, doesn’t look down on those who do menial work and treats all laborers with respect. A good society makes it possible for all able-bodied people to be productive and support themselves.

            A third principle follows from the Jewish reverence for work: respect for private property. No one would work if there were no rewards for work, if we could not enjoy the fruits of our labor. Many Jewish laws protect private property from theft and damage. So important is this principle that it’s enshrined in the 10 commandments [Ex.20:15; Deut.5:19] . But here again Judaism sets itself apart from other traditions, both ancient and modern. The right of private property, for Jews, is not unlimited or absolute. Certainly, there are things we possess – but we are not the sole or permanent owner. “The land belongs to Me,” says God in the book of Leviticus. “You are but strangers and sojourners with Me” [25:23].

            Judaism teaches us to see ourselves less as owners than as guardians of our property. While we live, we are entrusted to use what we possess in accordance with the teachings of the true Owner – not only to provide for ourselves and our family, but to benefit others. This applies not only to land and movable possessions but to the resources of the earth – water and air, plant and animal life, sources of energy. We may benefit from them, but we are not permitted to destroy, waste, befoul or plunder the inheritance of generations to come.

            This is a hard lesson to swallow. Things that we hold in our hands; things that sit in our house or on our land; money that sits in our bank account – why shouldn’t we be able to do with them exactly as we please? Why should their use be governed by anything other than our own desires? Because our natural inclination is to think mostly of ourselves, and to focus on our own short-term interests, Judaism entrusts this matter not to individuals but to the community, and makes it a matter of law.

            One famous passage in the Talmud [Sanhedrin 17b] stipulates what every community should provide to make it livable for a talmid chacham, a wise person. The list of basic necessities includes not just a synagogue and kosher butchers, but law courts; a tzedaka fund, honestly administered, to provide for the poor; sanitary facilities; medical care; and education for the children.

            Because, for Judaism, property rights are secondary to the public good, we find Talmudic legislation regulating wages, working conditions, employer conduct and rates of profit. By the early centuries of the Common Era, the Jewish community had taken on the responsibility of providing for the poor, so that this fundamental need would not be left purely up to individual philanthropy, for such charitable impulses tend to be sporadic and unreliable. One scholar describes the advanced system of social welfare instituted in Talmudic times:

            “To place the administration of poor relief on a more efficient and respectable basis, it was eventually institutionalized. Begging from door to door was discouraged. Indigent townsmen were given a weekly allowance for food and clothing. Transients received their allowance daily….For the poor traveler and the homeless, public inns were frequently built on the high roads. All these facilities were maintained from the proceeds of a general tax to which all residents of a community contributed.” And already in the time of the Talmud, Jewish communities had developed a system of universal, free public school for all levels, from elementary through higher education [Tanhuma, Shemot, ed. Buber, p. 43a; Tosefta Peah 4:8–13; Baba Batra 8a, 9b; Quoted in Ben-Zion Bokser, The Wisdom of the Talmud, pp.102-3; http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/wott/wott07.htm].

            Our sages taught that a decent society provides for the basic needs of its members, assisting those who are unable to provide for themselves. A decent community draws on the resources of those who are able, to pay for those necessities. Dr. Meir Tamari, an economist and scholar of Jewish business ethics in Israel, summarizes it well: “[A]ssistance to the poor [and] the weak, and the treatment of…the environment, cannot be delegated to the sphere of individual conscience. Therefore the community has the right to tax the individual for these social purposes and to introduce…legislation that forces the individual to part with part of ….[his] private wealth….” [Meir Tamari, Business Ethics, Parshat Emor; http://www.torah.org/learning/business-ethics/5764/emor.html?print=1

            One other principle underlies everything I’ve said. It’s found in a fascinating teaching from the Mishna. “Ha-omer, ‘sheli sheli, v’shelcha shelach,’ – zo beinonit; v’yesh omrim: zo midat S’dom. A person who says, ‘what’s mine is mine; what’s yours is yours – this is the mark of the average man. And some say: this is the mark of Sodom” [Pirke Avot 5:13]. “What’s mine is mine; what’s yours is yours.” This sounds like a person who respects the property of others; someone who takes care of his own stuff and does nothing to harm anyone else’s. You’d think this would be the mark of a good person. Instead, says the Mishna, it’s the philosophy of an average, a mediocre person. And some opinions go even further; they say it’s the way the people of Sodom thought.

            In rabbinic thought, Sodom is the symbol of the evil community. This depravity has nothing to do with homosexuality; our Sages locate the evil of Sodom in another quality. They base themselves on the words of the prophet Ezekiel, who said: “This was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and the needy” [16:49].

            In the midrash, Sodom is portrayed as a beautiful, affluent city whose citizens exemplified the principle of extreme individualism -- “every man for himself.” They felt no sense of obligation to one another, no mutual responsibility; no compassion; they recognized no common humanity that unites all people in one family. “What’s mine is mine; what’s yours is yours,” they said. “Keep your hands off my money,” they said. They said, in the words of Meir Tamari, "I do not care what you do, whether you are sick, old or poor. While I will not steal from you, neither will I help you.”

            He continues: “When [some individuals say], ‘I have no…obligations to you’, then a society can still exist. But…when everybody says ‘mine is mine and yours is yours,’ that society has accepted a concept of absolute private property. Then economic evil has gone far from the selfishness or crimes of marginal individuals – the whole society becomes corrupt. It was not…individual act[s] of inhospitality that characterized Sodom, but rather the collective refusal to utilize wealth to alleviate suffering” [Dr. Meir Tamari, “What’s Mine is Mine,” http://www.torah.org/learning/business-ethics/5764/emor.html?print=1].

            The Torah, you see, tells us to open our hands to our needy brothers and sisters, and says, “there should be no poor among you” [Deut.15:4]. But just a few verses later, the very same Torah says, “there will never cease to be needy ones in your land” [15:11]. What was true in Biblical times is still true today. Why? Because intelligence and talent are unevenly distributed within the population. Because there will always be those who get sick; who are disabled physically or mentally; who are elderly and outlive their savings; who are simply unlucky – people who lose their jobs when a factory closes, management wants to cut costs, or an entire industry goes belly-up. And there will always be children born into such families. A civilized society, says Jewish tradition, encourages effort, personal responsibility, hard work and self-reliance, but cares for the vulnerable and helpless.

            Did you read, earlier this summer, that archeologists have just unearthed in Israel the oldest piece of Hebrew writing yet discovered? The words were painted onto a clay pot about 3000 years ago. Experts think the author was a court official in training, who was practicing his writing skills by recording the most important laws over and over again. This is what he wrote: “Give rights to slaves and to widows! Give rights to orphans and to foreigners! Protect the rights of the poor and protect the rights of children!” [See “German Translates Oldest Known Hebrew, published in ‘The Local: Germany’s News in English,’ June 6, 2012].

            I wonder: what would our Sages have thought of a country where the poor are ignored or despised or regarded with disdain as lazy, shiftless freeloaders? What would they make of a commentator on a major national network who calls homeowners facing foreclosure “losers”” [NY Times Opinionator on Rick Santelli; Feb. 20, 2009]. Or of the richest woman in the world who recently gave this advice to the poor: “If you're jealous of those with more money don't just sit there and complain -- do something to make more money yourself. Spend less time drinking, smoking and socializing and more time working” [Gina Rinehart; see David Lazarus in the LA Times, Sept. 5, 2012].

            What would our Sages think of a prominent radio talk-show host who compares those on public assistance to animals in our national parks, saying, “You'll encounter signs everywhere telling you not to feed the animals. And the reason that you are not to feed the animals -- this is the US Park Service -- the animals must learn to fend for themselves if they are to survive and thrive.  When you feed animals they become dependent and no longer function as nature intends” [Rush Limbaugh, April 4, 2012].

            And how would our sages feel, I wonder, about a country whose leaders propose reducing the deficit by cutting billions of dollars from the food stamp program?

            The next time you hear such mean-spirited rants, here is something to remember: a recent study by the nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that 91% of all federal social program benefits go to Americans who are either elderly, seriously disabled, or in low-wage working families. [See: http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=3677#_ftn2].

            Contempt for the poor upsets me, because I come from poor people. My grandmother left school after 8th grade to go to work; my grandfather sold newspapers on the street as a boy because his father, a tailor, couldn’t earn enough to feed his family. My grandparents never owned their own home. My dad was raised by a single mom and he worked from the time he was a teenager.

            My grandparents and my parents lifted themselves out of poverty. They did it through intelligence and honesty, through hard work and personal responsibility. They also did it through excellent public schools, including a top-notch university education that was virtually free. They did it thanks to cheap mortgages through the G.I. Bill, and thanks to decent and affordable housing. They could do it because there were plenty of jobs that allowed a person with little education to earn a decent living. They didn’t need to pay for childcare, because in those days, you could support a family comfortably on one income. My grandparents would not have survived without Social Security and Medicare, and don’t you ever call my thrifty, frugal grandparents shiftless freeloaders.

            Fifty years ago, as Jeffrey Sachs reminds us, elderly Americans were the group with the highest rate of poverty – in 1959 more than 35% of those over 65 lived below the poverty line. After the expansion of Social Security and Medicare, the poverty rate of the elderly fell to 25.3% in 1969; 15.2% in 1979; 11.4% in 1989. In 2011 the poverty rate among those over 65 was just 8.7% [The Price of Civilization, p.197; U.S. Census Bureau, 2011 – Income, Poverty and Wealth].

            Decades ago, our country made the decision to use our shared resources to take care of our elders. Unfortunately, for children, it’s been a different story. In 1959 the poverty rate for children under 18 was 27.3%. By 1969 the rate had dropped to 14%, but then it began to climb steadily. In 2008 19% of children lived in poverty; today it is almost 22% -- more than one in five. In real numbers, that is 16.1 million children.   [U.S. Census Bureau, “Table 3: Poverty Status of People, by Age, Race, and Hispanic Origins, 1958-2009,” Current Population Survey, Annual and Social Economic Supplements. Quoted in Sachs, p.197; See also

http:// www.npr.org/2012/09/12/161013227/poverty-rate-unchanged-but-still-historically-high ]. Lest we forget: the poverty line in America is an annual income of $23,000 for a family of four. And the average food stamp recipient gets $31.50 a week – that’s $1.50 a meal.  Not exactly living high on the hog [Food Research and Action Center rg2.democracyinaction.org/o/5118/p/salsa/web/common/public/content?content_item_KEY=10406].

            It is wrong for children to be hungry. It is especially wrong for them to be hungry in a country where so much wealth, staggering wealth, concentrated at the very top, is spent on self-indulgence and display; and to be told that we simply cannot afford to take care of those who have almost nothing.

            These words I have spoken are not partisan or divisive. They are at the heart of all great religions, and they are at the heart of this great country. Listen to the words of an American president, describing what he called a “narrow” and “destructive” mindset:

            “The idea that if government would only get out of our way, all our problems would be solved. An approach with no higher goal, no nobler purpose, than ‘Leave me alone.’

            “Yet this is not who we are as Americans. We have always found our better selves in sympathy and generosity, both in our lives and in our laws. Americans will never write the epitaph of idealism. It emerges from our nature as a people, with a vision of the common good beyond profit and loss. Our national character shines in our compassion. We are a nation of rugged individuals. But we are also the country of the second chance, tied together by bonds of friendship and community and solidarity” [Quoted in E.J. Dionne Jr., Our Divided Political Heart, Bloomsbury, 2012, pp.113-14].

            Those words were spoken in 1999 by George W. Bush. They articulate beautifully what is best in our country and in our own souls – energies I hope and pray we will summon to meet the challenges that lie ahead.

            So there I was, just about to sit down to a nice lunch – whole wheat pita this time, and some nice, juicy falafel, when all of a sudden, there was that voice again. “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do…? For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of God by doing what is just and right.”

            “Hmmm,” I thought to myself. “Easy for you to say.” The voice kept on speaking. “The outcry of Sodom… is so great, and their sin so grave!” [Gen.18:20].

            “But what should I do?” I asked. “I don’t know those people. They’re strangers to me.” The voice didn’t speak any more, but I heard the words reverberate in my ears just the same. Then my wife, my Sarah, spoke up, as she always does. “Do what is just and right,” she said. So I thought about the innocent souls in that city – all the millions and millions of children. Other people’s children. Our children, all of them.

            And when I closed my eyes I could see them: kids hungry for a decent meal, growing up on blighted streets full of dirt and drugs and crime, packed into failing schools, spending their childhood amid the stench of poverty and despair. And when I listened very hard, I could hear those children cry.

            And then I heard that voice call to me one last time: “Abraham, Abraham!” And I knew the voice was saying that it was up to me. And so I stood up, and I opened my mouth, and this is what I said: “Hineni. Here I am. I will do what is just and right.”

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