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A Moral Faith

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

D’var Torah for Parashat Vayishlach

Not much good happens to our Patriarch Jacob in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4—36:43). Insinuation and accusations have caused him to escape from Laban’s house. Unlike his first hasty departure 20 years earlier, however, this time he is not leaving empty handed. He is rich, head of a large family and in charge of many flocks and herds.

But whereas when he left his first home, he was bold and unafraid, this time Jacob has to face his worst fears.

Youth is confident of its own strength. Youth believes in its own power and invincibility. Nothing like life to teach you a lesson in vulnerability.

About to cross the river that divides between exile and home, between his past and his future, Jacob has to face some mysterious being. It’s unclear whether this being is a demon or angel. In the middle of the night the difference may not be all that clear. In any case, the two wrestle all night long. At some point the stranger wrenches Jacob’s hip socket, but Jacob refuses to give in. Even as dawn alights, the struggle continues.

Finally admitting defeat, the mysterious being is forced to give Jacob a blessing. “You have struggled with men and divine beings and have prevailed,” says the spirit, and he bestows on Jacob a new name: Israel.

But Jacob’s struggles are far from over. He now has to face his brother a worse adversary—his brother Esau, who is coming towards him with four hundred armed men. Fearful for the safety of his family, Jacob cajoles, pleads and bribes Esau before the two finally part, each going his own way. This time bloodshed was avoided.

Sometime later, with Jacob and his family encamped outside Shechem, Dina, Jacob’s only daughter, wanders away from the camp. She is seen by the prince of the city, also named Shechem, who seizes and rapes her. Falling in love with the girl, Shechem sends his father to ask for Dina’s hand in marriage.

Jacob is silent, but his sons are enraged. Demanding that all the men of Shechem be circumcised, they wait for three days. Then two of Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, attack. They kill all the males of the city, who understandably are unable to defend themselves, and take all the women, children and possessions for themselves. Jacob is horrified by their actions, but he is silent when his sons retort: “Shall our sister be dealt with as a whore?”

Not long after this terrible incident, Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife, Rachel, dies as she gives birth to Benjamin.

Jacob has had to face life with all its unhappiness and suffering. Yet what he does next is a true testament to his inheritance and legacy: He returns to Bethel and builds an altar to God, reaffirming his faith in the God of his fathers.

In view of all his suffering, this act may be difficult to understand. When he left home years earlier, Jacob was bold enough to question God: “If you fulfill your promise to bring me back home safely,” he says in response to God’s promise of protection. “If.” It isn’t doubt or uncertainty that motivate him. It’s youthful arrogance.

Now, however, even though he is filled with fear and doubt, Jacob responds not with cynicism but rather with faith.

In rising above his personal tragedies (there is yet one more to come), Jacob shows his greatness. Past experience has taught him how to fend for himself. He learned when to fight and when to sue for peace, when to make alliances and when to set boundaries. He has learned that it’s possible to pick up the shattered pieces of life and carry on with one’s duties and responsibilities. He has learned how to draw blessings from even the most dire situations.

But possibly the most important lesson of all came after the terrible events at Shechem.

The rape of Dina was not only a personal act of violence. It was also an attack on the legitimacy of Jacob’s family and household.

Simeon and Levi reacted as people did in those brutal days. They defended their sister’s honor; they upheld and restored their family’s legitimacy and integrity.

And yet, they committed an atrocity.

Yes, “the fear of God” kept the family safe from further attacks, but for Jacob there was something much deeper at stake here. So far, his struggles had been with others. Now Jacob had to face his own conscience. Mass murder, no matter how some viewed it in those days, was unacceptable to him. Vengeance exacted on the guilty and innocent alike was something that to his core he believed was wrong. The lessons he learned as a child yet were to care for the weak, the sick and injured. What his sons had done was contrary to everything he ever believed.

In accepting the role of Israel, the father of a nation, Jacob agreed to follow higher standards of ethics and morality. That is why at this point in his life, despite all the tragedies—or perhaps because of them—he fulfills his vow. In Bethel, Jacob builds an altar to the God of Abraham and Isaac, of Sarah and Rebecca, the God of Israel.

In the last few weeks there have been many attacks on the life and legitimacy of Jacob’s progeny, the People of Israel. Terror has taken the lives of men, women and children throughout the Land of Israel. Yet, true to the teaching of Jacob, the State of Israel has acted in accordance with Jacob’s moral teachings.

I remember when, nearly 20 years ago, a terrorist blew himself up near Dizengoff Center, at the heart of Tel Aviv. Thirteen Israelis between the ages of 13 and 82 were killed in that terrible attack. I remember precisely where I was when I heard the news. I was a rabbinic student then, and I was sitting in the sanctuary of Hebrew Union College; it was the middle of morning services. I rushed out to call my family in Israel—thank God they were all safe. But when I returned to my seat in the sanctuary, I felt rage such as I had never felt before. I was shaking violently, to the point where a friend who was sitting next to me had to put his arm around me to calm me.

Though, somehow, services continued, my heart and soul were not in the prayers. Slowly, my rage dissipated. But it did not disappear; instead, it turned to hate. With all my heart and soul, I hated. This was the fourth such attack in nine days. In that span, 60 Israelis were killed by suicide murderers. I just couldn’t take it any more. Above all else at that moment I wanted revenge.

Yet even as I struggled with my emotions, something else arose from deep within me. It was an understanding, a lesson. Better than ever before, I truly understood why the Torah and the ancient rabbis forbade blood vengeance. It was Jacob’s lesson which at that moment resonated within my soul.

Israel’s raison d’etre, its cause and the foundation of its existence, is this moral lesson: That punishment must be restricted to the guilty; that mass retaliation is abhorrent in God’s eyes.

Terror strikes indiscriminately. Terrorists aim to spread pain, suffering and destruction as widely as possible. No matter how great our rage, however, we must not give in to the instincts that would drive us to respond in kind. To be Israel means that we set a different God before our eyes. Our God is a God of justice, not of revenge, of compassion and morality, not bloodlust and cruelty.

We do best homage to our patriarch Jacob when we follow this teaching. I only hope and pray that we and the rest of the civilized world will continue to follow it.

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Who Is The “You” in Tetzaveh

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

D’var Torah for Parashat Tetzaveh

This week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh (“You shall command,” Exodus 27:20-30:10) is unique in that it is the only parasha in the Torah since the birth of Moses and with the exception of the book of Deuteronomy, which is told almost exclusively from Moses’s perspective, in which Moses’s name is not mentioned once. The use of the second person pronoun has been addressed by rabbis since the third century and possibly even earlier. Some explain it as a harsh response by God to the “You” used pointedly by Moses to remind God of His responsibility toward the People of Israel, the People God had created and chosen. “You talking to me?” God seems to ask; “How about you and what YOUR responsibilities are!”

The Chassidic Lubavitcher Rebbe has a softer interpretation. By using the familiar “you,” God bypasses the formality of calling Moses by name. It’s all about relationships, the Rebbe teaches.

Still, the question remains open. Why bypass the pattern the Torah uses so frequently, “And God spoke unto Moses, saying…”?

By traditional understanding, the Torah was given to Moses directly by God; the “you” therefore needs no further interpretation. To whom else would God be addressing these words?

The rest of the portion seems to bear out this understanding. The subject matter is mostly the clothing of the High Priests and his fellow Levitical priests. Moses receives instructions for the preparation of the High Priest’s clothing. The ornate nature of the weave, the expensive materials, the gold thread and precious stones and gems used for this outfit, are of the same pattern and mold as the materials and patterns used for the Tabernacle. The holiness of the Mishkan, God’s dwelling-place among the Israelites, extends all the way from the innermost Holy of Holies, to the outermost garments worn by the priest. Clothing may not make the man; yet it must have been difficult for the High Priest to distinguish between God’s holiness, encased by the Holy Tabernacle, and his own importance, encased by similar designs, forms and materials. Gems on his breastplate, gold stones on his shoulders, a golden diadem on his head—how easy it must have been for the High Priest to be carried away by his own self- importance!

It’s a lesson easily adapted to our own day. At almost-daily awards shows, popular media stars model the most lavish outfits, the most expensive accessories and the most costly jewelry. In their own eyes, and in the eyes of many of their followers, that qualifies them to give voice to outrageous thoughts and opinions as though they were the very words of God Himself. Sporting blue contact lenses, Famous Person Tila Tequila recently called herself “an Aryan Goddess.” Another popular media star, Kanye West, waxes exuberantly about his own superiority. And Presidential candidate Donald Trump, notwithstanding the many business ventures he has failed in, describes himself as being good—if not better or even best—at just about anything he touches and does. A true Midas, that.

It is easy to let the trappings of power go to our heads and turn us—in our own minds at least—into something greater than we truly are.

At CNN’s New Hampshire Democratic Town Hall, my friend and colleague Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett recently directed a pointed question at Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton: “How do you cultivate the ego a person must have to be the leader of the free world and the humility to know you can’t be expected to be wise about all the things that the President has to be responsible for?”

In her eloquent and appropriate response, Hillary Clinton did not place herself above or even alongside God. Rather, she explained that prayer and devotional readings sent to her by spiritual advisors keep her balanced.

The recognition that we are not gods, that we are fallible and prone to the excesses of ego and exaggerated self-worth, are essential qualities for any leader. If we are to remember the purpose for which we were elected or appointed, if we are not to be blinded and swayed from the goals set for us by the people we are supposed to represent, we must also understand that we are merely human beings, all flesh and blood, all equal under the clothing we wear and the masks we put on.

Perhaps this is behind the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s teaching regarding God’s use of “you” instead of addressing Moses by the name we know him by. A name, regardless of how good or royal, is no more than a handle. It’s a superficial symbol, an arrow pointing towards someone. “You,” however, is a direct address. It reaches all the way to the very core of a person’s being.

Still, without a name there, we can be excused for wondering. Is it Moses that God addresses?

On the one hand, of course it is Moses. On the other hand, the “you” that God speaks to is you and me, the ordinary people whose responsibility it is to appoint or elect our leaders. It becomes our charge to remind them—as many times as it takes—that behind the trappings of power resides a mere human being, as fragile and flimsy as anyone else. None of us has the one and only answer, the one and only right way. It is only by working together, with each of us fulfilling his and her role in life and society, that we have a chance to solve the many issues and problems that face us at any given moment in history.

“You” may refer to Moses, to a wise and kindly rabbi, or to a child who perceives that the king’s new clothing is no more than his birthday suit. Ultimately, the “You” in “You shall command” is each one of us, commanded to remember and remind one another that, underneath it all, in God’s eyes, we are all equal, all deserving of the same rights, all of us equally worthy of equal dignity and respect.

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From Sinai Forward

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

Sermon/D’var Torah for Parashat Mishpati

One of my all-time favorite movies is “School Ties.” Set in the early 1950’s at a prestigious Massachusetts boys’ prep school, “School Ties” tells the story of David Green, a high school senior who is brought in from the grungiest part of Scranton, PA, to play on the school’s football team and help it win its annual homecoming game. Oh yes, David Green also happens to be Jewish.

Beautifully filmed, scored and acted, the screenplay (by Dick Wolf) is as sharp and incisive as can be. In one of the most powerful lines of the movie, Green tells the headmaster of St. Matthew’s, “You used me to win a football game; I’m going to use you to get into Harvard.”

Truthfully, it’s not a beautiful sentiment. People using people isn’t the way society ought to work. Yet that is exactly the picture that “School Ties” paints. The movie is a microcosm of America in the 1950’s, a time that, today, some of us gaze back at with a kind of romantic longing. For many Americans, those were, indeed, “the good ol’ days,” days of optimism and success. World War Two was over, the Great Depression was gone, and with America now a global superpower, the American Dream was finally becoming real for the common man.

Yet despite the shiny veneer in which the period was portrayed—think “Father Knows Best,” “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” and, of course, “Leave It To Beaver”—just beneath the surface were deep fissures, class, gender and race divisions that would blow up a mere decade later in the social upheaval and furor of the 1960’s.

A society so deeply divided, a society where people get ahead by using one another, is not a healthy society. Reliance on one another is a much healthier model. It’s a subtle distinction, I know, but it makes all the difference in the world.

A society of users cultivates prejudice, disparity and inequality. This is the kind of society Abraham Lincoln called “a house divided against itself,” in which some become rich and powerful, while others are marginalized, ridiculed and scorned. Despite claiming to be a model of freedom and opportunity, this kind of society is bound for trouble; it truly cannot stand.

Which brings me to this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“Judgments,” Exodus 22:27—23:5).

Coming on the footsteps of last week’s Torah portion, Yitro, which contains the Ten Commandments, Mishpatim at first glance seems to be the total opposite of its exalted predecessor. In Yitro, Moses climbs up Mt. Sinai to receive from the very hands of God Himself the Two Tablets of the Law, those monumental principles that would become the cornerstone of Western Civilization. Mishpatim, on the other hand, delves into the most mundane subjects of all—those crimes and misdemeanors, legal torts and offenses, the rights and wrongs that have little if anything to do with God, and everything to do with the way we behave among ourselves.

In Mishpatim, we are told to observe the Sabbath not because God made it holy, but rather because the people and animals we rely on to do the hard labor in our fields and homes deserve a day of rest. The lofty commandment “Honor thy father and thy mother” here is replaced by the much bleaker ruling that states, “One who strikes his father or mother… or curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.” And the exalted vision of liberated slaves is replaced with regulations that merely limit the kind of abuse an owner can heave upon his slaves.

There is very little mention of God in Mishpatim, and only one reference to the holy days.

On the other hand, much weight is given in this portion to how we behave toward the stranger, the poor, the homeless, the widow and the orphan among us. We are told to treat the earth with respect and to feel compassion for the animals we would otherwise take for granted.

Mishpatim teaches us that it isn’t only God’s word that is holy. In our everyday transactions, our word becomes sacred. Honoring God means honoring one another. We dignify life not only by the clothes we wear or the sacrifices we offer, but also by the way we show dignity and respect to our humblest among us.

Mishpatim is all about how we create a great society versus an unhealthy one, the total opposite of the kind of society that “School Ties” portrays.

This year—in fact, this week, the week of the intensely anticipated New Hampshire primaries—we have an unparalleled opportunity not only to listen to the candidates, but also to observe ourselves. As we look at—and listen to—the various candidates that come begging, cajoling, promising, scaring and reassuring us in turn if only we vote for them, we have to also judge ourselves and our society.

As a nation, America is facing serious issues and problems. The issue of security is ever-present of course. Every decade brings its enemy, a culture so hostile to our own that it seems willing to stop at nothing short of mayhem, chaos and even total destruction. America’s position as leader of the free world has been made precarious not only by the advances of such a culture, by a group of people so ruthless and barbarian that it can rightly be called evil, but also by our own seeming indecisiveness at how best to counter this attack.

Poverty and marginalization in our cities have contributed to greater street violence than ever. Opioid addiction has reached epidemic proportions. The social media, once touted as tools of positive change, have become shouting matches where insults, bullying, bigotry and prejudice seem the rule rather than the exception.

Education, both in our elementary schools and in the institutes of higher learning, seems to have been taken over by a system that cares more for higher grades and measureable results—at any cost—than for true learning and scholarship.

These—and more—are huge problems, but they are not insurmountable. Yet the solution is not fear mongering or finger pointing. We can only achieve positive results when we work together; not when we use one another, but rather when we rely upon each other. Each component, every member of our society, from the highest to the lowest, is of equal value to the wellbeing of the entire community.

America’s greatness is not on some high mountaintop; it exists in how we relate to one another. If America is to keep its position as leader of the free world, it is not going to happen by spouting anger and frustration, but rather by the way we treat one another; by the way we treat the earth, water and air around us; by the way we treat the animals that we rely on for food, labor and companionship.

God’s holiness is not found only on this mountaintop or another. Nor is it limited to this house of worship or another. Rather, God can be found in our handshake. God’s holiness is in the word we give one another.

God’s oath is present not only in what we promise we will do in return for God’s favor, but rather, as Mishpatim teaches us, תִּֽהְיֶה֙ בֵּ֣ין שְׁנֵיהֶ֔ם שְׁבֻעַ֣ת יְהֹוָ֗ה –God’s oath is between a man and his neighbor (Ex. 22:10 in the Hebrew, 22:11 in the English translation). It’s OK to lift your eyes up to the mountain for hope and vision, but what really counts, what really matters, is what we do down here, on this earth, among ourselves, among our neighbors and among our fellow living creatures.

May the meditations of our hearts, the words upon our lips, and the deeds of our hands all lead us forward to that vision that Moses and all Israel saw revealed at Mt. Sinai—a vision of freedom, respect and dignity for all for all humankind.


Rabbi Heilman