Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold


“But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Lord, you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.” (Leviticus 25:4)

There is a principle in our legal system known as adverse possession. If someone is using another’s property for a period of time without the property owner asserting their rights, the person using it can legally claim possession of the property. If I park my car on my neighbor’s property for a long period of time (it varies by state) and my neighbor takes no action, I can claim the parking spot as my own.
In New York City, many buildings provide parks or other public places in their courtyards or elsewhere on their property. But once a year, they will block off these public places, in order to assert their ownership and prevent adverse possession of their property. Some squatters who have settled in someone’s property for a long period have claimed ownership if the property owner takes no action. I am not an attorney, and this is a complex issue in property law, but one can lose property through adverse possession.
Nonetheless, as I read this week’s portion, I think about the problem of adverse possession. Six years we work the land. But in the seventh year we must leave it alone, eating what grows on its own but without planting or reaping. The idea is that the land does not belong to us. The land belongs to God. As the Psalmist taught us, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalms 24:1). Perhaps the purpose of the law is to prevent us from taking adverse possession of the earth. We work the earth. But just as a building in New York blocks off its public park once a year, God blocks off the earth once every seven years.
A powerful idea in our tradition is that ultimately nothing belongs to us, everything belongs to God. I was recently asked (once again) why Jewish tradition forbids tattoos. I am aware of how popular tattoos are with younger people. I gave my answer. Our bodies do not belong to us. They are on loan to us to use in a proper way. But ultimately, even our bodies belong to God. It is as if we rent someone’s home, even for an extended period. We are not allowed to make permanent alterations to the home. It does not belong to us.
A similar idea is behind the tradition that we say a blessing before eating any kind of food. We begin with the idea that none of the food we eat belongs to us. It belongs to God, and the blessing is asking permission to eat it. The Rabbis say that to eat without a blessing is a form of stealing. Again, it is like visiting someone’s home. We cannot simply go into their refrigerator, help ourselves to food, without permission. The food belongs to God.
Much Jewish observance can be understood as a statement that everything belongs to God – our bodies, our land, even the food we eat. We are welcome to make use of it, but as the laws of adverse possession teach us, we cannot claim these are our own. In powerful symbolic ways, we show that the world does not belong to us. This teaches a deep sense of appreciation for the gifts we have been given in life.
Perhaps this idea is shown most clearly in this week’s portion, that after seven times seven or forty-nine years, the Jubilee is celebrated. All land goes back to its original owner. It is a redistribution of wealth, a recognition that everything we have acquired is temporary and ultimately does not belong to us. Often in my career someone has come by with a generous donation to my synagogue. They tell me that God has been good to them, and they want to give something back. They recognize that what they acquired does not belong to them but to God.
There is nothing wrong with acquiring property and seeking wealth. But the lesson of this week’s Torah reading is that nothing belongs to us. Everything we have belongs to God. We need to avoid taking adverse possession of God’s property. Recognizing this makes us into better human beings.

“The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai.” (Leviticus 25:1)

Whenever I conduct an unveiling (the dedication of a memorial stone), I begin with the Biblical passage, “I will lift my eyes to the mountains, from where will my help come” (Psalms 121:1). There is something about mountains that turns our hearts towards God. Many religious faiths worship mountains. In Japan, Mt. Fuji is a destination for pilgrims. In Alaska, the highest peak in North America had its name changed from Mt McKinley to Denali out of respect to the mountain’s holiness to Alaska natives. Ancient Greeks saw their gods dwelling on Mount Olympus. And the Sherpas of Nepal worship the world’s highest peak, Mt. Everest. There is a deep sense among humans that there is something holy about mountains.
I have always been fascinated by the role of mountains in the human imagination. (This is a strange irony since I live in Florida, the nation’s lowest, flattest state.) When I was young, I read many books about expeditions to Mt. Everest. In the early years of my Rabbinate, I heard that Edmund Hillary (1919-2008), the first man to climb Mt. Everest with his Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay, was giving a lecture in my community. I had to go.
When I walked into the lecture, members of my synagogue saw me. “What are you doing here? Why would a rabbi come to a lecture on mountaineering?” I guess they thought rabbis were one-dimensional, only interested in Jewish topics. I am interested in multiple issues. Besides, I find something deeply spiritual about ascending a mountain. Before Hillary, George Mallory (1886-1924) who died trying to climb Everest, famously said when asked why, “Because it is there.”
Allow me to share another memory from my youth. When I was in college, I spent a summer travelling through Europe and Israel with a pack on my back. (I cannot believe my parents allowed me to go.) One place I needed to see was the town of Zermatt, Switzerland, at the foot of the Matterhorn. Maybe it was the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland, or maybe it was the 1959 Disney movie Third Man on the Mountain which I loved as a child, but I had to lay eyes on the Matterhorn. I went hiking to the base, sat in a café with a beer, and stared at the beautiful mountain.
This week’s portion is named after a mountain, Mt. Sinai. It is the place God chose to give us the Torah. Where is Mt. Sinai? In truth, scholars do not know. Many Christians and Muslims identify it with a mountain outside the ancient monastery of Santa Caterina, in the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt. When Sinai was in Israeli hands, I travelled to Santa Caterina with a group of Rabbinical students. We left in darkness in order to reach the summit as the sun was rising, where we put on tallit and tefillin and said our morning prayers. I could imagine Moses standing at that spot receiving the Ten Commandments.
This week’s portion is named after Mt. Sinai. And in two weeks we will celebrate the Jewish festival of Shavuot, the day of the giving of the Torah. We will imagine an entire people standing at the foot of a mountain receiving God’s revelation. Perhaps because a mountain is closer to God, it is a perfect place to feel God’s presence. We know God is everywhere. But there is something about a mountain that moves our hearts in a more spiritual direction. That is why God chose a mountain to give us the Torah.
I have often said that God does not dwell in nature. God is the author of nature. “The heavens declare the glory of God, the firmament shows His handiwork” (Psalms 19:2). Mountains can be places of great holiness, but also of great danger and fear. It is hard to think about Mt. Everest without considering Jon Krakauer’s haunting 1997 book Into Thin Air. It describes the tragedy that occurred on Mt. Everest the previous year. Nature can be beautiful and inspiring, but nature can also be scary and malevolent. And mountains can be scary places.
Nonetheless, we humans have always found holiness on mountaintops. God led us out from Egypt to Mt. Sinai, where we received God’s Torah. Mountains will always remain places of inspiration for us humans.


“In the seventh year the land will have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath of the Lord; you shall not sow your field nor prune your vineyard.”  (Leviticus 25:4)

When the Israelites enter the Holy Land, they are commanded to work the fields and plant the vineyards – for six years.  The seventh year is known as the Shmitah year, a year of complete rest.  Just as people and animals are to observe the Sabbath and rest every seventh day, so the land must observe its own Sabbath and rest every seven years.  This year we are in the middle of that seventh year of rest.

One can see both practical and spiritual advantages to allowing the land to lay fallow.  Even today farmers recognize that working the land, particularly with the same crop, depletes its resources.  That is the reason farmers rotate crops.   Not working the land one year in seven, eating only what grows of its own accord, would allow the land to regenerate itself.

But there is a deeper symbolic meaning to not working the land.  It shows that the land does not belong to us humans, but rather to God.  Attorneys speak of the legal principle of adverse possession.  Suppose there is a walkway or park open to the public on private property.  On a regular basis the property owner will close off that walkway or park, making it inaccessible and showing that the property belongs to them, not to the public.  If they did not do this, eventually the public can take adverse possession of the private property.

In a similar way, God closes off all agricultural land in Israel once every seven years, a symbolic way of saying “The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof” (Psalms 24:1).  We humans can work the land, but we do not own the land.  The Shmitah laws drive this spiritual lesson home in a powerful way.  Every seven years we can eat the bounty of the land, but not work the land.  This is tied into other seven-year laws such as the forgiveness of loans and the freeing of indentured servants.  Seven is a magical number in Judaism.

All this is wonderful in theory.  But it had difficult practical consequences when the earliest Zionist pioneers returned to what would become Israel and set up the first agricultural communities.  These farms and communes were barely surviving in these early years; how could they afford to let the land lay fallow?  It became a real issue in 1889.  A group of leading Orthodox rabbis led by Rabbi Yitzhak Elhanan Spector met in Vilna, Lithuania, and issued a ruling.  It was known as a Shtar Mechira, a bill of sale.  The land could be sold to a non-Jew every seven years, allowing these agricultural communities to work the land.  The legal fiction was similar to what Jews throughout the world do today, selling their hametz (leavened products) to a non-Jew during Passover.   Of course, not every rabbi agreed with such a legal fiction to circumvent a clear law from the Torah.

When the first chief rabbi of the Holy Land Abraham Isaac Kook arrived in the land, he was extremely concerned how to handle the next sabbatical year 1910.  He wrote a passionate but learned defense of the Shtar Mechira and its necessity for the survival of the Jewish agricultural communities.  He gave a number of detailed, technical arguments why such a practice was permissible and necessary.  Nonetheless, he looked forward to the day when agriculture would so flourish in the land that such a permissive ruling would no longer be necessary, and farming communities could once again not work the land.

Today in Israel, the Chief Rabbinate uses a Shtar Mechirah to sell the land to a non-Jew every seven years.  In the United States, based on this ruling, most of the kosher supervising agencies permit agricultural produce from Israel during the seventh year.  But many Haridim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) do not accept this ruling.  In Israel they will only buy produce grown by Arab and other non-Jewish farmers.  Even outside Israel, they will avoid any Israeli agricultural products grown during the seventh year.  This includes the etrogs (citrons) used on the festival of Sukkot.  They will buy from suppliers outside of Israel.

There is a lesson in this even for non-Jews.  Legal systems must be flexible and find ways to adjust to new realities.  Law, like any other human endeavor, must be open to ongoing interpretation if it is to apply to a new generation.  If a deeply religious Jew like the late Rabbi Kook could understand how the law must be reinterpreted for his own day, certainly we can do the same with our own legal system.


“Then the estimation shall be: of a male from twenty years old to sixty years old, fifty shekels of silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary.  And if a female, then the estimation shall be thirty shekels.”  (Leviticus 27:3-4)

How much is a human being worth?   The end of Leviticus speaks of people who vow their value to the Temple.  For those in the prime of life, the value is fifty shekels for a male, thirty shekels for a female.  Different prices are given for other ages.  But at least in Biblical times, and through most of human history, males were valued more than females.  Perhaps this is reflected most clearly in the way Jews traditionally name babies.  A baby boy is named at a bris (ritual circumcision), a big event surrounded by family and friends.  A baby girl was named in a low-key manner, with daddy going to synagogue, mom and baby not even present.

One of the changes I have made as a rabbi is to celebrate the naming of a baby girl with as much fanfare as the naming of a baby boy.  I require the mother and baby to be present.  One of the most important ways our tradition has evolved is the growing gender equality between men and women.  After all, the Torah does teach, “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female He created them.” (Genesis 1:27).  God is seen as male here, but later Jewish mystics would describe the male and female aspects of God, Teferet and Shekhina.

Perhaps we have moved towards gender equality.  But in more recent times we have moved towards gender confusion.  I will admit that I have never seen the need to put pronouns (he, him) after my name.  My wife has never seen the need to put pronouns (she, her.)  I am clearly cisgender, a word I never knew until a few years ago.  (The word means to identify with the gender of one’s birth.)  But more frequently I meet people who are transgender, identifying with a different gender from their birth.

There are human beings born male who have a personal identity as female.  There are human beings born female who have a personal identity as male.  Often these people dress according to the gender with which they identify.  Many go through hormonal treatment of even serious surgery to transform their gender.  I have spoken about this in my classes.  The Talmud teaches that just as the tabernacle was layered with gold on the outside and the inside, so one’s outside should match their insides.  “Rabban Gamliel announced saying, any student whose inside does not match his outside cannot enter the house of study.”   (Berakhot 28a).  There even some more radical teachings.  An eighteenth century Hasidic teaching says that Isaac was born with a female soul.  “Because of gilgal (the recycling of souls), there are times that a female would be born in a male body.”  (Sefer Razin D’Oraita)

Today it is more complicated.  Rather than being one gender or the other, there are people who have chosen to be no gender at all (non-binary – them, they).  Today more and more official forms allow one to choose male, female, or non-gendered.  The reasoning behind this choice is that gender is considered a social construct, and thus artificial.  Even the government has joined in.  The fiscal budget uses the phrase “birthing people” rather than “mothers.” To quote philosopher and queer theorist Judith Butler, “Masculine and feminine roles are not biologically fixed but socially constructed.”  There is even some Jewish support for Butler’s radical views.  The Talmud speaks of an androgynous who is both male and female, and a tumtum who is neither male nor female.  (see Bikurrim I4:5).

Having said that, I cannot imagine a world without gender.  Jewish mystics, speaking of the male and female aspects of God, saw gender as built into the very nature of the universe.  Perhaps gender is a social construct.  But so are ethics, religion, nationality, marriage, and money social constructs.  Nonetheless, they are crucially important to us as human beings.


“You shall hallow the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all the inhabitants of it; it shall be a jubilee to you; and you shall return every man to his possession, and you shall return every man to his family.”  (Leviticus 25:10)

This week’s portion contains the laws of the Jubilee Year.  Once every fifty years, the shofar would sound.  Every family would return to their ancestral land, and to possessions they lost during the past half century.  It was a chance for the entire nation to start anew, with wealth redistributed.  This verse includes the words written on the Liberty Bell in our own country, “Proclaim Freedom throughout the Land.”  Some would call such a redistribution of wealth an unrealistic utopian ideal, while others see it as a blueprint for greater economic equality.

Political progressives on the left love to quote this section of Torah.  They speak of wealth disparity in our nation, with the gap between the rich and the poor growing ever larger.  They speak of the economic gap between the C.E.O. of major corporations and the average worker.  Often the language of these progressives takes on a Marxist tone, that there is an ongoing class struggle in our nation.  This raises the question discussed in political and philosophical circles known as distributive justice.  Should we redistribute wealth to increase equality in our nation?

I began teaching Ethics at the downtown campus of Broward College, on Las Olas in the heart of Fort Lauderdale.  When we came to the topic of distributive justice, I gave my students a thought problem.  “Three miles east of us are some of the wealthiest homes in the area, often situated on canals with yachts parked next to them.  Three miles west of us are some of the poorest homes in the area, plighted with unemployment and crime.  Should we take some money from those living east of us and give it to the people living west of us?”  The question sparked much discussion.  Most my students tended to be conservative, opposing taking money from the rich to give to the poor.  But some reflected the progressive point of view.

We studied how various thinkers considered the question of distributive justice.  Let me focus on two Harvard professors who totally disagreed, both who passed away in 2002.   I can imagine the passionate arguments in the halls of Harvard.  John Rawls saw “justice as fairness.”  What is the fairest way to distribute the economic wealth of our nation?  He said we should imagine developing an economic system from behind a veil of ignorance.  We would not know if we will be born rich or poor, white or black, male or female, able-bodied or disabled.  What kind of system would we develop?

Rawls taught two principles.  The first is that everybody has a right to certain basic social goods.  Society needs to provide everybody with such necessities as food, shelter, education, and medical care.  If that means taxing the haves to give to the have-nots, that is justice.  But second, people have the right to become wealthy, as long as the road to wealth is open to everybody, not just those with privilege.  Rawls called this the difference principle, and it taught that those who develop great wealth through ability, hard work, and luck have the right to keep their wealth.  But the acquisition of wealth must be open to everybody, particularly the poorest members of society.

Robert Nozick disagreed with his Harvard contemporary.  Basing himself on the philosophy of John Locke who saw property rights as absolute, Nozick taught that people have a right to their own property.  There cannot be a redistribution of wealth.  For the government to take money from the haves and give it to the have-nots is tantamount to stealing.  If the wealthy choose to give to the poor of their own free will, that is praiseworthy.  But the government has no right to take people’s wealth against their will.  Rawls’ thinking is close to many in the Democratic party, Nozick’s is close to many in the Republican party.

Of course, these are secular thinkers.  Where does Judaism stand on this?  It would teach that wealth is a blessing.  There is nothing wrong with seeking to acquire wealth.  But with wealth comes responsibility.  Giving to the poor is not simply charity, it is tzedakah, a Hebrew word that is better translated as “justice.”


“But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest to the land, a sabbath for the Lord; you shall not sow your field, nor prune your vineyard.”  (Leviticus 25:4)

There is a powerful message that comes out of the beginning of this week’s double portion.  Six years we should work the land, but in the seventh year we should let it lie fallow.  The land does not belong to us.  Whatever grows in the seventh year on its own shall belong to everybody, including the animals.  We should also count seven sets of seven years.  In the fiftieth year, known as the Jubilee, all land shall return to its original owners.

The message of the portion is clear.  The earth does not belong to us.  As the Psalmist taught us, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalms 24:1).  We are but temporary sojourners on this earth.  Many other Jewish traditions remind us of that fact.  I remember when my children were young, one of them wanted to pick a flower on the Jewish Sabbath to give to my wife.  I said no.  On the Sabbath we do not even pick a flower.  It teaches that the earth does not belong to us.

That brings us to the corona virus and the terrible pandemic that has turned our lives upside down.  People ask me on a regular basis, “Rabbi, why is this happening?  Why is God doing this to us?  What is the message of the pandemic?”  I have heard the same answer from numerous people.  “God is trying to tell us something about our relationship to the earth, and our relationship to nature.  Stop!”   If we stop going out, stop driving so much, stop working the earth, then nature will reclaim her rightful place.  The newspapers offer articles about how coyotes are returning to urban areas, and other wild animals are flourishing.  Pollution is down throughout the world and the skies are clear.

People tell me that the Himalayas are clearer from India than they have been for years.  But both Tibet and Nepal have cancelled all climbing on Mt. Everest, a major boom to their economies in the month of May.  Even mountain climbers, as fit as anyone on earth, are not immune to the corona virus.  The word I have heard from numerous people is that nature is reasserting herself and telling us humans to stop misappropriating the earth.  People tell me that this is the message in the corona virus.

There is much truth that since the worldwide shut down, the skies are cleaner, and the roads are clearer than ever before.  Let me share a personal memory.  When I was a child growing up in Los Angeles, the 405 freeway (then called the San Diego freeway) was being built near my home.  My parents took me walking along the uncompleted freeway.  Today the 405 is nearly undrivable, a giant parking lot with cars inching along.  At least it was until the pandemic came.  These last few weeks there have been a record number of speeding tickets on the 405.

What bothers me is the theology behind this understanding of the virus.  God gets angry with us for abusing the earth, and so God sends a virus to punish us.  God is allowing the earth, and nature itself, to punish us.  The virus has a higher purpose, to teach us humans a lesson.  It is the same theology that blamed Hurricane Katrina on the behavior of the people of New Orleans.  Natural events are warnings from God.  Just as the Bible tried to get us to let the land lie fallow, so God sent a virus to teach us to stop driving so much.  The pandemic is telling us that we need to change our ways.

There is something deeply human behind this kind of thinking.  People want to believe that everything happens for a purpose.  Whether it is cancer cells or hurricanes or pandemics, there must be a reason.  Nature is sending us a message and we would be wise to listen.  But I remain skeptical.

My own reaction is that nature is nature, following its own laws.  The corona virus is simply a natural event, and we humans must adjust our lives accordingly. The Rabbis of the Talmud asked the question, if a man steals wheat and plants it, should it not refuse to grow. The Talmud answers olam keminhago noheg – “nature acts according to its own rules.”  (Avoda Zara 54b).  Our job is not to second guess nature.  The question is not whether God is punishing us, but how we can become better people in the face of this pandemic.

“One of his kinsmen shall redeem him.” (Leviticus 25:48)
The Torah permits a kind of indentured servitude, something forbidden in our contemporary culture. If a man finds himself in debt and is unable to pay off his creditors, he can become a servant to his creditor. (The Torah talks about a man; it cannot imagine a woman being in this position.) He would work until his debt was paid off. The master was not allowed to abuse or mistreat him. And the key law is that if the indentured servant can come up with the money, he has the right to pay off his debt and go free.
Now comes a key law. One of his kinsmen has an obligation to redeem him. The obligation falls on his brother. If there is no brother then his uncle, and then his uncle’s son. Family takes care of family. The key issue is that brothers have an obligation to care for their brothers. Moving to our more egalitarian age, brothers and sisters have an obligation to care for their brothers and sisters.
I remember long ago when I had a falling out with my brother Jeffrey, now long gone, a victim of the AIDS epidemic. Sad to say, for a period of time we were not on speaking terms. Then my parents called. My brother was short of funds and could not pay his mortgage. Immediately my wife and I sent him money, money we could barely afford at that time of our lives. But I had two many memories of my dad showing me a picture of an older boy carrying a younger boy and saying, “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.” Helping my brother was the beginning of a reconciliation. I cannot imagine the sadness if we were still not speaking when he died.
Siblings take care of siblings. There is a wonderful passage in the book of Proverbs that is surprising when we first read it. “A friend loves at all times, but a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17). A casual reading seems to say that friends are more important than brothers. We need to look at it more closely, particularly with the help of the commentary Ralbag (Levi ben Gerson or Gersonides 1288 – 1344). We can enjoy casual time with our friends. But when we are in trouble, when we face adversity, we must turn to our brothers or sisters. To quote the Ralbag, “his nature causes him to help because he is our bone and flesh.”
Too often I see siblings estranged from siblings. Often it is over money, particularly an inheritance from parents. I tell parents that when they make out a will, divide it equally. Do not play favorites, even if one sibling needs it more. If you are lucky and you trained your children in the values mentioned above, the wealthier sibling will make sure the poorer sibling is taken care of. We all know that sibling rivalry goes back to the Bible. We read the stories of Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Leah and Rachel, and Joseph and his brothers. Traditionally Jews bless their sons with the words, “May God make you like Ephraim and Menasche.” These were the two sons of Jacob. According to tradition, they were the first siblings that truly cared for one another.
There is an old legend of two farmers, brothers who shared a piece of land. They split everything fifty-fifty. One brother was a bachelor with no children. The other brother was married with many children. One night the bachelor brother said to himself, “My brother has all those mouths to feed and I am alone. I will bring him some of my share of the crops.” Meanwhile, the married brother said, “I have children to care for me in my old age. My brother has no one. I will bring him some of my share of the crops.” Each night both brothers brought a share of the crops to the other brother. Then once in the middle of the night, they ran into each other. When each realized what the other was doing, they hugged one another. Tradition teaches that God chose that spot to build the Holy Temple.
The book of Psalms teaches hinei ma tov u’ma nayim shevit achim gam yachad. “Here is what’s good and what’s pleasant, for brothers to dwell together [in peace] (Psalms 133:1). May we learn the wisdom of that ancient Biblical passage.

“He must not look out for good against bad or make substitution for it.” (Leviticus 27:33)
Last night I was invited by the Muslim community to participate in an Iftar meal and celebration. Iftar is part of the observance of Ramadan by Muslims. Every day during the holiest month of their year, Muslims fast from dawn until the sun goes down. They then gather for a festive meal known as Iftar. I was honored not only to participate but to speak about fasting in Jewish tradition.
We Jews have an intense 25 hour fast at Yom Kippur. Many religious Jews such as myself observe another 25 hour fast at Tisha B’Av. But I admire my Muslim neighbors who fast from morning until night every day for a month. The Imam spoke about Ramadan as a time of soul searching and self-discipline, not unlike our High Holidays. A Catholic Priest also spoke, and several political leaders honored the Muslim community. We also heard poetry and a recitation from the Koran in both Arabic and English.
We were not allowed to eat or drink until 8:10 pm. At that point there was a special Arabic prayer and we were told to drink some water and eat a date. (I am not a big date eater but I joined in.) They started to serve the meal but those wanted were invited into another room for the Muslim evening prayer. It was a lovely evening, much of which I spent talking with the Imam, who was truly a mensch.
I am not sure most Jews realize what we share with our Muslim brothers and sisters. First, we are both Abrahamic religions, religions that see their roots in the story of Abraham. (Christianity is also considered an Abrahamic religion.) Islam is built on five pillars, one of which is fasting during Ramadan. (We also have our fasts). The others are the statement of faith or Shahadah (like our Sh’ma), daily prayer (five times a day compared to our three), almsgiving (like our tzedakah), and the Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca (like our pilgrimage to Jerusalem.)
Muslims also have dietary laws similar to our own. The meal we ate was halal, meat slaughtered according to Muslim law. Muslims who observe halal can eat kosher meat, but Jews who eat kosher cannot eat halal. They prepared me a vegetarian meal. Mohammed knew Jews and was strongly influenced by Jewish traditions. It makes me wonder why so many Jews are uncomfortable around Muslims.
There is an important teaching in this week’s portion. The portion contains the Hebrew verb levaker (root b-k-r) which means “to distinguish.” We need to be able to distinguish between good and bad. The word boker has come to mean morning, the time when we can start to distinguish items we see. When Genesis says v’hi erev v’hi boker, “there was evening there was morning,” a better translation might be “there was confusion there was distinction” or “there was chaos there was order.” We must learn to make distinctions. Of course, the portion is talking about making distinctions regarding offerings. But the ability to make distinctions can apply to anything in life, including religion.
We must distinguish between good and bad religion. Any religion can turn bad in the hands of some fanatics. This includes Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. I think about Jewish fanatics spitting and throwing chairs on women seeking to pray at the Western Wall. It is important to remember that even if religion can turn bad, the vast majority of Muslims, Christians, and Jews are decent, peace loving people. We cannot judge an entire faith based on the actions of a few.
I saw Islam at its best last night. The Imam told me how he had traveled to Israel with an interfaith group of Imams, Ministers, Priests, and Rabbis. I believe the world is a better place because people practice their religion, whether fasting on Yom Kippur or during Ramadan.

“You shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all the inhabitants of it; it shall be a jubilee to you, and you shall return every man to his possession, and you shall return every man to his family.” (Leviticus 25:10)
When I was teaching philosophy at the downtown Ft. Lauderdale campus of Broward College, I raised a question to my students regarding distributive justice. Three miles to the east of our campus were luxury homes, many of them with yachts, along the intercoastal waterway. Three miles to the west of our campus were some of the poorest, most high crime areas of Ft. Lauderdale. Would it be proper for the government to take some money from those living to my east and transfer it to those living to my west? Interestingly, although I had many minority students from poor areas, they were almost universally opposed to such transfers of wealth.
Should the government redistribute wealth? Many rabbis read this week’s portion as a call for such a redistribution. Every fifty years was a jubilee year. Every person could go back to their family’s original property. No one owned land forever; if the rich had acquired wealth over a fifty-year period, they would have to give it back in the jubilee year. These laws made it impossible for the rich to grow richer and the poor to grow poorer forever. Every fifty years, everyone could start all over.
In my class, I looked at various philosophers to see where they stand on this issue. Let us briefly look at five philosophers, moving from left to right. On the left would be those who stand for economic equality, even if it means acting Robin Hood style, taking from the rich to give to the poor. On the right would be those who stand for economic freedom and property rights, even at the expense of equality.
To the extreme left is Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) who did not believe in private property. Everything was shared. He taught, “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” Marx’s economic theory has been tried, from the Soviet Union to China, and from the Israeli kibbutz to modern Venezuela. Unfortunately, in my humble opinion, it is a noble experiment that failed. Pirkei Avot teaches, “if one says what is mine is yours and what is yours is mine, that person is an ignoramus.” (Avot 5:10)
Still to the left is the Princeton philosopher Peter Singer (b. 1946). He taught that if one was wearing an expensive outfit and saw a child drowning in a pond, they would surely jump in and save the child, even if it ruins their outfit. Today there are children drowning all over the world by starvation. One should use the minimum amount of money for their personal needs and give everything else to organizations that help the poor. It is my understanding that Singer lives by these precepts.
More main stream was the Harvard philosopher John Rawls (1921 – 2002). In his book A Theory of Justice, he wrote that justice is fairness. Everybody has the right to certain basic social goods like food, shelter, and medical care. All must pay for these social goods. Rawls also wrote that people have the right to become wealthy, as long as the route to wealth is open to everyone.
More to the right is Rawl’s Harvard contemporary Robert Nozick (1938 – 2002). In his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, he defended absolute property rights. One can certainly give tzedakah to help the poor. But for the government to take someone’s wealth to help someone else is stealing.
Finally, on the extreme right is the novelist Ayn Rand (1905 – 1982). She taught that even altruism is wrong. To give to the poor only makes both the giver and recipient weak. People must learn to become self-sufficient. Her view reminds me of the other part of the saying, “one who says, what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours, is the way of Sodom.” The sin of Sodom was the refusal of people to share their wealth.
Where do you stand on this spectrum of ideas?

“In the year of jubilee, each of you shall return to his holding.” (Leviticus 25:13)
Here in south Florida there exists a huge disparity of incomes. I can drive towards the beach and see magnificent homes, often on the waterway, with private yachts and luxury cars in the driveway. But drive a few miles from these luxury homes and I can visit neighborhoods despoiled by poverty, often with severe crime problems and a sense of hopelessness. We have neighbors who live in luxury and neighbors who live in poverty. This raises the problem at the heart of the question of distributive justice, sometimes called social justice: is this fair?
Should the government force those with a good deal of wealth to give part of their money to those who can barely make ends meet, in order to make life more fair? Is it the job of government to redistribute wealth? Many progressives, those on the left side of the political spectrum, answer yes. And often they quote this week’s Torah reading.
This portion speaks of the Jubilee year which falls once every fifty years. All wealth would return to its original owner. Families who owned property but were forced to sell had a chance to reclaim that property after fifty years. The Jubilee year prevented wealth from accumulating in the hands of a few people, which later became the norm in feudal kingdoms. Families never sold their property in perpetuity, but only for a temporary period. The fifty-year intervals were an opportunity for families to start over. During the Jubilee year, all land would lay fallow. A shofar was sounded on Yom Kippur, which became the basis for the sounding of the shofar at the end of Yom Kippur to this very day.
The laws of the Jubilee in the Torah give an extremely idealistic picture of life in ancient Israel. The rich were never allowed to become too rich and the poor were never allowed to become too poor. There was a true redistribution of wealth. This is the basis of the view of many progressives that there must be a similar redistribution of wealth today. Yet is it realistic. The whole thing reminds me of the scene in Fiddler on the Roof where the young socialist Perchik says that the rich should give their money to the poor. Tevye answers, great, if the rich will agree, I will agree.
The real world is not so simple. Many on the left teach that the government should be in the business of redistributing wealth, creating more economic equality. It would work through higher taxes and generous subsidies for the poor. During the election, many voices spoke about income inequality as a major problem for our country. Nonetheless, there are other voices out of our religious tradition that would speak of the importance of tzedakah, voluntary acts of giving to the poor. But they would draw the line at government coercion to take money from the rich. If a wealthy person gives to a poor person out of an act of free will, that is a mitzvah. But if the government forces a wealthy person to give to a poor person, that becomes a kind of theft. People have a right to the money they earn without being forced to give it up against their will.
There are passionate Jewish voices on both sides of this debate. Personally. I have found much wisdom in John Rawls’ (1921 – 2002) thoughtful book A Theory of Justice. Rawls imagines what would happen if we humans had to set up an economic system from behind a veil of ignorance. We do not know if we will be rich or poor, male or female, able-bodied or disabled, more or less intelligent. What kind of system would we set up? Rawls said that in such a system, there is room for disparities of wealth, as long as the poorest have the same opportunity to become wealthy. The poor young man who grows up in the ghetto can become a highly paid N.B.A. player. But there are certain fundamental social goods that everyone must receive.
To Rawls, the system must assure everybody food, clothing, shelter, a basic education, and today many would say basic medical care. People who set up such a system from behind a veil of ignorance would agree to a basic level of taxation to pay for these necessities. Of course, other philosophers severely disagree with Rawls, both from the right and the left. Although Rawls was raised a Christian and became a non-believer, I believe his ideas are very close to the Jewish view, about community responsibility for the poor.

“The Lord spoke to Moses in Mount Sinai, saying, Speak to the people of Israel, and say to them, When you come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a Sabbath to the Lord.” (Leviticus 25:1-2)

Greetings from New York City where I am attending the annual Rabbinical Assembly convention. My favorite part of these conventions, besides seeing old friends, is attending learning sessions taught by various professors and scholars. Monday I attended a class taught by Professor Benjamin Sommer of the Jewish Theological Seminary, author of Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition. I loved the book. But in addition, the theme fit beautifully into this week’s portion called Behar – “on the mountain.” What happened on Mt. Sinai?
Prof. Sommer presents two different ideas as they developed in Jewish tradition. The first is that revelation on Sinai was a one-time event. It happened and it ended, and the Torah emerged out of this one-time event. The Torah itself seems to say this, teaching that God “spoke in a great voice, which did not continue.” (Deuteronomy 5:22) According to this view, the Torah was given in a fixed way, once and for all, and is not changeable. But this is not the only way to understand what happened at Mt. Sinai. Prof. Sommer brought us numerous sources which seems to indicate that the giving of the Torah began at Mt. Sinai, but continues right up to modern times. To give one quick example, the great Aramaic translator Onkeles renders the verse quoted at the beginning of this paragraph, God “spoke in a great voice, which did not stop.” Onkeles and many others see revelation not as a one-time event, but an ongoing process.
This fits in perfectly with my words from last week. I wrote about the importance of seeing the world not in terms of events but in terms of processes. Last week I said that we should not see our lives as snapshots but as videos. (Having said that, I still prefer taking pictures to taking videos on my Iphone.) We as human beings are always in process. Darwin taught us that life on earth is not a singular creation of God as the Bible taught, but an ongoing process, constantly in flux. In my ethics class I teach how our understanding of right and wrong is constantly in process, evolving over time.
Now we see from Prof. Sommer’s study that the Torah itself is not static but dynamic, not unchangeable but always in process. Perhaps this is made most clear by an oft-quoted passage from the Talmud. Moses is writing the small crowns on the letters of the Torah, and asks what they are for. God transfers him forward a millennia and a half to the classroom of Rabbi Akiba. There Moses sees the great rabbi interpreting the crowns on the letters. Moses felt faint, until the rabbi said, “This is the Torah which Moses gave us at Mt. Sinai.” Finally Moses felt better. (Menachot 29b)
This idea that the Torah is constantly in process is also part of Jewish mystical literature. Rabbi Isaiah Horovitz, of Shnei Luchot Habrit – (Two Tablets of the Covenant, for which Rabbi Horovitz gets his name Shelah) – writes that the Torah given at Mt. Sinai was only given in potential. The Torah did not come to fruition until generations later, when the time was right. Here is my attempt to translate his words, “The Torah was in God’s voice only in potential, but for a long time it was not actualized because it was dependent on reality in this world, according to the level of souls in each generation.” (Thank you Prof. Sommer for pointing out this wonderful source.) Here is a mystical view that the Torah is in process.
But the mystics went even further than this. According to the kabbalistic tradition, even God is in process. God is not static and unchangeable. God is constantly changing, influenced by events in this world. This is the heart of the entire area of philosophy developed by Alfred North Whitehead known as process philosophy. It sees everything in world including God as involved in process. According to Whitehead, “It is as true to say that God creates the World, as that the World creates God.”
I am thrilled that my synagogue has chosen to honor me this Shabbat for completing my PhD. Several of you have asked me what my dissertation was about. In essence I studied process in the teachings of Whitehead. And I studied process in Jewish mysticism. And my unique contribution to academic scholarship was to try to put them together. My view is that process must be at the center of how we view not just our own lives, not just life on earth, but the Torah and even God.

“If the age is sixty years or over, the equivalent is fifteen shekels in the case of a male or ten shekels for a female.” (Leviticus 27:7)
Last week I wrote about the importance of viewing the Torah not as a snapshot (today we would say Instagram) but rather as a video. The Torah is always in process. I realize the importance of this idea as I read a difficult passage in this week’s Torah reading.
The end of Leviticus speaks of a person who makes a vow to donate their own value as a person to the Temple. How much should they pay? It would be nice to say that people have infinite value, but the Torah must come up with a number. I suppose this is similar to when our modern courts put a value on human life when they assess damages. The Torah divides people up by gender and by age.
The value of a male from twenty to sixty years old is fifty shekels of silver, for a female thirty shekels. From five to twenty years the value is twenty shekels for a male, ten shekels for a female. From one month to five years, the value is five shekels for a male, three shekels for a female. And for people like me who have crossed the sixties threshold, the value is fifteen shekels for a male, ten shekels for a female. In other words, when I turned sixty my value dropped from fifty to fifteen shekels, a drop of 70%. Let me set aside the sexism in this passage for the moment. What about the ageism? Does the Torah really see the value of a human being drop as he or she grows older?
Unfortunately, this is the view of our society. We all want to be young and look young. We fear ageing, no matter how many times people say “consider the alternative.” We dress and act younger, join gyms and diet and keep plastic surgeons in business. Ageism is real, particularly in the working world where older employees fear for their jobs. If only we could look young. But is this truly what the Torah says?
How does the rabbinic tradition view aging? Let me share two passages. The Talmud teaches that before Abraham old age did not exist. When Abraham became the father of Isaac, the two looked exactly alike. People would say, which is the father and which is the son? Abraham prayed for old age, and therefore the Torah teaches that “Abraham was old.” (Genesis 24:1) (Sanhedrin 107b) Abraham preferred age in order to distinguish himself from his young son.
A second passage ought to be familiar from the Passover haggadah. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah said “I am like a man of seventy.” He was actually eighteen when appointed head of the Sanhedrin. He was concerned that he was far too young, but his wife convinced to take the opportunity. “Let a man use a cup of honor one day, even if it is broken on the next.” That night a miracle occurred, his hair turned white, and he became like a man of seventy. He was able to gain the respect as head of the Sanhedrin. (Berachot 28a)
What are these two passages which favor aging over youth trying to tell us? Admittedly we do not have the physical prowess at sixty that we had at twenty. But on the other hand, we did not have the wisdom at twenty that we have a sixty. Jewish tradition is saying that the wisdom that comes with age is of higher value than the physical ability that comes with youth. That is why there is such an emphasis in our tradition of honoring those who are older. The same book of Leviticus teaches, “You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old, you shall fear your God,, I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:32)
In a world that worships youth, perhaps it is time to reemphasize the value of aging. The late Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the founder of the Jewish renewal movement, wrote a book entitled From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Revolution Approach to Growing Older. I believe the title says it all. As we grow older, may we acquire the wisdom to be a sage.

“In the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath of the Lord; you shall not sow your field nor prune your vineyard.” (Leviticus 25:4)
There is a legal principle known as adverse possession. Suppose I own a piece of property and I tolerate my neighbor laying down a driveway across my property. If enough time goes by and I do not take some action to assert ownership, then my neighbor can take adverse possession of my property. (The length of time varies from state to state. In Florida it is seven years.)
Let me give an example I remember from the years I studied in Manhattan. Many of the buildings, although private property, had public spaces such as gardens or walkways. Once a year these building owners would close off these public places to assert ownership and prevent adverse possession by the public. The true owner must assert possession of the property or if enough time goes by, they will lose it.
Although I am not a lawyer, I always think of this law when we come to this portion of the Torah. The Bible teaches that “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” (Psalms 24:1) The Bible often shows an animus towards human beings becoming farmers, taking land that God owns and fencing it off to grow crops. Perhaps that is the reason God accepted the offering of Abel the shepherd, but not Cain the farmer. And perhaps that is the reason the Israelites in Egypt claim they are shepherds, although the Egyptians who were farmers hated shepherds. Agriculture is based on humans taking possession of God’s land.
This is where the laws of adverse possession come into play. We can farm the land, but our rights to the land are not absolute. In last week’s portion we already read how a farmer cannot totally harvest the yield of his land. He must leave the corners for the poor, and he must also leave behind gleanings for those who are hungry. On Shavuot in less than two weeks we will read the story of Ruth, who meets her future husband Boaz by gleaning in his fields. No farmer has an absolute right to the land.
This week’s portion contains laws that limit someone’s right to the land in even stronger terms. For six years we can harvest our crops. But on the seventh year we must allow the land to lie fallow. Obviously this leaving the land alone has certain agricultural value. It is an opportunity to replenish the soil. But there is another powerful symbolism in not working the land every seven years. It prevents us from taking adverse possession of the land. By not working the land, we are reminded that “the earth is the Lord’s.” We only have temporary use of the land.
There is another law in this week’s portion which drives the point home even more strongly. Every fifty years a shofar is sounded on Yom Kippur, and all land reverts to its original owners. Of course this hearkens back to the Biblical days when the land was divided between the various families in the various tribes. If a family is forced by poverty to sell their land, the new owner does not take possession forever. They have use of the land until the Jubilee year, when it reverts back to its originally owner. This law, perhaps a bit idealistic, prevents property from accumulating in the hands of the wealthy few.
In our modern society we are strong believers in property rights. I am a home owner (actually the bank owns my home until I pay off my mortgage), and I appreciate the fact that I own a little piece of real estate in Coral Springs, FL. But every now and then it is important to remember that my rights to my property are not absolute. The government makes me pay real estate taxes and keep my home in good repair. But beyond that is a deep spiritual message. Ultimately all land belongs to God. I need to look at my possession of my property as a precious gift from God. This week is a good time to remember that God ultimately owns all property and our use of that property is a gift worthy of thanks.

“In the year of the jubilee, each of you shall return to his holding.” (Leviticus 25:13)
One of the great classical Broadway musicals is Oklahoma. It was the first collaboration between the composer Richard Rodgers and the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. The musical changed the history of Broadway. In Act 2, at a social dance, the ensemble sings about the conflict between farmers and cowboys. “The farmer and the cowboy should be friends.” They should be, but often they are not.
There is a natural conflict between those who grow crops for a living and those who herd animals for a living. The farmer needs to fence off his land to be able to grow crops; that is where barbed wire comes from. The shepherd or cowboy needs an open range for his herds to graze. Today sadly, much of the meat we eat comes from animals raised in crowded enclosures. These crowded conditions can lead to diseases which must be controlled with antibiotics. That is the reason many people search for “free range” meat, from animals allowed to graze freely on open land.
Of course, this leads to conflicts with those who would fence off their private property to keep the herds out. In the news there was a recent blow-up in Nevada between a cattle rancher and government officials. The government claimed that Cliven Bundy was grazing his cattle on government owned land and needed to pay grazing fees. Bundy, with the backing of other ranchers, stood up to the government and refused to pay. For the moment, the government has backed down. Putting aside racist remarks which cost Bundy much support, the stand-off points to a conflict which goes all the way back to the Bible. Can landowners and herders become friends?
The first recorded murder in history was over this issue. The first man born, Cain, is a farmer. The brother of Cain and the second man born, Abel, is a shepherd. Each brings an offering. God accepts Abel the shepherd’s offering, but not Cain the farmer’s offering. So Cain, even after being warned by God, kills his brother Abel. The farmer kills the shepherd. In this story, God seems clearly to favor the shepherd.
The theme will come up again in the story of Egypt. The Egyptians are farmers, working land made fertile by the ebb and flow of the Nile River. Joseph tells his family to tell the Egyptians they are shepherds. “For all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians.” (Genesis 46:34) By saying that they are shepherds, the Israelites are able to settle in Goshen, a province away from the population centers, making it easier to maintain their separate identity.
In the Torah, God seems to favor the wandering shepherds over the land fencing farmers. If one looks at human history, we began as hunter gatherers; early on we humans domesticated certain animals. Only later did agriculture and farming develop. With this development came the idea that individuals could own pieces of land. The trouble with fencing the land, according to the Bible, is that none of us really own the land. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” (Psalms 24:1)
With this background, we are ready to understand many of the laws in this portion. The Torah does allow farming. But the farmer is like a temporary tenant on land owned by God. Once every seven years the farmer must let the land lie fallow. What grows on its own is available to the poor and others in need of food. By not using the land, the farmer is symbolically showing that it really does not belong to him or her. In a similar way, those who grow crops must leave the corners and the gleanings for the poor.
The portion also contains a law called the Jubilee year. Nobody absolutely owns land; we use it with a forty-nine year lease. In the fiftieth year all land must be returned to its original owners. It is powerful way of saying, “Use the land but do not think you own it. It actually belongs to someone else.” Perhaps if we could all learn this lesson, we will learn to treat the land more carefully. For the land we use ultimately does not belong to us, it belongs to God.
“If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the tree of the field their fruit.” (Leviticus 26:3-4)
I shared a story last night at our Congregational Meeting. A group of prisoners in a Nazi labor camp decided to put God on trial. They set up a courtroom with one inmate playing the prosecutor and one inmate playing the judge. It was a full trial. In the end, God was found guilty for allowing the Holocaust to take place. God was sentenced to the death penalty. When the entire exercise was over, the leader said, “Ok everybody, time to daven mincha (pray the traditional afternoon service.)”
I love that story because it truly demonstrates the traditional Jewish mindset. It does not matter how we feel about God or even if we believe in God in a traditional sense. When it is time to say the daily prayers, we plunge in and say the daily prayers. Any sense of meaning, of fulfillment comes only after we keep the commandments. And this leads me to our weekly portion.
The portion deals with reward and punishment. Keep God’s commandments and you will be rewarded. Refuse to keep God’s commandments and you will be punished. The person who keeps the commandments will have rain in the field. I always wondered about two neighbors who strictly keep God’s commandments. One is a farmer desperate for rain. The other is planning an outdoor wedding for her daughter. Rain is a reward for one, a punishment for the other. Will it rain?
Obviously there seems to be no link whatsoever between keeping the commandments and being rewarded in this world. Some rabbis have claimed that we must wait until the next world to get our reward. But that seems out of place in a this-worldly religion like Judaism. So the question remains, what is the true reward for keeping the commandments?
Allow me to suggest an answer. Pirkei Avot, a section of the Talmud known as “The Sayings of the Father” speaks about a mitzvah, “commandment” or as some would translate it “good deed.” It teaches, “The reward of a mitzvah is the mitzvah itself.” (Avot 4:2) The mitzvah becomes its own reward. Or as the popular English saying goes, “virtue is its own reward.” Why should we do any mitzvah, whether saying the afternoon prayers or giving charity, honoring parents or keeping the Sabbath? We do not act hoping the rewards will pour down from heaven. Rather when we keep God’s commandments, we feel that the commandments become their own reward. There is a quality to living a life observing God’s laws.
This is part of the reason why Jewish tradition is so centered on action. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, a religious Christian, taught that a proper life involves “a leap of faith.” One chooses to live a life as a believer in God’s presence. Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great modern Jewish philosopher, disagreed with Kierkegaard. He taught that life is not about “a leap of faith”, but rather “a leap of action.” We simple begin by acting according to the commandments. Very soon the actions become their own reward. There is a quality to a life keeping the commandments.
Let me end with one more story. A group of free thinkers in the old country used to gather to talk about and mock religion. Why would anybody in this day and age keep these commandments? One of them decides to move into the religious community to see what is so wonderful about their lifestyle. One year later they meet again. They freethinkers see their friend wearing the garb of an Orthodox Jew – black hat, black coat, fringes hanging down. They gather around him. “Do you have an answer to all our questions?” The man shrugs his shoulders, “What questions?”

“When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a Sabbath of the Lord.”
(Leviticus 25:2)
I am not a big gambler, but on occasion when I do visit a casino, I always make my way to the craps table. Perhaps I like craps because you lose your money more slowly. Perhaps as a
Broadway musical lover, I recall the scene in Guys and Dolls where Sky Masterson sings Luck be a Lady Tonight before rolling the dice. Or perhaps there is simply something magical in the number seven.
When you roll two dice, the number with the highest odds of appearing is seven. In craps, if you roll seven when coming out, you win. But afterwards, when trying to make a point, you roll seven, you lose. In fact, seven clears the table. The dice are passed to the next shooter. And the game starts over. With seven you begin again.
This idea is echoed over and over in the Torah. With seven you start again. The week is seven days long, six days of creation and the Sabbath. When the Sabbath is over, a new week starts. In Jewish tradition at the end of the Sabbath on Saturday night, we sing Eliyahu HaNavi –
Elijah the Prophet. Elijah will announce the coming of the Messiah. Maybe in the new week the Messiah will come; at least we can begin our work once again to help bring him.
In the Torah we count seven weeks from Passover to Shavuot (the Jewish Pentacost). We are in the middle of this counting of the Omer. Our festival of freedom leads towards our festival of redemption. After seven weeks we begin our work of observing the Torah.
In the Torah we count seven months from the first month when Passover falls. The seventh month is the holiest of the year – we celebrate Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and other holy days. The seventh month begins a period of repentance, a chance to start our lives once again. We renew ourselves in the seventh month.
And in the Torah we count seven years. In this week’s portion we learn that the seventh year is a Sabbath for the land. The land lies fallow; any food that grows is left for the poor. Debts are forgiven and slaves go free. Again the seventh is a chance to start all over.
The most radical idea of all appears in this week’s portion. Seven sets of seven years are counted, and then, after forty nine years, we celebrate a year of Jubilee. All Israelites can return to their ancestral property. It is almost as if all the wealth has been redistributed, with everybody given another chance. Imagine passing a bill in Congress that would allow for a redistribution of wealth every fifty years. Donald Trump would have less and I would have more.  It could not happen, and yet that is the utopian dream of the Torah.
The symbolism of all these laws is clear. The number seven indicates completeness, and moving on to the next stage. After seven there is a chance to start anew. The cycle is finished and new opportunities arise. After seven days, seven weeks, seven months, seven years, or seven sets of seven years, we are given a chance to start over. New opportunities have opened up.
There is a question that I still have. Is the number seven arbitrary? Or is it built into the very nature of the universe and the human psyche? Could the Torah have chosen some other number – cycles of six days or eight days? Maimonides would have said that; for him seven is an arbitrary number chosen by God. Or is seven a fundamental part of the universe. The mystics of the Zohar would say this. I often wonder if other cultures such as those of the Far East, before they had contact with the West, kept a seven day week. I do not know the answer.
Perhaps the number is seven is purely arbitrary. But I believe differently. I believe the number seven is magical. It is part of the very structure of the universe.


“If your kinsman is in straits and has to sell part of his holding, his nearest redeemer shall come and redeem what his kinsman has sold.” (Leviticus 25:25)
Sometimes one Hebrew word is a treasure trove of meaning. Let us look at a word that is a key part of our prayers, but has its root in this week’s portion. The word is goel – usually translated “redeemer.” God isGoel Yisrael – the redeemer of Israel. God will rescue and save God’s people. Tradition teaches that between the prayer Goel Yisrael and the silent Amida, one is not allowed to talk or interrupt. There should be no interruption between redemption and prayer. (For those familiar with our Shabbat services, that is why I always announce the page number before we get to the words Goel Yisrael. And that is why the cantor trails off his voice, so that the congregation does not even have to say amen.)
Not only is God a Goel – redeemer. God will send a redeemer: mavee goel levenai venaihem – “will send a redeemer to His people’s children.” Of course, this phrase refers to the Messiah. The Reform prayerbook has changed the wording of this prayer – mavee geula levenai venaihem – “will bring redemption to His children’s children.” The belief in a personal Messiah has been replaced with a generic belief in future redemption. The Orthodox go to the opposite extreme. There is a belief that any moment a redeemer will arrive. I have actually received a wedding invitation saying the wedding will take place in Jerusalem, unless the Messiah does not come: then it will take place in Florida. That is faith.
Where does the word goel come from? Originally the word did not refer to God nor to the Messiah. Originally it referred to a family member, in particular a brother, who would take responsibility for his brother. At one time, in a world of blood feuds and revenge, the brother was called goel hadam – the redeemer of blood. Fortunately the Torah set up cities of refuge to remove the possibility of such blood feuds. Such family blood feuds still go on in many communities; think of the Hatfields versus the McCoy’s or the Godfather movies. Blood feuds long ago fell out of the life of the Israelites.
Goel has taken on a different meaning which is important today. Brothers (or sisters or any other family members) are responsible for each other. This week’s portion speaks of someone who must sell his family holdings because of poverty. His brother has an obligation to buy back the property to keep it in the family. This portion also speaks about a person who sells themselves into indentured servitude because of debt. (Such indentured servitude is illegal in the United States, but was both legal and common in much of the world.) A family member has an obligation to redeem from servitude his or her family member.
At the center of this week’s portion is an idea that people need to hear – siblings have obligations to siblings. We are born into a web of mutual responsibilities. When our brother or sister gets into trouble, our job is to be the redeemer. Originally in the Torah God is not the redeemer – our own family has that obligation. Long ago Cain asked the rhetorical question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer to Cain is “yes, we are our brothers’ and our sisters’ keepers.”
When I meet with bar and bat mitzvah families, I always discuss with the young people which mitzvoth they are obligated to take on. I speak of ritual commandments and ethical commandments. The first ethical commandment I mention is “Honor your father and mother.” And the best way to always keep the commandment of honoring parents is to take care of our siblings. I can still remember my dad showing me a picture of a boy carrying a younger boy on his back, with the words “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.”
Redemption is a central theme in our prayerbook. God is a Redeemer; the Messiah will come as a redeemer. Nonetheless, this week’s portion speaks about the original redeemer – our own brothers and sisters. By rescuing our siblings we honor our parents, and by honoring our parent we honor God.

“You shall eat old grain long stored, and you shall have to clear out the old to make room for the new.” (Leviticus 26:10)
I recently spoke with my older son about buying some new electronic toy that is on the market. He urged me not to bother. The moment I buy this particular device, it will become dated; a newer version will come out soon. It reminds me of a wonderful television commercial from the electronics store Best Buy (I have a weakness for this store.) A man is shown carrying a big, fancy television into his home. As he walks in the door, a sign flashes that a newer fancier version is available. How quickly the new grows old!
We all want the newest, latest version of everything. We buy an i-phone or an i-pad, then line up as the newer one comes on the market. For years I lived just fine without a Tivo. Then my son gave us an older one he owned. Now I can record television shows. It is a great toy. But I soon discovered that if I want to do certain things, I need to buy a newer version. The need for something new keeps the electronics industry in business. It also keeps the fashion industry, the toy industry, the auto industry, and numerous other enterprises going.
There is a hint of this need for something new in this week’s portion. The Torah speaks about blessings and curses. Among the blessings is the image of old grain being cleared out of the storage silos, with plenty of new grain to take its place. New grain is a sign of plenty and a chance to thank God. There is even a whole area of Jewish law often ignored except by the most pious that deals with yashan v’hadash – “old and new.” Until the counting of the Omer on the second day of Passover, one is permitted to eat only old grain that took root and was harvested before the festival. Only with the Omer can new grain be eaten. You can see signs in bakeries in New York that serve the Orthodox community, “Everything baked with old grain.”
This human need for something new affects Jewish life. The old ways of conducting services just seem tired. Why not try something new? I remember someone telling me, “Rabbi, I went to this synagogue and they had this beautiful new ritual on Saturday night. They used a candle, spices, and wine, made a circle and sang. Why can’t we do something new and creative like that?” I told her that what she saw was havdalah, a ritual Jews have been doing for thousands of years. We do it in our synagogue each week.
One of the most famous sayings about old and new came from the charismatic Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the Chief Rabbi of Palestine before the founding of the state of Israel. Kook was a mystic and a lover of the young, often secular pioneers who settled the land. When challenged about the newness of secular Zionism, he famously said, “The old shall be made new, and the new shall be made holy.”
Our job is not to reject the old in favor of the new. Rather it is to take what is old and renew it, make it meaningful and relevant once more. This is true for rituals and traditions as well as ideas. And as for those things that are truly new, our job is to make them holy. We have all these new electronic gadgets. Can they be used to pull a community together and to serve God? Can worship services be broadcast on the internet so shut-ins can participate? Can daily kaddish services be Skyped so that travelers can tune in and say kaddish? Can religious school classes be taught in a virtual school?
I once had a conversation with a Chabad rabbi who had set up a synagogue in an isolated town far from Jewish life. I asked him, how do you educate your children here? He answered me in a way that seemed far from the strict Orthodox life he lived – “Our children take all their classes on the internet.”
Whenever we take out the Torah, we pray the words written by the prophet Jeremiah –Hadesh Yamenu Kekedem “Renew us as the days of old.” The old can be made new again, and the new can become holy.



“If you reject My laws and spurn My rules, so that you do not observe all My commandments and you break My covenant, I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you – consumption and fever, which cause the eyes to pine and the body to languish; you shall sow your seed to no purpose, for your enemies shall eat it.” (Leviticus 26:15 – 16)
Twice the Torah pronounces a series of curses for disobedience to God’s commandments. There is a shorter list towards the end of Leviticus, part of this week’s reading. And then towards the end of Deuteronomy is a much longer list. The consequences of rejecting God are severe.
If the Torah were written today, what punishments would be pronounced on the people? Certainly such a list of curses would include diseases, especially those spread from person to person like AIDS or hepatitis. Certainly it would include the grinding poverty that has destroyed the inside of many of our cities. Certainly it would include the dissolution of family life, with children growing up not knowing their fathers, and sometimes not knowing their mothers. And certainly it would include the awful crime rates that make contemporary living so dangerous. Unfortunately, all of these curses have come true in our society.
I wonder whether there is one culprit responsible for disease, poverty, family breakdown, and crime. The answer is clear – illegal drugs. The use of drugs has destroyed much of the civility of contemporary life and brought about a modern series of curses reminiscent of ancient Israel. The dangers of drugs are clear, and yet their use continues unabated. What is happening here?
In our contemporary society we have become addicted to the idea that we can put chemicals into our bodies to feel better about ourselves. Often we take these drugs legally, with doctors’ prescriptions and under supervision. We give our children Ritalin to keep them focused if they suffer from ADHD, or we give them Adderall to pay attention in school. We take Oxycontin to overcome pain and Xanax or Valium to overcome depression. And these drugs truly help. But like any good thing, they can be misused. Florida has become a national center for pain clinics often loosely giving out prescriptions. Many of these pharmaceuticals are wonderful solutions for people in pain. But one can understand how we have become a drug obsessed culture.
Our children in high school or college are tempted by the frequent use of illegal drugs. First, they are pulled along by peer pressure (everybody is doing it; don’t be chicken) and they want to be part of the in crowd. They are invited to a party and someone lights up some weed. Usually there is also alcohol being passed around, often with underage drinkers. Eventually there is temptation to try the harder stuff – cocaine, crystal meth, ecstasy, shrooms, and even LSD. Sometimes the search for a high leads to heroin addiction. And so the drug culture, both legal and illegal, have become a gigantic industry.
What both legal and illegal drugs have in common is the attempt to take a chemical to feel good. But searching for an instant high is not the Jewish approach. Feeling good ought to involve some effort. Ben Heh Heh taught in Pirke Avot, “According to the effort is the reward.” (Avot 5:26). There are many things that can make us feel good – working out at the gym, going to a concert or ballet, seeing a work of art, traveling to a new place, reading a good book, attending an insightful lecture, talking to a close friend, participation in religious services, or acts of charity helping others. Each of these can make us high, give us a spiritual lift. But each takes an effort. Each involves work and time and commitment, and sometimes even a little pain.
Taking a drug is much easier. There is instant gratification with no work. The chemical makes us feel good. But there are side effects to the search for an instant high, a set of curses in contemporary life as bad as any in the Bible.



“But in the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath to the Lord.” (Leviticus 25:4)

Philosophers like to grapple with a fascinating question. Before there were human beings, was their mathematics? Do numbers, and does algebra and geometry exist in some kind of Platonic reality? Or does mathematics exist only because human beings invented it?
Many scientists claim that numbers have some kind of reality within the universe even before human beings worked out the formulas. Galileo famously taught that “mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe.” Einstein said, “How can it be that mathematics, being after all a product of human thought which is independent of experience, is so admirably appropriate to the objects of reality?” Often scientists discover some arcane mathematical truth, and afterwards discover that the universe follows this truth. Physicist Paul Dirac, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, came up with a strange solution to a mathematical equation. As a result, he predicted the existence of antimatter. Shortly afterwards antimatter was shown to exist in reality.
Was the mathematics in place before God created the universe? For kabbalists, who believe every Hebrew letter has numerical meaning (gematria), God consulted and used these mathematical relations in creating the world. Mathematics is built into the very nature of reality itself.
All of this brings me to this week’s portion and the number seven. Everything in this portion is built around the number seven. Is seven simply an arbitrary number, no different in essence from five or eleven? Or does the number seven resonate with the universe in a mysterious almost mystical way? Seven certainly has harmonic power. Think about a musical scale with seven notes – doe, ray, me, fa, sew, la, tee, and then it starts all over – doe. Seven seems to resonate with our very being.
Last week I wrote that there are seven holy festivals in the Jewish calendar. This is hardly a coincidence. The seventh month is the one filled with the most festivals; the first day of the seventh month begins Rosh Hashana and a month filled with celebrations. In the Bible Passover is seven days long. We count seven weeks until Shavuot. Sukkot is also seven days long, with an extra day added at the end. Seven is magical
This week’s portion is also built around the number of seven. We harvest our crops for six years, and in the seventh year all land lies fallow. Just as we rest on the seventh day, so our land must rest. In the seventh year indentured servants go free and all debts are forgiven. It was a chance to start all over. Then seven sets of seven years were counted, a total of forty-nine years. The fiftieth year was a Jubilee, when all citizens could return back to their ancestral lands and start over. The Torah teaches that in the Jubilee year, “you shall proclaim freedom throughout the land” (Leviticus 25:10), a verse printed on the Liberty Bell. The number seven is deeply ingrained in our consciousness.
The mystics took the number seven even further. There are seven heichalot, seven palaces one must transverse to reach God. From this we get the idea of seventh heaven. A bride walks around a groom seven times to show their commitment. When we wear tefillin in the morning, we wrap them seven times around our arm. Seven seems to represent completeness; on the seventh day God rested from completing the world.
Seven is not simply some random number picked out of the air. It is a number that resonates deeply with the universe. That is why I called it a magic number last week. From the very beginning of creation (some would say from the Big Bang), God seemed to have the number seven in mind. And perhaps that is the reason that the number seven fits so naturally into the human psyche.



“If your kinsman is in straits and has to sell part of his holding, his nearest redeemer shall come and redeem what his kinsman has sold.”
(Leviticus 25:25)

Some of the most powerful laws in the Torah are in this week’s portion. Every seven years we let our land lie fallow; leaving it to feed the poor and those in need. Every seven years we forgive loans. Every fifty years all property goes back to its original owner. If a person is in dire financial straits and must sell himself or herself into indentured servitude, the nearest kinsman must redeem him or her. Do not withhold your hand from the poor. Do not loan money on interest.
There is one underlying idea that serves as the basis of all of these laws. Nothing we own belongs to us. Ultimately everything we own belongs to God. It is obvious that when we die we cannot take our material possessions with us. But even while we are alive, our land and our possessions are simply for our temporary use. We are not the owner. As the Psalmist taught, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”
This view from the Torah deeply affects how we understand prosperity. Certainly poverty is not a virtue. But prosperity carries with it obligations. Our possession may be a gift from God and a blessing. But wealth also entails responsibility to others. Bernard Baruch, the wealthy financier and advisor to presidents tells of how he made his first million. He told his father, expecting his father to share his excitement and enthusiasm. His father was silent for a long time. Finally he said, “Bernard, what are you going to do with it?” Baruch told that story throughout his life.
If we begin with the notion that everything we have is not really ours, but a gift from God for our temporary use, it affects how we see our prosperity. A simple example – Jewish tradition teaches that we say a blessing of thanksgiving before making use of anything we own. We say a blessing even before drinking a glass of water. How much more so should we say a blessing when we put on a new dress or suit, begin driving a new car, turn on the new computer or any other electronic gadget, and certainly when we move into a new home. Millions of people in the world cannot conceive of owning what most of us take for granted. Our possessions are a blessing.
But what do we do with them? Here we can learn one of Judaism’s most powerful ideas – the notion of tzedakah. Tzedakah, although usually translated as charity, is really quite different. Charity begins with the premise that our wealth and our possessions belong to us. They are ours to do with as we please. We can hoard them and keep them to ourselves. But out of the goodness of our hearts we choose to share them with people less fortunate or with institutions and organizations that work to make this a better world, then we are being charitable. Charity is a virtue.
Tzedakah is not a virtue; it is an obligation. We do not own our possessions, ultimately they belong to God. God shared them with us conditionally, that we give away a certain percentage of everything we have. If I write a check to the synagogue, the Jewish federation, or some other worthy cause, I am doing so because the money I earn is not truly mine. It was given to me on the condition that I give some of it away. That is why the best translation of tzedakah is not charity but justice.
We live in the “me generation.” We all want things. “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.” As mentioned already, there is nothing wrong with prosperity. But prosperity comes with obligations. Perhaps we should take a moment, look at everything we own, thank God for the gifts of all these things, and decide what we are prepared to give away. In some ultimate sense, what we really own is what we give back to the world. That is the lesson of this week’s portion.



“If you walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them; then I will give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield her produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit.” (Leviticus 26:3-4)
Why keep the mitzvoth (God’s commandments)? The beginning of this portion gives a very simple answer. If we walk in God’s statutes and follow God’s commandments, God will give us rain in due season. That seems like a very unlikely reward. If you are a farmer (or a Floridian tired of a brown lawn and forest fires), then rain seems like a blessing. But if you are a bride who always dreamed of an outdoor wedding, then rain seems like a curse.
This portion is filled with blessings and curses. If we walk in God’s ways, we will be blessed; if we disobey God, we will be cursed. And so many Jews seem to believe this quite literally. “Rabbi, I fasted on Yom Kippur hoping that God would reward me with a good year, and everything went wrong.” “Rabbi, I always tried to do the right thing in the eyes of God, and yet I became sick.” “Rabbi, my neighbor has broken every one of the Ten Commandments, and yet each year he becomes wealthier and wealthier.” So many people believe God is some kind of heavenly vending machine; put in the right coin and get the right result. The world does not work that way.
The Talmud tells the story of Elisha ben Abulya, a rabbi who became a disbeliever and a heretic. What made him give up his faith? He saw a little boy obey his father, climb a tree and send the mother bird away to take the eggs as the Torah commands, and then fall to his death. Elisha was horrified. He threw off his yarmulke and shouted out, “there is no judgment and no God.” (For a wonderful fictional account of the life of Elisha ben Abulya, read Milton Steinberg’s As a Driven Leaf.) The other Rabbis who saw Elisha tried to explain to him that he was mistaken; the real reward happens in the next world.
This has become the accepted notion of why keep mitzvoth? We will be rewarded for our good deeds and punished for our bad deeds – but only in the next world. The good will go to Gan Eden – the Garden of Eden, the Jewish vision of heaven. And the wicked will go to Gehinom – the Jewish vision of hell. In fact, the good face suffering in this world to atone for their minor sins so that they totally deserve their reward in the next world.
I have never liked this understanding of what happens to our soul in the next world. I prefer a version told by the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement. He explains to his students what is hell. Here is his parable as I told it in my forthcoming book, The Kabbalah of Love. “Once there was a peasant from a small village who, in a moment of anger, cursed the king. Unfortunately, the king’s soldiers heard the peasant and had him arrested. He was sure that he would be put to death or perhaps thrown into prison for life. The peasant was brought before the king who sentenced him to live on the palace grounds and work in the king’s garden.
“The years went by. The peasant was skilled at gardening and soon he had become the chief gardener for the king. Then one day he was invited into the palace to be an advisor to the king. As more years went by he became one of the king’s closest advisors. He saw how hard the king worked for his kingdom and the difficult decisions the king had to make.
“One day the king spoke to him. ‘How do you feel about your job?’ The peasant answered, ‘I am miserable. The closer I come to you the more I remember how I cursed you on that day. I wish I had behaved differently when I had the opportunity. How wrong I was and how guilty I feel.’” Our reward in the next world will be our soul’s understanding that we fulfilled God’s will; our punishment will be if we live a life of disappointment to God.
This brings me to the real reason why we do mitzvoth. Ben Azai teaches, “The Reward of a Mitzvah is the Mitzvah itself.” (Avot 4:2) Translated into English, this means that “virtue is its own reward.” We keep God’s mitzvot not with the expectation of some kind of reward, whether in this world or the next. We keep God’s mitzvoth because living a life according to God’s will is its own reward.



“You shall not rule over him ruthlessly; you shall fear your God.”
(Leviticus 25:43)

Last week I waxed philosophical; this week I want to be more practical. What are the obligations of a boss towards an employee? I am speaking not only for those who own businesses and those who are managers in companies, but for all of us. We all hire other people to work for us on occasion. We all hire baby sitters, house cleaners, pet walkers, gardeners, home repair workers, etc. We all pay someone to do our hair and nails, our dry cleaning, tutor our children; we use personal trainers at the gym and servers at restaurants. Whenever we pay another person to work for us, we become the boss. And we enter a deep ethical obligation towards those who work for us.
We received the Torah during a time when slavery and indentured servitude were the norm. A Hebrew unable to pay backs debts would sell himself into servitude, hoping a family member would redeem him. He would go free after seven years, or if he chooses to stay, he would go free during the Jubilee year. The key idea is that humans are servants not to an employer, but to God. The master of such a servant was commanded not to rule harshly over him. If this was true in ancient days of those who were indentured servants, how much more so is it true today of those who freely sell their services to another as workers.
The Torah contains numerous laws regarding how a boss must treat a worker. Wages for a day worker must be paid by the end of the day. A worker in the field was allowed to eat what was necessary for sustenance. The Talmud (Baba Metzia 83a) tells a moving story of workers who broke a barrel of wine belonging to Rabbah. In response, he seized their cloaks as collateral to demand repayment. The case came before the great sage Rav, who demanded that Rabbah not only return the cloaks but pay them their daily wage. For it says in the Bible, “Follow the way of the good and keep the paths of the just.” (Proverbs 2:20)
I live in a state that has Right to Work laws. I realize this is a euphemism for the right not to work; here in Florida a worker can be fired without cause. Nobody owes somebody else a job – everybody owes everybody else basic human dignity. Whether an employee is doing quality work or failing to live up to expectations, nobody should have his or her dignity challenged. Even when a worker must face a negative job performance review, it must be done with dignity and a respect for the worker. Certainly every reasonable effort must be made to pay a living wage and to make sure that workers are given appropriate opportunities to eat lunch, take breaks, and have time off. (The flip side is that a worker has an obligation towards an employer to do the work in a responsible and timely manner.)
I have heard countless horror stories of mistreatment of employees. I am not simply speaking of those who are forced to work in sweatshops or under dangerous conditions. (It is sad that such situations still exist around the world.) Closer to home, I have heard of job performance reviews that attacked the very dignity of the employee. I have heard of employees being fired after years of service to a company with little notice and no help through a transition. And I have heard of workers yelled at by their supervisors. (I once told a synagogue president, not in my current synagogue, who screamed at me, “You will never yell at me again.” I then walked out of the room.)
We hire employees because we need certain work done, and we have every right to expect the work to be done properly. But the message of this week’s Torah reading is that those who work for us are first and foremost human beings, created in the image of God. Even if we pay someone’s salary, we never have the right to take away the dignity of another human being.



“I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone; I will give the land respite from vicious beasts, and no sword shall cross your land.”
(Leviticus 26:6)

It has been a sad week in our community. Daniel Wultz, a sixteen year old student at the Hebrew Day School, passed away from wounds he received in a terrorist bombing in Tel Aviv. As he lingered for a month, our synagogue added our prayers to those said throughout the world for Daniel’s recovery. But sometimes the answer to a prayer for recovery is “no.” We pray that his family finds comfort.
On Monday morning I went over to the Hebrew Day School to meet with bereaved students and give whatever Rabbinic wisdom and insights I could. Let me share some of our conversation. After listening to the students speak and share memories of Daniel, I gave them some thoughts that I will share in my forthcoming book. A soul comes into this material world with a mission to accomplish. Some of us are given a long lifetime to do whatever we need to do to accomplish our mission. And sometimes that lifetime is cut short, when someone has hardly begun to do their mission. There comes a time when the body can no longer hold onto the soul. To quote the Bible, “The dust returns to the earth from where it came, the soul returns to God Who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 12:7) I am sure Daniel’s soul is with God and he is giving a full report on a mission cut short.
I then asked the students what we who are left behind are to do. They gave me the answers I was looking for. We need to do the work on this earth to accomplish what he was unable to do. We need to continue what he started. I tried to get across to these young people a powerful idea – the greatest source of comfort is the actions we do in this world. How can we make the world a little better by continuing the work Daniel started?
One student then asked me a brilliant question. If Daniel had a mission to do on this earth, that means each of us has our own mission to accomplish. Should we not focus on our own missions? One way to honor the memory of someone else is to do what we need to do while on this earth, inspired to use the gifts God gave us to make this a better world. Sometimes it takes the sad loss of someone else to realize what a precious gift life is, and how we need to use that gift wisely. Any death, but particularly a tragic death, is a time of soul searching as to what our lives are really all about. How can we better fulfill our own mission?
Then another student asked a difficult question, one I hear too often from young people. I had said that what the terrorist bomber had done in Tel Aviv was evil. This student claimed, from my perspective it was evil. But from the bomber’s perspective it was good – in fact, it was a ticket to paradise. Different people have different perspectives? Who is right?
I responded that it was a great question. I told the students that when they get to college they will study a philosopher named Nietzsche. The essence of Nietzsche’s philosophy is called perspectivism – I have my perspective and you have yours. There is no right or wrong. According to Nietzsche there are different kinds of morality, master morality and slave morality. All morality can be deconstructed, to use the modern term. Nietzsche’s philosophy is extremely influential today; these young people are growing up in a world of moral relativism. There are no absolute standards of right and wrong.
I then said part of their job as young Jews is to proclaim to the world that Nietzsche is wrong. There are absolute standards of good and evil. The deliberate taking of innocent life to advance a political cause is always wrong, in every culture and every society. Part of their task is to proclaim to the world the value of life.
This week’s portion talks about the blessing of living in the land of Israel. Part of that blessing is to live in peace, when wild beasts will no longer be a threat in the land. The Torah commentary Etz Hayim gives one interpretation, – the wild beasts refers to people who act viciously towards one another. People who blow up other people who are innocently eating lunch in an outdoor café have lost their humanity and are no better than vicious beasts. We can only pray for the day when peace will reign in the land and the terrible scourge of terrorism will finally end.



“Speak to the Israelite people and say to them, when anyone explicitly vows to the Lord the equivalent for a human being, the following scale shall apply.”
(Leviticus 27:2-3)

How much is a human being worth?
This parsha speaks about the valuation of someone who donates his or her human worth to the ancient Temple. How does one go about placing a value on a human being?
On the most basic material level, we humans could get thousands of dollars for our various organs. Of course, such organ sale is illegal. Women can legally sell their eggs for a substantial amount of money, and there is a black market for kidneys. But according to the Indiana University School of Medicine, if we were to break our body down to its basic chemicals, we are worth approximately $4.50. Not very much!
When we speak about human worth, most people have economic worth in mind. How much can we earn on the open market? That is the reason that ageism and sexism is part of the calculation. According to the Torah’s evaluation in this week’s portion, men are worth more than women, adults are worth more than children, adults in their prime are worth more than seniors. This seems troubling, but such evaluations based on economic worth are still common today. Men are still paid more than women, there are more employment opportunities for younger people than older people, and courts still evaluate earning power when assessing damages in litigation.
We each have an economic value. We are worth a certain amount in the market place. When I speak to young people about careers and money, I talk about the importance of increasing their economic value. I tell them, get an education, learn a language, develop skills, and perhaps most important, acquire a reputation for honesty, integrity, and hard work.
Nevertheless, there is a problem with only seeing economic value when evaluating a person’s worth. It eliminates those not in the labor market – people too young or too old to work, people with disabilities, people who are home raising families. Too often it devalues women. And certainly it devalues those who have retired. How often have I heard people who retire from their jobs, only to lose their sense of purpose and joy.
Our worth as human beings goes far beyond our economic worth. Children, rushing to greet mommy or daddy at the door at the end of the day, never say, “Mommy, daddy, how much did you earn today?” Or as I often say, “Children want your presence, not your presents.” We each have a value to our parents, our siblings, our spouse, our children, and all those we love, which has nothing to do with economics.
As a rabbi in Florida, I spend too much time at cemeteries. Sometimes I wander around and read the stones – “beloved father, grandfather, husband, brother,” “beloved mother, grandmother, wife, sister,” “dearly departed son or daughter.” Rarely do I see headstones that read, “doctor, lawyer, stockbroker, accountant, teacher, truck driver.” Our ultimate value is not in the economic sphere but in the sphere of relationships.
Our value to our loved ones and those we touch is far beyond the sphere of economics. The popularity of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, about a suicidal man who sees what would happen to the people in his life if he never existed, is perhaps the best testimony to this point. We attain our human worth through our relationships. We achieve value through those we love and those who love us.
But what of the person who is alone, who has no family, no friends, no loved ones. What worth does such a person have? The book of Psalms has the answer: “Though my father and my mother abandon me, the Lord will take me in.” (Psalms 27:10) Even someone who feels alone and rejected among humanity has infinite worth in the eyes of God.
How much is a human being worth? The Talmud teaches that no human being is worth more than any other human being. To use the Talmudic language, nobody can say his or her blood is redder than anybody else’s blood. (Sanhedrin 74a) Each of us has infinite worth in the eyes of God. For God measures us not by our physical value nor by our economic value, but by our spiritual value. Spiritual value is ultimately immeasurable.



“One of his kinsmen shall redeem him, or his uncle or his uncle’s son shall redeem him, or anyone of his family who is of his own flesh shall redeem him; or if he prospers, he may redeem himself.” (Leviticus 25:48-49)

In our daily prayers we call God Goel Yisrael, the Redeemer of Israel. The word goel “redeemer” actually comes from this week’s portion. It refers to a family member who comes forward to rescue another family member who is in trouble. If a man is unable to pay his debts, he was forced to sell his labor as an indentured servant. (This is long before the United States Constitution outlawed indentured servitude.) His goel, a brother, sister, uncle, or other close relative, was expected to come up with money and redeem the servant.
Brothers and sisters are expected to take responsibility for their brothers and sisters. Family is there for family. I recently published a piece in the magazine Reform Judaism about the obligation of family members from one another. Let me share part of that piece:
Many years ago my younger brother Jeffrey and I had a fight. The details are unimportant; it was related to his greater involvement in the gay community and my greater involvement in traditional Jewish observance. For over a year we did not speak to each other, something I regret to this day. When I think of this time, I think of how hurt my parents were by our estrangement. The Bible speaks of Rebecca whose children Jacob and Esau fought. “But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, if so, why do I exist?” (Genesis 25:22) Children who fight bring pain to their parents.
One day I received word that my brother, temporarily unemployed, was far behind on his mortgage payments. The bank was beginning foreclosure proceedings. My wife and I immediately sent him $1000. Since he was not speaking to us, he did not thank us. But about a year later we reestablished contact and he paid back the money he owed. In the end, before his death from AIDS in 1991, Jeffrey and I grew very close.
Why did I send him the money? I suppose it goes back to my childhood, and the strong emphasis my parents put on being close to my brothers. I remember my father showing me a picture from Boy’s Town in Nebraska of an older sibling carrying a younger with the caption “he ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.” My father told us, that’s how I want you boys to be. Perhaps by caring for my brother, I was fulfilling the commandment to honor my parents. I try to impress in my own children the importance of siblings taking care of siblings.
This aspect of honoring parents is best illustrated with a classical Jewish story. A couple had two sons, one well off and one extremely poor. The couple wanted to have a big fiftieth anniversary party and told their wealthier son to spare no expense in honoring them; they would reimburse him. The son threw a lavish party and came in elegant clothes; his poor brother came in rags. When the son went to his parents to be reim¬bursed, they said, “Sorry, we said to honor us. If you had truly intended our honor, you would not have allowed your brother to come dressed like a beggar.”
Perhaps that is why I sent the money to my brother, in order to honor my parents. When we say that we are our brother’s keeper, it is a way of fulfilling our parent’s dream for us. The Biblical book of Proverbs teaches, “At all times we love a friend, but a brother is born for adversity.” (Proverbs 17:17) The classic Jewish understanding is that friends are wonderful for the good times, but a sibling is there to help when a sibling is in trouble.
We are the goel, the redeemer, of our siblings. Family takes care of family. Only then can we hope that God will take care of us.



“The Lord spoke to Moses saying, Speak to the Israelite people and say to them, when anyone explicitly vows to the Lord the equivalent for a human being, the following scale shall apply.” (Leviticus 27:1-3)

How much is a human being worth?
Sometimes we must answer that question. In tort cases, when someone has been injured or killed by someone else’s negligence, we must estimate their worth to access damages. Usually it is based on their age and their earning power.
The Torah used to estimate human worth in the same way. A person would make a vow to donate their worth to the Temple. The amount was set, based on a number of factors – in particular age and gender. A male in the prime of life (twenty to sixty) was evaluated at fifty shekels of silver, a female at thirty shekels. Children were worth less depending on age, and those above sixty still less.
Certainly this is sexist as well as ageist. Why are men worth more, why are children worth less and seniors still less? It seems to be based on their earning power. We can ask the question, has our society today truly changed? Why do we still pay men more than women for the same work? Why do we still value people in their working prime more than those who are retired? Why do we not value the worth of children before their productive years?
Part of the problem in our society is we value people based on their earning power. We value the wealthy more than the poor, the successful more than the struggling, those working more than those retired, and too often men more than women. Why do people retire and start feeling useless, as if their lives have lost a sense of purpose. Too often women (and occasionally men) who stay home to raise families rather than going out into the workforce feel devalued and less worthy. Often those on disabilities who cannot work feel less respected by their neighbors.
We all have an economic value, what we can sell ourselves for on the open market. Often I counsel people who are struggling to earn a living. I will tell them that they need to increase their economic value, make themselves more salable on the job market. I will urge them to go to school, obtain skills, take on new responsibilities, and find ways to become more valuable to employers. Economic worth is important. But ultimately what we earn is not what we are worth.
Every human being has a worth beyond their economic ability. This is true for men and women, children too young to work and retired seniors, those on disability and those who cannot find work. We have a worth and dignity because we are created in the image of God. Just as God has infinite worth, so each and every human being has infinite worth. Ultimately, no price can ever be placed on a human being.
One of the great insights of the Jewish Sabbath is that we are valued not on what we do or how we earn a living, but simply for being. A man would go home on the Sabbath and whether he was a poor tailor or a successful merchant, he was a king. A woman, whether she worked outside the home or was raising children, was a queen. Nobody was judged on what they do; their worth came from the fact that they were humans created in the image of God.
We all have a tendency to see the worth of people in terms of income. The rich must be more worthy. Those struggling to earn a living must be less worthy. It is important to remember that in the eyes of God we have an inherent worth. That worth has nothing to do with the material and everything to do with the spiritual.



“In the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath of the Lord; you shall not sow your field nor prune your vineyard.”
(Leviticus 25:4)

There is a principle in common law called adverse possession. If someone encroaches on someone else’s property for a period of time, usually seven years, and the real property owner takes no action, the one who encroaches can lay claim to the property. For example, if my neighbor builds his driveway over my property, and for seven years I do not protest, he can continue to keep his driveway there. He has claimed adverse possession and I have lost my legal rights.
Often private property owners will have a park or other public access area set aside. Once a year they will close off their property to reclaim ownership and prevent adverse possession.
This entire principle of law grew out of this week’s portion in the Torah. The Israelites were given use of the land to cultivate their crops and grow their fields. However, once every seven years they had to allow the land to lie fallow. It is a powerful way to proclaim the message that the land does not belong to them; the land belongs to God. By not working the land at the end of each sabbatical, we are prevented from taking adverse possession of the land. We may use the land for our needs, but ultimately the land does not belong to us.
The Psalm for Sunday, the first day we go back into the work world, begins with the words, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world, and they that dwell therein.” (Psalms 24:1) It is as if, when we reenter the work world after a day of rest, we must be reminded that the earth belongs to God. We humans have been given responsibility “to work the world and to guard it.” (Genesis 2:14) Ultimately, the world does not belong to us. We must work it, but we must also guard it for its true owner.
Today there is much discussion of religion and environmentalism. Many in the environmental community blame the Western Biblical religions for our tendency to pollute the earth. They claim that the Bible has given humanity the mind set that they must conquer the earth and use it for personal economic gain. The great faiths that are built on the Bible – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – stand accused of insensitivity to the environment and encouraging irresponsible economic activity that destroys the earth. Unlike indigenous peoples of other cultures, we Westerners have not lived lightly on the earth.
This is not the message I read from our tradition. Yes, we have been told to work the world and transform it. Responsible economic activity, whether growing crops or taking metal and minerals from the earth, is permitted. However, we must do this with the constant reminder that the earth belongs not to us but to God. I recall when my oldest son was a little boy, he wanted to pick a flower on Saturday afternoon to give to his mother. I told him, “Today is Shabbat. We don’t even pick a flower, but we leave God’s earth alone. We have to remember that the earth does not belong to us.”
According to the Midrash, when God created Adam he showed him all the trees in the Garden of Eden and told him, “See how beautiful and perfect all my works are. Everything I created I made for you. Therefore, be mindful, do not abuse or desolate My world. For if you ruin it, there is no one after you to repair it.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:28)



“If you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules, so that you do not observe all My commandments and you break My covenant, I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you.”
(Leviticus 26:14-16)

Some people remember the fire and brimstone rabbis of old. These rabbis used sermons to scare their congregants to death about the consequences of their sins. I remember one congregant who shared with me, “I loved our rabbi growing up. All he talked about was sin. Our rabbi was an expert on sin.” Of course, with the sin came the punishment.
In this week’s portion, Moses becomes this kind of rabbi. Verse after verse speaks of the consequences of disobedience. Traditionally this is read in a soft voice, reflecting the pain of hearing these curses. The only scant comfort is that the litany of punishments is relatively short; an even longer list is found towards the end of Deuteronomy.
How can we moderns understand the sin and punishment of the Torah? Perhaps the best understanding is that the Torah was written during the childhood of the Jewish people. Children must learn to behave properly. Often the only way to teach children right from wrong is the most simplistic – good behavior will be rewarded and bad behavior will be punished. The threat of punishment is the best incentive for children to get on the right path.
How far should parents go in punishing children for improper behavior? The Bible instructs parents, “Teach a child the way he should go, even when he grows he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6) It also teaches, “He who spares the rod hates his son, but if he loves him he shall chasten him.” ( Proverbs 13:24) The Bible seems to advocate discipline and the threat of punishment, including corporal punishment, to teach children the right path.
Certainly the threat of punishment is a powerful tool in raising children. On the other hand, the rabbis warned that such threats must be used sparingly. The Talmud tells the tragic story of a boy in B’nai Brak who broke a valuable vase on Shabbat. His father threatened to box his ears. The boy became so frightened he committed suicide. The rabbis learn from that not to use threats – punish immediately or be silent. (Semachot 2:5) A parent may never terrorize a child. In contrast, the Talmud says that if you must use corporal punishment, do so with your left hand and then draw the child near with the right hand.
Today, many have questioned whether corporal punishment should ever be used at all. The Israel Supreme Court has recently outlawed such punishment as unlawful and against public policy. Personally, I believe the court overstepped their bounds. A slap on a young child’s tush ought not become a criminal matter. But I do urge parents to use such punishment sparingly, and only if their own temper is under control. I also urge parents to remember the Talmudic principle that “there should never be a punishment unless there is first a warning.”
The only comfort to parents dealing with misbehaving children is that “this too shall pass.” Children grow up. As adults they no longer need the threat of punishment to do the right thing or behave correctly. Eventually they learn to behave not because of consequences but because it is the right thing to do. As the saying goes, “Virtue is its own reward.” Or as the Talmud puts it, “The Reward of a mitzvah is the mitzvah itself.” (Avot 4:2).
So too this week as we read the curses, we need to remember that this was the childhood of the Jewish people. As adults, we ought to keep God=s Torah not for fear of punishment, but because of the quality of Jewish life.



“Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield, but in the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest.”
(Leviticus 25:3-4)

The number seven is a magic number. And yet there is nothing obvious, nothing in the heavens, that would indicate any special status to the number seven.
If we think about our measures of time – a day corresponds to one rotation of the earth, a month corresponds to the phases of the moon, a year corresponds to a revolution around the sun. What does a week correspond to? Would primitive people living on an island, building a calendar over the generations, have come up with the division of a week?
The number seven is built into our Biblical view. Our week is seven days long, because God used six days to create the world and rested on the seventh day. We imitate God by working six days and resting on the seventh. This pattern is followed throughout the world.
In numerous places in the Bible, time is divided up into factors of seven. Pesach (the holiday is Passover) is seven days, as is Sukkot (the feast of tabernacles; the Eighth day of Assembly is considered a separate holiday.) The Torah says that we should count seven weeks in order to celebrate Shavuot (the feast of weeks.) In Jewish tradition we literally count seven times seven weeks, the forty nine days from the festival of Pesach until Shavuot.
We Jews celebrate the seventh month as our New Year. Rosh Hashana is the first day of the seventh month, counting from the month when we went out of Egypt. The seventh month also includes numerous other holidays, including Yom Kippur (the day of atonement) and Sukkot. It is almost as if the Bible is saying, count six months and use the seventh for a month of celebration.
In addition, the Bible mentions seven festival days when no work may be done – (Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, the 1st Day of Sukkot, Shimini Atzeret, the 1st Day of Pesach, the 7th Day of Pesach, Shavuot.) Jews outside Israel add an extra day to these Biblical festivals, bringing the total number of holy days to thirteen, but losing the magic of the number seven.
Even years are counted in cycles of seven. According to this week’s portion, every seventh year the land is allowed to lie fallow, slaves go free, debts are forgiven. Then seven cycles of seven years are counted. After forty nine years, the fiftieth year is known as the Jubilee, when all property was returned to its ancestral owner. People who lost family property due to debt were allowed a fresh start. (To use a rather vulgar comparison, we can compare this to the game of craps. When a seven is rolled, the board is cleared and people start over.)
Even millennia are measured in sevens. “R. Kattina said, Six thousand years shall the world exist, and one thousand it shall lie desolate (leading to the days of the messiah.)” (Sanhedrin 97a) This counting gives us food for thought; we are in the Hebrew year 5760, which makes the seventh millennia 240 years away. On the other hand, the ancient astronomers spoke of Seventh Heaven as the highest concentric circle, the ultimate of happiness.
Why is seven so magical? Perhaps the number seven is a deep part of the human psyche. In mathematics seven is the first prime number (a number with no divisors besides one and itself) following the first perfect number (a number that is the sum of its divisors i.e. 6=1+2+3) In music, in the diatonic scale there are seven notes before the scale starts over. (do, rei, me, fa, so, la, te ..) Seven seems to resonate with the very essence of the universe.
We count our cycles of time in patterns of seven. Skeptics might say that the number is arbitrary. Five, six, eight, nine, any other number would serve as well. For the religious mind, seven was not chosen at random. God took seven days to complete the world and rest; with the number seven we humans can commune with God.



“You shall eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters shall you eat.” (Leviticus 26:29)

This week we end the book of Leviticus with the blessing and the curse. If we follow God’s commandments, blessings will come upon us. If we do not follow God’s commandments, we will be the victims of a series of terrible curses.
In the middle of this long list of curses is an extremely disturbing image. Conditions will become so terrible that parents will be forced to eat their own children. Traditionally parents have always protected their children, even putting their own lives on the line. It is hard to imagine parents in such terrible straits that they would sacrifice their children for their own survival. Such times would be a terrible curse.
Unfortunately, we live in a time where too often people carry out this very curse. Often I see children sacrificed to meet the needs of their parents. Whether it was the family squabbles here in Florida over the future of poor Elian Gonzales, or divorcing couples making their children pawns in their battles, or parents neglecting their children to pursue their own identities, or parents attempting to live their own dreams through their children, many parents put their own needs above their children. Children come out losers.
I recently shared my interpretation of the story of King Solomon and the two women who claimed the same baby. Both had given birth, but one baby had died. That mother had stolen the healthy baby in the middle of the night, and then each claimed the baby for her own. This was in the days before genetic testing. Solomon took his sword and recommended that the baby be cleaved in two, each woman receiving half. One mother agreed, the other said, “No, give him to her.” That way, Solomon proved who the true mother was.
In my book God, Love, Sex, and Family I wrote about this case. “King Solomon’s threat to cut the baby in half resulted in the real mother’s cry to give up her child rather than injure it. Parental rights were turned aside. A true mother would do nothing to hurt her own child. The lesson of this story is that the child’s self-interest becomes the center of all decision-making.” (p. 212)
For those of us blessed with children, our focus needs to be, “what are the needs of my child?” Parenting means sacrificing one’s own needs to meet our children’s needs. Children need many things; let me mention four. Children need Nurturing, Providing, Protecting, and finally Mentoring.
Children need to feel that they are loved unconditionally. This love is irrespective of their grades in school, their athletic or musical pursuits, their intelligence or talents, even their behavior. Many parents dole out their love reluctantly, forcing children to earn it. Children must be nurtured for what they truly are; each child is a unique gift from God.
Children need to receive provisions for their survival, and eventually learn to provide for themselves. How many parents, particularly fathers, walk away from this responsibility of providing child support. R. Hisda used to stand outside the synagogue on a box and proclaim, “Even the raven feeds its young, but so-and-so does not take care of its young.”
Children need protection. This is the reasoning behind the Talmudic dictum that parents are obligated to teach their children to swim. The perfect vision of motherhood in the Bible was Moses mother placing her son in a basket and sending him down the river with his big sister following, because she could no longer protect him at home. It is hard to imagine the self-sacrifice of this mother.
Finally, children need mentoring. They need to learn right from wrong, even if that means discipline and consequences for actions. I see many parents who want to be companions to their children rather than guides and mentors. They are worried that their children will not like them. Again, too many parents are focused on their own needs. The Hebrew word for parents “horim” comes from the Hebrew root meaning teacher or mentor.
The curse of parents eating children is a powerful, disturbing image. Unfortunately, it still happens too often in our society. We need to focus on our children, and how we can meet their needs.