A Message from Rabbi David Wolpe – ADL’s Inaugural Rabbinic Fellow
Hate is generic but hatreds are specific. Different kinds of prejudice play out in different ways, and the Jewish people have spent many centuries thinking about prejudice — and love — and how each flourishes in God’s world.
When the CEO of ADL, Jonathan Greenblatt, asked me to serve as the Inaugural Rabbinic Fellow of the organization, I realized it was an opportunity to enrich the Jewish teachings of this organization whose work to combat hatred flows from the sources of our tradition. Leviticus 19:17 alone may be taken as the motto of what we seek to accomplish:
Do not hate your brother in your heart.
We are all kin. While much of ADL’s work is monitoring those who would be destructive and taking action against them, ultimately we seek to change hearts. Through a weekly parasha (weekly Torah portion) commentary and other speaking and writing, I hope to bring this message from a century old organization and a millennial tradition to a divided and needy world.
Vayishlach: The Power of Women
Jacob returns to Beth El and prepares to build an altar to God and amidst these profound events we suddenly read this:
“Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and was buried under the road below Bethel; so it was named the tree of tears.” (Gen. 35:8).
In the middle of the drama of Jacob’s life why does the Torah pause to note the death of a woman about whom almost nothing is known?
Deborah is mentioned but once before in the Torah (Gen. 24:59). Deborah was either Rebekah’s childhood nurse or is intended to be the nurse to Rebekah’s children when they are born. Rebekah and Isaac live in Haran. What is she doing decades later with Jacob, all grown, at Bethel?
Deborah is buried under “allon bachut,” the tree of tears. We assume that Deborah took care of Jacob himself when he was a child. Noting her passing, and the mourning it evoked, the Torah is hinting at something we now know from neuroscience.
In the first few years of life, more than 1 million new neural connections are formed every second. Years of research have emphasized how much of our personality is shaped by our early years. This formative educational time was – and still often is – the province of mothers and nurses who brought the wisdom of the community to the newborns. The essential shaping of Jewish character was the legacy of women. By the time fathers began to educate children, their personalities were largely formed.
Robert Louis Stevenson describes the nurse of his childhood, Allison Cunningham, in a poem in his “A Child’s Garden of Verses”:
For the long nights you lay awake
And watched for my unworthy sake…
For all the story-books you read:
For all the pains you comforted…
The angel of my infant life.
Perhaps, as Ramban suggests, she was with Jacob not to bring him back but to pass on the legacy of child care to Rachel and Leah, to be their teacher. Now an old woman, having raised Jacob, Deborah would have generations of childcare wisdom to offer to the young mothers. If so, Deborah was instrumental in shaping not only Jacob, but the tribes of Israel.Deborah’s resting place is named “the tree of tears” to remind us how precious and dear she was to Jacob and his family. Our sages tell us we do not forget “girsa d’yankuta” – the version of our youth. Those who sing our first lullabies and steady our first steps remain forever precious. Let us give a moment to Deborah who like the many unsung women who shape our youth, helped take Israel from the cradle to the world.
“When morning came, there was Leah!” (Gen. 29:25). Jacob had thought he was with Rachel, but how could Jacob mistake the sister beside him? Even if Rachel colluded, telling Leah secrets she and Jacob shared, is it credible that a man in love would not know that the woman he loved was not the woman to whom he made love?
Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote about the difference between two types of relationships – I-it and I-Thou. The first is a relationship governed by utility. I need you for something – whether a glass of water or a shoulder to cry on.
An I-Thou relationship is one in which, even if only for a brief time, you are both fully present. There is no calculation, it is not about my own needs; each person is seen in the fullness of his or her humanity.
Jacob serves his own needs. He tricked or coerced his brother Esau into selling him the birthright. Esau’s pain is not real to Jacob.
Jacob fools his old, blind father into believing he is Esau to obtain the birthright blessing. Jacob sees his own father as a means to an end. Isaac is an ‘it’ not a Thou. To the young Jacob every situation provides opportunities, not encounters.
Even after his dream of the ladder at Bethel, Jacob declares: “If God will be with me and will watch over me…then the Lord will be my God…” (Gen. 28:20, 21). “If!” Jacob sets conditions even to God.
Jacob has not learned love. Love, in the words of Irish writer Iris Murdoch, is the “extremely difficult realization that someone else is real.”
Now place such a man in a bed next to a woman he believes he loves. He doesn’t see her.
But there is more to the story. Jacob hears his brother is coming for him after many years. He wrestles an angel in the middle of the night. He is wounded and he is changed. The next day Jacob goes out and sees his brother Esau – really sees him. They fall on each other’s necks and weep.
At times, the greatest act of faith is not to believe in God but to see God in one another. A lesson for this Thanksgiving: To combat hate, we must see in the other an image of God, as did Jacob, who gave the Jewish people our name, Israel.
My parents lost family in the Shoah and smuggled Jewish books and Tefillin into the Soviet Union. As a Rabbi my father spoke about hatred of Jews and what the fight demanded of us. When I was ordained as a Rabbi I remember thinking – that was part of my father’s task. Thank God it won’t be part of mine.
How naïve I was. As I read the portion for this week, Toldoth, I realized that my father had given me the essential tool to meet the challenges we face. That character trait is exemplified by Isaac in his own life.
In Genesis 26:28, we are told that Isaac redug the wells that his father had dug, because the Philistines had stopped them up. Yet once was not enough – the first two times Isaac dug wells others came and fought him over their possession until he finally dug a third well that proved successful. Isaac renewed the achievements of the past and added his own.
My father once wrote a letter to all four of us (I am one of four boys) telling us that over the course of his life the single quality he believed was essential was stamina. Struggling once, succeeding once, creating once – it was not enough in life. You had to do it over and over again.
Right now we are in a war. As we saw on Tuesday, people are mobilized in ways that would have seemed impossible just a month ago. But this war will end and then it will be time to redig wells, to renew all sorts of efforts, to carry on with courage and determination.
In mystical teachings, Isaac’s digging of the wells is an indication that he was seeking the depths of existence, the buried secrets of spirit. One of those secrets is that the world is still being formed and we, all of us, have a hand in creating it. Hatred is on fire across the globe and the end of the war will not end the hatred. We in the ADL together with our allies, no matter how tired we may be, must take a shovel in hand to redig the wells that our ancestors dug. To dig new wells is to produce living waters demanded yet again in a parched and needy world.
Rabbi Nahman of Breslov lived a very short and difficult life. He lost four children and his first wife to tuberculosis and saw his house burn down in a fire. Shortly after his engagement to his second wife he discovered he had tuberculosis as well and died from it a few years later in 1810, only 38 years old. Rabbi Nahman was also a religious visionary of genius and left profound stories and teachings. Among the most important was his lesson about despair.
Rabbi Nahman told his disciples that it was forbidden to despair. He went so far in one recorded teaching as to say there is no such thing as despair. He knew people could feel it, but he taught it was a kind of illusion, that in fact hope always existed, and the sparks buried at the beginning of creation could be unearthed. In today’s Torah portion we can see just such a spark and what Rabbi Nahman meant.
For Jews all around the world this is a time when it is easy to despair. Where do we see that spark in the Torah? Read verses 25:8,9 from the book of Genesis:
“Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah near Mamre, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite.”
Ishmael and Isaac had not grown up together. They had different mothers – Hagar in the first instance, Sarah in the second. Traditionally each is the father of different people: Ishmael of the Arab nation, and Isaac of the Jews. We see they joined to do the mitzvah of burying their father.
Right now it is very hard to believe in a lasting peace. Some will say that this is an eternal battle, between Arabs, or Muslims, and Jews. Yet I hear the voice of Rabbi Nahman saying that we are not permitted to despair. We can be angry, we can be shattered, we can rage and shake our fists against the sky, but we cannot despair.
Then we read this remarkable verse and recognize that the Torah is telling us to hope. Peace will not come tomorrow or next week or perhaps anytime in the near future. But if the children of Abraham in ancient times could join together at the grave of their father, we cannot give up hope that one day we too shall join together in peace.
Rabbi Nahman also said, “If you believe you can damage then believe that you can heal.” We have seen how much damage hatred can wreak in this world. Let us not give up on the hope that we can heal.
Few things are less interesting than other people’s medical history, but bear with me for one moment. A brain tumor taught me a new way to look at the Akeda, the binding of Isaac.
In 2003, right after speaking at the opening of the University of Pennsylvania Hillel I had a grand mal seizure. A few weeks later I had surgery for what proved to be (thank God!) a benign brain tumor. Seven years later a leak developed in the original site of the surgery and I had to have another brain surgery.
Although you may have intuited this, I can attest that brain surgery is not fun. I recommend avoiding it. I have also had chemo for lymphoma, which is also not fun, but in a different sense. Recovering from my second surgery, they put a plaster cast around my head and I had a swollen head (insert joke here), immobile, pretty miserable, for a few days.
However, when they cut the cast off and I could go home, I was suddenly and unexpectedly exhilarated. This giddy moment gave me a new way to look at the parasha.
Most commentary on the Akeda deals with the motive of God and the reaction of Abraham. (And a beautiful Yehuda Amichai poem about the fate of the ram.) Relatively little is written about the feelings of Isaac.
Leaving the hospital, I realized everyone goes under the knife. For many it is a literal experience, as for so many of our brothers and sisters in Israel right now. For others, as for those of us who watch each day with anxiety, it is a trial that threatens what we love. The Akeda is a paradigm for the existential questions of fear and fate.
Many feelings coexist in the human heart, and surely alongside Isaac’s perplexity and faith there was fear. Yet could there not also have been exhilaration? Isaac stepped away from the altar, as I did from the hospital, with the electrifying recognition that he had been under the knife and survived.
Despite the enormous tragedy and enduring shock, should Israel succeed as we wish and pray in this struggle, perhaps we will feel a bit as Isaac did after the Akedah. “Yitzhak” literally means “he will laugh.” Yet there is no instance in the Torah of Isaac laughing. When did our patriarch fulfill the destiny of his name?
After I left the hospital, I imagined that perhaps, as he walked down the mountain, Isaac laughed. Ken Y’hi Ratzon – so may it be God’s will for us and all Israel.
Imagine if you could return to that moment: Abraham hears a voice that tells him to go to a land he does not know and has not seen. Imagine if you could whisper to Abraham all the beauty and pain and yearning and loss and renewal that land would see in the thousands of years to come. What if Abraham knew how his first step would affect the course of human history?
As we know today, it changed everything. Of course, it determined the course of Abraham’s life and Sarah’s life and that of their family. But the journey went so far beyond those domestic dramas. Abraham’s step changed the beliefs of more than half the world, the faith and battles and progress of Europe, the creation of world religions and at times the intolerance and brutality of people who saw faith as a sword, not a shield.
In these painful days it is a strange feeling to revisit that first step, as we do in this week’s parasha. It is like the feeling of returning to one’s hometown and seeing how the decision you made while standing on this corner, or in that house, determined more than you ever knew. God said “Go.” Abraham went. Nothing would ever be the same again.
Therefore, it is important to say this about that moment in history. I have spent a good deal of my life reading and studying Jewish texts and writers and poets and thinkers. The range of subjects they address is as broad as the reach of mind and as wide as the expanse of sky. Yet although they address the long and often agonizing saga of Jewish wandering and suffering nowhere have I seen expressed the wish that Abraham had not taken that first step.
Sometimes in a house of shiva, or mourning, I have asked the mourner, “Do you wish the one you had lost had never lived?” No, they invariably say, knowing the great truth that the measure of our blessing is the measure of our loss. When we stand now in a place of pain amidst a conflict that may grow, do we wish that Abraham had not taken that step? Surely we do not. The great truth of Jewish life is that we begin each day in appreciation and end each day in praise. The pain is real, the suffering sometimes overwhelming and the fear of what may come is acute. We are a people of too much experience to believe that life can be unaccompanied by struggle and suffering. But looking back on the remarkable brocade of the Jewish story, we are nonetheless grateful that at the greatest hinge of history, when God said “Lech L’cha,” Go forth, Abraham took the first step.
This week we read about the near destruction of the world. Why does it come about – because, the Torah tells us, the earth “was filled with violence (6:11).” The Hebrew word for violence in the Torah, remarkably enough, is Hamas: ותמלא הארץ חמס.
Flood stories exist in other ancient civilizations. The striking difference is that in the Torah alone is morality a feature of the story. The Babylonian epic of Atrahasis explains that the flood comes because human beings are making so much noise they annoy the gods. That is a typical tale of the civilizations that surrounded Israel. The gods were annoyed, or in a bad mood, or had a fight with one another.
In the world of ancient religion, consequences depended upon how human beings treated the gods. The great innovation of Hebrew civilization is that God cared about how people treated one another. The consequence of having one God is that all human beings are kin. Therefore, God cares for us all, and moral actions and consequences are tied to our behaviors.
On this solemn week when we continue to reckon with the horrific massacre perpetrated on the people of Israel, we recognize yet again that the Torah has anticipated our pain and our plight. And the legacy of violence is resolution toward those who would continue to be violent. The Torah does not see war as something to be celebrated or encouraged or hoped for – it is an unfortunate, grim necessity, but a necessity it is. In this parasha, of course, the flood comes from the hand of God. In the aftermath of the flood God promises that never again will such a cataclysm destroy the earth. But violence continues, and as the Torah progresses, human beings must fight on their own behalf.
The choice of Noah is the beginning of rebuilding a world. In the aftermath of destruction there is hope that a more stable, peaceful order can emerge. That is the hope of all decent people today. First however, the structures that would undermine that order, the ideologies that gleefully perpetrate atrocities, that fill the world with violence, must be extirpated. The war against hatred is not new. Much of the time it can be fought with words and arguments and advocacy. But there are times, and this surely is one of them, when it requires that a nation take up arms against those who would destroy it. So that Hamas, in both the ancient and modern senses, will no longer wield its sword.
What is the most important sentence in the Torah? It will probably not surprise you that the Rabbis are not in full agreement on this question (Sifra Kedoshim 4:12). Rabbi Akiba offers the verse, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). Many of us might agree with Rabbi Akiba. Love of others is indeed fundamental to the Jewish tradition, and if you study Akiba’s life you see in this large-hearted man an embodiment of the principle.
But Akiba’s colleague Ben Azzai proposes another verse, one that we read this week: “This is the book of the generations of Adam (5:1).” The first part of the verse is to let us know that we share common origins, but Ben Azzai also has in mind the end of the verse: “When God created human beings, God made them in the image of God.”
For Ben Azzai, genealogy is destiny. The two fundamental teachings Judaism gave to the world are contained in one verse: First, we all spring from the same stock. As the Mishnah puts it (San. 4:5), God created us all from one person (really one couple of course) so that no one could claim their ancestor is greater than that of others. The verse goes further however – it reminds us that we are not only kin, but we are each created in the image of God.
This is a particularly powerful teaching this week. When human beings commit evil acts, we condemn them not because they are animals, but because they are human, and violating the image of God within them. We do not judge lions for their savagery, but we do judge human beings because they are capable of better. When we see those whom they have victimized, we feel the same – overwhelming empathy for images of God who suffer.
We pray, all of us, for the restoration of order, the safety of the hostages, the comfort of the bereaved and that Israel continues to stand strong, safe and free. Despite the hatreds that endure, in the face of those who do not honor the Divine image within themselves, the Jewish people will not stop insisting upon our essential message to the world: human life is holy and all human beings should see one another as kin. As we begin to read the Torah again, perhaps the lesson of this verse will find a renewed resonance in a beleaguered world.
Our world has a passion for novelty. That which is new captures our attention and creates a self-erasing cycle of ever more up to date personalities, events and art. In this dizzying age, what can possibly be discovered in returning again and again, like someone stuck with a single channel television, to the same program?
Yet we see Jews dancing in the streets on Simchat Torah, eager to read the story they read last year and the year before that. We understand that for many it is a religious obligation, but where is the novelty in Adam and Eve eating the fruit again, watching Sarah and Abraham struggle again, witnessing the wandering Israelites sin and learn still one more time?
Contrary to what one might think, it is not an objection to novelty. Listen to the American naturalist John Burroughs: “If you wish to see something new, take the same walk you took yesterday.” That is the philosophy of Simchat Torah. Yes, you have read the story before, but that was you last year. As you change, the Torah presents new insights, new patterns, a new possibility to grow. Like the human beings who read it, the book is inexhaustible.
The joy of rereading is the joy of spending time with an old friend and learning how much there still is to learn about that person’s character and ideas, but also feeling how well you know one another. It is the pleasure of recognition and novelty combined. When the sages say of the Torah, “Turn it over and over, for everything is in it” they remind us that the 101st reading will be different from the 100th, and it may yield the insight that you need for this moment in your life.
Each year we revisit the cycle of seasons. Yet each new autumn has a different resonance as the years pass. The leaves fall differently and the bloom returns in novel ways. We read the Torah not as a circle but as a spiral, touching on the same place but knowing it anew, more deeply, with greater experience and understanding. I am looking forward to seeing what happens to Sarah and Abraham this year, for even though the words may be the same on the page, I am certain of one thing – it will not be exactly what happened to them last year, or the year before that. Everything old is new again.
The Talmudic sages enumerate three great miracles in the desert. First was the manna, which fed the wandering Israelites. Second was Miriam's well that provided water. Third was the covering of clouds that offered shade in the scorching days. Although we usually think of the sukkah as the booths of harvest, one interpretation of the sukkah is that it commemorates the cloud covering in the desert. The Steipler Gaon (Rabbi and Scholar Yaakov Kanievsky) (1899-1985) asks an intriguing question and gives a beautiful answer.
Why of all three desert miracles does only the cloud covering deserve a holiday? There is no festival of the manna or the water, only Sukkot remembering the clouds. His answer is that the manna and the water were necessary; without them Israel could not survive. But the cloud covering was an act of love. Festivals — the liberation of Pesach, the gift of Torah on Shavuot — are tokens of God's love.
Sustenance alone is not enough; love finds its expression in offering more than the beloved needs. Love is lavish; parents are not satisfied to give children just what they need. Love overspills boundaries, whether spreading a blanket on a sleeping child or covering the desert with clouds.
As we sit in the sukkah we are surrounded by the wonders of nature. We invite in great figures of our past (“Ushpizin”) to recall the glories of history and the continuity of the Jewish people. Sukkot is called “zman simchateinu” – the time of our joy. There are many reasons for that, but I would like to offer an additional one. It is joyous to actually build something with one’s own hands. We live in structures that others made, drive cars assembled far from us, and only on Sukkot do we actually construct our dwellings. As we do, we realize that to build something too is an act of love. Coverings, from a chuppah to a sukkah, express the protection and care in our hearts.
From clouds to booths, we stand in a beautiful circle where antiquity meets the modern day, and all of it is animated by God’s love for humanity and our love for one another. May this new year reflect those ideals, and may we guard one another as the Israelites were guarded and protected in the desert thousands of years ago.
Human gestures are almost always ambiguous. A person whose hands are raised toward the sky could be praying, cheering or the victim of a hold up. Without the context and the intention, one cannot know.
So what does it mean when Jews beat our chests in the confessional of Yom Kippur? Is it self-punishment, an attempt through a long day to keep ourselves awake akin to slapping one’s own face, or perhaps ritual theater?
To me it most resembles an attempt to jump start our hearts. Moving through the world each day we glide over the possibilities as well as the misdeeds that litter our lives. The modern world is so crowded, with so many stories competing for our attention, with the rapid succession of news, that callousness is a frequent response to the sadnesses of life.
Who can feel a constant outpouring of compassion? We know others are suffering – we suffer ourselves – and yet day after day we grow ever more tired from the parade of need. Gradually fatigue becomes a habit and even the good we used to do seems too much. Perhaps we survey the result of all our efforts and think that, for everything we have given, there is just too little return in goodness and peace in the world. We make excuses for our inaction because, as the poet Yeats put it, “too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.”
Yom Kippur is a chance to break the cycle of empathy-exhaustion. We beat hearts that have grown sluggish from the fray. The Al Chet, the confessional, is a Jewish defibrillator. A few good, sharp knocks to the chest get the heart sensitized anew. We are reminded that each act of kindness, each improvement in our own character and aspiration, makes a difference in the world. Hearts are expected to feel battered and tired, that’s understandable. They are just never allowed to give up – there is too much at stake.
On Yom Kippur we repent of what we have done, but is it a stretch to say we also repent for what we have not felt? The joys and pains in the world should touch us and move our hearts. Hatred should galvanize us to action, love should energize us to love in return. So we knock on the door of our hearts, in the hopes that they will beat more powerfully and compassionately in the year ahead.
Rosh Hashanah is the holiday that celebrates everything. It marks the birth of creation, and on this day Jewish tradition encourages us to remember how beautiful and blessed and various is the world we have been given. There are two ways in which we prove ourselves worthy of this gift.
Those responsibilities are to take care of the gift itself, the world in which we live, and to care for one another. The Torah recounts that in the garden there were two people, not one. For as the Jewish philosopher Levinas taught, in the face of the other is the demand of ethics. To see another person, to really see them, is to understand that no one exists singly, that we are not stewards of our own souls alone but caretakers of each other, celebrants of the same garden. The Rabbis envision God saying: “Take care of the garden I have given you for if you disdain it, there are none to come after you to restore it.”
The work that ADL does each and every day is challenging as it combats the hatred that lives in our society. But that is ultimately a task of love. We share a vision of this world as a creation that can realize its potential for goodness. On Rosh Hashanah it is traditional to blow the shofar, the ram’s horn. It serves as a moral alarm clock, reminding us to wake up to our mission to be grateful for the blessing of creation, and to expand the circle of concern until this world is healed: a world without hate, a place of peace.
Many years ago, I listened to an interview with neuroscientist Colin Ellard, who wrote a book called You Are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall. He explained that when we get lost, we tend to make two mistakes. First, we do not stop. Instead, we tend to speed up, often in the wrong direction. Panic induces us to undo the mistake, only to end up compounding it.
On Yom Kippur, one of the confessions reads “for the sins which we have committed by running to do evil.” I have often wondered – why run? Why not leisurely evil? Anyone who has ever been on a diet understands. There is half a box of cookies; you don’t wish to waste them; if you eat them very fast, it doesn’t count. There is an impulse to do things we suspect to be unwise quickly, so it can be behind us. When we are lost we do the same thing. Let’s solve this, fast. But that is the wrong approach. We need to stop.
The second problem Ellard discussed was that we don’t appreciate that we are lost. Appreciate in two senses: first, know that you are in fact lost. Admit and accept it. Also, savor being lost – remember that some of life’s most remarkable experiences come from losing one’s way. Travelers know that the mistakes and unintended side roads often yield the most remarkable adventures.
Those are good rules for being lost in life as well. Stopping is scary, like the cartoon character who runs off the cliff – as long as his legs keep moving he stays up but the moment he stops he falls like a stone. We make poor investments and throw good money after bad because we are afraid to stop. We get into arguments and double down because we are afraid to stop. When you are lost in life, stop. Take a moment and a breath and a prayer.
This week is a double portion in the Torah. In the first, Nitzavim, we read: “You stand here today.” Stop before you go into the land. Israel’s fear has led them to rebel, complain and panic. Now, before they enter the land it is time to pause and appreciate the need to change direction. The second portion is Vayelech, when we are instructed to go forward. Moses explained where the Israelites came from; having paused and learned they – and we – are ready to move.
The High Holy Holidays begin in a week. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we have the chance to stop and admit that in our lives we are lost. Then we can reset our spiritual GPS and begin anew.
Imagine that each year at tax time you made a declaration recounting American history – the origins of the country, its battles, its failures, its triumphs. Finally, you concluded, “and therefore I bring these taxes to the government.” It is hard to envision Americans enacting such a ritual.
Yet that is what the Torah prescribes in a passage made famous by its inclusion in the Passover Haggadah. As one brings first fruits to the Temple, which is indeed a tax, we read in Deut. 26: “You shall then recite as follows before your God: My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the God of our ancestors, and God heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression…” The Israelite finishes the declaration, “wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil.”
The imperative of national memory had special poignancy this past week on the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington and motivated ADL’s co-sponsorship of the march. For as the Torah teaches us, it is essential to remember the past to understand and appreciate the present. The many distinguished leaders from across the country who spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial recalled not only the words of Dr. King, but the long history of struggle, suffering and resilience that both brought us to that moment and clarified the urgency of continuing the work.
Later in Deuteronomy (32:7) we are told, “Remember the days of old…ask your parent who will inform you, your elders, who will tell you.” It was moving to see Dr. King’s family and many who remembered the speech alongside those who had not been born in 1963 gather to fulfill the injunction to remember the ideals and reinvigorate our efforts to realize them.
We owe the past a debt of memory. Human advancement is the work of many lifetimes; as my slightly free translation of Rabbi Tarfon’s words put it at the March: “You don’t have to finish the work – but you’re not allowed to give up on it.” For all of us there in the heat of the August sun, and those watching it on TV and online, just as those who brought their first fruits to the Temple pledged to remember and renew, we felt both gratitude for those who had brought us to the moment and resolve to continue on the path so stirringly expressed 60 years ago on that indelible day in U.S. history.
Perhaps the oldest magic trick is to make something disappear. As an audience we are astonished – how does anything suddenly vanish? The Torah reminds us that we perform this astounding bit of prestidigitation all the time, only we do it with ourselves.
Deuteronomy 22 teaches that when you see another’s oxen or sheep that is lost, you should not remain indifferent. In other words, the Torah takes people’s property seriously and speaks of the responsibility to help others regain what they have lost. Each of us has an obligation to care for the belongings of others.
Deeper than the civil legislation, however, is the wording: the usual translation is “you may not remain indifferent.” The literal translation is “you may not disappear.”
We vanish by looking away. How many times have we seen acts of injustice but pretended they are not happening? Walked by someone in need, but hidden ourselves from them so we will not experience their call upon us? How often, knowing our presence is needed, have we instead vanished? To be invisible is to be unaccountable – it is not my fault, after all, I’m not even there.
This could be an alternate motto for ADL: “Don’t disappear!” Our aim is to encourage people to show up, to be there for one another, to take the concerns and fears and losses of other people seriously, not to remain indifferent and not to vanish at a time of need.
We have many stratagems for avoiding the difficult work of aiding others. We pretend it isn’t possible, saying “I can’t” when we really mean “I won’t.” When asked to oppose hatred or bigotry or injustice people will say, “I can’t.” It isn’t true that we can’t. In this case, remove the apostrophe, because it is cant. All that is required is the passion to make things better. In a world where hatred is on the march and discrimination is a reality in many people’s lives, the Torah’s admonition rings throughout the ages: You are needed. Do not disappear.
My brother Paul and I had a record of Bible songs when we were children. We listened to them constantly as we learned about biblical heroes, like the mighty King Rosenfeld, featured in the “Daniel” song: “Dan-Dan-Daniel, came out of Israel, looked on the Good Lord and prayed. Mighty King Rosenfeld, and honored Daniel…”
Perhaps you have never heard of mighty King Rosenfeld. That makes sense. When we got a little older we realized with hilarity and embarrassment that the lyric was “mighty kings rose and fell.”
Rose and fell indeed. At a time of unlimited power for kings, the Torah was wisely skeptical about human power. As our parasha tells us, God reluctantly allows Israel to have a king, but with limitations. Kings may not multiply horses (lest they be tempted to go back to Egypt to enlarge the stock), may not set up a royal harem by multiplying wives and may not acquire too much silver and gold.
The Torah seeks to humble a king, because his position will elevate him. While reciting the standing prayer, the Amida, a king must remain bowed throughout the prayer (Ber. 34a). And a king must both write a Torah scroll and carry it with him and read it throughout his life (Mishna Sanhedrin 2:4).
The great kings of Israel are famous for different characteristics than we might assume. David is known for the Psalms and for being the ancestor of the Messiah. Solomon is renowned for wisdom and having three books of the Bible attributed to him (Song of Songs, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes). Kings of Israel do not earn their reputations by the magnitude of their conquests. Kings of other nations, even when accomplished in other areas, are often remembered more for battles. Alfred the Great was a scholar who translated books and undertook legal reform, but in history books it was his war against the Vikings that made him great. Omri in the Bible rules for over a decade and is undefeated but merits fewer than 10 verses because he did “evil in the sight of the Lord.” (I Kings: 16).
Rulers in the ancient world acted like Pharaoh in the Torah – capricious, often cruel, and unlimited in the scope given to their appetites and preferences. According to the Greek Historian Herodotus, Cambyses the King of Persia wished to marry his sister. The learned men searched and reported they could not find a specific law allowing him to marry his sister, but they did find a law stating the king could do whatever he wished.
Human sovereigns should never consider themselves as omnipotent. Those who lead should be subject to more constraints, not fewer, than those whom they lead. They will rise and fall, like mighty King Rosenfeld. “For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted (Prov 22:4).”
In the space of seven verses, the Torah seems to contradict itself three times. First, we are told “There shall be no needy among you” (15:4), then “If, however, there is a needy person among you” (15:7) and finally, “The needy will never disappear from the land” (15:11).
So, will there be needy or not, one or many, and why the confusion?
We might follow the medieval commentator Nachmanides, the Ramban, who writes that while it is theoretically possible that the poor will cease to exist, it will not happen in practice. The Torah is wise about human nature. People are given the possibility of eliminating poverty but will not ultimately do what is necessary to accomplish the goal. There should not be needy among us, because we know how to help, but there will be, because we are too indifferent and will not rouse ourselves to act. (Although humanity is making progress across the globe. According to the World Bank, in 1990, 36% of the world's population lived in extreme poverty. By 2019 this number had fallen to 9.2%. That still means, however, that well over 700 million people live in extreme poverty in our world.)
Others understand the Torah to be speaking on more than an economic level. Tosefet Bracha on this verse quotes the rabbinic maxim from Pirke Avoth: “Who is wealthy? One who is satisfied with his lot.”
In this instance, needy is not a purely objective or even economic circumstance. We all know people who live in grievance. Many individuals are wealthy by any objective standard, yet live with a constant sense of deprivation. Nothing is ever fair, nothing is ever just – and nothing is ever enough.
This kind of need can be addressed, but it is not likely to ever disappear. If you live with a chip on your shoulder, no matter what you are given, you will find a new chip. Thus the “needy” – that is, those who feel themselves needy – will never disappear. Those who feel blessed, on the other hand, will be thankful for more without feeling cheated.
The Torah’s lesson here is the multiple levels on which to understand poverty. We have a moral obligation to deal with real poverty and to ameliorate it as best we can. Tzedakah, giving to the poor, is a central mitzvah for our tradition. Alongside the social mandate there is a clear individual one: to elevate our attitude so that we do not live constantly dissatisfied with what we have.
The Torah’s counsel is simple, if not always easy: to be giving and to be grateful. If one day we indeed accomplished that both for ourselves and for our society, the prophecy would come to pass – “There shall be no needy among you.”
I was once told the story of philosopher Gregory Bateson’s daughter who, when she was young, asked her father: “Why does my room always get dirty but it never just gets clean?” The seemingly simple question hides a deep concept, that of entropy. Systems break down, from rooms that get dirty to cells that deteriorate and stars that explode. Everything, including the universe, is subject to decay. Effort is required to build but neglect is all that is needed to destroy.
Entropy may be a deep and complex idea, but it makes an almost unassuming verse in our parasha particularly fascinating. The Torah describes many different types of miracles. A miracle is a singular event, that is what makes it miraculous. Yet it contains a lesson intended to be enduring. The sea may have split only once, but many people throughout history have taken inspiration in dire and frightening situations from the salvation of the Israelites at the Red Sea. A single cruse of oil that lasted for eight days reminds us throughout the generations that resources can be more abundant than they appear and persisting in noble deeds yields unexpected results.
This week’s parasha, Ekev, has an almost pedestrian miracle. In speaking of the wandering through the wilderness Moses says to the people, “The clothes upon you did not wear out” (Deut. 8:4). The need for this miracle is clear: there were no means to mend or make clothes in the desert. And presumably the heat and sands were pretty tough on the Israelites’ garments. But what exactly are we supposed to learn from the fact that God was the ultimate couturier?
There is a spiritual defiance of the law of entropy. We expect clothes to wear out and memory to fade. But Jewish history has proven that certain things endure despite the universal law of decay. The empires that conquered Israel have been subject to the law — just try to find an Assyrian or a Babylonian to ask about it. But the Israelites endure; despite the heat and sands and wandering and batterings of time, Israel as a people defy the law of entropy. We do not fade.
After the centuries of discrimination and anguish faced by the Jewish people, the law of entropy should be accelerated — time was abetted by the cruelty of so many over the ages. Yet the Jewish people endure to lift our collective voices against hate of all kinds across the globe.
The theme of miraculous endurance is a keystone of Jewish tradition. The prophet Isaiah writes, “They will soar on wings of eagles, they will run and not grow weary, walk and not grow faint (Is. 40:31).” For thousands of years we have managed to ensure that our hearts do not grow tired, our voices unsteady — that “our clothes do not wear out.” We continue our walk through the wilderness, unflagging and unafraid.
Rabbi David Wolpe
As ADL’s Inaugural Rabbinic Fellow, Rabbi David Wolpe serves as a thought leader within the organization, advising on interfaith and intergroup affairs, and sharing his thoughts and reflections with the community at large.
Rabbi David Wolpe is the Max Webb Emeritus Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Author of eight books, including the national bestseller Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times, Wolpe has been named the most influential Rabbi in America by Newsweek and twice named among the 50 most influential Angelinos by LA Magazine. He is the Senior Advisor at Maimonides Fund. He has taught at a number of universities, including UCLA, Hunter College, Pepperdine and the Jewish Theological Seminary and written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Jerusalem Post among other newspapers and journals. Wolpe has also recently accepted a position as visiting scholar at Harvard Divinity School.