Judaism, like most religions, has priorities over which sins we must absolutely avoid versus which are less impactful.  At the top of the list, logically, are murder, rape, and turning away from God.  Defining the last of those sins is a source of great disagreements between different religions.  Our human evolution of understanding the world also changes how we define what it means to turn away from God.  Yet, despite what various religious groups claim, despite an old vision of God as opposed to a modern one; we can find underlying moral truths that connect all of us together, by simply reading an incident in this week’s Torah portion and seeing its connection to other parts of the Tanach (which Christians call the “Old Testament”) as well as in the Talmud and rabbinic commentary.

Parashat Vayeira opens with Abraham hosting 3 men who turn out to be God’s malachim (angels).  They predict the eventual birth of Isaac.  As they move on, Abraham accompanies them and 2 of them head towards Sodom and Gomorrah.  At the point God decides to inform Abraham of the intention to destroy those cities because of their awful sins.  Here is the centerpiece of this incident, from Genesis 18:22 to 25

“The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before God. Abraham came forward and said, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?  What if there whould be 50 innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent 50 in it? Far be it from You to do such a think, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike.  Far be it from You!  Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”

There are two of the key questions that typically arise about this story.  What exactly are the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah? How should we react to Abraham’s response and challenge to God?

There are numerous religious groups that look at the response of the Sodomites to the men (actually malachim – angels) who arrive at Abraham’s nephew, Lot’s house.  The conclusion drawn as the key sin is the sexual sin of sodomization.  People who believe this will draw a connection to the verses of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.  However, sexual sin is NOT actually stated to be the central sin, or even an ongoing sin in Sodom elsewhere in the Tanach. Rather, the central sin is stated in Eziekiel 16:49, the people of Sodom refused to give help to the poor and the needy.

Two rabbinic pieces of literature, chapter 25 in the midrash Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer and Sanhedrin 109, offer a lot of detail and elaboration of the level of these sins.  In PRE it describes how the people of Sodom were extremely wealthy, but did not place trust in their Creator and Owner (see the connection to last week’s commentary?). Ergo they never offered food to the poor or a visiting stranger.  Indeed, they did so much to protect their food they even put covers on their fruit trees that prevented God’s singing birds from sitting on the branches and singing. Further, they appointed corrupt judges who ruled against every wayfarer and alien getting any food.  This midrash continues by adding that anyone who gave help to the poor and needy by even giving them a loaf of bread would be burned to death in punishment.

Sanhedrin 109 adds to this by quoting from Job 24:7 “They lie at night naked without clothing and they have no covering for the cold.”  This is in the context of describing an evil community and the Talmud uses this to describe how the people of Sodom treated the poor and aliens – making them suffer even while trying to sleep at night.  It further adds that Sodomites would steal from widows of their own community.  Finally, this page in Sanhedrin tells a story of a young woman who would take bread hidden in a pitcher to poor people.  She was found by the men of Sodom, then tortured by being pinned to the city wall, exposed to being bitten by insects and finally dying.

We saw in last week’s parashah that Abraham lived knowing God was the actual owner of the world, and respected the reality that no human can own anything forever.  Therefore, they must not just focus on their own wealth, but helping the needy and the poor.  The stories of Sodom add a connection to the multiple Torah statements that we must welcome the stranger through kindness and proper treating. All of this adds to the curiosity of Abraham’s challenge to God to behave justly when judging Sodom.

Rashi points out that the Hebrew word vayigash, translated as “came forward” is often used in multiple emotional situations including war, conciliation, and prayer.  One can conclude that Abraham was trying to be fierce in approaching God, to get God to be conciliatory if enough righteous people were in Sodom, as well as praying that God would do what is proper.  Malbim takes the perspective that Abraham knew that God’s work of destroying Sodom would be done by the malachim, just as the first born of Egypt would be taken by the angel of death.  Ergo, Malbim thought Abraham was pushing God to be sure the malachim would act properly on behalf of God.  In either case, God is responsible if the righteous are destroyed with the guilty.

Abraham’s interaction with God on this issue concludes by God agreeing to not destroy Sodom even if only 10 righteous people exist there.  However, Sodom is destroyed.  It is clear that God knew what the conclusion would be, yet God not only informed Abraham what was being planned but listened to his pushing God’s requirement for justice and mercy.  Since God knew how this would end why did God allow Abraham’s objection and negotiate with him?

My conclusion is that God was training Abraham, and providing an example for all of humanity, that we must never be afraid of challanging and questioning those in power if we are concerned not only about the sinful doings, but the true application of justice along with mercy and forgiveness.  If we are allowed to challenge God, then there is no human we are forbidden to challenge over justice and morality.  We must challenge those who place their insistence on ownership of parts of the world over the commanded morality that results from accepting God’s ownership.

The subject sequence of the first few parashot of the Torah is logical, narrowing with each step.  They begin with a focus on the creation of the world (universe), followed by the creation of humanity, which hits the glitch of falling into ultra violence, so in parashat Noach the point is about rebooting humanity.  We see by the end of that parashah, through the story of the Tower of Babel, that despite the rebooting, humanity has consistent moral problems.  In this week’s parasha, Lech L’cha, the focus narrows even more, on the story of Abraham, Sarah and the family they create that begins the basis for the Israelite people.

Beginning with this week’s parashah, the balance of Genesis lays the groundwork for how our ancestors ended up in Egypt, which is the basis for the rest of the Torah.  Many of the individual stories and myths establish thoughts on the essence of God and how these thoughts are applied to our way of life.  Here is one story about Abraham in Lech L’chathat pushes us to think about God.

A fugitive informed Avram (Abraham’s name at this point of the Torah) that a group of kings invaded the homeland taking prisoners and possessions from local kings and cities. One of the prisoners taken was Avram’s nephew, Lot.  Avram gathered his crew, went and defeated the invaders, and brought back the possessions taken as well as the captured people.  Here is what happened next, Genesis 14:17 – 24

“When he returned from defeating Chedorlaomer and the kings with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh, which is the Valley of the King. And King Melchizedek of Shalembrought out bread and wine; he was a priest of God Most High.  He blessed him, saying, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Creator (koneh)of heaven and earth.   And blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your foes into your hand.” And [Abram] gave him a tenth of everything.  Then the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the persons, and take the possessions for yourself.”   But Abram said to the  king of Sodom, ‘I swear to the LORD, God Most High, Creator (koneh) of heaven and earth:’”  I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours; you shall not say, ‘It is I who made Abram rich.’

There are numerous ways to interpret the words and actions of Melchizedek, the king of Shalem, as well as comparing him to the king of Sodom.  A first and obvious one, brought up by Or Hachaym, is how Melchizedek brought out food and drink for those who saved his people and possessions whereas the king of Sodom brought nothing.  Avram notices the difference and pays an unrequested tithe to Avimelech.  Avram then refuses to accept anything from the king of Sodom other than what his crew needed to recover themselves.

But there is a lot more in understanding the depth of Melchizedek, described as a priest of “God Most High.”  One question is whether he believes in monotheism like Avram or  follows another God.  A midrash in Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer refers to Melchizedek as Noah’s son, Shem, ergo a monotheist.  However, at this time, given what would be the impossible age of Shem, it is better to recognize Melchitzedek as a seperate from Shem.  His name can be translated as “my king of righteousness or justice” and the place he rules, Shalem, can be translated as “peace.” Some commentators say that Shalem is actually Jerusalem, ergo, Melchitzedek is already attached to God in the place Jewish tradition sees as God’s closest connection to this world. So one lesson to draw from this is the only way to truly establish peace and connection to God, is by a life of righteousness and justice.

We can take this even further by looking at the term Melchitzedek uses for God, koneh.  Numerous commentators translate konehas “creator.”  However, the root of this word means “to acquire,” ergo, Ramban and other commentators translate this as “owner.”  The implication is that God did not just create the world, but owns it as well.

This is a critical difference; not because Judaism teaches that God controls how everything happens before we do it, but to remind us that our supposed ownership of any part of the world is very transient compared to the eternity of God. There are numerous examples in the written and oral Torah that can be tied to the idea that God owns the world, not us.  One is in Leviticus 25, where the Israelites are told they must not bother to plant crops every 7thyear, as the land must have a sabbath for rest. Another is Deuteronomy 15 in which any indentured servants must be set free in that 7th year.  Yet one more example is a midrash that tells a story about God instructing Adam and Eve that they must take proper care of trees and plants of the world as if they do not, they are the ones responsible for ruining the world.

Look at the responsibilities implied by God, who is eternal, owning the world.  Our use is temporary and not true ownership. We must treat fellow humans with proper respect, the land needed for planting with limitation and the existence of the environment in a way that will preserve it.  Our personal profit is not as important as the life of righteousness and justice we must follow in order to create a place of “Shalem,” and a deeper connection to God.

When Avram refuses to accept any material payment from the king of Sodom, he uses the same word for God, koneh, as Melchitzedek, illustrating he is perceiving God in a way that acknowledges he must put his personal desires under control to create a better society and preserve the beauty of this world.  You will see a way this plays out in next week’s parashah.  If we want to consider ourselves the descendents of Avram (Abraham), then we must do the same.

When personal immoral disasters occur, trying to figure out who caused it is often complicated.  It is usually possible to find a justification to condemn any participant in the situation that results in moral (and sometimes physical) decimation.  Yes, there are incidents in which a witness can confirm a horrible misconduct (rape, abuse, bullying etc.), but there are more cases in which trying to clarify the problem source is a difficult and complex discussion. In Noach, this week’s Torah portion, there is an episode demonstrating this.  Here it is from Genesis 9:20 through 25.

“And Noah began to be a man of the earth and he planted a vineyard.  He drank of the wine and became drunk; and he laid uncovered inside his tent.  Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. And Shem and Yafet took a garment, laid it upon both of their shoulders, and went backward, covering the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward and they did not see their father’s nakedness.  And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done to him.  And he said, ‘Cursed be Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers.’”

Here are some observations and questions you can ask about this episode:

  • What is the true sin that happened here?
  • Who is to blame for the problem, Noah, who got drunk, Ham who saw his father’s nakedness, or Canaan, who is the one being punished?
  • Ham is actually the middle son, not the youngest son, so who is meant by the youngest son?
  • Why is the punishment and curse going on Noah’s grandson, Canaan, instead of Ham?

In the Talmudic tractate of Sanhedrin (on 70a), the actual sin is described as either a castration of Noah or a Sodomizing of Noah.  One argument says it is both.  In either case it is Ham that is declared the one who committed the sin.  This is based on the used word vayar, and he (Ham) saw.  This word appears in other places in the Tanach when someone is about to be abused.  The example given in commentary is when Dinah was seen then abused.  One reason given that Canaan is the one being cursed by Noah is Noah wanted to have a fourth son, and after being castrated could not, so he cursed Ham’s son, Canaan.  Another reason given is that in verse 9:1 God has blessed all three of Noah’s sons, so the only way Noah can get revenge is to curse one of Ham’s sons.

Here is the problem with blaming Ham.  Noah got himself drunk.  The overdrinking of wine is an item addressed in Jewish tradition.  Ergo, what Noah did begins this problem.  Indeed, the larger context of the above explanation of the sin given in Sanhedrin is a series of explanations about the problems with those who do not control their drinking of wine.  So now we can see the complication in the question of who is to blame for the moral outrage occurring here?

Here is another perspective. The story in Sanhedrin is not matching the literal translation of the Noah story.  Ham is said only to see the nakedness of his father.  Noah seems so embarrassed by this, that he decides to take it out on his grandson, Ham’s son, which certainly hurts Ham more than if he were cursed himself.  If all Ham did was to see the nakedness and then inform his brothers, what was he guilty of other than not covering Noah himself.  Ham’s biggest sin was to expose his son to a punishment for something he had nothing to do with.  Ham was protected by the privilege of being blessed by God.  His son was not.

Perhaps that is truly the sin that must be most avoided.  How often do we take our actions in a way to protect the following generations?  How often do we act simply for ourselves versus those who will exist after we are gone? Do we care only about our privilege, or attempting to improve life for those who come after us?

There is a Talmudic story in tractate Ta’anit that Choni Hamagil took a 70 year nap.  When he woke up he saw an old man planting a carob tree. He asked him why he was doing this and he answered, “When I came into this world I found a carob tree that others had planted for me.  Just as my ancestors planted for me, I plant for my descendents.”

In the story from the Torah and the version from Sanhedrin, Noah and Ham are both morally irresponsible.  Both seem to care more about themselves then the following generations.  While the story of Noah surviving the flood is one explaining how humanity survived, the story of his wine drinking, nakedness and whatever Ham did illustrates their moral failure that impacts the next round of humanity’s existence.  A question we must ask ourselves is this:  how do we stop acting like Noah and Ham and create the right world for the children to come?  And the follow up question is this:  are we over focused on pointing at a person to blame or on creating a better world?

The past couple of weeks have brought out illustrations of what is seriously going wrong with the values of our country.  Some call it polarization.  That is a true label, but I would go even further and say that polarization is based on the refusal to tolerate any diversity of thought.  Each side of the political spectrum is becoming hyper focused on getting its folks to think and believe the same, and not accept different ways of thinking or analyzing issues and events at the center of their attention.

Here is example number one. It has become clear that a significant group of people in the left wing are insisting that the only way to establish a health care system that best serves the American people is to create “Medicare for all” which must include the elimination of all private health insurance.  There is refusal to even consider how the private health insurance held by so many American workers through their employers is their preference.  Democratic candidates who even start to question the best solution or combination are being condemned as too conservative and not worthy of the nomination for president.  There are other issues starting to fall into the same mud hole – how to handle creating more education opportunities for those at the bottom of our economy and the best way to handle serious environmental/climate change issues are just two examples.  These are all serious issues that need diverse thought in order to find the best solutions.  The left, however, is becoming too obstinate placing the necessity to think alike in order to be accepted in place of diversity of thought.

This is an undermining of the best definition of “liberalism,” which is “open mindedness.”

The right’s obstinance was demonstrated by their embracing of Trump’s change to the celebration of American Independence Day – July 4th.  Yes, it is understandable that some folks would enjoy and appreciate honoring the American military, yet it is also very understandable why so many people would question the manner in which Trump decided to do this – at a large public expense with funds taken from original intended uses.  However the real exposure of the right wing’s true problem, which is dedication to a personal figure (Trump) as opposed to support of true American values is through postings and comments in social media.

Trump made ignorant historical comments that many news organizations reported and/or put in a satiric manner.  Yes, sometimes Trump makes a correct decision (correct left wingers?), but Trump supporters illustrated their own narrow mind set by either trying to explain his remarks as actually true, or by saying he was really referring to something else, or by simply stating their dedication to the president they admire, refusing to acknowledge the truth of the following:  his constant lying, his constant misstatement of historic facts, his constantly proven immorality, his stating of policy position through narcissistic praise of himself.  A large chunk of Trump supporters have become simple demagogic followers.  Being dedicated to Trump has become more important to them than standing for true American and moral values.

Why do I see this lesson coming from July 4th?   Not really because of the celebration in Washington, DC.  No, I have been researching the heroic life of my great uncle Richard.  Part of his heroism came in World War II while serving in the 48thEngineer Combat Battalion.  I found a book written about the history of this battalion during the war, and here is what I read in the prologue of the book on July 4th:  “An outfit isn’t a machine…It’s a group of 600 individual personalities who are thinking 600 different ways towards getting the job done.  It’s the 600 ways of thinking that makes an outfit good.”

Wow, imagine the worthiness of an army battalion being judged not by the single mindedness of its members, but of its diversity of thought!  This battalion was cited by President Roosevelt for the excellence of its performance during a very difficult and critical section of its campaign in Italy.  The book shows the diversity of the soldiers and their approaches to solving the issues confronting them.

Our country needs to reject mental obstinance and embrace the diversity of individuals and their thoughts, fulfilling the basic American value exemplified by an army battalion in World War II.  Then we are true Americans.


Last Sermon in Tallahassee

I begin with a quote from Psalms 39:5 and 6.  Hodi’eini Adonai kitzi, umidat yamei ma he, eid’ah mah chadeil ani.  “Tell me O God what my term is, what is the measure of my days that I may know how frail I am.”  Verse 6 continues, “You have made my days like handbreadths; its span is as nothing in Your sight; no man endures any longer than a breath, Selah.”

The first verse seems somewhat mysterious, if not redundant; for the words “my term” and “measure of my days” would appear to mean the same thing.  But the Hebrew words are very different.  The word kitzi, translated as “term,” also means end. The word midat, translated as measure, also means “type” or “quality.” The Psalmist is asking two things. One is to know the length of life, through the number of days.  The other is to know the tenor of what will fill those days.  The rest of the quote is a declaration of the shortness and fragility of life, punctuated at its end by the Hebrew word, Selah.

Is this an impossible request?  Perhaps.  There are moments we can know the limit of our time, or how long a “term” might be. But we can never foresee the quality that measures our days.  We do not know what we will learn and what we will fail to learn.  We do not know who we will meet and who we will wish we might have met.  We do not know who we will impact or who will impact us.  We cannot know the fullness of each day, each moment, until we experience it.  We cannot know if our time together will be rewarding or not, happy or sad, short or long, loving or hateful.  All we can ever know, with surety, is that every segment of time eventually comes to an end.  We are finite Creatures.  Any of our time is merely a “breath.”

“Tell me O God what my term is, what is the measure of my days?”  I had no idea that I would spend an 18 year career at Temple Israel in Tallahassee. My original contract was for 3 years. For Audrey and me, coming here was an experiment, a diversion from the comfortable path we had by staying in the Philadelphia area.  I had an offer there, 30 minutes from our home.  We decided, however, to try something different, by moving to a place in the south, a place I had never imagined I would even consider.  Our thought was if it did not work, then we would just transfer to a congregation in an area that felt more like home.

At the end of my 2ndyear here, the president, Ed Stafman, came to me and said it was time to negotiate my next contract. I already loved my work here, the relationships being formed with members of Temple Israel, the progress in education, the quality of services, and the connections I had begun to make to some people around the community.  I knew, however, that unless Audrey felt comfortable, we could not stay.  We had already made dear friends here, and she had found a job she loved.  So when I told her it was time to make a decision her response was, “You are not going to make me leave here, are you?”

In 2007 I faced another decision.  The director of rabbinic placement suggested that I apply to two large congregations.  Both were in need of stability.  In addition, one of my mentors said the experience of applying would help me learn whether or not I truly wanted to do my career in Tallahassee.  I had no interest in one of those congregations. The other, however, was in the north, close to family, and a very historical place.  Being the senior rabbi there would have given me the chance to be part of national leadership.  As the interview process went forward, I became one of the leading candidates. When I went to my on site interview, I took the approach of needing to learn what I truly wanted.  While I was there my career choices became clear.  If I took that job, I would be a CEO.  If I stayed at Temple Israel, I would be a rabbi. While interviewing there, it became obvious I wanted to be a rabbi, and that I was unbelievably lucky to be serving in this wonderful congregation in Tallahassee.  As I was flying home I called our president at that time, Wendy Wiener, and told her I was not leaving.

I have a number of rabbinical colleagues who are serving or have served in toxic congregations.  I have always told my colleagues that Temple Israel is the complete opposite of toxic.  It is warm, relaxed, moral, flexible, yearning for more education, dedicated to helping improve our general community, and incredibly respectful of clergy. As I retire from serving you, I must thank you for being a congregation that has made my life feel so meaningful.  I thank you for providing the best environment any rabbi could ever imagine.

There is a story I have told before, but will tell again, as I see its context for all of us.  It is about a man and wife who are very poor.  They had heard a rumor of the existence of an island on which the ground was strewn with diamonds.  All someone had to do was to get to the island, and fill their pockets with diamonds. The husband told his wife that he had to try and find that island, to get the diamonds, so that they would no longer be poor.  His wife reluctantly agreed that he should do the search, so he left.  He traveled to many shores, seeking word about the island, but heard nothing; of no ship that had passed it, of no sailor who knew of its existence. Finally, in a distant port he heard a rumor of a sea in which the island existed.  He boarded a ship that was journeying to that sea, which had never been explored by this group of sailors.

They found the island.  The man asked to be let off and to be picked up when the ship would return to the area.  The captain informed him it would be at about a year until the ship would return.  The man went ashore.  Indeed, the diamonds existed all over the ground.  But, as diamonds were so common, the island’s culture did not treasure them as the man’s home did.  In order to survive, he had to earn a living, so he learned a trade; to create something he could trade for food and clothing.  He became a candle maker.  After some months he became the best candle maker on the island. His ability to make candles enabled him to acquire anything needed.

After a year, the ship returned for him.  So he gathered his candles, and sailed home. When he arrived his wife asked about the diamonds.  He showed her the candles, but he had forgotten to take the diamonds with him. At home, the candles were almost worthless.

The candles, of course, represent the nitty gritty of everyday life and functioning – things that must happen in order to live normally.  The diamonds, however, represent those precious moments that stay in our souls.  They are gems we can appreciate because of their high quality, their beauty, their durability.

My friends, we can enumerate many candles that we have done together.  Religious services occur as scheduled every week.  Religious school happens as it should with few problems.  Over the years I cannot even count how many children have had their bar or bat mitzvah.  A huge number of teens have either gone through Confirmation or our current teen program.  Babies have been named, people married.  There have been over 100 converts to Judaism.  We have had 4 adult b’nai mitzvah classes.  We have done study sessions of the entire Torah and almost all of the prophetic books of the Tanach.  In 2007/2008 we rebuilt this sanctuary and part of the building into the beautiful rooms they are.  There have been many Intro to Judaism classes as well as other adult education classes. If we bother to measure these items by numbers, then we are saying we have been successful at making candles.

But I believe that we have NOT made candles.  Together, we have collected diamonds.  Each Shabbat service, each High Holiday, each bar or bat mitzvah, each wedding, each class with the teens, each adult education class session has been a moment to treasure.  Together we have laughed and cried, prayed and sang, argued and agreed.  Every one of these moments has been precious.  For me, they are diamonds.  I will never forget working with FSU musical students in leading services. Two became actual cantors.  I will never forget the incredible ruachthat Stefanie and Angel have created in our choirs.  I will never forget the fun of our special Chanukah services, or the laughter of our Purim celebrations.  I will never forget how the 12 week Lunch and Learn class from the winter of 2002 became an 18 year unique interfaith deep learning class, in which non-Jews have learned to appreciate the depth of Jewish learning.  I will never forget the creation of Bagels and Biscuits, or how wonderful it has been to lead services with Brian and to work with him and Melanie to create a beautiful teen program.  I will never forget working with wonderful Temple presidents.  I will never forget the countless great conversations with Lisa as we tried to handle a wide range of issues and subjects.  I will never forget how dedicated Akol is to doing anything necessary to improve our congregation.  I will never forget how Alex Molina grew from an 8thgrader who seemed to always be in trouble to a deep hearted human being who models true caring for all people.  I will never forget how Angel has become such a treasured part of our congregation.  I will never forget how Stefanie has been my beloved partner in deepening Jewish life for our community.  I will never forget the exceptional quality of you, the members of this congregation, who have caused me to love every moment of my service here.  Each of these is a diamond.

“You have made my days like handbreadths; its span is as nothing in Your sight; no man endures any longer than a breath, Selah.”  These words from Psalm 39 are the essence of our relationship with God and time, as explained by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  God IS that which is eternal.  We are temporal.  The dissonance between us and God is caused by that fact.  We are constantly reaching to understand that which is eternal.  We are rarely open to hear or feel God’s reaching out for us.  That openness, says Heschel, must begin with the sense of radical amazement.  Radical amazement is the realization of the grandeur of creation itself. It is the realization that our time in that creation is precious, and not to be wasted.  It is the realization that our use of that time is what will connect us to each other, and ultimately to God.  Our time together, 18 years, has been just a breath from the perspective of God’s existence.  But I believe it has been a holy breath.  Through you, I have felt the presence of God.

The verse from Psalms ends with the word selah.  Selacan mean 2 things within a Psalm.  Selahcan be the command for vocal silence, so that the instrumentation may take over.  After this Shabbat, my voice as your rabbinic leader comes to an end.  But the instrumentation of this congregation will continue.  You will decide which symphony it is that you will play.  Choose well.  Make music of beauty and harmony.  In Rabbi Michael Shields, you have a high quality person and rabbi joining your orchestra.  The combination of a new voice with your instruments should not result in a cacophony, but in a symphony.  Selahis the command for all of you to participate in a harmonious way.

However, Selahcan have another meaning.  Selahcan mean the raising up, the exultation of a voice.  While either your or my time is limited, Selahis the command to raise our voices, even though they will last for only a breath!  Selahis the call for us to do the most with our allotted time.  Selahtells us that our time together, while ending, is something to celebrate, not mourn.  Selahis the word telling us we are allowed to sing HalleluyahSelahtells us that we are not only to experience sadness at the end of a time, but the gladness of a beginning – for you and I are both at a time of beginning something new.  Selahtells us not to cry, but to sing.  It is a word that punctuates the music of our lives.  So I now end my words by simply telling you, Selah!

(Our soloist then sang and led Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluyah”)


The anti-abortion laws recently passed in Alabama, Georgia, and Missouri have raised a range of objections and questions.  One powerful objection is the legal wording makes it impossible for a 12 year old girl, who was raped, to avoid going through a pregnancy that potentially ruins her entire life.  The most popular question raised about this legislation is if their purpose is to present a case to the Supreme Court in order to overturn Roe v Wade.  These are the perspectives of those who are advocating to protect women’s reproductive rights.

There is, however, another question that needs to be raised about this legislation.  Is it an attempt by those of a very particular evangelical Christian perspective, to undermine religious diversity in the United States? Considering a fetus being aborted to be the same as the murder of 14 year old teenager at a public high school is not a universal religious perspective. The key issue to raise about this group of Christians is do they truly see fetal life the equivalent of life outside of the womb.  In addition, we need to realize there are extremely different religious perspectives defining what is fully formed human life.  To understand this we must look at the Jewish perspective on the various aspects of issues that can be tied to abortion.

Jewish teachings originate from the Torah’s description of a potential incident.  In Exodus 21:22 and 23 we read that if two men have a violent quarrel that results in a pregnant woman loses her fetus, then a fine will be laid upon the man who caused the miscarriage (verse 22).  The very next verse states that if there is further harm, then the punishment is life for a life, eye for an eye, etc.  Generally, further harm is seen as applicable to the woman ergo, “life for a life” means the death penalty for killing the woman. This is largely interpreted in Jewish law as meaning the life of a fetus is not on the same level as fully formed human life.  In addition, Jewish tradition teaches that our soul arrives as our body is being born – another way to define fully formed human life.

One example of how this difference in the level of life is applied is how the death of a fetus is ritually observed versus the death of a fully formed human.  A person who dies is supposed to have ritual washing (taharah), be guarded leading to the funeral by a person sitting with them and reciting Psalms, a full funeral with a eulogy plus a full mourning period beginning with the first 7 days (shivah).  Those who lose a fetus are not required to do the same set of rituals.  They can opt to do them but only if these observances do not interfere with other mitzvoth required by Jewish law.  The key point is that death rituals are not required for a lost fetus.

Now let’s consider another subject, not abortion but potentially related to abortion.  A passage from Nazir 51a-b states that one rabbinic master observes that a fetus is actually part of a woman’s body, same as her thigh.  The context being discussed is whether a fetus in a dead woman’s body is considered a separate body just because it would eventually leave the womb.  There is not agreement on the status of the fetus here, just showing how as early as the development of the Talmud, there were rabbis who saw the fetus as part of a woman.  The perspective of a fetus being part of a woman’s body arises again in Gittin 23b, in a discussion if a woman who is a slave can advocate for the freedom of her unborn child.  Again the fetus is proclaimed to be like her thigh in the matter of obtaining freedom from slavery.  This is another way of seeing, from a Jewish perspective, that a fetus is not fully formed human life.

Now we come to a specific teaching on abortion.  In the Mishnah, Oholot 7:6 it states that if a woman’s life is in danger during the delivery of a child, the child must be cut up in her womb, for her life takes precedence over the life of the child not yet delivered.  Indeed, even if the child is almost delivered, as long as the greater part has not emerged, the child can be killed in order to save the woman’s life, as the Mishnah states that the life of the mother has precedence over the life of the child.  This specific abortion teaching demonstrates an application of the difference in the level of life between a fetus and a fully formed human.

The disagreement among rabbis over many centuries is not that the mother’s life takes precedence, but does this passage allow abortions for reasons other than saving the mother’s life. One basis for the argument it does not is connected to Sanhedrin 57b, which states that descendants of Noah (i.e. non Jews) can be convicted as murderers for killing a fetus.  Further, rabbis who feel that abortion is like a murder might argue that the reason a child being born can be killed if the mother’s life is in danger is connected to the law din rodef that says anyone can kill a person who is chasing someone in attempt to murder them.

While there are rabbis who have ruled against abortion, it is important to point out that the general approach of how Judaism defines life gives much more flexibility for having an abortion beyond an actual threat to end the mother’s life.  This is not a conclusion about modern progressive rabbis, but rabbis across the Jewish spectrum for centuries.  One example is the opinion of Rabbi Ben Zion Uziel, a former chief Rabbi of Israel from the early 20thcentury, who gave permission to a woman to have an abortion when her doctor determined the presence of the fetus would cause her to be permanently deaf.  Clearly, this rabbi was concerned not just about the woman dying, but the quality of her life.

Based on rabbinic texts as well as a large range of rabbis’ opinions across time and various movements, here is a summary of what I would classify as a majority Jewish perspective. First, it must be clear that a fetus IS life, and should not be ended callously.  However, it is not considered life on the same level as a fully formed human such as a 14 year old teenager.  A fetus does not have its soul.  Second, there is text showing the opinion of some Talmud era rabbis that the fetus is considered part of the woman’s body; ergo in today’s context the decisions made about the body are up to the woman.  Abortion, as something that affects a woman’s body, cannot then be strictly prohibited.  Third, and perhaps most important, making the decision on aborting a fetus is not just based on a threat that ends the woman’s life, but about the quality of life that woman can lead.  We understand today this must include psychology as well as physical health. We simply need to care that a woman’s quality of life is given the same consideration as a man’s.

However, the laws passed in Alabama, Georgia, and Missouri are not just based on men’s attempts to control women.  There are many women who vehemently oppose abortion.  Another reality is the attempts of certain Evangelical Christian groups to force their religious views on the rest of America.  It is generally the same religious groups that oppose the existence of same sex marriage.  The larger context, therefore, is for us to protect the right of various religious perspectives to exist in our country, and not allow a particular one to define specific laws that can be proven to detriment many who are affected.  Opposition to these strict anti-abortion laws must include the stand that no religious group has the right to impose their religious beliefs onto the rest of us.  Judaism represents a belief in the respect for life, but a difference in life at different times of development.

If we recognize that fully formed human life requires a different approach than life developing in a woman’s womb, then we must also believe in the obligation not to oppress fellow humans and to give them the help they need to develop their best possible life.  Our obligations to fully developed humans are repeated again and again in the Bible (Hebrew and Christian) so the question we must ask ourselves is this:  by accepting a particular religious perspective what is the greatest impact we can have on improving a person’s life?


“Where is Abraham?” Sarah wondered.  “For that matter, where is Isaac?  Did the two of them go wandering off somewhere?”  It had been almost three days since she had seen either her son or her husband.  Her last conversation with Abraham had not been pleasant.  After watching Ishmael threaten and abuse her beloved Isaac, she had asked, no demanded that Abraham send the boy and her Egyptian mother away from the camp.  She knew  that Abraham thought she was cruel for demanding that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away, but Abraham, typical throughout their over 100 years of being together, had no understanding of her feelings, of her fatigue from the constant demands and strains that he had placed on their relationship.

Life was simple enough when she first met and married Abraham, so many decades ago in the land of Ur.  She was young, naïve, filled with the hopes and dreams of a young woman; marrying into what she though was a fine family.  Abraham’s father, Terach, had been a famous sculpture in the land of the Chaldeans.  People tended to idolize his work.  Abraham, at that point simply known as Avram, was in conflict with his father over going into the family business.  When Sarah, then known as Sarai, had married Abraham, it was clear that this conflict had been ongoing since Abraham’s childhood.  Their argument had even come before King Nimrod, who was a great patron of Terach’s work.  The stridency of Abraham’s arguments in front of Nimrod had resulted in the death of Terach’s youngest son, Haran.  It was the first of a string of family tragedies that Sarah would be forced to endure.

After the death of Haran, Abraham yearned for a son of his own.  Sarah wondered if this might be the result of his guilt over the death of his youngest brother.  Perhaps Abraham felt the need to present Terach with a grandson to replace the son he had lost in Ur.  Perhaps Abraham felt guilty over his role in Haran’s death.  Perhaps Abraham felt the need to teach the next generation differently than his father had taught him.  In any case, it was clear that Abraham wanted a son and he was not happy that Sarah seemed incapable of providing one.  But Abraham was nothing else if not loyal, so other than a few obscure mumblings, Abraham said little and never even thought of leaving Sarah.  She was, after all, the most beautiful woman in all of Ur.

Haran’s death simply began a litany of difficulty for Sarah.  Terach could not bear to remain in Ur, so he decided to leave there and move to the city for which his son had been named, the city of Haran.  To Sarah, this seemed a morbid, unhealthy reminder of her deceased brother in law.  Abraham’s brother Nahor refused to go with Terach, but Abraham, not able to assuage his guilt over Haran’s death through having a son, insisted that he and Sarah go with Terach.  So Sarah was forced to leave the land, the city, the friends, the family she had known all of her life, and travel with her husband to a new land.

There Abraham grew rich.  He was talented in managing livestock and people and soon parlayed this skill into sizable holdings.  He supported his father in Haran, and after a few years Sarah thought that life would settle again into a safe, predictable pattern.  Little did she know.

Abraham had always insisted that it was God, not his own abilities, that had facilitated his wealth.  Now he claimed that the same God was telling him to leave his father’s house in Haran and to go to Canaan.  Abraham claimed that God was going to provide him with significant real estate holdings in Canaan, if he would only get out of his father’s house and move his own family there.  Sarah had mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand she had often wondered why, at age 75, Abraham had felt it necessary to still live with his father.  So she certainly approved of his finally cutting the umbilical cord and leaving his father’s house.  Besides, she was growing tired of the pressure from Terach to produce another heir, as well as the silent criticism when it did not happen.  On the other hand, simply moving to the other side of Haran would have sufficed.  Did they really have to go all the way to Canaan, dragging their substantial holdings, employees, servants and retainers with them?  That was what God demanded, Abraham said.  And so they went.

Abraham had told her that God promised him blessings in Canaan, yet all was not so rosy once they arrived there.  They had not been in their new location long before famine set in, and the whole household had to move into Egypt in order to obtain food.  There, Pharaoh cast his eye on Sarah, and wanted to acquire her for his own court.  Abraham was too afraid to tell Pharaoh that Sarah was already married.  He claimed that Sarah was his sister, and only after Pharaoh’s courtiers brought her to the palace to meet Pharaoh was it revealed that she was indeed Abraham’s wife.  This caused Pharaoh great embarrassment and he told Abraham that he and his household were no longer welcome in Egypt.  So back to Canaan they journeyed once more.

Once there, she begged Abraham to find a spot where they could settle.  No sooner had they begun a new life in an agreeable place, that Lot, Haran’s son for whom Abraham had assumed responsibility, began to quarrel with his uncle over grazing spots for his sheep.  Sarah had always thought that Lot was more trouble than he was worth.  He was a man with no talent other than finding and causing trouble.  Sarah was never sure how much Lot knew about Abraham’s role in his father’s death.  She only knew that Lot took every occasion to find fault with his uncle.  Sarah did admire Abraham’s patience with his nephew, especially in the pasturing dispute.  He simply told Lot that there was plenty of land, and Lot could have first choice of which land he took.  Of course Lot, eager to finally get out from Abraham’s control, chose wrongly.

Once rid of Lot, Abraham no longer had a young man to occupy his attention, so once again he began to agitate for a son.  Sarah had noticed, to her credit without too much jealousy, that Abraham had taken a fancy to her very attractive handmaiden, Hagar, who had joined Sarah’s retinue in Egypt.  Sarah, at this point well into her 80’s, figured she was beyond envy, and offered her to Abraham to produce a child.  In truth, Sarah figured Abraham was way too old to father a child, so imagine her shock when Hagar turned up pregnant!

While technically the boy, Ishmael, belonged to Sarah and Abraham, Sarah could not escape the feeling that the boy had been fathered by someone other than Abraham.  After all their years of infertility, she just never thought the old coot would really get anywhere with Hagar.  And handmaidens, typical of all employees, just could not be trusted.  So it was a double insult to Sarah that not only did Hagar produce a child, but she began to lord it over Sarah as well.  When she appealed to Abraham to help with the situation, his was a typically male response, “Look, you offered her to me.  If you have a problem with her, then you deal with her.”  So it was up to Sarah to discipline Hagar and put her back in her place.

Even though the family had stopped wandering around Canaan, life with Abraham was never easy for Sarah.  He was always off on some mission.  One time he left to recapture Lot who had been taken captive by enemies of the cities in Canaan.  “Good riddance,” Sarah thought.  Lot had never shown any gratitude to his uncle for all his years of supporting his business and personal failures.  But Abraham had that quality of loyalty, so he went after Lot.  It did not hurt that some of the local nobility’s children had been captured with Lot, and Abraham volunteered to retrieve them.

Even when Abraham was home things were never quiet.  He was always inviting wandering strangers in for a visit.  While she admired his friendly nature with strangers, this hospitality only resulted in more work for her.  Invariably, Abraham liked to show off his success, so he only served the choicest of his flock, and demanded she prepare breads and cakes from their choicest flour.  Abraham’s reputation for good entertainment was known for miles around, but Sarah never heard of any credit given to the hours of cooking and supervising of the staff she did to make him a success.

One time, while Abraham was recovering from some self inflicted wounds, three strangers appeared at his tent entrance.  Naturally Abraham, despite being in pain, jumped up to welcome the strangers, and quickly got Sarah to prepare his very favorite meal, veal stew.  “Somehow it seems wrong to be boiling this calf in its mother’s milk,” thought Sarah.  She resolved that if she ever did have children, this would be one recipe that she would not hand down.  Abraham must have known there was something special about these strangers, because he even had Sarah wash their feet.  Later in the evening she overheard the strangest conversation.  The strangers claimed that Sarah would conceive and bear a son.  Now Sarah, although not a doctor, knew enough about female biology to laugh at the very idea that she could still become pregnant.  Abraham, who seemed to be clueless about such things, chided her for laughing.

To her shock, she did become pregnant!  And they named the little boy Isaac.  All of the nurturing instincts that Sarah had repressed for so long burst forth.  She was able to nurse the child.  She found she was enchanted by motherhood.  She was exceedingly protective of her child.  She hesitated to wean him, even at three years old.  When she did, there was Ishmael, glowering threateningly at her son.  She tried to mention this to Abraham.  She had seen the signs of jealousy in Ishmael from the moment Isaac was born.  Yet Abraham paid her no heed.  He told her he was tired of her constant worrying.  He was tired of her habit of always seeing the negative side of things.  Couldn’t she just be happy that they now had two sons, including one which she had bore?

So when she caught Ishmael abusing Isaac, she had seen enough.  She snapped and gave Abraham an ultimatum, Ishmael and Hagar simply had to go.  This exchange distressed Abraham greatly.  He yelled, he cried, he sulked, he pleaded with the God to whom he always turned when he was in doubt.  And now, Abraham had disappeared.  With Isaac.  With his donkey.  With two other servant lads from their household.

Sarah sent servants to the surrounding communities seeking some word, some sign as to where Abraham and Isaac might be.  When three days had passed a stranger asked to see her.  Servants ushered a tall, handsome but darkly mysterious man into her tent.  His name was Sama’el.  He said he had learned that she was seeking word of a man with a young boy.  “I saw them on top of Mount Moriah,” he told her.  “I saw the man tie up the boy, and place him on top of an altar they must have built.  The man kept muttering, ‘God has seen to the lamb for the sacrifice, my son.’”

At that moment, Sarah saw a summary of her life.  At every turn, there she was, being flexible, enduring criticism, uproot, and hardship.  At every turn there she was trying to be supportive, forgiving, waiting for a moment she could know some peace, some serenity.  Sarah saw her life end with the stranger’s words.  She screamed, clutched her chest, collapsed and died.  The stranger, Sama’el, watched, and to her crumpled heap on the tent floor he said, “By the way, I stopped him from harming the child and gave him a ram to sacrifice instead.”

”Vayahi chayei Sarah mei’ah shanah, v’esrim shanah, v’sheva shanim, sh’nei chayei Sarah.” So begins this week’s Torah portion, “This was the life of Sarah, one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years – the years of Sarah’s life.”  Midrash teaches that Sarah never lost the innocence of 7, nor the beauty of 20 even as she acquired the wisdom of 100.  It does not say if she was happy.  It does not say if she ever felt fulfilled.  It does not say if she ever, in her long and difficult life, felt at peace.  We only know she died.  Torah then says, “And Abraham mourned for Sarah, and cried over her.”  Sad, how the emotional display of Abraham’s appreciation for Sarah, his life’s companion, came just a little too late.