A few summers ago, in 2014, before the fighting began in Israel and when tensions in the region were still a bubbling cauldron, I led a birthright trip. Lasting from June 16th-26th, there was one issue on the minds of nearly every Israeli I met, the kidnapping of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah, three Israeli teens who were taken on June 12th. Throughout the trip, we knew nothing of their fates, yet it was clear from the mood around Israel that their kidnapping was sincerely impacting the united Israel consciousness. Fear, doubt, and anger hung heavy in the air as a nation prayed for their collective fates.
This isn’t the first time in my life I have observed this phenomenon. A few years ago, the Israeli public rallied around Gilad Shalit, a kidnapped soldier as Benjamin Netanyahu agreed at the time to exchange 1,027 prisoners for his life. Following this decision, many both domestically and internationally questioned whether it was appropriate to make such a large trade for one soldier. Yet, for anyone who understands the way Jewish law speaks about kidnapping, Netanyahu’s actions are no surprise, for contained in this week’s portion, Ki Teitzei, is the strongest condemnation possible against kidnapping: “If a party is found to have kidnapped – and then enslaved or sold – a fellow Israelite, that kidnapper shall die; thus shall you sweep evil from your midst” (Dt. 24:7).
Kidnapping is a serious business, especially when it deals with one of your own. In fact, this commandment is repeated earlier in the Torah, in the middle of the book of Exodus. Furthermore, the rabbis go out of their way to include an additional condemnation of kidnapping. The command, they say, against theft in the Ten Commandments, isn’t against property (that’s mentioned elsewhere) but against stealing a fellow human being. “Thou Shalt Not Kidnap” is one of the big ten.
In fact, so horrid is kidnapping, that Jewish tradition developed a name for the command to free the captive, Pidiyon Shvuyim. This command implored a person or a nation to do everything they can to free someone who is bound. The famous precept, Osek B’Mitzvah Patur Min Hamitzvah, which tells us that if we are busy engaging in one Jewish commandment, we are exempt from others, was often exemplified through the context of freeing the captive. Our tradition declares that if one is helping to redeem a kinsman from slavery he or she does not need to worry about daily prayer, building a sukkah, or other temporal Jewish acts. He is busy enough with the most holy of work.
And no one understood this better than Maimonides, history’s most vocal opponent of kidnapping and the slavery that often accompanied it. In his famous legal magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides states that the act of freeing the captive is the greatest commandment in the Torah (MT Matanot Aniyiim 8:10). It supersedes feeding the poor and clothing the naked. In fact, he finds no less than six other commandments that are contained within the need to free a captive ranging from the need to love our neighbor as ourselves (Lev. 19:18) and the prohibition against standing idly by the blood of our neighbors and doing nothing (Lev. 19:16).
Though, no sooner does Maimonides tell of the importance of freeing the captive than he puts two restrictions on the act. Basing his ruling on a second-century adage in Mishnah Gittin, Maimonides warns against two things: we don’t redeem captives for more than they are worth (so that enemies will not pursue more people and up their ransoms) and we don’t encourage captives to escape (because it might lead captors to treat captives more severely using chains and employing abuse). Both of these rulings are employed mipnei darchei shalom, for the sake of peace, a term which has come to mean here and in various other places, the act of stepping outside of the plain meaning of a law to avoid further or heightened disagreement (MT Matanot Aniyiim 8:12).
Yet, as we know when someone you care about is in danger, how could you not seek to free them? There are cases in the Talmud when rabbis go against the expressed ruling that we do not redeem a captive for more than their value, most notably Levi Bar Darga who was said to have gone against the explicit will of the sages and ransomed his daughter for thirteen thousand denarri of gold, a huge sum at the time (Gittin 45a). In another place, we are told that if a husband learns that his wife was taken, he can ransom her for as much as ten-times her value (Ketubot 52a-b).
In any country, and especially in Israel, those taken captive often become the adopted children of their nation. It happened with Gilad Shalit. I watched it happen with Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah and we all saw the aftermath when we were not successful. And more recently we saw the efforts in Gaza to destroy the tunnels that might bring the opportunity for even more Israelis to be taken. The question to ask, though, is what is the cost of “sweeping [this] from our midst.” How do we get our captives back and send a message to their captors which will prevent further abuses without making the situation worse for ourselves? What is the modern example of mipnei archei shalom? There was little agreement among our ancestors about how to deal with kidnapping, and there is surely little agreement between us. Yet, perhaps we might pause in the moment, holding our anger, fear, and doubt in check and engage in dialogue with our ancestors. They’ve clearly got something to add to the conversation.
In commenting about this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim or judges, our ancient rabbis discuss the nature of justice and in doing so they make a bold claim about the virtue:
Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel says: The world exists on account of three things: on account of justice, truth, and peace, as it is stated, “Judge with truth, judgment and peace in your cities.” (Zechariah 8:16). Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: all of them depend on justice, for through justice comes peace and truth. (Midrash Tanchuma Shofrim 15).
The radical idea in this quote appears at the very end: justice determines both peace and truth. But how does this happen?
To understand this quote one must first define what the Torah means by justice. Though there are many descriptions, I’ve always admired the definition from the Institutes of Justinian, a codification of Roman Law from the sixth century AD and one of the earliest articulations of the subject. In it, we find that justice is ‘the constant and perpetual will to render to each his due’. Though the text is vague, it encompasses most of what we hold to be innate when we think about justice.
First, it leaves open the fact that people are owed certain behaviors and outcomes. In the Jewish tradition, we owe another respect simply because they are created in the image of God. However, when someone crosses a legal boundary, justice dictates that they are owed a consequence – often a punishment – for their action.
Second, it shows that justice is not a choice. Kindness, for example, is not the “constant and perpetual will” to show good favor to another. The presence and degree of kindness is determined by the person dispensing it. Justice, on the other hand, is coercive. We cannot select when we are just. A judge cannot pick and choose when to be fair and balanced.
So, with this in mind, what is the relationship between justice, peace, and truth? And why does justice matter in understanding each?
The easy part of the Midrash above is that peace comes from justice. This isn’t surprising. If we live in a society where many don’t think they will get their due, why bother living in harmony with one another. The good have no reason to be good because they will receive no reward. The evil can continue to do wrong because they will not be punished. Neighbor will attack neighbor, country will conquer country.
But what about the second claim, that justice always precedes truth? On the surface, it seems this should be the reverse. Benjamin Disraeli famously said that “Justice is truth in action.” Without truth, no one would accept testimony, have faith in the integrity of a ruling, or believe evidence. In order for people to each get “his due” one must believe that they have acted with malice or virtue and are deserving of their reward and punishment.
However, at a closer glance, there is a great deal of truth to Yehoshua ben Levi’s statement. Truth is not a stagnant thing. Often, when a legal case is difficult, it is because we don’t know what the truth is. And the problem with divining the truth comes in two forms.
First, a “truthful” testimony can still be false. As Leonard Shelby, the forgetful protagonist in the movie Momento artfully explains: “Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They're just an interpretation, they're not a record, and they're irrelevant if you have the facts.” What Shelby means here is that someone can be telling the truth and can be utterly wrong. Thus, a judge will have truthful and faithful testimonies from two people, one of which calls a car red and the other blue, and it’s his job to figure out who is right. In this case, justice does indeed determine truth. In the act of judging (often without the photo to prove it), a judge will actually determine which color the car truly is. In judging, he creates what is “true.”
Second, because hard cases are often the difference between two “rights” one’s ruling can determine the nature of the relationship between each. If someone steals bread for his starving family, we are left with a tension. Should he be punished in the same way as a kleptomaniac or does this case deserve special treatment? In deciding, the judge will determine how much of a say the person’s dire economic situation should have in his punishment. Is it “true” that all stealing is equal or is it “true” that sometimes stealing is justified? Here to justice determines truth.
We often live in a world where truth seems monolithic. And in an era where often the “truth” of news stories are called into question, we often react against that notion and claim there is only one right way to see things. But the wisdom of our midrash is that when someone judges, they do indeed create truth, always unfolding, with each judge and each generation understanding it a little better and a little clearer. The key is to avoid making claims on truth that are impossible. We have the power to shape it. The goal is to do so with justice for indeed “through justice comes peace and truth.”
Sometimes you come across a text that changes the way that you see the Bible and Jewish history. This week, I had occasion to read such a text.
Most know the story of Noah’s Ark. In it, God decides to destroy the world with a flood because of its wickedness. But to save humanity, God chooses a righteous individual named Noah to build an ark. In it he will bring a representative sample of every animal on earth that will survive, thus beginning the world again.
One of the chief debates around Noah’s character has centered around this line:
This is the line of Noah—Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.
As the debate goes, Noah was one of two kinds of people. Either he was unquestionably righteous, or he was righteous in his “age,” being only relatively good compared to the people around him. As Rashi explains:
Some of our rabbis explain it (this word) to his credit: he was righteous even in his generation; it follows that had he lived in a generation of righteous people he would have been even more righteous owing to the force of good example. Others, however, explain it to his discredit: in comparison with his own generation he was accounted righteous but had he lived in the generation of Abraham he would have been accounted as of no importance (cf. Sanhedrin 108a).
Though this text is interesting in its own right, it looks at Noah’s generation in only one dimension. The argument is not about whether humanity was righteous but about whether Noah was. For our Rabbis, it was obvious that everyone around him was wicked. Why else would God choose to destroy the earth?
However, I learned this week that this was not a universally held belief. In the course of a conversation about the first line in this week’s Torah portion which reads, “it is not by the order of the Most High that evil and good come” (Dt. 11:26) our Rabbis rewrote the preclude to the Noah saga:
Rabbi Avin said: When Israel stood before Mount Sinai and the Holy One, Blessed is He, gave them the Torah, from that time on, if anyone sinned, the Holy One, Blessed is He, would exact retribution from him. For in the past, if anyone sinned, the [entire] generation would pay for his sin. [For example] concerning the generation of the [Great] flood, our Rabbis said that there were many good and respective people there such as Noah, but they were wiped out with the rest of generation. During the generation of the Dispersion, the people sinned and even the small children paid for their sins. When Israel stood at Sinai and the Holy One, blessed is He, gave them the mitzvot (Torah), God said, “In the past [the people of] the generation were punished for the sin of even an individual. From now on, the [entire] generation will not be punished for the [sins of] an individual. Hense, “It is not by the order of the Most High that evil and good come.” (Midrash Tanchuma, Re’eh 3).
In essence, Rabbi Avin reads the text “it is not by the order of the Most High that evil and good come” as teaching that suddenly with the giving of the Torah we have become responsible for our own actions. Where once, in the days of the flood, communal responsibility prevailed, and the ills of society could determine an individual’s fate, at Sinai everything changed. No longer could a righteous nation flounder because of the sins of others. We now have the Torah, which means each of us can study and learn about our ethical ideals and then follow them. Because the path of righteousness is written before us, it is no longer in God’s hands whether good and evil come. We control our own destiny. God will judge us by what we do, not on account of our neighbor’s mistakes. Since often we speak about the moment of revelation as creating a cohesive community, this focus on individualism is a radical reframing of the purpose of Sinai.
What is amazing about Rabbi Avin’s statement is that where we once imagined Noah’s earth as evil and him as the beacon of light, here his world matches ours. He has evil and good in his midst. The only difference is that he rises and falls with society whereas we are punished on our own accord.
Perhaps our world is as broken as his? And Sinai gives us the gift of radical individualism to rise and fall on our own and to have the freedom to take the lessons of the Torah and bring a little more wholeness to it.
This week, we hear from Moses about his experience at the Golden Calf. He speaks about how after the Israelites built the idol, he walked down the mountain, smashing the first set of Ten Commandments only to return up the mountain to receive them again. For generations, our ancestors have debated Moses' response. Was it right for him to break these stones, engraved with God's word? Should he have had more patience?
This debate reaches its climax in the rabbinic period when Rabbis Akiva and Ishmael take opposing sides. Our text does not identify who was for the breaking of the tablets and who was against, but we do know that one said that God rebuked Moses for breaking the Tablets saying "Take others from my hand, Moses, because you broke [these]." The other saw God as praising Moses saying, "You did well." (Midrash Tanchuma, Eikev 11).
In truth, each of these voices has a point and is echoed in a myriad of other texts. The side against claims that Moses acted rashly:
It is written (Ecclesiastes 7:9) “Do not be fast to anger [for anger resides in the bosom of fools].” Who was angry? Moses, as it is written: “Moses got angry and flung [the tablets] from his hands” (Exod. 32:19). God said to him: “So, Moses, you are calming your anger by [destroying] the Tablets of the Covenant? Do you want me to calm my anger [by destroying things]? Do you not see that the world would not last even one hour [were I to do so]?” Moses said to [God]: “What should I do?” God said: “You need to pay a penalty. You shattered them, you replace them.” Thus: “Sculpt two stone tablets” (Deut. 10:1). (Deuteronomy Rabbah 3:14)
This idea is echoed in a comment by the Russian Talmudist, the Eitz Yosef (Enoch Zundel ben Joseph - died 1867) who explained that "God spoke to him angrily and complained, saying that since you did this deed and broke the Tablets, you must take others from My hand. But it would have been preferable if you had not broken the first ones."
In fact, in the most audacious telling of the story, our Rabbis imagine that Moses wrestles the tablets out of Gods hand, who is unwilling to see the Divine word shattered on the floor:
The Tablets were six handbreadth long and three handbreadths wide. Moses held on to two [handbreadths], the Holy One Blessed is He held on to two, and there was a two handbreadth space between them. Moses' hands prevailed and he grasped the Tablets and smashed them, as it is stated, "He cast them from his hand." (Exodus 32:19) (Midrash Tanchuma, Eikev 11).
Yet, for as many texts that rebuke Moses, there are many others that praise his actions. When God told Moses that he should go up a get a new set up tablets, our rabbis play with the wording of the phrase "that you shattered" which sounds in Hebrew like the phrase "yashar koach," meaning idiomatically congratulations but literally "May it be for strength" (b. Shabbat 87a). Yashar koach, may be familiar to many as a greeting that is given after someone does something praiseworthy like reading Torah. Here, our rabbis imagine that Moses' actions deserve the same accolades.
But perhaps the most famous articulation of why Moses' actions were meritorious appears in a Midrash that compares him to the escort of a king:
This can be compared to a king who betrothed a woman. He said to her, "Soon I will send your marriage contact with your escorts." After a while the king indeed sent it. However, while it was in transit, he heard that she had an affair with someone else. So what did the escort do? He ripped up the marriage contract and said, "It is better that they judge her as an unmarried woman than as a married woman." Similarly, the Holy One, Blessed is He, betrothed Israel, as it says, "You shall become sanctified today and tomorrow" (Exodus 19:10). Moses then came to give them the Torah and found that they had done that deed [the golden calf]. So what did he do? He smashed the Tablets... (Midrash Tanchuma, Eikev 11).
Here, Moses is saving the people by breaking the tablets. If they don't know they did wrong or they cannot be held accountable for "worshiping other Gods" then they will avoid their punishment.
In all, the big lesson that we can draw from this debate is that often the most important moments in history are consequential not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Where one stream of history can judge an action to be worthy of praise, another can condemn it. Yet, that doesn't mean that one should not act. Just because we might face criticism doesn't mean we should remain silent. Real leadership is being prepared to deal with the consequences of and reactions to any decisions we make.
Moses may have been the first, but he set the stage for other weighty decisions worthy of critique, be they going to war, dropping the bomb, fighting an injustice, or any other debatable endeavor. The key is not to worry about history but rather to be concerned with our own integrity. Future spectators (and generations) will surely have their share of Avikas and Ishmaels. The key is knowing that either way, we knew in the moment that what we were doing was right.
I have always thought that it was a great injustice that Moses was not allowed into the Promised Land. He marched the people through the desert for forty years only to learn at the eleventh hour that he would die, and they would proceed without him.
This week's Torah portion begins with Moses's account of his pleading with God to change God's mind:
I pleaded with the LORD at that time, saying, “O Lord GOD, You who let Your servant see the first works of Your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal! Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon.” But the LORD was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me. The LORD said to me, “Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again! (Dt 3:23-26)
Though this conversation teaches a lot about both the character of Moses and of God, there is a still much left unsaid. God does not give a satisfying answer for why he has chosen to abandon Moses. Luckily, two thousand years ago, our ancient Rabbis used their imagination and filled in the gaps in this conversation. As they explain, Moses refused to take God's answer at face value and pushed back. They write:
Moses said to God, "What is the reason for all this anger against me?" God replied, "Because you did not sanctify me." Moses said to God, "Concerning all other beings You employ your attribute of Mercy twice or even three times...Yet in my case, You do not pardon even one sin!" The Holy One, Blessed is God said to Him, "Moses, you have committed six sins, yet I did not reveal any of them to you." (Midrash Tanchuma V'etchanan 6).
As the rabbinic story continues, God proceeds to list these six sins. They are:
- Moses not wanting to go to Pharoah when God appeared to him in the burning bush (Ex 4:13)
- Moses complaining to God that the first sets of plagues only made the people's lives harder (Ex 5:23)
- When the people complain to Moses during the forty years of wandering in the desert that they miss eating meat, Moses complains about them to God. This is seen as an act of slandering the people (Num 11:22)
- During a rebellion, Moses rebukes the people and leaves open the idea that God will not come to his aid (Num 16:29)
- When the people ask Moses for water, he responds by screaming at them and calling them rebels (Num 20:10)
- After a group of people ask to remain behind and not enter to Promised Land because the land for their cattle is better across the Jordan, Moses calls them " a breed of sinful men" (Num 32:14).
Each of these stories requires their own essay and interpretations. But for our current conversation, what is important about the episodes is less their individual content but the fact that, our rabbis imagine that God had decided to "not reveal any of them" to Moses. Though each sin is distinct they share a number of common themes: Moses tends to doubt God; Moses is short with his people; Moses is critical with those he leads. Sadly, Moses never knew of these faults.
The tragedy of Moses' story is that had God given him ongoing feedback he might have stopped sinning after the first instance. If he only knew what he was doing wrong, he might have been able to fix his poor behaviors. He might have had the opportunity to do teshuva, to repent his wrongdoings and grow as a leader.
The Torah contains the command:
You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him. (Lev 19:17).
For our Rabbis, one reason that the command to reprove another is followed by the line about incurring no guilt is that by not acting, by remaining silent and not speaking out, we remain guilty for the sins we might have stopped. Here, God does not follow God's own advice. By not admonishing Moses sooner, God is responsible for the sins that led to Moses' death. Moses' blood is on God's hands.
Moses' tragedy teaches us an important lesson. When noticing the ills of another we must act. To delay only exacerbates the problem. As our tradition teaches:
Whoever can protest against his household but does not is held responsible for the sins of his household; if he can protest against the people of his town but does not, he is held responsible for their sins; if he can protest against the sins of the whole world but does not, he is held responsible for the sins of the whole world (Talmud, Shabbat 54b)
With all the behaviors, communal and personal we see and judge every day, we must remember that not conveying those critiques to those who need to hear them only adds to the tragedy that is the increasing brokenness around us. Who knows, maybe you could be the voice that allows someone to enter the Promised Land.
This week we begin a new book of the Torah. Called the Book of D'varim or Deuteronomy, we begin reading the last speech of Moses. Moses has led the Israelites for forty years, marching them through the desert, and he knows he cannot continue with them. For the next number of weeks, we will hear Moses relate the history, ideals, theology, and values he wants to them to carry forward as the next generation assumes the mantle of leadership.
As part of relating that history, Moses tells the story of appointing judges over the people to help him carry the burden of leadership. These people would mediate conflict, consider solutions, and proclaim judgement. As he retells the history of their appointment, he describes the attributes he used when choosing each of these leaders: they would be wise, understanding, and known (Dt. 1:13). If we add to that, the fact that in a different place in the Torah, we find a list that includes the description of a good judge as "able, God-fearing, truthful, and hating unjust gains" (Ex 18:21) we find that every judge must simultaneously be seven things at once.
Yet, as we know, judges are human. And they err. But, as our rabbis explain, our job should still be to look for people who fulfil as many of the above attributes as possible. We should look for the greatest minds and hearts of our generation but allow ourselves to fall short in our task and accept the person who comes closest to our vision. As our rabbis explain, the reason all seven of these attributes are not explained together in one biblical passage is to teach that:
If men possessing all the seven qualities are not available then those possessing four are selected; and if such are not available, then those possessing three qualities are selected; and if even three are not available then those possessing one quality are selected (Dt Rabbah 1:10).
There is no question that finding the right judge is hard. It's difficult enough to be wise or God-fearing, understanding or known. It's nearly impossible to be all of these at once. Like anyone, a judge will have certain strengths and many weaknesses. When we acknowledge this, when we allow our judges to have their humanity, we will come to accept our legal system as imperfect rather than bemoan it.
Judaism understands that law is evolving as life is evolving. If we are doing things right, we get closer to Truth at each generation. We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, which is perhaps why Jewish law understand that the latest authority in time has the final say in legal matters (halacha k'batra). We are not constrained by the decisions of the past.
This frees us up to do our best when choosing leaders. Since mistakes are not only accepted but expected, we should come to presume that certain held beliefs of today will be overturned tomorrow. We should seek perfect judgments and understand that they almost never come.
And the reason for this is that often, when we judge, we are forced to choose between two "rights" rather than between "right and wrong." Our tradition illustrates this through a parable. Since the Torah does not define the seven terms they use to describe a good judge, our rabbis take up the task. In doing so they seek to examine the difference between the terms "wise" and "understanding."
According to our rabbis, the two terms might seem similar but they are in fact very different:
What is the difference between wise men and understanding men? A wise man is like a rich money changer: when people bring him dinars to examine (to value) he examines them; and when they do not bring to him, he sits and does nothing (he does not go out to seek any). An understanding man, however, is like a merchant money changer: when they bring him coins to examine, he examines them; and when they do not bring to him, he goes about and brings of his own money (i.e. he himself buys coins) (cf. Sifrei Devarim 13:3).
For our rabbis, a good judge must simultaneously be able to embody and engender two opposite characteristics. He should know what it is like to be that rich man, able to sit in ease but ready to help when asked. But he should also know what it is like to be a merchant, hungry for the next transaction, never allowing himself to be idle.
The reason for this dual outlook is that a judge needs to understand the people that he judges. If he is out of touch with a working-class person, he will miss the nuance of their argument. But if he only sees the world through their point of view he cannot relate to those who have more money than he. To be a good judge, one needs to do the impossible work of embodying each individual he comes across and seek to see the world through their eyes. Since no one can do this all of the time, every judge will inevitably fail some of the time.
Though we do not always have occasion to vote for a judge or to support a pick to the high courts, we all often have the occasion to choose lesser judges in our own lives. These are people who make important decisions that affect us, be they a coworker, a teacher, a mentor, or a friend. Though they might not work in a courtroom we hope that when they make important decisions in their lives they embody many of the attributes of the biblical judges. And like them we hope they perfectly comprise their role.
But if the lesson of choosing judges teach us anything it is that life is unspeakably complicated, that we cannot be all things to all people, and that we will always fall short. Our goal, like it was for Moses, is to reach for the stars, to seek out the best people we can, and to understand that if they don't live up to our grand vision of leadership, it is not because of a defect on their part but on the grand and wondrous inadequacy of humanity.
Much of American history and folklore is centered around the idea of the "self-made man." We believe that if we only try hard enough, we can succeed. Individually, we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and make something of ourselves.
However, though an appealing idea, the image of the self-made person is a myth. As Elizabeth Warren famously said during her 2011 campaign:
There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody...You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did....
In essence, we cannot claim sole credit for our deeds. Every one of us has someone else, even a team of people, who stand behind us to make our successes possible. Benjamin Franklin, the progenitor of the American ideal of "rags to riches" only was able to succeed because his sister took care of his aging parents and absolved him of the responsibility. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in a 2017 graduation address to the graduates at the University of Houston notably said, "It's important to recognize that at every step of the way, I had help." He then proceeded to talk about the people who helped him gain the notoriety and fame he eventually achieved.
However, even though we need others for success, it is part of human nature to overlook those whose gifts moved us forward. Jewish history is littered with ungrateful individuals who seek to claim what is only partially theirs.
In an extended conversation about the nature of the "self-made" person, our ancient Rabbis speak about three gifts that each individual can achieve in this world. They are wisdom, valor, and wealth. For our ancestors, the question of whether someone can gain these three things on their own centers on the statement, "Does a person need God for success?"
Our Rabbis then innumerate individuals throughout history whose downfall is caused by their hubristic insistence that they deserve all the credit for their fortunes. Wise figures like Bilam and Achitophel, mighty warriors like Solomon and Goliath, and wealthy individuals like Korach and Haman all failed because they could not accept that their success might be a product of efforts above their own. They gave themselves all the credit and this attitude proved ruinous (Midrash Tanchuma Matot 5).
However, while this folly often occurs on an individual level, our rabbis point out that whole societies can fall victim as well. And they point to this week's Torah portion. In it the tribes of Gad, Reuben, and half of the tribe of Menashe petition Moses to allow them to stay in the desert and not enter the promised land with the rest of the Jewish people. Each had large herds and knew that by staying on their own side of the Jordan River, they could better feed their flocks and increase their wealth. In fact, they wished so desperately to remain behind that they agreed to serve as shock troops for the campaign to conquer Canaan if they were allowed to leave the land and return home after they were done.
Many commentators have sought to explain why their request was so wrong. They point to the fact that in a few short generations, these tribes were punished and were wiped out by foreign invaders. Thus their request must not have been so innocent. Among the many answers our Rabbis gave to this question is the idea that these tribes, who were very wealthy, believed that they had achieved their success solely on their own merits. They didn't give credit to God, to their fellow Israelites, or to leaders like Moses. They assumed they had become wealthy in a vacuum and wanted to keep their wealth for themselves (ibid).
We do not succeed alone. Whether it's our community, our family, our teachers, or our mentors we gain our gifts through the efforts and help of others. And whether we believe in God, as our Rabbis did, or simply understand the role of luck, we know there are certain gains and open doors that we just cannot explain.
Having humility means standing tall and saying, I did not get here alone. I am a product of so many hands. I am a beneficiary of so much love.
And when we do, we will understand, that gratitude must be outward focused. True, we have worked hard for our station in life, but none of us solely holds our own destiny. Our lives are the results of the acts of others, large and small, that got us to today.
To my new TNT family,
I want to start off by saying thank you! This is my first week as your new Rabbi and already you have made me feel so welcome and at home. The warmth that Ayelet and I have received as we transitioned from Brooklyn really reaffirms how special Temple Ner Tamid is.
As I begin this new role, I want to let you know how I will be spending my summer. In short, my task is simple: I want to get to know you. If we haven't met, I look forward to meeting you. If we already have, I want to know you better. The engine of any synagogue is relationships. This summer is all about fostering these connections.
For that reason, there will be many opportunities to gather together, both formally and informally over this summer. I'll be at every Shabbat service participating alongside the cadre of talented lay leaders who usually lead. Three Friday evenings (7/6, 7/27, and 8/24) we will be having potluck dinners following services to get additional chances to connect.
Moreover, thanks to the hard work of the transition committee, led by David Katowitz, I'll be having a number of small house meetings where I will get a chance to meet groups of congregants in an intimate and focused way. Many of these meetings are themed (Purim Shpiel, Shoresh, etc.). If you have not been invited to one of these and would be interested in attending, please let us know and we would be happy to find the right gathering for you.
And if you would rather meet up in a more individualized setting, please know my door is always open. While I don't keep formal office hours, I love to fill my schedule with meaningful conversations. My goal, by years end, is not only to learn the majority of the names of our congregants but to know your stories, your background, and what brought you to this community. Just shoot me an email and we will find a time (firstname.lastname@example.org).
In the Jewish tradition, the way we say welcome is B'ruchim HaBa'im, literally meaning "blessed are those who come." As I am welcomed into your community, you have already made me feel so blessed. Thank you for the warmth, the energy, and the openness you have shown to Ayelet and me.
If you are going away from most of the summer I look forward to meeting you in the fall. For those sticking around, come say hi. I can't wait to meet you.
Rabbi Marc Katz