Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
“Any life, no matter how long and complex it may be, is made up of a single moment – the moment in which a person finds out once and for all who s/he is.” (Jorge Luis Borges)
So often it is the inner voices (from tradition, society, family, friends, and mentors) and not our own that influence how we think, feel and behave in the world. These voices either lead us to or take us away from realizing our best selves. When the voices do indeed lead us astray, we need to be able to release them, a thought that came to mind as I read a verse in this week’s parashah describing the institutions of the Shmitta (Sabbatical) and Yovel (Jubilee) years: “You shall proclaim a dror (“freedom” or “release”) throughout the land for all its inhabitants…” (Leviticus 25:10)
This dror specifically refers to land, people and debts in the seventh year. The Shmitta year requires that land lie fallow (i.e. no planting, pruning or harvesting) and that slaves, employees and animals are free to eat what is left in the fields. Deuteronomy 15:1-6 adds that creditors must remit debts owed to them by their neighbors and kinsmen.
The deeper purpose of the Shmitta year is to enable the land to rest, to wipe our slates clean from debt and to return the world to its original pristine order.
The rabbis, however, raised two serious questions about the Shmitta year:  What happens to the livelihood of the community during Shmitta? and  What happens to our willingness to make loans to the needy according to the spirit of a mitzvah in Deuteronomy 15:9: “Beware that there be not a base thought in your heart.”
Noticing that the people were not loaning money to the poor because of the Shmitta’s remission of debt, Hillel the Elder (1st century BCE) instituted a legal formula called the Prozbul, whereby a creditor could still claim his debts after the Shmitta year despite the biblical injunction against doing so. The Prozbul was a document that turned over supervision of the loan to the beit din (Jewish court) which would collect and repay the debt thus encouraging generosity, enabling the poor to borrow and the rich to secure their loans (Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 37a).
Since the laws of both Shmitta and Yovel only apply in the land of Israel, and Yovel applies only when all the Jewish people are living in Israel, until the Zionist movement Shmitta and Yovel mattered little to Diaspora Jewish communities.
However, Zionists complained that if farmers did not work the land the nascent settlement movement's existence would be threatened. In response, lenient rabbinic authorities justified setting the laws of the Shmitta year aside based on the principle of sha’at hadechak (“undue hardship”).
In 1888-89, a Hetter Mechira (“A Bill of Sale”) was developed to permit Jewish farmers to sell their land to non-Jews (i.e. Arabs), similar to the selling of hametz (leven) to non-Jews during Passover, so that the Jews could continue to work the land and survive even during the Shmitta. After the Shmitta, the land would revert back to the former Jewish owners.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, wrote of another problem in not showing leniency towards the Biblical law:
“Even worse is the potential condemnation of Judaism and widespread rejection of Torah observance that could result from a strict ruling…”
Rav Kook reasoned that a strict ruling would demonstrate that Judaism is incompatible with the modern world and the building of a Jewish state.
The principle of taking into account the impact of Biblical law on individuals and community and the necessity of reinterpreting tradition in the modern era is a core reason that Judaism and the Jewish people have survived 3500 years, longer than any other people anywhere in the world.
On a personal level too, this portion challenges us about the importance of becoming who we really are. In this spirit, I suggest that we consider this question: From what and how will I release myself (dror) this year and thereby find out who I really am?
May this year become a dror (release) for each of us.
The next Shmitta year is 2014-2015 (5775)
12.3.13 at 6:33 am | Anat Hoffman's letter and a link to include your. . .
12.2.13 at 7:19 am | To acknowledge vulnerability is to accept our. . .
11.29.13 at 6:59 am | The recently published Pew Study of the American. . .
11.27.13 at 8:45 am | The two pieces below published in today’s. . .
11.24.13 at 12:15 pm | Kerry turned to the Jewish community to enlist. . .
11.24.13 at 8:10 am | “As corny as this sounds I get up in the. . .
12.3.13 at 6:33 am | Anat Hoffman's letter and a link to include your. . . (89)
11.17.13 at 7:20 am | Thousands of secular Israelis are turning to the. . . (64)
12.2.13 at 7:19 am | To acknowledge vulnerability is to accept our. . . (62)
April 30, 2013 | 7:39 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Senator Barbara Boxer has introduced a bill co-sponsored by 18 Democrats and Republicans that would enable Israel to join a group 37 other favored nations whose citizens need not carry visas to enter the United States.
Now, any Israeli who wants to travel to the US needs to purchase round-trip plane tickets before being issued a travel visa.
What is the problem? Why do Israelis not have this right already? After all, they are among America’s closest allies in the world?
The answer is – Israelis should, except for one problem. Israel does not grant the same courtesy to all American citizens who enter Israel. Israel, in fact, restricts the travel of Palestinian-American citizens.
The article below explains more fully the presumed rationale for this restriction as well as the human consequences of Israel’s policy. Though security is always an uppermost Israeli concern, should not all American citizens be treated equally by Israel?
I agree with the view that the United States should not be able to grant Israeli citizens visa-free travel to the US yet exempt Israel from extending that same courtesy to all US citizens. If an individual of any nation seeks entry to Israel and is a specific security risk, Israel (as any other country) should have the right to refuse him/her on concrete security grounds. But to target any individual because he or she is part of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group is contrary both to American principles and Israeli principles as spelled out in the American Constitution and Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
Senator Boxer’s bill should require equivalent rights to American citizens traveling in Israel, regardless of their ethnic, racial, religious, or national ancestry.
April 29, 2013 | 7:26 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
When I was 9 years old my father died, and my world suddenly changed. Overwhelmed by loss and grief, only the support of family and friends helped me move through that dark period.
What was clear was that I had no control over the ultimate questions of life and death. In the years that followed I compensated by studying and working hard. I thought about God, studied Jewish history, theology, and tradition, became a progressive Zionist, and learned to speak Hebrew, all in the interests of finding safety in something greater than myself.
Indeed, the fear of death and the loss of control are powerful human motivators for both good and bad. Many of us, from fear, turn inward in self-protection against the “other.” We narrow our vision, constrict our hearts, minds and politics, and we focus on our self-interests assuming we have no choice because the “other” guy is a threat.
However, building our lives on fear has consequences. Yoda famously said, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, [and] hate leads to suffering.” (Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace)
John Steinbeck opined along the same lines saying, “Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts…perhaps the fear of a loss of power.”
Both are right. Though fear is a natural response alerting us to imminent danger, many of us are so plagued by historically embedded fears that we imagine hostile phantoms when none exist.
The challenge is for us to be able to distinguish real and present danger from phantoms, and then be able to evaluate the true measure of the threat and respond appropriately.
Two emails came to me this past week that have drawn me to this consideration of fear. The first was a report circulating on the Internet that all the Jews of Norway had decided en masse (some 1300 souls, according to 2012 population surveys) to leave that country, saying:
"It seems what Hitler failed to achieve the Muslims have accomplished. In a few weeks Norway will be 'Judenfrei.' The last 819 Jews are leaving the country due to its rise in anti-Semitism..."
The implication, of course, is that the world wants the Jews dead, or to vanish. The problem with this Internet "report" is that it is a complete fabrication, according to the Norwegian Jewish Community and the ADL.
The second email came from a Israel advocacy organization that began:
“In a hostile and uncertain world, it is reassuring to know that two great democracies—the United States and Israel—continue to find security in their support of one another.”
Yes, of course, the United States and Israel are great democratic societies and strategic partners, but why is it necessary to start from a place of fear to motivate Jews to support Israel financially and otherwise in its legitimate needs?
For years many Jewish organizations have fed on Jewish fear, the Holocaust, Israel’s wars and defense against terrorism, to appeal for money rather than on the blessings of Zionism, our people’s historic and successful building of a modern state based on the prophetic principles of justice and peace as written in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
It is not surprising, of course, how successful these organizations are because there is in the Jewish heart a deep reservoir of fear. Our history is long and hard, even as it is remarkable and enriched. I believe it is time to stop the fear-mongering. (See my blog from April 15, 2013 - "Israel on Her 65th Birthday - Taking Pride in Her Accomplishments")
Fear-mongering is not only unnecessary, it is counter-productive because it blinds our people’s vision, focuses us on the short-term tactics rather than long-term strategy, divides Jewish community, alienates many of us and our young people, separates us from our allies and true friends, provokes inappropriate speech and action, and satisfies only the most extreme self-fulfilling prophecies of doom.
I take seriously the teaching of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav: “The whole world is a very narrow bridge; the important thing is not to be afraid.”
In the coming weeks and months due to the important efforts of the Obama Administration to bring Israelis and Palestinians back into negotiations to settle their conflict once and for all, Israelis, the Jewish people and the Palestinians, along with moderate Arab states, will be tested perhaps as never before. Will we continue to build fortresses against each other, or will we build palaces of peace side by side?
I know that either choice carries risk. The greater risk, however, is to do nothing because the status quo is unsustainable, and the longer it continues Israel's democracy and Jewish character will be compromised. As long as both Israel’s and Palestine’s security needs are assured, the risks of making peace, I believe, will be worth it.
April 25, 2013 | 11:57 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
There is a story told in the Rabbinic literature that “Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach one day commissioned his disciples to buy him a camel from an Arab. When they brought him the animal, they gleefully announced that they had found a precious stone in its collar, expecting their master to share in their joy.
“Did the seller know of this gem?” asked Rabbi Shimon. On being answered in the negative, he called out angrily, “Do you think me a barbarian that I should take advantage of the letter of the law by which the gem is mine together with the camel? Return the gem to the Arab immediately.”
When the Arab received it back, he exclaimed: “Blessed be the God of Shimon ben Shetach! Blessed be the God of Israel!” (Deuteronomy Rabba 3:3)
When my sons were young, their mother and I told them more than once that what they did, how they behaved, and the way they spoke to and treated others outside the home would reflect not only on them, but on us, their parents and on our family name. We reminded them to be honest, kind, modest, and to reflect those values always.
I often tell the story of Rabbi Shimon to students in my synagogue and remind them that what we do not only says much about who we are, but about our families and the Jewish people.
Until the modern period when communal values began to change broadly, the most respected Jew in the community was not necessarily the wealthiest and most politically influential, nor the celebrity, business maven, professional, or even the largest financial benefactor to community causes, as important as these people have been historically in Jewish communal life. Rather, the highest moral, ethical and religious virtues were expected to be emulated first and foremost by the Torah scholar. However, our sages understood that even the Torah scholar struggled mightily against the dominance of his yetzer hara (“the evil inclination”). [Note that almost all scholars before the modern period were men].
Here is Maimonides’ classic description of what is expected of the great Torah scholar:
“…When a person …is a great scholar, noted for his piety, people will talk about him, even if the deeds that he has committed are not offenses in the strict sense. Such a person is guilty of profaning the divine name (hillul ha-Shem), if he, for instance, makes a purchase and does not immediately pay for it, in the case where he has the money and the sellers demand it, but he stalls them; or if he indulges in riotous behavior and in keeping undesirable company; or if he speaks roughly to his fellows and does not receive them courteously but shows his temper and the like. All is in accordance with his status as a scholar. He must endeavor to be scrupulously strict in his behavior and go beyond the letter of the law. If he does this, speaking kindly to his fellows, showing himself sociable and amiable with the welcome for everyone, taking insult but not giving it; respect them, even those who make light of him; in all his actions until all praise and love him, enraptured by his deed – such a man has sanctified the name of God (Kiddush Ha-Shem). Regarding such a person scripture states: ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be gloried.’” (Moses ben Maimon, Yesodei Ha-Torah 5:11)
“Sanctifying God’s Name” (Kiddush Ha-Shem), as RAMBAM teaches, concerns the entirety of life including business ethics, one’s conduct in mundane affairs, one’s refinement of behavior and public demeanor, one’s kindness and humility before one’s fellows and God.
Except for the very rare individual, each of us is a continuing battleground between our two yetzers (i.e. good and evil inclinations) and we must choose between them. For so many of us, base instinct rules. We are driven by need, desire, greed, jealousy, envy, lust, anger, impatience, fear, and hate. Others have an easier time being kind and generous, and struggle less. But we all struggle.
The reason Torah study is determinative for the scholar and is so important for all of us is because we can find ourselves everywhere in the sacred text. Every instinct and virtue is addressed.
My friend, Rabbi Mark Borowitz of Beit T’shuvah in Los Angeles, rightly teaches that anyone who says that the Torah is irrelevant to his/her life is hiding something. To the contrary, it is there that we can discover our deepest selves, a sense of meaning and purpose that will sustain and strengthen us for noble ends.
April 18, 2013 | 8:23 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Exalted One –
You call us to holiness,
To climb the ladder,
Higher and higher,
To reach as far as we might,
But never to rise above the angels.
You call us to purity,
To be as priests,
In this world,
Separate and apart,
Between our flawed humanness
And Your Transcendent Oneness.
How do we come near
To You Who dwells on High?
How do we discover
You, enthroned beyond stars?
How can we reach
You, larger than thought?
How can we know
You, Ineffable Truth?
What is the way to holiness
If we be so bound to earth,
And driven by need,
And broken by grief?
You call us to rise up
and bow low to You,
At Your holy footstool ,
To be enveloped in Your Glory,
To transcend our senses
Where sapphires glisten,
And angels praise,
And Torah letters shimmer,
And souls sing.
You say that Your teaching is not so distant,
Not across the seas beyond our reach,
Nor in the heavens above
Making it unattainable.
It is rather, close,
So very close,
In our hearts,
In our breath,
And upon our lips.
Almighty One –
You brought us out from Egypt
To renew us,
Redeem, free, heal, and restore us,
To ready us
As Your treasured people.
You led us into the wilderness,
Into silence and nothingness,
Into a blank slate,
And you painted a picture of our lives
And commanded us to be
Like paint upon a landscape,
And stranger loving.
If this is what You intend for us
And if this is the way to be holy,
It is so very hard!
But those who seek You
Will continuously strive,
And we will teach this to our children.
April 15, 2013 | 7:22 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
The State of Israel is the 100th smallest country in the world with less than 1/1000th of the world's population, yet her people have accomplished so very much even as she has struggled in war and been forced to spend more money per capita on her own protection than any other county on earth.
On Israel’s 65th birthday I pause to marvel in all she is and represents to the Jewish people.
I raise my glass to her accomplishments in literature, medicine, agriculture, the arts, science, and technology.
I tip my hat to her courage and survival.
Consider the following:
In the spirit of Yom Ha’atzmaut I celebrate her, despite her imperfections and challenges, with enthusiasm and the words of the Psalmist in my heart: “This is the day God has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it!” (Psalm 118:24)
April 12, 2013 | 7:45 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
It seems that Natan Sharansky has successfully gained agreement between the Israeli and international Reform movement, the Women of the Wall (WOW) and the Chief Rabbi of the Western Wall (ultra-orthodox) that a section at the southern end of the Kotel beneath Robinson’s Arch will be designated by the government of Israel as being free for egalitarian liberal prayer on a footing equal to the area currently dominated by the ultra-orthodox.
The newly designated section will have its own entrance and will be allowed to host prayer and religious celebrations according to Conservative, Reform, Renewal, and Reconstructionist practice, meaning that women can pray alongside men, lead religious services, read from the Torah, wear tallitot, and sing aloud without concern of offending the ultra-orthodox community. (See complete story in the Jewish Daily Forward.)
The agreement will end police tolerance of the ugly insults by ultra-orthodox men and women against WOW including the orthodox screaming profanities, spitting on women worshipers, and police arresting women wearing tallitot, carrying Torah scrolls and reading from the sacred literature. Details are still to be worked out, but Natan Sharansky is to be congratulated on his “shuttle diplomacy” between the ultra-orthodox officials and liberal Jewish leaders that resulted in this compromise agreement.
This is a huge victory for religious pluralism and democracy in the State of Israel, but it is arguably only the beginning.
Other outstanding issues affecting non-orthodox Jews are still outstanding and need to be addressed. These include the need for the government to grant equal financial support for non-orthodox synagogues and institutions, equal pay for regional non-orthodox rabbis such as Rabbi Miri Gold (regional rabbi for Kibbutz Gezer who has not been paid despite the Supreme Court order that this occur), marriage equality for all Israeli citizens and the right to marry in the state without orthodox approval, and ending institutionalized preference for Orthodox Judaism.
In meetings yesterday here in Los Angeles with five members of the Knesset who were brought on tour of the Jewish communities of Chicago, Los Angeles and New York by the Jewish Federation of North America and the Jewish Agency of Israel (MK Avi Wortsman of Bayit HaYehudi, MK Yoel Razvozov of Yesh Atid, MK Hilik Bar of Avodah, MK Nachman Shai of Avodah, and MK David Tsur of HaTenuah), all five said they would support this historic compromise and bring their respective political parties, Bayit Hayehudi, Yesh Atid, HaTenuah, and Avodah along with them.
In my next blog I will report on the 90 minute frank, candid, and important conversation that we ten American Reform and Conservative Rabbis had with the five Members of the Knesset.
April 11, 2013 | 7:24 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
I try and return every phone call and email that comes to me within 24 hours. Sometimes it takes a bit longer if my schedule is tight or I have not checked messages. Sometimes, I confess, I deliberately do not return a call or email when I suspect that the incoming message is so nasty that to engage the sender would be pointless and toxic to my well-being. I receive such objectionable messages from time to time, usually in response to public positions I take in my writings. Other than these, I believe that each phone call, email and letter deserves a personal response as soon as I am able to do so.
It astonishes me that so frequently the individual is surprised that I call back so quickly, or even at all. Though most people I know do as I do, there are lots who clearly do not, and this is why I am writing today.
If you know people who habitually and/or selectively ignore calls and emails, please feel free to send them this blog, as it is meant for them.
I was taught from early childhood that when someone calls, you return the call. When someone gives you a gift, you write a thank you note. When someone does something nice for you, you express gratitude. This is simple derech eretz (lit. “the way of the land,” a Hebrew expression connoting common courtesy and mentchlechkite).
I believe that not to answer someone’s email, phone call or letter is rude, insulting and unacceptable, even when I am certain that something will be asked of me (e.g. to accept an invitation, to do someone a favor, to give to a charity or good cause, or to arrange a time to talk or meet). I also believe that saying “No” respectfully is always better than saying nothing at all.
There is an ethical principle involved. Judaism holds that if, for example, a beggar says hello and we ignore him we bear the guilt of inflicting upon him shame (bushah). It may be that the beggar offered us the only thing he has to give – a greeting. To deliberately ignore him is, in effect, an insult because such silence denies his dignity (kavod) and diminishes him as a fellow human being.
A story is told of the Chassidic sage Rabbi Meshulam Zusha of Hanipol (1718–1800) that one night he was staying at an inn. A wealthy guest mistook him for a beggar and treated him disrespectfully. The guest later learned about Zusha’s true identity and asked Zusha for forgiveness.
Zusha said, “Why do you ask me to forgive you? You haven’t done anything to Zusha. You didn’t insult Zusha. You insulted a poor beggar. I suggest you go out and ask beggars everywhere to forgive you.”
Zusha’s story raises the issue of how we should properly treat people we perceive as being “other” than ourselves (i.e. the stranger, or someone of a different socio-economic station, nationality, ethnicity, race, or religion).
It is possible to learn much about a person’s character based solely on the way he or she treats someone who is different. Is such a person’s behavior respectful and kind, open-hearted and generous, or is he/she dismissive, rude, condescending, and withholding?
The Baal Shem Tov taught his disciples to imagine that inscribed on the forehead of every man, woman and child is the sign of the image in which God creates the human being – B’tzelem Elohim (lit. “In the Divine image”).
In practical terms, seeing the divine image in“others” means at the very least acknowledging their presence, and returning phone calls and emails promptly regardless of what we imagine to be the reason for the communication. Again, my only exception is when I know that the caller will be abusive and disrespectful.
Not responding is common particularly in Washington, D.C. and Hollywood, places where power and politics define many relationships, and what you do is more important than who you are. It seems to me that this bad habit has become increasingly more common over the years.
Going forward, those of us who are guilty of this kind of behavior might change it, and that all of us should be teaching our children, grandchildren, and students by example that when we receive a communication from another person, the decent thing to do is answer it, even if our answer is respectfully “No!”