Friday, July 3, 2015

Balak and the Eye of Faith

I am presently in Jerusalem studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute where I am once again participating in its annual conference. I feel privileged to return to this place year after year to recharge my spiritual batteries and reacquaint myself with the tradition I so love. I am surrounded by colleagues who share my love of learning, debate and even argument, as well as devotion to Israel. I remain grateful to my congregation and its leadership for allowing me this time for rejuvenation.

Given this yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem, I realize that for the past fifteen years I have only observed July 4th from afar. Every year I have found myself here in Jerusalem for July 4th. I have also by the way marked Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, in May while at home on Long Island. It occurs to me that these days look far different from a distance. I cannot of course see the fireworks from here, but I wonder is it possible that the miracles of Israel and the United States shimmer more brightly from afar? From this distance, I only see successes rather than struggles. When nearby the flames appear far more intense, and perhaps even frightening. From afar I tend only to see the glow.

Balaam looked out at Israel and rather than curse the Jewish people as his king had commanded him, offered words of blessing: “Mah tovu…

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Hukkat, Forgiveness and Righteous Anger

The rabbis imagine King Solomon, considered the wisest figure in the Bible, saying, “I have labored to understand the word of God and have understood it all, except for the ritual of the red heifer.” (Numbers Rabbah 19:3)

I struggle to understand a great many things. In particular I labor to understand the events of this past week.

These words echo in my thoughts. “I forgive you! You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”

Nadine Collier, the daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, one of the nine victims murdered at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, uttered these words. They were said at the bond hearing of confessed murderer Dylann Roof. I find these sentiments both remarkable and incomprehensible.

Whereas forgiveness is central to Christian teachings, although the depths of such forgiveness may very well exceed that of many Christians, justice is paramount to Judaism. How can murder ever be forgiven? How can a human being offer something that belongs to God? And yet, forgiveness of another, and especially of such an egregious crime, prevents someone from wallowing in anger.

Then again, the lack of justice, and the familiar repetition of such massacres, gnaws at my soul. I turn angry. Once again the combination of guns, mental illness and racism have transformed hatreds into massacres. Add Charleston to the list of Newtown, Oak Creek and Aurora to name a few.

Forgiveness has its virtues. It is a balm for the soul. Perhaps it allows the mourners to remain closer to those they lost. Their forgiveness makes more room for their remembrances. They can remember their loved ones. They can mourn their losses rather than fixating on the justice that continues to appear ever more distant.

Commentators suggest that the bizarre sacrificial ritual of the red heifer, detailed in this week’s portion, is a method for safeguarding the ritual cleanliness of the priesthood. It guarantees that his sins might not despoil the sacrifices. We no longer offer sacrifices. We have no method for ensuring our purity. All human beings are given to wrongdoing. We cannot be rescued from our wrongs by the sprinkling of blood. Instead we must engage in repentance. The turning of the heart is within our hands. Forgiveness, however, remains in the hands of others. Forgiveness is elusive.

I return to my anger. Some, and perhaps these days we might say far too many,are given to evil.

When will we say, “Enough?” Is removing the Confederate flag enough? Symbols of hate are indeed powerful. But such hatred must be banished from the heart. How can we transform our anger into action and address the constellation of problems (and not just their symbols) that make this a recurring tale.

Even our president has been relegated to the role of chief priest. He leads us in mourning. He intones our tragedies. But such massacres are not tragedies. A tragedy is unavoidable. I remain convinced that we can do so much more to eliminate the litany of such mass murders. Let us say, “Enough!” Let us be stirred to action.

Anger has its merits. It can serve to build a better society. Let our anger be transformed into righteousness. Forgiveness remains with God.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Korah, Arguments and Disagreements

“Jane, you ignorant…” With these words Dan Aykroyd would begin his counterpoint to Jane Curtin’s point on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update. We of course knew this line was coming, but still we laughed. Why? Because we understood that this is not how people are supposed to argue and debate.

This week we read about Korah and his rebellion against Moses and his leadership. History deems it a rebellion rather than a revolution. Here is why. Korah’s followers exclaim, “Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord over us?” (Numbers 16:12) They do not argue, they attack. They infer that Egypt, the land of their slavery, is the Promised Land. They lash out at Moses.

I am sure there were legitimate criticisms of Moses’ leadership style. He is overly passionate and given to fits of anger. He is hesitant to share the burden of leadership. He, and he alone, is privileged to speak face to face with God. And yet Korah does not offer such critiques. He attacks the person.

The rabbis draw from this story a lesson about arguments and disagreements. They teach that machloket l’shem shamayim, an argument for the sake of heaven, is how we uncover the truth and strengthen our commitments. “An argument for the sake of heaven will have lasting value, but an argument not for heaven’s sake will not endure. What is an example of an argument for heaven’s sake? The debates of Hillel and Shammai. What is an argument not for heaven’s sake? The rebellion of Korah and his associates.” (Avot 5:19)

Rabbis Hillel and Shammai did not agree on much. Hillel was forgiving and open-minded. Shammai was strict and demanding. The Jewish people required both rabbis. The Jewish people survived because of both of their schools of thought, the Jewish community was strengthened by their divergent interpretations. The truth was uncovered in their fiery debates and frequent disagreements. Hillel and Shammai shared a love of Torah and a devotion to the Jewish people. Both admired the other. These rabbis compromised for the sake of community.

And while I do not wish to return to my parent’s basement and what my imaginations have fashioned into a mythic past in which people only argued for heaven’s sake, I do feel that we have entered a new era in which SNL’s comedy skit has proven sadly prescient. It appears that we argue to destroy the other rather than learning from the debate and dialogue. Today it appears that ideology is more important than community, principles more important than country.

We suggest that those who sit across from us, that those who disagree with us, do not love the United States, the State of Israel or the Jewish people. How many times do we say, “If you really loved Israel then you would not vote for… If you really loved the United States then you would vote for…” Such statements are not arguments. They are attacks. Such exclamations do not lead to uncovering of truths, but instead to its unraveling.

I hold different commitments than I did when I sat watching SNL. I have changed my views. Why? Because I was open to the opinions of others. I did not turn away from disagreement. I listened to those I love and to those who share my passions. Why is it that changing one’s mind or adapting one’s views is viewed as betrayal and disloyalty rather than the badge of honor our community and nation require?

There are many ways to love the State of Israel. There are many ways to love the United States. There are even different ways to love the Jewish community. I do not hold a cornerstone on truth. It is instead teased out in discussion and dialogue.

We have a choice to make. We can be like Korah and Moses or instead Hillel and Shammai. If we refuse to sit across the table from those with whom we passionately disagree then we cut ourselves off from learning.

Truth can only emerge through loving disagreements.

On a tragic note we join together in sadness and prayer for the community of Charleston in which a gunman murdered nine people while praying in church. We pray for those injured, murdered and grieving. We join together as well as in indignation, and even anger, that we live in an age in which schools and houses of worship are not the sanctuaries of safety and security that they should rightfully be. We must do more to safeguard our nation from such murderous hate.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Shelach Lecha, Sailing and Fear

This past Sunday I participated in the annual blessing of the fleet. The clergy from Oyster Bay each took turns blessing the boats that paraded in front of the dock. We blessed kayakers and clammers, yachts and sailboats. We offered spontaneous prayers asking God to provide first and foremost safety and protection, but also sun, wind and enjoyment. In the case of the clammer I prayed for a bountiful harvest as well. (I am sure there is a joke to be found there. Did you hear about the time the rabbi prayed for clams?) It was a beautiful afternoon. There was comradery in our prayers. There was joy on the vessels.

John Augustus Shedd, an early 20th century American author, writes: “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”

Setting sail presents unexpected dangers. And yet how do we forge new paths and discover new truths if we don’t set out?

Can a blessing offer protection for the journey?

The tradition prescribes the traveler’s prayer: “May it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our ancestors, to guide us in peace, sustain us in peace, to lead us to our desired destination in health and joy and peace, and to bring us home in peace. Save us from every enemy and disaster on the way, and from all calamities that threaten the world….”

Only the harbor offers protection. Only staying at home offers security.

The spies return from scouting the land of Israel with a report: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size… and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13:32)

Joshua tries to reassure the Israelites. “Caleb hushes the people.” Moses becomes disenchanted. God grows angry. The people’s fears will not be quelled.

God decrees that they must remain in the wilderness for forty years. Only those born in freedom in the wilderness will journey to the Promised Land. It appears that the heart of a slave only knows fear.

They are unable to set sail. They remain forever in the harbor. They deny themselves the blessings of this new land. They see giants. They view themselves as tiny grasshoppers. They do not take to heart “[the land] does indeed flow with milk and honey!” (Numbers 13:27) They deny themselves discoveries. They remain forever in the known. The future must be for their children to seize.

Fear paralyzes. It distorts our vision. It discolors our dreams. It dissuades us from setting out. How many remain afraid to travel to Israel today?

We remain at home. We stay within the harbor.

If only we could seize the courage to go forward. If only we had faith in the words of our prayers. “Lead us to our destination in peace.”

Peace remains in God’s hands. It remains within our grasp to lift the anchor and raise the sails.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Behaalotecha, Shepherds and Wandering

The greatest of our biblical heroes begin their careers as simple shepherds. Why? It is because shepherding demonstrates the necessary credentials to transform a group of distinct individuals into a community. Abraham, Moses and David gently guide their animals throughout the wilderness, even taking note of a stray sheep or goat. Even God is praised with the words: “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me to still waters…” (Psalm 23:1)

And yet the people often refuse to be guided. The Book of Numbers is a record of these refusals, and rebellions. Moses struggles to lead the Jewish people forward; they over and over again wish to go backward. “The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all!’” (Numbers 11:4)

They would rather be penned in as slaves than wandering the wilderness free. How quickly they forget their sufferings and pains! They cling to fanciful imaginations of yesterday. This pull of a mythic past is so strong that they long for what must have been a sliver of fish and wilted leeks. They prefer the certainty of yesterday’s morsel rather than the bounty of God’s manna. Moses grows angry. He struggles to urge them forward. They only want to stay put. They wish to remain in the past.

The Book Numbers elucidates this tension. On the one hand we read of Moses urging them toward the promise and the dream, although the unfamiliar and unknown, and on the other the people clinging to their memories of the past. Memories appear more certain. How quickly yesterday’s troubles become forgotten. How quickly the imagination refashions the past. A meager ration of cucumbers and melons become a meal.

The hand of the shepherd guides them forward. They rebel. “If only we had meat to eat!”

Then again perhaps the true meaning of our heroes being shepherds is that a shepherd is first and foremost a wanderer. I admit that this may very well be my singular theme, but perhaps the spiritual message of the Torah is that God wants us to remain forever wanderers. Moses points to the future. The people look to the past. God affirms the present. Keep wandering. Keep moving, even if in circles. That of course is the Torah’s primary story line. “And whenever the cloud lifted from the Tent, the Israelites would set out on their journey accordingly…” (Numbers 9:17) The Torah is primarily a record of forty years of wandering.

God apparently does not want us to become attached to any one place or location. We remain in each encampment but a few days. The cloud of glory lifts. The people move on. In the Torah the Promised Land remains but a dream.

The dream is held at a distance. We continue to affirm the present.

Thus the defining book of the Torah is Numbers. In fact its name in Hebrew is “Bamidbar—in the wilderness.” The wilderness belongs to no nation. It belongs to no one—except God. It is as if to say the Torah is found both nowhere and anywhere.

And it is there that we must remain—forever wandering, forever moving. Our holiest of books is defined by the midbar, the wilderness. It is defined by a scrappy landscape in which animals roam free although gently guided by the hand of their shepherd.

It is also the place in which our people wander—but free.

The Torah is discovered nowhere and anywhere.  It is found instead in wandering.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Naso, Privilege and Desire

In ancient times we were divided by classes and tribes. In fact the reason why King David chose Jerusalem as the capital of our ancient land was because the city was ruled by no one tribe. It was the Washington, D.C. of ancient days.

The Torah offers a record of these divisions. “All the Levites whom Moses, Aaron, and the chieftains of Israel recorded by the clans of their ancestral houses, from the age of thirty years up to the age of fifty, all who were subject to the duties of service and porterage relating to the Tent of Meeting…” (Numbers 4:46)

The Levites were charged with attending to the sacrificial rituals. The Cohenim, priests, were the most privileged of this tribe. In a traditional synagogue the aliyas are still awarded by this division: Cohen, Levite and Israelite. And on the High Holidays the Cohenim rise to bless their congregation. These honors are not earned. They are a matter of birth.

With the development of rabbinic Judaism, following the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis eliminated most of these tribal distinctions. Privilege was earned. It became instead a matter of learning. If you studied enough, if your Hebrew was proficient and your knowledge sufficient, you could lead prayer services. A serious Jewish life, a deepened Jewish experience, became open to all who showed commitment and desire.

The Torah became not the provenance of a cherished few, but instead the possession of all. In that moment we became the people of the book and a “kingdom of priests.” We must continue to earn this title.

Rabbi Akiva did not start out as the greatest of rabbinic sages. In fact his father in law, Kalba Savua, rejected him as a suitor for his beloved daughter Rachel because Akiva came from such a lowly station. He was a mere shepherd and worked for the wealthy Kalba Savua. Legend suggests that he began his rabbinic studies without even knowing the alef-bet. And yet he studied and learned. Through hard work and devotion he became the greatest of rabbis.

His wife Rachel in turn remained devoted to Akiva even after her father cut them off. They were so impoverished, the Talmud suggests, that she was even forced to sell her hair for food. The privileged Kalba Savua rejected Akiva the shepherd. But then twelve years later Akiva returned with thousands of students. Kalba Savua now opened his arms to his son in law.

Privilege and station are earned through learning.

We discover that our rabbinic forebears upended the Bible’s system of class and tribes. Merit was achieved through knowledge. A meritocracy was born. Its foundation remains study and learning.

This is why Jews continue to have such a love affair with American democracy. Success is not a matter of birth. It is not a matter of tribe or class. It is instead a matter of learning. It is a matter of hard work and desire.

In order for a meritocracy to be sustained two things must be maintained. The gates of study must be open to each and every person regardless of lineage. And perhaps even more important, the heart of each and every person must be open to learning.

It begins not with birth but with desire.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Memorial Day's Fallen

On Monday our nation will observe Memorial Day.  Its barbeques and beach parties belie the day’s somber theme.  Like the Shavuot that precedes it its meaning and import is forgotten.  Memorial Day is a day intended to remember and mourn those who were killed while serving our country, those who died defending the land we call home.   Among the many thousands I urge you to take these names into your hearts.  These are the names of the 50 American Jewish casualties of our wars since 9-11 and although these names are no more precious than the thousands of others casualties they hold a special place in our hearts as American Jews.

In addition I commend this article about the Normandy Kaddish Project. My cousin and fellow Long Islander Alan Weinschel has made it his mission to photograph the 149 Jewish gravestones on Normandy Beach.  He has called us to remember these names on the Shabbat closest to the anniversary of D-Day.  


May the many sacrifices we recall on this Memorial Day strengthen our commitment to American ideals.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Shavuot: The Torah's Many Faces and Multiple Voices

Saturday evening begins the holiday of Shavuot. It remains an orphan among Jewish holidays. Passover with its glorious seder is more compelling. Even Sukkot with its back to nature like pull offers more. The High Holidays with their grandeur and majesty beckon us to attend. Shavuot appears forgotten. And yet Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Could there be a greater theme?

The moment of the giving of our Torah, zman matan torateinu, was an extraordinary event. “All the people saw the thunder and the lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance.” (Exodus 20:15) It was so miraculous that the people saw what normally could only be heard. They saw thunder! I wonder. Do we still retreat from the Torah?

Shavuot remains distant. The midrash suggests a cure. “All the people saw”—sounds of thunder and flashes of lightning. How many sounds could there have been, and how many flashes of lightning? Rather, what it means is, each person heard according to his (or her) capacity, as it is written in the Psalms: “The voice of the Lord is koach—strength or capacity.”

Each of us must find our own path to Torah. Even though we read Torah in community, even though Shavuot is celebrated as a congregation, the way into finding our Torah is found within our own heart. It begins within our own minds. It begins by inclining our ears toward the gift of Torah—matan Torah.

The tradition also teaches that there are seventy faces of the Torah, shivim panim latorah. This is often explained to mean that there are seventy different ways of reading our most sacred text, but on this occasion I prefer to understand this to mean that there are seventy different pathways. I recognize that such numbers might appear overwhelming or even off putting, but I hope instead to see it as welcoming.

We can each find its face. We can each discover its voice within our own heart. The Torah is no longer found on Sinai. It is discovered instead in our hearts.

The Torah offers many faces and speaks with even more voices.

We need not travel far to discover this gift. We need only see its voice and behold its face.

StandwithUs

Last evening we hosted a program with StandwithUs, an educational organization deeply involved in combating BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) and antisemitism on the college campus.  Shahar Azani, Rabbi David Siegel and Professor Robin Charlow were incredible, outstanding speakers.  They contributed a great deal to our understanding of the issues as well as sharing their personal experiences.  I do however remain biased.  My favorite speaker was none other than Shira Moskowitz! Below is the text of her prepared remarks.  I hope that many find her words equally inspiring.  I hope my young students hear as well her call to action.

It had been a month since resolution AR 3-050 had been brought before our Central Student Government (CSG). The resolution called for the University of Michigan to create a committee that would look into the ethics of the university’s investments. However, this resolution was inextricably tied to the BDS movement because the only companies it singled out were ones that had operations in the West Bank.

I was working the Hillel booth at Springfest, a campus wide fair. We asked students to draw a representation of their core values on quilt to be displayed alongside the winning art from the Hillel art competition based on the same theme. One Hillel student had incorporated Nelson Mandela into her piece which was on display at Springfest. When I was left alone at the booth, students from SAFE (Students Allied for Freedom and Equality), the group that had created the BDS related resolution, approached me. They asked how we could incorporate Nelson Mandela into our art since Israel is an apartheid state. I calmly replied that this was a student’s personal representation and that students in Hillel have a wide rang of views about Israel, social justice, and all other issues. Then the student began to yell at me while her friend videotaped. I said nothing, afraid of where this video would end up and how it could be taken out of context and used against me personally and Hillel. When they walked away I burst into tears. I had never felt so belittled and dehumanized. My privacy had been invaded and I had been attacked.

Unfortunately over the course of that semester, Winter 2014, these were feelings that I and my fellow classmates had become accustomed to. This resolution had divided our campus. You were either for it or against it. There was no room to fall into the gray areas that have shaped the Israel-Palestinian conflict for the past 2,000 years. Many Jewish students felt they could only voice their positive feelings for Israel because they worried that challenging their own beliefs could be misconstrued as weakness or used as ammunition by the other side. As such, it became impossible for students to learn from one another and to share their stories on a campus rife with such hostility and tension.

When students are unable to question and challenge their own beliefs and those of other members of their campus community, the beauty of a college education is lost and the likelihood that something meaningful will occur and that ideas can flow freely becomes less and less.

Although tension had been rising since early December when students from SAFE slipped eviction notices under the doors of dorm rooms to simulate the experience of Palestinians living in the West Bank, it was not until CSG decided to table the resolution that this tension bubbled over.

Students from SAFE hosted sit-ins at the student government offices. CSG representatives received death threats for speaking out against the resolution and some were even walked to class by university police officers. A Jewish friend of mine felt uncomfortable sharing her opinions in class because her professor had expressed his support for the resolution and the BDS movement. Students were called Anti-Semitic slurs for wearing IDF t-shirts, Jewish star necklaces, and other symbols of their pride for Israel and Judaism. Michigan no longer felt like the warm and friendly campus community I had grown to love.

In the end, the resolution was voted down but a statement had been made. Divestment was here to stay at the University of Michigan. This past year, a new but extremely similar resolution was brought in front of CSG. This resolution failed to pass by only a small margin but created much less tension because of the student government’s decision to vote immediately.

While this experience was both eye opening and important for me, what left me frustrated was its lack of constructive outcomes. What had we achieved besides pushing people further apart? Although we are just one college campus, this matters. The students organizing both in favor of and against this resolution are the future leaders of our world. Our college campuses are a microcosm of our society and so it is our responsibility to continue educating, engaging, and debating, three things that are unattainable when polarizing movements infiltrate campuses.

I do not support BDS. I do however support peace, human rights, and a two-state solution. I hope that students on college campuses will not let internationally divisive movements prevent them from having meaningful dialogues that will one day allow them to reshape the society we live in.

And for those who have not yet had a chance to watch the thirty minute film about BDS, "Crossing the Line 2," I urge you again to watch it.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Behar-Bechukotai, Nature's Fury and Blossoming Trees

This week’s Torah portion, Behar-Bechukotai, makes clear that the land of Israel is particularly dear. It is of course the holy land. This is why it alone is granted a sabbatical year. “When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard…” (Leviticus 25)

One might therefore think, especially with the success of modern Zionism, that only the land of Israel is holy. But in fact all lands are sacred. The earth, the very ground beneath our feet, must be held dear.

Our blessings do not say, for example, “Blessed are You Adonai our God Ruler of the universe, creator of the fruit of Israel,” but instead “the fruit of the earth—borei pri ha-adamah.” The Psalms declare, in a decidedly universal tone, “The earth is Adonai’s and all that it holds; the world and all its inhabitants. For God founded it upon the ocean, set it on the farthest streams.” (Psalm 24)

Leviticus however speaks of the land, using the Hebrew word ha-aretz, the land. Yet the intention is clear. It is the earth, the world and all its lands, that is to be held sacred. The Psalmist again declares: “How many are the things You have made, O Lord; You have made them all with wisdom; the earth is full of Your creations.” (Psalm 104)

Recently I have been meditating on this psalm and thinking about the power of nature. Ironically it is often nature’s fury that reminds me of nature’s majesty. There was of course the recent devastating earthquake in Nepal. May its victims soon find comfort. In recent months and years we have witnessed hurricanes, tsunamis, floods, tornadoes, droughts and wild fires. The psalmist continually reminds us. “God looks at the earth and it trembles; God touches the mountains and they smoke.” We are reminded that nature is both majestic and furious.

At times all we can rescue from the earth’s devastating fury is to sing God’s praises. The psalmist again: “I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; all my life I will chant hymns to my God.” We likewise affirm God when seeing the ocean, hearing thunder, happening upon a rainbow or looking at blossoming trees.

Then again I wonder: how much of nature’s recent fury is within our hands? The drought in California? The tremors in Oklahoma? Are these truly acts of God? We must therefore instill reverence not only before God but before nature. For too long we have believed that we are masters of nature, that we can control nature. Recent events suggest otherwise. We can continue piling more and more sand on Long Island’s beaches but the ocean will eventually win. And God thundered, “Who closed the sea behind its doors…” (Job 38)

I am not of course suggesting that we give up these efforts entirely, that we turn aside from all attempts. We do however require far more humility before the earth’s power. Reverence combined with knowledge would be a much better approach. We would do well to remind ourselves again and again of God’s admonition to Job: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Speak if you have understanding.” We cannot tame nature. We can instead live with reverence and humility.

All lands are indeed holy. It is not just one land. It is not just our backyard but all the earth. Zionism implies that only one land is holy. The Torah was given in Sinai, in the wilderness. It was given there to make clear that it was given to all. It was given there moreover so that no land can claim the Torah as its sole possession. The midbar, the wilderness of Sinai, reminds us that all the earth is sacred.

Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, is of course my favorite land. It is my beloved because so much of Jewish history occurred there. I love nothing more than to hike its wadis and play in its waterfalls. But it is not the only land. The reverence for the land that the sabbatical year suggests is something that we must apply to all lands. We must restore a reverence for the earth and the land.

We can no longer afford to do whatever we want with any land. We can no longer treat the earth with contempt. We must restore a reverence for the earth in our hearts and souls.

Perhaps it begins with a blessing and prayer. The trees are again blossoming! “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe who has withheld nothing from His world and who has created beautiful creatures and beautiful trees for mortals to enjoy.”