Archive for the ‘TORAH/BIBLE’ Category

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

People often ask me how I pronounce my name: Perl•stine (long “i”) or Perl•steen (long “e”). The latter is accurate. I appreciate the inquiries. Most people try to get others’ names right as a mark of respect. Some self-important people don’t.

As it happens, my family name was probably pronounced Per•el•shtine when in 1906 my grandparents landed at Ellis Island from Warsaw with three young children, including 2-1/2-year-old Moishe Chaim (my father). Moishe became Morris, and everyone else took an Americanized first names. Still, the family’s naturalization certificate (1914) displays the name Perelstein. Shortly after, the second “e” disappeared.

We value our names. The Torah relates that people sought to build a tower to the heavens (the Tower of Babel) to make a name for themselves (Genesis 11). In Genesis 12:2, God promises Abram (later Abraham), “I will make your name great.”

Shakespeare throws this tenet a curve. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” says Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. She’s a Capulet and loves a Montague—the name alone sufficient to earn her family’s displeasure. Call Romeo “a Montague,” and you label him a monster.

As kids, we defended ourselves from schoolyard bullies who mangled our names or hurled epithets with “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names (or words) will never harm me.” This lesson seems lost on our Schoolyard Bully-in-Chief.

At a recent political rally in Iowa, Donald Trump errantly referred to California’s Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein as Fein•steen. It’s Finestine(long “I” in both syllables). Am I quibbling? I think not. Senator Feinstein has become the latest object of Trump rallies’ chants of “Lock her up.” Because she opposed Trump in the matter of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, Trump sought a way to lash out. What better way for a 12-year-old to advance political discourse than to mispronounce the name of an opponent.

Also, to “dog whistle” a key message to his supporters. I suspect Trump well knows how Senator Feinstein pronounces her name but wanted to remind his supporters that the Senator is—gasp—Jewish. The real pronunciation might mislead them into thinking her background (and that of her second husband whose name stayed with her) German.

As it happens, Trump’s paternal grandfather Americanized his name from Drumpf. Nothing wrong with that. But Senator Feinstein had to be called out since a significant segment of the far-right exudes anti-Semitism, including those who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia last year chanting, “Jews will not replace us.”

Ah, you say, the President’s daughter Ivanka is Jewish. She converted to marry Jared Kushner. Good luck. When Trump stated re Charlottesville that there were good people on bothsides, he threw Ivanka and Jared under the bus. Unless he numbers these particular Jews among “the good ones” who toe the Republican line enumerated by Christian conservatives and white supremacists (they sometimes overlap) lamenting white people’s loss of their “rights”—a euphemism for monopolistic political, economic and social power.

Yes, sometimes people address me as Perl•stine. I correct them. They appreciate it. They understand the integrity names because they hold others in regard. Such esteem was offered a few years back in the Oval Office. I hope it will be again—soon.

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HOOPS, GENESIS AND CANCER

Last Monday, Boston Celtics basketball star Kyrie Irving apologized for saying that the earth is flat. A plethora of questionable beliefs challenge science. They threaten our individual and national health.

The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky dismisses evolution. Its website states, “The Creation Museum shows why God´s infallible Word, rather than man’s faulty assumptions, is the place to begin if we want to make sense of our world.” Its exhibits include the Garden of Eden. Adam is seen only from above the waist—and he’s ripped! Down I-75 in Williamstown, Ark Encounter offers a life-size Noah’s ark and all the animals—including dinosaurs.

Dinosaurs? Despite the work of paleontologists, creationists believe the world is 6,000 years old. This is consistent with the Rabbis of the Talmudic era, whose math included the lifespans of the first humans, Abraham and his descendants plus various events and later monarchial reigns. So this past Rosh Hashanah, the world turned 5,779.

But other than perhaps some ultra-orthodox sects, Jews don’t take Genesis literally. Maimonides (1135-1204), the great Spanish physician/philosopher, even declared Torah to be metaphor.

The first chapters of Genesis (B’reishit) pose question after question that delineate Torah as mythos, not science. The sun was created on the fourthday. What constituted days one through three? A different concept of “day.” It required no sunrises and sunsets. “There was morning and there was evening” because God created light apart from the sun and separated it from darkness.

And who were the people Cain feared after he killed his brother Abel? Where did his wife come from? This puzzled the Rabbis, too. Some posited that Cain and Abel each had twin sisters, although the biblical text doesn’t mention of them. Adam and Eve conceived Seth, from whom all humanity descends. Did Seth have incestuous relations with one or more of his aunts? His uncle’s daughters? Or did God create other humans right after Adam and Eve and keep them in reserve? Beats me. But it’s fascinating.

Questioning has been the key to studying Torah for two thousand years. I deeply appreciate the scholar Richard Elliott Friedman (Commentary on the Torah) writing of Gen. 1:17 (“in the image of God”), “Whatever it means…” and of Gen. 5:24 (“and he [Enoch] was not”), “I do not know what this means.”

That’s precisely because Torah involves something other than science. According to Friedman (on Gen. 2:1), the biblical creation story “…conveys a particular conception of the relationship between humans and the cosmos, of the relations between the sexes, of the linear flow of time, of the Sabbath.” This provides lots to think about, which is why I’ve read the weekly Torah portion for the past 25 years and attended Torah Study at Congregation Sherith Israel for the past 20.

Science also thrives on questioning. Theories evolve. They must be proved. They can be disproved. New theories take their place. Empiricism, not faith, guides critical decisions. That’s why, despite the recent outbreak of global anti-vaccine hysteria, Australia just announced it could eliminate cervical cancer in the next two decades by vaccinating children against the cancer-causing papillomavirus.

Faith need not make apologies. It has its place. But faith should render unto science what is science’s. As when creationist theme parks harness computer science to advertise on the Internet.

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DEMOCRACY’S NOT DEAD YET

Several nights ago, I heard a symphony of foghorns. I live two miles from the Pacific and half that distance from San Francisco’s Baker Beach and the Golden Gate. Yet extended periods of time often pass between my visits to the beach to admire the ocean’s size, energy and mystery.

So it is with much in life. Beauty and wonder often are much closer than we realize. Politics, war and disasters—natural and man-made—attract our attention. We close our eyes and minds to the good that also surrounds us.

Another matter relates. Tomorrow (Saturday) night, Jews will celebrate Simchat Torah (Joy of the Torah). Then or on Sunday, synagogues will unroll a Torah scroll and read the last verses of the year’s final portion, V’zot HaB’rachah(And This is the Blessing), which concludes with Moses’ death. Without a pause, reading will continue with the first verses of B’reishit(Genesis) with which the Torah starts, presenting creation and life.

Why read the same text year after year? The scholar Jeffrey Tigay explains that we find new insights on every page (as we might at the beach or in a forest), “not because the Torah has changed, but because we have changed since we read it a year ago.”

Looking past immediate concerns, Americans can gain new perspectives on our present situation and our past—hear the call of the Liberty Bell too often drowned out by shouting. We may discover that the nation’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses.

I’m not wearing rose-colored glasses. As I write, I’m gazing at the cover of October’s The Atlantic. This special edition asks a disturbing question: “Is democracy dying?” Editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg titles his introduction “The Crisis in Democracy.” A toxic brew of populism, tribalism, Donald Trump and technology worries a number of The Atlantic’s writers and contributors. Nothing new here. A recent edition of Foreign Affairsconsidered the same matter. The non-Fox media continue to do so.

Sure, there’s plenty of worry to go around. Witness the hyper-partisanship surrounding yesterday’s Senate testimony by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanagh. Yet America weathered previous storms.

White people enslaved black people. The Ku Kux Klan promoted racism and segregation not just in the South but all over the country. Universities and medical schools restricted Jewish matriculation. Women couldn’t vote until 1920. In the 1930s, upwards of thirty million Americans listened to Father Charles Coghlan’s anti-Semitic radio broadcasts. After Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt ordered the internment of Japanese-Americans. Throughout our history, the nation also suffered a series of economic depressions and, of course, 9/11.

Un-democratic, prejudicial laws and customs have always had strong proponents. Hence the secession of the Southern states leading to the Civil War, considerable opposition to women’s suffrage in Congress and later political maneuvering like Richard Nixon’s southern strategy. All these battered and bruised American democracy. We moved forward.

I’ll give the last word to New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, writing from Greece: “Democracy is stubborn. It raises our gaze. It is the system that best enshrines the unshakable human desire to be free. Athens reminds us of that. America reminds us of that. It fails. It falls short of John Winthrop’s ‘city upon a hill.’ It strives still to fail better.”

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ISRAEL ON MY MIND, PART TWO

Two matters challenged me during my visit to Israel: family and God’s presence.

Carolyn and I spent Passover week at Masada by the Dead Sea. There, the last Jewish rebels against Rome held out until 73 CE. We joined my cousin Maxine, who lives in Karmiel east of Haifa, her children and their families, other relatives and friends.

Family is crucial to Israelis. They spend much time together. American families often seem fragmented, psychologically and geographically, separated by many hundreds or thousands of miles. Because Israel is small, families can “scatter” there yet remain close.

I wondered if Israelis’ family focus produced insularity and conformity. But my Israeli family’s views and practices cover a broad spectrum. Outside ultra-Orthodoxy—a minority—Israelis freely disagree and argue while accepting each other. Family is family. Carolyn and I share that value. Still, we have one son in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (grad school) and another in Tennessee, soon moving to Los Angeles. Our youngest, fortunately, lives in San Francisco. Being American comes with a price.

As to God’s presence, I regularly attend Friday-night services and Shabbat Torah Study at my Reform synagogue. At Masada, the services I attended were “traditional” and way different. I was totally lost as the men (no women) raced through the prayers. Did they find spiritual fulfilment when I didn’t? My friend Larry Raphael offered perspective: In the same circumstance, he let the rapid flow of prayers create a space for meditation. There are multiple ways to pray.

Then there was my visit to the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem. I had a brief conversation with God. Yes, we talk. Yet I experience God as much, if not more, at home. To be honest, I was put off by men in the plaza on cell phones and empty water bottles littering its stones. I wondered: Do visitors to the Kotel become too familiar with God?

Last week’s Torah portion (Shemini) offers the story of Nadab and Abihu, two of Aaron’s sons, both priests. They bring “alien”—not prescribed—fire offerings to the Tent of Meeting, which preceded the First Temple. Their zeal may have been genuine, but God kills them! Later in Deuteronomy, Moses warns the Israelites they should neither take away nor add to the commandments. In Judaism, boundaries are crucial. As at Mount Sinai during the giving of the Ten Commandments, we must keep our distance.

A contemporary commentator suggests that the many laws regarding ritual purity were written to keep Jews awayfrom the Temple. The priests might be overworked. And familiarity with the holy place might erode our sense of awe.

Not everyone feels this way. Hours before we visited the Davidson Museum of Archaeology near the Kotel, hundreds of ultra-Orthodox activists sacrificed two Passover lambs. They want to establish the Third Temple on the Temple Mount, an explosive proposition. I doubt that most Jews want to revert to sacrificing animals. Moreover, would this represent getting too close to the Holy One?

I love Israel, even in challenging times. And they’re always challenging. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “Jews belonged somewhere, not everywhere. Yet the God they worship is the God of everywhere, not just somewhere.” Israel plays a central role in Jewish life. Still, I live in San Francisco. Rabbi Sacks lives in London.

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MY NEW FAVORITE WORD

People become attached to certain words. They—particularly slang words—can help someone display distinctiveness or demonstrate belonging to a group. Many decades have produced cool, dig it, boss, bitchin’, yo, wassup, Bart Simpson’s partee and the now widely accepted— and often-used F-word. For some years, I’ve been partial to grace and dignity. Now, I have a new favorite word—and it isn’t English.

My new fave appears in the Torah’s story of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:1ff). For it, I’m indebted to Cantor David Frommer of San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel and last week’s citing of commentary by Rabbi David Fohrman.

Our story: God becomes angry at the “stiff-necked” Israelites after they compel Aaron to make a young bull of gold to replace Moses, still meeting with God atop Mount Sinai. Knowing of the calf, God says He will destroy the children of Israel and make a great people of Moses’ descendants. Moses’ response: Why? Why be angry at Your people? Why enable Egypt to say You freed Your people only to slaughter them in the wilderness? What will that do for Your reputation?

The Hebrew word used here for why is lamah (rhymes with mama). Yet there’s another word for why in the Torah—madua (ma–doo-ah). Why (madua) lamah?

According to Rabbi Fohrman, “Madua, from the word mada, is the scientific ‘why’. … When Moses looked at the burning bush … [he asked] what is it about this bush that causes it not to burn? It is a question about the past that would explain the present.”

Lamah,” Rabbi Forhman explains, “is a contraction of ‘le mah’, to what, for what, for what purpose. It is a question about the future.”

I’m into lamah. When I get angry or down, when some disappointment induces me to react negatively, I ask myself, lamah? Not why I feel angry, down or disappointed. That’s a madua question. Rather, what purpose will be served by lashing out at someone—or myself?

Lamah constitutes more than a lesson in linguistics. We’re talking real life. Berating others might make us feel better momentarily when we feel questioned or put down. But how will we feel later if we damage or sever a relationship? How many times do we fly off the handle only to regret our words and deeds? Often, we apologize. Maybe the offended person forgives. But does that person forget?

Most of us learned the wisdom behind lamah as children: Think before you speak. If you get angry, count to ten. But in adults, the desire to get in the next word or the last—and do it immediately—often overpowers our learning and judgment.

The rabbis of the Talmud considered gossip—lashon hara—and negative statements sins akin to murder. They kill the soul. Thoughtless words, they advised, resemble arrows. Once released, they can be regretted but not recalled.

If only we, from the humblest citizens to those at the pinnacle of power, could remember daily that lamah can prevent fomenting confusion, resentment, hatred and violence. That words matter. That measuring our responses to others’ words can defuse rather than fuel challenging situations.

If only.

This post marks number 350 since I began since September 2010. It marks a good time for me to take a lengthy break and focus on some other things for a while. The post will resume on April 20.

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THE REAL STATE OF THE UNION

Delivering his first State of the Union address, Donald Trump stuck to his script. Although often wandering from the truth, he saluted an improved economy and painted a rosy picture of his presidency and the future. Beware! The real state of the union is far gloomier.

Trump’s speech featured heavy doses of self-congratulation. It also engaged in shameless pandering with guests sobbing on camera as Trump told stories of violent crimes committed against their families. Still, seventy-five percent of people who heard the address approved. But Trump did no more than present a Potemkin Village.

A more accurate portrait of this presidency emerges from the ongoing lies, attacks on American intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and inability to deal straightforwardly with Congressional leaders—of both parties.

In terms of breaking news, Trump continues trying to thwart the Mueller commission’s investigation into his connections to Russia. This morning, Devin Nunes (R-Cal.), chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, released a memo written by his staff casting a negative light on the FBI. Bureau director Christopher Wray—chosen by Trump to replace the fired James Comey—had condemned releasing the memo, as did leading members of Congress, intelligence experts and journalists. They believe the memo to be out of context and distorted. They fear it will reveal Bureau sources and methods, putting American intelligence operatives at risk. Trump permitted its release.

Back to the State of the Union and something you may have missed. Trump concluded by calling for Americans to maintain “trust in our God.” Our God? Do all Americans believe in the same God? If they believe in God at all?

Given Trump’s support by ecumenical Christians, I assume he referred to Jesus. I’m a Jew. Jesus isn’t my God—or the God of American Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and others. “Our God” is not the God of Israel, Saudi Arabia, India and Japan. Vladimir Putin promotes Russia, despite its large Muslim population, as a Christian (Orthodox) nation, but referencing “our God” can only heighten tensions with China, Iran and North Korea. Will our God battle their Gods?

The comment served to send a clear message to the Trump base: that America remains a white, Christian nation. That, re Charlottesville, Virginia, “good people” can march alongside white supremacists and neo-Nazis. That immigrants from Haiti and Africa really do come from “shithole” countries.

For Trump, the State of the Union was all about money—with no acknowledgment of Barack Obama’s role in moving the economy forward. Economic growth is good. Mammon is not.

This week’s Torah portion, Yitro (Jethro), presents the Ten Commandments. The commentary Etz Chayim examines the (Jewish) First Commandment, “I am the Lord your God who brought out of the land of Egypt.” Egypt, a nation of great wealth, was the house of culture, science and mathematics. All good. But for Israel, it was the house of bondage. The scholar Benno Jacob (1862–1945) comments, “If freedom and culture cannot coexist, we should bid farewell to culture for the sake of freedom.” Money cannot be “our God”.

Trump continues to widen American divisions. No matter how strong the economy, bigotry and hatred—espoused and supported by the president of the United States—can only turn America into Pharaoh’s Egypt. And we know how that story turned out.

As I publish, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average has plummeted over 800 points since last Friday. Will Mr. Trump, as the force behind the American economy, accept responsibility for this?

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MONOTHEISM AND MYTH

Jews, Christians and Muslims know that monotheism began with Abraham, the Hebrew patriarch whom Torah students have studied these past three weeks. But like Elvis sightings, that’s an urban legend.

Secular scholars point to monotheism’s birth in what Karl Jaspers termed the Axial Age—700 to 200 BCE. Karen Armstrong writes that as urban civilizations developed, “people ultimately began to find that the old paganism, which had served their ancestors well, no longer spoke fully to their condition.”

The biblical narrative offers a third view, as I detail in God’s Others: Non-Israelites’ Encounters With God in the Hebrew Bible. The book of Genesis plants monotheism’s roots in the sixth day of creation, presenting Adam and Eve as the original pair of monotheists long predating Abraham. They enjoy a personal relationship with God, Who instructs Adam not to eat from a specific tree and makes clothing for Adam and Eve to cover their nakedness after they do. And yes, He also expels them from Eden.

Their sons also know God. When God accepts Abel’s offering but not Cain’s, Cain sulks. God offers parental advice: “Surely if you do right, / There is uplift. / But if you do not do right / Sin couches at the door; / Its urge is toward you, / Yet you can be its master” (Gen. 4:7).

With Abel dead and Cain banished, Adam and Eve have a third son—Seth. Genesis makes no mention of Seth’s relationship with God, but there’s every reason to believe Adam and Eve informed Seth about their Creator. Why?

When the earth becomes populous, Genesis states, “It was then that men began to invoke the Lord (YHVH) by name” (Gen. 4:26). This induces Nahum Sarna to write, “This text takes monotheism to be the original religion of the human race, and the knowledge of the name YHVH to be pre-Abrahamic.”

Humanity descends into wrongdoing and idolatry. Still, Enoch, the seventh in Adam’s line and great-grandfather of Noah “walked with God 300 years” (Gen. 5:22). Noah, in the tenth generation, receives God’s instruction to build an ark.

After the Flood, people again turn away from God. The Talmud (Berachot 33b) explains, “Everything is in the hand of heaven except the fear of heaven.” Eden now consisting of only of a myth as humanity drifts into various forms of polytheism and idol worship. Monotheism, like a buried seed, lies dormant. Still, as God’s Others relates, pockets of monotheism lived on.

Twenty generations after Adam and Eve, Abraham appears. The biblical text never explains why God chooses him, but it now seems clear that Abraham rekindles monotheism rather than discovers it. Yehezkel Kaufmann writes that primeval mankind from Adam on “appears to have been monotheistic.” Gunther Plaut notes of Abraham, “The Torah does not depict him as the founder of a new religion.”

From the biblical perspective, monotheism constitutes humanity’s natural religious state. This prompts us to consider a corollary. All people contain the Divine spark. The Parent loves all His children. In a nation—indeed a world—torn by hatred and violence, we would do well to remember that to which Abraham sought to return us, however we might define God and the unity of the universe.

You can order God’s Others from Amazon, your local book store or—such a deal!—from me.

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ECCLESIASTES AND US

The world seems to be coming apart. Massive fires in the wine country of Napa and Sonoma counties and elsewhere in California represent the latest “disaster of the week.” Fortunately, a biblical text attributed to King Solomon (died 931 BCE) and probably written 600 years later, offers us the strength to endure.

We’re tempted, of course, to declare that things have never been this bad. But we—and every generation preceding us—have experienced trying times. The book of Ecclesiastes (Hebrew: Kohelet—gatherer/teacher/preacher) reminds us, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

One of five “scrolls” in the Hebrew Bible along with Esther, Song of Songs, Ruth and Jonah, Ecclesiastes is traditionally read during the festival of Sukkot, which begins five days after Yom Kippur. Ecclesiastes often is viewed as negative and cynical. Not so, according to scholars. They include Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, a hillside community in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley.

Last Monday night in San Francisco, I attended a dinner talk by Rabbi Feinstein. He broke down the text of Ecclesiastes to offer several heartening concepts. Importantly, Rabbi Feinstein never claimed his views were conclusive; Jews question, answer then question again.

Ecclesiastes advises that life and our various accomplishments and sufferings amount only to hevel—a puff of air, a mist, a transitory matter. Moreover, death awaits us all. Neither pleasure, riches, wisdom nor righteousness alter that. Equally disturbing if not more so, good people often suffer, while bad people often attain wealth and fame. (The book of Job offers another exploration of the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”.)

Does this paint a portrait of humanity too glum to bear? No. Ecclesiastes counsels, in this translation by my friend Dan Weiss and his study partner Israel Amrani: “I praise joy / Nothing is better for man under the sun / than to eat and to drink and to be joyful” (8:15). Let’s put this in perspective: Ecclesiastes does not extol gluttony, drunkenness and sexual indulgence. These, too, are hevel.

Rather, Ecclesiastes states that for everything there is a season. (Now you know the source for the Pete Seeger song covered by the Byrds.) We experience good. We also suffer, as do so many Americans now in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, Las Vegas and California. Basically, life happens. For the most part, we can’t control it. The world—indeed, the universe—is too big and complex. The best we can do is enjoy what we can while we can. As my mother, Blanche taught me: “You have to take the good times with the bad.”

We find additional hope in what this book does not say, according to Rabbi Feinstein. Ecclesiastes sees the world in the guise of a lone figure without family and friends (although not without wives and concubines). Family and community make a difference. While our lives are finite, we achieve a semblance of immortality—of something lasting—when we teach our children and others, display love and cultivate friendships. In Jewish tradition, we “live” so long as we are remembered.

I offer this final summary of Ecclesiastes paraphrasing Rabbi Hillel, the great sage of 2,000 years ago: Life crushes the ego. All the rest is commentary. Now go and study.

Rabbi Jessica Graf and Cantor David Frommer will present Ecclesiastes today (Friday), noon–2 pm for Congregational Sherith Israel’s Prime Time Club for people 65 and older. Complementary lunch is provided. While food has been ordered, we always find room for a few more people, members and nonmembers.

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JONAH AND JONES

Harvard University recently rejected a Ph.D. candidate in history despite impressive credentials. Michelle Jones’ case should move us to examine the biblical book of Jonah.

Jones, 45 and a child victim of abuse, served more than 20 years for murdering her four-year-old son. A horrible crime? Absolutely. Yet in prison, she earned a B.A. from Ball State and led an award-winning research project for the Indiana Historical Society. Harvard’s history program accepted her, but the school’s administration overturned the decision fearing backlash from rejected applicants. At least some Harvard administrators hold the concept of repentance at arm’s length.

With Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, beginning next Friday evening, practicing Jews focus on repentance. During Rosh Hashanah (the New Year; it’s 5778) and the ten days following, we seek forgiveness—individually and communally—for sins committed against God. (For wrongs against people, only those hurt can grant forgiveness.) We pray for God’s mercy. But are we willing to forgive others who repent?

Note that Judaism doesn’t instruct victims to turn the other cheek and offer blanket forgiveness. That lets wrongdoers off the hook. Rather, a wrongdoer must ask for forgiveness. If after being asked three times the injured person refuses to forgive, the offender no longer remains obligated to make further petitions.

Understand, too, that it’s easy to say, “I’m sorry.” The philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204) instructs that repentance involves three phases—understanding the wrong committed, vowing not to repeat it then not doing it. Words must lead to action.

Granted, it can be difficult to forgive those who have wronged us. This conundrum marks the biblical book of Jonah, a traditional Yom Kippur reading. I’ll teach the text at Congregation Sherith Israel on Yom Kippur afternoon (1:15).

In brief, God tells Jonah to go to the wicked city of Nineveh and tell the people to repent. There’s an irony here. Nineveh is the capital of Assyria, which destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and scattered its “ten lost tribes.” Despite God’s command, Jonah sails west in the opposite direction to escape performing this task. He doesn’t want God to give the Ninevites the opportunity to repent.

After three days in the stomach of a dag gadol (a big fish, not a whale), Jonah learns a lesson. God commands. You do. Jonah goes to Nineveh and announces that God is giving the city 40 days to repent or be overturned.

The Ninevites, from the king down, repent—and mean it! Jonah is unhappy. He wants Nineveh destroyed and always feared God would forgive. God, however, prefers that humans repent and live righteously. Terrible deeds cannot be undone, but people can refashion themselves.

Jonah and Yom Kippur assert that the human heart possesses considerable elasticity. Not all bad or evil people will turn towards righteousness. Like the Pharaoh who enslaved the Israelites, some have gone too far gone. But for most of us, the opportunity to repent endures.

But we cannot proclaim our worthiness to be forgiven while refusing to give others when they prove their merit. New York University got it. They accepted Jones. In doing so, NYU (my father’s alma mater) affirmed that Jonah, a small book, offers a big a lesson for the ages. Now go and study.

For more on Jonah, see my recap and commentary in God’s Others: Non-Israelites’ Encounters With God in the Hebrew Bible (Amazon). May you be written and sealed into the Book of Life, and enjoy a year of peace.

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LANGUAGE AND MEANING

Most people recognize the first verse of the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Clear? Not really. Commentators and scholars translate the Hebrew word B’reishit—“In the beginning”—in several ways. This gives rise to multiple insights into God’s actions. Language—in translation or out—often fails to accurately convey meaning. We might apply this principle to the June 8 testimony of former FBI director James Comey before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Re Genesis, the Soncino Press (1993) translation stays with “In the beginning.” The Stone Chumash (printed Torah) offers: “In the beginning of God’s creating…” The Jewish Publication Society (1999) and the scholar Robert Alter prefer “When God began to create…”. Everett Fox chooses “At the beginning…” As Nahum Sarna notes, “The mystery of divine creativity is, of course, ultimately unknowable.”

Congress and the American people face another mystery—the meaning in President Trump’s words regarding an investigation into General Michael Flynn, Trump’s fired national security advisor. Former FBI director James Comey, also fired by Trump, testified that Trump told him: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.” Because Comey said he met in private with Trump, liberal commentators and Democrats exclaim, “Obstruction of justice!” Conservative commentators and Republicans respond, “No way!”

During Comey’s testimony, Senator Jim Risch (R–Idaho), skeptical that Trump did anything wrong, focused on the word hope. Risch asked Comey if was aware of any successful prosecution of someone who hoped something illegal was done. Comey said no. But that, despite Risch’s efforts, hardly ends the matter.

Read Comey’s words, and important details of his conversation with the President go missing. Hope, Risch suggested, represents wishful thinking. Trump, in private, simply shared his yearning that Flynn, “a good guy,” not face prosecution. But which word follows hope? You. If Trump uttered these words, he spoke not to himself but directly to Comey. “I hope you can see your way clear…” It’s hardly a stretch to interpret this as Trump telling Comey to drop the investigation without saying the precise words, “You drop the investigation.” Personally, I’ve never said, “I hope you can…” to anyone without expressing a clear intent that they do what I for all intents and purposes asked. In this context, I hope creates an expectation.

I mentioned missing details. Whatever words Mr. Trump uttered, we lack a recording, which Trump hinted at having, although he may not. What tone of voice did he use? We don’t know. Intonation colors any word or set of words. Trump’s tone could indeed have indicated wishful thinking. Or it could have projected a presidential order. We also lack an eye on such critical factors as Trump’s facial expression and body language. All these help make us understood. For that matter, we can’t see Comey’s physical response.

Will Comey’s memo regarding Trump’s hope be accepted by Robert Mueller, the Justice Department’s special investigator, as proof of wrongdoing? We’ll see. Will President Trump testify before the Senate subcommittee? We’ll see about that, too. But I doubt we’ll see a smoking gun.

Still, a pattern seems to be emerging. Each day, it becomes more disturbing. And when I write disturbing, let there be no doubt about what I mean.

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