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Rabbi Marc E. Berkson - Rosh Hashanah Eve - 2008/5769

Who Shall Be Poor And Who Shall Be Rich

“On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed…” The words frighten; the question haunts. We are as sheep passing before God. “Who shall live and who shall die—who shall see ripe age and who shall not; who shall perish by fire and who by water; who by sword and who by beast; who by hunger and who by thirst; who by earthquake and who by plague—who shall live and who shall die?”

Tomorrow morning, in the most plaintive and searing of chants, we will recite the Unetaneh Tokef (on page 108) whose words, “mi yichiye u’mi yamoot, who shall live and who shall die,” help establish the awesome mood and power of these days. Their author, painfully aware of the hazards and uncertainties of life, confronting mortality, turns to God seeking some change within to lead to some change without, a correction in behavior altering the course of one’s life.

While the origins of Unetanneh Tokef are lost to us, tradition ascribes it to the martyrdom of Rabbi Amnon of Mayence. Amnon was a distinguished medieval scholar who, in a moment of weakness, postponed an answer to the request of the local archbishop to renounce Judaism and embrace Christianity. Tormented by his refusal to give an immediate no, Amnon fell into what we might label a serious depression. The archbishop, not receiving an answer as promised, had Amnon arrested and tortured. Dying of the wounds inflicted by the torture, Amnon was carried into the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and, with his dying breaths, recited the words of Unetaneh Tokef.

Given the traditional understanding of Unetanneh Tokef helps explain the gruesome tone of the various fates which may befall us. Reflecting it back through medieval Jewish history adds some reality to the martyrology surrounding it. At one time, for so many of us, the words seemed logically implausible, morally ambiguous, simply an attempt to make some sense of persecution in the medieval world. A younger version of myself simply heard poetic license if you will. But we have all learned of so many ways to die–from tsunamis to tornadoes, from hurricanes to floods, from terrorist act to terrorist act, from war to war, from genocide to genocide–the haunting words cannot be ignored.

Yet one four word passage remained in the realm of poetry for me. “Mi y’ani u’me ya-a-shir…who shall be poor and who shall be rich.” I saw it as a variation on the saying from Pirke Avot wherein the question “Who is rich?” is answered by the rabbis with “the one who delights in his or her portion!” Such was confirmed for me years ago by an interpretive rendering in Gates of Repentance placed before the chanting of unetaneh tokef on Yom Kippur morning. “Who shall be poor in the midst of possessions,” we read, “Who shall be rich, content with their lot.”

Yet since last Yom Kippur (and particularly these last days) with the failure of Lehman Brothers, that concern established by German Jewish immigrant brothers in Alabama in the years preceding the Civil War; the string of bank failures so far culminating in Washington Mutual (or is it now Wachovia); the sales of Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch; the near bankruptcy of AIG; the subprime mortgage crisis with so many homes in foreclosure; and the now-failed bill to put some $700 billion worth of government assets into this mess, the biggest bailout since the Great Depression with the market down almost 800 points today—those words no longer seem so poetic. Mix in [Alan Greenspan’s comment that this situation is a “once-in-a-century event”] The Washington Post’s economic commentator’s observation that this “may be the greatest destruction of financial wealth that the world has ever seen and these two sentences from a short letter to the editor of a major newspaper:

I’ve been in the real estate appraisal business for more than 22 years.
These last two years have wiped out my savings and ruined my credit
rating as my income has dropped considerably.
and the poetry is all gone.

And here, as we gather for the New Year, we could find personal stories all around us. Our Weinberg Memorial Scholar-in-Residence from last year, Rabbi Wayne Dosick, tells me that for the first time in his career, congregations have called him to cancel speaking engagements due to financial concerns. Some of us worry about paying for college (I surely know a couple quite personally—now you know my angst); others await the recovery of their investments. Some may be coping with businesses in serious trouble or with jobs that are threatened. Others, whose retirement incomes are dependent upon their investments, are concerned about ensuring that those investments can last their lifetimes. Some even struggle to remain members of our congregation. Many of us may just experience some anxiety; the stories I hear from my colleagues in Florida and New York and Michigan are far more dramatic.

The unknown author of unetaneh tokef may never have heard of housing balloons or of investment banks; yet its author still had a response to the fragility of life. Putting that response in the next couplet of the prayer, the author wrote, “Ut’shuvah u’tefilah u’tzedaka/ Ma’avirin et or-a ha-gezeirah—poorly translated in Gates of Repentance as “But repentance, prayer, and charity/ temper judgment’s severe decree.” The world is a shaky place. As Rav Nahman of Bratslav confirmed centuries later, “Kol ha-olam culo, gesher tzar me’od—the entire world is a narrow bridge.” Despite our own desires, so much is beyond our control. But teshuvah, tefilla, and tzedakah are surely within our control—they can help us on that narrow bridge. Now, at this point, no amount of teshuvah or tefillah or tzedakah will stop what may well become a serious recession. At the same time, however, teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah will surely make all the difference in how we pass through it. So think not of who shall be poor and who shall be rich; instead consider the Jewish guideposts in how to respond.

Teshuvah—translated as repentance but better understood as returning or as a restoration of our relationship with God and with others. The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat tells us that, when we leave this world, we will stand in judgment before the Heavenly Tribunal (no, not Peter at the Pearly Gates) and be asked several questions. If ever there were a final exam, this one is it. Prepared not by ETS but by GOD, this final exam will not be multiple choice and, no, God will not need to know our SAT or ACT scores even if they were perfect. The questions, according to the Talmud, will number just four. And the first question will be: NASSATA V’NATTATA B’EMUNAH, literally, “Did you deal in faith?” but with the connotation of “Did you conduct your business affairs honestly?” or “have your business dealings been fair?” Imagine, that is the first question God will ask. God will not ask you about the money you made or lost or all the goodies you may have accumulated. Nor will God ask if you made CEO or full professor or big macher. And God will not accept a recession as an excuse. In fact, God’s first concern is not in Her relationship to you or to me but in your relationship to me and to others. God does not want to know the number of times you prayed or the number of services you went to but that you dealt fairly and openly and honestly with other human beings in your business dealings. Created in God’s image, how we act toward each other is in some sense a reflection of how we act toward God. If we are careless of others, we care less for God. The issue is not how can one who prays go out and steal; rather, how can a goniff go and pray.

Yet the rabbis did not leave business ethics, if you will, to good intentions. They clearly delineated specific principles and behaviors to guide us in our business dealings. Two of these principles are based on verses of Torah we will read on Yom Kippur afternoon. The passage from Leviticus 19:34-35 is quite clear: “You shall not falsify measures of length, weight, or capacity. You shall have an honest balance, an honest weight, an honest ephah, and an honest hin.” The rabbis took this text and expounded upon it to ensure timely and appropriate cleaning of weights and measures and periodic inspections of these weights and measures to insure their accuracy. The rabbis also understood Leviticus 19:14 in a most encompassing fashion. Reading, “You shall not curse the deaf nor put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God, I am the Eternal,” they understood “before the blind” as someone who was blind in the specific matter involved in a sale. In other words, one does not say to one’s neighbor to sell your field and buy a donkey when one’s whole intent is, through deception, to buy the field. Rabbi David Golinkin applies this to contemporary situations. “A stockbroker should not sell a client a bad investment just to collect the commission. A salesperson should not convince a customer to buy an expensive item for which the customer has no use.” “You shall fear your God; I am the Eternal.” Yet a third principle seems so obvious—“dina d’malkhuta dina—the law of the land is the law.” In simple terms, you gotta obey the law with a specific emphasis on paying taxes in a scrupulous fashion. And Jewish labor law consistently reflects a high concern for the employee.

Two companies in the current economic climate provide a striking contrast. One has been in the news constantly over the past year. Known as Agriprocessors and run by the Rubashkin family, the company transformed Postville, Iowa, in 1987 when it purchased a shuttered slaughterhouse and converted it into the largest kosher meatpacking plant in the world. The Rubashkins’ intentions, I assume, were admirable. They wanted to provide affordable fresh kosher meat throughout the country. Yet, to put it mildly, they forget about following the law. A raid by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in May detained almost 400 undocumented workers. Today, the company faces over 9000 counts of child labor violations. Truly a shandah—and one about which I will address more directly on Yom Kippur.

The other company might seem to be, at least initially, more distant from Jewish business ethics. The nation’s fourth largest retailer, Costco, has a reputation as a fabulous place to shop and to work even though it is a discount warehouse chain. Established in 1983, its founder, James Sinegal, used his Catholic upbringing to discuss his generosity to his employees. “We are not the Little Sisters of the Poor,” he said. “This is not altruistic. This is good business.” The first page of Costco’s employee handbook makes clear the company’s ethics. Number one is “Obey the law,” followed by 2) take care of our members, 3) take care of our employees, and 4) respect our suppliers. “If we do these four things throughout our organization, then we will achieve our ultimate goal which is 5) to reward our shareholders.”

Yet Sinegal got into the business by accident when he was a college student back in the 1950s. He took a one-day job for a bare-bones warehouse store called FedMart in San Diego which turned into his career. It was there that he “learned at the feet of Sol Price, the man who invented the high-volume, members-only discount warehouses.” Price strongly believed in treating his employees well as he did in obeying the law. Price sold FedMart and then began Price Club which merged into Costco in 1993. Sinegal learned Jewish business ethics from Sol Price who grew up as the son of a union organizer in New York’s garment district (from The Big Squeeze by Steven Greenhouse, pp. 158-161) before he became a company founder and owner. And Costco’s shareholders have done quite well, thank you.

Teshuvah—a restoration of our relationship with God and with others. We know the first question that will be asked of us in that final restoration will be “have your business dealings been fair?” How much the more so when we face difficult economic times!

Tefillah—translated as prayer, in Rabbi Jules Harlow’s understanding, our declaration of dependence, words that ensure our awareness of the world we share with others. We are all on that narrow bridge, each and every one of us. So we do not pray u’netaneh tokef in silent meditation; neither do we take it home to read in our own free time. Rather, tomorrow we will experience the words and the chant together, moving each of us away from our individual fears, reminding us that others share our anxieties and concerns. Look around this congregation and know that there are folks here who are sick, others who are suffering a loss, yes, others here deeply concerned about their economic situation. In praying together, we move away from ourselves and our own fears and find ways to reach out to others, to help ease their fears and broaden our concerns.

As you look around this congregation, marvel also at the diversity of Jews who share this community. Old and young, single and married, multi-generational families and newcomers, urban and suburban, those whose financial situation remains quite good and those who struggle from pay check to pay check. As physicist Freeman Dyson pointed out: In many places in the United States, with widening gaps between rich and poor, churches and synagogues are almost the only institutions which bind people together into communities. …People from different walks of life work together in youth groups or adult education groups, making music or teaching children, collecting money for charitable causes, and taking care of each other when sickness or disaster strikes.” (in David Wolpe, Why Faith Matters, p. 79). Our congregation’s history, its long urban presence, and its involvement in the larger community make this especially true for us—and for me.

That diversity is a blessing—one we can use to reach out to others. Perhaps our Ozerim, our Caring Committee, can begin to go beyond its current vital work of reaching out to those confined to care facilities and to their homes and begin to develop some kind of communal service corps. Perhaps others might want to work with me and with Ozerim to increase the sense of congregational support. Rabbi Richard Address of the Union notes that every congregation has untapped human resources, people with time and talent to give, people who might be willing to offer advice, people who may be willing to lend a listening ear, to other members in need.

Tefillah—the words that align our single souls with God and with others. May the words we pray so move us—all the more so now as we face difficult economic times.

Tzedakah—not, as it is poorly translated in our mahzors, as charity, which comes from the Latin meaning love but rather simply tzedakah from the Hebrew tzedek meaning just or right. We give because we are obligated–by God–to give, to make this the just world which God desires. We give because we do not own. God is the owner. Thus, all that we have we hold in a trust for God to be shared with all of God’s children. The rabbis are quite clear—the poor person does more for the giver (in accepting tzedakah) than the giver does for the poor person (in giving tzedakah) for the poor person allows the giver the opportunity to fulfill a mitzvah (Lev R. 34:8). Even a beggar, one who gives the rest of us the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah, has to give tzedakah! For the beggar, too, has to fulfill the mitzvah, in so doing affirming his or her dignity and role in making this the world God desires.

The rabbis in the Talmud and later commentators have extended discussions of the amount of money to be given with a maximum to ensure that one does not impoverish oneself and a small minimum to allow even the poor to give. But the goal is to provide for each poor person what he or she needs. Even in these more difficult economic times, each one of us is obligated to give. You may have many more opportunities in this new year to fulfill the mitzvah to give and you surely may not be able to give as much in this new year as you did in the year now ended.

Yet know the one additional opportunity which will be offered you this year—one which not only will help so many here today and so many still to come but one which will help you maintain your humanity and help God make this the world God desires. For you will be given the opportunity to help build our new home, a place for prayer and assembly, for Torah study and learning deeds of loving kindness, for community and compassion. You will be given the opportunity to ensure the future of this congregation, of Milwaukee’s first Jewish congregation, for that matter, of Milwaukee’s first Jewish organization, carrying our history and that of Milwaukee’s Jews from 1856 far into the 21st century. Give—all the more so now as we face some difficult economic times.

Rabbi Harold Kushner retells a short story of an observant Jewish family he remembers from years ago called Charity. The mother is hospitalized with cancer and her husband and son go to visit her. Upon leaving the hospital, they encounter a beggar in the street. You know what the father does—he gives the beggar tzedakah. Exclaims the son, “Now I know that Mama will get better because at school, the Rabbi taught us tzedakah tatzil mimavet (the verse from Proverbs 10:2 and 11:4 which translates to “tzedakah saves from death”). The father looks at his son and responds, “I believe it does save people, but maybe not Mama.” The son, surprised, then asks, “Then who does it save?” The father looks back at the beggar and answers, “Him.”

But then Rabbi Kushner told of one commentator to the story who noted that the last word of the story is also a one-word sentence. That means the “H” in Him is capitalized. Yes, the father could have been referring to the beggar. He could just as profoundly been referring to God—or to the beggar as an image of God.

Who shall be poor and who shall be rich–through teshuvah, through tefillah, through tzedakah, we can all make it through the economic storms which may await. We can maintain our humanity, help save our brothers and sisters, and make more real God’s presence in this world. How Goldman Sachs will do is not in your hands—how you do is.


Sat, February 24 2024 15 Adar I 5784