Bal Tashkeit: Do Not Destroy

Image: Red apples on the branch (Pixel2013/Pixabay)

Jewish tradition has a special respect for trees. A passage in Deuteronomy starts a discussion that will go on for centuries:

(19) When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? 

(20) Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siegeworks against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced.

Deuteronomy 20: 19-20

This passage appears in a long discussion of the rules of war. Even in the heat of battle, fruit-bearing trees must not be disturbed. Why is this? We get a clue in verse 20: we may destroy trees that do not yield food. The fruit-bearing trees provide life for human beings, animals, and birds. To destroy them is to lay waste to the earth, because life on earth is interconnected.

This prohibition is inconvenient in all-out war. One is tempted to say, “But the other side has destroyed trees! We must teach them a lesson!” Or even, “These are really our trees, so we can destroy them!” And surely some military strategists argued for a work-around: what if we kill the trees but by some other means than cutting them down? The Sages have a fast answer for that:

6) “You shall not cut down its tree by wielding an axe against it”: This tells me only of iron (i.e., an axe blade). Whence do I derive (the same for destroying it by) diverting a water course from it? From “You shall not destroy its tree” — in any manner.

Sifrei Devarim 203:6-10

What if the tree is in the way of a farmer who is trying to plow? May he destroy a fruit tree? Again, the answer is quite firm:

Ravina objects to this: And let the tanna also enumerate one who chops down beautiful fruit trees in the course of plowing, and its prohibition is from here: “For you may eat of it, and you shall not chop it down”(Deuteronomy 13:18).

BT Makkot 22a

Some of the objections to the destruction of fruit trees are quite poetic:


When people cut down the wood of the tree which yields fruit, its cry goes from one end of the world to the other, and the voice is inaudible.


Pirke de R. Eliezer 34:4

Of course, there are times and places where it is necessary to destroy a tree, even a fruit tree. Maimonides gives us a succinct description of that in the Mishnah Torah:

Fruit-bearing trees must not be cut down outside of the city43 nor do we block their irrigation water causing the trees to dry up, as it says, “do not destroy her trees” (Deut. 20:19). Anyone who cuts down a tree receives lashes. This is not only at times of a siege, but anyone at anytime who chops down a fruit-bearing tree by for destructive purposes receives stripes. The tree may be cut down if it is damaging other trees or it is damaging another’s field, or because the tree is more valuable for its wood than its fruit. The Torah only forbids wanton destruction.

Mishneh Torah, Kings & Wars 6:8

Maimonides zeros in on the principle that the Sages derived from the discussion of fruit trees: “The Torah only forbids wanton destruction.” Thus from a Torah discussion of the rules of war, we learn the rules of peace as well: we are commanded to preserve this world, and not to engage in wanton destruction.

When I read in the news about Israelis destroying the olive trees belonging to Palestinians, all I can think is, “Who taught Torah to these people?” Of all the ways they might fight with the Palestinians, why choose this particular one? Olive trees normally live to a great age. They give fruit to eat, and oil for many purposes. If this is not “wanton destruction,” then what is?

I do not have an easy answer to the situation in the West Bank. I have friends on all sides of that particular argument. But I know one part of this is very simple: we are commanded not to destroy fruit trees.

Ancient olive trees. Photo by Dimitri Laudin/Shutterstock, all rights reserved.
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In Every Generation, We Must Leave Egypt

Image: “The Pharaoh Tutankhamun destroying his enemies. A pharaoh in a chariot, smashing many small military figures. Painting on wood. Egyptian Museum of Cairo. Public Domain.

In each and every generation a person must view himself as though he personally left Egypt, as it is stated: “And you shall tell your son on that day, saying: It is because of this which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:8)

Pesachim 116b

This very famous passage of Talmud is quoted in the Passover Haggadah. On the face of it, it commands us to do the impossible: to travel to Egypt, sometime about the 13th century BCE, so that we can personally experience the Exodus. I’ve been thinking about it ever since we began to read the Exodus story in Parashat Shemot a few weeks ago.

In every generation there is an Egypt – actually, a series of Egypts. The Jewish project, the path of Torah, is a constant effort to leave the confines of Mitzrayim (the Biblical name for Egypt, which also means “a narrow place.” Whether it is a geographical location, a moment in history, or a state of mind, each generation has the task of leaving the narrow place for something more expansive, more risky, more free.

What narrow places bind us today? I suggest that one of them here in the United States is the narrow place of institutional racism. I used to think that if I was “not a racist” then I’d done my job. If I did not use the n-word, if I did not make people with brown skins use the back door or a special bathroom, if I did not talk disparagingly about how “they” had certain behaviors, etc. I was “not a racist” and I was doing OK.

I have come to understand that while that kind of racist person is a big problem, there is a much worse problem. That is the pervasive institutional racism that sees to it that people with brown skins do not enjoy the securities and opportunities that white people enjoy. I can walk into a store, or a hotel, or a synagogue and assume that I will be welcome as long as I behave myself. This is not true for a person who has darker skin. They will be questioned. They will be scrutinized. They will not be given the benefit of the doubt. The people who do this will always have justifications ready for their behavior, but the consistency with which that behavior persists suggests that the justifications are a smoke screen.

Institutional racism is in the layout of our cities and it is embedded in our economy. From the 1940’s until the Federal Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968 African Americans were shut out of in the greatest wealth-building period in history, because they did not have the same access to mortgages and real estate as whites. You may say that was long ago, but the differences in income and personal wealth persist to this day. African Americans were hit harder by the 2008 Great Recession because they were more vulnerable than whites.

I could go on and on, talking about the institutional racism in our justice system, in education, in employment, in health care. I used to be a skeptic about these things. I used to think that the real problem was poverty. But I have become convinced from my reading that racism undergirds most of the serious issues facing the United States, poverty included, with the possible exception of climate change.

You might protest, “But rabbi, I’m white and I’m poor!” I do not deny that there are poor whites, and suffering whites. But I am more and more convinced that if we dealt with the institutional racism against Americans with brown skins, many things for whites would also improve. President John F. Kennedy was fond of saying that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Truly equitable courts, truly equitable banks, truly equitable education institutions would not have leeway to mistreat anyone.

If we are to leave this Egypt, we must leave not only the racists behind, we must find a way to leave institutional racism. We must listen to black voices with the same respect we give white ones. We must take people at their word. We must give the benefit of the doubt. We must do things that do not come easily when we have grown up in this narrow place, this Egypt, in which inequalities seem “normal.”

This year, as I read the Torah portions of the Exodus story, Shemot, Va’era, Bo, and B’shalach, I pledge to challenge myself to leave this Egypt. I pledge to listen to voices of people with color with respect. I pledge not to interrupt either with my voice or my thoughts. I pledge to do my part to educate other whites about this issue. I pledge to speak up when I see something wrong, and to pay attention and respond when others speak up.

It’s a long road out of Egypt. It begins with my first step.

In Which the Rabbi Admits to an Ableist Past

Image: On my scooter, carrying a sefer Torah for hakafah with Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin of Temple Sinai, Oakland. Photo by Linda Burnett.

I grew up in a family where illness of any kind was regarded as either weakness, or a moral flaw, or both. My mother had a major stroke when she was 40 and I was 16. My father insisted we keep her stroke secret from everyone outside the family for months. I chauffered my four brothers and sisters, cooked, did laundry, and lied to my teachers about why my homework was never done. Dad never explained why it was a secret, just that we must not tell a soul.

I learned to be secretive and ashamed of any problem with my body. So it was that in my 47th year I had quite a shock. I went to take the Graduate Record Exam, which was required for my application to rabbinical school, and it began with a questionnaire. One question asked me to click the box beside any disabilities I had. I started to skip it (never tell!) and it wouldn’t let me.

I knew that “None” was a lie, so I went down the list. Mobility? I looked uneasily at the cane next to my chair, and clicked. Hearing loss? I had just learned I had a 50% hearing loss, most likely from birth. I clicked it. Learning disabilities? In the same battery of tests that had revealed the hearing loss, I’d learned I had something called “auditory processing disorder” and some other things as well. So I clicked again, annoyed.

On the next screen it summarized me thus: Female, age 47, has advanced degrees, multiple disabilities. Multiple WHAT? I could not cope with those words. I pushed them out of my mind and concentrated on taking the test.

I spent the following six years trying to hide from my disabilities. They hampered my performance at school. I spent much of my time in pain, which further hampered my performance in school and at work. I was determined to ignore all of it, so sometimes I would finish leading a service bathed in sweat just from the pain of standing up all that time. In short, I cheated myself. I spent energy trying to deny what was quite obvious: I have multiple disabilities and a chronic pain problem. The pain problem stemmed from a bunch of injuries that had never been treated because my family and I had pretended they never happened, and from a foot surgery that had gone wrong. At this point, most of it is beyond repair.

The healing began one day when I was limping along after a group of colleagues who were engaged in conversation and were walking a bit too fast for me. I and another rabbi, one who had what I considered “legitimate disabilities” were left behind. I was fighting back tears, but she was annoyed. “Forget it, let’s just stop here, and get drinks and a nice dinner without them!” she said, turning in to the restaurant where we stood. Instead of excoriating herself for “being damaged,” as I would have done, she was mad that they’d been thoughtless, and immediately moved to meet our needs. I was astonished.

A few months later we were at a conference and the same rabbi came upon me lugging a suitcase up some stairs from the parking lot, dabbing away tears of pain. “Why don’t you have a handicap placard?” she demanded. “You obviously need one! Go to your doctor and get one!” “I can do that?” I said. “Of course you can! You need one!” and then she added softly, “It’s OK.”

“It’s OK.” I remember tearing up at those words. I had divided disabled people into two categories: people with “legitimate disabilities” – people in wheelchairs, deaf people, blind people, people who were not me. I regarded myself as a maligerer, a damaged person, a fake. It took her kindness for me to realize that ALL disabilities are legitimate. It is OK to need help. It is OK to ask for help. It is human to have imperfections in our bodies.

These days I have a blue handicap placard and a lightweight scooter. I don’t lead services or teach classes with sweat running down my back, because I am gentler with myself. If I need to sit, I sit. If I can’t stand without pain, I don’t stand. I don’t do things that are likely to aggravate my body, and I ask for accomodations when I need them. I do not call myself “lazy” when I need to lie down.

When a Jew internalizes the hatred of Jews and turns it upon themselves, we say they are a self-hating Jew. By much the same mechanism, ableism can be internalized. Very young, I absorbed the message that illness or disability was something to be ashamed of, and so I hid my troubles in shame. It was only when a disabled rabbi gave me permission to value myself as I was, by modeling that behavior for me, that things began to change for the better in my life.

Leviticus 19:14 teaches us that we are forbidden to curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind. We are not to treat people badly because they are disabled. This prohibition extends to ALL persons with disabilities, including ourselves.

If there is anyone reading this who identifies with some part of this story, I hope you will find a way to be kinder to yourself. Sometimes that means seeking medical attention: getting a hearing aid, for instance. Sometimes it means accepting the things that cannot be fixed, and getting accomodations that will allow you to live fully despite them. Whether it is a hearing aid, or a mobility scooter, or a power wheelchair, I hope you will not let shame and ableism cheat you from living your fullest life.

God created each of us “b’tzelem Elohim” – in the image of the Holy One. Whatever is going on with our bodies, we each contain that Divine spark, and we have a right to live fully and with dignity. May the day come soon when all feel free to ask for and get whatever they need to live a life of Torah, of freedom, and of dignity.

New Projects, New Priorities

Image: My little office assistant, Jojo, likes to sunbathe when she can. This is a photo of her enjoying the sunshine with the caption, “California Girl.”

I’ve hardly posted in the month of December, 2018. Some of that has been because I was traveling on a family vacation. Some of it has been because I had two different accidents that have taken time for recovery. But the big reason is that I’m starting some new projects, and something had to give.

First new project: This spring I’m co-teaching two terms of “Angels in the Bible and Beyond” with Dr. Jehon Grist through Lehrhaus Judaica. You can find information about those classes in our online catalog, on the page where my classes are listed. Teaching a new class means first doing a lot of reading and sorting: what that I know can be conveyed in x number of sessions and will be both interesting and possibly useful? What can I learn, to add to what I already know, that will make the class better? I love getting ready for a new class, because there’s so much for me to learn and to think over.

Second new project: I’m taking an old interest of mine, ritual studies, and turning that lens on the process of gerut, conversion to Judaism. There are several parts to such a project: my studies in ritual studies stopped in 1981, when I graduated from the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, but the field has been perking right along with new ideas and postmodernism and such. So task #1 was to catch up on what I’ve missed. Task #2 was to take a long hard look at the texts that underlie modern-day gerut, mostly but not exclusively in Talmud and in the codes. And Task #3 was to take my own memories of being a giyoret (female of ger) and of being a rabbi guiding people through conversions, to look at the rituals involved. I hope the result will be an academic article, but I’ll just have to see how it all goes.

Third new project: I’m looking at a new format for teaching online. Writing blog articles has been helpful to people, but I’m running out of topics and I have been told there’s a huge audience unlikely to read even short essays. So I am working on moving to video in the near future. Instructions on how to find me will be posted here, of course.

I’m not officially closing this blog, but it isn’t the focus for my creative energy right now. I will post from time to time, so those who subscribe to the blog will get notice of it, and those who follow me on Twitter will hear of it. So no worries!

 לַכֹּל, זְמָן; וְעֵת לְכָל-חֵפֶץ, תַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם. 


To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.

Ecclesiastes 3:1

As the seasons change, and the years turn, we change and turn to new tasks. I wish us all a peaceful conclusion to the old year of 2018, and many good works in the upcoming year.

A Text Written in Lava

Image: Sign in Lava Tree State Monument, Pahoa, HI: “STAY ON TRAIL. DANGEROUS EARTH CRACKS IN PARK AREA” (Photo: Ruth Adar)

Today I visited a most remarkable place: Lava Tree State Monument near Pahoa, on the Big Island of Hawai’i.

It is a place of profound beauty, and after watching videos of the eruption this summer that nearly obliterated this park, I also see it as a place of terror. The “Lava Trees” are actually molds of O’hi’a Lihua trees (Metrosideros polymorpha) formed during a 1790 eruption of Kilauea volcano. The lava flowed across the ground, burning everything in its path, coating the trunks of the trees, after which the trees burned away within their lava jackets. What is left is an eerie column of cooled lava, which looks as much like a person than a tree.

This is a photo of Linda standing next to one of the larger lava trees. As you can see, lichens, mosses and plants have taken root in the crevices of the “tree.”

Notice the asphalt path that runs through the park. It was a rare treat to visit a place for which I had truly equal access. As the sign in the photo at the top says, everyone has to stay on the path.

Volcanos always bring to mind the processes of creation and destruction, for the two happen simultaneously in an eruption. Nothing I know of, short of the ocean, can withstand a lava flow. It burns and destroys everything in its path. And yet it carries the seeds of creation: new land, hard and craggy at first, but the raw material for a lush landscape when the conditions come together. A bird drops an o’hi’a seed; the plant has the gift of breaking down lava into its elements, to slowly form soil. Other plants take advantage, and other birds drop other seeds. A forest grows, another eruption takes place, melting the old lava, burning the new growth, and the process begins again.

The opening of the book of Genesis is usually translated something like, “In the beginning God made the heavens and the earth.” In fact, the Hebrew conveys a sense of ongoing creation, something more like, “In the beginning God is creating the heavens and the earth.”

“Is creating” – that is what I saw in Hawai’i this week. Only a short distance away, a lava flow destroyed over 700 homes this past summer. Priceless wildlife habitat was destroyed, along with many rare creatures, like the green sea turtles which essentially boiled to death in the Kipoho tide pools as the lava swamped the pools. About 35.5 square kilometers of the big island were covered with lava, including about 3.5 square kilometers of new real estate added to the island. There were awful losses buried under a new beginning. “God is creating the heavens and the earth.”

Kilauea is not finished, although she may be quiet for a while. If geological history is an indicator, it has all happened many times before and will happen many times again. There may be, as Kohelet said, “Nothing new under the sun,” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) but the process of creation is one new beginning after another.

A tiny pink orchid blooms amidst the f ens of Lava Tree State Monument.
The photo is roughly full-size.

Are There Jewish Angels?

Image: Stone statue of an angel. (bernswaelz/pixabay)

The word usually translated “angel” in the Bible is the Hebrew malach (mah-LAKH) which means messenger. An angel-messenger appeared to Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22:10-12:

And Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to kill his son, and the angel of the Eternal called out to him out of heaven, and said, “Abraham! Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” And he said, “Do not lay your hand upon the young man, nor do anything to him, for now I know you are a God-fearing man, seeing that you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.”

Notice that while the angel is sent with a message, it speaks with the words of God – it is purely a messenger with no personality of its own.

Jacob sees angels in a dream in Genesis 28:12:

And he dreamed, and look! a ladder was set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and look! angels of God ascending and descending on it! And, look! The Eternal stood beside him, and said: ‘I am the Eternal, the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac. I will give you the land where you lie, to you will I give it, and to your descendants.

In this case, the angels are the visible accompaniment to a message delivered by God, if we accept the plain meaning of the text. The message of the angels is more ambiguous than the words of God; there is no plain meaning, yet there they are before the words, creating a scene in which Jacob hears the words.

In Numbers 22, we read the story of Balaam’s encounter with an angel. The King of Moab wants Balaam to curse Israel for him. God comes to Balaam at night and forbids him to curse Israel. Finally the King sends armed men to bring Balaam. God comes in a dream and says, “OK, you can respond to the king’s command, but don’t say anything unless I approve it.” God is angry when Balaam goes with the men, and sends a stern message by way of an angel in Numbers 22: 22-35:

God’s anger was kindled because he was going, and the angel of the Eternal took his stand in the road as his adversary. Now he was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him.  The donkey saw the angel of the Eternal standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand; so the donkey turned off the road, and went into the field; and Balaam struck the donkey, to turn it back onto the road. Then the angel of the Eternal stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side.  When the donkey saw the angel of the Eternal, it scraped against the wall, and scraped Balaam’s foot against the wall; so he struck it again.  Then the angel of the Eternal went ahead, and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left.  When the donkey saw the angel of the Eternal, it lay down under Balaam; and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff.  Then the Eternal opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?”  Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now!”  But the donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?” And he said, “No.”

Then the Eternal opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Eternal standing in the road, with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed down, falling on his face. The angel of the Eternal said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? I have come out as an adversary, because your way is perverse before me.  The donkey saw me, and turned away from me these three times. If it had not turned away from me, surely just now I would have killed you and let it live.” Then Balaam said to the angel of the Eternal, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now therefore, if it is displeasing to you, I will return home.” The angel of the Eternal said to Balaam, “Go with the men; but speak only what I tell you to speak.” So Balaam went on with the officials of Balak.

As in the case of Jacob, God speaks for Godself, but angels serve to emphasize the message. While God gives the order “it’s OK to go,” the angels express God’s emotion: anger. It’s all part of the message.

Biblical angels are messengers. In Tanakh, the Jewish Bible, only two are named (Gabriel and Michael) but many of them are in the stories. The prophet Ezekiel has descriptions of divine creatures that sound very much like angels. In the period after the return from Babylon, the literature about angels multiplied into books we now know as Apocrypha: Tobit, Enoch, and Esdras.

Later, the other Abrahamic religions would take up the concept of angels. Both Islam and Christianity have rich traditions about the same angels that are mentioned in Jewish and apocryphal texts.

Hesped? Eulogy? What’s the difference?

Image: Rabbi interviews mourners for the hesped. (LisaYoung/shutterstock)

Jewish traditions for speaking of the dead are ancient, going all the way back into the mists before historical time.

Sarah died in Kiriyat-Arba, now Hebron, in the land of Canaan, and Abraham began to lament (lispod) and weep (v’livkotah) for her.

Genesis 23:2

The verb lispod (to lament) is a very specific word. It means “lament,” which is an ancient literary form. The most famous examples of this literature are the book of Lamentations and psalms such as Psalm 79

It is sometimes translated “to eulogize” although a lament is not exactly a eulogy. Eulogy comes from Greek words meaning “beautiful” and “words.” A conventional eulogy is a speech of “beautiful words” about the dead person, avoiding saying anything bad about them. A lament is a literary form speaking from the kishkes (gut,) expressing grief and telling the truth about a situation. It ends in a statement of hope, sometimes rather a faint one, but always hope.

Strictly speaking, the words spoken about the dead at a Jewish funeral are not a eulogy; they are a hesped, from that same verb, “to lament.”  I learned how to write a hesped from Rabbi Steve Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. He taught us that there were traditionally two things that must happen for a proper hesped: we must (1) tell the truth and (2) make people cry. He acknowledged that it could be difficult to do the first one when the person in question was not a mensch. Then he reminded us that no human being is without flaws.

The truth of this came home to me early in my rabbinate, when I had the task of conducting a funeral for a man I’ll call “Abe” who definitely had two sides. This came out when I interviewed the family as I prepared the hesped. According to one of his adult children he was a wonderful person. According to another adult child, he was extremely cruel. I had met him several times and had sensed a hint of this duality. 

It was important to both children that I “tell the truth” about their dad, and it meant walking a very fine line. I wrote a hesped in which I acknowledged his many public good works, and said, “Anyone who knew Abe well, knew that he could be very determined that his way to do something was the only way, regardless of the consequences.”  All of the adult children felt that I had presented him accurately. No one wanted a scandal; they just wanted to hear the truth so that they could mourn the person they remembered.

I think about that hesped every time a public figure dies. The media has a tendency to eulogize the dead, to refer only to the things that people admired about them. This is in keeping with the Western tradition of eulogy, which we inherit from Greek and Roman culture. We “don’t speak ill of the dead.”

A counter-narrative arises (these days, on Twitter) that insists that the dead person was BAD and that everyone saying the good things is missing the point. Both the hagiographists and the critics are mistaken: human lives always are a mix of good and bad deeds, and not all deeds are experienced in the same way by the people affected.

Jewish tradition guides me in talking about the dead. I acknowledge their humanity by noting both the good and the bad. Before burial, I detail the good – for the sake of the mourners – and acknowledge their flaws. Later on, there is plenty of time to be blunt, if there is reason to do so.

Talking about the dead honestly is a difficult task. That is why Jewish tradition encourages us to leave the formal eulogy, the hesped, to a rabbi,a professional who has been trained in its complexities and pitfalls.