Thursday, January 31, 2013

Guns and Moses


Guns and Moses

 by Joshua Hammerman

This week’s portion of Yitro includes the Ten Commandments, including that oft misinterpreted, “Thou shalt not kill.”  The Hebrew word found there is not “kill,” but “murder.”  Judaism does allow some killing, including the killing of animals for food - albeit in a strictly regulated, humane fashion - and the killing of human beings in self defense, including morally justifiable wars.

But murder is a different matter entirely.  The prohibition includes traditional concepts of cold-blooded criminal behavior, but the commentator Ibn Ezra explains that the definition of murder goes beyond that.  He writes, “One may murder by the hand and by the tongue, by tale bearing and character assassination.  One may murder also by carelessness, by indifference, by the failure to save human life when it is in your power to do so.”

By this interpretation, 30,000 Americans are murdered in this country by guns every year.  In addition, there are hundreds of thousands of walking wounded in this country, people like Gabby Giffords (who brought us all to tears with her appearance this week) whose lives have been unalterably changed by those hand-held weapons of mass destruction that we call guns.  The Torah has commanded us not to be indifferent in this matter.  And now, in the aftermath of a string of unbearable tragedies, culminating in Newtown, the call for common sense gun reform has become the moral cry of this generation.  

That’s why, when extended a special invitation, I went to Washington this week, to join 80 clergy organized by Lifelines to Healing.  We received a White House briefing from the Vice President’s senior staffers working on this issue and then we presented our joint clergy statement, Healing the Soul of America from Gun Violence, both to the Administration and then to a press conference on Capitol Hill.  As we ascended the Hill, it became clearer than ever before why I was there.   Like Abraham Joshua Heschel with Martin Luther King in Selma so many years before, I felt like we were “praying with our feet.”

This is nothing less than the Civil Rights movement of our time.  This is a true “Right to Life” initiative, in fact, one that cuts across all lines of race, socioeconomic background and creed. 

As our statement says:

We affirm that every life is precious in the eyes of our creator and our God has no pleasure in the death of anyone.  We are committed to uniting around the common pain and loss of who have suffered in Newtown and New Orleans, Chicago and Columbine and Oak Creek and Oakland.  We are committed through our work to heal the soul of a nation.  We will be vigilant partners in the struggle to transform our communities from the valley of the shadow of death to the land of the living.

Ridding our schools, streets and homes of gun violence is a moral issue of the highest order.  People think that current attitudes will never change, but they are changing as we speak, just as they changed over the past generation regarding smoking, seat belts and littering.  Gun owners and NRA members understand the need for common sense reform, especially regarding background checks.  Nearly 90% of Americans support this.  No doubt, guns have become an enormous part of American culture, so much so that even at a conference devoted to reducing their impact, we kept on finding ourselves using expressions like “armed with arguments,” “shoot from the hip,” and “fire away.” I'm purposely refraining from using "bullet points" in this article.

Gun violence is about teen gangs and angry husbands, it’s about homicide and suicide, it’s about household accidents with make-believe cowboys and it's about mentally unstable (and undiagnosed or unreported) young adults armed to the teeth.  Until Aurora and Newtown, most in suburbia paid little heed to the massacres occurring every day in America’s inner cities.  As one red-state evangelical minister stated plainly at my conference, "Shame on us."  Now we are feeling their pain too – for just as God feels the pain of all children equally, so should we weep not only for those innocent victims in Newtown, but for 15 year old Hadiya Pendelton, who was shot a mile from the President's Chicago residence this week, after seeing him sworn in last week as a majorette in her school band. And we weep with Shirley Chambers the Chicago mother who lost all four of her children to gun violence.  All human life is of equal value.  Let those four Chambers children now become the fourth child at our Seders this year, along with the Newtown 20 and all the children, everywhere, who have fallen victim to our society's gun-sanity: they are the "child who cannot ask," because we allowed them to be killed on our watch.

Yes, Ibn Ezra was right.  “Thou Shalt Not Murder” means all of us, all who have allowed human beings to be murdered when we could have done something to stop it.  We are guilty of betraying the Sixth Commandment with our misguided understanding of the Second Amendment.  In fact, the Second Amendment is not in any danger of being violated if we take semi-automatic assault weapons, the ones designed for military use, out of the hands of civilians.  No one is violating any sacrosanct freedoms if we ban high capacity magazines, like the one used in Aurora.  No, in fact, we are defending a sacred freedom: the freedom to stay alive. And let’s face it.  The NRA is funded 80% by gun manufacturers.  For their leadership, this isn’t about defending freedoms.  This is about defending profits.

In Detroit last week, a third grader came to school with a gun.  A third grader! When the police asked why, he said, "I need it for protection." 

Guns or People?

The old argument that guns don’t kill people, people do, no longer holds up (if it ever did).   Wayne LaPierre’s claim that the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun is fatally flawed.  Our sources tell us that the world is not full of bad and good people.  We are all good and we are all bad.  Moses himself was bad at times – he killed an Egyptian officer, after all, when his own life was not in danger.  What drove him was anger, and anger got the better of him much later on, as well, when he disobeyed God’s command by hitting the rock rather than speaking to it (Numbers 20:12).

It was for that incident that Moses was denied entry into the Promised Land.  Some might think it a harsh punishment, but the Torah is giving us a clear message here that excessive violence can never be tolerated.  Moses was angry at the people, calling them rebels, and his anger got the best of him. So he resorted to blows rather than words.  If even Moses, our greatest leader, was susceptible to irrational violence, then it’s not about crazy people doing crazy things; it’s about perfectly normal and good people who fly off the handle and do crazy things.  The difference is, now we have semi-automatic rifles, the kind built by Russians to kill Nazis, and these rifles are designed to spray bullets without aiming, to hit soldiers randomly.  Those are the bullets that hit Shirley Chambers’ 15 year old daughter randomly, and so many more.

Back in Moses’ time, people got just as angry as they do now, but it was much harder to kill. Back in Moses’ time, people got just as angry as they do now, but it was much harder to kill. And people did not take such pride in their weaponry. It’s hard to imagine that Moses (the original Moses, not the guy who played him) would have said that his trusty rod would have to be pried from “my cold, dead hands.” Given his history, if he had wanted to trade his rod in for a rifle, Moses might have had to wait a bit before passing a background check.

I would venture to guess that while people in our time get no angrier, they get a lot more depressed.  Mental illness effects one in four.  Suicide rates are rising, especially among young people and the military, and suicide is much more likely to be “successful” when you stick a gun in your mouth than when you overdose on pills.  When you use a gun, there usually is no second chance.  That’s why Moses did not get a second chance. The Torah understood how serious violence can become when it spirals out of control.  The spinning bullet is the embodiment of that spiral. And like a diamond, a bullet is forever.  Anger and depression impact us all.  That does not make us bad people.  Pills and rods don’t kill.  Sticks and stones merely break bones.  But a gun in the hand of an angry man or depressed woman – it’s the gun that kills, Mr. LaPierre. 

It’s the gun that kills.

at White House briefing

Rebuilding an Alliance and Saving Jews

Assault rifles and large magazines must be banned.  Even if it looks like Congress won’t muster the votes, remember that Martin Luther King came to Washington and told President Johnson it was time for a voting rights act.  Johnson said he had already spent his political capital and that it would take ten years.  The Civil Rights Act was a reality within ten months.

I am proud that I was joined by 8 other rabbis among the 80 at the conference.  Given that a major focus of these conversations was the plight of the inner city, this gave us a chance to begin to rebuild that alliance between African Americans and Jews that was so strong in the ‘60s.  This possibility was not lost on us.  We were touched by their pain and they appreciated our mere presence.  And we also understood that this is an issue that is paramount for all of us. It just took Newtown to wake us up to that fact.

See the photo below and tell me where it was taken:

No, it was not Newtown.  It was the Northridge JCC shooting in 1999.  As a Jew, I care about all innocent human beings, but I also know that my own people are especially threatened by a gun running culture that allows, through gun show loopholes, for white supremacists like Buford Furrow Jr.  to procure unconscionably lethal weapons without a problem and blast 70 gunshots into the complex with the intent of killing lots of Jewish kids.

Ending this plague is a moral imperative AND a Jewish imperative.  It is universal and particularistic.  It is the cry of our generation.

That’s why I won’t let my Congressional representatives off the hook.   The President's Plan to Protect Our Children and Our Communities by Preventing Gun Violence is robust enough to address all major aspects of this crisis, including school security and mental illness.  But it must be passed in full.

So this is the time for action.  I’ve collected a number of Gun Violence Resources for you, including

Take a look at them.  I have signed up to take the bus to Hartford for the March for Change on Feb. 14.  If you are coming on the Stamford bus, let us know.  TBE will be there in loud voice that day.  I am going to present our board with some options as to what we might do as a congregation to make our voice be heard collectively for common-sense actions to reduce gun violence that does not threaten the rights of gun owners.

TBE’s Francie Leader has written an open letter to the congregation, “Why I am going to the "March for Change."  As she puts it, “Change is what we need.”  Indeed we do, and now is the moment for it.

At my conference, we were told that the voices that are most influential at a time like this are those of teachers, police chiefs, mayors and clergy.  But you are an extension of all of the above, including the clergy.  We represent you.  You need to be heard, and when your message is coming from a place of faith, from a wellspring of moral wisdom, affirmation and resolve, it is all the more powerful.  Set aside Sunday morning, March 3, for a teach-in, where I’ll be presenting some Jewish sources related to this topic (some of which are linked above).  Did you know that the gun control laws in Israel are much stronger than here?  That’s partly because Jewish tradition believes strongly in the infinite value of every human life.

Life has become cheap indeed in America, a country where someone was likely killed by  gun in the time it took for me to write this essay.  30,000 per year is 30,000 too many.

For our children’s sake, this gun-sanity must stop.

Now is the time for us to make that happen.

Healing the Soul of America from Gun Violence: Clergy Statement

Healing the Soul of America from Gun Violence

Lifeline to Healing Clergy Statement

We share in the outrage growing from every corner of our nation that we have abandoned our young people to the clutches of violence fueled by greed, fear and our despair.  We bear witness to the deep pain of our nation’s people, whose loved ones are dying needlessly in our communities across the land, that our God commands we speak out about the sanctity of all life and affirm that all have the right to live in peace and safety.   We further assert that people of faith everywhere are commanded by our God to work tirelessly and in coalition with one another across racial lines, class and place line, age and gender lines to vigorously confront the proliferation and increasing lethality of guns in our neighborhoods and cities, towns and streets, malls and schools.

We affirm that every life is precious in the eyes of our creator and our God has no pleasure in the death of anyone.  We are committed to uniting around the common pain and loss of who have suffered in Newtown and New Orleans, Chicago and Columbine and Oak Creek and Oakland.  We are committed through our work to heal the soul of a nation.  We will be vigilant partners in the struggle to transform our communities from the valley of the shadow of death to the land of the living.

To this end, we seek:

1.      Universal Background Checks for all gun sales
2.      Ban on Assault Weapons and High Capacity Magazines
3.      Investments in Mental Health and Public Health Support
4.      Targeted investments and Approaches from Federal Government in Urban Cities most impacted by gun violence.

In Solidarity,

Clergy of the Lifelines to Healing Campaign

Why I am going to the "March for Change"

Below is a letter from a Beth El congregant, imploring us to attend the March for Change - and bring our children - and to get further involved in this important cause. Thank you to Francie for writing it! 

Dear Fellow TBE Congregants,

My son Joshua and I attended the TBE Teens event, “Getting Clear” on Guns featuring Lisa Labella from CT Guns Against Violence and our own Robert Lesser, who helped to inform everyone about what it takes to come together and show support when trying to affect change.  Change is what we need.  Change in the current gun laws.  But without a strong show of support, those laws will go unchanged. Across the Country, there is momentum building like never before in the effort to bring about tighter gun laws regarding registration, background checks, ownership and most importantly, accountability. We are all witnessing this momentum every day…in the news, in grassroots organizations, in community demonstrations and online sites…to keep this issue front and center until change happens.  This momentum is especially strong and critical for these gun laws to change right here in Connecticut.  To make this happen, as Uncle Sam says, “We Need You!”

On Feb. 14th, from 11AM-1PM at the State Capitol in Hartford, there will be an important event…March for Change.  By joining with Connecticut Against Gun Violence on February 14th, we will show our solidarity as we appeal to our legislators to change the gun laws.  There are twelve school buses which will stop at multiple locations across lower Fairfield County to take us to March for Change. The cost is $26.00 per person round trip.  The site to reserve seats is

Everyone is asked to wear green to honor the victims that have forced this nation into action.  Please share this information with everyone you know and consider bringing your children that day to give them a real life example of what can happen when everyone comes together to bring about change…from the heart.  I personally couldn't think of a more important lesson to share with Joshua. 

Francie Leader

Gun Violence Resources

I've collected several resources to help explain why the fight against gun violence is a moral imperative of our generation, and what we can do about it:

Overview of the President's plan
Now is the Time: The President's Plan to Protect Our Children and Our Communities by Preventing Gun Violence
A Fact Sheet from Connecticut Against Gun Violence
FAQs from CT Against Gun Violence
The Enough Campaign
Rabbinical Assembly Source Sheet: Gun Control-Individual Freedoms vs. Communal Needs
Jewish Sources on Gun Control and the Right to Bear Arms
Guide to Effective Messaging in Preventing Gun Violence
Healing the Soul of America from Gun Violence: Joint Clergy Statement
Interfaith Coalition Calls for a National Call In Day

Why I am going to the "March for Change" (Francie Leader - TBE Member)

 “I felt my feet were praying.”  - Abraham Joshua Heschel

In Washington, heading up Capitol Hill, we were praying with our feet...

Friday, January 25, 2013

Tu B'Shevat O Gram

Join us tonight for services at 7:30, with our special guest harpist Lisa Tannebaum and speaker Gershom Gorenberg, who will speak tonight on "The Crisis of Israeli Democracy and What to Do About it," and tomorrow morning on "Israel and Diaspora: A New Relation for a New Generation."  Gorenberg is the author, most recently, of "The Unmaking of Israel," a superb analysis of Israeli society today. This Shabbat we also welcome guests from other Fairfield County Conservative shuls as part of 5-7th grade Shabbaton, staffed by our friends from Camp Ramah.  We've got 50 kids coming, and they will be here all Shabbat long.  Kudos to Al Treidel, all who will be staffing this event and all the parents who are helping out.

Israel and Passionate Centrism

Having lived my entire life as a "passionate centrist" (I'm a middle child, after all), long promoting a Conservative movement espousing "passionate centrism," it's nice to have seen this week that Israelis too are tired of polarization.  The polar extremes are there, still, as they are here in the U.S., but those polar ice caps are melting - and in this non ecological sense it's a good thing.

David Hazony put it best in the Forward:

Indeed, if Israelis seem disillusioned by the Oslo Accords and the prospects for peace-through-negotiations, they're also disillusioned by the settlement movement and the prospects for peace-through-strength. There has been, quite decisively, a shift away from the extremes toward the center. 
Yair Lapid's passionate defense of religious pluralism, delivered to Conservative rabbis last spring, has been making its way around the Web, and for good reason.  In Israel, centrism is not new, but passionate centrism is.  As a congregant commented to me, "modern Jewish history has been characterized by ferocious debates about ideas that are now no longer respected."  Jews have long argued about ideology but now, the ideologues are taking a back seat.  The Labor party has stored its red flags in the attic and the revisionists are now recoilong as well, realizing that they went just a bit too far last week, when Jeremy Gimpel of HaBayit Hayehudi (Naftali Bennett's party) was caught on tape speaking to supporters in Florida about blowing up the Dome of the Rock and building a third temple.  My sense is that this revelation, which got big play in Israel, was a significant cause behind the late shift of many voters to the Lapid camp.  He converted a whole bunch of Israelis into passionate centrists.

Memo to right wing politicians in the US and Israel: Next time you speak to supporters at a Florida parlor meeting, make sure no one is taping. 

Gimpel claimed last week that he was joking.  Yeah.  Well, his "joke" likely kept him from being elected.  He was 14th on the party list and the final Knesset results left his party with only 12 seats, less than was expected.

J.J. Goldberg lays out nicely the hard choices ahead for Lapid and Netanyahu.  The most likely outcome, it appears, is a secular government that will be static regarding an already moribund Peace Process but will make significant progress on social issues and matters of religion and state.   If the region stabilizes, the Iranian threat abates and the Palestinians indicate a true willingness to engage in dialogue (each of these will require much US involvement), it will be time for Bibi and Yair to switch partners and form a government more able to negotiate.  But by then, there well could be new elections. 

In any event, Lapid is now a factor and passionate centrism is a force to be reckoned with. 
Tying the elections nicely into the Torah portion, Storahtelling's Amichai Lau Lavie writes,

Moses instructs Joshua, at the end of this week's epic Torah text, B'shalach. "Choose the people who will fight for us against the tribe of Amelek" (Ex.17:9) . This is happening five minutes after the song of the sea and the big euphoria of the Exodus. Bam. right into war and the choosing of people is the first thing that they have to as a nation to survive- pick leaders to battle the dangers. It's not at all the same kind of choosing as the one we had this week but inherent in the action is the same primal drive - for security, for trusted leaders, good people who will stand up for real values, and fight  fear. Amalek, in many traditions, does not represent another race or nation - Amalek means Fear. And to stand up against fear we need good people, leaders, teachers, friends.

The people chosen this week, as Moses told Joshua, are our people - people for the greater good of this bigger reality, one way or another, I hope and trust - it's all good choices. There are new leaders, some of them good friends, who will help us with more trust, less fear, less wars, more peace, and change for the better.

Tu B'Shevat Resources

This weekend we celebrate Shabbat Shira and Tu B'Shevat.  As we reflect upon the deeper spiritual and environmental messages of the New Year for Trees, take a look atBeth Boyer's excellent d'var Torah on the secret (Jewish) life of bees (and the name of the heroine of this week's haftarah, Deborah, means "bee").   Also, this week's portion brings the Children of Israel through the Red Sea and into the wilderness, and that's where their incessant kvetching begins.   They should have read The ten things we think will make us happier, but don't.  They didn't, but you can.

There's so much out there about this holiday that it's hard to separate the forest from the trees, so to speak.  Here are some Tu B'Shevat resources:

-          A nice collection of freeware on the holiday, called "Tree Bien" can be foundhere

-          The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), found at has lots of Tu B'Shevat information.

-  has Mishnaic insight on the spirituality embedded in a simple blessing over "the fruit of the tree."'

-          You can find a number of Tu B'Shevat links (including seders) here.

-          Tu B'Shevat is a fine time to reconnect with that Land of Israel. Our ancestors in Europe looked forward to that taste of dates, figs and other fruits from the holy land, including (ugh) carob (aka Bokser).  As we read in a nice Tu B'shevat Haggadah at, "After the exile of the Jews from Israel, Tu B'Shevat became a day on which to commemorate our connection to Eretz Israel. During much of Jewish history, the only observance of this day was the practice of eating fruit associated with the land of Israel. A tradition based on Deuteronomy 8:8 holds that there are five fruits and two grains associated with it as a "land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and [date] honey." Almonds were also given a prominent place in Tu B'Shevat meals since the almond trees were believed to be the first of all trees in Israel to blossom. Carob or St John's bread - was the most popular fruit to use, since it could survive the long trip from Israel to Jewish communities in Europe and North Africa."

-          We can experience the Israeli natural landscape more directly at

-          And the best way to show that love, naturally, to be there. Second best? Plant a tree: Go to the JNF web site at No, you won't be able to find a photo of "your" tree there. But you will be able to become a modern day Honi Ha Ma'agel (Honi the Circle Drawer). Find out about him at, and bring the kids along for this part of the journey (nice music too at this site). "Just as those who came before us plant for us," Honi said back in the days of the Talmud (, "so do we plant for our children."

-          Finally, my personally favorite Jewish environmental website, Hazon.  Here istheir explanation of Tu B'Shevat. Also, Healthy, Sustainable Tu B'Shvat Resourcesand the piece de résistance:   the Hazon Tu B'Shevat Haggadah.  The Hazon Tu B'Shvat Haggadah is designed to help you think about your responsibility towards the natural world in relation to four different levels: physical place, community, world, and spirituality. Each section of the haggadah relates to one of these four levels of responsibility, and offers texts, questions, and activities to spark conversation around your seder table. You may also download the Haggadah in booklet form.

Happy Tu B'Shevat and Shabbat Shalom!

The Lapid Factor

When is no change actually a political earthquake?  Yesterday, in Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu was reelected, but his party underperformed and the right wing / religious block found itself in a flat footed tie with the left and center parties, 60-60, in the ideological makeup of the next Knesset.  Israel's not veering to the far right after all.  It is veering to the middle.  The new Knesset will have more women than ever before, and the centrists have a new champion, Yair Lapid, a kingmaker whose Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party shocked the world by earning 19 Knesset seats. Lapid has committed himself to making Israel a far more progressive and inclusive society.  There is a future, indeed.
As for the peace process, an afterthought in these elections, I concur with Marc Schulman, who wrote, 

"The overwhelming majority of the Israeli public clearly does not think negotiation with the Palestinians is the most important item on our agenda. At the same time, the majority disapproves of many of the recent actions taken by Prime Minister Netanyahu. Israelis are happy to ignore the Palestinian problem. They have no interest in making the problem worse. Most Israelis do not want to take any more risks for peace. At the same time, the majority does not want any more settlements. Israelis want a strong Israel. However, they also do not want to poke the President of the United States in the eye."

And, I add, they understand that poking the President in the eye at a time when an attack on Iran is becoming increasingly likely, amounts to diplomatic malpractice.

I've been watching Lapid carefully for a while and I think Americans are going to like what they see (and they may be seeing a lot of him, as there is talk of his becoming Foreign Minister).  I opened my Kol Nidre Sermon with a story Lapid recalled at AIPAC, where he spoke eloquently about his father's miraculous escape from the Nazis as a child in Budapest.  He also spoke to Conservative rabbis at the Rabbinical Assembly convention last spring.  That in itself was remarkable for an Israeli politician.  He is a member of a Conservative (Masorti) shul in Israel.  On my blog (click here), you can find a brief video of what Lapid said regarding religious pluralism. It's something you have rarely if ever heard from an Israeli politician.  You'll also find there a recent column of his as well as today's "Letter from Netanya" from Jan Gaines, reporting on the elections.

All of which is a reminder for you to JOIN US THIS WEEKEND AS GERSHOM GORENBERG TELLS US WHAT IT ALL MEANS (see flyer below).  The snow is supposed to be very light.  You can warm up here - and on Friday night a special treat, as once again we'll be joined by harpist Lisa Tannebaum.  And on Shabbat morning after service, a delicious lunch will be served!

See you this Shabbat!


The ten things we think will make us happier, but don't:

This week's Torah portion traces the early stops of the Israelites in the Wilderness. If they had read this before they began their incessant kvetching, it would have saved them much tzuris. But they were slaves still - slaves to their cravings.

The ten things we think will make us happier, but don't:

1-To become rich, powerful and famous 
2-To treat the universe as if it was a mail order catalogue for our desires and fancies 
3-To yearn for the “freedom” to do everything that comes into your mind. (This is not freedom, but being the slave of your own thoughts). 
4-To constantly seek pleasant sensations, one after the other (Pleasurable sensations soon become dull, and often become unpleasant).
5-To maliciously take revenge on someone who has hurt you. (Doing so, you become as mean as them and you poison your own mind.)
6-“It I had all that, I will surely be happy,” or “If I don’t have that, I can’t be happy.” (Such predictions usually don’t turn out to be true.)
7-To always be praised and never face criticism. (This will never help you to progress.)
8-To vanquish all you enemies. (Animosity never brings happiness.)
9-To never face adversity. (This will make you weak and vulnerable.)
10-To put all your efforts into taking care of just yourself. (Altruistic love and compassion are the roots of genuine happiness.)

~Matthieu Ricard, Buddhist monk, an author, translator, and photographer

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Buzz on the Environment Bee-fore Tu’Bee’Shevat: Beth Boyer D'var Torah

Here's the transcript of Beth Boyer's sensational d'var Torah given last Shabbat.

The Buzz on the Environment Bee-fore Tu’Bee’Shevat
Shabbat Bo, January 19, 2013
Beth Boyer

So there’s this bee, and she’s been out gathering nectar and returns to her hive. She sees a sister just sitting at the hive entrance. “Why are you sitting here, why aren’t you out collecting nectar?”  She asks. “Well,” replies the sister, it’s starting to get cold, there’s not much in the way of flowers blooming right now, there’s not much to get.”  “Not true,” replies the first bee. “There’s a Bar Mitzvah at the synagogue down the street. There are tons of flowers, believe me, you’ll have plenty to choose from.” Her sister thanks her and flies off towards the synagogue. She returns later and sees the first bee just heading out from the hive again. “Did you find the synagogue?” she asks. “Sure did, I just came back from there and I’m full of nectar!” replies the second bee. “What’s that on your head?” asks the first bee. “It’s a kippa” says the second bee. “I know it’s a kippa, why are you wearing it?” “I didn’t want them to think I was a wasp!”

When someone learns that I am a beekeeper, the first thing they ask me is whether I get stung, and doesn’t that hurt, and why would any sane person mess around with bees—they’re dangerous, right? So let me begin by dispelling some myths about bees, then we’ll discuss honey and bees in the Torah, and Tu B’shevat. What we all need to understand about bees is that they are actually very gentle creatures. People think I’m kidding when I say that; almost everyone has been stung at some point in their lives, and almost always those stings are attributed to bees. However, bees, and this applies to all bees; bumble bees, carpenter bees, honeybees, mason bees, and many other native bee species, are not aggressive. Wasps, on the other hands, or members of the Vespid Genus, do tend to be more aggressive. Only females, of both types of insects, bees and wasps, sting. The reason is that the stinger is a modified ovipositor, or the organ a female uses to lay eggs. Males don’t have this organ, so they cannot sting. My kids are able to tell the difference between a worker bee, or female, and a drone, or a male bee. They will get a drone to crawl on them and freak out their friends, who don’t know that the drone cannot sting. It’s great fun.

But the stinger of a bee has barbs on it. And when the bee inserts the stinger into a target, which could be you, when the bee moves away, or when you brush it off you, the stinger remains in you. This kills the bee. It is not, therefore, in the bee’s interest to sting unless it’s really necessary to do so, because if she does, she will die. Vespidae on the other hand, do not have a barbed stinger. Some, like yellow jackets, make their nests in the ground where people and pets can easily step on them, at which point, they all come out to defend their nest. With no barbs on their stingers, they can sting multiple times and survive. Almost all stings people receive are the result of wasps, not bees.  We have three large colonies of bees in our back yard, hopefully I’ll be able to add one more colony this spring. Each colony has in the neighborhood of 50,000-100,000 bees, so in my 1 ½ acre yard I have about 300,000 bees during the height of summer. We also have a swimming pool, a swing set, a hammock and a great area for playing ball, all within 20 yards of the hives. In the 7 years we’ve had bees, we have never had one person stung in our yard who was engaged in recreational activities. I have been stung when I’ve been working in the hives, but seldom, and usually because a bee is particularly agitated and is defending her hive, her queen and her honey.

So now that you’re all convinced that bees really are gentle creatures who mean you no harm, let’s go on to dispel some other myths. Throughout the Torah, Israel is called, “Erezt zavat chalav u d’vash,” The land that flows with milk and honey. The honey mentioned is generally not considered to be what you and I call honey. Many scholars believe the d’vash in the Torah is date honey. It’s easily made by grinding dates together with water. By saying the land flowed with milk and honey, God was telling the Israelites that the land would support their way of life. To have milk, you needed to have goats and sheep. To have those animals, there needs to be sufficient grass for them to use to pasture, and rain to nourish the grass. To have honey meant there was also ample room for agriculture, even date trees, which require large amounts of water to nourish them. To a desert-people, a land flowing with milk and honey meant a land which would sustain them, their animals and their crops—because there was water. It also meant a place where both herders and farmers could live together; the entire Israelite community would be supported and nourished by the land.

So back to what we call honey—the product of bees. There are times when bee-honey, or honey-comb is mentioned in the Torah. There’s a very strange story of Samson, Shimshon, in Judges, 14:8, taking honey from bees out of a hive that was living in the skeleton of a lion which Shimshon had killed a year earlier. In Psalms, 19:11, David wrote, “The fear of the Lord is pure, abiding forever; the judgments of the Lord are true, righteous altogether, more desirable than gold, sweeter than honey, than drippings of the comb.” There is a reference to bees—devarim—in Isaiah, 7:18, and a few verses later honey is mentioned, we assume from the bees. 

But there are now scholars who believe that at least some of the 55 references to honey in the Torah are in fact referring to bee honey. In recent years, scientists and archeologists have uncovered significant archeological evidence of a thriving beekeeping industry during the time of the Kings. In 2007, the Near Eastern Archeology Review published a fascinating paper (fascinating to me, anyway) on the extensive findings of an apiary—the Latin word for a bee-yard—in Tel Rehov in the Beit Shean valley.[1] That is south of the Kineret/Sea of Galilee, about one half mile west of the Jordan River. Excavations at the site uncovered a commercial operation of more than 100 clay bee hives located in the center of a very populated city (more evidence that bees pose no danger to people). Dating of the beehives indicate they are from about 960-870 BCE, placing them during the second Iron Age. To provide context to that time period, Solomon’s temple was completed in 960. In 930 the land of Israel was split into the Northern and Southern kingdoms, and around 900 is when many scholars date the Torah as having been written (those who don’t believe it was written by Moses).[2] These are the earliest managed bee hives ever discovered, and they were found, where else, but in the land of milk and honey! Long before this time, in fact in pre-historic times and there are cave drawings to prove it, early humans hunted bees for their honey, which still takes place in some cultures today.

The very careful observer of detail in the Torah will notice something about honey that seems to be incongruous. That is that honey seems like a food that ought to not be kosher. After all, food from non-kosher animals is not kosher. A common example given camel-milk. The camel is not kosher, so neither is food that comes from it. A honeybee is not kosher, you can’t eat one, so why is honey kosher? The reason given is that honey is not produced by the bee. Let me explain what honey is, exactly.  The worker bee leaves the hive and goes to a flower. The flower produces a sugar, fructose, in the form of its nectar. The nectar is not only sweet, it smells wonderful, and bees’ highly sensitive antennae smell the nectar and are drawn to the flower. They gather the nectar by sucking it up, and as they do, they rub up against the stamen of the flowers which contain pollen. The pollen gets stuck all over the bee’s little hairs and as a bee flits from flower to flower gathering nectar, and gets deposited on flowers as she goes from one flower to another, which is what fertilizes the flower and allows it to develop.

The bee carries the nectar back to the hive in what is called her honey stomach, and it combines with an enzyme the bees produce. Once in the hive, the bee deposits the nectar into a wax cell and then the bees flutter their wings over the comb to evaporate some of the water in the nectar. When it has reached 18% water content, it is thick and viscous, what we call honey. It’s evaporated flower nectar, with some enzymes added in. Then the bees cover the comb with a thin layer of wax to prevent more dehydration. Since the bees don’t produce the honey, the way a camel produces milk, it is considered kosher, as it is not technically the product of the bee. And of course, 18% is very interesting. Nectar becomes honey at that particular percentage of moisture, at Chai!

Honey, while important as a source of sweetener, is just a small gift that we receive from bees. The real benefit of bees is not their honey, or their wax (used for light, in art and in early metal casting), it is the pollination services they provide to flowers. Often, when we think of flowers, we think of tulips, daffodils, roses, hydrangeas, the flowers people plant around their yards or use in bouquets as decorations and gifts. But the vast majority of flowers are not ornamental; they are the precursors to our food. Think of a fruit or a vegetable. This is a very abbreviated list of foods that develop as a result of having been pollinated by bees: okra, onion, celery, beet, mustard, rapeseed (canola), broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, turnips, peas, beans, peppers, cucumbers, squash, pumpkin, cashews, almonds, brazil nuts, chestnuts, apples, watermelons, cantaloupe, oranges, grapefruits, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, lemons, limes, coconuts, coffee, avocados, grapes, tomatoes, and really the list goes on. It is said that every third bite of food humans consume is the result of insect pollination, and honeybees account for 80% of that pollination. Without bees, we would not have fruits and vegetables or many nuts (most grains are wind pollinated). We wouldn’t have much to wear other than skins or wool, either, since cotton and flax are both pollinated by bees. Without bees, we would starve (and we’d wear itchy clothes while starving).

That is why several years ago when mass die-offs of bees began to occur, scientists throughout the world were alarmed. Economists were as well, since bee-pollinated crops are estimated to have a value of $217 Billion per year![3] The problem was termed Colony Collapse Disorder, and it caused the death of between 30-90% of large commercial beekeepers’ colonies of honeybees. Given the value of food produced by the bees, this is a huge concern for us all. The problem has been studied extensively for the past several years and while there is no definitive answer as to what has caused Colony Collapse, the consensus view among scientists is that it was caused by a combination of disease and pesticides that weakened the bees, making them more susceptible to more disease. Many scientists outside of the US, have identified a pesticide from a class called neonicitinoids, imidicloprid being one of the most common. Your tree company will often use it to inject in the ground, it is taken up by the trees and becomes present in every part of the plant, including the nectar and pollen. I didn’t mention it earlier, but bees actually consume the pollen they bring back to the hive as well, it serves as their protein source, while honey becomes their carbohydrate.

Bee die-offs have leveled off the last few years, and are holding steady at about 30-40% of colonies. This is not, however, sustainable. There has already been significant impact of fewer bees on many agricultural products, especially almonds in California. Industrial farmers of other crops are also finding it difficult to obtain sufficient pollination; there just aren’t enough bee colonies to be trucked around from field to field as there used to be. The result is not only higher food prices, as supply diminishes, it also causes less biodiversity and lower nutrition, as food may have to be brought in from farther and father distances, including being flown in from other countries—where neoticitinoids are banned, by the way.

So what does any of this have to do with Parashat Bo, and with Tu B’shevat? From looking at the plight of the world’s honeybees, it’s not too hard to foreshadow a plague—perhaps not of locusts, but instead of darkness. When we don’t pay attention to our environment, when we poison it, we poison ourselves as well. The plagues visited on Egypt were a result of the Pharaoh’s hardened heart. By hardening his heart, God didn’t prevent Pharaoh from letting the Israelites leave Egypt, rather, he removed the fear that would have fallen on any mortal confronted with the awesomeness of God. This allowed Pharaoh to behave as he was already inclined to. His true colors, so to speak, shone through in his refusal to permit the slaves to depart, not wanting to understand that forcing them to stay was destroying Egypt. We are like Pharaoh in some respects. Here it comes, we’re living in denial, and no, it ain’t just a river in Egypt! We are in denial of the damage that monocultures and large factory farms do to our ecosystem. We are in denial about the dangers of pesticides. Not just to bees, but to our food and water supply, and to us and to our children.

Luckily, Jewish environmental organizations are coming to the rescue. Here’s where Tu B’shevat comes in. Tu B’shevat is the birthday of the trees. It was important because the Torah requires we abstain from harvesting from trees in certain years, for example, the first three years they bear fruit, and having a birthday allows us to identify the age of a tree and therefore to know when we are allowed or prohibited from harvesting from it. But the holiday has more recently evolved into a special day that highlights environmental awareness and action. It was fascinating to look up the words tu b'shevat and environmentalism together in google and see 118,000 results. Jewish organizations from the most earthy-crunchy to the most Orthodox have all jumped on the environmental bandwagon, and with good reason. It is part of our tradition. During the middle ages, Jewish mystics developed the Tu B’shevat seder, at which a variety of fruits and nuts are consumed. Of course, we now know that those fruits and nuts are the result of pollination by bees.

Today, the Tu B’shevat seder is often a celebration of nature, and has been fostered by many remarkable organizations in the Jewish world. Among these are COEJL, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. Their mission is to deepen and broaden the Jewish community’s commitment to stewardship and protection of the Earth through outreach, activism and Jewish learning. Another is Hazon, whose mission statement includes: “We start with the belief that engaging Jews in environmental education, action, and advocacy changes them, their families, their institutions, and the community as a whole.”

The Isabella Freedman Center is another such program. They strive to create transformative experiences that integrate ecological awareness, vibrant Jewish spirituality and social justice. They sponsor a program called Adamah, which is a leadership training program for Jewish young adults to teach the vital connection between Judaism and environmental stewardship.

I’ve provided a list of links to Jewish organizations working in the area of environmental stewardship, as well as important facts about pesticides in the handouts. In addition, there is a list of trees, shrubs and flowers that provide important nectar and pollen sources for bees in our area. Feel free to visit the web sites listed to learn more about what they do. You may not want to take up beekeeping, but even if you don’t, you can help bees. The most important thing you can do is speak with your landscaper and tree care companies and tell them you do not want any pesticides of any kind used on your property. Every time you see a yellow sign warning of a pesticide application, think of it as a tombstone for a bee colony. The companies will tell you it’s impossible to do their job without the chemicals. It’s not true, but you may need to find a different landscaper. Don’t use mosquito sprays, ever. They are deadly to bees and poisonous to people, especially children, and they don’t do anything to interrupt the life cycle of the mosquito. For more tips on avoiding pesticides, visit the Audubon Center in Greenwich, they have a rich set of resources for how to landscape without pesticides. Here's a link from Audubon on Seven Good Reasons to Create Organic Lawns and Gardens.   We can all work together to help bees!

Finally, I’d like for us to read together a prayer in our sourcebook by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. Please look at page 39.

Rabbi Nachman’s Prayer

Master of the Universe, grant me the ability to be alone.
May it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and grasses,
Among all growing things,
There to be alone and enter into prayer.
There may I express all that is in my heart,
Talking with Him to whom I belong.
And may all grasses, trees and plants
Awake at my coming.
Send the power of their life into my prayer,
Making whole my heart and my speech through the life and spirit of growing things,
Made whole by their transcendent Source.
Oh!  That they would enter my prayer!
Then would I fully open my heart in prayer, supplication and holy speech;
Then, O God, would I pour out the words of my heart before Your Presence.

I’ve brought a small bee hive with me, no bees, and will be happy to show it to people during the Kiddush.
Shabbat shalom!