Rabbi Yossi’s Sermons

 The Environment (Friday, September 2 2016)

Our Parasha discusses an Israelite siege work around an enemy town that takes a long time to build. Nevertheless, the law specifically forbids destroying the town’s trees that yield fruit, for unlike man who can flee the scene of battle, trees can’t; there is a line in the sand not to be crossed over – a tree is not your enemy. Thus, the tree has its own life and purpose, and it’s not its role in creation to serve man. Hence, since man isn’t permitted to cut down (food) trees, then he is not a superior creature who may do whatever it wants to do.

But today humanity is destroying the environment through deforestation that takes place in Central and South America (or Indonesia and Borneo for that matter) because of our exponential growth in meat consumption, where a huge number of animals must be fed with grains, like soy and corn, or by old-fashion grass. In order to grow these for more and more animals the rain forest has been the only land reserves where this voracious craving for more arable land could take place, with 80% of all grain production on the planet going to sustain the meat industry requiring 30% of Earth’s soil.

The environmental price we pay is immense including the liquidation of natural habitats for varied and unique fauna and flora alike. The cutting down of these forests releases CO2 into the air that heretofore was stored in the soil and flora expediting climate change thru global scorching. Effectively, the meat industry is responsible for 51% of all greenhouse gas – the biggest polluter, far more than ALL transportation combined — that is released into the ether with an uptick trajectory bc of our culinary preferences. Bottom line, sustaining the meat industry at the current rate and trying to contain climate change are incompatible.


Kashrut (dietary) Laws (Friday, September 2 2016)

This week our Parashah (Re-‘eh) reverts back to the Kashrut (dietary) laws noting that in order for an animal to be considered Kosher 2 conditions must obtain: chewing the cud, and a full parted hoof. Yet, the Torah gives no example of such animals (e.g., a horse). Only when it comes to other animals with one (out of two) Kosher sign does the Torah identify these animals by name, though each exhibits one Kosher sign which is noted first. Thus the camel, the rock-badger and the hare do chew their cud (at least from the observers’ perspective; I am not sure whether scientifically the rock-badger and the hare do chew their cud, but this is how it seems to the naked eye by observing them regurgitate their food). Yet, neither one has a full split hoof. The pig does have, the Torah informs us, a split hoof but it does not ruminate.

So the question is why the Torah is more concerned with us Jews eating meat from animals with one Kosher sign than it does with animals with NO Kosher signs; is the former kind much more egregiously offensive to the laws of Kashrut than the latter? Indeed, some Rabbis believe it to be the case. For these Rabbis the Torah wants to teach us more than dietary laws, and it is to condemn hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is symbolized by animals that first “brag” about one “positive” thing about them that might lure people to their flesh though missing the other required sign. It is like telling one half of the truth which for Judaism is worse than a whole lie.

Thus, the ten spies who returned from the land of Israel to report back their findings praised the Promised Land as a land flowing with milk and honey with most gorgeous fruit BUT (now partaking in deception), it is, so they argued, a land that is filled with giants, and one that devours its people (except for them, of course; they who had returned from their scouting mission scot-free “despite” the giants and the land being “deadly”…). What these spies did was telling one half of the truth in order to gain credibility and then enter into deception that would consequently sound credible.

And similarly it is with the consumption of Kosher meat; a mitzvah to be sure for those eating meat. But compassion for animals is no less important a mitzvah than eating kosher meat (for those who include meat in their diet). Yet, the industrial factory farm that provides meat animals for kosher slaughtering as well is notoriously rife with abject living conditions for such animals, even as the slaughtering process too is evidently faulty because of the large numbers of animals that it needs to cope with; the kosher slaughtering protocol was essentially designed for a small town with an occasional need for meat, not a large volume as it is today. Hence, the hypocrisy that the Rabbis see in animals with one kosher sign only lends itself to the Kosher-certifying establishment and its patrons who are proud of their adherence to the (presently questionable) protocol of slaughtering — that was originally designed to minimize, though not eliminating, gratuitous pain inflicted on the slain animal – but look askance and play ignorant of the untold suffering of meat animals in the factory farm throughout their short life there before they are put to the knife, which is a colossal violation of Torah’s oft-repeated insistence on compassion to animals.


The Tone Makes the Music (Friday, August 12 2016)


This French aphorism reflects the biblical idea that “Life and death are in the hands of the tongue”, for the latter determines the tone, not the words.

The HOW we say our words affects the outcome much more than the WHAT it is that we say; in many instances others do not judge us by the content of our words but by first-impression elements such as  our handshake, the way we move on the chair,  covering by hand the mouth or face, rubbing eyes, clasping our fingers into a fist, using bad grammar, slang, words like “I”, “always”, “never”, and more.  Though the body language makes 55% of that first impression, how we intone our words is good for whopping 38%, while the message itself only accounts for 7%  in the final scheme of things. In other words, no one is paying attention to our words, only to their sound!

Thus the calamitous problem in the Majority Report brought back from the Land of Israel (on the 9th of Av, as Jewish tradition knows to tell us) to Moses, and in fact to the people as a whole, was the in tonality of the words spoken, not so much  in the wording itself that was based on facts after all: 

“We came to the “land” [you can hear the ridicule in the 10 spies’ voices saying this word] that y o u [!!!] sent us to… However, the people there is MIGHTY!!!!, their cities are WELL fortified, and we also saw  G I A N  T S”  [showing with their hands the height and thickness of both the giants and the walls though they only saw them from afar].   

You get the picture; it is the tone of the ten spies words that made the music, thus persuading the people to do a 180 degrees on the idea of entering the Promised Land and returning to the slavery fields in Egypt.  But our rebellious people did not return to Egypt and was forced to stay in the desert for the next 38 years until that generation died off. 

It is Moses in his farewell speech who addresses the younger generation reminding them that  “God heard the VOICE of your words and God was angered”, not by the words but by the “music” or tone of these words. Hence, God’s decree of staying in the Sinai desert for 4 decades till the rebellious generation died off.   

You see, the voice or sound of our words broadcasts much information about the person, a word that is comprised of “per” (i.e., according to) and “son” (from sonic, or sound).  Indeed, our sound or voice reveals everything about us! Our speech style is more important than our actual message. 

 Hence the Bible:: “The Words of the Wise spoken in quiet are more acceptable than the cry of a ruler among fools”. Words spoken in a wrong voice will not be listened to and the hearers would misconstrue the message. Yes we are responsible for our words but even more so for the tone of expressing them. 


Discussing Tish’ah B’Av (Friday, August 5, 2016)


Despite the colossal Roman devastation of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 C.E., some positive outcomes resulted from the disappearance of the Temple and the beginning of Jewish Diaspora. The democratic system of the Rabbis and the synagogue – featuring chiefly the learning of Torah and prayer, not dead animals, as the Jewish way to come “near” God – replaced the Temple’s sacrificial system that was its main purpose. Thus, the hereditary class of the Kohanim (priests) was superseded by the Rabbis whose main work, the Talmud, was also the creation of the Diaspora (Babylon). These positive developments may teach us to look for the light even in the midst of the night (or the half FULL glass).  

Since according to our tradition it was on the 9th of Av when the traumatic debacle of the ten scouts (spies) took place resulting in our ancestors’ wandering for 4 decades in the Sinai desert, we can see that disparaging the land of Israel, as those spies did, might have most severe consequences.

Yet, Jerusalem D.C. (David’s Capital) being a large capital city today under Jewish colors does raise the question whether we still need to mourn (and fast) over her previous dreadful state. How can we mourn her miserable condition of the past when she is the foremost vital Jewish center in the world today?

However, we are to mourn the reason – so the Rabbis teach – why Jerusalem was overwhelmed by Rome: causeless and purposeless internal Jewish hatred. This phenomenon has not abated and it is this woe that we must continue to mourn even among us Jews. 

The Jewish rebellion in 70 was terribly controversial; that too can teach us that in politics there isn’t one party that has all (or most of the truth), and we ought to hear out the other side as well; if that had happened Jerusalem might not have not been lost altogether to the Jewish people for nearly two millennia.


A Tale of 12 Identical Gifts (Friday, June 17 2016) 


The Torah this Shabbat describes in accurate verbatim the 12 tribal leaders’ gifts to the Tent of Meeting, on the day when it was inaugurated, and with unrelieved sameness. Torah takes pains to list each item on the wagon gift giving “equal time”, so to speak, to each of the 12 tribal chieftains. 

Rather than describe only the gift of the first tribe and then note that the other 11 leaders, each on the day allotted him, brought the same gift, this Sidrah requires 89 verses for this narrative which overshadows the approximately 40 verses allotted to Creation and the mere 18 verses allotted to the “10 Commandments”. Evidently it was important for the Torah to emphasize the equality of each gift spanning over 12-day period, each by another tribe. 

The tribal Chieftains actually made amends, a real T’shuvah, 

for not hurrying initially to donate materials for the construction of the Sanctuary at Sinai which the people generously provided without the help of their respective tribal leaders. 

Nachshon of the Tribe of Judah went on the first day though the fourth-born of Jacob. This big honor was a payback for plunging first and alone into the Red Sea to ultimately lead the others after him. Yet, N was also the only leader to be deprived of his tribal title on that Torah narrative while all those following him were recorded by their tribal title. All for the cause of humility. No doubling up of honors; a good name is the best title. 

Also each of the leaders was original in choosing these gifts and knew not what others brought before, let alone after. Each thinking of different usages or symbolism. Hence, these 89 verses teach us that each time it we pray the same prayers in the Siddur we are to approach them as though for the very first time, like a new song indeed. And that’s why we keep coming to the same Torah portion again and anew; each year and its crop of newness in our understanding and insights.


The Rabbi’s Sermon (Friday, June 10 2016) 


This Shabbat we begin our public reading of the Fourth Book of the Torah whose Hebrew title is “Beh-midbar”, In The Desert (entitled “Numbers” in English). 271 times the word “desert” is mentioned in our Bible, Certainly an important theme; what can it teach us? 

We read that both Moses and David grazed their flocks in the desert, why? The Rabbis say that the two did so to avoid trespassing into others’ grazing fields (without any such fear to do so in the no-man’s land of the desert). 

Alone to himself Moses takes his time to listen for the voice of the fire in the burning bush, and he would shortly hear its quiet sound.

Moses first encounters the angel of God in the Burning Bush on Mt. Sinai; with the bush being lowly and the peak being not too tall as to tower over other summits nearby,  the Torah teaches us that God uses humble or meek instruments.  Namely, like Moses we too need to listen and sense God in small things, “transparent” people we see through who might be a source of wisdom and help if we only looked for it, not unlike the voices of our spouses, our children or friends in need, our constituency. And in as-much-as the Sneh was not consumed by fire, our foes won’t consume us either, even if like Amalek then AND NOW attacking our people’s foremost weaklings from the rear. 

In the desert we learn home hospitality from Abraham who offered shelter to three wayfarers (though they were angels), knowing too well that if he did not do so, there would be no one else to do so. 

In the desert there’s always a source of life (water, a creature, a plant right under your nose), so do not despair when it’s bleak because the answer to many of our dilemmas and concerns might be nearby; we need to look proactively for that succor as life can swiftly spring back at us. Despair is our fiercest enemy in the desert. 

In the desert no one judges another materially, it is a place where you have only what you need for subsistence — you cannot haul more than that; So should we evaluate others by what they are, not by what they have. 

Yet the Hebrews left into the desert and did not procrastinate; postponement only delays and distances us from our goal; the important thing is to start the journey rather than sit passively on the fence. 

Indeed, the desert teaches us to be grateful for the little that we have, like Matsa to eat (at least till the simple, yet nourishing manna showed up), or a sukkah to protect you somewhat from the elements outdoors, a place where your spiritual proximity to God is elevated. 

God gave Israel the Torah in a no-man’s land (Sinai) so all nations could enter it at will and claim a share in it, and with this vision Judaism is born.


The Rabbi’s Sermon (Friday, June 3 2016) 


The killing of Harambe, a Cincinnati zoo gorilla last Saturday, an ape that did not only pose a real danger to the child who landed suddenly in his moat, but did not want to be incarcerated either in his zoo limited space while being constantly subjected to undesirable humans’ gawking – that gorillas don’t really care for – captured this week’s headlines. Yet, the killing of Harambe by zoo authorities who did not want to take any chances is in and by itself a proof that we human beings believe that we are more important than animals, indeed that we are the Crown of Creation, even as we have the right to confine animals to a life-sentence in zoos for our own entertainment, eating our popcorn and drinking our coke next to a defeated animal who is in constant depression; its most basic freedoms are deprived from it: where to roam, what and when to eat, with which individuals to socialize? (Think of our “favorite predators” who never prey on any game and consequently look so bored to death, or the giant tortoises, and immense elephants who can’t roam the distances, or bears baking in the heat next to a murky puddle, or the migrating or nomadic bird that has nowhere to fly to). 

Bottom line: zoos are a mere entertainment business concerned with the bottom line, not with animal welfare or fulfilling educational purposes, and not for the sake of the animal. It costs 50 times more to house and care for captive animals in zoos, even for endangered species, than it would be in their natural habitat. What do our children learn by visiting the zoo? That lions have manes and elephants have trunks? (They can learn that from mere pictures or images on the screen.) Or about these animals’ true lifestyle in nature? Or does their visit to the zoo encourage them to become active in and donate for preserving the species in their natural habitat? Do our children learn to feel compassion and empathy for the plight of another fellow (non-human), albeit ensouled creature’s desire for freedom and self-determination? Or do our children learn that animals (as in food or in leather and wool clothes that we provide them with) are a mere product in our service? That we the master race can enter and exit the zoo park at will while the captive animal cannot?

Let’s remember that God told Noach to build an ark to sustain the animals with him, not for him, as they exist for their own reason, not to enhance the life of humans. Indeed, the Torah has 6 specific laws designed to prevent sorrow and anguish from animals and the Talmud brings this number up to 30! On Yom Kippur (in the afternoon Haftarah) we read of God’s rebuke of Jonah who lacked concern or mercy for people and animals alike. (Usually, cruelty to animals would manifest itself in cruelty to humans.) Like us all animals have a soul even as they hate pain and seek to flee danger. The animals do not belong to us but to God; our task is to manage this world (that was “good” on many accounts before humankind shows up on the face of the earth) using our divine image that should reflect God’s “mercy for ALL of his creatures” as the Psalmist reminds us in our daily prayers. In treating animals mercifully we imitate God, a challenge for all times that may begin even by not supporting the zoo industry and by supporting the efforts to sustain the life of animals in their own natural habitats — a much better deal for all.


The Mitzvah to Rebuke (Friday, May 20 2016)


In recent weeks the Torah had discussed our tongue as a virulent weapon when it is used to gossip, mock or slander others. In Parashat K’doshim God informs us that a measure of holiness may be acquired not only when we do not use the tongue, but, in fact, do use it to reprimand another, though doing so properly and out of LOVE for the one whom we admonish. Indeed, if there’s any sense of “gotcha”, any negative, let alone antagonistic feelings, we must refrain from doing so because the purpose of rebuke is to correct and mend what might be broken with another fellow of whom we greatly care, as though rendering him First Aid. Still, if we feel that we ourselves are guilty of the same error we seek to correct in another, we are to first repair that vice in us before proceeding on to repair others.

And then, we must deliver our admonition privately and calmly to that person alone, refrain from demonizing the foul act (e.g., “what you did was real evil”), and go on to spell it out specifically while offering practical guidance how to mend that which is broken.

We are to repeat even 100 times our action as long as there’s hope that the person will pay attention to our message, or at least not react hatefully or violently in response. The Biblical Book of Proverbs teaches us that “the one who loves a rebuke concurrently lovers knowledge, and the one who hates it loves ignorance. In accepting a reproach that is properly delivered one reveals her wisdom.


In honor of Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Friday, May13 2016)


In honor of Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Israel 68th Independence Day), May 13, the linkage between the Land of Israel and the people of Israel was discussed.

Going to this Land is the first thing that God charges Abram with; all blessings from Abram and his descendants would derive from there. Indeed, all that has been considered significant or notable about this land happened by Jews (e.g., poetry, literature, personalities, ideas, inspiration) though it was conquered by many foreign armies between 70 C.E. and 1948. That it is only us the Jews who have kept the land so visibly in our heart is seen for instance in the breaking of the glass at Jewish weddings (symbolizing the shattered  Jerusalem Temple), facing Jerusalem in prayer and exclaiming at the end of Yom Kippur and the Passover Seder: “Next Year in Jerusalem.  

Like Abraham, the next generations of Isaac and Jacob were promised by God to have this land as a “permanent possession”; Moses too is to bring the Hebrew slaves to this land, the very purpose of our liberation from Egypt.

The long exile of the Hebrews from the land is already foretold in the Torah whereby we Jews were told that we would be going into but we wouldn’t manage to dissipate and assimilate away as a people, let alone found an alternative Jewish homeland elsewhere. After all, the Jewish destiny is to return to our very ancestral land. The Torah also predicts that no other nation would be able to succeed on that land, calling it its own, and prosper there; history has proven both scenarios.

Indeed, never before has a nation been restored to its ancestral land after 1878 years. It is a miracle, yet, it was the fulfillment of the Bible’s prophets. Accordingly, Messianic times characterized by universal harmony will arrive only with the Jews exercising sovereignty over this land (as big in size as the St. Bernardino County in California…)

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