Rabbi’s Weekly Message

Rabbi’s Message, May 22, 2024


      How far ahead ought we be thinking?
      Financial counselors ask you what your timeline for investing is. That’s a good question. We ought to ask it of ourselves for all sorts of investments of self, and not only for financial ones.
      This week, I was given a lovely gift. It was a reminder that seeds I planted 40 years ago have sprouted and continue to flourish. My email inbox contained this message—the dream of every veteran teacher come true!

“Dear Rabbi Panitz,
     “In the 1983-84 academic year, my junior year of high school, you were my Medieval Jewish History teacher.  I'd attended archetypically awful Hebrew School until then, and I went to a pretty mediocre public high school.  Prozdor [the after-school high school program of Jewish studies within the Jewish Theological Seminary] was not only the first place that I encountered serious Jewish learning; it was the first place I was taken seriously academically and intellectually…
     “After Prozdor, I did my undergraduate work at Barnard and at JTS, and several years after that I returned to nursing school. For the last bunch of years, I have been working up at Columbia Presbyterian as a pediatric nurse practitioner.
     “I've thought of you from time to time over the years and more frequently in the last several months as I have been listening to the Ikar podcast.  It's z'chut to learn from two generations of Rabbis Panitz…  
    “ My work is with families of children with medical complexity so it was particularly moving for me to hear Morris drash on [the weekly Bible portion] Emor and speak about Emily.
     With thanks and hopes that you have been well…”


Illustration: This student’s report card for the Medieval Jewish history I taught in 1983-1984 at the Jewish Theological Seminary high school (name deleted to maintain privacy).
            This wonderful gift set me thinking.  I was 28 when I taught the then-16-year-old student. I was teaching her about the experiences of our people going back a millennium and a half…. But I had no way to frame any thoughts as to how these lessons would stay with her, 40 years hence. To know that she not only remembers the teacher-student encounter gratefully, but that she has remained actively engaged in her Jewish life, is simply a blessing.
            In how many of our encounters do we think about how the consequences of what we do might affect reality, 40 years hence?
            We see a glimpse of the long-range importance of our deeds when we attend a wedding, and the parents of the bride and groom are flanking their children.  We gain another glimpse from a different lifecycle moment, when families gather in mourning and reflect on how the one now physically gone has shaped their lives and helped make them who they are.
            The Bible has a strikingly original law teaching us to think in terms of the long duration: The Jubilee.

Illustration: Israeli postage stamp, 1951, honoring the Jewish National Fund. “The land must not be sold irreversibly” (Leviticus 25:23).

            In Leviticus 25, the Bible teaches us, first, to give the land a sabbatical year every 7 years, and second, to have a longer cycle of 50 years. In the 50th year, the “Jubilee” (from the Hebrew word, “yovel” ), the land rests again, and land holdings return to the family.
            This is a remarkable concept. It comes from a world where the landless were condemned to inter-generational poverty.  In the Biblical picture, each Israelite family was given a portion of land, and the land was inalienable. It could be leased but not sold. The intention of this law is to restore a family when it has fallen on hard times.
            The goal of the Sabbatical and Jubilee laws is sustainability.  The earth must be able to sustain the activity of humans extracting value from it. Society, too, must be rebalanced so that it will be sustainable in an equitable way. Permanent hopelessness is not only tinder for the conflagration of revolution; it is also an offense against God, Who makes us equal.
            It is to our shame that for the past several generations, we have refused to implement the steps needed to restore our environment to sustainability.  We have known since the 1960’s that our path will lead to ecological catastrophe.  We have done some things right, but too little. The human-caused climate crisis grows worse. We are condemning our children and theirs to suffer the consequences of our short-sightedness.
            In social terms, too, we are falling short of the vision of the Bible.  Inequality is worse in America today than it was a generation ago. Progress is uneven. Looking at our society broadly, too many young adults despair of being able to sustain themselves as their parents did.
            In the famous Jewish story that we tell on Tu Bi’Shvat, Jewish Arbor Day, the legendary sage, Honi, saw an old man planting an olive tree.  Knowing that olive trees take many decades to mature, Honi asked the man why he was doing that.  The elder replied, as his grandfather planted a tree for him, so is he planting a tree for his grandchild.
            The story ought to resonate, and not only on Arbor Day.  In our daily choices…. Our micro-economic decisions, and our everyday actions in the interpersonal realm… we should be thinking not only about today, tomorrow, this quarter, but also about the world we want to midwife.
            May God give us the wisdom and the steadiness of purpose to be partners in the fulfillment of the Kaddish prayer: “May God’s Kingdom be realized in our lives and our days”. To which I will only add: And if not in our lives, then in the 40 years that span the generations. Amen.