Reflections on Shmita and COVID

By Richard Gwynallen


Earlier this summer, I participated in a 5-class series on Rav Kook’s thinking on Shmita led by Yedidya Sinclair, who is one translator of Rav Kook’s seminal work Shabbat Haaretz.  There were many interesting questions taken up in the sessions well beyond the usual halachic considerations, such as whether or not Shmita has an application outside Israel. How does Shmita apply if you are not a farmer or working in agriculture in some way?  And, has the COVID lockdown taught us anything about letting the land rest?

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Making Change – The Long Road to a Redeemed World

By Richard Gwynallen


Theories abound on how people make social change.  Frederick Douglass famously said, “If there is no struggle there is no progress .  .  . Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

This year I read an excerpt from a course in which Rabbi Avi Killip prompted people to think about examples of creating change in the Exodus story and she offered two midrashim to get started.  I thought it was a good idea.  In the story of the Exodus we have at least three examples of trying to achieve change.

An individual reaching out to help

וַיַּרְא בְּסִבְלֹתָם.

In addressing what is meant regarding Moses when “ . . . he looked upon their burdens”.  (Exodus 2:11)

 רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בְּנוֹ שֶׁל רַבִּי יוֹסֵי הַגְּלִילִי אוֹמֵר רָאָה מַשֹּׂוֹי גָדוֹל עַל קָטָן וּמַשֹּׂוֹי קָטָן עַל גָּדוֹל, וּמַשֹּׂוֹי אִישׁ עַל אִשָּׁה וּמַשֹּׂוֹי אִשָּׁה עַל אִישׁ, וּמַשֹּׂוֹי זָקֵן עַל בָּחוּר וּמַשֹּׂוֹי בָּחוּר עַל זָקֵן. וְהָיָה מַנִּיחַ דְּרָגוֹן שֶׁלּוֹ וְהוֹלֵךְ וּמְיַשֵּׁב לָהֶם סִבְלוֹתֵיהֶם, וְעוֹשֶׂה כְּאִלּוּ מְסַיֵּעַ לְפַרְעֹה.

Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Yose the Galilean said: [If] he saw a large burden on a small person and a small burden on a large person, or a man’s burden on a woman and a woman’s burden on a man, or an elderly man’s burden on a young man and a young man’s burden on an elderly man, he would leave aside his rank and go and right their burdens, and act as though he were assisting Pharaoh. The Holy One Blessed is He said: You left aside your business and went to see the sorrow of Israel, and acted toward them as brothers act. [Shemot Rabbah 1:27 – Sefaria translation]

And here we have our first example.  As a prince of Egypt, Moses is a person of privilege and power within an oppressive system. In this instance, he is depicted in the midrash as recognizing the oppressive burden of the Israelites and acting to help. We hear no protest from Moses. He just recognizes the problem and strives to help by relieving another’s immediate burden.  He does so with his privilege and power being a shield against retaliation for his act, and is depicted as framing this help as being to Pharoahs benefit; presumably because it would make the work more effective.

In this example, we see the temporary alleviating of a burden, but no fundamental change to the system, no systemic change. Moses is at the stage of recognizing the problem, but not thinking of any solution other than to help in the immediate situation.

Advocating for reform

In Shemot Rabbah 1:28 we see an interpretation of “And he saw their suffering”. “He [Moses] went and said to Pharaoh, ‘One who has a slave, if he does not rest one day a week, he will die! While your slaves, if you don’t allow them rest one day a week , they will die!’ He [Pharoah] said to them, ‘Go and do for them as you are saying.’ Moses went and established the Sabbath day for them to rest.” (Sefaria translation)

In this case, Moses has grown past simply recognizing a problem. In this case, Moses approaches the one in power and advocates for a reform to the system that will give some relief to the most oppressed in their society.  He contextualizes the change not as a right of the slaves or that their oppressed status is neccessarily wrong, but as benefiting the existing system.  Pharoah responded positively because of Moses’ rank, because of their shared privileged position in society, and because he was convinced that it was to his benefit.  Moses appealed for change on Pharoah’s terms. Two men of power were deciding whether a matter benefited the system or not.  The system remained intact, though mildly more humane for the slaves.

Here, we see an approach to advocating for reform.  The issue Moses raised was not presented as connected to any other issue. It was not presented as a demand. Moses placed himself as a person with power who would negotiate between the oppressed and the Egyptian ruling class. He succeeded in bring some relief the slaves, but Pharoah was still Pharoah, and the slaves were still slaves.


In her 1899 pamphlet, Reform or Revolution, Rosa Luxemburg, argued that while reforms were necessary for the oppressed to build a collective consciousness and have hope, reform would not transform society.

The third example in the Exodus story of a type of change comes when Moses returns with G-d’s instruction to free the enslaved Israelites. This Moses is a very different Moses.  Having had no recourse but to flee the society in which he had grown up, and which he ultimately could not change, Moses had built a different life. That life was interrupted by G-d’s call to return to Egypt.  

This time, before he approaches power he reintroduces himself to Aaron and Miriam, and lives amongst the Israelites. He had not shared their lives, and, as such, was not one of them, but Aaron and Miriam were, and Moses could stake his claim with the Israelites with Aaron and Miriam to convince the masses. Also, he was no longer a person with power, so he rallied some support before going before Pharaoh.

וַיֵּ֥לֶךְ מֹשֶׁ֖ה וְאַהֲרֹ֑ן וַיַּ֣אַסְפ֔וּ אֶת־כׇּל־זִקְנֵ֖י בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

“Then Moses and Aaron went and assembled all the elders of the Israelites.” (Exodus 4:29)

This Moses came with a demand.  However, at first, he did not demand full liberation..”

וְאַחַ֗ר בָּ֚אוּ מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְאַהֲרֹ֔ן וַיֹּאמְר֖וּ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה כֹּֽה־אָמַ֤ר יְהֹוָה֙ אֱלֹהֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל שַׁלַּח֙ אֶת־עַמִּ֔י וְיָחֹ֥גּוּ לִ֖י בַּמִּדְבָּֽר׃

“Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says יהוה, the God of Israel: Let My people go that they may celebrate a festival for Me in the wilderness.’ “ (Exodus 5:1)

Today we might think of this demand as a transitional demand.  That is to say, a demand that will lead to something more extensive.  The idea of an entire enslaved people being allowed to go into the wilderness to celebrate a festival for their God raises questions that Pharoah understood. They would get relief from their burdens, a reattachment to G-od, a collective sense of peoplehood, a taste of freedom.

Pharoah denied the demand and increased the burdens of the Israelites, making their work harder, and thus turning some of them against Moses and Aaron. 

So, G-d and Moses upped the ante.

יהוה spoke to Moses, saying,

“Go and tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the Israelites depart from his land.” (Exodus 6:10-11)

Now the demand was to depart Egypt, to be fully liberated from Egypt.  What transpired in the following period was increased pressure and misery on the Egyptians to force Pharoah to relent.  

In all three of our models, the Israelites have been passive.  Whatever change occurs is the work of G-d and Moses with Aaron’s help. Nor does Moses or Aaron try to move the masses into action. Through the fear created amongst Egyptians from the plagues, the Israelites did gain some power, even taunting the Egyptians with the sacrifice of sheep, and gathering the wealth of Egypt before they finally departed. However, these were fairly low-level ways of participating, and, in the case of preparing the paschal sacrifice, driven by self-preservation to avoid the death of first borns.  Even the passive resistance of the women to Pharoah’s edicts did not rise up to the level of an organized drive for freedom.

Ultimately the Egyptian army pursued the Israelites to the sea and perished in the water. Throughout the plagues and the drowning of the Egyptian army, it is G-d assaulting Pharoah and Egypt, not the organized Israelite masses.  Still, liberation was achieved by consistent pressure applied consistently leading not to changes around the edges of the system, but the liberation of the Israelites.

Lessons of Liberation

The Exodus story has inspired many oppressed people.  Harriet Tubman was the “Moses of her people.”  The 18th century Scottish religious poet, Donald Matheson, evoked the Exodus when he called on his people to escape oppression at home for the promised land of Carolina.

My first rabbi, Rav David Zaslow, once said that the birth of the Israelite people as a nation came through a great act of liberation, and the unfolding of the rest of history was a path of continual liberation, the responsibility of each generation to achieve further liberation. What could not be achieved by one generation in their particular historical circumstances can be achieved by a future generation.

The Exodus did not end oppression, even among the Israelites.  It did not overthrow the Egyptian ruling class.  It did not create a society without inequality.  But it set in motion a liberation that would create a conception of life that, if achieved, would result in the perfection of the world.  It demonstrated that just as a life of slavery in Egypt did not have to last forever, so oppression and inequality today do not have to last forever. 

Most of us are not slaves today in the sense of the Exodus.  Most of our causes are not aimed at freeing people from chattel slavery.  However, Frederick Douglass also said that “experience demonstrates that there may be a slavery of wages only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery, and that this slavery of wages must go down with the other”.

Oppression and socio-economic inequality is not a forever thing.  But the challenge to perfect the world and end oppression and social inequality is one that we must take up without waiting for miracles. While the Israelites may have been passive participants, we cannot be. Instead of just re-living the Exodus at Pesach, the challenge is to remember that liberation is possible, and apply that possibility for liberation today. The seder allows us to step away from the solid land of everyday life into the river that is flowing toward the ocean.  In Scottish Gaelic, the word deo, refers to a place where a stream falls into the sea, but it also refers to the spark of life and vision.  The seder is a ritual that lets us step into the river and takes us to that place where the river flows into the ocean.  It reminds us of the possible and counters the tendency to accept the status quo. It ties our past to our present and to our future. It’s what we do when we rise from the seder table that matters.

The Kiss

by Richard Gwynallen

Maraji and I have a copy of one of our favorite paintings, Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss – an exchange between two people whose hearts are so full of love that the world around them bursts into color. Yet, they are not kissing. It is the moment just before the kiss. 

The lovers are giving themselves over to that moment, their bodies almost bleeding into one another, the moment of merging when both unity and separateness stand equal together – each in their own world – yet sharing their moment, the moment just prior to the kiss, where they are aware of each other’s life force.

Kissing in the rain has come to represent a particularly romantic moment.  Normally people will try to get somewhere dry when it’s pouring, but when you kiss someone you forget how soaked you are getting in the rain.  You are so into that other person that you forget your surroundings.

But we see the idea of kissing even in blissful moments of other experiences. The kiss of the sun is an oft used phrase in poetry.

It seems like the kiss is as close we get to a sense of oneness, like the instant where the human soul comes to feel the embrace of the Divine.  

Recently, I was reading a commentary by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach on Parashat Vayechi that gave me a renewed feeling around the kiss. He wrote that when you love someone you may look at them intensely, appreciating them, wanting to know them, but “When you kiss somebody, you automatically close your eyes. That one split second when your eyes are closed is on the level of Mashiach.” When you kiss you don’t speak, but you are “uttering blessings”, you are wanting to be connected on that very deep level. Even a fleeting kiss can remind you of that connection.

A Purim Meditation

By Rick Gwynallen

I was standing outside in the cold looking at the first sliver of the waxing moon in February when it struck me.  Purim is upon us, and though our joy is supposed to increase with Adar I cannot help but be reminded of what a tragic anniversary it represents this year.   We are drawing upon one full year when our synagogue, like so many places in the world, went dark, and we all shifted to work from home and virtual events and meetings. That Purim was the last big event before a grim understanding of what we were facing sunk in.  We were all celebrating, here and throughout the world, interacting freely, and, in places, unwittingly, giving free reign to COVID-19. Only the briefest glimmer of the rise of COVID-19 had been released to the public, and wholly underplayed.  So, we celebrated.  It’s not that no one knew. Some of the elite did know. The rest of us just weren’t being told. And there were those who became sick in that very period of early March of 2020, and some who later died. Some might have been saved had we all been told not to gather. Those of us who have survived after a year and more than 500,000 deaths in the United States alone are grateful to reach this point when so many did not.

Even with this weight bearing down upon us the moon is now nearly full and there was a taste of spring in the warmer evening and now in the early morning. More than ever E. B. White’s comment comes to mind: “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”  The answer, of course, is to find the way to do both.

It’s not been all bad in the last year.  Fissures in our society have been widening. The public health crisis came on the heels of mass movements exposing systemic racism, further laying bare the injustices and inequalities that are a daily reality in our society and igniting more mass resistance.  More people have come to see workers they ignored in the past as essential to making the society function.  More people are openly reconsidering how we think about our history. At the same time, the very isolation we experienced seemed to let the rest of the world heal a little.  The clock is ticking on climate change, on the earth itself, and what kind of society we will build. And the possibility for a lasting response exists.

The line in the Megillah of Esther that draws my eye every year, and haunts my footsteps, is close to the last line of the megillah, after the Jews are victorious: “King Ahasuerus levied taxes on both the mainland and the islands.”  (Megillah of Esther; 29)

At first glance it seems such a mundane thing to insert after such a dramatic story. I think most of us read and ignore it. I did so for years. But it’s important.  Several years back, one person in a Torah class offered that the line intends to convey that the danger has passed and that things have returned to normal.  The question, of course, is whether or not normal is okay.

The Jews were once again saved, for a time.  Queen Esther established the days of Purim. Mordecai became viceroy and was able to look out for the well-being of his people.  But actually little had changed.  The king was still king with all the powers he had previously.  As long as Esther remained a favorite with the King, and as long as the king valued Mordecai, things should be okay.  But if any of that changed, the king could again be the king that condemns the Jews, or the king that follows him.  As we have read, a pharaoh arose in Egypt who did not know Joseph.  (Shemot; 1:8) The power dynamics shifted a little, but they did not change fundamentally.  And that is the final lesson with which the Megillah of Esther leaves us: Nothing fundamental has changed.

But we celebrate.  And why not?  After such a potential horror a people breathes a collective sigh of relief.

Even temporary victories are victories.  And in Shushan the Jews did not wait for an obvious miracle.  They rose to ensure their safety themselves.

When I began political organizing as a teen, one of the trainers said we should not enter this field with illusions.  Whatever victories we have will have to be defended the next day. But we still celebrate those victories because they are steps forward on a long road and life would be too hard if we forgot to have joy.  In this respect, Purim is very much like Shabbat, where we are commanded to be joyous despite the struggles that surround us. Purim reminds us that things are not always quite what they seem; that human society does not have to be what it is; and that we have agency to create change.

We must always be mindful of what a beautiful world this is, and what a gift living every day is.  Yet, that beauty, or our sigh of relief after escaping a tragedy, should not seduce us into complacency.  To cleanse this beautiful world of oppression, inequality, and violence is in the end the only fundamental change that will allow everyone to enjoy the world to its fullest.  

To my mind, to fully have joy in Adar this year, we need to consider how we emerge from our pandemic isolation better than we were before, not just recreating a previous “normal”, more committed to the kind of change that removes the injustices the pandemic laid bare, and to forge a world where the last lines of the story are not that the king “levied taxes on both the mainland and the islands” – not new leaders same system – but the beginning of a great liberation.

Day to day they pour forth speech – Listening before it is too late

4 February 2021

by Rick Gwynallen

It was a beautiful morning. Snow on  the ground. Sunny. Birds singing. After several days of slate grey skies the bright sun seemed to beckon the choruses of birds. Even though the snow blankets the ground, this is the time of year when minds turn toward spring.  Crocuses start to push through the earth and the frozen snow.  Seeds deep in the earth begin putting out roots.  I went out on the balcony to daven and meditate in the cold, bright early morning.  I wrapped my tallit around me. It was the wings of an eagle in the wind.  As I chanted and sang, birds flew by enjoying the sun and the taste of an increasing warmth in the day.  

In Psalm 9 we are reminded that we find the Divine in the experience of nature: “Day to day they pour forth speech; night to night they communicate knowledge. There is no speech, there are no words, their voice is not heard. Yet, their music carries throughout the earth, their words to  the end of the world.”  Commenting on this psalm in Out of the Whirlwind, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote that G-d reveals G-d’s own self through the ontic experience, the experience of being, through Creation.

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Doing what is needed of us

by Rick Gwynallen

The prophet Jonah was an unusual servant of G-d.  G-d gave Jonah the mission to urge the people of Nineveh to repent. This was not dissimilar from the mission of many other prophets.  Yet, Jonah turned away from his assignment, fleeing Israel by ship. Ultimately, knowing he was the cause of the storm that endangered its crew, he implored the sailors on the ship to toss him overboard so they could save themselves.  Continue reading

All Our Relations – Standing In the Garden In the Beginning

by Rick Gwynallen

Just as the plant world draws steadily back to its roots in autumn, so I have found myself this year being drawn back to my roots. The longer we live the more complex we make life and even our own thinking.  Whether you are a musician, a philosopher, or a silversmith, it’s often good for one to get back to the basics as it were, and sometimes that means the origins of one’s thought before experience and learning added complicated layer upon complicated layer to it.   

One of my earliest experiences about the Bible was to be drawn into the story because of the first book in Genesis.  I was drawn in because it did not start with the story of humans.  The creation of the world was more than 70% complete before humans made their appearance.  When humans did make their appearance they intimately a part of that place.  Many, many years, and long spiritual paths later when I was first entering Judaism, I had a similar sense of place looking up from the synagogue’s garden at the Siskiyou mountains hugging the valley.

Maraji spent most of her career as a Montessori teacher, administrator, and school owner.  Recently I mentioned to her that in B’reishit it seemed to me that G-d began the creation of the world like a Montessorian.  In the first five days of creation, G-d made the rest of the world, and only then created human beings.  It was like G-d was creating the environment within which humans could live and grow and for which they are responsible, much like a Montessori teacher creates the prepared environment within which the child lives and grows and for which they are responsible.  Continue reading

SUKKOT REFLECTIONS – From within the sukkah and emerging from it

by Rick Gwynallen

This year the sukkot went up on the communal Green in our apartment complex, and throughout the community, as they always do, though not as many as last year. Due to the generosity of a neighbor in our building, we shared a sukkah.  Ilan and I put up the schach while Maraji made straps to tie the roof poles in place. It was a moment of exchange that is rarely possible in the public health crisis.  How different it was this year for everyone. The community sukkah at our shul got little use.  And no one had the number of guests they might normally have.  Mostly single families ate in their sukkah – sometimes just couples or even single people.

Yet, the moment is paradoxical.  One the one hand there is the enforced isolation caused by the pandemic.  On the other hand, the pandemic has fostered heartbreaking layer upon heartbreaking layer of empathy for each other, the recognition of working people like grocery store clerks and cleaning services as the most important people in keeping our society going, and myriad ways people have reached out to help one another. We may actually be experiencing a dramatic increase in interpersonal solidarity and a moment in which a realignment of society is possible – if, of course, this turn toward relating to one another virtually does not become a preference.

But back to the sukkah.  After the intensity of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur it would be easy to sink back into our routines.  The sukkah allows us to transit from the high ritual of Yom Kippur back to our daily world.  Between these two poles we are in the sukkah, only a thin veil separating us and the rest of the world around us.  This experience is rich in so many ways, and it is these layers of richness I reflect on in this essay.

In a 2017 drash, Rabbi Etan Mintz at B’nai Israel Congregation in Baltimore taught that the closeness of the world to us in our sukkah reminds us not to trap ourselves in our houses, in our jobs, in the limited boundaries we place on our lives, but to go out into the world, to get wet, to get dirty, to experience it, and to redeem it.

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Oxen, Ice Caps, and Avoidance


by Rick Gwynallen

לֹֽא־תִרְאֶה֩ אֶת־שׁ֨וֹר אָחִ֜יךָ א֤וֹ אֶת־שֵׂיוֹ֙ נִדָּחִ֔ים וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ֖ מֵהֶ֑ם הָשֵׁ֥ב תְּשִׁיבֵ֖ם לְאָחִֽיךָ׃

If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow.

 -Deut. 22:1

וְכֵ֧ן תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה לַחֲמֹר֗וֹ וְכֵ֣ן תַּעֲשֶׂה֮ לְשִׂמְלָתוֹ֒ וְכֵ֣ן תַּעֲשֶׂ֜ה לְכָל־אֲבֵדַ֥ת אָחִ֛יךָ אֲשֶׁר־תֹּאבַ֥ד מִמֶּ֖נּוּ וּמְצָאתָ֑הּ לֹ֥א תוּכַ֖ל לְהִתְעַלֵּֽם׃ (ס)

You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent.

-Deut. 22:3

לֹא־תִרְאֶה֩ אֶת־חֲמ֨וֹר אָחִ֜יךָ א֤וֹ שׁוֹרוֹ֙ נֹפְלִ֣ים בַּדֶּ֔רֶךְ וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ֖ מֵהֶ֑ם הָקֵ֥ם תָּקִ֖ים עִמּֽוֹ׃ (ס)

If you see your fellow’s ass or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it; you must help him raise it.

-Deut. 22:4

The text seems to point out something that should be a natural response from anyone – to help someone in need, or to relieve suffering, in this case the suffering of the ox in Deut. 22:4. 

My long standing reading of the passage was that it pointed to:

  1. the obligation to help one another, and
  2. the need to extend our compassion to include all species.

I still regard these as bedrock matters. Helping one another requires us to connect with other human beings.  Indeed, how can you have a community if you ignore each other’s needs? From a purely transactional point of view,  in small communities or tribal societies you may well need that other person’s help at some point. Further, it has long seemed to me that the real measure of a person’s compassion is if that compassion and concern for life is extended to all life forms, not just our own species.  

However, back when I was doing the daf yomi (I never finished it), I realized that the passage gets to something very pertinent for our world today.  Rashi’s comment on the passage is that the verse tells us to not close our eyes “tight as though one does not see it” or “cover our eyes,” thus pretending to not see our fellow’s ox or sheep in distress or gone astray. Continue reading

“Hearing” and “Seeing” During the Age of COVID

by Rick Gwynallen

Re’eh has long been my favorite parsha because it was in Re’eh that I learned to read Torah in a different light, perhaps to “see” in a different way.

In early 2013, I read an essay by Rabbi Dov Linzer, Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, commenting on Parshat Mishpatim, Does the Torah Approve of Slavery?. He argued that not everything in Torah is an ideal.  Rather, some of what we read in Torah is grounded in what was possible in the social formation of the time, but pointing toward an ideal which society must grow toward achieving.

“So slavery is not the ideal. Which means that there can be mitzvot in the Torah which represent not the endpoint of our religious and moral journey, but rather the first step towards it. . . If this is true, then, it puts upon us a weighty responsibility. When we find ourselves deeply challenged by the values or ethics that seem to be expressed in a given mitzvah, we need to strive to understand where the mitzvot are pointing us, we need to ask ourselves if the Torah’s ideal is embodied by this mitzvah, or lies beyond it. [The laws in Mishpatim] represent the human attempt to understand the meaning and values behind the mitzvot.” Continue reading