Tag Archives: Shekalim

A Free Press As the Root of Democracy: Reflections on Shabbat Shekalim

25 Feb

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When I was a youngster, before I discovered the rabbinate as my career, I had other aspirations. I wasn’t interested in becoming an astronaut, nor a doctor or a scientist. In my wildest dreams, maybe a baseball player. Remember, the Chicago Cubs weren’t good in those days, and I thought maybe I’d have a chance. Alas, I did not. So, I aspired to be a journalist. I was fascinated by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their coverage of Watergate and how through their reporting they spoke truth to power. Growing up in the 1970s, I watched as much TV as anyone, including all the reruns—The Lone Ranger, Star Trek, The Brady Bunch, and others. But I was also drawn to the evening news, especially the most trusted man in America, Walter Cronkite. I realized early on that journalists had an important responsibility to report the news and convey the truth.

Our free society depends on a free press. It shines a light on those who serve in public office to hold them to account for the the oaths of office they take to serve the public and our Constitution with integrity. A robust free press asks tough questions of government officials, irrespective of their party affiliation. Even Washington and Lincoln were often savaged by the press during their administrations, and so too with every President until today. Every president is in a bubble in which they surround themselves with supporters and are sensitive to criticism. Yet, time and again, Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s words ring true: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” The free press hold our leaders to account.

Our public officials swear to uphold the Constitution and by extension protect the public’s most vital assets such as clean air, clean water, fair labor laws, fair housing standards, anti-discrimination laws, financial protections, food and drug safety, national education standards, as well as national defense.  It’s impossible for each of us to become experts on public policy on the myriad issues facing our society, and the free press provides a great public service to protect transparency and our right to know whether our public officials are serving us with integrity.

This week, as we mark Shabbat Shekalim, we are reminded of integrity as a core value of our tradition. In the passage that instructs the Israelites about the levy of the half-Shekel the Torah says (Exodus 30: 13):  זֶ֣ה ׀ יִתְּנ֗וּ

This they shall give. Every one who passes among those who are counted, half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary. Why does the verse begin with zeh, “this they shall give”? Usually a verb in the Bible begins Waw-consecutive, including in cases like this involving instruction.   Prompted by the word “this,” the Sages conjecture that God showed Moses a flame in the shape of a half-shekel. Why a flame? Because money is like fire; it can warm and comfort–or it can consume and destroy (Elimelekh of Lyzhansk).

Throughout the history of our democracy, numerous politicians of different political persuasions have served our nation. Some have succeeded and provided warmth and comfort, while others failed, including those whose corruption threatened to consume and destroy our society. At every juncture a vibrant free press has served as a check on government. As George Orwell wrote: “Freedom of the Press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose.”

We should be most concerned when the President repeatedly calls the mainstream news media the “enemy of the people”  and that he even goes so far as to demand that reporters stop utilizing anonymous sources.  Marc Felt  would never have confided to Bob Woodward the crimes of the Nixon White House unless he was certain of Woodward’s rock-solid assurance that his identity would not be revealed. For decades, he was known as Deep Throat, and he was an American hero for exposing a national crisis. Reporters must and will continue to rely on anonymous sources to reveal difficult truths.

And yet even in the Nixon years, as fraught as that administration’s relations with the press were, never were they barred from the White House briefing room as happened yesterday.

The press is not perfect, just like any human endeavor. They get things wrong, including the predictions of most news organizations of the outcome of the last election. The spike in fake news and alternative facts also do not exist in a vacuum. They exist because for multiple reasons, many Americans have lost trust in the mainstream media.

J.D. Vance, author of the bestselling book Hillbilly Elegy, has a remarkable story. He grew up in poor, white  Appalachia and went on to Yale Law School. He has become a go-to interpreter of working class whites and their distrust of mainstream institutions. He said recently in an interview :

“The news media seems to be approaching Trump in a very oppositional way. And whether it’s Trump or Obama, it’s always important for the media to take a somewhat oppositional tact because that’s one of their main roles as the fourth estate. But I also wish news executives would think about this credibility gap and think constructively about how to repair it…We may just be in a different media environment where people consume information in their bubbles.”

I think Vance raises an important issue in noting the lack of trust towards the news media, that news organizations would be advised to earn back. Part of the challenge is that journalism is a business as well as a craft. In our world, we consume news as much for entertainment as to know what’s going on. In response, the news media must focus on the entertainment value of their stories. High entertainment value yields higher advertising revenue. That yields higher ratings and salaries for TV reporters. We as consumers of news are complicit in demanding high entertainment value from the news in addition to truth. Money is like fire. When we’re careful, it can keep us warm and comfort us. However, it can also burn when it dominates our focus.

Let us demand the highest standards from our journalists, and let us also reject any efforts to from officials to threaten the free press as a vital check on government and harbinger of truth. Shabbat Shekalim reminds us to preserve the integrity of our public institutions. Ken Yehi Ratzon.

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Open Farook’s iPhone

4 Mar

 

The unlocking of Syed Farook's iPhone is the supbject of dispute between FBI and Apple.

The unlocking of Syed Farook’s iPhone is the supbject of dispute between FBI and Apple.

On Shabbat Shekalim, we read the special section from Exodus instructing the Israelites to collect a half shekel from rich and poor alike. The collection serves the spiritual needs of providing funds for the Temple and the pragmatic need of taking a census, particularly of adult male soldiers. The collection of the half shekel in ancient Israel would normally occur in Adar, but would be in Adar II in a leap year. Its collection coincided with a number of community centered projects. The Mishnah Shekalim describes that in the month of Adar, they would repair roads and highways and mikvaot, and they would carry out all public requirements, such as make new cisterns and make sure all graves were properly marked. Infrastructure may not be the most exciting topic for most of us. But the Mishnah’s linking these duties to the half shekel, I believe, spiritualizes these acts to a point that they’re part of the ongoing task of building and strengthening the nation.

 

The word “infrastructure” is relatively new to the English lexicon. It came in to popular use in the 1980s to describe the complex web of public works. Infrastructure refers to the fundamental facilities and systems serving a country, city, or area, including the services and facilities necessary for its economy to function. It typically characterizes technical structures such as roads,bridgestunnelswater supplysewerselectrical gridstelecommunications, and other services that provide “the physical components of interrelated systems providing commodities and services essential to enable, sustain, or enhance societal living conditions.”

 

The way our society works is that we pay taxes to the government who are charged with the task of maintaining our public works to protect our health, safety and well-being. When our infrastructure works well, we all succeed. When it fails, we all suffer.

 

The newest frontier in infrastructure centers around the Internet, cellular phones and cyber-security. Due to the relative newness of this field, lawmakers, law enforcement agencies and courts are grappling with the extent to which government should have access to the personal digital data of individuals. The struggle between government and the private sector has come to a head in recent weeks. The FBI wants access to the cell phone data of Syed Rizwan Farook who, along with his wife, murdered 14 of his co-workers in a San Bernardino, CA, social service agency. With evidence suggesting that their terror act was at least inspired by ISIS, the FBI is interested in unlocking Farook’s iPhone to access the data that may be vital to the investigation. However, Tim Cook, CEO of Apple that manufactures the iPhone, has resisted working with the FBI to unlock the phone. He cites the company’s needs to protect the privacy of its customers and fears that if government can access personal data that opens the door for improper surveillance by government and hacking of data by bad actors.

 

I own Apple products and find that they have created great tools to enhance my life. However, I believe Tim Cook is wrong. It is the government’s job to protect us. As taxpayers we pay for this protection. In a world that has gone mad, I want the FBI to have all the tools that it can lawfully have at its disposal in order to protect us.

 

When Target had its servers hacked exposing personal data of 70 million customers, there was understandable outcry by the general public. Yet, what the scandal showed about our society is that many of us willingly entrust our personal data to for-profit corporations whose main interest is not to protect us but to make money for their shareholders. With respect to the government, however, I find it is a sad commentary on our society that there is less willingness to entrust personal data with the government whose sole purpose is to protect the public.

 

Government is imperfect, and checks and balances must exist to ensure that the covenant between the government and people is not broken. Abraham Lincoln said: “This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or exercise their revolutionary right to overthrow it.” I would add that at the same time constant revolution and weak government institutions are dangerous to our republic. Checks and balances, yes. “Trust but verify,” yes. But the the wholesale disempowerment of government institutions? No. We as a society invest in our public institutions to protect us, and when they fail, we must hold them accountable to uphold their highest duty. We entrust our government to require us to wear seatbelts and obey speed limits. We accept reasonable limits on our freedom like not yelling fire in a crowded theater. At airport security check points, we agree to take off our shoes and belts and throw away water bottles because we entrust authorities to screen for terrorists.  In this light, I believe we need to accept a reasonable limitation on privacy in order empower our government to deter terrorism. The FBI needs access to Farook’s phone, and Apple and other industry leaders need work with government to protect the people not only their profits.

 

Our sages interpreted the half shekel as symbol that everyone in society has an equal stake in building a strong, secure, prosperous and peaceful nation. On this Shabbat Shekalim, may we be inspired to do just that.

15 Feb
Elliott Fagin, Z"L, (1943-2015) was the Ritual Director of Temple Torat Emet. Here he is reading Megillat Esther on Purim in 2013.

Elliott Fagin, Z”L, (1943-2015) was the Ritual Director of Temple Torat Emet. Here he is reading Megillat Esther on Purim in 2013.

It is with broken hearts that members of Temple Torat Emet mourn the loss of Yoel Yehuda ben Zalman v’ Bracha Rivka Leah, Elliott Fagin, of blessed memory. Our entire community is saddened by this loss to our congregation and to the Jewish people. We grieve together with his beloved wife Reva, and his children Leslie and Joel and their families.

Elliott’s identity was closely intertwined with synagogue and Jewish life. Certainly if he were performing his familiar role of Ritual Director this past Shabbat he would have prepared the second Torah scroll for Shabbat Shekalim several days in advance. On multiple levels, it is fitting that Elliott’s final days corresponded with Shabbat Shekalim. A shekel is the basic unit of currency both in the Torah and in the modern state of Israel. The Torah in Exodus 30: 11-16 describes the taking of a census of the people in which the people, or at least the adult males, give one half shekel. Rich and poor give the same amount and are thus counted equally. The funds are used for the upkeep of the sanctuary. Parashat Shekalim is read as we prepare to begin the month of Adar, the last month of the year on the Biblical calendar. The following month, Nisan, is the month of spring, the month of Passover, the month of renewal. In ancient israel, the half-shekel tax was a sign to the people that as Passover approached, the community had to maintain communal institutions, starting with the Sanctuary.

Elliott, spent the bulk of his professional career, or perhaps his first professional career, as a high school math teacher. Parashat Shekalim is certainly among the more math-focused Torah portions. Elliott’s second career as the much beloved Ritual Director of Temple Torah, now Temple Torat Emet, was focused on keeping religious life running like a well-oiled machine. It’s too easy to take this sacred work for granted. Elliott worked constantly and quietly behind the scenes to make sure that ritual life in the synagogue ran smoothly. Just as the priests of the ancient Temple applied the half-shekel proceeds to maintain the Temple, Elliott did the same as ritual director. He rolled the Torah scrolls; he invited members to lead services; he read Torah; he closely monitored the Jewish calendar for special additions or omissions in the service. These are technical areas of the Ritual Director’s role that were part of Elliott’s official duties, and he performed them well. Furthermore, he did everything with a special sense of love and caring. He always went well beyond the call of duty of any formal job description. He welcomed newcomers and helped them follow services. He taught classes on the synagogue liturgy. He tutored individuals, youth and adults alike, in Torah readings. With Purim just around the corner, this is the first year in which we won’t have Elliott as the reliable “clean up hitter” who picked up whatever portions of Megillat Esther that were not assigned to others or whose assigned chanters could not attend services at the last minute. Elliott could always step in on a moment’s notice.

As Rabbi, I relied on Elliott a great deal to orient me to the congregation when I was new. He knew everyone’s name, even if they only came a few times a year. Indeed, he assigned High Holiday seats and knew not only names but where everyone sat. When I came to the congregation in 2011 from a much smaller congregation where the rabbi had to focus a lot more on the logistics of the services, I thought that the concept of a Ritual Director was the greatest invention ever. With Elliott in the role, he set the highest of standards, and I learned so much from him. With the lesson of the half-shekel fresh on our minds, I think the greatest lesson I learned from Elliott is to treat all people, rich and poor alike, with the same love and respect.

As Elliott is laid to rest in New York, our community in Boynton Beach, Florida feels his loss in a profound way. On behalf of Temple Torat Emet, I extend heartfelt condolences to Reva and the entire Fagin family.
Yehi Zikhro Varukh, May his memory be for a blessing.

Brian Williams, Bob Simon, and the role of journalism

13 Feb
The untimely passing of Bob Simon and recollection of his legacy, contrasts with the controversy of Brian Williams.

The untimely passing of Bob Simon and recollection of his legacy, contrasts with the controversy of Brian Williams.

Shabbat Shalom,
When I was a young boy and a teenager, before I discovered my career path would be the rabbinate, I had other aspirations. I wasn’t interested in becoming an astronaut, nor a doctor or a scientist. In my wildest dreams, maybe a baseball player, but I knew I had no chance. So, I aspired to be a journalist. I was fascinated by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their coverage of Watergate and how through their use of a vibrant free press they spoke truth to power. While most of my friends TV consumption revolved around cartoons and reruns, I enjoyed the evening news, especially the most trusted man in America, Walter Cronkite. Journalists, I realized early on, had an important responsibility to report the news and convey the truth. Journalists are not supposed to be in the news themselves, and their reputations depend on the trust that the public invests in them to tell the truth.

This week, journalists have been in the news. I am saddened by the tragic and senseless death of CBS correspondent Bob Simon in an auto collision in New York. For five decades, he established a reputation as the best of the best. The memorial tributes to Bob Simon stand in stark contrast to NBC’s Brian Williams and the revelation that he fabricated a story in 2003 that he was shot down in a helicopter while reporting in Iraq. His public apology and six-month suspension are appropriate, but the incident casts a pall not only over his career but over journalism in general.

This week, as we mark Shabbat Shekalim, we are reminded of integrity as a core value of our tradition. In the passage that instructs te Israelites about the levy of the half-Shekel the Torah says (Exodus 30:13):

זֶה ׀ יִתְּנוּ כָּל־הָעֹבֵר עַל־הַפְּקֻדִים מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל בְּשֶׁקֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ עֶשְׂרִים גֵּרָה הַשֶּׁקֶל מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל תְּרוּמָה לה׳

This they shall give, every one who passes among those who are counted, half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary; a shekel is twenty gerahs; a half shekel shall be the offering of the Lord.

This is what everyone shall pay: Prompted by the word “this,” the Sages conjecture that God showed Moses a flame in the shape of a helf-shekel. Why a flame? Because money is like fire; it can warm and comfort–or it can consume and destroy (Elimelekh of Lyzhansk)

In our world, we consume news as much for entertainment as to know what’s going on. In response, the news media must focus on the entertainment value of their stories. High entertainment value yields higher advertising revenue. That yields higher ratings and salaries for TV reporters. While Brian Williams is responsible for his own misdeeds, we as consumers of news are complicit in demanding high entertainment value from the news in addition to truth. Money is like fire. When we’re careful, it can keep us warm and comfort us. However, it can also burn when it dominates our focus. Bob Simon, of blessed memory, will be remembered for striking the delicate balance in reporting news both for entertainment value and truth. Brian Williams crossed a line and sacrificed truth on the altar of entertainment and money. Let us demand the highest standards from our journalists so that our vibrant free press will continue to serve as a vital check on government and harbinger of truth.