D'vrei Torah by Rabbi Ellie Shemtov
Rosh Hashanah morning 5783 -- Ethics
I Won’t Back Down (Tom Petty)
Well I won't back down
No I won't back down
You can stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won't back down
No, I'll stand my ground
Won't be turned around
And I'll keep this world from draggin' me down
Gonna stand my ground
And I won't back down
Hey baby, there ain't no easy way out
Hey I will stand my ground
And I won't back down And I won’t back down
We buried my father on the afternoon leading up to Rosh Hashanah in 2003. Now, some rabbis say the High Holy Day season begins with Tisha B’Av – in the middle of the summer. Some say it begins with the Selichot service, a week before Rosh Hashanah. I have always believed the former but about a week ago, it occurred to me that whatever I might think I believe, since 2003, the High Holy Day season smacks me up the side of my head, on the day of my father’s yahrtzeit.
Avshalom Saul Smith (yeah you heard me right), Avshalom Saul Smith alav hashalom, may peace be upon him, was a civil engineer. Now, when I say alav hashalom, may peace be upon him, I am wishing peace upon a man whose name Avshalom means father of peace. Suffice to say no name ever fit a man quite so well.
Avisholum as some of his relatives called him, began his civil engineering career helping to build the New York Thruway and then went to work for a company named Porter & Ripa in Newark, NJ, where he was involved in the building of the Garden State Parkway. Porter & Ripa did a lot of work for the state of NJ and in the late 70’s it was discovered that the company had been taking the state of New Jersey to the cleaners—embezzling a million dollars by altering timesheets. Unfortunately, my father’s signature was at the bottom of a lot of these timesheets and he was asked to appear before a grand jury.
Just to be clear, my father signed these timesheets before they were altered. He did nothing wrong, and perhaps to ensure his “loyalty,” someone very high up in the company asked my father to lie to the grand jury. I don’t think I need to say anything more than point you to any episode of the Sopranos to help you understand exactly what was going on.
In the end my father did the right thing – really the only thing he knew how to do. He told the truth. Now, it’s easy to say that my father did the right thing, but as I got older I came to understand exactly what it took to do this right thing. Clearly, it was dangerous to lie to a grand jury. But it was just as dangerous, if not more so in this case, to defy this person so high up in the company and possibly put yourself and your family at risk.
But again, my father had no idea how to lie. Telling the truth was all he knew how to do. As Tom Petty wrote in the song I began with, my father would not; could not back down from his ethical beliefs. Soon after, the company was taken over by forces that probably weren’t much better and many in the company, including my father, who at the time was 57 years old, were fired.
But, Avshalom Saul Smith was an excellent engineer and it didn’t take him long to find a job, despite his age. He went to work for the Louis Berger Company in E. Orange, NJ. Now, East Orange wasn’t exactly an upgrade neighborhood-wise from Newark but it was definitely an upgrade in job opportunity. The Louis Berger Company was an international engineering firm and not long after he joined the company my father was sent to Portugal for a month. Soon after that, Louis Berger bid on a job in Israel to build an air base in the Negev. The air base needed to be built to replace an existing one in the Sinai, which would soon be given back to Egypt as part of the Middle East Peace Accords.
The Louis Berger Company won the bid and when my father was named project engineer for this job, my parents moved back to Israel for two years.
For me, this has always been a story about doing the right thing no matter the cost and I’ve always held this story up as a model for how I needed to live my life. My father was generally a quiet man but his actions spoke way louder than his words.
This is also a story about enduring difficult times on the path to finding your destiny and I don’t think my father could have found a more perfect destiny if he had chosen it himself. His destiny meant returning to the land of his childhood, to the land his grandparents made their home in the 1890’s and perhaps most importantly, his destiny was to help make Israel a more secure state. That destiny would not have happened had Porter & Ripa been an honest company.
In a well-known Talmudic story (BT Shabbat 31a), a non-Jew asks Rabbi Shammai to convert him saying: convert me on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot. Shammai pushed him away….. The same gentile came before Rabbi Hillel and Hillel converted him. He said to the man: That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary. Go study.
If we are looking for a single Jewish principle defining how we should behave, this isn’t a bad choice. That which is hateful to you don’t do to others? If you hate it when others gossip about you, then don’t gossip about others. This is the whole Torah? Well, while monotheism is at the heart of Judaism, if one believes in God but doesn’t practice what Hillel preaches, how can that person be considered a religious Jew? The rest is commentary? Well, all Jewish laws should in some way reinforce and at the very least, not negate, ethical behavior. Go study? Understanding how to act appropriately is not necessarily a simple matter. One of the more famous verses in the Torah says: Justice, justice you shall pursue. Reading this verse is not enough. We need to study and figure out what exactly constitutes acting justly.
Hillel wasn’t the only rabbinic sage to define Judaism in ethical terms. A century after Hillel Rabbi Akiva, the leading rabbi of his age, taught that the verse Love your neighbor as yourself is the major principle of the Torah. Like Hillel, Akiva believed that treating others fairly cannot be seen as one worthy act among many, but as the most important act.
Certainly, a significant ethical essence or contribution made by the Torah is the Ten Commandments. In addition to obligating Jews to affirm God, observe Shabbat, ban idolatry, and not take God’s name in vain, the Ten Commandments prohibits murder, adultery, stealing, bearing false witness, and coveting. The Torah may talk about sacrifices, holidays, circumcision, etc. but the Ten Commandments are overwhelmingly moral rules regulating relations between human beings. Morality is the essence of Judaism.
Even before the Ten Commandments the Torah emphasized ethical behavior. In explaining Abraham’s mission in the book of Genesis, God says:
כִּ֣י יְדַעְתִּ֗יו לְמַ֩עַן֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְצַוֶּ֜ה אֶת־בָּנָ֤יו וְאֶת־בֵּיתוֹ֙ אַֽחֲרָ֔יו וְשָֽׁמְרוּ֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ יְיָ֔ לַֽעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט :
For I have singled him out in order that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just. (Gen. 18:19)
Abraham in turn, holds God to the same principle. When he fears God is acting unfairly in planning to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham challenges God:
Shall not the judge of all the earth act with justice? (Gen. 18:35)
Later on in the Tanakh, the Prophet Micah asks: What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God (6:8) Micah doesn’t focus on faith, sacrifices, or other rituals but rather on justice, compassion, and humility. He doesn’t say walk arrogantly with God, but walk humbly with God.
How timeless are the words of the prophet Jeremiah: Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom; Let not the mighty man glory in his might; let not the rich man glory in his riches. But one should only glory in this: that he understands and knows righteousness on the earth. For in these I delight, says the Lord. (Jeremiah 9:22-23)
There are certainly examples in the Tanakh of people who refused to follow immoral orders. Perhaps one of the more well-known stories is that of the midwives Shifra and Puah, who refused to follow Pharaoh’s order to kill the baby boys born to the Israelite women (Ex. 1:15-21). When Pharaoh confronts them they tell him a tale -- by the time we got to the women they had already given birth and we weren’t able to out carry your orders. It’s unclear whether Shifra and Puah are Israelite or Egyptian midwives. But either way, it took great courage to stand up to Pharaoh.
On the flip side is the story of David and Bathsheba. After David impregnates Bathsheba wife of Uriah, one of David’s soldiers, he plots to cover up what he has done by bringing Uriah home from battle to sleep with his wife. But Uriah swearing loyalty to the troops, doesn’t comply. So David sends him back to the front and orders his military commander Yoav, who also happens to be David’s nephew, to make sure Uriah is killed in battle. Yoav, unlike Shifra and Puah, is not defiant. He follows David’s order and eventually Uriah is killed on the battlefield. David then marries Bathsheba.
As the Bible goes so goes current events. Each and every day, the news is filled with stories of people who like my father, do the right thing fully aware of the possible cost to their lives. Even if they aren’t putting their lives on the line, they know the life of this country is on the line. They do it knowing that while the cost for them could be great, the cost to our country could be even greater. On the other hand, there are certainly other public servants for whom that kind of courage has been sorely lacking.
Holocaust survivor and psychotherapist Victor Frankl wrote: We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
These days, perhaps more than any other in our lifetime, we need to choose wisely.
Well, I know what’s right
I got just one life
In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around
But I’ll stand my ground
And I won’t back down
There ain’t no easy way out
Hey I will stand my ground
And I won’t back down.
L’shana Tova u’metukah
Wishing all of you the happiest, healthiest and sweetest of New Years.
 Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 31a
 Joseph Telushkin. A Code of Jewish Ethics, vol. 1. (New York: Random House, c2006) 10-11.
 Jerusalem Talmud Nedarim 9:4
 Joseph Telushkin. A Code of Jewish Ethics, vol. 1. (New York: Random House, c2006) 12.
 Ibid. 13
 Ibid. 211
 Ibid. 14-15
 Ibid. 30-31
 Ibid. 30
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