One Minute Torah – B’har 5779

At the end of this piece comes a tough request. To frame that request, I am revisiting a story I shared in a One Minute […]

At the end of this piece comes a tough request. To frame that request, I am revisiting a story I shared in a One Minute Torah two years ago.

Over a decade ago, I dropped my cell phone in a taxicab on my way to the airport. Returning it to me wasn’t easy. But eventually the driver got it back to me, along with his business card. From that time on, whenever we needed a ride to the airport we called that driver directly, rather than calling the dispatcher.

When I started commuting weekly to Los Angeles for rabbinical school, that driver offered to take me home from SJC every week for $20. He’s Israeli and, aside from the good deal on the car ride, I appreciated the opportunity to talk Hebrew with him. I soon struck up an affectionate friendship with him. I learned that he was a veteran of the Yom Kippur war, and had endured in that war suffering that no one should know about. I also learned that he went on to have many interesting life experiences, successes and failures.

Now he was living with 6 little dogs in an illegal trailer, parked on a friend’s property in east Palo Alto. He was paying a very small amount by Silicon Valley standards, but what would be a respectable rent for a nice apartment in many parts of the country. Considering that his trailer didn’t have running water (he used a garden hose), it was hard to consider it a good deal.

One day, he called to tell me his landlady no longer wanted him on her property. He had no place to no go.  The waiting lists for affordable housing are years long. And that’s without pets, but his attachment to those dogs is stronger than any I’ve seen. His situation seemed desperate, and I made a crazy offer. I spent two days clearing out our garage, and he and the dogs moved in.  

I sometimes reflect on the emotional impulses that drove me and my husband to take this man in, beyond simple affection. His heroism in the Yom Kippur war was part of it: he had suffered so much for the country I love from afar. Also pulling on me were the stories I grew-up with, of “righteous gentiles” who took in Jewish refugees. Many times I had asked myself the question, would I be willing to take someone in?

Those feeling of debt were also coupled with a set of values that are at the heart of this week’s parshah. The parshah’s name is B’har, on the mountain, as it opens with the words “God spoke to Moses on the mountain of Sinai, saying.” The revelation of Sinai cracked open our notions of property.

B’har  includes a section on slavery, with an admonition to treat your slaves compassionately, and to release them  on the Jubilee year. You think your slaves belong to you, but they do not. “They are My servants..for I am Adonai your God” (Lev. 25:55).

B’har also includes a section on land ownership, with the demand that every seventh year the landowners are to neither cultivate nor harvest their lands. What grows naturally in the Sabbatical year is free for all to take. You think your land belongs to you, but it does not. “It is My land, for you are tenants with me” (Lev. 25:23).

I have an office at CBJ. No one else can walk into my office, sit at my desk and type on my computer without my permission. But I understand that my office belongs to me only at the grace of the CBJ community, and only because you trust me to use it for the good of the community.

The homes we live in, the bodies we inhabit, belong to us in much the same way. No one is allowed to enter our homes or touch our bodies without our permission. But they are ours only at the grace of God, and with the trust that we will use them to do good. When we give of ourselves generously and openly, welcoming outsiders into our homes, sharing our resources with those in need, we are simply using God’s loans as we should.

Silicon Valley is in a housing crisis. I get emails and phone calls regularly about individuals desperate for housing.  Sometimes it’s a member of the Jewish community, reaching out to me personally as a rabbi. Sometimes it’s a clergy colleague, writing on behalf of a member of their community.

Sometimes the need is for a long-term, stable situation. And sometimes, it is just for a few months or even weeks, while the individual receives medical treatment, or waits for paperwork to process on some form of government support.

Can you help? If you have a room you are willing to rent or loan; a garage you are willing to open to a guest; or time to hold someone’s hand as they search, let me know. May God’s blessing be upon you and your home.