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Rabbi Raskin's Shabbat Sermon

May 15, 2021

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Rabbi Raskin's Shabbat Sermon

Addition by Subtraction

Parasha B'har-B'hukkotai

May 8, 2021; 26 Iyar 5781

Rabbi Adam J. Raskin, Congregation Har Shalom



Well, it’s almost exactly a month into this year’s baseball season, which feels just a tiny bit more normal that it did last year.  I’ve been to just one game so far this season; Ezra and I were among about 8,000 fans out of a capacity of over 41,000 at Nats Park.  It was great to be back at the ballpark, even though there were still so many empty seats that were zip-tied shut to prevent people from moving around.  I found myself transfixed at that game by the pitching velocity calculator: that digital display of the speed of each pitch.  I think it’s because Ezra has become a pretty regular pitcher on his Montgomery County league team, and I’m paying more attention to the nuances of that position than ever before. It’s truly mind boggling that these guys throw pitch after pitch after pitch in the 90 mph+ range.  And it’s even more incredible that anyone can make contact with a small projectile moving towards them that fast.  Nearly every pitcher in baseball is asked at some point in their career how fast they can throw, as that is historically one of the universal measures of a good pitcher. 



But in last Saturday’s Wall Street Journal there was a fascinating piece[1] about the Eephus pitch, which floats in at a sluggish 50 mph or so.  It was developed over 70 years ago by Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Rip Sewell, who told the Sporting News in 1944 that: “Eephus means nothing in some language, so it’s just another way of saying ‘nothing ball.’” It helps to be Jewish to figure out that the language Sewell was referencing to was of course, Hebrew.  Eephus or more correctly ephes means zero, or nothing, and that nothing ball is actually anything but, just ask the many batters who have struck out trying to hit it.



I’m proud that Hebrew is being credited with a baseball term.  But I also think there’s a real nugget of Torah in there too.  In parashat Behar we find that famous list of berachot and kelalot, blessings and curses. Blessings if the Jewish people follow God’s commandments, curses if they don’t.  I counted up the blessings listed in the parasha and there are 10.  Ten different berachot promised to the Jewish people if they are loyal to the Torah, if they keep the covenant.  Do you know how many curses are listed?  Before you start flipping pages in your chumash to count them up, I’ll tell you.  The answer is thirty!  Thirty kellalot!  How is it possible that there are three times more curses than blessings?!  I think that’s sort of unsettling.  In this case more is definitely not better.  What in the world is going on in this parasha?



In order to figure this out, we have to look closely at what is actually promised in these verses.  If you look at Leviticus 26:5, the Jewish people are told that: if they faithfully observe the mitzvoth, then va’achaltem lach’mechem l’sova, vi’shavtem la’vetach ba’artzechem. “You will eat your fill of bread, and you will dwell securely in your land.”  That sounds positively wonderful!  Plenty to eat, and no enemies to worry about; what could be better?!  But Rashi takes this promise of ‘enough to eat’ a little further.  He says that what “eating your fill of bread” actually means is ochel kim’ah.  It means that you will be satiated by eating less. It’s the ideal diet:  I can eat less, and not feel hungry.  But Ochel kim’ah, is not just about being satiated by eating less, it is about eating less and being grateful: Ve’hu mit’bareich b’meiav, that little bit of food will be enough to cause you to say a blessing, to be thankful, and not to always be looking for more.  You may not have cooked for an army the way my grandmother used to, or have seventeen jars of tomato sauce in the pantry, but you’ll have enough.  And you won’t worry about it.  You’ll be okay with what you have and won’t be anxious that you don’t have more.  I have to admit that every time we have people over for a Shabbes meal, I look at the pan of chicken and part of me worries, ‘Did we make enough for everyone?’  Even if I count every pulky and I can see that there are more pulkies that people, part of me still worries!  A few years ago there was an article about a much more serious kind of worry; that of Holocaust survivors who hoard food, or even keep food around after it’s begun to spoil, because of the trauma of starvation and hunger during the war.  Concentration camp prisoners lost an average of 60 lbs. in the course of their captivity, and even those who survived saw many others die of starvation.  Can you imagine someone with those life experiences being at peace with not having to store excess food; or being able to dispose of food that has expired?  That gives a whole new layer of meaning to ochel kim’ah, of being satisfied, comfortable, at peace with having less.  But it’s not just about food.  We are programmed from an early age that comfort, success, affluence, contentment is all equal to quantity—to having more stuff, much more so than the immeasurable quality of our lives.  I think the Torah has a very different vision:



Back in Exodus 16, the Jewish people are informed that during their trek through the wasteland of the desert, where not much grows, and the land is arid, they won’t have to worry about food.  God was going to take care of them.  Everyday God would arrange for food to be delivered to the doorsteps of every Israelite family.  Just like an ancient version of Peapod or Instacart. This special delivery was of course the mahn, the mannah.  But the Torah says that God had an ulterior motive. The mannah was not only meant to feed the Jewish people, it was also meant to test them…le’ma-an anuseinu.  What exactly was the test?  Well, according to many commentators the test was whether the Jewish people would even be satisfied by the mannah.  Would they appreciate this incredible gift or would they complain about it?  Would they consider it enough or would they demand more? Would they be grateful for this sustenance or would they be resentful of it?  In a few weeks from now we will read in parashat Be’haalotecha that the Jewish people indeed complained about the mannah, yearning instead for all the variety of foods they ate back in Egypt.  They wanted more. They demanded more.  And unfortunately, they did not pass that test.

I tell my kids all the time that I want them to go into a career, a field that brings them meaning and joy and satisfaction in life.  Even if it doesn’t pay the highest salary; even if it won’t make them uber-rich…if they’re happy and fulfilled, I tell them, that’s so much more important  But let me tell you it’s a hard sell these days!  And it’s hard for kids especially to imagine how they could possibly be happy if they don’t make tons of money and have tons of stuff.  But Judaism brings us back to that idea again and again.



Consider, for example, the mitzvah of grace after meals, birkat ha’mazon.  The Torah says we should eat, we should be satisfied, and we should give thanks to God.  But the Rabbis insisted that we say a blessing even after eating an amount of food the size of an olive.  Who would be satisfied after eating only one olive?  I can eat a whole can of them!  The idea, I think, is that satisfaction doesn’t only mean being full.  Satisfaction means recognizing that whatever I have should be considered a blessing, even in the smallest amounts.  Or as Ben Zimmer, the author of that piece in the Wall Street Journal, “eephus is more about addition by subtraction.”  The very effectiveness of that pitch is that it’s got less juice…it’s value is in its quality not in its quantity.

I mentioned earlier that there is a 3:1 ratio of curses to blessings in the parasha.  But look at the blessings themselves…there aren’t very many of them, but their quality is beyond compare!

-You shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land (we talked about that one)

–I will grant peace to the land, and no one shall trouble you

–there will be a respite from vicious beasts and the danger of weapons

–I will look upon you with favor, and you shall be fruitful and multiply –I, God, will be present among you…



There may be fewer blessings, but these are the best blessings anyone could ask for!  They remind me of what we recited on p. 65 at the beginning of this service; what we say upon arising each morning:

We thank God for “the basics:”

For making me free

For giving me a brain, a mind to discern and understand

For our senses, clothing on our body, having our essential needs met

For restoring strength to us

For the precious gift of being Jewish

For being free people, created in the image of the divine…

These are all blessings of quality, not quantity.



In Ashrei we say[2] Poteiach et yadecha u’masbia lechol chai ratzon: Open up your hand and God will satisfy, satiate the desire of all living things.  There’s a tradition when we say Ashrei to open up our palms when we say those words.  Look at your open hands: You really can’t hold a whole lot in that space.  That should remind us that it shouldn’t take a whole lot to satisfy us or satiate us.  Each one of us already has so very much.  Instead of always looking for more, let us give thanks for the most important things that are already right in the palms of our hands.


[1] “A Nothing of a Name For a Perplexing Pitch,” Ben Zimmer. Wall Street Journal, May 1, 2021

[2] Psalm 145:16









Tue, May 18 2021 7 Sivan 5781