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Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Cost of Kosher

It is no secret that kosher meat costs more. But why? On the supply side, the kosher meat industry is as utilitarian in its methods as the non-kosher meat industry. Moreover, in the wake of the Rubashkin's scandal, a number of independent kosher abattoirs have sprung up, so there is plenty of supply. By some estimates, more than a million kosher chickens are slaughtered each week. (See the article above by Eugene White.)  Yet even in a city such as Los Angeles, with a host of competing kosher markets, the price of a kosher piece of polka is significantly higher than the comparative non-kosher products of Perdue.

In these belt-tightened times, it is hard to figure what to do. Recently, on account of the steep increase in gas prices, I have started using a website  to search for the cheapest gas in my area. (It's also an iPhone app.) The website gives real-time (or close to it) quotes from competing gas stations. From there, one selects the best quote and heads for the pump. I was thinking how good and pleasant it would be if something similar existed for the Kosher consumer. Of course, I am no programmer, but I do like adventure, and this is what I found on a mid-morning Pico Blvd. excursion (4/29/2011). 

Kosher Club (4817 West Pico Boulevard)
Empire Chicken        $2.69-2.99 lb
King David Chicken  $2.69-2.99 lb
Turkey Drumstick      $1.99 lb
Kedem Grape Juice   $5.99 (large bottle)

Glatt Mart (8708 West Pico Boulevard)
Agristarmeat Chicken $2.79-3.59
Chai Poultry Chicken  $3.69 
Fabrengen Grape Juice  $5.49 

Livonia Glatt Market (Pico & Livonia)
Agristarmeat Chicken   $2.79-$3.29 lb.
Turkey Drumstick $2.19 lb.
Fabrengen Grape Juice $5.99

Ralph's (9616 West Pico Boulevard)
Empire Chicken $3.99-4.19 (Club Card)
Kedem Grape Juice $3.89 (Club Card) 

Results: Kosher Club swept in the poultry department. While Ralphs came in first for grape juice.
Now where do we go from here?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Sensing the Sacred: Parashat Kedoshim

There is a vast difference between God’s holiness and our own. God’s holiness is innate, our holiness acquired. Thus, at the outset of this week’s portion, we are told to strive for a quality that God already has: “Ye shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy.” (Lev. 19.2)
But how do we know we are on the right path?
Some of us might run through a check-list. ‘I gave charity. Check. I loved my neighbor today. Check. I lit Shabbat Candles. Check.’ But I would imagine that for most of us, doing right just feels right like a satisfying chord of music. Likewise, doing wrong just feels wrong, like hearing a beginner scrape at a violin.
How are we to understand this? That our bodies are attuned to holiness, the way the ear is attuned to music?
I once overheard a woman say of her favorite synagogue: “It’s the only place where I feel spirituality.” Stranger yet, her friend nodded her head in agreement. ‘I feel the same way.’
The naturalness with which they rated the sacredness of a place still baffles me. But perhaps it should baffle no less than the inexplicable beauty affixed the rose.
I leave you to ponder a quote from C.S. Lewis: "You don't have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body."
Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Early Passover: Eat First, Ask Questions Later!?!

Photo Credit: Paula Kirman

The tenth and final chapter of the Tosefta Pesachim appears to ritualize a Passover Seder that in many ways resembles our own. There are four cups of wine, multiple dippings, plenty of food, and quite a bit of stimulating discussion. But what is abundantly clear is that the discussion takes place not before the meal (akin our modern Seder) but after. That's the obvious conclusion, and one that is presented succinctly by Rabbi Judith Hauptman in her article, "How Old is the Haggadah?". She also translates the rudiments of the Tosefta in English at the end of her article, so you can see so for yourself and compare it the Mishnah (of which there is also a digest in English). What I find to be much less convincing is her argument that the Mishnah flipped the order to the one we have today, whereby the discussion takes place before the meal.

I think the evidence points in both directions. As R. Hauptman has already argued in favor of flipping, I shall merely state what I believe to be the evidence that the Mishnah preserves the Tosefta's organization of the evening.

Two or three pieces of Evidence:
(1) MISHNAH PESACHIM 10:3 "They then set [it] before him. He dips the lettuce before yet he has reached the Appetizer for the bread. [Alternatively, the breaking of the bread.] They set before him Mazzah, Lettuce [Hazzereth], and Haroseth and two cooked dishes. Though the Haroseth is not compulsory. R Eleazar Son of R. Tzadok said: It is compulsory. And in the Temple they used to bring the body of the Passover-Offering before him.

משנה. הביאו לפניו מטבל בחזרת עד שמגיע לפרפרת הפת. הביאו לפניו מצה וחזרת וחרוסת ושני תבשילין, אף על פי שאין חרוסת מצוה. רבי אליעזר (בן) +מסורת הש"ס: [ברבי]+ צדוק אומר: מצוה. ובמקדש היו מביאין לפניו גופו של פסח.

The language of "set before him" הביאו לפניו (would seem to indicate that the food is brought out not simply for appearance sake, but for actual consumption. See Mishnah Berachot 6:7:
משנה ז

[הביאו לפניו מליח בתחלה ופת עמו מברך על המליח ופוטר את הפת שהפת טפלה לו

Also the examples found in Tosefta Berachot 4:4,13,16. (Lieberman Edition)

Furthermore, as the above Mishnah precedes the Mishnayot that describe the rituals of asking the "Four Questions" and liturgical obligation to mention Pesach, Mazzah and Marror, one can conclude that eating the various foods including Mazzah took place before the discussion. ("Four Questions" is in quotes because originally there were only three as can be seen in early manuscripts, for example: Valmadonna Manuscript.)

Also, a number of Rishonim argue as well that the Mishnah above seems to indicate that the meal came before the discussion, see the Mordechai's fabulous comment below. (Although I am not so sure he is right that one can draw any conclusions from the fact that "Mazzah" is in the singular. "Bread" is also in the singular and can refer to multiple loaves in English or Hebrew: "Lechem Mishnah") See also Lieberman's Tosefta Kipeshuto page 654, who notes that R. Meir Rothenberg makes a similar comment regarding our Mishnah.

מרדכי מסכת פסחים סדר של פסח
וממשנה זו [*יש] מדקדקין דאין צריך להיות רק מצה אחת שלימה וכן הסדר שעושין מתחילה שתי מצות ובוצעין האחת ומניחין חציה לאפיקומן ועל חצי האחר מברכין ברכת המוציא ועל אכילת מצה וכן משמע הכא דקאמר הביאו לפניו מצה משמע דליכא כ"א מצה אחת שלימה ואע"ג דבשאר ימים טובים בעינן לחם משנה שלם מ"מ שאני הכא דכתיב לחם עוני ודרשינן (לקמן קטו ב) מה דרכו של עני בפרוסה אף כאן בפרוסה ואימת הוי דרכו של עני בפרוסה בשאר ימים היינו בברכת המוציא שעושה ברכת המוציא על הפרוסה וה"נ הא דקאמר אף כאן בפרוסה ר"ל ברכת המוציא וכן פירש בה"ג שפירש דאף על גב דבעינן לחם משנה מכל מקום אתיא לחם עוני וגרעיה ללחם משנה ואוקמיה אפלגא ולא נראה דלמה יגרע משאר ימים טובים דבעינן לחם משנה שלם
כיון דתקינו רבנן שלש מצות אכל חדא וחדא נעביד בה מצוה ומההיא (דהביאו) דהכא לא קשה [*דקאמר] הביאו לפניו מצה דמשמע דליכא אלא מצה אחת שלימה דהיינו דוקא בימיהם שהיו עושין הסדר אחר סעודתן ולכך לא היו צריכין אלא מצה אחת שלימה לעשות הסדר עליה דהא כבר בירכו ברכת המוציא ואכלו כל סעודתן אבל אנו שעושין הסדר בתחלה קודם הסעודה אז ודאי צריך שלש מצות כדפרישית וה"ר מנחם מיוני וה"ר יו"ט ורמב"ם (פ"ח מהל' חמץ ומצה ה"ו) כתבו דסגי בשני מצות ובוצע אחת לשתים ושומר חציה לאפיקומן ומברך על הפרוסה המוציא ועל אכילת מצה והשלימה יעשה כריכה מצה ומרור

(2) The Misnah dealing with the "Four Questions" is a second piece of evidence. It makes no sense (in our Seders as well) for a child to ask about a series of rituals at a point in the evening when none of these rituals have taken place! We have yet to dip twice, (eat bitter herbs), eat mazzah, or eat a roasted paschal lamb!!! So why would the child be encouraged to ask about these things at this point in the evening, before any of these unusual rituals have occurred?


שנה מסכת פסחים פרק י משנה ד
מזגו לו כוס שני וכאן הבן שואל אביו ואם אין דעת בבן אביו מלמדו
מה נשתנה הלילה הזה מכל הלילות
שבכל הלילות אנו אוכלין חמץ ומצה הלילה הזה כולו מצה
שבכל הלילות אנו אוכלין שאר ירקות הלילה הזה מרור
שבכל הלילות אנו אוכלין בשר צלי שלוק ומבושל הלילה הזה כולו צלי שבכל הלילות אנו מטבילין פעם אחת הלילה הזה שתי פעמים
ולפי דעתו של בן אביו מלמדו מתחיל בגנות ומסיים בשבח ודורש מארמי אובד אבי עד שיגמור כל הפרשה כולה:

(3) Within the Tosefta, there seems to be great stress on making sure that the children stay up after dinner for the discussion part. Thus the Tosefta below. (Is is also cited in the Gemora TB Pesahim 109a): 

תוספתא פסחים, כתב יד וינה, פרק י
ר' לעזר אמ' חוטפין מצה לתינוקות בשביל שלא ישנו ר' יהודה או' אפי' לא אכל אלא פרפרת אחת אפי' לא טבל אלא חזרת אחת חוטפין מצה לתינוקות בשביל שלא ישנו

Tosefta Pesahim, 1st-2nd C. [The “Wien” Manuscript  was copied sometime in the 13th-14th C.) [Seder night...] R. Eliezer said, snatch matzah for the children so they don’t fall asleep. R. Yehuda said, even if they ate but one parperet (appetizer) or dipped but one [piece of] lettuce---snatch matzah for the children so that they don’t fall asleep.
(See Shamma Friedman's review of this Tosefta in Tosefta Atiqta: Mesechet Pesach Rishon #444-446) 

To my mind, it is very striking that the Mishnah mentions nothing about keeping children up. One could read this as evidence that discussion now takes place before the meal, ala R. Hauptman, and thus keeping the children up is much less of a concern. Another hypothesis. The Mishnah has kept the same order as the Tosefta, but it has created something just as enticing as Mazzah snatching, it has legislated the Mah Nishtanah-- a wonderful (post) dinner dialogue to look forward to--where parents ask children and children ask parents: Why was this night different from all other nights? 

In any event, these are my initial thoughts. I think it likely that there is some middle ground that in a later post will need to be tilled and seeded.

The Art of Listening to a Sermon

Photo Credit: Karith

I have lost count of the number times where I have sat down at a Shabbat lunch and have heard some version of following: "I am not sure what the rabbi said today." Sometimes, a guest will start out: "The derashah was unbelievable..." Yet the subsequent attempt to repeat the salient points is found to be hopeless. If three people happened to hear the same derasha, they can, with great fortitude, reconstruct the sermon. Usually this works, but when it doesn't...imagine 8-year-olds putting a shattered Ming vase back together with Elmer's glue. Not pretty. As a rabbi myself, I find this nothing less than heartrending.  In light of the above, I have decided to share some general advice on how to follow and remember the Shabbat Morning Sermon. Here goes: 

The most important thing to realize is that all sermons can be broken down to three culinary elements: 1. The Big Question (appetizer) 2. The Answer (main course) 3. Its Application (dessert). (For more info, see my previous post.) Everything else is 'filler'. By this, I include jokes, anecdotes, seat announcements, quotes from Shakespeare or R. Abraham Joshua Heschel z'l, aesthetically pleasing but otherwise unwieldy transitional sentences, and the variety of ways a rabbi might repeat the Question, or Answer, or Big Message using varying adjectives and nouns, textual sources, stories and the like. 

Therefore, to succinctly remember and follow a sermon, one should first listen for the Big Question. Once identified, make a mental note of it. Try thinking to yourself: "such-and-such is the appetizer." Then, wait patiently for The Answer--once identified, think to yourself "ok that's the main course." Lastly, carefully note how the answer is turned into a poignant message or reflection--hopefully the thought will linger along the trip home and into lunch where one can share this piece of delicious Torah like a sweet apple tart or a cream chocolate mousse. 

Some things to keep in mind: 
1. The Question is typically employed in the first two to four minutes of the Sermon. Sometimes, it is preceded by an anecdote or joke, but as soon as you hear a religious text being quoted, then you can be sure that a question is sure to follow. 

2. As soon as you get the question, sit back and relax, as the rabbi may choose to rephrase it, build on it, or just illustrate it with a story. The next big thing to wait for is the Answer. Ideally, there is a succinct transitional phrase that leads to the answer such as, "In response to our question--why were Joseph's brothers jealous of him?--Rashi says as follows..." But even without the transitional phrase, once the Rabbi begins a phrase, "Rashi says...or the Talmud says...or the Midrash says" an answer is sure to come.

3. Sometimes, the rabbi will use different sources that basically give the same answer. (This is like a going back for seconds after a meal, so don't get too caught up by it, it's just extra calories.)  Sometimes, the rabbi will compare and contrast two or more commentators that give different answers to the Same Big Question. This is like a meal with selection of  main dishes. Not to worry, the last answer is where the brisket is...and from it, the Rabbi will craft the message de jour

I hope this helps. If not, we rabbis are used to being forgotten.

Wanna Quote Me?

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The Art of the Taught Word: D’var Torah

At the request of some of my rabbinic students at AJU, I have written a short guide for giving a 'D'var Torah.' While written specifically for those pursuing a career in the rabbinate, I thought others might be interested as well. Enjoy!!

Photo from

The Art of the Taught Word: D’var Torah
R. Yehuda Hausman

A D’var Torah stands on three things: (1) Question, (2) Answer, (3) Application.

(1) A D’var Torah begins with a Question on a particular text.  The text may have a linguistic peculiarity, such as repetitious language, unusual grammar, word choice, or a lacuna of information.  

For example: ‘In Deuteronomy 15.11, the Torah describes the commandment to give charity: “…You shall open, open up your hand to your brother, to your poor, to your destitute in your land.”
This verse seems rather repetitious: Why does the Torah state the word “open” twice?

Alternatively:  What is the difference between “your poor” and “your destitute”? Or, why is the word “your” repeatedly emphasized?'

 Sometimes, a text seems difficult to understand morally, theologically, or on a basic human level. Example: ‘In Parashat Matot—Num. 31—God commands Moshe to wage war against the Midianites.  But wait, wasn’t Moshe’s wife, Tziporah, a Midianite—how could Moshe execute vengeance against his wife’s people? How could God have asked this of Moshe?’

(2) Once the question is succinctly posed, and correct tension wrought, one may proceed to step two and loosen the arrow of resolution at your overwrought and anxious audience (hopefully).  Traditionally, an initial answer should not be one of one’s own creation.  Thus a Rashi, Ibn-Ezra, Midrash, Talmudic passage, or Hasidic teaching are brought to resolve a challenge.

For example: ‘Rashi suggest that the words” Open, Open” are repeated  in order to teach us that it is sometimes necessary to give to the same person twice or even multiple times.’ (Comment on Deut. 15.8)

In recent years, it has become more acceptable to offer one’s own drash or chidush right from the start. (I blame R. Shlomo Carlebach for starting this trend.) Some rabbis and teachers do this often; some never do it at all. In deference to tradition, I believe one should at least begin with an answer from Chazal, and then proceed to one’s own Chidush on the text. Often, if one searches a bit (and it's particularly good), one will find a Chazal who says as much. “You know you are on the right path, if you meet friends along the way.”

(3) The last and most creative part of the Dvar Torah is the message or application. It is here that we seize the given answer and attempt to impress it upon the hearts of our congregants and students.... It is also here that we give direction, guidance, get everyone to go to the Israel Fair or some such, and occasionally solicit money.

Warning! It is also here that a Rabbi must decide how broad or narrow the message ought to be, especially if dealing with a longer drasha for Shabbat morning. Too narrow, one risks leaving people out. Too broad, and the D’var Torah suddenly becomes about everything and therefore nothing all.

Let us apply the Rashi somewhat broadly, just to see our options:

‘When confronted with tragedy, we often find it in our hearts to do what is right. After Hurricane Katrina, we opened our pocket-books and wrote a check to the Red Cross.  After the wild-fires in San Diego, we donated clothing and blankets to the victims. But after that first initial act of compassion, how many of us wrote a second check or made a second donation? There are still people without homes. There are still people in terrible need! Thus Rashi reminds us that…

Alternatively, let’s say one were raising money for the building campaign:

I know that the Shul Dinner was only a month or so ago. But as you know, our wonderful synagogue is growing. Thank God, our membership is up…and a week doesn’t pass without another Simchat Bat or Brit Milah…. And we need more space….  And while it is difficult to give more, especially as many of us already give generously…this is an investment in our future. Yaddayaddayadda…

But if you try to combine the above into one drasha, you will have shot both feet, dug your own grave, sat shiva, and  worse yet, caused services to finish ten minutes late, thus creating a stampede for cholent, which will now be gone by the time you get there.

Some General Advice

1. When it comes to the conclusion, “Don’t circle the airport, land the plane.” Rabbi Avi Weiss

2. Nearly everything will be forgiven, so long as the Sermon is short.

3. If you forget to pay a Shiva visit—as far as that family is concerned—you will never give a good D’var Torah. If you make an unexpected Shiva call or visit to a hospital, your sermons might be favorably compared to the silver-tongued monologues of Katharine Hepburn and Anthony Hopkins.

4.  When you cite a verse or Chazal, it’s helpful to quote the English first, then Hebrew. (Also, there's NO NEED to state Chapter and Verse all the time!!! No one will look up, “Numbers, Chapter Fifteen, Verse 27  though 29”!!! Instead,  “Towards the end of this morning’s parashah,…”)

5. Eye-contact. If you use a written text, practice the speech 5-10 times, thus your eyes won’t be stapled to the page.

6. Practice. Practice. Practice.

7.  This is the hardest part, as it is the most intuitive and least objective component. A D’var Torah is not, strictly speaking, a literary venture with a small oral component. (Think back to a bad poetry reading.) There is a lot more to write besides words. One can write emotions into the script. One can craft pauses and caesuras on the page (pregnant or otherwise).  One can practice facial expressions. Like a composer, one can dictate the cadence, pace, and volume of one’s voice....

You can see this being done well in "The King's Speech" when actor Colin Firth as King George VI is set to deliver his first, most important radio broadcast about the start of World War II without the infamous stutter that has plagued him throughout the film. Before him during his broadcast, he has a sheet of paper with the speech itself in black print and red marks all over the page reminding him when to change the cadence, pace, and volume of his voice.

As such, try to use parentheticals to convey the unspoken. [Take deep breaths.] [With excitement] [Long pause] [With Sadness] [Relax J] Alternatively, hand-write stage directions above the words.

The Suffering of the Righteous and Not so Righteous? Adapted from a Sermon: Pesach 4/24/11

Can one quantify suffering? Can one give it a number, weigh it, put it on a scale?
Several weeks ago, Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) decided to elevate its rating for the severity of the Fukishima –Dai’ichi nuclear disaster.
It changed the rating from 5—“very severe”—to 7—the maximum grade for a nuclear accident—’7’ being what was given to the Chernobyl reactor meltdown, the very worst nuclear accident in history.
Of course, many within Japan and outside Japan, criticized the Commission, saying they had exaggerated the significance and severity of the event.
Caving to pressure, Japan’s Nuclear Commision decided to downgrade the rating from 7 to 6, before later upgrading it again to 7.
In reading these reports, one could not help but feel that something was amiss. By way of an analogy, in our zealousness to calculate exactly how many trees had been lost in the wildfire, we lost sight of what was done to the entire forest.
Lives were lost. Many thousands had to evacuate their homes. Hundreds of thousands are without power. There is an environmental toll: Farmland rendered infertile by radiation; water rendered unpalatable; poisoned fish, livestock, fruit, grain… The forest is devastated—how can one put a number to this kind of loss?
There is a point in the Haggadah that (for some) creates a measure of discomfort. It’s in the section of Maggid, where we repeat the plagues aloud, where we praise the great hand of retribution—the Yad Chazaka, with which God struck Egypt.
The section culminates in one of the strangest debates in rabbinic literature, a disagreement between R. Yossi, R. Eliezer, and R. Akiva.
 ‘Says R. Yossi, the Egyptians were struck by ten plagues in Egypt and 50 by the sea. Says R. Eliezer, they were struck by 40 plagues in Egypt and 200 by the sea. No, opines R. Akiva, it was much worse than that: 50 plagues in Egypt and 250 amidst the sea.’
In other words, shall we give it a 5 (very severe), a 6 (unbelievably severe), or 7 (the worst imaginable).
By comparison, the Japanese estimating the extent of damage caused by their failed nuclear reactor, makes a great deal of sense; in order to rally the appropriate response, they need to first gage the extent of the damage. 
But here at the Seder, assessing the retribution exacted long ago against Mitzrayim, feels like nothing less than gloating.
There were plagues of blood and hail, pestilence and darkness, Egypt’s firstborn were struck down; we read this morning how its footmen and cavalry are swept away amidst the towering sea.
We get the picture. Do we really need exact numbers?
In response, I believe there are two approaches.
The first, alluded to above, might be characterized by a sense of embarrassment: It is somewhat inappropriate to gloat at every trouble that struck Egypt—to calculate down to the last frog, lout, and locust what was brought upon them.
 The second view might be characterized by righteous satisfaction: Mitzrayim got what it deserved. As they did to us, God did unto them.
 Don Isaac Abarbanel expressed both views in a familiar comment on the Haggadah: “The reason why we pour a few drops of wine from our glass as we read aloud the ten plagues is to attest that our joy is not complete, as our salvation had to come about through the punishment of others; even though it was just and right that they be punished through these terrible acts, nevertheless,  
  בִּנְפֹל אויביך (אוֹיִבְךָ), אַל-תִּשְׂמָח; 
“Rejoice not, when your enemy falls.””
In a way this tension continues into the next section of Dayenu:
“Had God taken us out of Egypt, but had not exacted retributions upon them, Dayenu.”
Had God exacted retributions, and not destroyed their gods, Dayenu.
Had God destroyed their gods, but not killed their firstborn, Dayenu.”
Yes, we sing happily that they got what they deserved. At the same time, we also recite, Dayenu. “It’s enough!”
However, I shall conclude with one view, and not the other.
As many of you know, this month marked the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the American Civil War.  The conflict “remains the deadliest war in American history, resulting in the deaths of 620,000 soldiers and an undetermined number of civilian casualties. Ten percent of all Northern males 20–45 years of age died, as did 30 percent of all Southern white males aged 18–40.” (Wiki)

At the close of the war, many asked why was it necessary for there to be so much suffering?  Surely, the cause was good and just...freeing America’s black slaves was a moral obligation, but why did it have to come at such a steep price in blood?  
And here I leave you with the words of Abraham Lincoln. From his second inaugural address:
“If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
[In case you didn’t catch the last part:]
“until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."