Parashat Ekev: showing up is safer than hiding

A minyan is traditionally defined as ten Jewish men but by Progressive Jews as ten self-identified and committed Jews of any gender; any way you define it, what it means is that we need critical mass. 

What is critical mass? it’s the number you need to get the job done. In order to evoke holiness in Jewish prayer, you need a minyan. In order to study Torah, our tradition teaches, you need at least two students.  Social justice is more tricky: in order to get a possible new law on the Oregon ballot, you need 116,284 names on a petition. I know; I’ve just trained to become a signature collector for a measure on the 2014 ballot to enact marriage equality in the state of Oregon.

This week’s parashah underscores the Jewish emphasis on individual responsibility for the group’s well-being in the very first verse: If you all obey these laws and guard them carefully, God will guard the Covenant established with each of you. (Devarim 7.12) The laws must be obeyed and guarded by all of us, and then God will guard the Covenant made us as it affects us personally, one by one.

The word if in this parasha gives it its name: ekev “on the heels of” in Hebrew. That is how closely act is followed by reaction in Jewish religious belief. Or, as we might say, “what goes around comes around”. It may take a while, but it’s always recognizable when it comes around again, whatever “it” is for you or me. Consider: we see larger social trends, and we can feel, if not always articulate, how we know our acts have been a small part of what has added up to that trend. 

Do you see less litter on the streets? you, because you do not ignore the presence of garbage but take care of it, are a small part of that trend. Do you see more justice in the world? you will if you do not ignore the presence of injustice, and take care of it, in whatever ways you may find to do so. And not only where you happen to notice it –  as the haftarah for this week reminds us, we are called upon to be rodfey tzedek, “pursuers of justice”:

Listen to Me, all who pursue justice, all who seek the Eternal!

Look to the rock from which you were hewn, the quarry from which you were cut.

Look back to Avraham your father, and to Sarah who bore you.

(Isaiah 50.51.1-2)

It is not enough to quietly be in favor of change, to quietly approve of movements which seek greater justice. We have to show up. Our tradition urges us to show up and to act to guard others if we ourselves would seek to be safe. If we look to the rock of our tradition, let it remind us “to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with G-d” (Micah), and show up in the pursuit of justice, we may suffer and we may not always succeed, but we will know that we are keeping the Covenant, and that it will keep us.

As we come out of hiding, we the quiet ones in support of equality, and act for justice together, may we know justice in our individual lives – and peace in our hearts.

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Shabbat Nakhamu: finding consolation together

On Tuesday of this week, the world fell apart for Jews 1,941 years ago. In 72 CE the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed by the mighty Roman Empire on 9 Av, which this year corresponds to Tuesday July 16. The tragedy was as great in its time as the Shoah (called in English the Holocaust) is in ours. On this Shabbat ever since, Jews have gathered together, as we do each Shabbat, but on this particular Shabbat we have come together with the sense that we are in need of consolation.

“All flesh is grass”, the prophet Isaiah proclaimed. “Nothing abides but G-d.” (40.8)

Nakhamu, nakhamu ami, “be comforted, be comforted O My people”; these opening words from the haftarah for this week (Isaiah 40.1) give this Shabbat its name. The pain of that first disaster has lessened with time, yet the Shabbat retains its relevance, for who has not known the need for consolation, for healing, for peace?

The Jewish understanding of these opening words is found in their repetition. The Biblical commentator Ibn Ezra interpreted: the repetition means that comfort will come “swiftly or repeatedly”. Since the Jewish people entered an exile that lasted for nearly two millennia on that day, we are left to conclude that the latter of the two possibilities is more likely. It has not been swift. But repeatedly, and on this Shabbat, it is needed, for some among us personally, for all of us communally.

Communally – as a community. Our Jewish response to the repeated for need for consolation among our people – and in our own individual lives, after all – is found in an even closer reading of the first word: nakhamu is said in the plural. We Jews do not find consolation by isolating ourselves, but in the intimacy of human contact. Sometimes our closeness causes friction and frustration, and even pain, but we are a community, and we will find consolation, and redemption, only through, and with, and because of our kehillah, our Jewish community.

This evening, when Shabbat begins, seek out your community. If you are in need of consolation yourself, you will find it with us. If you are not, come and help us offer it to someone who needs an outstretched hand and an open heart. 

“Each blade of grass sings its own song to G-d’s glory”. We may come and go like grass, but we do know how to find consolation in song, in Shabbat, and in each other.

Tisha B’Av 5773: what will you fast for?

Is this the fast I want – bowing down the head and sitting on sackcloth and ashes? Is this an acceptable fast? 

Is not this the fast I have chosen: 

To break open the bonds of the “I can’t help it” excuse of habitual evil, 

to undo the yoke and let the oppressed go free, 

and that you work to undo every such yoke? 

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, 

make room for the poor in your own household economy, 

when you see the naked, to clothe them, 

and refuse to turn away from your own kin?    (Isaiah 58.5-7) 

A hallmark of any thoughtful learning approach to Jewish tradition refuses to dismiss the wisdom of our ancestors as meaningless to us, but to respect it as the expression of human beings as thoughtful as we to their lives and their experiences. Tisha B’Av is a good case in point: it is the major day of mourning for the entire Jewish people, yet it is difficult for many of us to understand how to relate to this part of our inheritance.

Tisha B’Av marks the destruction of the Jewish nation and the advent of nearly 2000 years of Jewish exile. But in 1948 the Jewish state was re-established, and all the wanderers are now able to come home. Either because we do not live in Israel, or perhaps simply because our own personal experience of life is so far from the pain and vulnerability of that Exile our ancestors knew, this day seems far from us. 

To observe Tisha B’Av as if nothing happened is disrespectful to the struggles of those who established the Jewish state.

But to advocate discarding this observance opens us to the question: when does the memory of loss and its sadness end?

In its own day, the Temple’s destruction – which was also the destruction of the Jewish people; we suffered terrible loss – was as significant for us, then, as the Holocaust is in our own day. When we commemorate the Holocaust, often the question is asked of us: how shall we live, that it never happen again?

In a very powerful way, Tisha B’Av is also a necessary moment for us to experience as we move toward Yom Kippur. It has been said that if Yom Kippur is our national moment of personal accounting, then Tisha B’Av is our personal moment of national accounting. What causes the downfall of a society? What can we do to strengthen the ethics of our international Jewish peoplehood?

How shall we appropriately acknowledge Tisha B’Av in the days of a resurrected Jewish state? certainly not by ignoring that fact. And so let us look to Isaiah’s guidance: drop the sackcloth and ashes, never mind the fasting from food. Instead, do something that may very well be more difficult: fast from some behavior that adds to the degradation of our people’s ethical standards.

Fast from talking about others.

Fast from complaining about others.

Fast from harshly judging others.

Fast from your belief that you cannot influence Jewish public life for good.

And acknowledge that your private acts have public consequences.

Act, instead, on the opposite of these evils:

Instead of talking about others, talk to them. Find out how they are really doing, rather than repeating something you’ve heard second-hand. Avoid lashon hara’ – gossip.

Instead of complaining about others, let them know that there is relationship work you’d like to do with them. That’s the Jewish ethic of tokhehah.

Instead of harshly judging others, put a sign on your mirror: Jewish ethics teaches a concept called l’khaf zekhut, which means always give others the benefit of the doubt.

And break your own yoke of cynicism by supporting public Jewish ethics, and living them in your daily choices. Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh – all Israel are responsible, each for each other.

The traditional greeting for Tisha B’Av is tzom kal, may you have an easy fast. 

May you find it easier, for the sake of this day and its lessons, to fast from acts that drag us all down, and choose, instead, acts that lift us all up.