Selikhot meditation: justice is not enough

The days grow fewer until we reach what our tradition calls The Great Day of Judgement. On this Motza’ey Shabbat, as the Shabbat concludes, the Ashkenazi community begins daily midnight prayers of Selikhot, asking for forgiveness. In these prayers we consider: how are we to be judged? in other words, how are we to best do G-d’s will? and what is the highest expression of that will?

 

On Shabbat Shoftim a few weeks ago we read in the parashat hashavua “justice, justice shall you pursue” (Dev. 16.20). Justice, tzedek, is often considered the highest end of an ethical Jewish life, and this verse, we are taught, comes to tell us that we must pursue the ends of justice using just means. The ends do not, in Judaism, justify any means to that end. We must pursue justice in just ways. That is true. But it is not enough. We must also pursue justice in kind ways.

 

It is possible to be just and unkind. It is possible to be right, and unkind. It is even possible to be righteously angry – it may be within your rights – but in that case, certainly, there will be a lack of kindness.

 

Justice, in Jewish tradition, is not the highest good in life. You have probably heard of the Jewish song which tells us what is:

 

על שלושה דברים העולם עומד: על התורה ועל העבודה ועל גמילות חסדים

al shlosha devarim ha’olam omeyd: al haTorah, al haAvodah, v’al Gemilut Hasadim 

Upon three things the world depends: on Torah, on Service, and on Loving Kindness. (Pirke Avot 1.2)

 

We understand this Talmudic teaching to be offering us a vision, of a three-legged stool if you like – one strong enough to sustain the entire world. Consider these three pillars; each one offers us a way into the repentance we must discover and practice if we are to grow past the current version of ourselves that we struggle with, the way Jacob struggled all night by the river.

 

Torah, which is to say, study, and more than that: learning. If you would have a stable world, your own and that of the entire planet, there must be openness to learning. Learning is not only about maintaining good brain health; “brain exercises” for their own sake are just one more form of American narcissism. 

Learning cannot take place outside of a context of repentance, for repentance is the posture of humility, of NOT knowing it all. Without a repentant heart, a heart that repents of its desire for protection, one never learns anything that might actually be painful enough to lead to growth. Have you learned that you caused pain to someone? Can you learn how not to do it again? Can you be open enough even for that painful growth? This is true on the highest scale: the best teacher is the one who is not personally pained, or threatened, by the student who learns more than she; and the entire world is better off when that student makes the next breakthrough in the understanding of our world, and how to care for it. 

 

Torah in this sense – the learning that leads to your own improvement, and makes you a better person, capable of giving your best – this is the learning upon which the world literally depends for stability.

 

Avodah, “service”. It is a natural human desire to want to be of use, to be of service to others, and to a great cause. This Hebrew word refers to service in the highest sense: service to G-d. Originally that service consisted of giving back to G-d that which we had received, in order to keep the world balanced, and to keep the flow coming. When we were shepherds, we gave lambs; when we were farmers, we gave first fruits of our orchard. Now that most of us derive our sustenance in different ways, what is the equivalent of that lamb, that first fruit? How do we give it to G-d in a way that keeps the world balanced?

Repentance offers us the chance to consider the true worth of our service to G-d. Or, as the philosopher Yeshayahu Leibovich pointed out, to realize that it is actually only ourselves that we are serving, since we only act when we feel like it, when we have time, when it’s a cause that “speaks to me”, when we’re not busy saying we’ve already done enough, or when we feel thanked.

 

Avodah is the service that can never be thanked, in which we all do what is required to honor the essential worth of our own offering, and its necessity to the world, and when we understand that only that is enough.

 

Gemilut Hasadim, “loving kindness”. All of this – all the learning in the world, and all the service – will not stand unless it is done in kindness. This is a higher level than justice, for justice is what is expected of us. Loving kindness is a higher level, and it is the level at which we are expected to function in the world. 

When do you forget to be kind? when are you afraid to be kind? when do you feel too personally attacked to be kind? When do you, G-d forbid, feel that it is okay to be unkind?

 

The world will be stable and dependably firm on its foundations only when we manage to support all three of these pillars. Torah learning is not enough (there are mean Torah teachers) and Avodah is not enough (there are people who insist on their right to resent the service they undertake in the world). It is all empty unless it is accompanied by that most precious and elusive of qualities: kindness.

 

As we move through the last days of Elul and toward Yom Kippur, think of someone it is hard for you to be kind to, or a situation that brings out the worst in you. What can you do to remind yourself to be kind? Repentance is not some moment of grace that falls on you from above; it takes work, devotion, and time to change those neural pathways that cause us to act out of habit. But with a little bit of the humility that allows you to believe that you, even you, can improve, you might.

Shabbat Nitzavim-VaYelekh: Standing Firm And Walking It Forward

We are reading a double parashah this week. The first of the two readings is called standing firm in place, and the second is walking, going forward, toward something. One teaching we can derive from the fact that these two parashot are often read together is that we are to be doing both of these apparently utterly contradictory things at the same time. It is something we do all the time in Judaism, and it is vital.

 

What does it look like to stand firm and to walk at the same time? It’s a way of separating out that which is really important from that which is simply familiar and comfortable. It’s something we strive to do in our congregational family in many ways:

 

Shabbat and Holy Day prayer

With all Jews, we stand firm with the tradition that Shabbat starts on Friday night and goes through Saturday.

We walk it forward in exploring different ways to observe Shabbat (kirtan-style Kley Kodesh services, Kabbalat Shabbat dinner instead of services, etc)…not to mention declaring that Shabbat starts when we can be together to make it, not necessarily at sundown.

 

With all other Jews, we stand firm with our holy day dates, even though they’re inconvenient.

We walk it forward by figuring out ways to bring the holy day to us – on this Rosh HaShanah, if you can’t come to morning services to hear the Shofar being blown, hopefully you can at least make it to Tashlikh at the river, where we’ll blow the biggest blast we can for you.

 

Wherever our congregation expresses our sense of what it means here and now to be Jewish, we negotiate this balancing act, between tradition and thoughtful inheritance. 

We stand firm in our belief that there is a value in the tradition we’ve inherited, because we belong to the people that has created it and passed it on in every generation. 

We walk it forward, because we are now the generation that receives it and figures out how to keep it alive and vibrant so that it can help us figure out our purpose in life – and, hopefully, those who will come after us.

 

In the Torah, the first word, Nitzavim, is in the plural: we are all standing firm together, each of us helping each other to receive the tradition, to understand it and do it. And the second word, VaYelekh, is in the singular, indicating that each one of us has the privilege and the responsibility of carrying it onward. Each of us makes all of us, and only when we are all voices are welcomed in the congregation do we lift up our voices in our shir tikvah, our “song of hope”. 

 

On this Shabbat, may you feel more honestly your own voice in the myriad harmonies of the Voice of Torah that strengthens us to stand firm, and inspires us to go forward, together.

Shabbat Ki Tavo: What Are Your First Fruits?

This week’s parashah begins with a somewhat unusually detailed description of a ritual meant to give thanks for the harvest. Later in the parashah we are told to celebrate with a big meal and invite all your friends, and be generous too, and invite neighbors and others who might otherwise be left out. The initial verses offer us some interesting guidance into how we ourselves are meant to see our own “harvests”, even if we have only a very small garden and the real strength of the passage is metaphorical:

 

When you enter the land that the Eternal your G-d is giving you as a heritage, 

and you possess it and settle in it….

 

We spend our early years getting settled into some kind of living, including making a living. Some will accumulate possessions, and others experiences; but at some point each one of us realizes that we are the fortunate recipients of a harvest.

 

What have you harvested in your life? what form do the fruits of your labors take? How do you share them, and when?

 

….you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil which you harvest 

from the land that the Eternal your G-d is giving you, 

put it in a basket, 

and go to the place where the Eternal will choose to cause the Name to dwell. 

You shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him,

“I acknowledge this day before the Eternal your G-d

that I have entered into the land that the Eternal swore to our ancestors

to give us.”  ….You shall leave it before the Eternal your G-d

and bow low before the Eternal your G-d. (Devarim 26.1-3…10)

 

In ancient Israel, the harvest was a tricky thing: weather permitting, local political and social conditions allowing, and, of course, no locusts, one might actually eke out enough of a harvest to be able to recite a special blessing, the one you say when you have “eaten AND been satisfied”. The latter condition was not always realistic.

 

Our ancestors understood that in order to encourage the flow of goodness, some of it had to be given back, just as fallen fruit in an orchard is plowed under to become a simple fertilizer, and to help nurture the next year’s crop. Burying figs near the fig tree’s roots is an easy way to thank the fig tree; but how does one give thanks for the fact that fig trees exist, and that I exist to eat them? How does one give thanks meaningfully to the Source of Life?

 

Our ancestors brought some of each type of food they harvested and gave it to God, in a nice basket no less.This supported the Temple workers (aka the Levites, who don’t have harvests because instead of fields, their assignment in the Promised Land is the Temple). The Temple’s existence made it possible for there to be a place for the average Israelite to focus upon when it came time to express gratitude.

 

How do you give thanks for what you have? Tzedakah is, of course, the classic Jewish expression of gratitude. It originally referred to the amount you were required to give over and above your taxes. In the narrowest sense of the word, it is still that. But some of us don’t make enough to pay taxes…and that does not mean that we do not still have a lot of gratitude to express. Happiness, as it has been noted in song, story and modern sociological study, is not dependent upon money.

 

Note one final thought: when you are moved to express your thanks for what you have, it’s not enough to donate something that’s second hand, damaged in transit, or just something you no longer want or need:

 

What is the “first fruit”? According to the Mishnah, the farmer goes into the field regularly to check on the progress of the crop. When the farmer sees the first ripening, a ribbon is tied around the stem of the fruit; this is the first fruit. If it also turns out later to be the very best fruit, that is all the better. But the meaning of the “first fruit” is faith: to give back the first fruit, before one even knows if one will have enough, is to express one’s understanding that it is not my skill that created this, and it does not belong to me. Rather, this is a blessing bestowed upon me, and in giving it away I assert that I believe that, as long as I live a life of integrity in community, I can depend on having “enough”, whatever that turns out to mean.

 

We no longer have a Temple to bring first fruits to, but we have our sacred places, and at our best, that is what we are called upon to bring to them. To give of one’s first fruits to G-d is to assert faith in the long-term outcome of your faithful daily engagement in the world, no matter what it is you do to make a living, and to make your life. On this Shabbat, may you truly be able to see the richness of your harvests, and find joy in giving of the best that you have, secure in the knowledge that more blessing will always come your way.

Shabbat Ki Tetze: Eyes Wide Open, and Blackberries Too

Sometimes I am asked why I choose to bring the woes of the world into our awareness on Shabbat. “Rabbi, I spend all week aware of all that’s wrong in the world – on Shabbat I want to get away from it.” Would that we could so easily “turn off” the world, refresh our souls in peace, and then be ready to come back out into the world full of resolve to repair it. Would that Shabbat really could be such an oasis.

 

For the oasis to be complete, however, we’d have to close our eyes to a lot of what is true of our human Jewish lives, even on Shabbat. The parashat hashavua is a good example; Ki Tetze is full of specific laws meant to correct for all-too-common human sins: social, sexual, environmental, and more.

 

When you go out to war… (Devarim 21.10)

When a husband hates a wife…(21.15)

When a child disobeys a parent’s authority…(21.18)

If a man is guilty of a capital offense and is put to death…(21.22)

Do not take the mother [bird] together with the young…(22.6)

 

In short, if you want to spend Shabbat away from the real world, you won’t be able to spend it as a Torah-learning Jew on this Shabbat.  Our Torah, and our prayers as well, are too immersed in the world – too much of the world and our place in it – to allow us to close our eyes and turn away from the world, and call it Shabbat. Not in this world; perhaps, in the World To Come.

 

The parashah is named, after all, Ki Tetze – “when you go out”. We all have an inner life and it must be nurtured, but one must also hold on to the outer world, for it offers us an anchor to reality, through the communities in which we find our place. Once in a while we all need a reality check from someone we trust.

 

Jewish spirituality is embedded in the messiness and the sinfulness of the human condition as we are, here and now. It is out of that context that we find the sparks of light to find our way. Jewish mysticism compares the presence of G-d in the world to tiny sparks of light which are hidden in klipot, in shell casings that are hard and heavy. We do not find the sparks by closing our eyes to the world of klipot, but by opening our eyes wide, bringing all our discernment to bear, and searching within the ugliness and difficulty of human life in all its pain and sorrow. 

 

That is because everything, even the klipot, are part of the Oneness of All that Is. You, and I, and those who go out to war, and those who hate, and those who mock, and those who are put to death, and the little bird on the ground trying to protect her nest. We cannot turn away from them and find G-d, for all of them, all of us together, are the reflection of G-d. The world is nothing more or less than that, though it seems madly contradictory. It is contradictory and confusing and complicated – but also sweet, with moments of blessing that are sweeter for their surprising presence underneath that which so often blocks them from our sight. We can have both, because we are constantly living in both. Sometimes we see through tears, and sometimes we are also capable of moments of reprieve, in which we can rest without turning away from the reality of those tears in our world.

 

Earth’s crammed with heaven, 

and every common bush afire with G-d, 

but only he who sees takes off his shoes. 

The rest sit round and pluck blackberries. 

(Elizabeth Barrett Browning)

 

I wish you a barefoot Shabbat – and blackberries too.

Shabbat Shoftim: לא אנחנו ולו אנחנו

the Hebrew phrase in the title of this message is a play on words: lo anakhnu with an alef means “not we ourselves” and lo anakhu with a vav means “we are His”. This play on words comes from Psalm 100. In verse 3 it is written: “G-d has made us and not we ourselves”, but in the oral hearing of it, it can also sound as if we are saying “G-d has made us and we are His”. What does lo and lo have to do with the Torah this Shabbat, which, by the way, is the first Shabbat of the month of Elul?

 

Lo and lo, spelled lamed alef and lamed vav, are the four letters which spell Elul in Hebrew. “Not ourselves” and “we are His”. The Torah offers the same insight, as explored and interpreted by Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (the Rabbi of the Sefat Emet, also known as the S’fas Emes in Eastern European Ashkenazi Yiddish inflection). We turn to it now, with one preliminary disclaimer:

 

Sorry about the gendered pronoun for G-d. It’s impossible to get around in this instance – but not impossible to rise above, which I invite you to do with me now.

 

This week’s parashat hashavua is Shoftim, “judges”. The first verse reads “appoint for yourselves judges and officers throughout your land.” The Sefat Emet suggests that we see these two terms as qualitatively different. A judge is one who thinks, considers, applies knowledge, and comes to a careful decision. Nothing is done by rote; each judgement is unique, even though we apply precedent to guide us. An officer is different; officers uphold law by enforcing it, often coercing a person to stand before a judge. Officers create the conditions for judgement, but they do not judge. 

 

This is a wonderful lesson for the beginning of Elul, the month of reflection and of preparation for the Days of Awe which conclude with Yom Kippur, the Day of Judgement. Here we are at the beginning of Elul, and the Torah command to “appoint for yourselves judges and officers throughout your land”, applied to our own efforts at self-improvement (repentance, said in Jewish) means this: appoint, or create, within yourself two types of inner control, throughout your land, that is to say, your life. The two types of inner control are lo anakhnu with an alef, the officer that forces us to turn away from the material distractions of our lives, and lo anakhnu with a vav, which links us to G-d, the Source of all Life.

 

The more a person can negate the self (“not ourselves”) the closer that person can draw to G-d (“we are His”). These are the two parts of the service of G-d. First we have to negate [discipline] the body and the corporeal world. For this, we need officers who can force the body to change its ways, to “turn from evil” (Psalm 34.15). Then one can draw near to the Creator “and do good.” For this we need to be judges, to take hold [of G-d] with our minds…. Sefat Emet 5:72, trans. Rabbi Arthur Green

 

Yes, you can freely choose to eat all the ice cream you want, but that is not really free will. It’s the powerful control over us that the body has. Those who are recovering from abuse must be similarly careful not to give the body undue control over their lives as they recover; from either direction, privileging the body causes us to risk sinking into narcissism. Disciplining the body so that one can learn, consider, and hear the mind’s careful thinking, we reach the lo anakhnu, the true place of service to G-d, where we use our G-d-given brains to their fullest and best extent.

 

The month of Elul comes to remind us every year: not because of ourselves, but because we are G-d’s, we are precious, unique, and irreplaceable: when we set officers and judges over ourselves, we can fulfill our potential of being, truly, G-d’s gift to the world.

parashat Re’eh: See Your Power to Bless

See, I set before you blessing and curse. (Dev. 11.26)

For Maimonides, the opening verse of this week’s parashah means that the choice of blessing and curse are before us. This is the proof of our free will. This question, of the meaning of human existence in a world which is immersed in G-d, has been seen by many as a paradox:

If G-d is all powerful, then we are puppets, without the ability to act unless G-d wills it.

If we have free will, then G-d’s will is not, by definition, all-powerful.

This sort of logical dilemma has driven people crazy for millennia. It may feel distant from you, but if you look at it another way, it’s actually a very familiar problem: are my actions my choice, or am I being influenced by something other than myself? The answer, we know, is yes and yes – both are true.

The implications of free choice challenge the old misunderstanding about the doctrine of reward and punishment by suggesting that sin is punished, and virtue rewarded, in a straightforward way. We are free to choose, and we deserve, therefore, to experience the consequences of our choices.

But we know that suffering in our world is not straightforward, nor easy to understand. And it is nonsense to insist that all those who suffer deserve it.

We also know that human acts do bring about both blessing and curse.

This is not only a modern philosophical problem. Already in the era of the Talmud, the verse was interpreted to mean “See, I set before you the blessing and its transmutation.” (Yonatan ben Uzziel)

The translation understands that human beings not only have the power of action for or against the good of the world, but we have another power: that of taking a blessing and transmuting it into a curse, and therefore, of taking a curse and turning it into a blessing.

The mitzvah of seeing, then, is not only to understand the impact of our power of choice, but also the power we have to destroy a blessing by our freely chosen acts. The only consolation is that we also have the power to destroy a curse, by wrestling a blessing from it.

Thus, the first word of the verse is the most important of all: see!

See your own power to challenge the strength of a curse. See your power to create blessing from despair – even your own. When you are next confronted by something that strikes you as wrong, as unethical, as evil, don’t look away; look more deeply, look for the key that will show you how to transform that curse into a blessing. If you do that, you are adding a tiny bit to the overall blessedness of the world. If you don’t, then you haven’t yet seen how important each of your choices really is.

Only when a curse is seen can it be transmuted into a blessing. See your power to choose; see the blessing your hands can bring into being.