Shabbat Ha’azinu: Only Uncertainty Leads to New Truth – Jump, Already

During these ten Days of Awe in which we now find ourselves, we are challenged to really try to change from the ingrained habits that define us. It is easy in the first moments after Rosh HaShanah to experience a setback. In that moment, according to Jewish tradition, the yetzer hara’ will appear to you as a sense of despair, or, at least, resignation: you can’t possibly really change in that way. This is, after all, who you are. It’s who and what your life experience has made you.

Watch out for it. The yetzer hara’, the “evil impulse”, works within us with great subtlety; in this Age of Reason, often it masquerades as the reasonable voice within us. Have you heard it already? “Things will never change. Well, maybe a little, but not really.” That’s your yetzer talking.

It’s tempting to go with the reasonable voice, if only because real change creates wilderness, and no one really wants to wander in a wilderness without a clear sense of direction or a visible goal. And that’s what it takes to change: a willingness to lose the illusion of visible goals, not to mention the illusion of control over our direction.

Our parashat hashavua this week is called Ha’azinu, which means “listen!” in the imperative plural. Moshe is imploring us to hear his last song. And what a song it is, full of ancient Hebrew words and soaring poetry – and glimpses of an early stage of Israelite belief as well. Most of all, the Song of Moshe describes an overview of Israelite history as we rehearsed it to ourselves at the time. Interestingly enough, it all comes down to wilderness:

G-d found us in a desert land, in the waste, the howling wilderness   (Devarim 32.10)

During the High Holy Days it is easy to go with the flow of holiday celebration – greeting old friends, making new ones, enjoying the chance to get reconnected to our congregational family. In the rush of holiday organization and busyness, the parashah reminds us to listen for the song humming along, just below the level of distracted errands and mitzvot.

Listen, the song says. It is in the wilderness itself that life is lived most fully. If we are able to leave behind your current certainty, and enter that wilderness of unclear direction and unknown paths, of leaving behind the old certainty in search of a truer one, the song of Moshe holds out this amazing idea: there, where you cannot find yourself, there, G-d will find you.

Close to the end, Moshe is urgent to get the message through to us: this is not a rehearsal. No one has as much time as we think we do. Don’t sacrifice another minute to that false god, your internal yetzer hara’, as reasonable as it sounds.

Go ahead, Moshe urges us from a perspective only he has, staring at the road ahead that he will be unable to take: do the scary thing. Make that change. Say the words you’ve been unable to utter. Do the thing you’ve been afraid of. Get help for that issue. What if, after all, it goes well?

shabbat shalom and חתימה טובה – May you be sealed for good in the coming year

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Shabbat Nitzavim-VaYelekh: Where Do You Stand?

Where do you stand as a Jew? On this Shabbat we are called upon to focus upon this question. Nitzavim means “to stand firm” and in these days, as we count down the final hours until Rosh HaShanah, this Shabbat is a moment of welcome quiet. Even as the students among us have just begun their new Academic Year, Rosh HaShanah is the beginning of our Spiritual Year, and it’s time to consider where you stand – not where you find yourself, but where you stand, firmly and clear-eyed, aware of what your stance means in the world.

The most well-known text within this week’s parashah is probably Devarim 30.10 and following:

י  כִּי תִשְׁמַע, בְּקוֹל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לִשְׁמֹר מִצְו‍ֹתָיו וְחֻקֹּתָיו, הַכְּתוּבָה בְּסֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֶּה:  כִּי תָשׁוּב אֶל-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשֶׁךָ.  {ס}

10 if You will listen to the voice of G-d, to keep G-d’s commandments and statutes which are written in this book of the law; if you turn to G-d with all your heart, and with all thy soul.

יא  כִּי הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם–לֹא-נִפְלֵאת הִוא מִמְּךָ, וְלֹא רְחֹקָה הִוא.

11 For this commandment which I command you this day, it is not too hard for you, neither is it far off.

יב  לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם, הִוא:  לֵאמֹר, מִי יַעֲלֶה-לָּנוּ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ, וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ, וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה.

12 It is not in heaven, that you should say: ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’

יג  וְלֹא-מֵעֵבֶר לַיָּם, הִוא:  לֵאמֹר, מִי יַעֲבָר-לָנוּ אֶל-עֵבֶר הַיָּם וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ, וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ, וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה.

13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say: ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’

יד  כִּי-קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר, מְאֹד:  בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ, לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ.  {ס}

14 But the word is very close to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it.

טו  רְאֵה נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַיּוֹם, אֶת-הַחַיִּים וְאֶת-הַטּוֹב, וְאֶת-הַמָּוֶת, וְאֶת-הָרָע.

15 See, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil… http://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0530.htm

These words spoken by Moshe in his parting speech to the people of Israel are often used to justify rabbinic authority to interpret laws without any sense of Divine sanction. However they are also seen as encouraging: (1) Torah and mitzvot may seem overwhelming, but it’s not, really – once you get into it, there’s a rhythm and a sense to the structure of Jewish life that carries you quite supportively. (2) Verse 14 has been interpreted as indicating verbal teshuvah, atonement – the words are right there in your mouth and in your heart, just let them out. And (3) these words are spoken to us as we stand, all together, on the other side of the Jordan River, looking across at the destination we’ve dreamed of together for so long.

The second of the double parashah that we read this week is called VaYelekh, which translates as “going”. The two names teach a deep truth: you cannot begin to move purposely toward your goal until you know where you are starting from, where you stand – and your going is dependent upon the strength of the place from which you come.

This Motza’ey Shabbat (the end of Shabbat) Jews all over the world will gather for a special evening time of Selikhot study and prayer, to help us focus upon just these essential questions. And then, soon after, we will be together, welcoming the start of a spiritual New Year, considering ourselves and our lives. With the help of your Torah study, may you see more clearly than ever where you stand, and may you stand more firmly than ever when you consider where you are going.

כתיבה וחתימה טובה – May you be written and sealed for good in the coming year

Shabbat Ki Tavo: What Kind of Jew Are You?

This week’s parashah begins with a rare example of actual prayer formula in ancient Israel. Most of the time, “prayer”, that is, seeking to communicate with G-d, was expressed in a non-verbal form, that of sacrifice. A close look at the book VaYikra (Leviticus) will demonstrate the truth my former teacher taught in his book The Sanctuary of Silence: the kohanim did not recite words when they brought the prescribed sacrifices, and neither did the Israelites who brought them.

This is different, and it’s worth considering why. Here’s how the parashat hashavua starts:

It shall be that when you come into the land which G-d is giving you as an inheritance, and you possess it and dwell there, you shall take the first of all your fruit of the earth that you have been given by G-d, and you shall put it in a basket. Bring it to the place that G-d chooses as a dwelling place for the Name. Go in unto the priest and recite: I proclaim this day unto ה your G-d that I am come into the land which G-d promised our ancestors to give us.   – Devarim (Deuteronomy) 26.1-3

This is the model for the fall harvest later called Sukkot, which became the most significant holy day in the ritual calendar of ancient Israel. But let’s stay with the ancient words themselves. The great jurist and commentator Maimonides suggests the reason for this ritual is to reinforce Jewish ethics:

The first of everything is to be devoted to G-d, and by so doing we accustom ourselves to being generous and to limit our appetite for eating and our desire for property…it promotes humility as well. For the one who brings the first fruits takes the basket upon his shoulders and proclaims the kindness and goodness of G-d. This ceremony teaches us that it is essential in the service of G-d to recall previous experiences of suffering and distress in days of comfort. (Guide for the Perplexed, 3.39)

This parashah and Maimonides both call out to us every bit as clearly as the sound of the Shofar, the voice we hear calling us to account every day during the month of Elul. We must realize:

1. one cannot come before G-d without being ready to answer for that which one has inherited.

2. one does not come empty handed. One’s acts speak for themselves.

3. one must come in humility and awareness of suffering for one’s offering to be accepted.

As we prepare to stand before G-d ourselves soon, during the High Holy Days and then immediately afterward with our own observance of the harvest festival of Sukkot, we are naturally inclined to take a good look at ourselves and what we bring. Consider yourself as the inheritor of that ancient Israelite farmer: what are the fruits of your labor? what is in your hands, figuratively speaking, when you come to the place where the Name is found for you? What does it mean for your offering to be accepted? Who are you when you stand before G-d?

I offer you the powerful poem attached as you consider, on this Shabbat which is more than halfway through the month of Elul, who it is standing there when you come before G-d on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, and all the days to come of 5775.

http://hevria.com/rachel/rachel-kind-jew/ 

Shabbat Ki Tetze: There Are No Small Details

Judaism is full of lofty ideals and ethical standards, but if you only know your religion in this way you are missing out on a layer of Jewishness which is much closer to home. (No, not the “cultural Judaism” layer of eating bagels….) It’s the “what do I do right now?” layer, what we might call practical Jewish ethics – or what Rabbi Louis Jacobs called “habit forming Jewish ethics”.

Musar, a classic form of Jewish practical ethics, was created by Rabbi Israel Salantar in 19th century Lithuania “with the aim of promoting greater inwardness, religious piety, and ethical conduct” (to learn more click here). The general idea is to avoid creating Jews who keep kosher but act unethically; that is to say, they keep the halakha of practice but not of interpersonal relationships with other people and with the earth. The mitzvot of such relationship responsibility are there, but Jewish study did not focus upon them in the average Lithuanian yeshiva (perhaps assuming that some things are taught at home?).

It is still important not to assume that some things are taught at home, if only to ensure that those who do inculcate such ethics at home are reinforced in the community. This week’s parashat hashavua offers us a fascinating list of daily practical ethics. Of course, this is Torah, so it’s an ancient sense of what our daily conduct should look like, but it’s still interesting to see how many of the ethical acts indicated in parashat Ki Tetze still resonate.

Here are a few examples of what it means, in Torah-terms, to live an ethical Jewish life in every moment, taken from this parashah:

Do not lend at interest to your companion: interest of money, interest of victuals, interest of any thing that is lent upon interest. (Devarim 23.20) Perhaps you have heard of the Hebrew Free Loan Association? Many of our grandparents either helped set one of these up for newcomers to the United States in the past century, or benefited from it when they arrived. There are still free Loan Societies, albeit less of them these days (these days we’re not as communally brave) but in some places you can still give – or get – a free loan from your shul. Jews know the supreme value of tzedakah in and of itself, and beyond that, we know that the wheel will come around again, and those who needed help today will likely be those giving it tomorrow. Besides, we are commanded elsewhere in Torah you must open your hand to your needy companion, and lend her whatever is needed (Devarim 15.9-10)

As a daily practice, it is important to remember that this mitzvah may also be understood emotionally; do not expect life to be fair and even. Give of your compassion and of your forgiveness to those who need it. Trust in G-d, not in the one to whom you have lent.

When you come into your neighbour’s vineyard, you may eat grapes until you have enough at your own pleasure; but you may not put any in your vessel. (Devarim 23.25) This is especially important at this time of year for those of us who like to walk, or bike, through areas where there are trees rich with ripe fruit. Imagine yourself walking through a row of raspberries, ripe and juicy and succulent-looking. Jewish ethics does not expect you to be super-human and forebear entirely. No one could expect you not to grab a few and pop them in your mouth, and no berry farmer can expect it either. What the farmer does have a right to expect, and what Jewish ethics reinforces, is that you are not allowed to bring a big container and fill it up with those raspberries.

All of us in a committed community make demands on each other, without realizing it. Those who do the often unseen but fundamental work are the farmers, sowing seeds of mitzvah in the field; we who benefit from that work should remember not to expect to fill up our own bag with the effort of others without remaining mindful of the cost.

When you vow a vow unto ה your G-d, do not be slack to pay it…otherwise, don’t vow. (Devarim 23.22-23) Everyone knows this, right down to our smallest children: if you make a promise, keep it. Otherwise, don’t make it.

As a daily practice, be careful what you cause others to expect of you. Don’t seem to casually offer yourself, or your attention, if you don’t mean it. If you do promise to help with that hidden but essential work, or have made some other seemingly small or casual gesture of appreciation or support, take it as seriously as if you were promising G-d – because, in a community that strives to be holy, G-d is evoked in our midst precisely when we are careful of each other, and remember our ethics in every small detail.

In the month of Elul, we are encouraged to concentrate on what really matters, and on how we are doing. Consider how a Jewish framework of practical ethics might help you see that all your deeds are really offerings, lifted up as an expression of who you are, and the impact you are having on our planet and our community.

כתיבה וחתימה טובה – May you be written and sealed for good in the coming year