Shabbat Shuvah 5776

How long does it take for a Jew to write the first sin of 5776 in the Book of Life? Sometimes, only as long as it takes to get from davening to tashlikh. We are meant to take the whole ten Days of Awe to work our way toward a sense of forgiveness toward others and atonement for ourselves. But there is another feeling – that of falling backwards even as we try to take a step forward. The hasidic masters call it the difference between katnut, feeling small and useless, and gadlut, feeling expansive and capable. 

This Shabbat is Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of Return, between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. This Shabbat, as this season, is all about believing in our ability to turn toward the Oneness which is possible by making changes for the better in ourselves, and in the world. And all it takes to start feeling helpless about that ability is to realize how ingrained in us are our habits of speech and action – and a brief look at the daily news will finish the job. 

Lately the sense of katnut is hard to shake off. Several times in the past few weeks I’ve been reminded of a famous line from Yeats:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

The parashah this week comes to encourage us – perhaps that’s one more reason why the Rabbis of the Talmud, in their wisdom, timed the Torah readings in such a way that we always read this parashat hashavua while we are struggling with the challenge of these High Holy Days.

VaYelekh is a Hebrew verb that refers to movement; it means to go forward. We read it directly after a parashah called Nitzavim, which refers to standing still.  This moment of contradiction is so human – and it is reminiscent of the moment when the People of Israel first began our journey forward, toward the Promise of home and wholeness that we still see before us (still, it seems, so far away!). That earlier moment happened when we stood at the shore of the Sea, stood still, terrified at the seemingly endless abyss of sea before us. Moshe prayed, and G-d responded, “Why are you praying? get going!” 

It was only when we got going that within the abyss we discovered a passage; muddy, difficult, but possible.

In these days of abysmal despair in so much of the world, we must remember that there is a time for prayer, but after that, we must get going.

The key is in going forward together. Judaism, after all, is a team sport. Together we will help each other out of the enervation of katnut and toward the joy of knowing that we’re doing something – it may be muddy and difficult, but it is possible to get going.

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Seek Peace and Pursue It – Psalm 34.14

As a Rabbi and as a citizen of the United States, I support the agreement between the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, China, Russia and Iran– The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. I encourage the members of the Senate and the House of Representatives to endorse this agreement.

The Obama administration has successfully brought together the major international powers to confront Iran over its nuclear ambitions. The broad international sanctions moved Iran to enter this historic agreement. Should this agreement be rejected by the U.S. congress, those sanctions will end. There will be no new negotiations, as the other member countries are fully in favor of this agreement and have no desire to re-negotiate. The sanctions regime is falling apart even now.

I understand that while this agreement blocks Iran’s path to a nuclear bomb, we recognize it does not deal with Iran’s support for terror, but that was never the purpose of these talks. Now that a nuclear agreement has been reached, I join many others who call upon the United States and its international partners to strengthen their resolve and dedicate additional resources to confront Iranian threats to Israel and other states.

Most especially, I am deeply concerned with the impression that the leadership of the American Jewish community is united in opposition to the agreement. I, along with many other Jewish leaders, fully support this historic nuclear accord.

No country conducts its affairs in reaction to the political rhetoric of foreign leaders. Our foreign diplomacy is not an unsophisticated shouting match which reacts to national leaders who speak to their domestic concerns. A mature and rational approach must always put an intelligent struggle for peace first. War, with all its terrors and destruction, is not an “option”; it is a failure of diplomacy. It is, and must be, a last resort.

  מִי-הָאִישׁ, הֶחָפֵץ חַיִּים;    אֹהֵב יָמִים, לִרְאוֹת טוֹב. Do you want to live a good life, loving each day?
  נְצֹר לְשׁוֹנְךָ מֵרָע;    וּשְׂפָתֶיךָ, מִדַּבֵּר מִרְמָה. Then stop your mouth from words of evil and your lips from deceit.
  סוּר מֵרָע, וַעֲשֵׂה-טוֹב;    בַּקֵּשׁ שָׁלוֹם וְרָדְפֵהוּ. Turn away from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.

Shabbat Ki Tavo: The Butterfly’s Wing

How has the human race come to this, that human beings cause the suffering and death of other human beings, even unto a three year old, photos of whose dead body are now all over the Internet? 

To take our parashat hashavua at face value, the evil way that human beings treat each other is explained very succinctly, in two harsh verses:

Because you did not serve HaShem your G-d with joy and with gladness, realizing the abundance of your blessings, therefore you will serve your enemy whom HaShem shall send against you, in hunger, and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in want of all things; and one more powerful than you will coerce you until you are destroyed.  (Devarim 28.47-48)

Our modern problem in understanding this verse is in perceiving it to be applicable to individuals. We reject the concept of individual reward and punishment, because we have seen it demonstrated that evil does flourish in the world, and sometimes devours the good.

Our upcoming Days of Awe offer us deep wisdom of a different, more ancient understanding: we are not just individuals, even though we are, individually, precious and irreplaceable reflections of G-d. We are also part of a family, a tribe, a kinship group, and a nation, among other circles of community.  These two verses speak to that other aspect of our existence – our communal acts. We may not know how to understand this, we may feel helpless to influence the groups of which we are a part, but that does not mean that we are unaffected.  

We are often charmed by the idea of a small act leading, through a chain of events, to a large act – smile, we are told, because that ripple effect can, somewhere down a line you cannot see, influence someone’s life profoundly. Similarly, the butterfly’s wings can, under the right conditions, begin a movement of air that can end in a hurricane, so we are told, and we are fascinated by the idea.

Is there a link between my own personal selfish behavior and the death of an innocent child in Syria? How can there not be?

To refuse to serve G-d in joy, in realization of one’s blessings, is the Torah’s way of expressing the idea that I might develop a certain spoiled indifference to the great blessings I have, and blow off the requirement to serve G-d, that is to say, to carefully discharge my responsibility to uphold human decency and ethics, instead acting lazily or arrogantly as if I deserved my great luck. In so doing I create a small curdled airwave of unhappiness. Who knows where it goes? Who knows what power enough diffidence on the part of one community might have on others – what curses it might bring, finally, back upon that community? That enemy we will end up serving is us at our worst, and our society at its worst, G-d forbid; it leads to dead children who had no one to help them.

Remember Tevye’s line – we are to rejoice even when there’s not so much to be happy about. We are commanded, as Jews, to act generously even when we feel impoverished – that is, even the poorest of us is required to give tzedakah. The secret wisdom here is that to reach out even a little to others gives strength back to us; it reminds us of the power we do have to heal, to work for the good – to help the helpless.

On this Shabbat, count your blessings. Let the joy you feel in what you do have keep you intent on serving G-d by working for a better world. There are enough curses in the world, and there is great evil. To serve G-d is to continue to act as if it is not too late for this world of ours to move away from the curses we’ve caused, and toward the redemption we can, together, create.

כתיבה וחתימה טובה – May you be written and sealed for a good year