Shabbat Ekev: What Happens When You Listen

This week our parashat hashavua (parsha, “section”, of the week) is named Ekev. The word literally means “heel”, as in Jacob/Yaakov’s name, given to him because he emerged from the womb holding on to his brother Esav’s heel. This same word ekev paired with another conjugation of shema leads the Jewishly attuned ear to an entirely different place, that of the Akedah – possibly the most troubling Torah text of all, with which we struggle on Rosh HaShanah. Ekev, ekev, because of, due to, on account of…..

Parashat Ekev begins with this verse (Deut. 7.12):

יב  וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם–וְשָׁמַר י-ה אֱלֹקיךָ לְךָ, אֶת-הַבְּרִית וְאֶת-הַחֶסֶד, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע, לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ.

It shall be that because you listen to these just teachings, and guard and do them, that the HaShem your G*d will guard for you the Covenant and the Covenant-loyalty sworn to your ancestors

V’hayah ekev tish’meh’un, “it will be on the heels of your listening”. The expectation here is that listening leads to a real result. One might see it as “hear and obey” but the great teachers of our tradition offer us much more to consider.

One insight is based upon a very close look at the first few words: “According to the joy and a person’s desire to fulfill the mitzvot, so one merits to hear, to attain, and to fulfill them….If you take the responsibility for the mitzvah upon yourself in joy, by means of this you will be able to listen.” 

This teaching from the Sefat Emet takes an ancient Talmudic comment connecting the word V’hayah with joy, and invites us to consider that v’hayah is for each of us a relative concept, linked to the satisfaction we take in the mitzvah.  מצוה גוררת מצוה – “The reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah.” In the moment when we are to recite the blessing before doing the mitzvah, we have the opportunity to become mindful of this amazing idea: that every moment is pregnant with meaning, if we are able to listen.

This is the ultimate salve for the burnout some of us begin to feel in our weaker moments. Not thanked enough? not having the work noticed enough? We all have that kind of childish moment when we want to be noticed doing a good thing. At that moment it is up to our more grown-up self to reassure the child within: stay in touch with the joy of the mitzvah, have fun with it because it is a mitzvah, and, as the Sefat Emet teaches, we will finally understand the meaning of the Shema, “to love G*d with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your resources.”

This ancient Jewish teaching is the source of the Western ethical idea that whatever we do, we should do our best to do it well. Whatever we are doing is not only about our small self, but has an effect, as we know, on the larger shared Self of the World within which we live our lives.

First, one must learn to listen carefully. Not simply waiting until another has finished speaking so that we can say our truth, but listening in such a way that it has a real effect. Maybe it allows you to be a better listener, not defensive or dismissive; maybe it allows you to begin to consider trading in your truth for a better one. A possibly apocryphal but still great quote attributed to the economist John Maynard Keynes can lead our way: when accused of changing his position on some important issue of economics, he is said to have replied, “When the facts change, sir, I change my mind. What do you do?”

If we listen, only if, says the Torah, then something good will happen. It is an interesting test. How do you change when you really, really listen? It’s something we can practice at any moment. Sometimes we need to listen to ourselves, sometimes to something outside.

We are promised that alert, respectful, careful listening will lead to something – to change, and, finally, to growth of the spirit – when, finally, one comes to a place where one truly feels that the reward of the mitzvah is the mitzvah, and the sense that one is closer to the Source of the mitzvot. And you will know when you are there, because you will feel the joy.

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Shabbat Va’Etkhanan: Your Life is a Prayer

Our parashah is called Va’Etkhanan, literally translated “I beseech.” Moshe is recounting to us how he begged G*d for the one thing he could not have: the ability to cross over the Jordan River with the People of Israel into the Promised Land. Moshe our leader was denied the satisfaction of crossing the finish line himself. Although he was allowed to see it from afar, G*d made it clear to him that he would not enter. 

This type of prayer, from the root kh.n.n, is familiar to us: we call those prayers Selikhot, and recite them every year at the time of Atonement. So it seems that our parashat hashavua acts for us as an early warning system. Yom Kippur is coming! From Shabbat Va’Etkhanan it is a bit less than eight weeks in the future.

There are many words for prayer in our sources. An ancient commentary on our parashah offers that 

“prayer is called by ten names: cry, howl, groan, song, encounter, stricture, prostration, judgment, and beseeching.” (Midrash Rabbah) 

It can be startling to consider how many of our acts are actually a form of prayer. Now we can see why Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that when he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in Selma, he felt that his feet were praying. But which form of prayer did he mean? 

It would give us a pretty picture to contemplate if we consider that he meant “encounter” or even “song”; indeed, the famous photograph gives support for that reading. But as we in our community grapple with our responsibility as part of the White community of the United States of America, and keep tripping over our vulnerability as part of the Jewish community of the world, we may find ourselves more able to relate to more painful moments of prayer:

Stricture: we may feel confused, and constrained in our ability to act meaningfully.

Groan: more and more people tell me that they are no longer watching the news, for it is too painful.

Prostration: this is a posture of helplessness in the face of overwhelming anxiety.

Rabbi Heschel’s statement offers us a way to explore this idea further: it seems that the Jewish concept of prayer covers much human territory. More, it does so by offering context out of Jewish history, culture and ethics. To pray, for Jews, is sometimes to sit in meditation on the words and what they mean; but more often, it is to act in full awareness that by our acts we carry out the words and their meaning.

It can be a perfect circle: the words help us find meaning, and we instill meaning into the words by carrying them out.

So this is what Rabbi Heschel might have meant for us by his marching in Selma, and calling it prayer: each of us Jews becomes the best possible White citizen of the U.S. when we are empowered by the awareness that our lives are prayers, and when we know what that means, and can mean, for us.

We are now entering a time of focus upon beseeching G*d for clarity, for understanding and for mercy, preparatory to and part of the atonement process. May you find your own way into all ten expressions of Jewish prayer and may it empower you to see all your life as one great prayer, in every moment. There is much crying, much howling, that is a true expression of our day. May there also be much opportunity – made by our efforts – for song.

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Shabbat Hazon and erev Tisha B’Av: a Shabbat of Vision

This is a Shabbat of vision, and of the center falling apart. Although it would be easier, more poetic, to see a vision rising from destruction, life these days is not so lyrical. Rather, on this Shabbat, the last before Tisha B’Av, the vision we contemplate is of destruction, misery and death:

עַל מֶה תֻכּוּ עוֹד, תּוֹסִיפוּ סָרָה; כָּל-רֹאשׁ לָחֳלִי, וְכָל-לֵבָב דַּוָּי.

What blow will fall next, as more and more violence and corruption is unleashed in the land? If the nation were a body, the whole head would be sick, and the whole heart faint;

מִכַּף-רֶגֶל וְעַד-רֹאשׁ אֵין-בּוֹ מְתֹם, פֶּצַע וְחַבּוּרָה וּמַכָּה טְרִיָּה; לֹא-זֹרוּ וְלֹא חֻבָּשׁוּ, וְלֹא רֻכְּכָה בַּשָּׁמֶן.

From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and festering sores: they have not been treated, not bandaged nor soothed with medication.

אַרְצְכֶם שְׁמָמָה, עָרֵיכֶם שְׂרֻפוֹת אֵשׁ; אַדְמַתְכֶם, לְנֶגְדְּכֶם זָרִים אֹכְלִים אֹתָהּ, וּשְׁמָמָה, כְּמַהְפֵּכַת זָרִים.

Your country is desolate; your cities are burned with fire; strangers devour your land in your presence, and it is desolate, as overthrown by floods. (Isaiah 1.5-7)

 

On the heels of this Shabbat, on which we are meant to face the very real horrors of our society, the Jewish people moves into the fast day of Tisha B’Av. This date commemorates the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans and the Exile of the Jewish people into statelessness wandering. On this date we remember what statelessness meant to us: the mass slaughter of pogroms, expulsions, and crusades, and the every day humiliations and persecutions of living in a society that did not recognize Jews as equals, or even as human.

Once upon a time not so many years ago I was told that Tisha B’Av is no longer relevant; it’s hard, after all, to feel the pain of past destruction when there is a State of Israel today, and, well, the weather is so nice. Who can relate when there’s a brilliant blue sky overhead?

The vision of this Shabbat Hazon answers: bring your eyes down from the blue sky to behold the earth beneath; listen to Isaiah; see that, although the Jews live in relative peace and safety, our task is to work for freedom for all. We must still hear the ancient words of the Torah, echoed through Pesakh Haggadah: proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants (Lev.25.10) 

On this Tisha B’Av we gather not only to mourn what was, but also to learn from it: to ask how did we get here, and what shall we do now with what we know? We come together to remember who we are, to empower ourselves through our tradition’s wisdom, and to plan our shared path forward into action for racial justice. Because there are still those who experience slaughter, expulsions, and crusades, and the everyday humiliations and persecutions of living in a society that does not recognize them as equals, or even as human. Because “them” is us, and if we do not remember and act upon that truth, we will never turn away from Isaiah’s horrific vision of what is and toward the consolation of what might yet be.

How to think about engaging as a self-aware Jew in the 21st century, yet so much a part of all that has come before us, here today? As part of the learning and thinking we all must do, I invite you to consider this brilliant offering:

https://medium.com/@YotamMarom/toward-the-next-jewish-rebellion-bed5082c52fc#.35uv3ux8q

And remember that none of us is alone in this struggle. We are not only here to comfort each other, though: our shared strength is only blessed when we use it to do justice. Thus we summon the last utterance of the Prophet Isaiah: “Zion will be redeemed with justice, and they that return of her with righteousness.” (Isaiah 1.27).

Shabbat Matot-Masei: the Long, Confusing, Chaotic Road to Freedom

In this week’s double parashah we wind up the Book of BaMidbar. The word bamidbar, actually three in English, is usually translated “in the wilderness”. But the root word, dalet bet reysh, can as easily be understood as “speaking”. Our ancestors wandered across a land that was unsettled, and that they saw as chaotic and uncontrollable. We, similarly, wander in a wilderness of words. They come at us from so many directions, and so many sources: media, social media, neighbors, friends, family, community, books, and, of course, from the inside of our own heads. Uncontrollable, and often chaotic in their impact upon us.

In parashat Masei, “journeys”, the Torah recounts every stop our ancstors made on their trek from Egypt to the Land of Israel. Similarly, every community that shares a sense of common purpose may be lucky enough for its members to feel that they are going somewhere, toward some vision of a promise of an endpoint. And for every community, no doubt, the story that is told afterward makes sense of what may feel at the lived moment very much like trackless chaos. No doubt there were many days of confusion along the way, even though now the Torah simply lists each campsite, so calmly that it seems boring.

What were the Civil Rights days of the 1960s like? We look back now and see a narrative, or more than one, and it seems that people must have been so clear about their vision, so much so that one expects to actually see a path open up under their feet as they progress toward Equal Rights goals more visible now, even if not yet achieved. But what was that time really like? no doubt, there was chaos, and a sense of trackless wilderness. It is only afterward that we can see where we were, as we tell the story.

As we tell the story, we give it meaning by the way we tell it, with the perspective we gain from the struggle on the way, but only after it is over, and the dust has settled, as we can see again. Rabbi Nakhman of Bratslav taught that we, each of us, is a portrait that is finished only on our last day of life; only then do we see what we have created.

We don’t know the end of the story through which we are living now. We don’t know the meaning of the Jewish story of transition from the Rabbinic Era to whatever we’re entering now in our time. We can’t know the outcome of the Civil Rights Struggle of our day, or even the election cycle only a few months from now. And we are not privy to the Omniscient Narrator perspective on the Land and State of Israel. In all these cases, the final outcome is unknown, because we are still shaping the portrait through our choices.

We can only hope and pray to be as mindful and intentional as we can, with each other’s help, and to remember that each of our acts toward the good is needed. While we are wandering in a chaos of confusing and painful social change, which for many of us is accompanied by religious alienation and economic struggle, let’s try, as it is said in the Black struggle for Civil Rights, to keep our eyes on the Prize. And as Jews put it, to take care that each step carries us closer to the vision that we call Yerushalayim Shel Ma’alah, “the Ideal Jerusalem”. Keep kindness in your mind and your heart always.

We finish this book of the Torah the way we always do: with hazak, hazak, v’nithazek, “be strong, and of good courage, and let us strengthen each other”.