Shabbat Nitzavim: What We Owe

Our parashat hashavua (Torah reading of the week) begins with quite a compelling scene: the entire Israelite community, gathered together on just the other side of the Jordan River from the Land of forty years’ struggle and search. The parashah begins with “you are standing this day, all of you, before G*d….to enter into the Covenant which G*d is making with you this day” (Devarim 29.9-11, excerpted).

This is already a curiosity; after all, didn’t we do this, back at Sinai, forty years ago? What does it mean to enter into the Covenant now, on the plains of Moab, on the cusp of the Land?

Our parashah goes on to specify that “not with you alone is this Covenant made, but also with those who are not (yet) here.” (Devarim 29.13-14, excerpted) This detail led our ancestors to question: how can the generation of the wilderness make a Covenant with G*d that implicates us as well? How can that be valid? 

In his Torah commentary, the medieval Sage Abravanel of Aragon explains that “there is no doubt that if a person receives a loan from another, that the duty of repayment falls upon that person, and on that person’s descendants. Just as children inherit property, so they inherit debts, even if they were not alive when the debt was incurred.” (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim p. 299)

The Jewish Covenant with G*d is not a gift, he said; neither is the Land associated with it. The Jewish people inherits our position in trust. Something of our ancestors’ commitment falls upon us, and something of that wilderness wandering is our inheritance as well. We owe G*d a debt of gratitude, argued Abravanel.

What do we owe, and to whom? At this time of greeting a New Year, we feel the absence of those who are not here to share it with us. Recollect more deeply and you may feel the echo of many past generations, all of whom upheld some responsibility and knew some sense of indebtedness for that which they had. We are born into a world we did not make, and would too easily accept it as a gift. But it is not a gift. We are born into a Covenant reality and in each generation it falls to new hands to pass it on, to pay it forward.

The generation that stood at the Jordan learned this on the plains of Moab: their parents and grandparents stood at Sinai, and they themselves also stood before G*d, though they were not at Sinai. Or perhaps because they understood in that moment that when they stood together in Covenant, that place – wherever they were – was Sinai. The same message is offered to us every year during the holy day of Shavuot, when we stand, again, at Sinai, wherever we are, and hear, once again, the words of Covenant, and of our eternal indebtedness.

This week we marked the death of Shimon Peres, the last of the founding generation of the State of Israel. One more generation passes, and as Amos Oz asked at his funeral, who will now take up his cause of peace? Who will count themselves indebted to the Covenant he tried to uphold?

To those who planted trees, the fruit of which we eat, we owe our sustenance; to those who built roads, we owe our ability to go where we will. And to those who created the conditions within which we were born, and raised, and learned, and grew – to that village, of whatever size, in which we lived in a Covenant relationship that allowed us to thrive or at least to survive, we are indebted.

On the Sunday between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur there is a tradition to visit a cemetery, to reflect upon those who came before us, and faithfully discharged their part of the debt we all owe. It cannot be paid back, but only forward – by tzedakah, by gemilut hasadim, and by asking not “what is owed to me?” but rather, “what can I do to give back in gratitude for the gift of my life?”

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Shabbat Shoftim: You Too Are a Judge, and Must Be

The beginning of parashat Shoftim calls for us to ensure justice in the communities in which we live.

שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים, תִּתֶּן-לְךָ בְּכָל-שְׁעָרֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ, לִשְׁבָטֶיךָ; וְשָׁפְטוּ אֶת-הָעָם, מִשְׁפַּט-צֶדֶק.

Set up judges and officers in all your gates, everywhere that you are privileged to live by G*d’s grace. The judges must judge the people righteously.

לֹא-תַטֶּה מִשְׁפָּט, לֹא תַכִּיר פָּנִים; וְלֹא-תִקַּח שֹׁחַד–כִּי הַשֹּׁחַד יְעַוֵּר עֵינֵי חֲכָמִים, וִיסַלֵּף דִּבְרֵי צַדִּיקִם.

There must no manipulation of judgment, neither by bias nor by bribe. There is no one, no matter how righteous, who can truly withstand the influence of a gift.

צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף–לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ.  {ס}

Justice, you must pursue justice, if you want to live and thrive on the earth which is a gift to you from HaShem your God.  (Devarim 16.18-20)

These verses have attracted much commentary:

1. What are “your gates”? The “gates”, and the implicit “city” to which they belong, symbolically represent the individual; your “gates” refers to your eyes and your ears. They are the gates through which all influences and information enters, and we are, each one of us, to “set up judges” (this is written in the singular) to monitor all that enters our minds and hearts.

2. What does it mean to “judge…righteously”? First, judge yourself in the same circumstances, and consider what you would do; then perhaps you will come closer to judging “righteously”. 

3. Why are we told to pursue “justice” twice? Because the means and the end must both be righteous. 

These verses are aimed at judges, but our tradition internalizes them to refer to each one of us – this is a common interpretive technique in Judaism, and it expresses a fundamental truth of our perspective: everything belongs to everything else, everyone is part of everyone else. A dishonest judge does not simply ruin the lives of those s/he condemns unjustly; that injustice scars not only the victim but everyone linked to that victim. And then everyone who hears about the dishonesty in the system who is demoralized and turns away multiplies the injustice, and then the trauma of the injustice causes the entire system to rot, a little at a time.

Many of us live in an environment in which we resist judging and being judged – who has the right to judge me, or you? But Jewish ethical teachings insist: we must all ensure that robust judgement does exist and is expressed at the highest standard – because it is, in the end, what allows us to live

“You must pursue justice if you want to live”. Here are the two sides of the interdependent balance: justice, and life. We are surrounded with examples of how the lack of one leads to the end of the other; at our peril we believe that we can turn away and enjoy life apart.

In this month of Elul we are encouraged to judge ourselves, and each other, and the world of which we are a vital part. May we come closer with each attempt to be righteous to a world where justice flourishes, and may we know ourselves to be part of the righteousness our world starves for.

Shabbat Re’eh: What Happens When You Look

Parashat Re’eh is named for our ability to see and understand:  רְאֵה, אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם–הַיּוֹם:  בְּרָכָה, וּקְלָלָה – “see, I place before you today blessing and curse.” (Deut. 11.26). Blessing, we are told, follows the choice to comply (literally, “listen”); curse, if we do not.

It seems so very simple and direct an expectation: look, and understand; hear, and follow. But if we have never before beheld the vision we are must see, how do we know what to look for? if we have not yet heard the melody, how do we know what to listen for? In short, what does a new way, a better choice, a healed world, look, and sound, like?

Over the past year our religious community has been seeking a way forward in response to the racial violence which, more and more, we sense all around us. We know ourselves as Jews to carry on the learned compulsion toward acting for justice – and these days echo with the divine command to act very clearly. But how are we to act? What are we listening for, and what are we looking for?

After much searching and questioning, some of us gathered for a first effort to articulate our feelings and seek a coherent way forward on Tisha B’Av. On a hot August night we considered the terrible situation of these, our days, our own sadness and confusion, and what we might gain in strength and focus from our Jewish tradition and its teachings. We decided we would meet again this past Thursday evening, last night, to discuss an article on Jewish identity and the struggle for racial justice.

Then, yesterday, we were notified of a vigil to be held at the same time as our scheduled meeting; a vigil to stand in solidarity with a family mourning their murdered boy, only nineteen and killed by white supremacists on August 10. 

It was an interesting moment. Do we sit and study about it, or do we go and see, and hear? We weren’t sure what we might be getting into.

But when we remember that Jewish tradition teaches, ““Great is study when it leads to action” (BT Kiddushin 40b), it was clear that this was a moment in which we were being invited to make a choice: to seek to see, to try to hear. And it was fine. The gathering was large; the family was grateful; the learning was immense.

We will reschedule the discussion, because we need to have it. But last night we learned that sometimes, in order to see and hear, we first have to stop talking with our mouths, and instead act with our hands, our feet, and our hearts. We looked; we saw. We learned.

This Shabbat coincides with the beginning of the month of Elul, the month of preparation for the Days of Awe now only thirty days away. I invite you to use some part of this time, some few moments here and there, to join me in doing some reading about our struggle to understand how to work for racial justice as Jews. It will be our focus during some part of the High Holy Days, as we consider what we are being asked to see and understand, to hear and follow, as in these words from a High Holy Day haftarah:

ה  הֲכָזֶה, יִהְיֶה צוֹם אֶבְחָרֵהוּ–יוֹם עַנּוֹת אָדָם, נַפְשׁוֹ; הֲלָכֹף כְּאַגְמֹן רֹאשׁוֹ, וְשַׂק וָאֵפֶר יַצִּיעַ–הֲלָזֶה תִּקְרָא-צוֹם, וְיוֹם רָצוֹן לַיהוָה.

Is this a worthwhile fast? afflicting the soul,bowing the head like a weeping willow, spreading sackcloth and ashes under oneself? Is this truly an acceptable day to HaShem?

ו  הֲלוֹא זֶה, צוֹם אֶבְחָרֵהוּ–פַּתֵּחַ חַרְצֻבּוֹת רֶשַׁע, הַתֵּר אֲגֻדּוֹת מוֹטָה; וְשַׁלַּח רְצוּצִים חָפְשִׁים, וְכָל-מוֹטָה תְּנַתֵּקוּ.

Is not this a worthwhile fast: to loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that you yourself break every yoke?

ז  הֲלוֹא פָרֹס לָרָעֵב לַחְמֶךָ, וַעֲנִיִּים מְרוּדִים תָּבִיא בָיִת:  כִּי-תִרְאֶה עָרֹם וְכִסִּיתוֹ, וּמִבְּשָׂרְךָ לֹא תִתְעַלָּם.

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the poor that are cast out into shelter? when you see the naked, that you give cover, and that you do not try to hide from your reality?

ח  אָז יִבָּקַע כַּשַּׁחַר אוֹרֶךָ, וַאֲרֻכָתְךָ מְהֵרָה תִצְמָח; וְהָלַךְ לְפָנֶיךָ צִדְקֶךָ, כְּבוֹד יְהוָה יַאַסְפֶךָ.

Then your light will shine forth as the morning, and you will find healing; you will walk in the path of justice, and the beauty of HaShem will gather you up. (Isaiah 58.5-8)