Shabbat VaYekhi: Your New Day’s Resolution

Taking advantage of what is, interestingly enough after all, only an arbitrary way of calculating a turning point in the counting of our days (why not solstice?), this is the time of year when our society focuses upon the idea of making new year’s resolutions.
Jews practice a variation of this idea on Yom Kippur, when we are meant to consider the ways in which we have missed the mark for which each of us aims as we attempt to live as our best selves in the world. But you may be interested to learn, or be reminded, that our people also instituted a monthly mini-Yom Kippur as part of our regular weekday morning prayers. It seems that our people recognize that once a year review and effort toward change is not likely to be effective. This raises the question of what sort of approach might be most effective.
שוב יום לפני מתתך – “Repent one day before your death.” Pirke Avot 2.15
The Talmudic Rabbi Eliezer offers this answer in Pirke Avot (the title of a Talmudic compendium that might be best translated “ethical soundbites of our ancestors”). It is recorded in later levels of Talmudic discussion that other Rabbis take up this teaching thus:
Rabbi Eliezer’s students asked him: But does a person know the day on which he will die? He said to them: All the more so this is a good piece of advice, and one should repent today lest he die tomorrow; and by following this advice one will spend his entire life in a state of repentance. (BT Shabbat 153a)
Repentance and death are fascinating traveling companions. Thus, in parashat VaYekhi, our parashat hashavua, [Torah reading of the week], there is an interesting coincidence that brings several theological strands of Jewish culture together as the Patriarch Jacob, Yaakov ben Yitzkhak, dies at a very old age. Surrounded by his children, he speaks a final word to each. It is the kind of word that is not spoken every day, but it is a communication that each needed to hear. In this act of deathbed repentance, with each message to each child, Jacob turns away from the distractions of life and back, at the end, toward the essential parent-child bond.
This kind of repentance comes from the use the Hebrew word here, shuv. This verb is the imperative form of the word we know from Yom Kippur – teshuvah. In the Torah it is used to mean to turn around and go back, i.e. return. Jewish ethics understands here a return to one’s best self after straying from that path. For a people wandering a wilderness, staying on the path to the next oasis really was life and death, and so, perhaps, influenced our sense not only of our path – halakhah, but also the fact that sometimes one loses one’s way, and that it is vitally important to return to the right path – since one’s life depends upon it.
We might respond that it’s not really likely that we will die when we stray – but no one knows how long we each have to live. To “repent one day before your death” is to spend that day in the conscious realization that it might be your last. What would you like your last act to be? your last word?
The immediacy of it is striking when we consider the ways in which live our relationships obliquely, saying “later” and “when I have time.” Rabbi Eliezer reminds us that we may not have time later. When you are hiking, this is manifestly the best way to stay out of trouble: each day, check your path and make sure you return from whatever accidental straying you may have done. When you are making your way through a daily morass of fears and challenges, the ethical imperative to take one day at a time may be just what we need in order to stave off the feeling of being overwhelmed.
None of us knows how long we have. On this Shabbat, I encourage you to ignore the invitation to make a new year’s resolution in favor of making and re-making, every day, this new day’s resolution: repent – return, reset, reconnect with your best self, your loved ones, your community, your world – one day before your death.

Shabbat VaYigash: One Person, One Step

O, once again, what a week it has been in the United States of America. I feel so very fortunate to be part of a tradition much older and wiser than the 240-odd years of this nation’s development since its birth. Jews have lived under many forms of government and seen many, many examples of the kind of leadership, conflict and oppression that we are witnessing today. Our people’s teachings offer us a welcome perspective which is larger, longer, and deeper, and thus we have more learning to draw on, and less excuse to be left feeling completely overwhelmed and confused. As the Jewish social justice organization Bend the Arc puts in on Twitter, #We’veSeenThisBefore.
For Jews and the people who love them and live with them, staying grounded in our Jewish identity and its guidance offers us a way to stay grounded when all around us it seems that the center cannot hold, and “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Judaism comes at the world, and our place in it, from a very different perspective, for example asking not “what are my rights?” in any moment but “what are my obligations?” It’s a helpful way to shed new light on difficult questions. We cannot fight gravity, but there is always, always something that we can do. There is always a mitzvah in the moment.
This Shabbat, our parashat hashavua (parshah of the week) offers us a way to relate to the events of this week, to break them down and parse them for a handle by which we might know what we might choose to do in response. Torah relates this week the courage of one individual. A single person finds the inner strength to step forward and challenge the bullying of a high and powerful government official.
VaYigash, the first word of the parashah, means “he drew near.” The context: the Vizier of Egypt is threatening, bullying, persecuting a group of foreigners who have come to plead for food to help them survive a famine back home. They are powerless and terrified before the ruler of the land, who blusters and threatens to throw them all in jail or have them killed. That group of foreigners are our ancestors, the sons of the Patriarch Jacob, and they are all looking at each other in fear and wondering what to do.
At that very moment, one of them, Judah, takes a step forward, and “draws near” to the ruler. Our commentaries point out that this is not just a physical move; what Judah does is to find the strength, somehow, to speak to the terrifying bully in words that actually touch him. He does not denounce him, though the ruler deserves it; he speaks as a human being, and he evokes the human fears of the moment.
We experience ways in which we may not be ready to publicly denounce someone who acts to oppress another human being, but we may be able to act as an ally nevertheless by speaking quietly as one human being to another. One example would be in the case of hearing another person tell a racist joke. One may not feel able to draw upon our tradition’s prophetic righteous indignation to declare that the joke teller is going straight to hell – but we can say “ouch” or “not with me” or words to that effect, and walk away from the group.
There is one step we can take – and, thank G*d, as a community we will usually find someone willing to take it with us. Sometimes it may bring us closer to the evil we are trying to challenge; sometimes it might only bring us closer to ourselves and our own hearts – but that is just as important. As it has been said, we may not be able to change the world on any given day, but we can work to make sure that the worst of the world does not change us. We are not helpless; there is always some small step we can take.

Shabbat Miketz: Benefit of the Doubt

One of the Jewish ethics presented to us most powerfully by our parashat hashavua, and our week as a community, is this: khaf z’khut, “benefit of the doubt.” It is an important Talmudic teaching, and understood as a vital mitzvah of relationships, that we must always give someone the benefit of the doubt – even going out of our way to do so. Here is one well-known story which illuminates the principle:
It became known to the Rabbinical Sages that one Abba the Healer was considered to be an especially good and ethical person.
Two of the students were curious, and they went to Abba, pretending to be ill and in need of his help.
Abba the Healer received them and gave them comfortable reed mats to lie on while they waited their turn to see him.
When he was occupied, they took the mats and left.
A day later they returned to him, and he welcomed them.
“But do you recognize us?”
“Yes, of course I recognize my honored guests. You were here yesterday.”
“But did you know that we took your reed mats?”
“Yes, of course.”
“What did you think?”
“I said to myself, certainly an unexpected opportunity for a ransom of prisoners became available for the Rabbis, and they required immeidate funds, but they were too embarrassed to say so to me or to ask for money. Instead, they took the rugs.”
The students then offered the mats back to Abba the Healer. “Here, now please take them back.”
But Abba the Healer refused them, saying “from the moment I realized that they were missing, I put them out of my mind and consigned them for tzedakah.
As far as I am concerned, they are already designated for that purpose, and I cannot take them back. They are no longer mine.” (Taanit 22a)

In the world in which we live, many would consider Abba the Healer to be hopelessly naive. But our tradition insists that a person cannot be a good Jew unless s/he is committed to giving others the benefit of the doubt every single time there is any doubt at all. In this week’s parashah, the willingness to trust – or the lack thereof – shapes lives, relationships, futures.

In a world so full of disappointments on every level, it may be tempting to give in to the whisper of the yetzer hara’ as it urges us to give up on each other, and to become cynical and suspicious. But that way does not lie wholeness of the self, nor happiness in one’s relationships. To continue to see the good in others may be, on some days, a real act of defiance against the more dystopic aspects of our American culture – and in so doing, to affirm the wisdom of our far more ancient Jewish ethical culture. Judge each other l’khaf zekhut, with the benefit of the doubt, and may we all know the grace of having that benefit returned to us.

Shabbat VaYishlakh: #Dinah Too

A phrase is making the rounds on social media: #Me Too. It refers to women who are sharing their stories of sexual harrassment and abuse. A startlingly powerful wave of reaction is carrying off prominent men, one after the next, with breathtaking rapidity. And some of us watch with an uneasy feeling, wondering:  where will it go next; how far will it go?
In the parashat hashavua, the weekly reading from the Torah this week, we find the disturbing story of the rape of Dinah, Jacob and Leah’s daughter.
Jacob and his large family, along with their servants and their flocks and herds, have just arrived in an area in the outskirts of the city of Shekhem, and they have set up their tents and settled in. Among the responsibilities of a young woman of Dinah’s age would be that of going to the nearest well to draw water for the household; while this may have often been an onerous chore, one can imagine her in this case excited to go to this new watering hole, to see the local women, and to possibly make a social connection.
Probably she did not go alone, for such a large camp would need more water than she alone could draw; perhaps the young women among their servants came with her – perhaps they were even friends. But she was the only one who, according to the text, ran into trouble:

וַיַּרְא אֹתָהּ שְׁכֶם בֶּן-חֲמוֹר, הַחִוִּי נְשִׂיא הָאָרֶץ; וַיִּקַּח אֹתָהּ וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֹתָהּ, וַיְעַנֶּהָ.

Shekhem the son of Hamor the Hivite – the prince of the land – saw her;
and he took her and lay with her, oppressing her.

Here’s what happened next: the man who raped her decided he wanted to keep her; her brothers and father met with him and his father to discuss her situation and whether she would marry her rapist; and her brothers, after pretending to agree to the marriage, took outsized revenge upon the people of Shekhem, catching them unaware and slaughtering all the men of the town.
No one doubted her story. The man involved was punished with death. But: so was every other man in the town.
The story is disturbing enough in its depiction of the suffering of the innocent young woman, but the outsized anger that causes so many more, who are likewise innocent, to suffer is likewise troubling. G*d forbid we should doubt the true word of one who comes forward to tell a story of sexual oppression, and G*d help the person who becomes convinced that she has suffered abuse when she has not – and even more, G*d help the accused innocent in that case. Who will believe that person?
The faster each name is publicized, the farther they fall, the more our yetzer ha’ra’ – our evil impulse – prods us to overlook due process, and to tolerate a rush to judgement that may be flawed.
In the Salem witch trials a contagious hysteria caused people to accuse their neighbors of acts for which they were punished – although they were innocent.
In the Middle Ages, European Jews were accused of the “blood libel” – using the blood of a Christian child to make matzah – and murdered.
When I lived in Ukraine I heard stories of people who denounced their neighbors – because as a reward they were given their neighbors’ apartment.
In Jewish law, two witnesses are required to convict a person of wrongdoing in a capital case. No one is allowed to indict herself. And as the Torah says, the very height of injustice is that which sweeps away the innocent with the guilty. Even HaShem expressed remorse after the Flood.
Times like this require us to review: every human being is created in the Image of G*d. Reducing anyone to a two-dimensional, single-issue soul is to do violence as great as that which we seek to abhor. While we pillory each other, what are we distracted from seeing? Powerful forces in our society seek to shred what’s left of our social contract; let our time-tested ancient Jewish ethical tradition support you as you seek to balance all the conflicting truths in the painful reality of our lives.