Shabbat Ki Tavo: Final Approach To Landing

On this Shabbat Ki Tavo, “when you arrive,” it seems so appropriate that we are counting the sixth of seven Weeks of Consolation before Rosh HaShanah. We have nearly arrived at the time toward which we are counting, and whether because of procrastination, distraction or inaction, most of us are caught by surprise.

והָיָה, כִּי-תָבוֹא אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה; וִירִשְׁתָּהּ, וְיָשַׁבְתָּ בָּהּ.
When you get there, when you arrive in that which is to be your home
and you are living there safely and know that you are home,
וְלָקַחְתָּ מֵרֵאשִׁית כָּל-פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר תָּבִיא מֵאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ—
וְשַׂמְתָּ בַטֶּנֶא; וְהָלַכְתָּ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לְשַׁכֵּן שְׁמוֹ שָׁם.
take of the first of all you have been blessed to produce and own;
put it in a basket and go to the place where HaShem has caused holiness to dwell.
(Devarim 26.1-2)
When you arrive, how will you have arrived there? what will you have with you as the fruit of your journey? how will you be able to find a place of holiness?

We are just over one week away from the Ten Days of Awe, of Repentance and of Return. On Sunday evening September 9 and Monday September 10 we will observe Rosh HaShanah, with Yom Kippur following on September 18-19. We are on the final approach.

Whether or not you are done with the movie or the drink, when the airplane begins its final approach, you must put away the electronics, hand back the cup, and buckle up and prepare yourself for landing: if, G*d forbids, anything out of the ordinary occurs, this is the only way you will be as safe as possible. As we begin our final approach to the Days of Awe, how will you prepare yourself?

Buckle up: join in a Havdalah review of the High Holy Days songs and prayers with the observance of Selikhot, tomorrow evening. Let that quiet hour give you a chance to muse. Where are you arriving, this year? what are you carrying with you? what is the work of your hands, that will show what you did with your year?

Shut down the electronics: demonstrate to yourself that you can master the devices that fill your life with communication, with entertainment, and with information as you choose. For the week between Selikhot and the beginning of the Days of Awe, replace one source of electronic stimulation with quiet. Fill it with something that will feel your soul – a novel, with poetry, or with books about Repentance and Return such as these:

Entering the High Holy Days: A Complete Guide to the History, Prayers, and Themes, by Rabbi Reuven Hammer
Days of Awe: A Treasury of Jewish Wisdom for Reflection, Repentance, and Renewal, by Shmuel Yosef Agnon
Preparing Your Heart for the High Holy Days, by Dr. Kerry M Olitzky

And, finally, hand back that cup: whatever is in your daily cup, your daily routine that is getting in your way, now is the time to give it up. Make room for the Days of Awe, and in discovering how to do so, you will find in your life a place of a spiritual safety, or at least a readiness for whatever comes, that cannot be found in any other way.

On this Shabbat, may you be consoled that there is yet more time for you to consider and to act: when you arrive, how will you have arrived there? what will you have with you as the fruit of your journey? how will you be able to find a place of holiness?
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Shabbat Shoftim: How To Be Judgemental

“Whoever studies the Torah for its own sake [l’shmah] merits many things…[among other things] it gives the individual sovereignty and dominion and the ability to judge.”  – Pirke Avot 6.1
By an interesting coincidence, it was on this week of Shabbat Shoftim (“judges”) that our weekly Talmud study class contemplated this teaching. At first glance we are, perhaps, not sure what to do with it. Sovereignty and dominion? Surely Rabbi Meir, the Talmudic sage to whom this saying is attributed, didn’t mean that those of us who study Torah will all become queens and kings.
Jews who study are best served by remembering the four levels of interpretation we bring to bear on any given verse, teaching, or story: Peshat, Drash, Remez, and Sod, known by their acronym (slightly out of order): PaRDeS, or “orchard.” Applied to the opening verse of our parashat hashavua, our parashah of the week, we can begin to see what “sovereignty and dominion and the ability to judge” one might gain through the study of Torah.
You shall set judges and officers in all your cities (Devarim 16.18)
* peshat, the simple, surface layer of meaning: Jewish ethics both ancient and modern require courts so that justice may be upheld in society.
* drash, the “midrash” layer of thinking more deeply about  meaning:  notice that this is said in the plural: one must not judge alone. (Pirke Avot 4.8)
 
* remez, the “hinted” meaning: “The human body is a city with seven gates—seven portals to the outside world: the two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and the mouth.
It is incumbent upon us to place internal “judges” to discriminate and regulate what should be admitted and what should be kept out,
and “officers” to enforce the judges’ decisions . . .”  (Siftei Kohen)
 
* sod, or, the “secret” meaning: we cannot know this meaning easily or right away, if at all, or ever. It may remain secret from us, a useful reminder of the limits
of our understanding.
 
Now what can we do with “the one who studies Torah for its own sake will merit….sovereignty, dominion, and the ability to judge.”?
 
* peshat: immersing oneself in Torah creates a rich inner world for oneself, even as children create such meaningful worlds of play for themselves, in which they are fully in control.
* drash: the mystics teach that focusing upon the mitzvot (the heart of Torah and our relationship with it) allows us to become sovereign over our own impulses and desires.
* remez: when one studies Torah l’shmah, “for its own sake,” one will come to understand something about judgment.
 
This hint is especially important for us, who spend much of our time in ill-considered or uninformed, emotional judgment of others. Whether we read it or hear it, our yetzer hara’, our evil inclination, races to believe the worst of others. To study, or in the Hebrew verb to hear, l’shmah, means without emotion and without any motive other than to learn, with openness to learning and to having our convictions sometimes upset and overturned.
 
For example, have you heard something about someone else and assumed a position of judgment about that person, a position you defend against new evidence, as a result? If you judged based on one hearing, you have violated the drash level of this mitzvah. No one of us can judge alone.
 
As for the sod level of this mitzvah, the mitzvah of setting up justice in our gates to be judged and carried out, we may not discern it yet, but looking all around us, we see indications of the horrors that we court when we do not take care with this mitzvah. We may not have complete sovereignty or dominion, yet to the extent that we have some capacity, may our judgments of each other be l’shmah, that we might contribute to that ethic in the communities we influence by our every act.

Shabbat Ekev: Listen With Care

Which of us is not angry, disappointed, even resentful, of the way our lives have changed in the past few years? Aren’t we all getting very tired of the stress served up daily by the media, infusing our every interaction with each other?
Of course, there is more than one response to this situation. In Jewish tradition there is always more than one answer, even as the old joke goes: “on the one hand…and on the other hand.” The story goes that a Rabbi once listened carefully to two litigants, and after each finished her complaint, said, “you’re right.” A witness to the proceedings objected, “Rabbi, they can’t both be right.” The Rabbi turned to that witness and responded, “you’re right.”
The more carefully one listens to each person, the more we can hear some whisper of truth in that person – and then of course this leads to the realization that truth itself is complicated and difficult and always partial in our lives.
In mindfulness practice, we are taught to slow down, to take a breath, and to seek to balance the stress we feel with a spiritual teaching: 1. each human being is created in the Image of G*d, 2. you are not required to do all the work, just your part, or 3. all Israel are responsible, each for each other. In such a way, we can be reminded to take care to listen to each other with the respect we wish to receive ourselves – slowly, with kindness and mercy.
This week’s Torah text seems to urge us to take care, and listen carefully, as a mitzvah in itself. The parashah is called Ekev, which means “as a result of” or “therefore.” Specifically:
  וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם–וְשָׁמַר ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ, אֶת-הַבְּרִית וְאֶת-הַחֶסֶד, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע, לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ. If you will take care to listen well and do the mitzvot commanded to you, then HaShem your G*d will take care with you and the covenant and the mercy promised for all generations (Devarim 7.12)
The word ekev literally means “heel.” This led ancient scholars to comment that we are being warned specifically about the mitzvot that we generally “trample with our heels” (Rashi), i.e. those that we dismiss as not being important. Maimonides suggests that the mitzvot in question are those for which the reward will come only at the end, i.e. the obligation will seem thankless. An early modern Eastern European Rabbi suggested that the reference is to the generation which belongs to the “heels of the Messiah,” meaning a generation suffering the “labor pains” associated with the End of Days. That generation is considered to be the spiritually lowest of all those living in Exile.
On this Shabbat, consider:
what mitzvah do you trample by letting the stress get the better of you, turning you toward anger and away from mercy?
What mitzvah do you need to recommit to doing even though you don’t feel thanked for it?
To what voice do you need to listen more carefully?
We so much need to take care of each other and feel cared for ourselves. May it be that on this Shabbat we take another step toward finding consolation for ourselves, through offering it, in small and caring ways, toward each other.