Shabbat Re’eh: Seeing Hope, Being Blessing

This coming Shabbat is Shabbat Re’eh. We study a parashah named for the command “see!”

רְאֵ֗ה אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה
See, this day I set before you blessing and curse (Devarim 11.26)

It is the second Shabbat of Consolation, a time in which our tradition urges us to lift up our heads from the searing despair of Tisha B’Av, toward the hope that we may yet be part of summoning, and living in, a better world.

What does it mean to see?

Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time,
and to see takes time – like to have a friend takes time.
– Georgia O’Keeffe

In ancient Hebrew as in our own modern language, to see is to notice, to recognize, to understand, and to acknowledge.

The unexamined life is not worth living. – Socrates

“See” in our parashah urges us to examine our lives and our choices and to understand that to follow our Jewish path means acting upon the world, as what our tradition calls co-creators. We call this doing mitzvot – an ethical path that will bring you blessing.

The blessing is to see that you will not succeed at all things. It is to understand that the media will not pick up a good deed of yours and you’ll be famous. It is to recognize that that you will not be thanked (the higher levels of tzedakah are anonymous).

The blessing is that you will be able to look at your life and see that it is good. You will see and understand the relationship between your acts and the world that you live in and co-create. It is a blessing on that day when you see your life clearly if you can see that you held tight to your integrity and your vision of the good life, and no matter what happened, you did your best to do good. The blessing is that you will feel grateful for all the good you were able to do, and you will feel content in yourself.

We are encouraged – no, commanded – by our tradition to lift our eyes at this time of year, to look ahead and to seek the horizon of hope. How is this even possible right now, in this world of misery in which we live?

The guidance of our Jewish tradition makes the answer simple: look for the single mitzvah, the simple act, that you can do in this moment, which saves you from existential despair with the immediacy of one need, one hurt, one vulnerability to which you can respond.

It’s all we really have, anyway: this moment right now. Be kind to someone. Notice someone. See, recognize, and understand all the opportunities you have, right where you are, to be a blessing.

Shabbat Ekev: How To Be Loyal (not to Haman but to Life)

Do you believe in cause and effect? The opening of this week’s parashat hashavua insists on precisely this: events follow in the wake of other events in a causative fashion. Let us be more precise: do you understand the effect of your acts on others, on your society, and on the world in which you live?

 

וְהָיָ֣ה ׀ עֵ֣קֶב תִּשְׁמְע֗וּן אֵ֤ת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים֙ הָאֵ֔לֶּה וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֥ם וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם וְשָׁמַר֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֜יךָ לְךָ֗ אֶֽת־הַבְּרִית֙ וְאֶת־הַחֶ֔סֶד אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֖ע לַאֲבֹתֶֽיךָ׃

 

If you all obey these rules and guard them, as a result [ekev] you will each know the sense of loyal reliability in the covenant your ancestors spoke of in relation to HaShem (Deut. 7.12)

 

Behold the cause-and-effect interplay of the communal and the individual: if we all manage to be loyal to the integrity of our ethics, we will each personally feel that the ethics of our community are reliable for us.

 

Others call it karma when what we mean to say is that, sooner or later, what you put out into the universe comes back to you. But that’s only the half of it: our tradition goes further to assert that no one can see an individual self as exempt from the well-being of the community. Unless we are all involved, there can be no wholeness – no peace, literally, in the Hebrew.

 

In the light of the wholeness we Jews have a tradition of envisioning every time we pray, I invite you to make this Shabbat a time of rest. After a week like this, when the President of the United States has so unwisely and so hatefully invited anti-Semitic tropes of disloyalty upon us, we need to remind ourselves and each other of that to which we must always be loyal – and since Haman we’ve known that it’s not authoritarian dictators.

 

Our parashah continues:

וּמַלְתֶּ֕ם אֵ֖ת עָרְלַ֣ת לְבַבְכֶ֑ם וְעָ֨רְפְּכֶ֔ם לֹ֥א תַקְשׁ֖וּ עֽוֹד׃

 

“Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more” – undo the protective cynicism and the numbing of turning away; practice compassion for yourself and for others at all times.

 

כִּ֚י יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם ה֚וּא אֱלֹהֵ֣י הָֽאֱלֹהִ֔ים וַאֲדֹנֵ֖י הָאֲדֹנִ֑ים הָאֵ֨ל הַגָּדֹ֤ל הַגִּבֹּר֙ וְהַנּוֹרָ֔א אֲשֶׁר֙ לֹא־יִשָּׂ֣א פָנִ֔ים וְלֹ֥א יִקַּ֖ח שֹֽׁחַד׃

 

“HaShem is too great for petty favors and bribes” – no magical thinking and no side bets on foreign passports can save us if we can no longer hold on to the Rock that our ethical community is meant to be.

 

עֹשֶׂ֛ה מִשְׁפַּ֥ט יָת֖וֹם וְאַלְמָנָ֑ה וְאֹהֵ֣ב גֵּ֔ר לָ֥תֶת ל֖וֹ לֶ֥חֶם וְשִׂמְלָֽה׃ וַאֲהַבְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־הַגֵּ֑ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

 

 

“HaShem upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

 

How might we maintain the integrity of our ethical community in the face of so much despair? Never mind the end of the world fears we all share; in front of us is a person who needs food, who needs clothing, who needs a human touch. Practicing compassion for another is the only way to keep that life-sustaining channel open for ourselves as well.

 

The communal and the individual. Ekev tish’m’un, as long as we are loyal to that which we all are obligated to hear and do, each of us will have something to hold on to.

 

As it was for our ancestors so may it be for us, the unwavering and comforting sense that it is all worth it when one knows to what one is loyal, that “even though You slay me, yet I believe in You.”

Shabbat Nakhamu: What If There Is No Consolation?

What if we don’t get there? This week our parashat hashavua is named for the pleading of our leader Moshe before HaShem; he begged to be allowed to take the final steps into the Land promised to his people, to see it for himself.

 

אֶעְבְּרָה־נָּ֗א וְאֶרְאֶה֙ אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַטּוֹבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּעֵ֣בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן הָהָ֥ר הַטּ֛וֹב הַזֶּ֖ה וְהַלְּבָנֽוֹן׃

Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon.”

 

וַיִּתְעַבֵּ֨ר יְהוָ֥ה בִּי֙ לְמַ֣עַנְכֶ֔ם וְלֹ֥א שָׁמַ֖ע אֵלָ֑י וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוָ֤ה אֵלַי֙ רַב־לָ֔ךְ אַל־תּ֗וֹסֶף דַּבֵּ֥ר אֵלַ֛י ע֖וֹד בַּדָּבָ֥ר הַזֶּֽה׃

But HaShem was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me; HaShem said to me, “Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again! (Deut. 3.25-26)

 

No appeal, no reprieve. And Moshe went on to continue his work. Not for nothing is he called Moshe Rabbenu, Moshe our teacher. He might just as easily have quit then and there. After all, it wasn’t fair, as many midrashim poignantly convey. Yet he seemed wise enough to understand that the work of his life was neither defined nor belied by remaining incomplete.

 

“I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

 

These words spoken by our teacher Dr. Martin Luther King Jr the night before he was murdered are sometimes referred to as “the mountaintop speech.” He was speaking with that same wisdom, offering us that same lesson: it does not matter how or when we die, whether our life’s work was completed, whether the timing was “fair” in our eyes. It is enough of a blessing to be part of a meaningful life, to have one’s own life fulfilled in knowing that we are part of something bigger, something transcendent.

 

Something of Moshe Rabbenu is within us; something of Dr King as well. And lest you don’t feel famous enough to believe this, here is a third moment of illumination in the face of darkness:

 

Our greatest injury is the one we inflict upon ourselves. I find life beautiful and I feel free. The sky within me is as wide as the one stretching above my head. I believe in God and I believe in human beings and I say so without embarrassment. Life is hard, but that is no bad thing. If one starts by taking one’s own importance seriously, the rest follows…True peace will come only when every individual finds peace within; when we have all vanquished and transformed our hatred for our fellow human beings of whatever race – even into love one day, although perhaps that is asking too much. It is, however, the only solution. – Etty Hillesum, 1942

 

The injury we inflict is to let the maelstrom without define us within. We spend our lives learning the balance:

 

To begin with oneself, but not to end with oneself;

to start from oneself, but not to aim at oneself;

to comprehend oneself, but not to be preoccupied with oneself.

– Martin Buber, 1950

 

On this Shabbat our people lifts our collective head from the mourning of Tisha B’Av. Our tradition encourages us to take solace in the fact that life goes on, even as individual lives must end. In these Seven Weeks of Nekhemta, Consolation, upon which we now embark, each Shabbat will offer us a memory of all the good we know, from which we learn to draw strength as water from a never failing well.

 

It is not about us; it is all about us: our capacity for generosity, for love, and for celebrating life and its beauty in the face of fear. Let’s hold hands and find the way together.