Shabbat Nitzavim: We Stand Together Even When Miles Apart

I’m so tired of “well this Jewish employee doesn’t do X so it can’t be a Jewish thing.”

–  tweeted on Thursday September 26 2019, 138 “likes”

 

You don’t have to speak Twitter, understand “likes” or use social media at all to feel the frustration that prompted that posting. We Jews, and those who love us and share our lives, are a tiny, highly misunderstood minority in the population of the United States.

 

Our holy days are not nationally recognized.

Our dietary restrictions are not respected.

Our religious teachings are blurred into a “Judaeo-Christian” ethic.

 

It’s a lot of pressure. Ever since Jews were invited into the larger society in the Modern Era, we’ve been trying to take our place there as equals – and feeling that we have no choice but to give up our distinctiveness in order to be accepted.

 

Parashat Nitzavim begins with these words

אַתֶּ֨ם נִצָּבִ֤ים הַיּוֹם֙ כֻּלְּכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֖י ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֑ם כֹּ֖ל אִ֥ישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל

You stand this day, all of you, before HaShem your G*d,

every person in Israel.

Our tradition, reading closely and lovingly, understands these profound opening words in several ways:

 

  1. Nitzavim means to stand firmly, to take a stance, to be rooted in one’s sense of self and conviction. We seek the strength to stand firm in the face of misunderstanding, disrespect, and dismissal of what is important to us as Jews.

 

I was recently invited to speak at a lunch meeting of a Clackamas County department, as part of its “learning about diversity.” After I explained that Shabbat begins at sundown on Friday night and that I didn’t hold it against my non-Jewish friends when they scheduled a happy hour just then, the director of the diversity program asked if perhaps I needed to be less rigid in my practice.

 

  1. Nitzavim means to stand with others; it is a plural form. And so we learn that we stand more firmly when we stand together, holding hands and facing challenges to our identity as a group of supportive companions.

 

As our Israeli cousins point out, if you want to be understood as a Jew, you should live in Israel, the only place in the world where Jewish practices, holidays and ethics are the norm from which all others diverge.

 

But we are here, in Exile in the United States – and it has been a pretty comfortable Exile for many years. If only we could come to understand how much our identity depends upon each other even when we haven’t met? I knew a woman who was devastated when her boss called a required all-company meeting for erev Rosh HaShanah. “How could you?” she said to him, “you know I’m Jewish and that it’s important to me.” “But your colleague who’s Jewish told me that it didn’t matter to him!” came the reply.

 

  1. In our text, we find ourselves standing nitzavim before HaShem Elohim. It’s interesting to consider that both words for that which is holy are used, both the personal HaShem and the more transcendent Elohim. It is taught that this refers to our inner sense of self and our outer acts.

 

It may be that some of us are unable to take the day off for Rosh HaShanah, and it may be that some of us don’t feel compelled to do so. Some pressures come from without, and some from within. The real challenge of Shabbat Nitzavim, only one day away from the eve of the New Year of 5780, is, as Hasidic teaching would put it, to find an authentic way to balance your outside and your inside; that which you are compelled to do and that which you choose to do; that which you didn’t mean and that about which you didn’t care.

 

What choices can you make that allow you to stand with integrity in the sense of who you mean to be, and what you want to stand for, in the world?

 

And if you’re Jewish and you’re not observing Rosh HaShanah in any way, and some non-Jew is talking with you about it, please do the rest of us the favor to explain. We don’t all have to be walking in lock step, yet if we are able to maintain respect for each other’s paths, we’ll be standing firm wherever our Exile may take us.

 

Shabbat shalom, Shanah 5780 Tovah Tikateyvu!

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Shabbat Ki Tetze: It’s Freezing Out

This 5th Shabbat of Consolation, Shabbat Ki Tetze, reminds us not to let our guard down while we are finding our emotional balance, post-Tisha B’Av, between tragedy and hope. At the very end of the parashah we find the warning:

זָכ֕וֹר אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֥ה לְךָ֖ עֲמָלֵ֑ק בַּדֶּ֖רֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶ֥ם מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt:

אֲשֶׁ֨ר קָֽרְךָ֜ בַּדֶּ֗רֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּ֤ב בְּךָ֙ כָּל־הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִ֣ים אַֽחַרֶ֔יךָ וְאַתָּ֖ה עָיֵ֣ף וְיָגֵ֑עַ וְלֹ֥א יָרֵ֖א אֱלֹהִֽים׃

how, undeterred by considerations of common decency and humanity, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.

וְהָיָ֡ה בְּהָנִ֣יחַ ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֣יךָ ׀ לְ֠ךָ מִכָּל־אֹ֨יְבֶ֜יךָ מִסָּבִ֗יב בָּאָ֙רֶץ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר ה’־אֱ֠לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵ֨ן לְךָ֤ נַחֲלָה֙ לְרִשְׁתָּ֔הּ תִּמְחֶה֙ אֶת־זֵ֣כֶר עֲמָלֵ֔ק מִתַּ֖חַת הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם לֹ֖א תִּשְׁכָּֽח׃

When you come to the place where you thank G*d for your safety from all the enemies around, in any place where you feel you belong and are safe, do not forget: blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.

Over and over again throughout Jewish history, from the time of Esther and Mordecai in the ancient Persian Empire through the first Gulf War of Saddam Hussein, our people has recognized Amalek in a signal sort of inhumanity we have seen demonstrated by those who seek our destruction.

We have come to understand that Amalek never disappears.

Amalek appears in that which threatens from without – there is evil in the world; people so damaged that they cannot withstand their yetzer hara’. They prey upon the vulnerable, those who are weak and lag behind, and innocent people’s lives are destroyed.

And there is that which threatens from within – the teachers of our tradition noted an unusual phrase:

אֲשֶׁ֨ר קָֽרְךָ֜ בַּדֶּ֗רֶךְ

translated “he surprised you on the way”

which really means “he caused you to become cold.”

Too much fear and stress caused by our surroundings can make us “cold,” that is, the opposite of passionate.

Cold to the pain of those who are suffering.

Cold to the problems that threaten to overwhelm.

Cold, numb, even to our own needs.

My friends, we of the human race are warm-blooded animals. Amalek’s final victory over us would be if we lose our ability to feel empathy, compassion, and even fear. We are a community that can only survive and thrive when we watch out for each other. We must refuse to allow the weak among us to be victimized. And we must refuse to let Amalek cool our passion and our joy for the beauty and hope of our lives.

Shabbat Shoftim: Pursuing Justice is a Millennial Challenge

Parashat Shoftim begins with one of the most famous declarations in all of Judaism:

צדק צדק תרדוף
“justice, justice you must pursue.” (Deut. 16.20)

It fits nicely on a placard if you’re participating in a protest; it’s a memorable tagline for your email signature; and once you dig into the Jewish commentary around this line, it becomes a constant support in these troubling times.

In the preserved commentaries of our people’s tradition we see clearly how Torah verses find their relevance in different contexts,  different cultures, places and times. In our own day, as we consider how each of us is called to act justly, we add our own voices to the millennial conversation of our people.

Various Rabbis whose teachings were recorded in the Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 32b (250-500 CE Israel and Babylon):

As it has been taught: “Justice, justice shalt thou follow” (Deuteronomy 16:20); the first [mention of justice] refers to a decision based on strict law; the second, to a compromise. How so? Where two boats sailing on a river meet; If both attempt to pass simultaneously, both will sink, whereas, if one makes way for the other, both can pass [without mishap]. Likewise, if two camels met each other while on the ascent to Beth-Horon; if they both ascend [at the same time] both may tumble down [into the valley]; but if [they ascend] after each other, both can go up [safely].

Law is abstract; fulfilling it requires common sense.

Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (philosopher, 1140, Tudela Spain):

“Justice, justice” Scripture addresses the litigants….The word appears twice: because one must pursue justice, whether it be to one’s gain, or to one’s loss; or the repetition denotes “time after time” — all the days of your life; or for emphasis.

One must do justice neutrally, regardless of the personal cost.

Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon aka Maimonides (1160, Cordoba Spain):

When you see that the truth is leaning towards one with whom you have a conflict, you should lean towards the truth and not stiffen your neck. This is the [meaning of the] verse (Deuteronomy 16:20), “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”

Justice requires truth, even when it is uncomfortable.

In our own day interpretations of this ringing command continue to support those who act in ways that others find extreme.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr (Letter from a Birmingham Jail 1963):

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

The social justice movements birthed by the Jewish experience of the United States began with the labor movement and extends unto Never Again Action. It also includes outsized participation in the struggle for civil rights led by the Movement for Black Lives, CAUSA for immigrants’ rights, CAIR for Muslim rights, Basic Rights Oregon, and many more.

Many Jews, significantly including those who are reaching adulthood now, see the call of social justice to be the most important aspect of their Jewish identity. When we gather in front of the ICE building here in Portland on an Erev Shabbat, some young Jew will always bring hallah to share – these Jews are not distanced from Judaism. It is the cautious politics of our organized Jewish institutions that turn them away, whether here in Portland Oregon or in Israel – and we should be proud of them for that. They are reminding us what Tikkun Olam takes: as our ancestors taught, common sense, and a willingness to engage with discomfort in pursuit of the truth that makes way for justice.

As you live this month of Elul, approaching with us the Days of Awe when we look at ourselves and our acts, consider this final thought from our tradition:

Who is wise? The one who learns from all people. (Pirke Avot 4.1)