Shabbat Shuvah: Return To Yourself

Shabbat Shuvah is so named because it falls on the Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, the time when we are urged to Shuvah, “return,” to our best selves. It is also the opening of the Haftarah, which is composed of excerpts of the greatest hits from Rosh HaShanah, Tashlikh, and Yom Kippur.

There is no one word we will hear more than teshuvah during this ten day period, and no concept more difficult. To return means to remember where one was, and memory is an elusive, often traumatized element of our minds. To return means to recognize that there is something of great worth that we’ve left behind somewhere, and that our going forward is actually dependent upon our going back for it – and from that perspective to re-vision our future path, and re-orient ourselves to it.

To return, according to our tradition, is to be able to imagine – and from there begin to see – that

We once knew a great unity, when we were very young.

Then, all being was one seamless, living organism.

We were more than a part of it; we were of it and it was of us.

Then we were born and everything began to fall apart:

Mothers and children, father and mothers, siblings,

lovers, families, villages, nations.

Earliest childhood is living in the unity;

adulthood is surviving the brokenness.

And what has come to be called spiritual maturity

is remembering the ancient unity

and trying to reassemble the shards.*

 

To do teshuvah is to walk toward wholeness in oneself and with everything else. On this Shabbat of the Days of Awe, may the path toward your wholeness, and healing, be smoother than you realized when you began to walk it.

Shabbat shalom, Shanah 5780 Tovah Tikhateymu!

___________________________-

*Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, Five Cities of Refuge, 140

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Rosh HaShanah 5780 – The Akedah: Stop Killing the Future

Rosh HaShanah 5780 Akedah D’var Torah: Stop Killing the Future

 

Have you seen the Greta Thunburg helpline? It’s “for adults angry at a child.” The video I saw begins with a middle-aged white man who calls the helpline and confesses that he’s been screaming at the image of Greta addressing the U.N. Climate Summit.

 

Over 5000 attacks on Twitter, not to mention on Fox News and other right wing media, have targeted Greta with seriously hateful ad hominem attacks ad absurdum for her strong words declaring that world leaders are doing too little, much too late, to respond to climate change.

 

What is it about adults who do this? What causes people, old enough to know better, to turn on those who speak truth?

 

This is not a new problem: the ancient prophets of Israel were shouted down, beaten up and even murdered for predicting that the unethical social behavior would cause the downfall of the society. Greta is not the first to speak out; young climate activists have been organizing for years. Their voices are like those of the ancient prophets, and I marvel again at how the youth of the world speak and act in ways that are true, clarion responses to the world we live in, and suffer in.

 

I would like to bring this question as a lens with which to consider the Akedah, Rosh HaShanah’s very troubling Torah reading.

 

For many generations our people, confronting this text, have focused upon the three individual actors in the drama. When Sarah is focused upon, it is by feminists who ask where she was. If Isaac is mentioned, it is to argue over his age, and debate why he is not mentioned at the end of the story. And there are those who say that if this was a test by HaShem, Abraham failed it if he could believe that our G*d would ever command such a horror.

 

And yet…there are disturbing whispers of something else, something deep and true and horrifying, in old midrashim about this story.  Why, after all, were the rabbis of antiquity, whose lives were informed by those midrashim, compelled to designate the Akedah as a Rosh HaShanah reading for the ages?

 

It’s important to know that in Jewish tradition, a midrash is a text which explores the nuances of a Torah story, often in strikingly profound psychological ways. Some collections of midrashim are two thousand years old; some only a thousand. No matter when it was created, you can depend on a midrash to upend your understanding of a text; it invites you deeper, into meanings that are veiled, and which open up whole new possibilities of hidden truth.

 

There is one midrash, which scholars believe was partially suppressed already in antiquity, which asserts that Isaac “was bound on the altar…and was reduced to ashes and his sacrificial dust was cast on Mount Moriah.”[1]

You might ask why it was suppressed (the answer would seem to be that it contradicts the rest of the tradition, not to mention the Torah itself), but I want to ask something else: why does it exist?

Why, if not to confront us with a deep and disturbing truth? Why, if not to remind us that in ancient days people did kill their children as offerings to their gods, and that today some people do kill their children in offerings to their tortured sense of something inevitable, and that the rest of us come closer than we might imagine to such an unimaginable act – not as aware individuals, perhaps, but nevertheless as part and parcel of a larger social organism that still regularly offers up its children.

 

Poets have long understood something of this strange and terrifying truth. Consider this:

 

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

 

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,

And took the fire with him, and a knife.

And as they sojourned both of them together,

Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,

Behold the preparations, fire and iron,

But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,

and builded parapets and trenches there,

And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.

When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,

Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,

Neither do anything to him. Behold,

A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;

Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

 

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

 

– Wilfred Owen – 1893-1918

 

I suggest to you this morning that the truth of the Akedah is that we are a short-sighted, self-centered, possibly outright suicidal species. The least we do is to force our children into compliance with the vision we have for our lives and theirs, be it war, or corporate profit, or some other kind of blind and devastating dead end.

 

Humanity’s self-destructiveness is insidious. It may be obvious and shocking to us when it happens to those to whom we can relate, but it is also happening on a larger scale.

 

There are so many examples of the future offered up as a sacrifice to that which is held in awe in the present:

 

*200,000 youth, mostly of color, enter the criminal justice system each year.

 

*We’ll never know how many young people have been torn from their parents’ arms – Native American, enslaved African, immigrant single mothers, incarcerated mothers – never to be reunited.

 

*Right now there are 11,000 children held in camps, more in other facilities throughout the United States.

 

When it comes to demonstrating what we value, society seems to act as if our future was of no concern to us. Parental leave to care for new babies is too often expensive and difficult to come by. School are as underfunded as if raising and educating children was not a vital activity for the health of our society. And gun control is still considered a bill that can wait, both in our state and in our nation’s capital, while this year alone there were twenty-two school shootings as of July 26.

 

What kind of species murders its future? Why would Abraham perceive that there was any good reason for him to kill his offspring?

 

Does Abraham see that Isaac is the future, a future that someday will not include him? Is he trying to kill his own death? In abusing Greta Thunberg and other children who show us clearly our own future, are we doing anything more complicated than simply closing our eyes and ears to what we don’t want to hear – at their expense and, of course, our own?

 

Perhaps this is the wisdom of the ancients: is this why they mandated that we read this difficult passage every year at a time when we are obligated to consider our acts, and their consequences? Is this why they chose to rub our noses in this horror every year?

 

So much commentary has been written to try to explain it, perhaps to explain it away. The most compelling for me isn’t an explanation but a sort of insight, in a midrash in which Isaac returns to Sarah and himself explains what happened:

 

The mother asked, where have you been, my son?

He answered, my father took me.

And if not for the messenger of G*d, kim’at shelo nishkhat.[2]

 

This is translated as “I was almost slaughtered.” But what it literally means is “a little more and I would not have been slaughtered.”

 

The vagueness of this grammatical construction is the only hope I have been able to find in this whole horrifying learning. Almost not slaughtered is, as if it were, almost slaughtered.

 

Children embody the future. In the Talmud they are called neti’ot, saplings. Like young trees, children respond honestly to nurturing, and they’re pretty good at surviving storms, drought, and being transplanted. On some very basic level, we are hard-wired to have them and, on a personal level, to protect them. But right now, the trees that are being destroyed through climate change are not only in the Amazon. Can we find the line between the two meanings of kim’at shelo nishkhat?

 

It only makes sense to prioritize and invest in our children’s well-being. Nothing else makes sense, if we love them, if we love life, if we love ourselves. What will it take, for each of us who lives in this brutalized society of ours, to get back in touch with the kind of vision that grows love, instead of fear? What will it take for us to say that perhaps this is the way it has been, but it is not the way it will be? What will it take before the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber, and schools get all the funding they need?

 

May our children help us to envision, in joy and in hope, the future we might share through them, and not just our own death.

 

 

[1] Shibbolei HaLeket, cited in Shalom Spiegel’s The Last Trial, 35.

[2] Rashi, parashat Haye Sarah, based on Tanhuma and VaYikrah Rabbah.

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!

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)

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.