Shabbat Bereshit: Starting Over Again

Happy 5779! Every year at this time, our Jewish tradition invites us to consider the possibility of starting over in our lives; that it is possible, and more, that there is much Jewish wisdom to support one who seeks to return, to renew, to restart. On this Shabbat when we begin again with the beginning, by studying parashat Bereshit, we are invited to see how central learning is to spiritual growth and personal development.
There is a way in which each one of us exists in a sense of consciousness that makes us the center of our universe; thus the 18th century Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav taught: “Assert at all times: the world was created for my sake.” And therefore, “do your share to add some improvement, to supply something that is missing, and to leave this world better than when you first came into it.” (Kitzur Likkutei Mohoran, Bereshit)
This work is not only the social justice work that we Jews are so comfortable citing when we talk about repairing the world. That is the work “out there” and it is imperative; but we ourselves are not separate from the world, and the work we need to do is also “in here,” in our own families, in our work and social circles, in our spiritual community.
How are we to “do our share” in this overwhelming world? Although we move through the world inescapably alone inside our heads and hearts, facing our own singular responsibility for how we live and touch life, yet we who participate in meaningful community walk alongside others, and come to realize that in our struggles we are not alone. We can choose to face the work of our lives (both out there and in here) with others, and together to puzzle out the true and intimate meaning of the mitzvot that can help us to structure and understand life. Jews do this through shared study of Torah, both in that book itself and in the larger sense that includes Talmud, Midrash, Ethics, Mysticism, and more.
It’s endlessly illuminating when you catch on to the interpretive depth of Jewish teaching: for example, you know the mitzvah “you shall not murder,” but do you know that it is interpreted into interpersonal relationships in such a way that to embarrass a convert to Judaism by recalling their non-Jewish past is declared murder in Jewish law? “The blood comes to the face when one is humiliated, and then drains, and this is called shedding blood.” explains the Talmud. Another example: the Torah commands “do not place a stumbling block before the blind,” which is interpreted to include misleading someone who does not understand a situation. Caveat emptor, “let the buyer beware,” has no place in Jewish business ethics.
On This Shabbat when we start over again and begin reading Bereshit, the account of the Creation of the World, all over again, consider how your own world might be renewed through your own small acts to improve it, to supply something that is missing, to make it better for having been there. In these days of political upheaval and social unrest, it’s the micro-kindnesses that are most needed in the world at which each one of us is the center. Working on those together in our small intentional community, we can be a place of light in the encroaching darkness.
The Hebrew letters I’ve added above stand for the words b’siyata d’shmaya, an Aramaic phrase meaning “with the help of heaven” or “G*d willing.” I added them (it’s an old tradition to do so on documents) because I suddenly felt keenly that my weekly salutation is hopeful, and not necessarily an established truth. On this Shabbat of beginning again, I very much hope that in this coming year you will find communal Jewish study to be a support and a consolation in your life. Everyone is welcome at the Torah (life) study table; everyone has something to learn, and something to contribute to the learning.
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Shabbat hol hamo’ed Sukkot: Why Bother?

The Festival of Sukkot is seven days long, no, wait, eight; literally, the Jewish folk tradition is that G*d didn’t want to part from us after seven days of joy together, and so asked us to wait one more day before going home. That last day is called Shemini Atzeret, literally, “stop here for an eighth [day].”
It’s a sweet parable, and entirely ridiculous; G*d is everywhere, how could we “go home” from G*d? G*d is home. But the sense of sharing a special closeness at this time of year is something we can recognize. Rosh HaShanah brings together people who don’t see each other, perhaps, all year long except for this gathering, and we welcome the moment. Yom Kippur, for all its discomforts, is rather like a slumber party, with our congregational family and dear friends  hanging out all day long together. And Sukkot brings us the sukkah raisings we do together, the special gatherings for prayers of gratitude and remembering, and the visiting of each other’s sukkot. Finally, everyone starts to move to “go home,” and G*d says, as it were, “stay one more day.”
It rather reminds one of an old joke which I heard in Israel (the ethnic groups are playfully interchangeable): Brits are the people who leave without saying goodbye, and Jews are the people who say goodbye without leaving.
This year, though, I don’t want to leave the closeness. The world feels hostile out there beyond the albeit soft and permeable Sukkah roof and walls, and I am grateful for the sense, however fragile, of a barrier between me and the painful upheaval in our larger world.
One can feel the attraction of the cloistered life at a time like this. To turn away, to go and meditate for six months with no news and no social media, to drop out of society as we know it, rather than to participate in the next demonstration, send the next letter, make the next effort that needs making.
Why bother? Isn’t it all over too soon anyway? What does it matter?
On Sukkot we are bidden by our tradition to consider the harvest of our lives’ effort, and to offer the first fruits of it to G*d. I suggest that in our own day, a relevant way to understand this is that we are lucky enough to be part of a people that at least once a year considers not whether or not to be involved in the world, but rather feels ourselves called upon to choose what participation we might define as our gift of thanks, to the world and it Source, for the gift of life.
Why bother, then? One reason you may have heard, which is very Jewish at heart, is this: “I act, although I may not be able to change the world, so that the world does not change me.” The mitzvah of pursuing social justice is expressed not only in whether we “win” some big “battle,” but at least as significantly in so many micro-kindnesses, if you will – noticing who needs a smile or a kind word is as significant as clothing the naked, supporting the sick, feeding the hungry, and keeping faith with those who have died, as our siddur (prayerbook) puts it.
And after all, there is no Jewish word for “cloistered.” Even the nazarite was not sequestered from society; during the designated time of self-defined difference from their usual way of being in the world, s/he was still expected to fulfill her/his/their role as a Jew in the world, participating in the struggle for justice in the world, and in the creation of a better world.
Why bother? because here in the little world we each call our life, we can never know all that we mean to each other. On this Shabbat of Sukkot, may you understand what acts of your life fill your hands, for it is this that defines the harvest of your life.
Shabbat shalom and mo’adim l’simkha!
Why Bother?
Because right now, there is                  someone
out there with
a wound                                     in the exact shape
                                                           of your words.
Sean Thomas Dougherty
from The Second O of Sorrow

Shabbat Ha’azinu: Listen to the Ages

Our New Year of 5779 has begun, although the Torah year is not quite complete – we will read the end and the beginning of our Torah when we gather for our Simkhat Torah observance on Monday evening October 1.
Between that day and this Shabbat we have an entire Festival to celebrate: Sukkot, the season of ingathering of the harvest of the year now past. What has the work of your hands wrought? What will you show to account for your life? These are the eternal, existential questions and Judaism resonates with them at this time of year.
The name of Shabbat Ha’azinu is “listen,” and we are addressed here in the plural: we, the community, capable of more than each one of us individually. It is a wonderful irony that one cannot pronounce the word “I” unless one shares a language with others who know what the word means; inevitably, then, our individuality is in need of our community.
Ha’azinu, “listen,” urges us to one of the most difficult of acts: to listen to the wisdom of the ages. Each of us rejects that which has come before us in our struggle to become ourselves: every parent knows that you cannot help your child to avoid the mistakes you made – each of us has to learn through making many of the same errors. To come to know ourselves as individuals we must separate from others enough to see our own shadow, as it were; and then, even as a child learning to walk reaches out for the support of a caregiver’s hand, we spend the rest of our lives reaching out for the oneness we were born with and had to lose in order to begin to understand how to find.
“The older I got,” one Jewish comic said, “the smarter my parents became.”  One day we are finally able to listen, and what we hear is what we needed to hear all along. Others have struggled as we do; ancestors have faced challenges just like ours; there really is a chain of human tradition to which we belong. We are not alone.
At the right moment, such knowledge provides comfort, consolation, and the support of knowing you can and do belong.
On this coming Sunday evening, as we enter the Sukkot harvest Festival, may we be able to listen to the words of the generations of those like us who came before us and created the awareness of this holiday:
1. the lulav and etrog to wave together to demonstrate how a diversity of life all comes together to speak of Eternal truth;
2. the harvest abundance, to urge us to realize how much we have, and see the best ways of sharing it;
3. and the sukkah to remind us that our homes and the security they convey are fragile, and that everyone needs a roof to keep off the rain.
On Sunday afternoon Jewish communities all over the world will gather to celebrate and consider the harvest we have created as a community. We’ll raise and decorate our Sukkot, many of us at our own homes, others of us sharing a Sukkah, and some visiting the Sukkah of others if we have no place to build our own temporary dwelling . There we will meet each other to share the harvest of our gardens, and of our lives. May it be, as the ancient wish goes, a time akh same’akh, a time in which you are gifted with joy in your life and all you can hear when you listen.

Shabbat Shuvah: Remember Who You Are

Every year we observe Shabbat Shuvah between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. It is not the same parashah every year, though; this year, our Torah text is parashat VaYelekh, “he went.” It refers to Moshe, called in our tradition Moshe Rabbenu, “our Rabbi” – our teacher, our guide, our spiritual support.
וַיֵּלֶךְ, מֹשֶׁה; וַיְדַבֵּר אֶת-הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, אֶל-כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל.

Moses went and spoke these words to all Israel;

וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, בֶּן-מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה אָנֹכִי הַיּוֹם–לֹא-אוּכַל עוֹד, לָצֵאת וְלָבוֹא; ה’ אָמַר אֵלַי, לֹא תַעֲבֹר אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּה.

he said unto them: ‘I am a hundred and twenty years old today; I no longer can go out and come in; and HaShem has told me that I am not going with you across the Jordan river.

ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ.

HaShem your G*d will go with you (Deuteronomy 31.1-2)

Moshe, our leader, spends most of the Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) speaking final words to us. Our commentaries, ancient and modern, see something implied by the double verb: went and spoke. While in the southern dialect of American English in which I was raised this is merely a helper verb, our ancestors were looking at the Hebrew text. Reading carefully, they asked: what might vayelekh, “he went” mean?
After Moshe finished establishing the covenant with the Israelites [who were about to cross the Jordan] everyone went home. After that, Moshe wanted to take his leave of them for he knew he was to die. In his great love for them, in order to do them honor, he went from tent to tent, from tribe to tribe of the people of Israel, to let them know that he was to die, and to part from them.  This is why it is written “he went and spoke these things to all Israel.”
                                         – Isaac Abarbanel, Torah Commentary, Deuteronomy 31.1
One commentator asked, why didn’t he just call an assembly? Because as old and as honored as he was, Moshe was still humble, and instead of calling the Israelites to attend to him, he went to each of their homes to say a personal goodbye. This great leader didn’t forget his human needs, nor anyone else’s.
Shabbat Shuvah invites us to remember who we are, and what we need – and that everyone else is only human, and has needs too. The Days of Awe encourage us to get lost in ourselves as we try to see who we have become and consider whether that’s who we want to be, and we can forget that none of us exists separate from others. We are all connected with so many invisible lines – of love, of expectation, of anger, of dependence, of all the other ways we influence each other in a community. What may be obvious to you may not be to me, and of course, then there’s assumptions, grudges, and all the other baggage we carry, most of it unnecessary, all of it awkward and difficult.
Learning from Moshe Rabbenu, may we never be too proud or too awkward to seek each other out, rather than getting wrapped up in ourselves and our own worries, watching them grow all out of proportion while we wait for others to come to us. How will I know that you need me to come to you, how will you know when to come to me? and yet my well being depends upon yours, and yours upon mine.
גמר חתימה טובה
May you be sealed for a good year

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?

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.