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
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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.

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.

Shabbat Nakhamu: Consolation Is In Our Hands

It has been a bittersweet week. In this week alone we have felt the sharp impact of pain on our relationships both near and far. The State of Israel passed a law that undermines the values of equality and justice promised in its own declaration of independence; the Federal government of the United States admitted that it has no idea how to re-unify the children and parents it has separated; add to this the fact that many of us have personal stories that keep us up at night.

Yet this Shabbat we are urged to find consolation. Despite everything. The haftarah for which the Shabbat is named declares that despite everything, there is hope if we will maintain our faith in that which is good, and in that which is just. All that has been cast down can yet be raised up: facts, freedoms, futures. Compassion, truth, and justice are bigger than any one human, and will outlast us all – we, who come and go like grass.

כָּל־גֶּיא֙ יִנָּשֵׂ֔א וְכָל־הַ֥ר וְגִבְעָ֖ה יִשְׁפָּ֑לוּ וְהָיָ֤ה הֶֽעָקֹב֙ לְמִישׁ֔וֹר וְהָרְכָסִ֖ים לְבִקְעָֽה׃
Let every valley be raised, every hill and mount made low.

Let the rugged ground become level and the ridges a plain.

וְנִגְלָ֖ה כְּב֣וֹד יְהוָ֑ה וְרָא֤וּ כָל־בָּשָׂר֙ יַחְדָּ֔ו כִּ֛י פִּ֥י ה דִּבֵּֽר׃
The Presence of HaShem shall appear,
And all of us will see it together, for that day is coming.
ק֚וֹל אֹמֵ֣ר קְרָ֔א וְאָמַ֖ר מָ֣ה אֶקְרָ֑א כָּל־הַבָּשָׂ֣ר חָצִ֔יר וְכָל־חַסְדּ֖וֹ כְּצִ֥יץ הַשָּׂדֶֽה׃
A voice rings out: “Proclaim!” Another asks, “What shall I proclaim?”
“All flesh is grass, All its goodness like flowers of the field:
יָבֵ֤שׁ חָצִיר֙ נָ֣בֵֽל צִ֔יץ כִּ֛י ר֥וּחַ ה נָ֣שְׁבָה בּ֑וֹ אָכֵ֥ן חָצִ֖יר הָעָֽם׃
Grass withers, flowers fade when the breath of HaShem blows on them.
Indeed, people are nothing more than grass.
(Isaiah 40.5-8)
In a week which has seen the destruction by our own City of Portland of the OccupyICE encampment that sparked a nation-wide movement, we can refuse to let that for which they struggled be destroyed.
In a month which has seen our fellow Jews in the State of Israel trample just as badly on civil rights in our homeland as the Federal government does here in the nation of our residence, we can refuse to let others define the values of the societies and peoples to which we belong.
And on a day – this day – on which over 2300 children are still separated from their parents, may each one of us find in the fact that we have not been separated from those we love both comfort us and provide us a compelling reason to continue to struggle for justice. Consolation, according to Jewish tradition, does not waft down upon our heads because we deserve it – it comes to us because we summon it for others.
Your communities of meaning and intention will continue to be a locus for you for opportunities to act, not alone and struggling, but together, holding hands and stepping forward into the work of raising valleys and leveling rugged ground so that we can all see and celebrate the Presence of G*d in justice and in truth.

Shabbat Devarim: It Gets Worse

An ox knows its master and an ass knows where the food is; but Israel does not know, my people is thoughtless.”  (Isaiah 1.3)
 
The haftarah for this Shabbat gives the Shabbat its name: Hazon, “[prophetic] vision.” It is always chanted on this Shabbat before Tisha b’Av, the day of mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem which caused the Jewish people to be exiled for two thousand years.
For the last three weeks we will have heard the chanted words of warning: turn back to the right path, don’t you know what your behavior is risking? And now on this Shabbat we will hear
Your land is a waste, your cities burned down; before your eyes, the yield of your work is consumed by others….we are almost like Sodom, another Gomorrah. (Isaiah 1.7-9 excerpted)
The prophets of ancient Israel did not tell fortunes, they foretold the ethical consequences of behavior. These prophecies are put in front of us at this time because tomorrow evening will once again be the 9th day of the month of Av on the Jewish calendar, that day on which Jerusalem was destroyed.
It is Jewish practice on Tisha B’Av to mourn the destruction and the loss, and to consider how we as a people might have acted differently. It is not the way of the teachings of our religious tradition to look at destruction and blame someone else. Even as on Yom Kippur we consider our individual actions and their effects, on Tisha B’Av we look at ourselves as a people. On both days we fast and mourn; on both we seek wisdom to build a better life.
The story is recounted in the Torah of a person who discounted the public humiliation of another person, and how one thing led to another, and because of the fact that people responded to each other with assumptions based in distrust and fear, finally Jerusalem was lost. The striking aspect of the story is that it was a Jew who allowed another Jew to be hurt which started the deadly cycle. And so we learn from this tragedy that big bad things begin with small bad things; that when one’s attitude about the world is suspicious and self-involved, we all end up suffering from the social debilitation that occurs when everyone becomes self-involved.
The problem is called sinat hinam, “baseless hatred.” The Israeli journalist Bradley Burston (whom we once hosted for a standing-room-only talk at Shir Tikvah) in reaction to the Israeli government’s passing of the nation-state law this week, writes that
the Sages taught that the ancient Temples were destroyed [on Tisha B’Av] because of sinat hinam on the part of Jews – gratuitous hatred, hatred without just cause, hatred which does nothing but take a place of conflict, despair, bigotry, violence, and make it worse.
This week it has been one blow after another for us Jews of the United States and the people who love us. From the disaster of Helsinki to the pain of Sheridan Federal Prison to the betrayal of Jewish values in Tel Aviv, we must ask: what have we participated in allowing to happen? In what way have we allowed hatred to” take a place of conflict, despair, bigotry, violence, and make it worse”?
Our tradition teaches that wisdom is the ability to see the consequences of acts, according to our tradition. May we all – you and me, our elected leaders and those whose responsibility it is to tend our planet – become more wise in the days to come.