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.

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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.

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.

Shabbat Pinhas: The Three Weeks

This year, Shabbat Pinhas is the first Shabbat of the Three Weeks.

 

These three weeks are the least auspicious period in the entire Jewish year, leading up as they do to Tisha B’Av, the day on which, two thousand years ago, the Second Jerusalem Temple was destroyed. Our people began a two thousand year Exile of homeless wandering, stateless immigrants, without rights, escaping one persecution only to find another, over and over again.

 

Since the establishment of the modern State of Israel, there are those who have suggested that Tisha B’Av should be superseded by celebrating the homecoming of Yom HaAtzma’ut, Israel Independence Day.  Yet old traditions die hard, and it is much more like us to mine them for the continuing relevance they offer – thus, it has been suggested by religious Zionists that Tisha B’Av now becomes an opportunity for a collective Yom Kippur of the State and People of Israel.

 

Simply put, Yom Kippur is a time of mourning the destruction we contribute to by our individual human behavior, as well as resolving to  atone; Tisha B’Av is a time to mourn our behavior as a people, and to seek atonement on a national level.

 

We are a people; when one Jew acts, all Jews are implicated, for good and for ill. To understand this is to see the need to look closely at events as they transpire, and consider what action we might take on behalf of our people’s well-being and ethical conscience.

 

The first day of the Three Weeks is Tzom Tammuz, the Fast of Tammuz, marking the day the Romans breached the outer walls of Jerusalem and began their relentless destructive march toward the Temple Mount. All that was left when the smoke cleared and the bodies were buried was the retaining wall; a section of that became the famous “Wailing Wall” at which Jews would weep for the home that was lost.

 

We are taught that Jerusalem was destroyed by sin’at hinam, “baseless hatred” toward each other and others beyond our people. Not just violent hatred, but also the quieter but no less destructive postures of cynical indifference, callousness, and turning away.

 

In our own day, the outer walls are breached by our own kind of sin’at hinam: by our community infighting, by the fear that makes us pull away from trusting each other, and by our cynicism and despair.

 

For two thousand years since the destruction, the bad energy of these Three Weeks has caused Jewish communities to avoid scheduling happy events during this time; no weddings, no young person called to the Torah for the first time.

 

In our own day, Tisha B’Av has become a stark reminder that nothing lasts, and that small acts of evil undermine the institutions we once believed in. According to the Rabbis’ teaching, it was a small act of public humiliation which triggered the destruction of Jerusalem and all Judaea. In this way they remind us that every act can, in a small but real way, bring about a better world – or lead us toward misery and death.

 

This year consider some way in which you will spend these weeks in awareness of the sadness of all that is destroyed, all the lives that are lost. Cease to do, or change in some way, a practice that normally brings you joy and comfort between now and Tisha B’Av. Let that small reminder, cumulatively over this time, show you the true power of the way we spend our days, and re-inspire you to acts of compassion, of kindness and of justice.