Shabbat Nitzavim-VaYelekh: Looking Back to See Ahead

What a year 5777 was. Do you remember back, past last November? The presidential election came as such a tremendous surprise to so many that it makes last High Holy Days – only a year ago – seem as if that time belongs to another world.
Interestingly enough, if we look farther back, we may be able to discern more clearly. Jewish tradition teaches that the farther back one looks, the clearer our perspective becomes on the way forward.
“You have to understand the ways in which you are an heir before you can become a pioneer,” said the Jewish theologian Dr Byron Sherwin ז״ל. This teaching resonates more deeply than it has for years with for many Jews who, since last fall, find ourselves seeking a rock of certainty on which to depend in this time when American identity – and the Jewish place within it – are under attack. And indeed, the identity of a Jew living in the United States is not more than 150 years for most of the American Jewish community (392 years at most, since that’s when the first documented Jews landed in New Amsterdam from Recife of Brazil).
400 years tops, more likely 200 or less, is only a blip on the radar of Jewish existence. Almost everything we do is older than that. For example, the practice of kabbalat Shabbat, the singing of special songs to welcome Shabbat (such as Lekha Dodi),is older than that (created in Sfat, Israel in 1579).
It is really only in the past century that Jews have developed a sense of being part of the United States, even less than that since we began to feel our American-ness more prominent than our Jewishness. We only have to look around at our communities to see just how American we have become (and so quickly). We’re so comfortable that we laugh at those who warn that this comfort may only be temporary. We’re Americans, after all!
The shock of not being fully accepted is painful, whether it’s because our holy days are ignored (a difficulty which unfortunately many of us have abetted) or because when we seek to practice the values of our Jewish social ethics in support of American social justice, we are not always welcomed – and sometimes are greeted with anti-Semitism.
On the last week of Torah study for 5777 our Torah offers us the chance to seek perspective further away from us – all the way to the mountains of Moab, where Moshe stands and, one more time, invites the people of Israel to understand the Covenant of which they are a part. Moshe attempts to get our ancestors to consider a longer perspective than simply their own lives. What they do will reverberate through time to come.
וְלֹא אִתְּכֶם לְבַדְּכֶם אָנֹכִי, כֹּרֵת אֶת-הַבְּרִית הַזֹּאת וְאֶת-הָאָלָה,הַזֹּאת Not only with you do I make this covenant and this promise today,
כִּי אֶת-אֲשֶׁר יֶשְׁנוֹ פֹּה, עִמָּנוּ עֹמֵד הַיּוֹם לִפְנֵי ה אֱלֹקינוּ וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר אֵינֶנּוּ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ הַיּוֹם with those that stand here with us this day before HaShem our G*d, but also with those who are not here with us today (Deut.29.13-14)
On this Shabbat we are urged to consider the ways in which our actions will reverberate forward and outward, of course – that is a perennial Torah teaching. But on this Shabbat in this year it is also useful to consider the perspective from which we have come. When all about us is chaotic and the American democratic compact is under such stress, there is a far more ancient plumbline which hangs nearby for you to measure your life by, and a far more ancient Covenant to which you belong: the social justice vision of our prophets, the ethical teachings of our Torah, and the living wisdom of our people.
This too is Torah, and we need to learn it.
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Shabbat Shemot 5776: what do you see in that bush?

One of the useful things about Torah is that every word of the sacred document has been pored over for so many generations, by so many devoted readers, that the commentaries are legion, and a well-worn path of interpretation lies before us as we in our own day consider what insights our Torah might divulge. As my teacher Byron Sherwin ז״ל used to say to me, “you don’t have to go outside the sources to be a feminist, you just have to keep digging to find what’s already there.” Replace the word “feminist” with any other sense of identity that you have that you may feel is outside the reach of our ancient wells of wisdom and experience, and, well, Dr Sherwin would suggest that the fault we find is in ourselves, not the Torah (or our stars, for that matter).

Every week we gather to read the Torah and to consider ancient, medieval, and modern commentaries upon it. We sometimes struggle with questions of legitimate boundaries; what is a Jewish interpretation? how is it developed? And we tend to privilege the more ancient as the more authoritative. That’s a natural inclination, and it is true that the ancient interpretations have formed the Judaism that we live in; what is less certain, and much more open, is the question of what interpretations we help to create and carry forward to develop th Judaism of the next generation.

Our parashat hashavua (Torah parashah, “section,” of the week) begins the book of Shemot, also called Exodus. In it we have the famous story of the bush that was burned but was not consumed. The New Yorker magazine recently ran a wonderful cartoon which showed Moshe staring at the bush while G-d, behind a nearby tree, says “that’s just a burning bush; I’m over here.” What a brilliant comment on our tendency to get caught up in the images by which we visualize what truth means to us. Religious imagery is always meant as a pass-through, but we focus on what we can see, and forget about the more complicated, mysterious unseen.

That small bush has led to some wonderful interpretations. I offer you three, and urge you to consider if you can come up with a fourth, and in so doing, join us in the interpretive journey which keeps Torah an endless well of living waters for us all:

1. Why did G-d speak to Moshe out of a bush? To teach us that there is no thing that does not have its place, and no person that does not have her/his moment.  (ben Zoma, Shemot Rabbah)

2. The bush represents the Jewish people, and the fire is our many years of suffering. It cannot destroy us. (13th century French Rabbi Hizkiyanu ben Manoah, known as Hizkuni)

3. How long does it take, when looking at a fire, to notice that the wood is not burning? To see miracles takes focus, and time. (11th century Zaragozan scholar Bahya ibn Pakuda)

There are so many more possible interpretations and insights we might find in that small, ever burning bush. It’s not a trivial thing: gaining facility in finding meaningful insights in a Torah passage transfers directly to the rest of your life. What small thing is right in front of you, full of a meeting with Eternity, and your own place in it, that you need to have?

Moreynu Rabbeynu Byron Sherwin זכרונו לברכה

On Erev Shabbat BaMidbar, my teacher Byron Sherwin became an echo of Eternity.

I first met Byron over the phone in 2000. I had heard about doctoral studies at Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago and hoped that this would be a way into more spiritual growth. At the time, I felt stymied: an associate Rabbi at a large congregation, I was so busy helping others that I could see no way of furthering my own spiritual journey. Doctoral studies seemed a perfect way out, or forward, or …. something.

Dr. Sherwin wasn’t so sure that I was right for the program. I remember our conversation, remember being somewhat surprised; I had been an honor student in college, did just fine in Rabbinical school. What was his question? Was it that I didn’t quite know what I wanted? It frustrated me. It made me think.

Byron, who became my teacher and my mentor, was just that kind of provocative, insightful spirit. There must have been something in my voice of the chip on my shoulder – a half-baked feminist, reactionary reformist, mostly thoughtless sloganeer. What Byron heard in my voice, I now know, was indicative of a very green apprentice. Perhaps just considering what it would take to gentle me out of my ill-considered anger, to help me settle down to listen to the Still Small Voice, was exhausting.

Whatever – he let me into the program. I thanked him with an excoriating evaluation after my first learning seminar in Chicago.

Later, much later, he would explain to me that he had been quite ill at the time, more than he had known. And, in truth, all the later years of my learning at Spertus were better than that first one. And, in truth, the first one wasn’t bad. I have the notes. His reach, and his grasp, of the material was extraordinary.

Thank G-d, and thank Byron, I am no longer half-baked, half-thoughtless, half-reactionary. Here are some of his teachings:

1. Feminists don’t have to go outside of Jewish tradition to make their case. They just have to become learned enough in the tradition to find their ammunition there.

2. Corporations are golems. Just you wait and see.

3. Some day a person will have two, or three, or maybe four parents. Halakhah can make sense of this.

4. Life is lived below as well as above the neck. Try to unify yourself.

Byron Sherwin was a brilliant mind in a quirky psychology in a body that let him down too soon. He took care to supply all of us, his students, with voluminous resources on the topics we studied, “so that for the rest of your career, you’ll have what you need to teach.” He spent careful time reading final exams that numbered in the hundreds of pages, and didn’t grade on a curve. He cared about our personal lives  no less, following the role modeling of his own masters, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and others, Rabbis in the Hasidic tradition:

One day the Rabbi asked the student, how is your study partner?

the student replied, I don’t know.

The Rabbi shouted, what do you mean, you don’t know? you study together, you eat together, you work together – how can you not know if your study partner is happy or sad, content or in need?

Byron cared about our personal lives and took us in as far as we needed. I only wish I did not have the feeling that we were not, really, able to give him what he himself needed from us, his students.

It is said in the Talmud that a faithful student does not speak a word contrary to the master’s teachings in his lifetime. I confess I can’t imagine why I would, now.

ברוך דיין האמת