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 Nitzavim: What We Owe

Our parashat hashavua (Torah reading of the week) begins with quite a compelling scene: the entire Israelite community, gathered together on just the other side of the Jordan River from the Land of forty years’ struggle and search. The parashah begins with “you are standing this day, all of you, before G*d….to enter into the Covenant which G*d is making with you this day” (Devarim 29.9-11, excerpted).

This is already a curiosity; after all, didn’t we do this, back at Sinai, forty years ago? What does it mean to enter into the Covenant now, on the plains of Moab, on the cusp of the Land?

Our parashah goes on to specify that “not with you alone is this Covenant made, but also with those who are not (yet) here.” (Devarim 29.13-14, excerpted) This detail led our ancestors to question: how can the generation of the wilderness make a Covenant with G*d that implicates us as well? How can that be valid? 

In his Torah commentary, the medieval Sage Abravanel of Aragon explains that “there is no doubt that if a person receives a loan from another, that the duty of repayment falls upon that person, and on that person’s descendants. Just as children inherit property, so they inherit debts, even if they were not alive when the debt was incurred.” (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim p. 299)

The Jewish Covenant with G*d is not a gift, he said; neither is the Land associated with it. The Jewish people inherits our position in trust. Something of our ancestors’ commitment falls upon us, and something of that wilderness wandering is our inheritance as well. We owe G*d a debt of gratitude, argued Abravanel.

What do we owe, and to whom? At this time of greeting a New Year, we feel the absence of those who are not here to share it with us. Recollect more deeply and you may feel the echo of many past generations, all of whom upheld some responsibility and knew some sense of indebtedness for that which they had. We are born into a world we did not make, and would too easily accept it as a gift. But it is not a gift. We are born into a Covenant reality and in each generation it falls to new hands to pass it on, to pay it forward.

The generation that stood at the Jordan learned this on the plains of Moab: their parents and grandparents stood at Sinai, and they themselves also stood before G*d, though they were not at Sinai. Or perhaps because they understood in that moment that when they stood together in Covenant, that place – wherever they were – was Sinai. The same message is offered to us every year during the holy day of Shavuot, when we stand, again, at Sinai, wherever we are, and hear, once again, the words of Covenant, and of our eternal indebtedness.

This week we marked the death of Shimon Peres, the last of the founding generation of the State of Israel. One more generation passes, and as Amos Oz asked at his funeral, who will now take up his cause of peace? Who will count themselves indebted to the Covenant he tried to uphold?

To those who planted trees, the fruit of which we eat, we owe our sustenance; to those who built roads, we owe our ability to go where we will. And to those who created the conditions within which we were born, and raised, and learned, and grew – to that village, of whatever size, in which we lived in a Covenant relationship that allowed us to thrive or at least to survive, we are indebted.

On the Sunday between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur there is a tradition to visit a cemetery, to reflect upon those who came before us, and faithfully discharged their part of the debt we all owe. It cannot be paid back, but only forward – by tzedakah, by gemilut hasadim, and by asking not “what is owed to me?” but rather, “what can I do to give back in gratitude for the gift of my life?”

Shabbat Mishpatim: Equality Before the Law – For All of Us

Last week in parashat Yitro we stood together at Sinai, and entered into the covenant with our G-d as a community, all equally necessary, equally precious. The text itself expresses this in unspecific language:

And Moses brought forth the people [et ha’am] out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount. (Ex.19.17)

Et ha’am, “the people”, can as easily refer to the men, representing each household, as to all the adults, or even all the Israelites, of all ages and genders. It may also be fair to simply note that the Sinai experience was so overwhelming that it could not be communicated in detail. This is hinted at by the text itself, since we are only told of nine (or ten, depending upon your interpretation) laws incumbent upon Israelites through the Covenant relationship

The details of the laws are the subject of our parashah this week – the “fine print”, if you will, of the Covenant relationship. While you will not find in this parashah all 613 of the mitzvot as they are traditionally counted, there are fifty three, covering both moral and ritual obligations. The question we are left with from the Sinai account of the Covenant moment is this: if only the men stood at Sinai, then, as Judith Plaskow once famously observed, are only men Jews?

Not only is G-d in the details, as it has been said, but so, apparently, is our own identity. To whom do the laws apply? How? When?

When we compare what scholars call “a second Covenant ceremony” on the steppes of Moab in parashat Nitzavim, we find more explicit language to help us answer the question of who stands before G-d in Covenant relationship:

You are standing this day, all of you, before YHVH your G-d: your heads, your tribes, your elders and your officers – all the men of Israel; the little ones, women, strangers that are among you, even the wood choppers and the water drawers, to enter into the Covenant of YHVH your G-d, and into G-d’s oath, which YHVH your G-d makes with you today. (Deuteronomy 29.9)

Here, it is explicitly stated that all of us are counted; all of us count. Social class? an aside, gender and age? unimportant, elites and masses? all alike. This Covenant moment takes place, by the way, forty years after the Sinai moment.

It’s a growing, developing revelation. So is our own modern sense of community. It takes a while to realize that all social classes and all forms of humanity are equally created in G-d’s image. It takes a while, perhaps, for the men to realize that they can’t do it alone; it takes forty years of wandering to come to understand that we are all more alike than different, no matter what seems to separate us.

It is appropriate that we celebrate Equality Shabbat this week, along with all the Community of Welcoming Congregations in Oregon, because this week is all about the details of our Covenant with G-d and each other, details of mitzvot that demand the best we have from all of us, not just some of us acting on behalf of others of us.

We are neither at Sinai, in the first shock of the moment, nor at Nitzavim toward the end of the Torah’s narrative; we are in the middle, in the fine print, in the ongoing, confusing, foggy midst of a revelation that has not entirely unfolded. We are still learning what is true and right and righteous, from learning and from experience. From knowledge to understanding, and then, perhaps, to wisdom, as the mystical sefirot show us, is a long and uncertain road.

Equality Shabbat is our moment to recognize that, no matter what our tradition believed about women in the past, they do stand equally with men before G-d; no matter what we thought we knew, when we look at the Torah it does not say “all of you who are straight men” stand before G-d, nor even “all of you who are Israelites”, but all Jews, no matter gender, sexual orientation, age, or origin, stand together, nitzavim, as the text says, “firmly rooted” in our standing. It does not say that at the Sinai moment; there, we trembled and fell down. Only when we stand respectful of the image of G-d in each and all of us equally can we stand firmly.

For more of Rabbi Ariel’s teachings on the relevance of ancient sacred text to your life, get her book – available in paperback and on Kindle: Because All Is One

Parashat Ekev: showing up is safer than hiding

A minyan is traditionally defined as ten Jewish men but by Progressive Jews as ten self-identified and committed Jews of any gender; any way you define it, what it means is that we need critical mass. 

What is critical mass? it’s the number you need to get the job done. In order to evoke holiness in Jewish prayer, you need a minyan. In order to study Torah, our tradition teaches, you need at least two students.  Social justice is more tricky: in order to get a possible new law on the Oregon ballot, you need 116,284 names on a petition. I know; I’ve just trained to become a signature collector for a measure on the 2014 ballot to enact marriage equality in the state of Oregon.

This week’s parashah underscores the Jewish emphasis on individual responsibility for the group’s well-being in the very first verse: If you all obey these laws and guard them carefully, God will guard the Covenant established with each of you. (Devarim 7.12) The laws must be obeyed and guarded by all of us, and then God will guard the Covenant made us as it affects us personally, one by one.

The word if in this parasha gives it its name: ekev “on the heels of” in Hebrew. That is how closely act is followed by reaction in Jewish religious belief. Or, as we might say, “what goes around comes around”. It may take a while, but it’s always recognizable when it comes around again, whatever “it” is for you or me. Consider: we see larger social trends, and we can feel, if not always articulate, how we know our acts have been a small part of what has added up to that trend. 

Do you see less litter on the streets? you, because you do not ignore the presence of garbage but take care of it, are a small part of that trend. Do you see more justice in the world? you will if you do not ignore the presence of injustice, and take care of it, in whatever ways you may find to do so. And not only where you happen to notice it –  as the haftarah for this week reminds us, we are called upon to be rodfey tzedek, “pursuers of justice”:

Listen to Me, all who pursue justice, all who seek the Eternal!

Look to the rock from which you were hewn, the quarry from which you were cut.

Look back to Avraham your father, and to Sarah who bore you.

(Isaiah 50.51.1-2)

It is not enough to quietly be in favor of change, to quietly approve of movements which seek greater justice. We have to show up. Our tradition urges us to show up and to act to guard others if we ourselves would seek to be safe. If we look to the rock of our tradition, let it remind us “to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with G-d” (Micah), and show up in the pursuit of justice, we may suffer and we may not always succeed, but we will know that we are keeping the Covenant, and that it will keep us.

As we come out of hiding, we the quiet ones in support of equality, and act for justice together, may we know justice in our individual lives – and peace in our hearts.