Shabbat Shoftim: לא אנחנו ולו אנחנו

the Hebrew phrase in the title of this message is a play on words: lo anakhnu with an alef means “not we ourselves” and lo anakhu with a vav means “we are His”. This play on words comes from Psalm 100. In verse 3 it is written: “G-d has made us and not we ourselves”, but in the oral hearing of it, it can also sound as if we are saying “G-d has made us and we are His”. What does lo and lo have to do with the Torah this Shabbat, which, by the way, is the first Shabbat of the month of Elul?

 

Lo and lo, spelled lamed alef and lamed vav, are the four letters which spell Elul in Hebrew. “Not ourselves” and “we are His”. The Torah offers the same insight, as explored and interpreted by Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (the Rabbi of the Sefat Emet, also known as the S’fas Emes in Eastern European Ashkenazi Yiddish inflection). We turn to it now, with one preliminary disclaimer:

 

Sorry about the gendered pronoun for G-d. It’s impossible to get around in this instance – but not impossible to rise above, which I invite you to do with me now.

 

This week’s parashat hashavua is Shoftim, “judges”. The first verse reads “appoint for yourselves judges and officers throughout your land.” The Sefat Emet suggests that we see these two terms as qualitatively different. A judge is one who thinks, considers, applies knowledge, and comes to a careful decision. Nothing is done by rote; each judgement is unique, even though we apply precedent to guide us. An officer is different; officers uphold law by enforcing it, often coercing a person to stand before a judge. Officers create the conditions for judgement, but they do not judge. 

 

This is a wonderful lesson for the beginning of Elul, the month of reflection and of preparation for the Days of Awe which conclude with Yom Kippur, the Day of Judgement. Here we are at the beginning of Elul, and the Torah command to “appoint for yourselves judges and officers throughout your land”, applied to our own efforts at self-improvement (repentance, said in Jewish) means this: appoint, or create, within yourself two types of inner control, throughout your land, that is to say, your life. The two types of inner control are lo anakhnu with an alef, the officer that forces us to turn away from the material distractions of our lives, and lo anakhnu with a vav, which links us to G-d, the Source of all Life.

 

The more a person can negate the self (“not ourselves”) the closer that person can draw to G-d (“we are His”). These are the two parts of the service of G-d. First we have to negate [discipline] the body and the corporeal world. For this, we need officers who can force the body to change its ways, to “turn from evil” (Psalm 34.15). Then one can draw near to the Creator “and do good.” For this we need to be judges, to take hold [of G-d] with our minds…. Sefat Emet 5:72, trans. Rabbi Arthur Green

 

Yes, you can freely choose to eat all the ice cream you want, but that is not really free will. It’s the powerful control over us that the body has. Those who are recovering from abuse must be similarly careful not to give the body undue control over their lives as they recover; from either direction, privileging the body causes us to risk sinking into narcissism. Disciplining the body so that one can learn, consider, and hear the mind’s careful thinking, we reach the lo anakhnu, the true place of service to G-d, where we use our G-d-given brains to their fullest and best extent.

 

The month of Elul comes to remind us every year: not because of ourselves, but because we are G-d’s, we are precious, unique, and irreplaceable: when we set officers and judges over ourselves, we can fulfill our potential of being, truly, G-d’s gift to the world.

parashat Re’eh: See Your Power to Bless

See, I set before you blessing and curse. (Dev. 11.26)

For Maimonides, the opening verse of this week’s parashah means that the choice of blessing and curse are before us. This is the proof of our free will. This question, of the meaning of human existence in a world which is immersed in G-d, has been seen by many as a paradox:

If G-d is all powerful, then we are puppets, without the ability to act unless G-d wills it.

If we have free will, then G-d’s will is not, by definition, all-powerful.

This sort of logical dilemma has driven people crazy for millennia. It may feel distant from you, but if you look at it another way, it’s actually a very familiar problem: are my actions my choice, or am I being influenced by something other than myself? The answer, we know, is yes and yes – both are true.

The implications of free choice challenge the old misunderstanding about the doctrine of reward and punishment by suggesting that sin is punished, and virtue rewarded, in a straightforward way. We are free to choose, and we deserve, therefore, to experience the consequences of our choices.

But we know that suffering in our world is not straightforward, nor easy to understand. And it is nonsense to insist that all those who suffer deserve it.

We also know that human acts do bring about both blessing and curse.

This is not only a modern philosophical problem. Already in the era of the Talmud, the verse was interpreted to mean “See, I set before you the blessing and its transmutation.” (Yonatan ben Uzziel)

The translation understands that human beings not only have the power of action for or against the good of the world, but we have another power: that of taking a blessing and transmuting it into a curse, and therefore, of taking a curse and turning it into a blessing.

The mitzvah of seeing, then, is not only to understand the impact of our power of choice, but also the power we have to destroy a blessing by our freely chosen acts. The only consolation is that we also have the power to destroy a curse, by wrestling a blessing from it.

Thus, the first word of the verse is the most important of all: see!

See your own power to challenge the strength of a curse. See your power to create blessing from despair – even your own. When you are next confronted by something that strikes you as wrong, as unethical, as evil, don’t look away; look more deeply, look for the key that will show you how to transform that curse into a blessing. If you do that, you are adding a tiny bit to the overall blessedness of the world. If you don’t, then you haven’t yet seen how important each of your choices really is.

Only when a curse is seen can it be transmuted into a blessing. See your power to choose; see the blessing your hands can bring into being.