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.
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Shabbat VaYikra/Shabbat HaHodesh: The Small Alef

This Shabbat we begin the book VaYikra, Leviticus. The first word of the narrative is the book’s name, a word which is Hebrew for “[and] he called.” The lack of pronouns indicate that this is a continuation of an earlier story, and indeed the content fits that assumption. We have just ended the detailed description in the book of Exodus of the construction of the Mishkan, the holy place to which Israelites will go when they seek to experience the Presence of G*d. Now we continue with the description of the various kinds of rituals which will take place in that space. And so – who is calling, and who is being called? The simple answer is that G*d is calling to Moshe.
It’s interesting to note in this context that the word is written with a small alef, that is to say that the last letter of the word, the alef, is written smaller than the rest of the word.
Like this:   ויקרא  Our commentators on the Torah find this intriguing; since the Torah is a holy book that speaks to us in a way which is considered to be qualitatively different than usual human speech, this small alef means something. It’s not just a typo. The way in which the Torah is written has been preserved exactly for many years; the Aleppo Codex, the oldest copy of the Tanakh in existence, is one thousand years old, and it also shows this word written in just this way.
Today we on our learning tour of Israel learned from a kibbutznik, a member of one of 284 idealistic socialist communities that helped to build the State of Israel from its earliest beginnings. Yonatan told us that people raised on a kibbutz were raised to know that they were not the center of the universe; that it was not the individual that mattered but the mission, the vision of the community.
It has been taught that the little alef referred to Moshe, and, as such, we can see it as a way of referring to each of us. To think of ourselves in the moment when we are called upon by G*d, so to speak – called out of ourselves and into that which we might be – is to know oneself as very small in just this way – smaller than that which calls upon us, and at the side, not central at all, but yet an integral part of the word. To live for a cause, to feel called upon to participate in something which is greater than oneself, is to give oneself to something which can lift us up if we concentrate on the whole of it, and not upon ourselves.
No system, not the kibbutz movement nor any other, is perfect. We humans will see to that. But on this Shabbat, which is also Shabbat haHodesh, the beginning of the first month of the Jewish year, we are each called upon, vayikra, to see ourselves as a part, as integral, to something so much bigger than us, which can hold us, carry us when we are despairing, and lend us meaning when our own lives challenge that concept. May the new month which is the first month renew for all of us the holiness of each moment of our lives when we see how we are linked to the Life of the World.
To learn more about the kibbutz movement, look here: The Kibbutz.

Shabbat VaYakhel-Pekudey/Shabbat Parah: Holy Tents and Sacred Cows

This week I am privileged to share an erev Shabbat thought with you from Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. Soon a group of Shir Tikvah congregational family and friends will arrive and I look forward to greeting them soon at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. I’ve come a few days early to see family and friends.
Here in Israel, one enters any communal building and sees that one is in the Jewish state. There are Pesakh haggadot for sale in the bookstore at the airport, Pesakh coloring books for children at the grocery store, and my cousins are already planning their family Seder – for 100 participants! There’s nothing quite like being in the midst of a nation of people who are all looking forward to the ancient Festival of Pesakh as one of the most important family – and national – holidays of the year.
One of the most fascinating aspects of visiting Israel today is that, for all the differences caused by two millennia of normal historical developments as well as abnormal events of Exile, to be in Israel now is to be as close as one can come to the feeling of what it is like to feel one’s life to be part and parcel of the mainstream of Jewish life, whether 3000 years ago or now.
This week’s parashah presents us with an opportunity to consider how we might relate to that thought, that each one of us is an integral part of our story. We witness in this double parashah, parashat VaYakhel-Pekudey, the poignant story of our entire people helping each other to pick each other up and go on, together to discover the way to make our way forward once again. What was the direction we were heading before last week’s explosion of frustration, confusion, anger and upheaval?
This week we return to the narrative of two weeks ago, to immerse ourselves in the details of creating the Mishkan, from gold and silver to finely wrought wool and linen to wooden planks and hooks, clasps and sockets. Everyone was involved in some aspect of the work, and it was that immersion in the work itself that healed the rifts. Work that could only be done together – you holding the cloth while I fasten the clasp – reassured us that we could work together. We could, and we can, live together.
It’s true, commentators have pointed it out since there were commentaries on the Torah: where there are Jews, there will be divergent opinions, passionately held. To be immersed in work that one considers holy causes passions to rise, because one cares so much. It has been pointed out that there is only one place in the Torah where the entire Jewish people, gathered together, is referred to using a singular verb, indicating that all the people were of one mind. That moment is no coincidence but full of meaning: vayikhan sham Yisrael neged haHar, “[t]he[y] camped at the foot of the mountain.” (Exodus 19.2) We derive from this verse that we were all one when we knew ourselves to be standing in a holy place, that is, in the place of the mountain where we experienced the Presence of G*d. No matter where we find ourselves within community, the “tent” we raise together is holy when you and I delight in the work we are doing together, as well as the goal, as well as each other.
This happy state, of being of one mind, does not necessarily entail agreeing, or knowing certainty. We are reminded of this by the fact that this Shabbat is also Shabbat Parah, the Shabbat of the Red Heifer. This passage is so inexplicable that even King Shlomo, the wisest of them all, admitted he could not understand it. Committing to the mitzvot does not mean we can understand and explain them all logically, and, similarly, committing to each other need not be understood as some kind of unnatural conformity of heart or mind – or that we understand each other. Only that we understand that we cannot live without each other.
I look forward to bringing you Torah insights related to the learning we will do in the next two weeks here in Eretz haKodesh, the Holy Land – not because of some intrinsic quality, but only when, and because, we are standing here together in the Presence of G*d.

Shabbat Toldot: Trust, Despite Everything

In parashat Toldot we read of the birth of the twins Esau and Jacob, born to Rebekah and Isaac after years of trying to get pregnant, and much frustration and difficulty. The family that is created when the children are safely born seems to thrive: their parents succeed in helping their boys to find for each a distinct identity. A family of four, well-off and living at a peaceful time – they look as if all is well.
It all falls apart so fast, in a morality play that seems to demonstrate the damage a controlling parent can do to a child – or, perhaps, the way that deception and betrayal can tear even close families apart. At least, they seemed close.
Those who study the human condition, from ancient Rabbis to modern psychologists, remind us that there is much to be learned not from what we experience, but from how we react to our experiences. Faced with a crisis, Rebekah turns to deception; Jacob ignores his misgivings to go along; Isaac, it is suggested, knows what is happening but shrinks from confrontation; and angry Esau, at the short end, snarls and stomps out, threatening murder.
What if someone had simply spoken directly to the crisis? Why was there no trust among this family’s members? Why did everyone assume the worst?
Consider Isaac, neither the creator of his world – Abraham did that – nor really able to control it. Isaac, who was not killed in the Akedah, who survived his parenting and now is to carry forward their vision. Israeli sociologists speak of the “Isaac generation,” that person or generation that comes of age in the shadow of larger-than-life parents. In the early years of the State of Israel, after the heroes of old founded the state, their children had difficulty discerning how they might make their own contribution to the world. The same is true of any of us whose parent is of an outsize fame or reputation; that identity shadows our own, and it may prove difficult to find one’s own sense of identity.
There is an unfortunately significant attribute of the Isaac generation: its vulnerability to disappointment and cynicism. The first generation carries a great and visionary hope, but afterward, the deconstructionist histories are published, and we learn that all those to whom we had looked up and followed are only human – and some, a great deal worse. Sometimes we might find ourselves driven to punish those who disappoint us in ways that seem to reduce them to the kind of shadow some of us may feel we ourselves are.
Most of us have either felt or can easily imagine the enervation of having our early faith in god-like heroes destroyed. It has been suggested that we ourselves – the people of the United States of America – are part of a great Isaac-generation despair that began with the Vietnam War and sharpened with Watergate. Of course, it is also possible to go back much further, to the infamous Three-Fifths Compromise in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention, which stained United States society and polity from the beginning.
Jewish tradition offers us a radical teaching in the face of all this demoralization: if you feel betrayed by another person, review your own assumptions. Why is it that you are reacting the way you do? What other choices might you have?
Jewish mysticism teaches that while we may not feel that we can always access a sense of faith – in ourselves, in others, in G*d – we can always act out of trust. Our tradition is full of stories of Jews betrayed by life who, bereft of the feeling of G*d’s presence, insist on it. The Piacezsner Rebbi, who led his people in the dark days of the Warsaw Ghetto, taught that even those who feel no faith can reach up to the ladder between heaven and earth and, by sheer force of will, pull themselves toward G*d, and bring G*d’s presence down to them.
Feeling unhappy, betrayed, misunderstood, disappointed? Reach up and pull heaven down into your heart again. All you need is your yetzer hara’s stubbornness, turned toward the lifeline rather than the pit. Then, judge each other, not from a place of demoralization, but from kindness and empathy, and so fulfill the mitzvah of loving your neighbor as you love yourself.

(next week) Shabbat VaYehi: What’s the Last Word?

Our parashat hashavua this week concludes not only the Book Bereshit but also the saga of Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, and that entire generation. One of the most fascinating passages in the parashah describes Jacob, on his deathbed, and his last words to his sons. Although we refer to the scene as Jacob’s deathbed blessing, the words he offers are surprisingly prosaic and not so much about blessing as a recognition of the character of each son.

What our commentators find most interesting, though, is the unanswered promise implied by the first verse of the story:

 וַיִּקְרָא יַעֲקֹב, אֶל-בָּנָיו; וַיֹּאמֶר, הֵאָסְפוּ וְאַגִּידָה לָכֶם, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-יִקְרָא אֶתְכֶם, בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים.

Jacob called to his sons, and said: ‘Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the end of days. (Gen.49.1)

After this statement, one might expect Jacob to begin to foretell future events, perhaps to speak with his children of the slavery and eventual redemption of their descendants, or of future glories and struggles even further down the path.

But he doesn’t. A midrash explains that he was about to, and the Shekhinah appeared at the foot of his bed, rendering him speechless – and when he recovered, he had forgotten what he was about to tell. Telling the future, even if you can see it, is, we see, not part of Jewish tradition, but leads to a sort of unfair “gaming of the system.” Life is meant to be lived by devotion to down-to-earth, every day Jewish ethical behavior. One need not worry about tomorrow’s events if one is living a life of thoughtful mitzvot and compassionate acts as much as one can, day by day.

There is another way to understand the story: there need not be a gap between verse one and the continuation of the parashah at all. In a very real way, Jacob was telling his children what would befall them, not by telling them which horse might win at the races next Tuesday, but by describing to each one of them the character s/he had developed. In other words, the future is not something that happens to you while you wait passively for it to occur; the future is that which we experience as a result of our choices, and the impact they exert on the complex web of phenomena happening all around us, at all times.

Reuven broke basic rules of the home early; Simon and Levi were the type who maim animals for fun. The future which each one of them could expect would be indelibly marked by the acts of their past. Judah struggled and grew morally: as he himself awakened to a higher self, even learning to say “I was wrong, she was right” we might hope for leadership from him marked by the ability to respect others equally to the respect he expected for himself.

What will your last words be? It’s not such a strange thing to consider, since we are creating the self who will speak them every day of our lives, with each act and word. Everyone has a last day marked by the choices we’ve made – both as individuals and as communities, even as nations. No one, and nothing, lasts forever, and there is a greater ethical good in focusing on living each day with integrity, rather than letting ourselves sink to venal levels in fear that our days will not be long enough.

Fear is not a guiding light. It summons none of us to our best selves. Fear of the other is not a foreign or a domestic policy; whether the fear-mongering be from the U.S. president-elect or the Israeli prime minister, we as American Jews know this: either Jewish ethics are applicable in all circumstances, or they aren’t really ethics. The things we believe in will either strengthen us through this darkness, or they aren’t really beliefs. 

May our last words reflect a life of principle and of integrity. May we live our days, as best we can, as we want to be remembered – each and every one of them. And may we live them in a supportive community that allows us to deepen those beliefs until they will hold us through the worst of times.

hazak, hazak v’nithazek, let us be strong, be strong and strengthen each other

 

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?”