Shabbat Ekev: Listen With Care

Which of us is not angry, disappointed, even resentful, of the way our lives have changed in the past few years? Aren’t we all getting very tired of the stress served up daily by the media, infusing our every interaction with each other?
Of course, there is more than one response to this situation. In Jewish tradition there is always more than one answer, even as the old joke goes: “on the one hand…and on the other hand.” The story goes that a Rabbi once listened carefully to two litigants, and after each finished her complaint, said, “you’re right.” A witness to the proceedings objected, “Rabbi, they can’t both be right.” The Rabbi turned to that witness and responded, “you’re right.”
The more carefully one listens to each person, the more we can hear some whisper of truth in that person – and then of course this leads to the realization that truth itself is complicated and difficult and always partial in our lives.
In mindfulness practice, we are taught to slow down, to take a breath, and to seek to balance the stress we feel with a spiritual teaching: 1. each human being is created in the Image of G*d, 2. you are not required to do all the work, just your part, or 3. all Israel are responsible, each for each other. In such a way, we can be reminded to take care to listen to each other with the respect we wish to receive ourselves – slowly, with kindness and mercy.
This week’s Torah text seems to urge us to take care, and listen carefully, as a mitzvah in itself. The parashah is called Ekev, which means “as a result of” or “therefore.” Specifically:
  וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם–וְשָׁמַר ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ, אֶת-הַבְּרִית וְאֶת-הַחֶסֶד, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע, לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ. If you will take care to listen well and do the mitzvot commanded to you, then HaShem your G*d will take care with you and the covenant and the mercy promised for all generations (Devarim 7.12)
The word ekev literally means “heel.” This led ancient scholars to comment that we are being warned specifically about the mitzvot that we generally “trample with our heels” (Rashi), i.e. those that we dismiss as not being important. Maimonides suggests that the mitzvot in question are those for which the reward will come only at the end, i.e. the obligation will seem thankless. An early modern Eastern European Rabbi suggested that the reference is to the generation which belongs to the “heels of the Messiah,” meaning a generation suffering the “labor pains” associated with the End of Days. That generation is considered to be the spiritually lowest of all those living in Exile.
On this Shabbat, consider:
what mitzvah do you trample by letting the stress get the better of you, turning you toward anger and away from mercy?
What mitzvah do you need to recommit to doing even though you don’t feel thanked for it?
To what voice do you need to listen more carefully?
We so much need to take care of each other and feel cared for ourselves. May it be that on this Shabbat we take another step toward finding consolation for ourselves, through offering it, in small and caring ways, toward each other.
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Shabbat Re’eh: Blessing, and Curse, and Charlottesville

This Shabbat our parashah begins with words that are both simple and profound:
רְאֵה, אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם–הַיּוֹם:  בְּרָכָה, וּקְלָלָה. Look, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse:
אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה–אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מִצְו‍ֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתכֶם, הַיּוֹם. blessing, if you hold to the mitzvot of HaShem your God, which you are given this day;
וְהַקְּלָלָה, אִם-לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּ אֶל-מִצְו‍ֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, וְסַרְתֶּם מִן-הַדֶּרֶךְ, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם:  לָלֶכֶת, אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים–אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יְדַעְתֶּם. and curse, if you do not hold to the mitzvot of HaShem your God, but instead turn aside from the way which I show you this day, and go after other gods, which you don’t even know. (Deut.11.26-28)
Simple, because most of us can tell the difference between a blessing and a curse pretty quickly. Yet how difficult it is to understand why some see blessing in what others know to be a curse. Just looking is apparently not going to be enough, and so Moshe goes on to refer to a most interesting pedagogical ritual:
וְהָיָה, כִּי יְבִיאֲךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-אַתָּה בָא-שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ–וְנָתַתָּה אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה עַל-הַר גְּרִזִים, וְאֶת-הַקְּלָלָה עַל-הַר עֵיבָל. When HaShem your God brings you into the land you are about to enter, you shall set the blessing upon mount Gerizim, and the curse upon mount Ebal.  (Deut. 11.29)
The way that this works is an unforgettable visual and physical lesson. When the Israelites arrive in the Land of Israel, they are to travel to the area of the city of Shekhem, in central Israel. Nearby they will find two mountains, one called Gerizim and one Ebal. Half of the Israelites are to stand upon each mountain, with the Levites standing in between. The Levites recite the curses that will fall upon those who are not faithful to our people’s Covenant with G*d, and the people say amen, and then the Levites recite the blessings of holding fast to that Covenant, and once again the people respond amen.
 
What do these two mountains have to do with it? They are chosen because they are indelible visual images of blessing and curse: Mt Gerizim still today is lush and fertile, green and lovely, which Mt Ebal is barren, dry and rocky. And yet they are two mountains that are located right next to each other!
A student of the Rambam – Maimonides – traveled in the Land of Israel in the 14th century and reported that while Ebal was dry, “seventy springs of water flow from Gerizim.” The Hebrew word for a pool of water such as that formed by a spring is bereykhah. The word for “blessing” is berakhah. Gerizim was overflowing with the blessing of life-giving water.
That which overflows with life and sustenance, that which supports growth and beauty, is a blessing. Whatever is coming out of Ebal, big strong mountain that it is, does not support life, and sustenance and beauty do not grow from it. You can’t grow a blessing from a curse.
It is not clear how some of our fellow citizens assert that there is blessing where we most assuredly see a curse, how some can find sustenance in terror and murder, and somehow feel justified. But it is very clear that some of the elected leaders of our United States are causing curses to take root and spread where blessing would have been as easy to nurture – and insisting that they see nothing wrong.
Let’s be clear: what happened in Charlottesville was white supremacist terror inflicted on innocent people; it was a living, ugly curse. Those who opposed it asserted with beautiful courage the reality of blessing in our lives. They were a blessing.
Those who spread hate will in the end be as barren as Mt Ebal, and their names and acts will be as curses. Those who oppose hate will be remembered for blessing, as our tradition says: zikhronam l’vrakha, their memory is a blessing.
Charlottesville is not and will not be unique; but as many times as hatred shows itself, encouraged by irresponsible, cynical, evil people, just as many times you and I will rally against it. All of us, each in our own way, can and must hold fast to the mitzvot that keep us tethered to blessing.
The mitzvah of gathering as we did at City Hall last Sunday to remember and to rededicate ourselves to resistance;
the mitzvah of writing letters to Federal and State officials insisting on human and civil rights;
the mitzvah of looking out for each other, forgiving each other just because we need to magnify love, not anger, right now.

 

Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other

Shabbat Ekev: Can You Hear the Footsteps?

Our parashat hashavua, the part of the Torah we study this week, is called Ekev. The word refers to a certain sense of causality: “it will happen that all will be well with you because you follow the divine law” says Moshe to the Israelites: as a result of your devotion to this path, you can expect G*d to be devoted to you, as well, in the Covenant relationship you as a people have sworn to uphold.
The word עקב – ekev – infers the sense of something that follows on the heels of something else. The word ekev also means “heel.” Jacob was named Ya’akov because he was born holding on to the heel (ekev, ya’AKOV) of his twin brother Esav. This is not about coincidence but one thing happening because of another.
The Book Devarim, Deuteronomy, is full of a growing sense of urgency, as the people Israel stand on the edge of the river and wonder what the next steps might bring for their lives, veiled by water and roiled by the uncertainty of the future as they are. Our ancestors have responded to this sense of suspension – between the known “here” and the unknown of the מעבר – ma’avar, the transition they face. As they dive down below the level of פשט pshat, the “surface” level of understanding, their מדרש midrash digging down to deeper levels of seeing derive different insights at different times through different contexts.
Some interpretations are for our personal consideration:
Rashi interprets the use of this word ekev as an allusion to those mitzvot which a person tramples with her heels—the Torah is telling us to respect all the mitvot equally, even those that seem less significant to our finite minds.
Ibn Ezra interprets it in the sense of “in the end” (i.e., “in the heels of,” or in the sense that the heel is at the extremity of the body)—the reward of a mitzvah following on the heels of the mitzvah.
Some interpretations are philosophical, or mystical:
Rabbeinu Bakhyah sees suggestion that we understand and experience only the “heel” of a mitzvah, and cannot appreciate its full measure and worth.
The Baal HaTurim gives a gematriatic explanation: the word ekev is used because it has a numerical value of 172—the number of words in the Aseret haDibrot, the Ten Utterances we heard at Sinai.
Some interpretations are national:
 the Tzemach Tzedek sees the use of the word ekev as a reference to ikveta d’meshicha, the generation of “the heels of the Mashiakh.” It is taught that the last generation of the Exile is called “the heels of the Mashiakh” by our tradition for two reasons. First, because human beings will reach their lowest spiritual level before the End of Days comes, and second, paradoxically, it is also the generation in which the approaching presence of the End of Days will be most felt – the footsteps of the Mashiakh will be heard.
 
There is much in Jewish tradition that speaks of the End of Days with apprehension. “Let the End of Days come, but I do not wish to witness it,” said one Talmudic Rabbi. It will be a time when the center will not hold, when chaos will not seem like an enjoyable variation on a boring life but a maelstrom in which nothing is reliable, and no one is dependable.
 
“Repent one day before your death,” our tradition urges. Of course, we cannot know that day; but perhaps under the teaching is a sense that when you are afraid of your death, aware of your mortality and its limits, feeling not at all empowered or able to meet the chaos of a day, one remedy may be to do a mitzvah. Every mitzvah brings with it, after all, some small sense that one is still capable of acting meaningfully in the world – the reward, however small it may seem, that follows upon its heels.
 
And then, even in the face of chaos, of fear, and of meaninglessness – all of which carry death in their wings – in the aftermath of any small mitzvah, any little candle in the wind, we will still be able listen for the steps of hope.

Shabbat Akharei Mot-Kedoshim: Choices Don’t Free You, They Distract You

On any given day, we are confronted with choices, and have to make a decision regarding how best to choose; that is, how best to live. In some ways we imagine that our lives are so much better than our ancestors, who, we presume, made their choices from a much narrower range of options, and therefore must not have been as happy as we are. More choices must mean more freedom, and that must mean more happiness – or so we might think.
What a contrast the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel offer us:
… who, then, is the free person?  The creative person who is not carried away by the flow of necessity, not bound by the chains of process and not enslaved by circumstance. We are free in precious moments … liberty is not the constant state of human beings. We all have the potential for freedom but in fact we act freely only in rare moments of creativity.
Jewish tradition offers a framework of meaning for one’s everyday acts that one might argue “free us up” for the moments of creative freedom to which we might find ourselves called. Some days, it simply pares down to manageable size the collection of decisions one needs to make. The obligations that replace some of those choices are called mitzvot. You might say that the mitzvot take care of the daily choices that otherwise distract us from what’s truly meaningful and needs our careful attention. Take kashrut for one: what you are having for lunch, for example, is so much less important than choosing what social justice organization to support.
On this Shabbat the parashat hashavua records what scholars call the “Holiness Code,” a list of specific acts to which we are obligated by our belonging to the Covenant of the Jewish people with G*d. We might consider them the grounding in the quotidian which enables us to save our energy for the surprising and the unusual.
Consider these, taken from this Shabbat’s text:
ט  וּבְקֻצְרְכֶם אֶת-קְצִיר אַרְצְכֶם,
לֹא תְכַלֶּה פְּאַת שָׂדְךָ לִקְצֹר; וְלֶקֶט קְצִירְךָ, לֹא תְלַקֵּט.
When you reap the harvest of your land, do not wholly reap the corner of your field, nor gather the gleanings of your harvest.

when you gather in that which is yours, leave some, and give up your belief in ownership of it.

י  וְכַרְמְךָ לֹא תְעוֹלֵל, וּפֶרֶט כַּרְמְךָ לֹא תְלַקֵּט:
לֶעָנִי וְלַגֵּר תַּעֲזֹב אֹתָם, אֲנִי יְ-ה אֱלֹ-כֶם.
10 Do not glean your vineyard, nor gather the fallen fruit of the vineyard;
leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am HaShem your G*d.

don’t spend everything you have on yourself; put some of what you’ve gained into a tzedakah fund that cares for the poor.

יא  לֹא, תִּגְנֹבוּ; וְלֹא-תְכַחֲשׁוּ וְלֹא-תְשַׁקְּרוּ, אִישׁ בַּעֲמִיתוֹ. 11 Do not steal; do not deal falsely nor lie one to another.

don’t pretend the facts are otherwise in order to suit your desires or goals.

יב  וְלֹא-תִשָּׁבְעוּ בִשְׁמִי, לַשָּׁקֶר:  וְחִלַּלְתָּ אֶת-שֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲנִי יְ-ה.

………….

12 Do not swear by G*d’s name falsely and make it contemptible: I am HaShem.

Don’t swear “by all that is holy” and lie, because when it is found out,
no one will respect anything that you hold holy.

…….

יז  לֹא-תִשְׂנָא אֶת-אָחִיךָ, בִּלְבָבֶךָ; הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ אֶת-עֲמִיתֶךָ,
וְלֹא-תִשָּׂא עָלָיו חֵטְא.
17 Do not hate another in your heart; rebuke your neighbour,
do not bear sin because of your neighbor.

Expressing anger without acting against someone who does wrong is itself wrong; speak out and seek to confront that person, lest you be part of the problem.

יח  לֹא-תִקֹּם וְלֹא-תִטֹּר אֶת-בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ,
וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ:  אֲנִי, יְ-ה.
18 Do not take vengeance, nor hold any grudge against your people.
Love your neighbour as yourself: I am HaShem.

And yet, do not write off that person who does wrong, and remember
forever that wrong, and hold it against that person – treat everyone else
as you would wish to be treated, if you truly believe that there’s a G*d you follow (however you might define the Source of your certainties and your life), and a people to which you belong.

Some things are already set down for you as a Jew (or someone who loves and travels with one). Let them hold you up in moments of crisis. These are part of your bedrock, allowing us to stand firm upon it. Thus we have the strength to create that which needs our careful, conscious, ethical choices.
Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other

Shabbat Ekev: What Happens When You Listen

This week our parashat hashavua (parsha, “section”, of the week) is named Ekev. The word literally means “heel”, as in Jacob/Yaakov’s name, given to him because he emerged from the womb holding on to his brother Esav’s heel. This same word ekev paired with another conjugation of shema leads the Jewishly attuned ear to an entirely different place, that of the Akedah – possibly the most troubling Torah text of all, with which we struggle on Rosh HaShanah. Ekev, ekev, because of, due to, on account of…..

Parashat Ekev begins with this verse (Deut. 7.12):

יב  וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם–וְשָׁמַר י-ה אֱלֹקיךָ לְךָ, אֶת-הַבְּרִית וְאֶת-הַחֶסֶד, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע, לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ.

It shall be that because you listen to these just teachings, and guard and do them, that the HaShem your G*d will guard for you the Covenant and the Covenant-loyalty sworn to your ancestors

V’hayah ekev tish’meh’un, “it will be on the heels of your listening”. The expectation here is that listening leads to a real result. One might see it as “hear and obey” but the great teachers of our tradition offer us much more to consider.

One insight is based upon a very close look at the first few words: “According to the joy and a person’s desire to fulfill the mitzvot, so one merits to hear, to attain, and to fulfill them….If you take the responsibility for the mitzvah upon yourself in joy, by means of this you will be able to listen.” 

This teaching from the Sefat Emet takes an ancient Talmudic comment connecting the word V’hayah with joy, and invites us to consider that v’hayah is for each of us a relative concept, linked to the satisfaction we take in the mitzvah.  מצוה גוררת מצוה – “The reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah.” In the moment when we are to recite the blessing before doing the mitzvah, we have the opportunity to become mindful of this amazing idea: that every moment is pregnant with meaning, if we are able to listen.

This is the ultimate salve for the burnout some of us begin to feel in our weaker moments. Not thanked enough? not having the work noticed enough? We all have that kind of childish moment when we want to be noticed doing a good thing. At that moment it is up to our more grown-up self to reassure the child within: stay in touch with the joy of the mitzvah, have fun with it because it is a mitzvah, and, as the Sefat Emet teaches, we will finally understand the meaning of the Shema, “to love G*d with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your resources.”

This ancient Jewish teaching is the source of the Western ethical idea that whatever we do, we should do our best to do it well. Whatever we are doing is not only about our small self, but has an effect, as we know, on the larger shared Self of the World within which we live our lives.

First, one must learn to listen carefully. Not simply waiting until another has finished speaking so that we can say our truth, but listening in such a way that it has a real effect. Maybe it allows you to be a better listener, not defensive or dismissive; maybe it allows you to begin to consider trading in your truth for a better one. A possibly apocryphal but still great quote attributed to the economist John Maynard Keynes can lead our way: when accused of changing his position on some important issue of economics, he is said to have replied, “When the facts change, sir, I change my mind. What do you do?”

If we listen, only if, says the Torah, then something good will happen. It is an interesting test. How do you change when you really, really listen? It’s something we can practice at any moment. Sometimes we need to listen to ourselves, sometimes to something outside.

We are promised that alert, respectful, careful listening will lead to something – to change, and, finally, to growth of the spirit – when, finally, one comes to a place where one truly feels that the reward of the mitzvah is the mitzvah, and the sense that one is closer to the Source of the mitzvot. And you will know when you are there, because you will feel the joy.

Shabbat Mishpatim: Kavanah is in the Details

In contrast to other religious paths, Judaism offers spiritual growth within a clear and coherent framework. The word halakhah – our “path” – is understood more commonly as our “law” because of the many mitzvot (“obligations”) which serve us as signposts along the way. Our parashat hashavua for this week contains fifty-three such mitzvot, and each mitzvah commands us equally, according to Jewish tradition – civil, moral, and commercial law all come together here in a way that isn’t easy for our category-driven minds. Yet our tradition is to regard each mitzvah, each detail of our path, with the same kavanah, the same intentionality and mindfulness. We are to bring our kavanah to care we bring to settling a fight, restoring lost items, and respecting society’s vulnerable.

It’s a journey. And it is useful to think of halakhah as road law, actually – because of the myriad of laws governing our use of back roads, main street and highways, you and I can go forth on our daily journeys expecting, under normal circumstances, to stay safe as we go about answering our desires and needs for the day. The mitzvot you practice are meant to lead you somewhere. Shabbat is the epitome of that “somewhere” – it is meant to be the high point of our week, the day on which we know that we have, spiritually, arrived, even if the arrival is only partial. Summoning the kavanah for this is not always easy.

And just like a road journey, there are days when, spiritually, we can barely see for the storms. In the darkness, we anxiously look for the next road sign, struggling to to lose our way, and to bring any passengers we have with us – loved ones, children – home safely. These are the days when we most need the little details of all those mitzvot. They give us something small and regular and dependable to focus our souls, as we try not to get lost.

All those mitzvot are there to help lead you toward your kavanah, your intentionality, for Shabbat, so that it can become a shavat, “resting” of the soul. Lighting candles at sunset sparks a mood shift; singing L’kha Dodi as we bring in Shabbat at the shul triggers relaxation; having the family and friends gather for an unrushed dinner can redeem the whole week. We all have a different way into kavanah.

May your Shabbat be for you each week a chance to delight in all that is offered you, every little detail that reminds you to take care with each moment of our short, precious lives, and to come to know yourself in a whole new way which was, nevertheless, always there. 

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time

(T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”, Four Quartets)