Shabbat Shuvah: Remember Who You Are

Every year we observe Shabbat Shuvah between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. It is not the same parashah every year, though; this year, our Torah text is parashat VaYelekh, “he went.” It refers to Moshe, called in our tradition Moshe Rabbenu, “our Rabbi” – our teacher, our guide, our spiritual support.
וַיֵּלֶךְ, מֹשֶׁה; וַיְדַבֵּר אֶת-הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, אֶל-כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל.

Moses went and spoke these words to all Israel;

וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, בֶּן-מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה אָנֹכִי הַיּוֹם–לֹא-אוּכַל עוֹד, לָצֵאת וְלָבוֹא; ה’ אָמַר אֵלַי, לֹא תַעֲבֹר אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּה.

he said unto them: ‘I am a hundred and twenty years old today; I no longer can go out and come in; and HaShem has told me that I am not going with you across the Jordan river.

ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ.

HaShem your G*d will go with you (Deuteronomy 31.1-2)

Moshe, our leader, spends most of the Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) speaking final words to us. Our commentaries, ancient and modern, see something implied by the double verb: went and spoke. While in the southern dialect of American English in which I was raised this is merely a helper verb, our ancestors were looking at the Hebrew text. Reading carefully, they asked: what might vayelekh, “he went” mean?
After Moshe finished establishing the covenant with the Israelites [who were about to cross the Jordan] everyone went home. After that, Moshe wanted to take his leave of them for he knew he was to die. In his great love for them, in order to do them honor, he went from tent to tent, from tribe to tribe of the people of Israel, to let them know that he was to die, and to part from them.  This is why it is written “he went and spoke these things to all Israel.”
                                         – Isaac Abarbanel, Torah Commentary, Deuteronomy 31.1
One commentator asked, why didn’t he just call an assembly? Because as old and as honored as he was, Moshe was still humble, and instead of calling the Israelites to attend to him, he went to each of their homes to say a personal goodbye. This great leader didn’t forget his human needs, nor anyone else’s.
Shabbat Shuvah invites us to remember who we are, and what we need – and that everyone else is only human, and has needs too. The Days of Awe encourage us to get lost in ourselves as we try to see who we have become and consider whether that’s who we want to be, and we can forget that none of us exists separate from others. We are all connected with so many invisible lines – of love, of expectation, of anger, of dependence, of all the other ways we influence each other in a community. What may be obvious to you may not be to me, and of course, then there’s assumptions, grudges, and all the other baggage we carry, most of it unnecessary, all of it awkward and difficult.
Learning from Moshe Rabbenu, may we never be too proud or too awkward to seek each other out, rather than getting wrapped up in ourselves and our own worries, watching them grow all out of proportion while we wait for others to come to us. How will I know that you need me to come to you, how will you know when to come to me? and yet my well being depends upon yours, and yours upon mine.
גמר חתימה טובה
May you be sealed for a good year
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Shabbat VaEra: Revelation Hurts

The name of this week’s parashat hashavua is VaEra, “I appeared.” This, simply put and so very understated, is the epic moment in which Moshe experiences Divine Revelation. G*d becomes unmistakably, believably, manifest. All subsequent experiences of revelation in Jewish history fall short of it; as the last words of the Torah will put it many weeks from now,
 וְלֹא-קָם נָבִיא עוֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, כְּמֹשֶׁה, אֲשֶׁר יְדָעוֹ יְהוָה, פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים. Never again has there appeared a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom HaShem knew face to face (Ex.34.10)
Interestingly, this is not the first meeting of Moshe and G*d – that happened last week, in parashat Shemot. This is different: Moshe has gone to meet with Pharaoh, and been rebuffed; his first foray into politics and social justice actually met with the opposite result. Pharaoh vindictively increases the Israelites’ misery by upping production quotas and withholding the necessary material. The Israelites turn on Moshe, blaming him for just making everything worse.
The Torah indicates, therefore, that it is only then, after failure, recrimination and demoralization, that Moshe experiences something deeper, and more revealing, about the holy touch he senses. What happened to cause this opportunity for deeper connection, greater revelation?
Jewish commentaries from Rashi to the Lubavitcher Rebbe are intrigued by the comparison G*d makes, as the Torah depicts G*d saying to Moshe
וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב–בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי; וּשְׁמִי יְהוָה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but by My name יה-ה I did not appear to them (Ex.6.3)
Our teachers note that El Shaddai can be translated as El “G*d” sheh “that is” Dai “enough,” in other words, they experienced as much as was enough for them. They did not question, they accepted the touch of G*d and did not ask for more. Moshe’s experience is different. To the Patriarchs G*d was revealed only as El Sha-dai, relating to them via their constraints and limitations within the created reality. But to Moshe and that generation, enslaved, suffering and miserable, G*d was revealed, for the very first time, in essential truth.
Revelation, in other words, hurts. When one is rocked back on one’s heels and feels that one’s efforts are for nothing, when one feels rejected and misunderstood, this is the moment  when one may actually be on the cusp of a deeper, more authentic opportunity. The moment of feeling hurt requires us to look within ourselves to see where our true strength lies – and only when the ego is diminished are we able to sense the real quality of our own connection to the rest of the world, and to the wholeness of the universe which we call G*d for lack of a better term.
As Rabbi Akiba once put it, why does the Shema command us to “place these words upon the heart.” Why not in the heart? Because the heart is usually so confident, so distracted, so unaware of its own need. On all those normal days, place the words upon your heart. Then, on the day when the heart breaks, they will be able to get in.
Moshe initially wanted nothing to do with the full depth of awareness of G*d which was offered him; it is not easy nor pleasant to have our minds and hearts stretched in such a challenging way. But our entire history hung upon his ability to step up. What history hangs upon ours?
Here is history offering itself to us: this coming Monday we celebrate the memory of Martin Luther King Jr on the Federally recognized day devoted to him. This year, I invite you to join me in supporting those who seeks to “take back” that memory and hear that prophetic voice to its fullest, essential truth. I offer you his Letter From Birmingham Jail as a place to start.
Yes, Shabbat is for rest and reflection – and regathering our energy to go back out there on Sunday, and Monday, and all the days ahead, to seek what happens in the space after failure, demoralization, and heartache. Let’s go back out there together.

Shabbat Nakhamu: Sometimes the Answer is No

This Shabbat we study the second parashah of Devarim, Deuteronomy, called Va’Etkhanan, “I implored.” The name refers to the pleading of Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our Teacher, to be allowed to enter the Land of Promise which has been his life’s dream and every day work. According to the Midrash (ancient Rabbinical literature which show us how to explore for deeper meanings in the Torah text), after G*d does not relent, Moshe tries to bargain (an honorable Middle Eastern tradition):

Then Moses said, “Master of the universe, if I am not to enter the Land alive, let me enter dead, as the bones of Joseph are about to enter.” … ‘No’ is G*d’s reply… Then Moses said, “Master of the universe, if You will not let me enter the Land of Israel, allow me to remain [alive] like the beasts of the field, who eat grass, drink water, and thus savor the world–let me be like one of these.” At that, G*d replied, “Enough. Speak no more to Me of this matter” (Deut. 3:26).

But Moses spoke up again, “Master of the universe, if not [like a beast of the field], then let me become like a bird that flies daily in every direction to gather its food and in the evening returns to its nest–let me be like one of these.” The Holy One replied again, “Enough.”

This Midrash reflects that our ancestors did not believe in magic, nor in miracles that a human could pry out of the Divine; more, the Rabbis of antiquity knew very well from their own experience that bad things happen, even to good people, and while we may plead with all our heart, it may not change the outcome. Sometimes, even when we pray our hardest and most creatively for what we want, the answer is still going to be No.

This Shabbat marks the days after the biggest NO our people can experience; it is the NO to the plea to be spared, to not let destruction happen, to not let all be lost. Tisha B’Av (the 9th day of the month of Av), now three days ago, marks our memory of the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of our people. Much prayer seemed to be for nothing.
But this Shabbat, only a few days after that nadir, is called Nakhamu, “be comforted.” It seems a surprising and perhaps even offensive idea; awful things happened although I prayed and pleaded and hoped that they should not, how am I to find comfort? The Prophet Isaiah, who saw terrible suffering and destruction in his lifetime, offers this:
 נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ, עַמִּי–יֹאמַר, אֱלֹהֵ-כֶם. Comfort you, O be comforted My people, says your G*d.
דַּבְּרוּ עַל-לֵב יְרוּשָׁלִַם, וְקִרְאוּ אֵלֶיהָ–כִּי מָלְאָה צְבָאָהּ, כִּי נִרְצָה עֲו‍ֹנָהּ:  כִּי לָקְחָה מִיַּד י-ה, כִּפְלַיִם בְּכָל-חַטֹּאתֶיהָ. Tell Jerusalem to take heart, proclaim unto her that her time is accomplished, that her guilt is paid off; that she has received of HaShem’s hand more than enough reflection back for all her sins.
קוֹל קוֹרֵא–בַּמִּדְבָּר, פַּנּוּ דֶּרֶךְ י-ה; יַשְּׁרוּ, בָּעֲרָבָה, מְסִלָּה, לֵאלֹהֵ-נוּ. Listen! a voice calls out: ‘Clear in the wilderness the way of HaShem, make way in the desert a highway for our G*d.
כָּל-גֶּיא, יִנָּשֵׂא, וְכָל-הַר וְגִבְעָה, יִשְׁפָּלוּ; וְהָיָה הֶעָקֹב לְמִישׁוֹר, וְהָרְכָסִים לְבִקְעָה. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the rugged shall be made level, and the rough places plain;
וְנִגְלָה, כְּבוֹד י-ה; וְרָאוּ כָל-בָּשָׂר יַחְדָּו, כִּי פִּי י-ה דִּבֵּר.  {פ} The glory of HaShem shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of HaShem has proclaimed it.’
קוֹל אֹמֵר קְרָא, וְאָמַר מָה אֶקְרָא; כָּל-הַבָּשָׂר חָצִיר, וְכָל-חַסְדּוֹ כְּצִיץ הַשָּׂדֶה. Listen! a voice calls out: ‘Proclaim!’ and there is a reply: ‘What shall I proclaim?’ ‘All flesh is grass, and all the goodness of it is as the flower of the field;
יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר נָבֵל צִיץ, כִּי רוּחַ י-ה נָשְׁבָה בּוֹ; אָכֵן חָצִיר, הָעָם. The grass withers and the flower fades when the breath of Eternity blows on it; surely the people are grass.
יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר, נָבֵל צִיץ; וּדְבַר-אֱלֹהֵ-נוּ, יָקוּם לְעוֹלָם.  {ס} The grass withers and the flower fades; but an Eternal word stands for ever.’  (Isaiah 40.1-8)
All of us, and all of our struggles and pain, are not all that there is in this world. While suffering is real and terrible in one place, joy and gratitude are equally real in another. Rather than a comforting which promises an answer for our pain, so that we can understand it, Isaiah reflects the reality of the Rabbis who chose this text for this week many generations ago: we are like grass, which fades so quickly; all our joy and our pain fades as fast.
If it all passes, then our tradition offers us not answers, but how to respond, and what to do while we are here. Our daily prayers tell us that we are to follow G*d’s example as demonstrated in the Torah:
to somekh noflim, hold each other up as each of us falls,
to rofeh holim, care for those who are suffering,
to matir asurim, help those who are trapped to become free,
and
to m’kayyem emunato lisheyney afar, faithfully maintaining the memory of those who “sleep in the dust.”
The comforting, we are promised, will come of itself; not because we found someone to make our suffering central, but because we’ve found a community in which to make sure that it does not become central to us, through seeking and doing the mitzvot that make our lives holy, no matter how long or short, happy or troubled, they may be.
Thus, we are told, we are able to immerse ourselves in the ultimate comfort: imitation of G*d, leading us closer with every act to G*d. Rabbi Akiba called G*d Mikveh Israel, “the Hope of Israel.”

May this Shabbat bring you comfort in that you are able to offer love and support to others, and in so doing immerse yourself in the love and support and hope that you, and we all, need.

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

Shabbat Hukkat: Where Anger Will Get You

This week we read beginning from Numbers 20 verse 7, in parashat Hukkat, as we continue in this second year of our Triennial Cycle to start not at the beginning of each parashah, but at the beginning of the middle third of it. We begin with a simple story, nothing out of the ordinary: the Israelites are complaining and G-d commands Moshe to act in response to the complaint. (One thing worth noting about our ancestors’ concept of G-d: complaints did not fall on deaf Divine ears.)

The people complain that there is no water. In the second verse of this year’s reading of Hukkat, G-d commands: Take your rod, assemble the congregation with Aaron your brother, and speak to the rock in front of their eyes; tell the rock to bring forth water, so that the people and their flocks may drink.” (Numbers 20.8)

If only it were that easy. Moshe assembles the people, but then, instead of speaking to the rock, he hits it, hard, twice. Water comes pouring out, and everyone slakes their thirst, flocks and herds too. That’s good, but the fact that Moshe hit the rock when he was supposed to merely speak to it is counted as a grave sin against G-d, so grave that it is for this disobedience that Moshe is informed that he will not enter the Promised Land.

Most commentaries on this reading spend a great deal of energy responding to the absolutely appropriate question we all have at this moment: for this Moshe is not allowed in? Some comments point to the higher standard a leader is held to; others suppose that this is emblematic of a larger leadership problem. My favorite suggestion is that G-d is desperately searching for any pretext at all to save Moshe, G-d’s friend, from the disappointment of what life will really be like in the Land when they reach it. (No reality is as good as the promise of it, after all.)

But there is another way to understand this reading and what was so terribly wrong with Moshe’s response, and that is the anger with which he speaks to the Israelites, and strikes the rock. Anger is one of the most destructive forces in our world; even when it is justifiable, one must be as careful with it as with fire, or any potentially destructive force. The sages of the Talmud rule that one may not discipline one’s child when one is angry, since anger causes irrational behavior and whatever we’re doing at that moment is not for the child’s good, but only to express the anger. (Talmud Mo’ed Katan 17a). Anger is defined as idolatry by Maimonides; he sees anger as the result of the disruption of our illusion of control.  (Maimonides Laws of Behavior 2:2). Only G-d has control, so what are you upset about?

One might forgive Moshe for forgetting that he was not G-d occasionally, since the Israelites sometimes treated him as if he really was G-d. Go back to their complaint just before creating the Golden Calf for an example. There, the people say make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this Moses, who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him. (Exodus 32.1) Yet Moshe Rabbenu, “Moses our Teacher”, was all too human. We have enough proof of it: from murdering an overseer through this week’s evidence, Moshe was not always entirely in control of his emotions. Even Moshe.

What happened on that day, with that rock, was all too sadly, humanly ordinary. Human beings lose our temper, and cause damage to animate and inanimate things around us. Worse is what happens when human beings with power over others become angry, because in our anger, those of us who control others’ lives – our children, our employees, and in some cases whole communities and nations – do terrible things which cannot be undone.

It is not only Moshe who couldn’t enter the Land he longed for because of his anger. We distance ourselves from that land – of peace, of serenity, of safety –  with each harsh, careless word and act. As it was said in a powerful phrase in an old siddur:  we continue to wander the wilderness for our sins, which are confessed in the daily papers. Anger, it is said in our tradition, is the most dangerous of emotions. While we cannot do without its energy, it is a power that must be wisely harnessed, and always feared.

From the perspective of Jewish mysticism, every act echoes in every other act. There is no such thing as looking on aghast and unconnected; all our acts, small and quotidian or nation-altering, echo throughout the world. Let that make us cautious; let that make us hopeful. And most of all, let that make us count to ten before we act, that it be not in anger but in kindness.