Shabbat Nitzavim/VaYelekh: Finding Firm Ground in all this Chaos

In all these years of finding good lessons and food for thought in our shared Torah study, we have faced many challenges together and sought their meaning for our lives as Jews.

This Shabbat is no different. The chaos intensifies around us until we want to scream Dayenu! “It’s enough!” The plagues increase in number and in impact:

*a criminal president whose abetters are dismantling the social supports of our lives
*an economic crisis of unemployment and houselessness
*a worldwide pandemic in which the U.S. response ranks near the bottom of them all
*more people dying each week than died in the September 11 2001 massacre we mourn today
*the unveiling of the police as a force hostile to civil rights and democracy
*the murderous persecution of Black, Indigenous, Trans, Queer, of Color, and other people
*and now, wildfires

Here’s what your Jewish tradition offers you on this Shabbat as you question the meaning of these days for your life: the double parashah whose two words mean “firmly rooted” and “going.” And this is exactly what we need: a way to remain firmly rooted within that which keeps us sane and able to function, while we move, quickly and clearly, to stay safe and aid others in doing so. 

If you are evacuating, reach out to us by email or text. 
If you have a room or unit to offer the displaced, let us know.

What’s the Torah of all this? What’s the learning? How is being and doing Jewish possibly going to help?

You won’t know until you do it. You can’t know until you experience it for yourself: the ritual, the prayer, whatever is our mitzvah, our Jewish obligation, at a given moment.

For this evening, it will be noting that it’s sundown and lighting candles to mark it. How incredibly powerful that moment will be, as we consider both how strange a sunset it is, and how precious and terrifying a candle flame is. Anyone might take a moment to notice sunset or light a candle, but Jews are commanded to, and to recite a blessing at that moment, to ensure that we’ve noticed, and considered, and thought about it.

For tomorrow, it will be joining us for Torah study and/or Tefilah, perhaps while you say “I can’t concentrate on this!” There’s a reason why Torah study and prayer are mitzvot, obligations, and not merely what you do when you feel like it: these obligations are to yourself. They give you a sorely-needed moment to think about something else, to change your perspective to the millennial, and to remember that you are grounded in a deep and rich belonging

For tomorrow evening, it will be joining in our yearly Selikhot prayers. This once a year opportunity to consider our deeds and their impact as human beings is incredibly necessary to us, especially now. The details are below.

And next week, we will find our rootedness in the mitzvah of gathering whenever we can as we move through the emergencies of the days to come, to check on each other through daily minyan, Talmud study, or a quick phone call or email. 

Next erev Shabbat will begin Rosh HaShanah 5781. No matter what happens between now and next Friday, it will be Rosh HaShanah, and Jews will find our security in the familiar rituals. All the details for High Holy Days have been shared in emails and in the Week’s Worth. Please look again at this week’s edition for the Seder details. Maybe we’ll even sing dayenu…

Hold tight to what matters. To your place with us, in Jewish community and history and meaning. To acts that unfold meaning and purpose to us as we do them. To the Presence that we seek through all these acts and words – as the mystics say, the Place of the world, or what the Psalmist calls the Holy One of Being, where we all find our place.

Only one thing I ask of HaShem, only one thing I seek:
to dwell in HaShem’s house all the days of my life,
to gaze at the beauty of the world, and to see its holiness.

(Psalm 29)

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.