Shabbat Bereshit: Till It and Tend It

This Shabbat we return to our regularly-scheduled Torah, as it were, after the excitement on Simkhat Torah of reading the very end and the very beginning of the scroll. Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our teacher, dies, and is bewailed, and then the people move on – and we find ourselves, following them, suddenly in a Garden of pristine, unsullied, wondrous potential. Everything is new again. Our tradition, when we trust it and follow it, offers us this promise from the beginning of Elul, now seven weeks ago.
In this week’s parashah we find ourselves once again reading of the Garden of Eden, that symbol for the uncomplicated “before” that we look for, and long for. (I’m attaching a sweet poem about the first humans and the power of speech that I couldn’t find room for during the High Holy Days that I hope you will enjoy.) We read that we were created to live in beauty and peace with each other, our fellow creatures, and our surroundings, and that our only responsibility was to care for and respect the earth and all upon it.

ז
  וַיִּיצֶר ה אֱלֹקים אֶת-הָאָדָם, עָפָר מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו,
נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים; וַיְהִי הָאָדָם, לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה.
HaShem G*d formed humans of the dust of the ground
and breathed into their nostrils the breath of life; and humans became alive
ח  וַיִּטַּע ה אֱלֹקים, גַּן-בְּעֵדֶן–מִקֶּדֶם; וַיָּשֶׂם שָׁם,
אֶת-הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר יָצָר.
And HaShem G*d planted a garden in the east, in Eden
and there placed the humans whom G*d had formed.
ט  וַיַּצְמַח ה אֱלֹקים, מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, כָּל-עֵץ נֶחְמָד לְמַרְאֶה,
וְטוֹב לְמַאֲכָל- וְעֵץ הַחַיִּים, בְּתוֹךְ הַגָּן, וְעֵץ, הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע.
Out of the ground HaShem caused to grow every
tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life
also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil

….

טו  וַיִּקַּח ה אֱלֹקים, אֶת-הָאָדָם; וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַן-עֵדֶן, לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ. HaShem G*d took the humans, and put them into the garden of Eden
to till it and to tend it. (Bereshit 2.7-8,15)
Life seems so much more complicated than that – but this is the promise as our Jewish tradition puts it: it can be a garden if we were all to care for it and for each other.
Although we turn the pages and roll the scroll, we can’t really go back to the beginning. Even if we all agreed to do so, the challenges and the problems we face are as old as existence, and have reached their current tangled state after many generations of the worst as well as the best of human behavior.
All we can do is try to bring what we’ve learned from the holy days with us. There is forgiveness, there is the possibility of hope, there is inexhaustible supply of love in the world – and we need to help each other to learn to connect to it. Our earliest ancestors found water welling up from the ground; we can find those same eternal wellsprings, although we have to help each other dig.
We have to help each other; our theme this year for much of our learning and exploration together will be this: kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, “all Israel are responsible for each other.” Our community is as strong for us as each of us feels within us, and this year I will seek to strengthen, deepen, and explore the beauty in all the ways in which all of us connect.
Once more, dear friends, back to the world, its heartbreak and its beauty. May Shir Tikvah’s community support you as you support others in our common struggle to remember the garden and believe in its promise, even now.
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Shabbat Ki Tetze: Doing Battle In Jewish

The first words of this week’s parashah are כי תצא למלחמה ki tetze l’milkhamah, “when you go out to do battle.” When one looks for these words in the Torah scroll, it’s easy to mistake the place, for the same phrase appears three times in a short space of parchment. All three have in common that in this part of the Torah our ancestors are recounting the Jewish way to fight.
Jewish tradition does not shy away from any human behavior; we insist that no matter what you are doing, there is a way to do it according to Jewish ethics. A teacher of mine used to say that there’s even a Jewish way to slide into second base – with your cleats down, and without attempting to intimidate the opposing player off the bag out of fear of harm.
Of course, when we read in the Torah during the month of Elul of “going out into battle” we recognize that much of the struggle against evil is that which takes place inside ourselves. Jewish ethical literature requires during this time of Atonement that we seek out the inimical forces that are part of us, and battle them for control of our hearts and minds – and behavior.
But there is also a Jewish way to behave when we are facing a even more difficult and even frightening opposition. In the current climate of rising hatred and fear, many feel that when some would march in our streets declaring the tenets of their hatred, we must be there to counter that voice and resist that hostility. To do this is to fulfill the mitzvah of going out to oppose the enemy – in this case, not only of our well-being and peace of mind, but also of the peace and well-beingn of our society.
If you are moved to “go out against the enemy” – and yes, people who commit violence with word and act are our enemy whether they threaten us or our neighbors – you are nevertheless not permitted to consider yourself as “going out” from your Jewishness. Thus these three repetitions of the phrase ki tetze l’milkhamah, “when you go out to battle” are instructive:
When you take the field against your enemies and they are delivered into your hands, and you see something that you want. (Deut. 21.10)
The parashah begins with this warning, that just because you are caught up in a situation of disorder, you may not take advantage of it. You may not simply take anything you see that you decide that you want. A protest is not a time when ethics do not apply – Judaism insists that you be a Jew at all moments, no matter what the provocation or temptation of your yetzer hara’, your evil inclination.
When you go out as a group against your enemies, be on your guard against anything untoward. (Deut. 23.10)
This command requires that we look at ourselves and the group we have gathered together in order to go forth and do battle. Related to the warning in last week’s parashat hashavua, we must pursue justice justly – just means and just ends. What is the group’s ethic? its rhetoric? its aims? Who are you allying with, to whom are you adding the strength of your voice and your presence?
When you go forth to do battle against your enemies and you see horses and chariots – forces larger than yours – have no fear of them, for HaShem is with you. (Deut. 20.1)
There’s a moment when one’s group may be confronted with a sense of being overwhelmed by the forces we confront: the scale of the national catastrophe, the hostility of White Supremacists, or the militarized police who deploy tear gas, rubber bullets and sound cannons against unarmed people expressing their First Amendment rights of speech and assembly. Just seeing the riot police show up with their armed vehicles offers a moment of empathy with the way our ancestors must have felt when the Hittites showed up on their shiny chariots with their fearsome spears made of the latest synthetic, bronze.
The Torah’s promise does not mean that G*d will protect us from harm in such a case; indeed, members of our own kehillah have been hurt in gatherings since January 20 of this year. The Torah only promises that G*d will be with us when we go out to do battle with evil, meaning that even if we’re harmed, even if we’re arrested, even if we are – G*d forbid – killed, if we have gone forth to the battle with care for ethics both in our acts and that of the group with which we ally, we will be able to rest in the assurance that our intentions and our acts aimed toward righteousness.
In memory of
Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, James Cheney (Mississippi),
Edward Crawford (Ferguson),
William Schraeder, Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Lee Scheuer (Kent State)
Heather Heyer (Charlottesville)
and
too many more

Shabbat Shoftim: Yes, Be Judgmental – Justly

Parashat Shoftim begins with the description of the necessary supervision of an ideal community. First one must have judges, then those who carry out judgments. And of course, judgements must be just – as just as human beings can manage to be. Nuances of law, circumstances of context, and our own internal biases must all be clearly illuminated by careful and thorough thinking, listening, and testing.
Our tradition has developed fantastic teachings for our own every day judgements. On this Shabbat, the first in Elul – when we attempt to become more aware judges of ourselves – I offer you a few guidelines from Jewish ethical teachings:
 
1. Judges and officers you shall place at all your city gates (Deuteronomy 16.18) 

The human body is a city with seven gates—seven portals to the outside world: the two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and the mouth. Here, too, it is incumbent upon us to place internal “judges” to discriminate and regulate what should be admitted and what should be kept out, and “officers” to enforce the judges’ decisions. (Siftei Kohen)

This insight reminds us to judge ourselves and our impressions justly. Are you about to condemn someone’s words or behavior? have you investigated justly (as you would wish to be investigated?
2. Judges and officers you shall place at all your city gates . . . (16.18)

Do not judge alone, for no one can judge alone but the One. (Pirke Avot – “Ethics of Our Ancestors,” 4:8)

Nothing in Judaism can be judged without two witnesses. In Jewish law, you can’t even turn yourself in. No one can be trusted to testify without corroboration.
3. Justice, justice shall you pursue (16.20)

Why does the verse repeat itself? Is there a just justice and an unjust justice? Indeed there is. The Torah is telling us to be just also in the pursuit of justice—both the end and the means by which it is obtained must be just.  (Rabbi Bunim of Peshischa)

Our tradition insists that the world can be perfected, and that there are no short cuts, no exceptions, and that no one will be left out.
Jewish tradition urges us that our learning must be followed with action. On this Shabbat may we remember that action is also internal: before we can reach out to work on the world, we have to work on ourselves. May you find the support for the work you yourself must do among all of us, doing our work together to make the world, and ourselves, better.
Hazak v’nithazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other.

Shabbat Pinhas: Too Easy to Blame a Person

This parashat hashavua is troubling; in the last verses of last week’s parashah, a young man named Pinkhas (or Phineas in English) who serves as a kohen, a priest (grandson of Aaron the High Priest, no less) has murdered two people who were perceived to be publicly flouting the authority of Moshe. The parashah clearly describes his extrajudicial action: he saw the behavior, and he picked up his spear and ran the two through.
The opening verses of our parashah do not describe his punishment for going outside the legal system, for neglecting to give each person the benefit of the doubt, or for taking the law as he saw it into his own hands. Rather, the opening verses describe G*d’s “reward” for his behavior:
פִּינְחָס בֶּן-אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן-אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן, הֵשִׁיב אֶת-חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת-קִנְאָתִי, בְּתוֹכָם; וְלֹא-כִלִּיתִי אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקִנְאָתִי. ‘Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, turned My wrath away from the children of Israel, in that he was very jealous for My sake among them, so that I did not destroy the children of Israel in My anger.
לָכֵן, אֱמֹר:  הִנְנִי נֹתֵן לוֹ אֶת-בְּרִיתִי, שָׁלוֹם. Wherefore say: Behold, I give unto him My Covenant of Peace;
וְהָיְתָה לּוֹ וּלְזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָיו, בְּרִית כְּהֻנַּת עוֹלָם–תַּחַת, אֲשֶׁר קִנֵּא לֵאל-הָיו, וַיְכַפֵּר, עַל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. and it shall be unto him, and to his seed after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was jealous for his G*d, and made atonement for the children of Israel.’  (Num. 25.11-13)
This is upsetting to read, and it was so for the Rabbis, our ancient Sages, as well. They did their best to rule out Pinkhas’ behavior as an aberration, as something not to be emulated, nor he himself to be held up as a role model. Not unlike what we ourselves do when we rule something to be “the exception that proves the rule.”  Some have taught that you could expect nothing less of a priest, a descendant of Levi, that bloodthirsty son of Jacob, anyway; best that they be the ones assigned to slaughtering animals for sacrifice.
But the reality is more difficult and more compelling. The argument that sometimes a stroke of violence is necessary has fueled every assassin’s argument, from Gavrilo Princip to John Wilkes Booth to Brutus – and as well to those who, at a cocktail party, ask you if, having the chance, you would have killed the leader of Germany in World War II.
The belief that a well-placed murder will change the world is deep enough to emerge in a muted form in social media, as Kathy Griffin and Johnny Depp have recently demonstrated.
In Jewish history, the murder of the Babylonian-appointed governor of Judea, a man named Gedalyah. To this day, the Jewish people has kept this day as a minor fast day on our calendar of religious observances. This murder, of a man who was no doubt considered a tool of the enemy by many Jews, in essence made us worse off, for it ended Jewish autonomy in Ancient Israel after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian Empire.
If only it was so easy to remove all that plagues us – by doing away with the person who represents it, who is empowered by it, who seems to be controlling it – when in reality, we have placed that person there, and we empower it. He does not control it, any more than the symptoms of dysfunction in a family are caused by the person who acts them out.
Pinkhas did the lazy thing. It’s so much harder to work for real, deep, thorough-going social healing. Or personal healing – much easier to find some one thing or person to blame, when, really, that thing or person is doing G*d’s work as a holy messenger of Truth, if we learn how to hear it.
The work that heals us is more difficult and less dramatic. We’re engaged in it every time we see a mitzvah and do it. We’re closer to the world we want every Shabbat, and every time we pause to encourage each other and ourselves by being together and comparing notes.
During these Three Weeks, when we focus on all that has gone wrong, and the sadness we carry in our peoplehood and in our own hearts, may we help each other remember that every goodness also counts, and is gathered up.

Shabbat Hukkat: The World in a Word

This week’s parashah is called Hukkat, a word that can be translated as “statute,” “ordinance,”, or, simply, “law.” We often find it as half of the hendiadys hukkim umishpatim, which you might have seen translated as “laws and ordinances” or some such. Of course, one of the basic rules for Torah study is that there is no such thing as a simple synonym; the Rabbis of antiquity sought to understand what nuance was inferred by the use of two words where one was clearly not enough.
One compelling answer is revealed by the root of the second word, which is ש.פ.ת [sh.f.t], a root that refers to judges and judgements. This word evokes the world of the courtroom, and of the human process of judgement. Mishpatim, then, are laws which are worked out by human agency, wherein the Torah’s commands are applied to real life through human discernment and understanding.
The 12th century philosopher and jurist (and mystic and physician) Rambam, also called Maimonides, explained mishpatim as that category of law that we could figure out for ourselves. The revelation at Sinai was not really necessary for this category of law, since any sane society could work out for itself that murder, theft and the like must be prohibited for human beings to be able to live together.
Hukkim, on the other hand, said the Rambam, required revelation, since hukkim don’t obviously make sense; we are not able to work out the meaning of hukkim by ourselves. Our parashat hashavua offers us the chance to consider what this means.
First of all, the word itself is hard, grammatically, to pin down. The word itself, hok, plural hukkim, can also be found in the Torah as hukah, plural hukkot. The form hukkat, the name of our parashah, is an additional form used when a feminine noun is modified by another noun immediately succeeding it. Note that the word hok/hukkah can be found in both the male and female forms (all Hebrew is gendered).
Second, the word itself comes from a root that also can be translated “etch.” This is fascinating, since one would think that such a word would connote certainty, and perhaps it does, but not of the logical sort. That is, Rambam’s definition of a hok or hukkah is that it designates those Torah laws that cannot be understood with logic, and that therefore had to be revealed.
Sure enough, the Hukkah that we find at the beginnning of this parashah is not only difficult to understand logically, it is famous in Jewish tradition as a law so difficult to understand that even King Shlomo, considered the wisest of all in his lifetime, confessed that he could not understand it. This hukkah of the Red Heifer describes a recipe to create a substance, a potion that changes the status of those made tame’ by death to tahor, and therefore capable of approaching G*d in ritual communication. The part that is most difficult to understand is that the one who creates the substance is made tame’ by contact with it…..
Or perhaps the part that is most difficult to understand is the way that Jews and non-Jews alike have seen this mysterious potion as essential to the summoning of the End of Days. The logic goes like this: until the ancient Jewish sacrificial system is reinstated in Jerusalem, the Jewish End of Days cannot come. There are Christians who believe that their End of Days cannot arrive until all the Jews are returned to Israel and to their ancient form of ritual communication with G*d.
And since the potion requires an all-red heifer, there are actually people who scour the world looking for one, for upon it all depends. (And if you have not read Michael Chabon’s novel The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, I recommend it for a highly enjoyable treatment of this topic.)
Hok, as the Hebrew word which refers to all the laws that we cannot logically understand, comes to signify something much larger than the guiding law of Judaism; hok or hukkah reminds us that many of our rituals are not logical, even as much of our lives will not yield to logic. And how glorious and vital that is! There is a mystery at the heart of life which commands our humility and our gratitude. Not all can be understood, not all is subject to human discernment and understanding.
Like everything else in our spiritual tradition, we balance that which we can know with that which we will never understand. The two terms are not, however, opposites; they inform each other in a necessary dance, just like another common hendiadys in Torah Hebrew, which is tzedek umishpat, “righteousness and judgement.” Here is our same root, ש.פ.ת [sh.f.t]. Here it is contrasted and balanced with tzedek, “justice” or “righteousness,” to remind us that even when we understand the law, it is quite possibly not just, for it is only human law, humanly arrived at.
Even as we must infuse the mishpat of law with the tzedek of righteousness, may we find ourselves able to recognize the presence of the mystery of hok and hukkah even within what we believe are our logically-derived judgements of mishpatim.

Shabbat Sh’lakh L’kha: Don’t Be Afraid, Together We Can Do This

We are learning, as a human family and as Jews, the price of fear, and of second-hand information. It’s a long road, stretching all the way back to our parashat hashavua. In Sh’lakh L’kha, we have crossed the wilderness, we are camped on the edge of the Land of Promise. Perhaps it’s only human that we do not go immediately forward, trusting in G*d to support us into this final form of the unknown. Instead, Moshe our leader sends twelve scouts ahead of us, to travel the length and breadth of the land, and to bring back a report to the People Israel, waiting breathlessly, excited and, yes, also afraid. There is, after all, something about the final moment of truth from which we quail.

Why is the language of lovemaking so hard to learn?
Why is the body so often dumb flesh?
Why does the mind so often choose to fly away
at the moment the word waited for all one’s life is about to be spoken?

– Alice Walker, The Temple of My Familiar

The scouts complete their mission and return. They all agree that the land is beautiful and fertile. Then one of them begins to relate the size of the fortified cities and their inhabitants. “Really?” I can imagine the response. “How big are they?” asks one. “Are they fierce?” another anxiously inquires. “Do they eat people? I heard they eat people!” And before long Moshe has a full-fledged panic on his hands. Fear is electric, and it can bond us all together in a syngergistic current that makes of a casual remark a trigger for all the terrors an active imagination can create.

What makes the final step, that move from almost to arrival so terribly difficult that we begin to imagine all the ways that it cannot possibly succeed?
The entry into the Land of Promise is not only a geographical move. Viewed from the mythical perspective, we can feel the resonance to anything that is longed for, anything that is promised in some wonderful perfect future. It is no accident that in many stories of the journey to fulfillment, monsters must be battled. In Judaism those terrors are sometimes in the world around us, as we can see in the form of those who fight against change even when it is manifestly for the better, for themselves and for the world.
But the terror are also that which we conjure up inside us, and that urge, which our tradition names the yetzer hara’, the “evil impulse,” is often our most significant challenge. The yetzer, we are taught, is not only an impulse to do evil; it is also that impulse which keeps us from believing in ourselves and in our ability to reach our Promise.
Why would the Israelites hesitate to enter the fulfillment of the Promise they lived for?
Why do people vote against their own interests?
Why do we so often run away from the love and wholeness
that is so close to our grasp,
and for which we so long?
On this Shabbat, Pride Shabbat, we celebrate the power of love in all its forms. Judaism teaches that love is the highest human expression, and Jewish mysticism promises that when we reach understanding, judgement and mercy will merge into compassion.
Don’t misunderstand me: there is evil, and there are real dangers. That’s why we have to always remember to stick together. There are real monsters out there. But the Israelites didn’t check on that report; didn’t consider the effect they might be experiencing, of the fear of the unknown. They panicked – without ever verifying if there really was anything to fear. That second-hand information cost them forty years more of wandering before another chance would come to reach the Promise.
Look inside: is there a magnifier there, enlarging every fear until they seem like monsters? The answer is to reach out of yourself. Get a new perspective: check what you think you know. Question your doubts as well as your beliefs. Ask someone you trust for another opinion – and not someone who will only agree with you. Get a second opinion about that which most terrifies you – there’s no need to add to the real monsters with those we construct out of fear, second hand.
Don’t be afraid, said Joshua and Caleb, the only two scouts who disagreed with the rest. Together we can do this. The Israelites did not hear them. Can we, so much further (we hope) down the road of learning about letting fear control us, hear them? When we support each other, we will find a way to let go of those fierce, people-eating monsters that appear between us and our wholeness when we are nearly, almost there. When we defeat the mirage of terror created by our own yetzer hara’ we will see it: the Land of the Promise we all long for.