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 Matot-Masey: We’re In This Together

Shalom Shir Tikvah Learning Community,
On this Shabbat we read a double parashah, both Matot and Masey, and at the end of it we finish the Book BaMidbar, the account of much wandering in geography and in relationships.
And in this specific Torah narrative, part of the second year of the Triennial Cycle of reading, we begin with the story of two brothers who decide that they will better off if they separate from the larger family.
The tribes of Reuven and of Gad were herders, and they saw that the land on the east side of the Jordan river was good grazing land. So they said to Moshe, “this land through which we are traveling is good land for grazing. Rather than cross the Jordan river, we prefer to stay on this side and settle here.”  –BaMidbar 32.1-5, excerpted.
It seems a reasonable statement of intent, not unlike the act of the one who gets to camp first and chooses the best spot available for her tent, or the volunteer who joins the moving crew on behalf of a helpless older person but leaves when it suits him. We’re all part of the group, until the individual in each of us emerges to claim our individual status. And it’s all innocent enough, until the desire to take care of oneself becomes après moi le deluge, as King Louis XIV was supposed to have said: after I get mine, who cares what happens?
In times like ours, fear of personal danger or loss may cause us to feel something similar, to hesitate before joining a group to protest, or putting oneself at the front line of a cause. It’s a natural enough human desire, to stay safe and to keep those one loves safe with one – to circle the wagons against the common threat, but to look for the best and safest place among those wagons for oneself.
And so Moshe confronted the leaders of the tribes of Reuven and of Gad, saying “will you abandon your family now, when you are needed to help protect and defend the group? Will you betray the people of which you are a part because you have found a separate place to which to escape?” – BaMidbar 32.6, more or less.
Moshe’s point echoes that of Mordecai, the Jew in Persia who confronted the Queen his niece at a similar moment:
Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will will escape with your life by being in the King’s palace. One the contrary, if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place, while you and your family’s house wil perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained your royal position just for this purpose?” – Megillat Esther 4.13-14.
None of us can truly separate ourselves from what is happening all around us. Those people who are homeless are no different from us, and thus all our homes are less secure. Those children who are separated from their parents are our children, and the world of our children is less safe. Those immigrants, people of color, Muslims, trans people, and all other targeted human beings are us, and we are all in this together.
If we have position, privilege, and resources, now is not the time to hoard them, but to hear Mordecai’s question: what have you been given these blessings for? If we would leave the group because there may be a more comfortable reality that presents itself to us, would considering Moshe’s demand change our thoughts? Would you leave your people – your fellow Jews, your companions in Portland citizenry, those who are not your social class but who share your life with you every day?
During the Three Weeks period we are encouraged to reflect upon not our personal faults, as we do on Yom Kippur, but upon our communal failings. What part did each individual play in the fall of the Jerusalem Temple on the 9th day of Av, Tisha B’Av, 2000 years ago? What part does each of us play in the destruction we fear in our own lives?
Neither personal, nor local, nor national borders will protect us from the acts we allow, enable, or fail to stop. This is one of the first lessons of Jewish ethics: that which you do to another affects you as well. But let this also be a reason for hope: when each of us commits to each other, none of us need ever be alone.

Shabbat Balak: Do You Know Where You Stand? Do You Know Why?

Thousands of years ago, a prophet appearing in our parashat hashavua, Bil’am ben Be’or, stood on a high place overlooking the tents of the people of Israel. He had been tasked with cursing the people, at the order of King Balak, who had hired him. Balak feared the presence of these immigrants at his border and it was Bil’am’s job to drive them away.
I write you this erev Shabbat email from the front line of @OccupyICEPDX, literally from the line of chairs set in front of the yellow police tape separating pro-immigrant, anti-ICE protesters from DHS police.
People on our side of the line are sitting in camp chairs, standing holding signs, reading, handing each other water. The poiice must stand next to the cars blocking the road, in full uniform, taking turns standing in the sun. This is now the second day of this confrontation. While the protesters and their tents were careful never to block the road or any access, even to the bike route, the Federal DHS has blocked the street with cars marked Federatl Protective Service Police. The word is that OHSU lawyers are working to force DHS to allow traffic through. For the meantime, the protesters are aware that those who need to commute to the south waterfront are losing patience with the situation, and they can’t help but blame all sides – as if all sides were equally at fault!
Why are the people depicted in this photo there? What inner sense of certainty does a person need to have in order to live in a protest encampment for over a week now? What kind of ethical clarity moves those of us who seek to support them? For that matter, what is the person in the uniform, wearing riot gear, armed with a gun, need to know with all his or her heart to be true?
Well, we might say, they are Americans – by which we mean citizens of the United States; there are many other Americans in South and North America. Many of us who oppose the acts of ICE would say that we seek to uphold the true values of the U.S., as enshrined in Emma Lazarus’ poem on the Statue of Liberty: “give me your tired, your poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores. Send these, the homeless, tempest-toseed, to me. I lift my light beside the golden door.”
Emma Lazarus was born in 1849 into a large Sefardi Jewish family and well-educated from an early age; one of the early influences upon her life and beliefs was that of the Civil War. Although she wrote much poetry and was a social activist, it took the immigration of Jews from Russia, her people, to inspire her to her greatest work, and lead her to create the poem that sums up the special nature of the United States as a haven for immigrants.  (Read more about her here.)
Although she was very much a patriot and very much a citizen of the United States, it was only when Emma Lazarus deepened her sense of identity as a Jew and a member of her people that she was able to do her greatest work.
We find ourselves in a curiously similar state today. Many of us “just feel that we have to do something” as people who are citizens of the U.S. Like Emma Lazarus, we are lucky enough to also be Jews, and to have a strong and ancient tradition in which to ground ourselves. It is in this older, multi-valent tradition that we will find the certainly and ethical clarity that will root us when the controversy over how to be an “American” is violent and angry.
Jews can quote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with the best of them; thank G*d, we also have justice, justice you shall pursue (Deut. 16.18) and you shall not oppress the stranger (Ex.23.9). With the Jewish value on one hand and the U.S. ethic on the other, we can know more clearly where we stand, and where we should.
Some will march tomorrow morning, on Shabbat; others will study Torah, or daven. May we all know where we stand and why as clearly as possible, lest our attempt to stand for something be as misunderstood as poor Bil’am, who wasn’t even there because he believed in what he was doing, only because someone else invited him.

Shabbat BeHa’alot’kha: Lift It Up

Last week the parashah began with the command to lift up every face; this week, the word beha’alot’kha, “in your lifting up” refers to raising up the lights of the menorah, the seven-branched lamp designed by G*d, according to Jewish tradition, to illuminate the holy place.
To lift up the face is to see the eyes, and to take account of each human soul. To lift up light is, literally, to raise a light and to cause it to shine far and wide. The two parshiot together summon us to an act both lovely and heroic: to look each other in the eye, and to lift up the light we find in each eye so that our combined light can illuminate the darkness. What more relevant message could the Torah bring to us in our time…
Nishmat adam ner HaShem – “the human soul is G*d’s light,” says the Psalmist. Each of us has a soul like a firefly, briefly, blinkingly, lighting up our surroundings. Seven of us – the count in a menorah – shed a bit more light. How many menorot might it take to light up the despair some of us might feel on any given day, these days? Jewish tradition says that the critical mass is a minyan of ten. We know there is strength and support in numbers (and indeed, we are in the Book of Numbers).
The wisdom of our ancestors offers us two linked lessons on this Shabbat, derived from the juxtaposition of last week’s and this week’s parashiot. First: every pair of human eyes bears the light of a human soul. To forget this, and to demonize any human being, is to lose hold of the spiritual path that we follow and that supports us. Second: each one of us who so chooses can light up the world, just a little bit, by standing up in a place of darkness to share our light.
That might mean intervening in lashon hara’, when you hear someone speaking in a way that dehumanizes any other person; it might mean a donation in support of causes that shed light; and it might mean joining me, if you are in Portland, this Sunday June 3 downtown (do you remember how we gathered, so many of us, last year on Sunday June 4?) to declare that we will not cede our public spaces to those who preach hate and exclusion.
The great human being and rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, joined Dr. Martin Luther King Jr marching in Selma. Afterward he said that he felt that his legs were doing the praying at that time. This Shabbat, we will pray to remind ourselves of the values we seek to raise up by the way we live. On Sunday, pray with your legs if you can, and join me in raising up the light of those values in the public spaces of our city, that so badly need the light of love that values every human soul.

Shabbat Naso: Look Me In The Eye

The word that identifies this week’s Torah text is naso, part of the idiom naso et rosh, is correctly translated “take a census,” or, more simply, “count heads.” The actual Hebrew wording is more beautiful; it literally says “lift up the head.” In other words, for our ancestors, to count someone was to look that person in the eye, and to take account of that specific human being.

This parashah begins innocuously enough with a description of the work assigned to different Levite families: Kehat, Gershon, and Merar. Each family unit had a special job in connection with erecting or dismantling the Mishkan and carrying it as well. Only Levites could come this close, and they had to regularly watch to keep themselves free from tum’ah in order to fulfill this duty.

It’s as logical a segue as we will ever find that the Torah’s next subject is that of keeping the Israelites’ camp clean. Anyone experiencing tum’ah or capable of transmitting it to someone else was to be sent outside the dwelling area until the tum’ah could be cleared.

What is tum’ah? It’s a subject we come back to again and again in the Torah. We moderns come to it influenced by interpretations that call it a form of impurity (cue the caricature of the person calling “unclean!” while walking through the village). But if we  meet the ancients on their ground the reality is more nuanced.

It seems likely, according to the academic scholarship on the matter, that most Israelites were tam’eh most of the time, and that was no problem since the only time one needed to be tahor (the opposite condition) was in order to take part in ceremonial aspects of Israelite ritual. To be tam’eh, then, has something to do with one’s ability – or, in this case, inability, to participate in community engaged in ritual.

You are tam’eh if you have just buried someone, or if you have just given birth, or if you experience unusual flow from your reproductive organs. You are tam’eh if you have been in the presence of someone else who is tam’eh. And, interestingly, by virtue of juxtaposition, it seems that you are tam’eh if you wrong one of the people with whom who share your community. According to our text,

When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a companion, thus breaking faith with HaShem, 

The next case brought by the Torah – and we are still informed by the principle of juxtaposition, which indicates that this is somehow related to what just came before – this next case describes the situation in which any one of us has wronged another in our community. Note that to do so is much more than simply wronging a fellow human; the Torah insists that to wrong the other in our midst is to ‘מעל בה – literally, to betray HaShem. This is an utterly powerful statement. To wrong another person is to wrong G*d.
It’s interesting to note that here, as in every other case of tum’ah, nothing can be done about it until the state of being – the tum’ah – is recognized. As the verse goes on:
and that person realizes his guilt, that person shall confess the wrong s/he has done. S/he shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to the one who has been wronged. (Numbers 5.7)

Healing the situation is straightforward, the law is clear and easy, but it can only happen after a person realizes that a wrong has been committed. Until this is done, the person who committed the wrong is tam’eh, and is unable to take part in the religious activities of the community. The person wronged is unable to fully participate as well, due to the damage done to that person.

What would our communities be like if we were as careful to sweep tum’ah from, as it were, the midst of our camps, by focusing upon, and righting, the wrongs done among us, each to each other?
Would our U.S. community be required to pay reparations – the value plus one-fifth – to all wronged by our government’s policies – African Americans enslaved, Native Americans slaughtered and robbed, the stranger among us persecuted and oppressed?
Would our Portland community be required to readjust budgets and future planning to pave streets in poor neighborhoods, restore the potential of innocents punished as guilty and people of color sidelined, repair the lives of the marginalized people that should have been protected and served?
What would our own community need to do? How can any of us discern whether we have wronged another in our midst, thus driving the Presence of G*d from us? The way our parashah urges us to take is here in the opening verse: look into the eyes of our companions and really see them, in the sense taught to us by the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber: to see the other as a presence, deserving of our respect and attention, not a projection of ourselves who ought to already understand us.
Here is one act: our congregation has endorsed a national Jewish campaign to stand up for Trans people at this time of vulnerability for our Trans sisters and brothers. Take a look at all you can join in learning and doing in support of righting this wrong, and sweeping this tum’ah out of our midst: Kavod Akhshav: Dignity for Trans Youth. May it bring the Presence of G*d closer to us all.

On this Shabbat, in a world in which so many are wronged, where the earth itself is crying out its pain, consider that real caring community starts among us, and begins when we lift up our own heads to meet each other’s eyes, so that each of us can say to the other, here, come in: sit down. Share my bread and wine. Let us walk together. Only then can we begin to let down our protective walls and be seen, and only then can we truly see each other. That’s the clean, safe, happy camp the Israelites were trying to create. May we learn to live so in our own days, and may we understand that it is the first step toward the better world we pray for.

Shabbat BeHar-BeHukotai: Love Your Mother

This week we finish reading the Book VaYikra, Leviticus, with another double parashat hashavua. The name of the first of the two, BeHar, offers already a nice little learning. The word behar, actually three words in English, means “at the mountain” and refers to Mount Sinai. The first verse goes on to specify:
וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, בְּהַר סִינַי לֵאמֹר דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם–וְשָׁבְתָה הָאָרֶץ, שַׁבָּת לה’. HaShem spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the People of Israel, and say unto them: When you come into the land which I give you, the land shall keep a Shabbat unto HaShem.
From this our teacher Rashi asks a famous question: Mah inyan shemitta atzel Har Sinai? “What does shemitta have to do with Mt. Sinai?” This is the Jewish version of a phrase you may know – “what does that have to do with the price of tea in China?” In both cases the question concerns the apparent lack of relationship between two subjects – in our case, letting the land rest, called shemitta, and Mt. Sinai. Why is Mt. Sinai mentioned here, at this moment? It might be more than just a subtle reminder that in just another week we will reach Shavuot, the day on which we commemorate standing at Sinai to receive the Torah.
Many answers have been offered by different commentators, wise teachers and curious students:
1. you might think that letting the land rest is merely an economic matter and not spiritual, and therefore we recall the moment we stood at Mt Sinai in proximity to it to remind you.
2. the shemitta year is only one out of seven, yet its impact blesses the other six (by letting the land restore itself naturally for a complete year). You might think that Shabbat, only one out of seven, is a small thing, yet it was commanded at Mt Sinai and, if we rest, it will bless our entire week.
3. The Sefat Emet teaches that this mitzvah is so central that all of Torah depends upon it, and that is why Mt Sinai, which we associate with the giving of the Torah, is mentioned here:
Letting the land lay fallow – letting go of our need to work it, to work, to be productive, to control our future – leaving that in G*d’s hands, that is the foundation of the entire Torah, which necessitates a measure of submission to God’s will and a relinquishing control in this world. To embrace a life of Torah, one needs a measure of letting go. (from Steven Exler, The Bayit)
And, finally, a contemporary teacher asks: What does it mean that the whole Torah is dependent upon the laws of Shemittah?
It means, very simply, that the entirety of our religious lives, our spiritual lives, are built upon the very physical reality of a functioning earth. None of the world of Torah gets off the ground – literally – unless the ground is healthy. We cannot do anything without an earth which is nourished, sustained, sustainable, and healthy. If we have no clean air to breathe, no clean water to drink, no clean soil to plant in, then we have no foundation in which to root – literally – our religious lives. It is a simple, basic truth: we need to take care of our earth to have a future upon it. (Steven Exler, The Bayit)
As the following parashah, parashat BeHukotai, makes very clear, if we fall from Mt Sinai, we and the earth will suffer together. Our ancestors understood the existential linkage between our ethical behavior and our world’s physical existence. On this Shabbat before the secular holiday of Mothers’ Day, may we consider that other Mother of ours, the planet upon which we live, breath and find our meaning.