Shabbat Re’eh: Seeing Hope, Being Blessing

This coming Shabbat is Shabbat Re’eh. We study a parashah named for the command “see!”

רְאֵ֗ה אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה
See, this day I set before you blessing and curse (Devarim 11.26)

It is the second Shabbat of Consolation, a time in which our tradition urges us to lift up our heads from the searing despair of Tisha B’Av, toward the hope that we may yet be part of summoning, and living in, a better world.

What does it mean to see?

Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time,
and to see takes time – like to have a friend takes time.
– Georgia O’Keeffe

In ancient Hebrew as in our own modern language, to see is to notice, to recognize, to understand, and to acknowledge.

The unexamined life is not worth living. – Socrates

“See” in our parashah urges us to examine our lives and our choices and to understand that to follow our Jewish path means acting upon the world, as what our tradition calls co-creators. We call this doing mitzvot – an ethical path that will bring you blessing.

The blessing is to see that you will not succeed at all things. It is to understand that the media will not pick up a good deed of yours and you’ll be famous. It is to recognize that that you will not be thanked (the higher levels of tzedakah are anonymous).

The blessing is that you will be able to look at your life and see that it is good. You will see and understand the relationship between your acts and the world that you live in and co-create. It is a blessing on that day when you see your life clearly if you can see that you held tight to your integrity and your vision of the good life, and no matter what happened, you did your best to do good. The blessing is that you will feel grateful for all the good you were able to do, and you will feel content in yourself.

We are encouraged – no, commanded – by our tradition to lift our eyes at this time of year, to look ahead and to seek the horizon of hope. How is this even possible right now, in this world of misery in which we live?

The guidance of our Jewish tradition makes the answer simple: look for the single mitzvah, the simple act, that you can do in this moment, which saves you from existential despair with the immediacy of one need, one hurt, one vulnerability to which you can respond.

It’s all we really have, anyway: this moment right now. Be kind to someone. Notice someone. See, recognize, and understand all the opportunities you have, right where you are, to be a blessing.

Shabbat Balak: Fear and Loathing, and a Talking Ass

This week, parashat Balak allows us to appreciate the importance of parables to communicate difficult truths concisely and memorably. As our story opens, one King Balak of Moab hears his people talking about the immigrants – the Israelites – nearing their border:

 

“This horde will consume everything around us like cows eat all the grass of a field.” (Num. 22.4)

 

Balak’s full name is Balak ben Zippor, “son of a bird,” and true to his name, he is carried along by the gathering storm of public opinion. He turns to Balaam, a prophet famous far and wide, and puts into place a plan to attempt to destroy the immigrant population that so threatens his people.

 

“Put a curse on this people for me so that I can defeat them and drive them away. I know that you are effective: your blessings bless, and your curses curse.” (Num. 22.6)

 

And so the destructive wheels are set in motion. As a prophet, Balaam knows that his power to bless or curse is really just an ability to see what already exists. Yet his greed is aroused by the reward the King promises, and so he saddles his ass and heads for the Israelite camp.

 

Neither he nor the King can see the truth of the situation: that the death they plan for others will also threaten them. As many human beings, they believed that they could make themselves safe by destroying others, unaware of the deeper network of connection that ensure, in ethics no less than in physics, that an individual’s acts echo and reflect in widening ripples that, in the end, include us all.

 

In this parable, only the ass sees it, in the form of an angel holding a threatening fiery sword in their path. Predictably, she turns aside from the certain death before them; Balaam, who does not see it, beats her repeatedly until finally “Hashem opened the ass’ mouth” (Num. 22.28) and she is able to enlighten the human being.

 

The Torah does not record what Balaam learned in that moment; it is only when he stands and looks at the Israelites that we see the change in him. The words he utters are of praise, so beautiful that unto this day we recite them as the opening song of our prayers:

 

מה טובו אוהליך יעקב משכנותיך ישראל

Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’akov mishkenotekha Yisrael

How beautiful are the tents of Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel! (Num. 24.5)

 

Were the people of Israel really that beautiful on that day? We’ve seen our ancestors act as badly as any other people – no better and no worse. Perhaps what Balaam learned was that there is so much we cannot see, and that invoking the possible beauty of the immigrants at the border was as easy as fixating on the fear of other possibilities. Perhaps, in that moment when he blessed them, the people of Moab were able for the first time to see past their anxiety to consider these strangers, perhaps, as peaceful; perhaps, even, as friends.

 

It is not enough to denounce weak leaders who follow the winds of nativist bigotry for their own political gain. Although some will denounce those of us who see immigrants as our friends and act to demonstrate it, we make a powerful statement when we show up. We have done so, more times than we should have to, and we will do so again. As Jews, we know the heart of the immigrant, since we ourselves have been immigrants, we ourselves have been strangers, we ourselves have been vulnerable.

Shabbat Mishpatim: Law and Order

The Talmud records that other peoples used to make fun of the Jews, as it was well known in the ancient world already that we had entered into a covenant with HaShem, with all its opportunities and responsibilities, without asking to see the fine print.

That was last week; this week, we read many of the details that turn the Aseret haDibrot, the Ten Words, into a guide to live by. In parashat Mishpatim, in this third year of the Triennial Cycle for Torah study, we begin with four deeply relevant verses (Exodus 23.6-9).

לֹ֥א תַטֶּ֛ה מִשְׁפַּ֥ט אֶבְיֹנְךָ֖ בְּרִיבֽוֹ׃
You shall not subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes.
The most striking aspect of this verse is the Hebrew word which translates “your needy.” Those who are vulnerable, impoverished and without resources are not someone else’s problem. They are ours. It is our Jewish obligation to see that their rights are respected equally with those who have protection and resources. This applies to the right to privacy, to due process, to safety…in short: to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is up to us to ensure all these rights for others in their disputes, not in serenity but in times of confrontation. They are ours.
מִדְּבַר־שֶׁ֖קֶר תִּרְחָ֑ק וְנָקִ֤י וְצַדִּיק֙ אַֽל־תַּהֲרֹ֔ג כִּ֥י לֹא־אַצְדִּ֖יק רָשָֽׁע׃
Keep far from a false charge; do not bring death on those who are innocent and in the right, for I will not acquit the wrongdoer.
There is such a thing as a lie, and there are lies that kill innocents. Lies about immigrants who are lawfully seeking asylum have caused deaths. The evil that is pouring through the systems of our nation increases at our collective peril. Those children in cages, those bereft mothers and fathers, they are ours.
וְשֹׁ֖חַד לֹ֣א תִקָּ֑ח כִּ֤י הַשֹּׁ֙חַד֙ יְעַוֵּ֣ר פִּקְחִ֔ים וִֽיסַלֵּ֖ף דִּבְרֵ֥י צַדִּיקִֽים׃
Do not take bribes, for bribes blind the clear-sighted and upset the pleas of those who are in the right.
Bribery is a slippery thing, not usually so clear as a payoff envelope in hand. A bribe, for the Rabbis of the Talmud, is anything that “blinds the clear-sighted” and causes a bias in judgement. The victim, once again, is the innocent person telling the truth. Those innocents are ours even though they may seem alien.
וְגֵ֖ר לֹ֣א תִלְחָ֑ץ וְאַתֶּ֗ם יְדַעְתֶּם֙ אֶת־נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַגֵּ֔ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃
You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.

Judaism is sometimes characterized disparagingly as a religion of laws. This is a misunderstanding of a much more sophisticated system, that understands a difference between mishpat, the “law” of our parashah’s title, and tzedek, “innocence” or “righteousness.” In this way, Jewish law and American law are similar.

Yet the laws of the Torah are not the same as the law we are familiar with in the U.S. because Torah law is best understood as “the presence of G*d,” which brought about the creation of our world through shaping order out of chaos. For Jewish tradition, the presence of G*d is manifest only in mishpat tzedek, as Isaiah put it: “righteous judgement.” That is to say, “I was just following orders” is never an acceptable defense for wrongdoing; when the law is unethical, one must not follow it.
May we never be faced with more extreme examples of this idea than we currently experience! and may we come to know our power and our strength, together, to recognized oppression in its many guises, and to resist them all, since we know the feelings of the stranger, since we were strangers, and that is enough to know.
Shabbat shalom!

Shabbat VaEra: To Appear, Perchance to be Seen

Our parashat hashavua (the week’s Torah text) describes the ultimate I-Thou moment, between Moshe Rabbenu (the way Moses is known in our tradition, as “Moshe our Rabbi”) and HaShem (the way G*d is known in our tradition. Out of respect, the word “adonai” is avoided, in speech and in print, outside of prayer).

‘וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו אֲנִ֥י ה
G*d spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am HaShem.
וָאֵרָ֗א אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֖ב בְּאֵ֣ל שַׁדָּ֑י וּשְׁמִ֣י ה’ לֹ֥א נוֹדַ֖עְתִּי לָהֶֽם׃
I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name ‘ה. (Exodus 6.3)
This passage, which gives our parashah its name, Va”Era (“I appeared”), drives the commentators crazy. After all, we can easily demonstrate that the Tetragrammaton (the polite Greek way to say “four letter word,” in this case referring to the personal Name by which Jews refer to our G*d) does appear in the texts describing the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So what can this possibly mean? Does the book of Exodus not even know the book of Genesis? Who edited this collection of sacred texts anyway?
The brilliant medieval commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, affectionately known by all Torah studying Jews today by his acronym Rashi, has a wonderful, mind-opening solution to the question:
It is not written here לא הודעתי [My name HaShem] I did not make known to them, but לא נודעתי [by My name, HaShem], was I not known [unto them] — i. e. I was not recognised by them in My attribute of “keeping faith”, by reason of which My name is called ה׳, which denotes that I am certain to substantiate My promise, for, indeed, I made promises to them but did not fulfill them [during their lifetime]. (Sefaria.org)
Rashi invites us to take a very close look at the grammar of the words here. It is not written “I did not announce My Name to them” but “My Name was not known to them.” How incredibly prosaic, how ironic, how every-day-inevitable this is! To “appear,” it seems, is not necessarily to “be seen,” much less to be understood.
We can all relate to the possible interpretations of the difference between these two phrases, which essentially can be expressed as the difference between “I said” and “you heard.”
It might mean that I keep telling you something but it does not sink in;
or perhaps that I said this but you heard that;
or that, as Rashi says, what you heard was a word that remains unfulfilled in your world.
Much of our Jewish ethical tradition is based upon the kind of listening that the philosopher Martin Buber described in his work I and Thou (his philosophy is full of his Jewish experience and wisdom). After all, we are a people which historically declares shema – “listen!” as our most central saying. Buber teaches that by closely listening to another, we come to really see who that person is, and not only in relationship to us.
This is a deliberate ethic of behavior which is easily overlooked in our daily running about. So much doesn’t sink in, sometimes because we’ve been so bombarded by harshness that we have developed our defenses against really listening. But Rashi’s insight, in the final analysis, indicates this: if we cannot really hear, then much will remain unfulfilled for us. We will hear what we perceive to be promises, but they will go unrealized. We will hear but misunderstand. It won’t sink in. Yet Jewish ethics insists that a word, once spoken, is sacred and must be fulfilled.
Va’Era literally means “I was seen.” Each of us needs to be seen – something we do best when we listen to each other carefully, compassionately, and  without thinking ahead to what we ourselves will say next. On this Shabbat, may you open up to your own deep and generous capacity for listening, and in so doing find the reassurance you need that you, also, will be heard, and seen.

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

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.