Shabbat VaYekhi: Your New Day’s Resolution

Taking advantage of what is, interestingly enough after all, only an arbitrary way of calculating a turning point in the counting of our days (why not solstice?), this is the time of year when our society focuses upon the idea of making new year’s resolutions.
Jews practice a variation of this idea on Yom Kippur, when we are meant to consider the ways in which we have missed the mark for which each of us aims as we attempt to live as our best selves in the world. But you may be interested to learn, or be reminded, that our people also instituted a monthly mini-Yom Kippur as part of our regular weekday morning prayers. It seems that our people recognize that once a year review and effort toward change is not likely to be effective. This raises the question of what sort of approach might be most effective.
שוב יום לפני מתתך – “Repent one day before your death.” Pirke Avot 2.15
The Talmudic Rabbi Eliezer offers this answer in Pirke Avot (the title of a Talmudic compendium that might be best translated “ethical soundbites of our ancestors”). It is recorded in later levels of Talmudic discussion that other Rabbis take up this teaching thus:
Rabbi Eliezer’s students asked him: But does a person know the day on which he will die? He said to them: All the more so this is a good piece of advice, and one should repent today lest he die tomorrow; and by following this advice one will spend his entire life in a state of repentance. (BT Shabbat 153a)
Repentance and death are fascinating traveling companions. Thus, in parashat VaYekhi, our parashat hashavua, [Torah reading of the week], there is an interesting coincidence that brings several theological strands of Jewish culture together as the Patriarch Jacob, Yaakov ben Yitzkhak, dies at a very old age. Surrounded by his children, he speaks a final word to each. It is the kind of word that is not spoken every day, but it is a communication that each needed to hear. In this act of deathbed repentance, with each message to each child, Jacob turns away from the distractions of life and back, at the end, toward the essential parent-child bond.
This kind of repentance comes from the use the Hebrew word here, shuv. This verb is the imperative form of the word we know from Yom Kippur – teshuvah. In the Torah it is used to mean to turn around and go back, i.e. return. Jewish ethics understands here a return to one’s best self after straying from that path. For a people wandering a wilderness, staying on the path to the next oasis really was life and death, and so, perhaps, influenced our sense not only of our path – halakhah, but also the fact that sometimes one loses one’s way, and that it is vitally important to return to the right path – since one’s life depends upon it.
We might respond that it’s not really likely that we will die when we stray – but no one knows how long we each have to live. To “repent one day before your death” is to spend that day in the conscious realization that it might be your last. What would you like your last act to be? your last word?
The immediacy of it is striking when we consider the ways in which live our relationships obliquely, saying “later” and “when I have time.” Rabbi Eliezer reminds us that we may not have time later. When you are hiking, this is manifestly the best way to stay out of trouble: each day, check your path and make sure you return from whatever accidental straying you may have done. When you are making your way through a daily morass of fears and challenges, the ethical imperative to take one day at a time may be just what we need in order to stave off the feeling of being overwhelmed.
None of us knows how long we have. On this Shabbat, I encourage you to ignore the invitation to make a new year’s resolution in favor of making and re-making, every day, this new day’s resolution: repent – return, reset, reconnect with your best self, your loved ones, your community, your world – one day before your death.
Advertisements

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 Zakhor: Remember? then Do Something

This Shabbat, on which we read the first words of the book VaYikra, called Leviticus, is also called Zakhor, “remember”. 

For Jews, to remember is to do. This assumption – that the mental act prompts a physical one – is encoded in the ancient Hebrew: 

וַיְהִי בַיָּמִים הָרַבִּים הָהֵם, וַיָּמָת מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם, וַיֵּאָנְחוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מִן-הָעֲבֹדָה, וַיִּזְעָקוּ; וַתַּעַל שַׁוְעָתָם אֶל-הָאֱלֹהִים, מִן-הָעֲבֹדָה.

It came to pass in the course of this long time that the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel were groaning under their bondage, and they cried out, and their cry came up unto G-d.

וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-נַאֲקָתָם; וַיִּזְכֹּר אֱלֹהִים אֶת-בְּרִיתוֹ, אֶת-אַבְרָהָם אֶת-יִצְחָק וְאֶת-יַעֲקֹב.

G-d heard their cries, and G-d remembered the covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. (Exodus 2.23-24)

Jewish tradition teaches that we are to regard stories which depict G-d in human terms for their role model value. G-d clothed Adam and Eve, so should we clothe those in need; G-d buried Moshe, so we see to it that people are properly buried; G-d provides food for all through the processes of nature, so we make sure that the natural abundance of our world reaches all who are hungry.

So too here: G-d remembers that human beings are suffering, and moves to alleviate it, and the wheel of history turns. And as a result of this ancient linguistic idiom, Judaism develops an ethic: to remember, to take note, is to act. A good person can never note a problem and simply turn away, assuming that someone else will respond.

And so it is that we do what we can to move that wheel when it is our turn, even if only by a few inches. We are not called upon to fix the problem we face, necessarily, but we are expected to do our part, as the rabbinic saying goes:

 לא עליך כל המלאכה לגמור, ולא אתה בן חורין ליבטל  It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. (Mishnah, Pirke Avot 2.19)

So we do what we can, knowing that the only unacceptable response is the refusal to engage, and do what we can.

The Jewish ethic of remembering and doing offers us a curious question: What does it mean to say that G-d remembers? is it possible to say that G-d forgets? and for those of us who don’t think of G-d as a being who either remembers or forgets, but as a non-anthropomorphic reality or presence, what do either of those words mean?

Yizkor, “may G-d remember”, is the first word of the ritual we observe four times a year in memory of our loved ones who have died. If G-d is just a king on a throne, so to speak, then maybe that sort of divinity needs reminding. But consider it differently: perhaps we are expressing a desire for the memory of a loved one to continue to be remembered, in a way that causes an act, a change, in the world as it is, even though they are no longer with us. Perhaps what we are really saying is “may the world remember – and be affected by that memory”.

That is what brings us to the desire to see a photograph, or hear a voice recording, and know that it is extant in the world because it keeps a loved one more fully in that world. More profoundly appropriate, that is why in Jewish tradition one gives tzedakah as a memorial. Not because of the name alone, but because through the tzedakah that name is not only remembered, but good is enacted as well. And that is the moment in which we truly are sharing in a remembrance that is of G-d.

Every time you move that wheel just a bit, in memory of someone you loved, you bring that loved one into the Memory of the World.

This Shabbat is one of the special Shabbatot that reminds us of the approach of Pesakh – a time for Yizkor and a time for tzedakah. May you find a meaningful way to remember and to do, in honor of a memory you cherish.

Shabbat Ekev: Seeing What Is Being Born

איזהו חכם? הרואה את הנולד – Ayzehu hakham? HaRo’eh et haNolad, “who is wise? One who sees what is being born.” (Pirke Avot 2.9) So few of us, then, can think of ourselves as wise. We try in so many ways to affect our future, would give anything to know our future, to affect it in just the way we wish, or at least to know what will happen at times of great desire or fear. But we can’t even clearly understand all the results of our own actions.

Our parashat hashavua is called Ekev, meaning “because of” or “as a result of”; literally “on the heels of”. The parashah seems to be offering us a reassuring picture of our future: it begins with a description of the good that will follow because we have responded to the summons of the Shema to listen, to obey, to carry out the mitzvot. Later on in the parashah, we get the specific ethical forecast (later this section will be excerpted from the Torah to become part of the Shema section of our siddur):

“The rain will fall in season, the former rain and the latter, and you will be able to harvest your grain, your wine and your oil. There will be grass in the fields for the animals, and you will eat enough to be satisfied. Be careful not to misunderstand this, turning toward other sources of blessing, for then G-d’s anger will be kindled and the heavens will be sealed up – there will be no rain and no harvest, and you will perish quickly from what was a good land.” (Devarim 11.14-17)

It is in the last few generations that we have seen this description actually become true, ironically enough after a period in which modern humans began to scoff at language such as this. Ha! we said. Ethics don’t affect the rainfall or the harvest – look at how an unethical person may still be a successful one.

Our mistake was in assuming our own frame of reference for this warning, instead of understand the Biblical proportions. After a century of misunderstanding the planet and its needs, turning toward materialism and the profit motive as sources of blessing, we are, after all, experiencing precisely this: the heavens are sealed when they should be open, and rain falls not in its season, and we begin to see the consequences in harvests of hunger, and cynicism, and fear.

None of us could understand that the forces of progress and science were anything other than a blessing, and they do carry blessings – none of us could see what other forces were also being set in motion. The same is true of capitalism, or democracy, or introducing rabbits into Australia, or a random kind gesture to a stranger. We are not wise, and it is hard to see what is being born in the moment.

But after enough experience, and some learning from those who came before us, perhaps we can begin to develop the habit of taking for granted that something might be in the offing that we cannot see. Perhaps we might gain the humility of ceasing to assume that we already know the future. And then we will understand the parashah’s beginning: וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן – v’hayah ekev tishme’un, “And it will be because you listened.”