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 Bo: You Are Here In Ferguson

In this week’s parashah, we read of how we went out of Egypt.

That’s the command: “in every generation, to see ourselves as those who go out of Egypt.” (Talmud, Pesakhim 116b) Not to imagine as if, but to experience the going out ourselves, in an immediate way. How is that possible? I can’t feel myself enslaved as we were in Egypt; I can’t feel what it’s like to leave home at a moment’s notice and without any possessions.

Isn’t it much more comfortable to regard the stories of our religious tradition from a certain distance? Easier to condemn when necessary, to condescend, to dismiss as primitive and under-developed. But the ancients had an ability to sense reality just as acutely as we moderns. Perhaps theirs was a capacity felt in a different register, but it is a perspective that we might benefit from considering. It requires immersing ourselves in a different kind of mind-set, and heart-set.

Consider:

The story goes that the Israelites left Egypt in the middle of a terrifying night during which every first born child and animal in Egypt died. This is hard to take at face value for a true story, but this is where our tradition offers us another way to understand. The story before us is brutal: slavery by degrees, from which we are extricated with wrenching, overwhelming, all-encompassing suddenness. Innocents die in the process – many Israelites and Egyptians whose names we do not know, many more Egyptians with the onset of the plagues even before the death of the first born, and more still to come at the Sea of Reeds.

There is much suffering in a time of great change, and there is destruction ringing the edges of the most beautiful freedom story. Many are dead, with no clear reason or meaning to their tragic deaths. Refugees may be alive, but their futures are bereft. Those whose action or passive compliance allow the suffering to occur also find themselves suffering, for no direct reason that is discernible to them. We drift in darkness and confusion, and turn upon each other with fear rather than compassion.

If we can see ourselves in Egypt, then we can begin to see ourselves leaving Egypt – that is, not each of us personally, but all of us communally. We can begin to discern the beginnings of movement, the promise of upheaval. “Who is wise?” the Talmud records a Rabbi saying, “the one who can see what is being born.” (Pirke Avot 2.9)

Reading this parashat hashavua (weekly parashah, Torah reading) in the same week as Martin Luther King Jr day, after a year in which some of those whose deaths would normally go unrecorded came to prominence – Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford, and, only today, Jerame Reid, brings a special resonance. Their tragic deaths seem meaningless. Their families and communities are refugees in their own nation, and we suffer the echoes of the far-reaching, inchoate destruction without any clear sense of connection.

Jewish tradition insists that we will not leave Egypt until we all go out together – and we as individuals will not all get there, but we as the human race must. When we know this in our hearts we will have understood the meaning of the mitzvah: b’khol dor vador hayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza mimitzrayim, “in every age and age, we are required to see ourselves as going out of Egypt.” In every age so far, we have not done it. Until we can see it, we cannot do it; until we are here together, we will never get there.

Shabbat Bo: When Will Death Come?

Have you seen the television commercial for heart health that begins with a person very matter-of-factly receiving a note that says “your heart attack is coming tomorrow.” As we know, says the voice-over, such events happen without any warning. If you could know when a life-threatening event would happen, you could prepare for it, dodge it – even, as in our Jewish legends, try to avoid the Angel of Death by changing your name, or heading to the town of Luz (where no one ever died).

This week our reading, the second segment of the parashah according to our Triennial Cycle count, begins with a terrifying declaration: come midnight, all the first born of Egypt shall die. Terrifying, yes, but perhaps some people would like to have such certainty. After all, there’s even a “Death Clock” on the internet. Very appealing, perhaps, to fill in the information it requests – but would you believe the answer?

Our ancestors were aware that they were part of a never ending cycle of life and death; that they, like all that lived and moved, would one day stop living, stop moving. Curiously, ancient Hebrews did not seem to worry so much about life after death – at least, not to the extent that our Torah speaks of it. When our ancestors died, according to our Scriptures, they either had a “good death”, which meant being surrounded by loved ones who cared for and buried the body afterward, or a “bad death”, which meant that one died in agony – of war, disease, famine, and other horrible causes – and that there was no sure burial for the body. A “good death” was indicated by the idiom “gathered to one’s ancestors”, and a “bad death” was expressed by the term “going down to She’ol”. (A helpful site for more information, including what the ancient Hebrews DID believe about life after death, is in the Jewish Encyclopdia: Sheol.)

The fear of death, however, was as powerful for them as it is for us. When would death come? how? when will we be deprived of those we love? In most cases, there is no certainty. Even in our first verse of this week’s reading, there is one tiny letter that hints at the uncertain territory between life and death. In Exodus 11.4 it is literally written: כחצת הלילה – “some time around midnight”. The single letter khaf indicates “sort of”, “almost”, or “about”.

That’s as close as we get in Judaism to the ultimate truth of life and death. That letter khaf stands in between us and the complete, transcendent truth. We cannot know the time of our death, or any of the other things we want to know the most, and the khaf is there to remind us of that.

Don’t let the khaf get you down, though. Consider this tiny message from the Hebrew letter: the letter khaf has the same name as the word “hand”, and a khaf has the numerical values of two tens, that it, two yuds, which designate a Name of G-d. The little khaf that stands between you and death reminds you that you are in the hands of G-d. And no matter where you go, what you fear, or what happens to you when, you can never fall out of the hands of G-d.