Shabbat Nakhamu: Sometimes the Answer is No

This Shabbat we study the second parashah of Devarim, Deuteronomy, called Va’Etkhanan, “I implored.” The name refers to the pleading of Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our Teacher, to be allowed to enter the Land of Promise which has been his life’s dream and every day work. According to the Midrash (ancient Rabbinical literature which show us how to explore for deeper meanings in the Torah text), after G*d does not relent, Moshe tries to bargain (an honorable Middle Eastern tradition):

Then Moses said, “Master of the universe, if I am not to enter the Land alive, let me enter dead, as the bones of Joseph are about to enter.” … ‘No’ is G*d’s reply… Then Moses said, “Master of the universe, if You will not let me enter the Land of Israel, allow me to remain [alive] like the beasts of the field, who eat grass, drink water, and thus savor the world–let me be like one of these.” At that, G*d replied, “Enough. Speak no more to Me of this matter” (Deut. 3:26).

But Moses spoke up again, “Master of the universe, if not [like a beast of the field], then let me become like a bird that flies daily in every direction to gather its food and in the evening returns to its nest–let me be like one of these.” The Holy One replied again, “Enough.”

This Midrash reflects that our ancestors did not believe in magic, nor in miracles that a human could pry out of the Divine; more, the Rabbis of antiquity knew very well from their own experience that bad things happen, even to good people, and while we may plead with all our heart, it may not change the outcome. Sometimes, even when we pray our hardest and most creatively for what we want, the answer is still going to be No.

This Shabbat marks the days after the biggest NO our people can experience; it is the NO to the plea to be spared, to not let destruction happen, to not let all be lost. Tisha B’Av (the 9th day of the month of Av), now three days ago, marks our memory of the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of our people. Much prayer seemed to be for nothing.
But this Shabbat, only a few days after that nadir, is called Nakhamu, “be comforted.” It seems a surprising and perhaps even offensive idea; awful things happened although I prayed and pleaded and hoped that they should not, how am I to find comfort? The Prophet Isaiah, who saw terrible suffering and destruction in his lifetime, offers this:
 נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ, עַמִּי–יֹאמַר, אֱלֹהֵ-כֶם. Comfort you, O be comforted My people, says your G*d.
דַּבְּרוּ עַל-לֵב יְרוּשָׁלִַם, וְקִרְאוּ אֵלֶיהָ–כִּי מָלְאָה צְבָאָהּ, כִּי נִרְצָה עֲו‍ֹנָהּ:  כִּי לָקְחָה מִיַּד י-ה, כִּפְלַיִם בְּכָל-חַטֹּאתֶיהָ. Tell Jerusalem to take heart, proclaim unto her that her time is accomplished, that her guilt is paid off; that she has received of HaShem’s hand more than enough reflection back for all her sins.
קוֹל קוֹרֵא–בַּמִּדְבָּר, פַּנּוּ דֶּרֶךְ י-ה; יַשְּׁרוּ, בָּעֲרָבָה, מְסִלָּה, לֵאלֹהֵ-נוּ. Listen! a voice calls out: ‘Clear in the wilderness the way of HaShem, make way in the desert a highway for our G*d.
כָּל-גֶּיא, יִנָּשֵׂא, וְכָל-הַר וְגִבְעָה, יִשְׁפָּלוּ; וְהָיָה הֶעָקֹב לְמִישׁוֹר, וְהָרְכָסִים לְבִקְעָה. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the rugged shall be made level, and the rough places plain;
וְנִגְלָה, כְּבוֹד י-ה; וְרָאוּ כָל-בָּשָׂר יַחְדָּו, כִּי פִּי י-ה דִּבֵּר.  {פ} The glory of HaShem shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of HaShem has proclaimed it.’
קוֹל אֹמֵר קְרָא, וְאָמַר מָה אֶקְרָא; כָּל-הַבָּשָׂר חָצִיר, וְכָל-חַסְדּוֹ כְּצִיץ הַשָּׂדֶה. Listen! a voice calls out: ‘Proclaim!’ and there is a reply: ‘What shall I proclaim?’ ‘All flesh is grass, and all the goodness of it is as the flower of the field;
יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר נָבֵל צִיץ, כִּי רוּחַ י-ה נָשְׁבָה בּוֹ; אָכֵן חָצִיר, הָעָם. The grass withers and the flower fades when the breath of Eternity blows on it; surely the people are grass.
יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר, נָבֵל צִיץ; וּדְבַר-אֱלֹהֵ-נוּ, יָקוּם לְעוֹלָם.  {ס} The grass withers and the flower fades; but an Eternal word stands for ever.’  (Isaiah 40.1-8)
All of us, and all of our struggles and pain, are not all that there is in this world. While suffering is real and terrible in one place, joy and gratitude are equally real in another. Rather than a comforting which promises an answer for our pain, so that we can understand it, Isaiah reflects the reality of the Rabbis who chose this text for this week many generations ago: we are like grass, which fades so quickly; all our joy and our pain fades as fast.
If it all passes, then our tradition offers us not answers, but how to respond, and what to do while we are here. Our daily prayers tell us that we are to follow G*d’s example as demonstrated in the Torah:
to somekh noflim, hold each other up as each of us falls,
to rofeh holim, care for those who are suffering,
to matir asurim, help those who are trapped to become free,
and
to m’kayyem emunato lisheyney afar, faithfully maintaining the memory of those who “sleep in the dust.”
The comforting, we are promised, will come of itself; not because we found someone to make our suffering central, but because we’ve found a community in which to make sure that it does not become central to us, through seeking and doing the mitzvot that make our lives holy, no matter how long or short, happy or troubled, they may be.
Thus, we are told, we are able to immerse ourselves in the ultimate comfort: imitation of G*d, leading us closer with every act to G*d. Rabbi Akiba called G*d Mikveh Israel, “the Hope of Israel.”

May this Shabbat bring you comfort in that you are able to offer love and support to others, and in so doing immerse yourself in the love and support and hope that you, and we all, need.

Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other

Shabbat Va’Etkhanan: Your Life is a Prayer

Our parashah is called Va’Etkhanan, literally translated “I beseech.” Moshe is recounting to us how he begged G*d for the one thing he could not have: the ability to cross over the Jordan River with the People of Israel into the Promised Land. Moshe our leader was denied the satisfaction of crossing the finish line himself. Although he was allowed to see it from afar, G*d made it clear to him that he would not enter. 

This type of prayer, from the root kh.n.n, is familiar to us: we call those prayers Selikhot, and recite them every year at the time of Atonement. So it seems that our parashat hashavua acts for us as an early warning system. Yom Kippur is coming! From Shabbat Va’Etkhanan it is a bit less than eight weeks in the future.

There are many words for prayer in our sources. An ancient commentary on our parashah offers that 

“prayer is called by ten names: cry, howl, groan, song, encounter, stricture, prostration, judgment, and beseeching.” (Midrash Rabbah) 

It can be startling to consider how many of our acts are actually a form of prayer. Now we can see why Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that when he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in Selma, he felt that his feet were praying. But which form of prayer did he mean? 

It would give us a pretty picture to contemplate if we consider that he meant “encounter” or even “song”; indeed, the famous photograph gives support for that reading. But as we in our community grapple with our responsibility as part of the White community of the United States of America, and keep tripping over our vulnerability as part of the Jewish community of the world, we may find ourselves more able to relate to more painful moments of prayer:

Stricture: we may feel confused, and constrained in our ability to act meaningfully.

Groan: more and more people tell me that they are no longer watching the news, for it is too painful.

Prostration: this is a posture of helplessness in the face of overwhelming anxiety.

Rabbi Heschel’s statement offers us a way to explore this idea further: it seems that the Jewish concept of prayer covers much human territory. More, it does so by offering context out of Jewish history, culture and ethics. To pray, for Jews, is sometimes to sit in meditation on the words and what they mean; but more often, it is to act in full awareness that by our acts we carry out the words and their meaning.

It can be a perfect circle: the words help us find meaning, and we instill meaning into the words by carrying them out.

So this is what Rabbi Heschel might have meant for us by his marching in Selma, and calling it prayer: each of us Jews becomes the best possible White citizen of the U.S. when we are empowered by the awareness that our lives are prayers, and when we know what that means, and can mean, for us.

We are now entering a time of focus upon beseeching G*d for clarity, for understanding and for mercy, preparatory to and part of the atonement process. May you find your own way into all ten expressions of Jewish prayer and may it empower you to see all your life as one great prayer, in every moment. There is much crying, much howling, that is a true expression of our day. May there also be much opportunity – made by our efforts – for song.

 images

Shabbat Hazon: A Vision To Hold On To

This week we begin to read the final book of the Torah, called devarim, “words”. The entire book consists of Moshe’s parting words.

The Israelites will soon cross the Jordan River, under the leadership of Joshua. Before the crossing, a moment of reflection: Moshe is reminding the Israelites of where they came from, and how far they have come. Over and over he will urge us, remember your ancestors, and what they did; remember your forebears, and what they taught.

As we face the challenges of our lives, it may help to consider that, whatever we are facing, there is a good possibility that either we have been in a similar situation before, or that our friends, our colleagues, even – yikes – our parents, may have, and may have the wisdom of experience to share. None of us need ever be alone in a stressful situation.  As Jews, we are told this over and over again: you are part of a community that remembers, that seeks to learn from experience, and that holds before it an ideal against which we measure ourselves, our experiences, and our beliefs.

Our starting point is the belief that life is a gift, and that it is not enough to be grateful. We have a responsibility as receivers of the gift of life, to respond out of that gratitude, and ask what is my obligation? what do I owe to Life, having been given life? The answer, of course, is to become the best life-form we can be: to be open always to learning, to pray and meditate upon that which is learned, and to practice loving kindness at all times.

It is easy to understand a teaching when one agrees with it; it is easy to pray and meditate when one is serene; it is easy to do kindness to those we like or feel sorry for. But our obligation to uphold our ethics is no less when it’s difficult – rather, that’s where we find out what we really believe, and what we really worship. It is in the face of anger, frustration, stress, and fear that we discover what we’re really made of.

On this Shabbat we are challenged by a special haftarah to consider how we are doing. This special Shabbat is called Shabbat Hazon – the “Shabbat of vision”. The vision is that of the Prophet Isaiah, whose words supply our haftarah for this Shabbat. On this Shabbat, consider his words as they echo in your life and the life of our People:

21 How is the faithful city become a harlot! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her once. 

22 Your silver is become dross, your wine mixed with water. 

23 Your leaders are rebellious, and companions of thieves; every one loves bribes, and follow after rewards; they judge not the fatherless, neither doth the cause of the widow come unto them.

24 Therefore says our G-d, the Mighty One of Israel: Ah, I will ease Me of Mine adversaries, and avenge Me of Mine enemies; 

25 And I will turn My hand upon you, and purge away your dross as with lye, and will take away all your alloy; 

26 And I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counsellors as at the beginning; afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city. 

27 Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and they that return of her with righteousness. 

Evil, whether done by us or by others, will not endure, if we are committed to its end. This is the vision that we are called upon to believe in and to make real through our words and our acts. On this Shabbat, consider your own power to create a more just world in every small act, in every situation, and that real justice will only come from finding within ourselves a willingness to learn also from those whom we don’t like, to pray and to meditate upon our acts and our attitudes when we are not serene, and to practice kindness with those from whom we recoil. Such behavior can only come from constantly reminding ourselves, in the moment before crossing from a word to an act, to consider G-d’s command to us to, at all times, to

do justice

love mercy

and walk humbly with G-d. (Micah 6.8)