Shabbat No’akh: There’s Still Time

What caused the destruction of all that lived upon the earth? The Torah describes the divine thought process:

וַתִּשָּׁחֵ֥ת הָאָ֖רֶץ לִפְנֵ֣י הָֽאֱלֹהִ֑ים וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ חָמָֽס׃

The earth became corrupt before G*d; the earth was filled with lawlessness.

וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְהִנֵּ֣ה נִשְׁחָ֑תָה כִּֽי־הִשְׁחִ֧ית כׇּל־בָּשָׂ֛ר אֶת־דַּרְכּ֖וֹ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ 

When G*d saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth,

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֜ים לְנֹ֗חַ קֵ֤ץ כׇּל־בָּשָׂר֙ בָּ֣א לְפָנַ֔י כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֥ה הָאָ֛רֶץ חָמָ֖ס מִפְּנֵיהֶ֑ם וְהִנְנִ֥י מַשְׁחִיתָ֖ם אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

G*d said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.” (Bereshit 6.11-13)

Comparisons with other ancient literature show a common thread in the Flood story: something more powerful than humans reacts to human evil.

What was the evil that was so great that it caused the destruction of the world? Jewish commentaries focus upon the word in our parashah, חמס – hamas, “lawlessness.” In modern Hebrew the definition is

Violence, injustice, oppression, wrong, cruelty, injury

The term appears in the Torah in contexts that show that the behavior is sociopathic:

“Malicious witness” – Shemot 23.1

“Testify falsely” – Devarim 19.16

Jacob’s deathbed curse of Shimon and Levi: their tools are tools of hamas (Bereshit 49.5)

These ancient witnesses to the breakdown of human relationships and the ensuing world-destroying horror shine a truth upon all of us. In the words of Thursday’s bar mitzvah, Alexandre Leikam, the world was destroyed because human beings did not work together in community for good.

The world was destroyed by hamas. Violence, injustice, oppression, wrong, cruelty, and injury committed by people like you and me. It will be destroyed again by you and me if we do not learn the lesson that hamas is not demonic, but in our hands to do or to not do.

It’s easy to see this in the Climate Emergency activists, led by young people demanding the hope of their future from corporations that maximize profit at the expense of all life. We can see it in the effects of social breakdown that cause suffering and death to the vulnerable, whether they die of cold in a tent or of a policeman’s gun. 

It’s harder to see our own part in either the evil or the good. For that we have to go back to the Torah and look for our own reflection. 

What is it to testify falsely? We can see it in the Torah’s prescribed remedy: no one is convicted on the basis of one witness. There must be two – and they must speak openly. No anonymous complaints are given credence.

What is it to witness maliciously? Maimonides supplies the answer: lashon hara’, speaking negatively of another person. 

This does not mean that we are not to denounce wrongdoing. It does mean that every time we speak up to criticize, we must balance the mitzvah of naming hamas with the mitzvah of “love the other as you love yourself,” which means that you should call out someone else as you yourself would appreciate being notified that you’ve crossed the line of social decency.

What destroys the world? Disconnect between you and me, the kind that allows you to complain about me, or me about you, without ever feeling the need to actually talk together to repair our relationship. 

According to our Jewish ethical tradition, the doorway into the opportunity to repent our evil that opened at Yom Kippur does not close until Hanukkah. On this Shabbat No’akh, consider not the evil corporations but the casual hamas of our days, and seek to rid yourself of it. Stop expecting the worst of others; stop carping; start loving. The world depends upon it.

Shabbat Bereshit: The Fate of the Earth

The curse of farming, or, not all who wander are wrong

On this Shabbat we begin all over again with Bereshit, a recounting of the ancient legends our people  knew about how human life began. 

Interestingly, some of the first stories make no sense to us. We are mystified by HaShem’s choice of Abel’s offering over Cain’s. For that matter, why is it such a big deal if we eat of a tree of knowledge of good and evil? Aren’t we supposed to know the difference, and isn’t that distinguishing at the heart of our Jewish ethics?

Comparisons to other origin stories of the ancient Near East shed some light, sometimes. Just as our creation myth depicts a divinity creating the world out of an abyss of water and darkness, others local goddesses and gods create the world out of something – for instance, the origin myth of Ugarit details the murder of the Mother Goddess by her son, who fashions mountains from her breasts, and the sea from her tears. 

Where reason ends, mysticism and midrash sometimes find a deeper sense of meaning. Based on a midrashic understanding, the great Rabbi Judah Lowe of Prague (mistakenly considered the creator of the golem) suggested that human beings were meant to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, because until we sinned – by doing so, against HaShem’s edict – we could not know what good and evil are. 

One of the mysteries we confront in this week’s parashah is this: why is farming a curse? We see it expressed three times, once in the punishment HaShem ordains for eating of the tree in Eden:

וְק֥וֹץ וְדַרְדַּ֖ר תַּצְמִ֣יחַֽ לָ֑ךְ וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ אֶת־עֵ֥שֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶֽה׃

Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you, 

yet your food shall be the grasses of the field

בְּזֵעַ֤ת אַפֶּ֙יךָ֙ תֹּ֣אכַל לֶ֔חֶם עַ֤ד שֽׁוּבְךָ֙ אֶל־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה כִּ֥י מִמֶּ֖נָּה לֻקָּ֑חְתָּ כִּֽי־עָפָ֣ר אַ֔תָּה וְאֶל־עָפָ֖ר תָּשֽׁוּב׃

By the sweat of your brow 

Shall you get bread to eat,

Until you return to the ground—

For from it you were taken.

For dust you are,

And to dust you shall return. (Bereshit 3.18-19)*

The second time is at the birth of Noah, whose parents say:

וַיִּקְרָ֧א אֶת־שְׁמ֛וֹ נֹ֖חַ לֵאמֹ֑ר זֶ֞֠ה יְנַחֲמֵ֤נוּ מִֽמַּעֲשֵׂ֙נוּ֙ וּמֵעִצְּב֣וֹן יָדֵ֔ינוּ מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵֽרְרָ֖הּ יְהֹוָֽה׃

This one will provide us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands, 

out of the very soil which HaShem placed under a curse. (Bereshit 5.29)

The third instance is in the very rejection of Cain’s agricultural offering and the acceptance of Abel’s shepherd’s offering. Clearly, farming is a cursed existence – yet our sources do not understand why.

Of all things! – the book Ishmael that I invited you to read during Elul of this past year, as we prepared spiritually for the High Holy Days, offers us an interesting insight. The reason that we do not understand these stories is that by the time that the Torah becomes our sacred text, we have given ourselves entirely over to the existential narrative that our lives are to be based upon farming the soil. 

Of course, this leads to the impossibility of the shemitta year which has now begun; every seventh year we are commanded by Torah to let the land rest. The idea seems unreasonable – in much the same way it seems unreasonable to let ourselves rest every seventh day. 

Is there a correlation between the state of a human body when it is deprived of rest and the state of the earth deprived of rest? What, perhaps, might we have to learn the hard way if we cannot do what we are commanded out of ancient wisdom to do?

If you have not yet had the chance to read Ishmael I still recommend it. Or you can read the archeological studies indicating that the first farmers experienced heightened hardship and lowered life expectancy; and the discovery that a major spiritual gathering site in Turkey was not created after farming reached that region, forcing scholars to re-consider the orthodoxy that civilization is necessarily a by-product of farming.

As we begin again with Bereshit, may we remember that every bit of Torah has seventy different possible interpretations, according to Jewish tradition – and that which we do not yet understand is not necessarily either unreasonable or ignored by those who seek wisdom by which to live. We’ve eaten from that tree, we are what we are, and it’s vital that we use the capacity we have to distinguish good from evil, and truth from myth.


*I’ve left the text in the original poetic format, to emphasize the antiquity of the passage (Biblical scholarship has established that the poetic passages in the Torah are the most ancient, and most clearly indicative of its original oral transmission.

Shabbat Hol HaMo’ed Sukkot: Joy As Defiance

On this Shabbat we have come to the halfway point of the fall Sukkot festival. This time of year invites us to recognize our total dependence upon the fertility of the soil and the luck of the weather for our lives. The lulav and etrog which we wave in the direction of the four winds, the sukkah (ours or someone else’s) in which we are to spend a week of reading, eating and, weather permitting, sleeping, both are designed to bring our attention to the natural world upon which we depend, and which we do not control. We are to celebrate this time as z’man simkhateynu, “the season of our joy,” nevertheless. 

The Torah reading for the Shabbat of Hol HaMo’ed Sukkot (the Intermediate Days of Sukkot) is also about that which we do not control. The experience of Moshe Rabbenu, the ultimate leader of our people, is reduced in this Torah reading to begging HaShem to overlook the wild card in any relationship: the human heart.

וַיֹּאמַ֑ר פָּנַ֥י יֵלֵ֖כוּ וַהֲנִחֹ֥תִי לָֽךְ׃

HaShem said, “If I will go in the lead, will it lighten your burden?”

וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אֵלָ֑יו אִם־אֵ֤ין פָּנֶ֙יךָ֙ הֹלְכִ֔ים אַֽל־תַּעֲלֵ֖נוּ מִזֶּֽה׃

Moshe said, “Unless You go in the lead, do not make us leave this place.” 

(Shemot 33.14-15)

There’s a lot of midrash (ancient commentary) on this section of Torah, in which Moshe and HaShem are feeling out the new contours of the relationship between the Chosen People and their Chooser, and HaShem, perhaps daunted, is ready to appoint an angelic emissary as a go between.   

The idea of a go-between is so inviting! We ourselves use it all the time when we choose to bridge uncertainty with a text or email rather than the possible emotional volatility of an uncertain face-to-face. Yet Moshe rejects it, perhaps sensing that it could be the beginning of an uncrossable abyss between us and HaShem.

One of the great learnings emerging from the COVID-19 experience for us is the two-sided sword of distancing. It’s our own version of joy in the midst of an uncertainty we cannot control. Physical distancing is necessary because it could save lives, yet babies who are not held do not thrive. The Zoom screen saves jobs and relationships, yet induces fatigue and frustration because we cannot read body language. Worst of all, physical distancing leads to social distance, and although we can meet people on Zoom we cannot get to know each other.

We cannot control the situation beyond our own decisions within it. We cannot control the feelings of the heart, not even our own. But we can refuse to distance ourselves from joy despite the uncertainty of this fall harvest of ours. Like Moshe, we can insist that we will not leave “this place,” this Sukkot week that insists that we celebrate despite uncertainty, without HaShem in our midst. 

In Jewish tradition, HaShem is with us whenever we are together in meaningful community. Community is the sukkah that is your spiritual home. May it give you the strength you need to choose to celebrate within uncertainty, despite uncertainty, because we need each other.

mo’adim l’simkha, may the Intermediate days of our Festival be joyful!

Shabbat shalom

Shabbat VaYelekh: Beginning the Shemitta Year

On this Shabbat VaYelekh we have come nearly to the end of the Sefer Torah. Most of the parchment is rolled up on one side of the two atzei hayim, the two “trees of life” upon which the scroll is rolled. It’s a lot of parchment; a lot of text, of reading and studying and learning, has brought us to this point.

Every year we reflect upon the entirety of the gift of our Torah at Simkhat Torah, which we will celebrate at the end of Sukkot. But this year, as once every seven years, we also find ourselves marking the ancient cycle of the shemitta year. From time before time until this year, Jews are to observe a cycle of seven. Just as we observe the seventh day, so too do we mark the seventh year. 

By something other than coincidence, then, we find in this week’s parashah:

וַיְצַ֥ו מֹשֶׁ֖ה אוֹתָ֣ם לֵאמֹ֑ר מִקֵּ֣ץ ׀ שֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֗ים בְּמֹעֵ֛ד שְׁנַ֥ת הַשְּׁמִטָּ֖ה בְּחַ֥ג הַסֻּכּֽוֹת

Moses taught them saying: Every seventh year, the shemitta year, at the Festival of Sukkot,

בְּב֣וֹא כׇל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל לֵֽרָאוֹת֙ אֶת־פְּנֵי֙ ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ בַּמָּק֖וֹם אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִבְחָ֑ר תִּקְרָ֞א אֶת־הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּ֛את נֶ֥גֶד כׇּל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בְּאׇזְנֵיהֶֽם

when all Israel comes to appear before HaShem Eternity in the chosen place, you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel. (Devarim 31.10-11)

This year we have just begun, this year of 5782 which is five days old on Shabbat VaYelekh, is a year of remission, a shemitta year. This week’s parashah reminds us: during the week of Sukkot – ten days from now, starting on Monday September 20 – we are to gather, and hear the Teaching, the Torah. I imagine it as a cross between a Shabbat in the Park and a public reading of Ulysses – beloved and somewhat incomprehensible.

At any rate, our lives have changed radically since those ancient days, and Sukkot has paled in significance next to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It’s too bad, really, because the harvest has not lost its significance; only many of us, distanced by production lines, consumer advertising, and grocery store packaging, have lost our connection to it.

What will the year of shemitta mean to us? The “year of remission,” is the year of forgiving debts, the year of letting the land rest, and the year of contemplating the entirety of the Torah. 

1.  Who owes you? In the spirit of the season in which we find ourselves, Sukkot is a chance to finish the work of Yom Kippur. Does someone owe you an apology, a rectification, a debt? Forgive it.

2.  In the ancient world, land was both the source of sustenance and of inequality. Regardless of the source of your sustenance, if every seven years we are to level the playing field, what can you do to address systemic inequality in your community? How can you take whatever you have in abundance and share it? It may be finances, but in our relationship-starved days, it may also be love.

3. The third mitzvah of the year of Shemitta is the obligation to hear the Teaching. There is an ancient teaching that the entire Torah (which used to be written without spaces between words)  is one long word: the unknown, unpronounceable, ineffable Name of G*d. 

On this Shabbat, as you contemplate all the Teaching that is to come, listen for the bat kol, the still small voice, in your acts of forgiving and leveling. That Name is there in all we do and all we are, when we do it with compassion, in love.

Shabbat VaYeilekh: We Went Forth

By Shir Tikvah Talmidah Hakhamah Emma Lugo

In Vayeilech we find Moshe Rabeinu at the end of his life, and what a long and strange trip it has been.  Our beloved Moses was born into slavery but became the Prince of Egypt by floating down a river, he discovered the truth about who he really was, lived the life of a shepherd in the wilderness, was spoken to by the Divine when he was already into what we might consider middle age, came back to Egypt to lead a revolution that was sealed in a promise from the Divine that she would not abandon her people, split the Red Sea and led the people through 40 years of wandering in the desert, now about to cross over into the promised land but Moses doesn’t get to go.

Instead the Divine has chosen Joshua and the message to Moses is clear.  Your time is up, even though you are bright-eyed you can no longer be active, it is up to the Divine who has made their choice and it will be Joshua, led by the Divine who will follow through on the life work of Moses.

We have been through a moment, both in our community and in the world.  We are in a moment of profound transition both as Jews and as Americans as well as global citizens.  We are standing at that boundary between a planet that we have loved, that has nurtured and sustained us for 10,000 generations and we are stepping into a new reality that has been created by our desire, our greed, our blindness and it doesn’t look so good.

Perhaps that is one of the reminders of Vayeilech, it is a reminder that the Divine is not our Mother.  She is not there to just approvingly nod at all of our misdirections, our evil deeds, our neglect.  The spaces where we collectively and individually have failed to protect our planet and all the precious life forms that exist in her nurturing womb.  If we turn to the idols of greed, of neglect, of obliviousness, when we fail to see the future consequences of our actions today Vayeilech is here to remind us, on this special Shabbat between Rosh Hoshana and Yom Kippur that Judaism is a religion of doing, it is an action.  We have a ritual that is given to us, a way of understanding the world that was given to us by the redactors of the Torah.  They had an intuitive understanding of human nature and using the tools that they had in their time to create a text that has carried us through the generations.

Moses sings a song, a Shira, but it is not a happy song.  It is a song of divination, an opportunity to look into the future and into the hearts of his people.  Moses has risen from out of the ashes of time to become the blueprint for the Prophet.  He and his brother have transformed the lives of a people by listening to the Divine, understanding the deepest meaning of how they interpreted her will and created the foundation of a text that provides a pathway to justice.  

In verse 20 of Vayeilech the Divine speaks through Moses, “When I bring them into a land flowing with milk and honey . . . they will eat their fill and grow fat, turning to other gods, they will spurn me . . . many evils and troubles will befall them and this poem will confront them as a witness, it will never be lost from their offspring.”  Rabbenu Bahya in his commentary said that this paragraph speaks about the conditions during the first temple, but it could just as easily speak to us about conditions today.  What was it in our national consciousness that allowed us to turn our backs on the progress and vision we have as a fully inclusive country?  Where in our national character, as Americans, did we allow ourselves to tolerate national leaders or a Supreme court that has turned its back on immigrants, on people of color, and on women.  How have we become so filled with the evil inclination that we can tolerate turning citizens into bounty hunters, chasing down women who choose to exercise their fundamental rights to choice?

Where in our past did we lose the connection to that high point in the Civil Rights movement when the Voting Rights Act was passed, resulting in the elections of thousands of African Americans to local, statewide, and national office, culminating in the election of our first black President in 2000.  How did we lose our way to the point that we now have completely gutted the Voting Rights Act and have tolerated legislation passed in states like Georgia which are based on outright lies about election integrity?  Meanwhile, our desperate neighbors to the global south, yearning for freedom looking to that shining light are still trying to cross over into the promise that we have neglected but which they still believe in.

Vayeilech, as well as all of Torah, is a reminder that everything is one, everything is interconnected and the future is not a given.  If we tolerate a nation that grows up on shows like “Cops” and is willing to tolerate an expanded federal and state prison system that has incarcerated millions of black and brown people in the last thirty years mostly for nonviolent drug offenses, if we cannot see the long chain of white supremacy in the emanations of the present, then we will continue to pay the price and the Divine indeed will continue to turn her face from us. 

Rabbenu Bahya, speaking in the commentary reminds us that Moses is looking at the future, he can draw conclusions from Israel’s behavior in his own time that the people will suffer from their inclination to practice idolatry, their sufferings will increase and they will turn away from the Divine.  

This Torah moment, this week when we study Vayeilech on its own separated from her companion Nitzavim, is a powerful moment.  We are right in the midst of the high holy days, the days between Rosh Hoshana and Yom Kippur when we have the power within us, really that power that we have at any time, but our tradition has given us this ritual to understand that we have the power of transformation within us.  We can change ourselves, we can change the world.  When Moses looked at his life, and when he saw his people, he understood that he had a responsibility to lead his people out of slavery, and led by the Divine, protected and wrapped up in the blessing of her promise he did it.  In our tradition effort and intention is everything,  now is the time to turn away from those chains of the past that have dragged us down and to see the truly revolutionary power of Teshuva to bring us out of the murky spaces of the past into a bright future where we are again standing together in covenant, a kehillah kedosha, a community of transformation and repair.

Who By Fire and Who By Water

as we prepare for the High Holy Days, this prayer from last year is still, sadly, relevant

In the morning it is written and in the evening it is sealed: 

  • Who shall die jogging 
  • Who shall die relaxing in their home
  • Who shall die seeking help after a car crash 
  • Who shall die holding a cellphone
  • Who shall die decorating for a party
  • Who shall die leaving a party 

We say their names: Ahmaud Arbery, Botham Jean, Atatiana Jefferson, Jonathan Ferrell, Renisha McBride, Stephon Clark, Claude Reese, Jordan Edwards, Sean Bell.

In the morning it is written and in the evening it is sealed

  •  Who shall die enjoying music 
  • Who shall die selling music 
  • Who shall die sleeping 
  • Who shall die studying the Bible 
  • Who shall die for a traffic violation 
  • Who shall die coming from the store 

We say their names: Jordan Davis, Alton Sterling, Aiyana Jones, Breonna Taylor, the Charleston Nine, Sandra Bland, Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin.

In the morning it is written and in the evening it is sealed: 

  • Who shall die playing cops and robbers
  • Who shall die lawfully carrying a weapon
  • Who shall die on the shoulder of the road with car problems 
  • Who shall die in the first hours of the new year 
  • Who shall die shopping at Walmart 
  • Who shall die cashing a check 

We say their names: Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Corey Jones, Terence Crutcher, Oscar Grant, John Crawford, Yvonne Smallwood

In the morning it is written and in the evening it is sealed: 

  • Who shall die reading a book in their own car 
  • Who shall die taking a walk with their stepfather 
  • Who shall die reaching for their wallet 
  • Who shall die running away 
  • Who shall die asking a cop a question 
  • Who shall die begging just to breathe 

We say their names: Keith Scott, Clifford Glover, Amadou Diallo, Walter Scott, Randy Evans, Eric Garner, George Floyd.

Shabbat Ki Tavo: You’ll Know Home When You Get There

Wherever I go I am going toward Jerusalem – Rabbi Nakhman of Bratslav, who never saw Israel

The spiritual path of the Jews – and those who love them and travel with them – can be seen as a path of homelessness. From the days of the ivri, the one who crossed over the river from the land between the Tigris and Euphrates, the Hebrews – ivri’im – were and are those who came from elsewhere. The Torah is the story of an ancient wandering, minimized only by the ensuing Jewish Exile of two millennia. 

We are a people who derives our spiritual meaning from the longing for home that only the homeless wanderer feels. For this reason our Torah bids us consider the situation and even the feelings of the stranger, the wanderer among us, an obligation repeated no less than 36 times. 

In our parashat hashavua, the Torah reading for this week, we see words we have dreamed of: “When you come home”:

וְהָיָה֙ כִּֽי־תָב֣וֹא אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר֙ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ נַחֲלָ֑ה וִֽירִשְׁתָּ֖הּ וְיָשַׁ֥בְתָּ בָּֽהּ

There will be a time when you will come into the land that is there place of your nakhalah, and your soul knows it is home, and you settle down in it and are at home there (Devarim 26.1)

The question we are left with is this: what is that nakhalah, the place your soul knows is home? 

What is a nakhalah? The word is often translated as “inheritance,” but in Hebrew usage it’s more complicated than that. For example, an old Jewish saying is אין אדם נוחל עולם הבא אלא מתוך חיי צער – “one earns one’s nakhalah, one’s place in the world, only through the suffering of experience.” Why should you have to earn what you are to inherit?

This week’s parashah indicates that until you can reap sustenance from a place or a situation and share it, it is not – yet – your home, even though it may be yours in name or title. Until you are able to share sustenance, you are not sated; unless you are able to share shelter, you are not safe. 

The opposite may very well also be true: that place in which we are safe in shared community is home, even if it is on the wanderer’s path. Rabbi Nakhman of Bratslav never made it to Jerusalem in his lifetime, though he longed to go there; finally he learned, and was able to teach, that being a wanderer seeking Jerusalem was in itself a sort of homecoming.

Where is home, and how shall one know it? Those who know that wandering is a necessary condition for spiritual exploration resonate with these lines of T. S. Eliot’s:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring 

Will be to arrive where we started 

And know the place for the first time. 

On this Shabbat may you, wanderer, find consolation in the path of your footsteps, and come to know the you are always headed home despite – because of – your wandering.

Shabbat Ki Tetze: The Truth of a Bird’s Nest

We are not individuals, no more than birds are. We and they are individuated out of an endless sky of possibility and longing. And on a dark night we need each other to huddle against the cold.

In this week’s parashah we see one of the most famous passages in all of Torah: the case of the mother bird:

כִּ֣י יִקָּרֵ֣א *קַן־צִפּ֣וֹר ׀ לְפָנֶ֡יךָ בַּדֶּ֜רֶךְ בְּכׇל־עֵ֣ץ ׀ א֣וֹ עַל־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֶפְרֹחִים֙ א֣וֹ בֵיצִ֔ים וְהָאֵ֤ם רֹבֶ֙צֶת֙ עַל־הָֽאֶפְרֹחִ֔ים א֖וֹ עַל־הַבֵּיצִ֑ים לֹא־תִקַּ֥ח הָאֵ֖ם עַל־הַבָּנִֽים׃

If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young.

שַׁלֵּ֤חַ תְּשַׁלַּח֙ אֶת־הָאֵ֔ם וְאֶת־הַבָּנִ֖ים תִּֽקַּֽח־לָ֑ךְ לְמַ֙עַן֙ יִ֣יטַב לָ֔ךְ וְהַאֲרַכְתָּ֖ יָמִֽים׃         

Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life. (Devarim 22.6-7)

One of the reasons that this text is so well-known is that it seems to promise a reward for the doing of a mitzvah. We are promised here, in so many words, that if you leave a mother bird alone when you are collecting its eggs, you will have a good and a long life. Very few mitzvot come with a stated reward; we are to do the mitzvot because we are part of of the committed, covenanted mitzvah community.

This is a dangerous passage, the kind that seems easy to find fault with; and that is just what happens in a well-known Talmudic story. A group of rabbis is sitting on a hill talking Torah when they see a father and son carefully shooing a mother bird away from a nest. The boy has climbed up and carefully hands down the eggs, but in his descent he slips, falls, and is killed. Of the group sitting in shock at this horror, two stand out: Rabbi Akiva, who explains that the “long life” really means the life of the world to come, and Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya, who cannot stand the contradiction, and leaves Judaism.

Two thousand years later we are still finding fault with passages that seem to us to be easily picked apart. Here is one that some congregations removed from the daily prayers because it seemed so primitive:

If you listen and submit to the obligation to love life and respect it, to serve it rather than expecting it to serve you, then the rain will fall in its season, both early and late as you need it to; you will harvest all you need to live and thrive. There will be enough for you and for all the animals, and all will be satisfied. But be careful lest you begin to worship yourself, believing that you are in control of your life and can bend Life to your will, because then the skies will be shut up, and no rain will fall, and the land will not yield sustenance, and you will perish. (Deut 11.13-17)

Both Akiva and Elisha were wrong in their day, and the early modern Jews who sought so eagerly to leave irrational aspects of religion behind were just as short-sighted. The truth is that the Torah is speaking of the collective long vision, and over time, and speaking collectively, its words are true. And we’ve come to understand how true in our own day. It’s not about life treating an individual fairly; it’s about how we’re all in this together.

This 3rd week of Elul is dedicated to the climate emergency

If you do not obey, the rain will not fall and the crops will not grow

 Sunrise Movement – the Climate Revolution

We all have something to lose to climate change, and something to gain in coming together. The Sunrise Movement seeks to stop climate change and create millions of good-paying jobs in the process. We grow our power through talking to our communities. We are people from all paths of life. We are nonviolent in word and deed.

Shabbat Shoftim: Justice One Step at a Time

Everything we see, whether good or bad, is really a reflection of ourselves. If it was not, we’d simply not see it. – Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism 

This Shabbat is called Shoftim, after the first part of the parashah, which deals with the need for a way to compel cooperation with social mores. Without the ability to compel, justice will not prevail over evil, and so Moshe is told to instruct the Israelites:

שֹׁפְטִ֣ים וְשֹֽׁטְרִ֗ים תִּֽתֶּן־לְךָ֙ בְּכׇל־שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ לִשְׁבָטֶ֑יךָ וְשָׁפְט֥וּ אֶת־הָעָ֖ם מִשְׁפַּט־צֶֽדֶק׃

You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the LORD your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice.

What was true then is still true now; justice is not possible without a mechanism for providing that a just judgement is carried out. In a perfect world, all judgments would be just, and those who enforce them would do so faithfully. 

The society we live in is not so fortunate – perhaps no human society has ever been. But for Jews, who respond to ethical wreckage with renewed determination to lift up the human condition, despair is forbidden. Instead we focus:

Once upon a time a well-meaning human decided to change the world.

Setting out on that errand, 

they quickly saw that the task was huge.

They decided to settle for changing their nation, 

but realized again that the goal was too lofty.

Perhaps the state? They wondered, but again felt overwhelmed.

Maybe the city? Hmmm.

Okay, I’ll start with my neighbors….

Finally, the realization hit:

The place to start is with oneself.

“To start with oneself,” the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote, “but not to end with oneself.” Buber was highly influenced by Hasidic teachings which encourage us to look inward to find the echo of what upsets us when we look outward. As the Baal Shem Tov taught, it’s the way of the Universe to bring us the lessons we each need to learn. 

Justice is not a monolithic vista, but an exercise in personal need and proclivity. If you find yourself confronting something that makes you say “how awful,” this is a sign that you are detecting the path to justice that is yours to tread. Some of us become cynical because we cannot see the holiness in those around us, yet it is there. Look for the goodness, even in all the injustice. You will find it, and it will give you strength to continue to work for justice in the way that is your path.

In Elul, the month of preparing to look at ourselves honestly in the mirror on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are offered many opportunities to consider our path. Here are a few for you to choose from: what compels your sense of justice? Do it.

Shabbat Shalom

Shabbat Nakhamu: The Courage to be Consoled

נַחֲמ֥וּ נַחֲמ֖וּ עַמִּ֑י יֹאמַ֖ר אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם

Nakhamu, nakhamu ami yomar Eloheykhem

“Be consoled, my people, says your G*d” – Isaiah 40.1

Last Saturday night we commemorated Tisha B’Av, a date on which we remember not only the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and our two-thousand year homelessness that followed. Jewish tradition also marks the 9th day of Av as a day of memorial for other catastrophes that our people have suffered – Inquisition, pogrom, crusade; the list is nauseating and surreal. By some horror of coincidence, the mass deportations of our cousins and siblings from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka also began on this day.

Now we are on the other side of this terrible remembering, and on this Shabbat Nakhamu we are encouraged as a people to find consolation. The Shabbat itself, on which we read parashat Va’Etkhanan, is known by the first verse of the Haftarah, taken from Isaiah. For the next seven weeks we are to set our faces toward hope, as we as a people follow our tradition’s rise from the nadir of destruction all the way up, up to Rosh HaShanah and a New Year.

We ourselves are caught in a terrible time of fear and uncertainty. Such a rising may seem at best incongruous, and at worst disingenuous. Yet our ancestors understood this emotional rising toward hope as a mitzvah, a sacred obligation. They knew the ancient Jewish teaching that to succumb to despair was the worst kind of idolatry of all, for it was to turn all of one’s belief toward meaninglessness and chaos. The holiness we are to seek for our lives requires us to believe, despite all and because of all, that meaning and purpose are still within our grasp – as is joy.

This isn’t a drill, and no time to take refuge in platitudes. We do not know if “it will all be okay”. The plagues that attended our people’s escape from Egypt loom in sharp relief, up to an including the trauma of the death of innocent loved ones. Now more than ever we might find ourselves amazed to be gifted with a tradition that survived catastrophe and yet could still dance upon the opposite shore. It is now up to us to find a way to join in that defiant embrace of life, despite everything, because of everything. 

“To make injustice the only /
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.” – Jack Gilbert

On the Shabbat morning when news came to us of the terrible massacre of the Jews of Pittsburgh at prayer, we at Shir Tikvah were going ahead with our own prayer gathering.

We found ourselves doing two things: watching the door so as to watch over each other, and at the very same time, singing our Shabbat songs more loudly than ever before. 

Both are possible. Both are necessary. Without the singing, we cannot survive the fear. A wise Jewish tradition echoed in modern psychology is “fake it til you make it.” Begin the dance steps even though you feel sad; reach out to another even though you feel depleted. These are feelings, only feelings, and they are not the whole of you – or of us, you and me and them, together. 

As we open our hearts to hope, may they be filled to overflowing with hope. As we defy hate with love, may we feel love deeply, and may it comfort us.

shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Ariel

the full poem:

A Brief for the Defense
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bomba

If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.

We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

Jack Gilbert