Preparing in Elul

For the week of August 30th, 2014

Parashat “Shofetim”
(Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)

This week, as Moses continues to prepare the people for their life without him, he instructs the Israelites about the institutions of justice they should create once they are settled in the land.  Among those institutions, Moses discusses the potential choice to have a human king (rather than only God) who will rule over them.  In Deuteronomy 17:18, Moses gives the following instruction concerning such a king:  “When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests.”

Commenting on this verse, Ketav Sofer quotes Rashi who wrote:  “If he [the king] does so, he will be worthy of having his reign endure.”  Ketav Sofer asks:  Is the implication that whenever the king is sitting on his throne, the Torah must be [continuously] written?  Rather, Ketav Sofer says, the meaning is found in the phrase “it shall be” (in the future)–if he acts all the years of his reign– “as when he was seated upon his royal throne”–like the day he [first] ascended to rule, like the day of his coronation, [a day] on which he is good and does good, is gracious and compassionate to all, behaves with love and forgiveness towards all the sinners, and with that same feeling continues to rule, [then] “he will be worthy of having his reign endure.”

This is, of course, a wonderful derash [interpretative teaching] about the challenges of leadership.  We believe that most of our leaders at least start their work with the best of intentions and with high ideals.  Many leaders begin with an inspiring vision of what they hope to accomplish and, in the early days of their work, they pursue that idealistic vision with enthusiasm.  But as the challenges of actual leadership begin to accumulate, the sometimes overwhelming pile of distractions, frustrations and serious obstacles causes many leaders to lose heart and lose their way.

Ketav Sofer (with help from Rashi) reminds us of the urgency of leaders holding on to that initial, inspiring vision, that beautiful, starting intention.  Ketav Sofer emphasizes how critical it is that, to the best of the leader’s ability, he returns to that vision and continues to live in accordance with it even in the face of inevitable obstacles and disappointments.  To do so, the Torah suggests, we need tools and strategies that will help us to remember, that constantly will call us back to our best intentions whenever we forget and lose our way.  Hence, the commandment to have a copy of God’s teaching written and placed by the king at all times–a Torah that is to serve both as a vital guide for ruling with justice and compassion and as a symbolic, visual reminder of the holy intentions with which the king first began his rule.

We are in the first days of the Hebrew month of Elul.  Elul is, traditionally, a month of preparation for the very difficult, spiritual and moral work of the Days of Awe that follows in the month of Tishri.  We are supposed to begin the process of cheshbon hanefesh (doing a kind of spiritual and moral accounting) and, based on what we uncover, to begin making amends for the ways in which we’ve fallen short during the past year.  We seek out people we’ve harmed to ask forgiveness.  We make plans for how we will try to live differently and better in the upcoming new year.  We begin the process of setting our intentions for the new year, a process that will culminate on Yom Kippur.

And many of us will be like those leaders.  We will start with great enthusiasm and determination.  We will even take some initial steps in the right direction and begin living differently.  But then, reality will set in and we will get distracted and discouraged or simply forget our wonderful intentions.  Parashat Shofetim reminds us to think not only about our holy intentions but about the strategies, tools and practices that might help us sustain those intentions.  What specific things will we do to remind ourselves of our Elul/Tishri intentions in the months that follow?  What tools or practices will call us back to our Elul/Tishri intentions when we’re celebrating Chanukah in Kislev or Pesach in Nisan?

When I posed the question during services, one person suggested the use of ritual practice to remind ourselves of the values by which we want to live.  She mentioned prayer, Torah study, celebrating Shabbat as regular practices that could help to remind us of who we intended to be this year.  And there may be other “rituals” (officially religious practices or not) that can help to accomplish the same goal for some of us.  Another person spoke about the importance of having a community, of having partners with whom to share this work.  And so, we might seek out a kind of teshuvah chevruta, a partner(s) for the work of returning, over and over again, to our intention to be our best selves.  In such relationships, we could encourage each other in moments of difficulty, cheer each others’ successes and yes, gently, lovingly remind one another of what we said our intentions were.  Yet another person spoke about the importance of seeing the inevitable obstacles as opportunities to clarify and renew our intention rather than as impossible walls we will never get past.  Everyone spoke to the importance of using Elul not only to think about what specific changes we hope to make but also to think about how we actually can remember, return to and act on those intentions more frequently.

For my part, I was struck by the basic lesson of the Torah portion and by some wonderful, transformational learning that I’ve been doing through the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.  The king described in Shofetim is supposed to have the Torah written down and close at hand as he sits upon his throne. So, consider writing down your intention  and putting those words where you can’t help seeing them.  Perhaps, this simple but powerful practice can help us to recall and return to living out our best intentions when we forget or lose or way.  In just a phrase or a sentence (e.g., “May I be more patient and forgiving”), write down your intention for being a better human being in the new year.  And then put that piece of paper where you can’t help but see it on a regular basis.  Perhaps, like the king, keeping our own, holy words near at hand will help us to be more worthy of being sustained for another year of life and blessing.  May this be God’s will.

The Necessity of Hope

For the week of December 22, 2012

Parashat “Va’yigash”
Genesis 44:18-47:27

In this week’s parashah (Torah portion), we reach the climax of the story of Joseph and his brothers,  With roles reversed, Joseph (the former victim) has his brothers (the former victimizers) completely within his power.  Having framed Benjamin for the theft of an expensive goblet, Joseph, still unrecognized by his brothers, explains that he’ll allow the rest of them to return to Canaan but Benjamin must remain behind as a slave.  Va’yigash begins as Judah steps forward and, following an eloquent plea, offers to remain as a slave himself in place of Benjamin.  Poignantly, Judah asks:  “For how can I go home to my father without the lad, and thus see the harm my father will suffer (Gen. 44:34)?”  After Judah has spoken these words, Joseph is overcome with emotion and, at last, reveals himself to his brothers–“I am Joseph–is my father still alive (Gen. 45:3)?”

This is a complicated moment for our understanding of Joseph.  Was the whole point of Joseph’s machinations to test his brothers and find out if they’d changed?  Before he could trust them, was Joseph trying to see whether his brothers would respond differently when faced, once again, with the prospect of abandoning a brother and causing terrible anguish to their father?  Or was Joseph simply struggling with the temptation to exact revenge and make his brothers suffer?  Did he only change course at the last minute because Judah’s plea softened his vengeful heart?  Perhaps, Joseph himself wasn’t sure of his motivations even as he was manipulating his brothers.  We can’t be sure.

For my part, I would like to believe that no matter how hurt and angry Joseph still felt, some part of his heart held onto the hope that his brothers could have changed.  After all, Joseph didn’t just throw them all in jail or deny them food and send them back empty-handed to face the intense famine in Canaan.  Instead, whether intentionally or not, Joseph left the door open for his brothers to do the right thing and Judah literally “stepped up.”  If Joseph had given up all hope that his brothers might have changed over the years, if he’d decided that things could never be healthy between them, the story would have had a very different and probably far more tragic ending.

Like Joseph, our people’s ability to  sustain this kind of stubborn and resilient hope, sometimes in spite of ourselves and certainly, despite the evidence of Jewish history, has been one of the strongest guarantors of our survival.  To give up hope is to give up on the future and the possibility that things still could change for the better.  To give up hope is to surrender to the dark cynicism and despair that threaten to corrupt our hearts and smother our will to do the slow, frustrating but essential work of creating change.

As I’ve continued to worry about events unfolding in Israel, a line from Naomi Shemer’s beautiful song, Al Kol Eileh (written after the 1973 Yom Kippur War) keeps rising up in me.  You’ll find a charming YouTube video version here and lyrics with a translation here.  In the second half of the chorus, Shemer writes:  “Do not uproot what is planted; do not forget Ha’Tikvah (the Hope).”  This is, of course, both a reference to Israel’s national anthem and also to hope itself.  The message of the song is undoubtedly nationalistic and patriotic.  But the lyrics also express a continued longing and hope for peace.  And what I fear these days is that too many Israelis, understandably exhausted by decades of disappointment and missed opportunities and terrible violence, have given up on the hope of peace.  I worry that too many Israelis have accepted as a sad, hard  but inevitable reality that there will never be peace with the Palestinians.  And they have adjusted their worldviews and political positions and choices accordingly.

If I’m right (and I pray that I’m not), this development bodes ill for Israel’s future.  Of course, Israel must continue to protect herself vigilantly and not be naive about the very real threats she faces.  At the same time, I believe Israel’s future depends on her ability to continue nurturing the hope for peace, perhaps like Joseph, in spite of herself and in spite of the evidence of much of her history.  I pray that Israel, like Joseph, can somehow leave the door open for an unexpected but not impossible transformation among those who have done her harm in the past.  While it’s possible that such a stubborn hope may never be rewarded, we know that if we abandon the hope of peace, it certainly will never happen.  Al tishkach et ha tikvah–don’t forget Hope.

Matters of the Heart

For the week of November 3rd, 2012

Parashat “Va’yera”
Genesis 18:1-22:24

Perhaps like some of you, I’m definitely ready for the campaign season to be over.  During these final weeks, we’re besieged by television commercials, postcards, newspaper editorials and phone calls that promote the virtues of one candidate or warn about the dark consequences of voting for an opponent.  These emotional appeals, particularly appeals to our fears and resentments, remind us that elections and politics are at least as much a matter of emotion as of reason.  Apparently, political consultants have figured out that if you can manipulate people’s emotions successfully, you often can get them to vote one way or another.  All of which helps to explain the commercials’ threatening music, their shadowy backgrounds and the presentation of even the smallest biographical fact in a manner calculated to make us worry, to make us suspicious or to cause us to resent someone.  Because though we may like to think otherwise, we often make choices, even our most consequential choices, based primarily on how something or someone makes us feel and not based on a rational, careful review of the pros and cons.

According to some translations of the Torah, this tendency also may be a challenge for God.  Va’yera includes the passage in which God informs Abraham of the approaching punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah and Abraham famously pleads for the cities.  In Genesis 18:23, Abraham asks God:  “Will you indeed sweep away the innocent along with the wicked?”  What would it say about God’s justice, Abraham asks, if the innocent and wicked were  to suffer the same, terrible fate?  Amazingly, the Creator of the entire universe seems to be compelled by Abraham’s argument.  God agrees that even if there are only 50 righteous people in the cities, everyone will be spared for the sake of those 50.  We know the rest.  Abraham eventually convinces God that only 10 righteous people would mean sparing the cities but tragically, not even a minyan of righteous people can be found.  Sodom and Gomorroh are destroyed.

But some alternative translations for Genesis 18:23 suggest that Abraham may be warning God not to make a rash decision based in anger.  In the Hebrew, Abraham asks,  “Ha’af tispeh tzaddik im rasha?”  The usual translations render  “ha’af” as something like, “Will you really…?”  or, as above, “Will you indeed…?”  But according to Rabbi Plaut’s commentary, the Targum* and Syriac** versions of this verse treat the Hebrew word, “af” as “anger” and therefore understand Abraham’s question as, “Will You, in anger, sweep away the innocent with the wicked?”***  In other words, Abraham is cautioning God not to be ruled by emotion–especially a powerful emotion like anger–when making such a crucial, life-and-death decision.

Setting aside the interesting, theological question of an anthropomorphized God (who feels human emotions), this nuance teaches us important Torah.  First, these translations teach us about the value and urgency of having concerned advisers who will call us back to our best selves when we are in danger of making rash, emotional decisions.  How many of us have lived to regret a decision made in the heat of anger or fear or hurt or sorrow or even infatuation?  While there definitely can be a certain romance in spontaneous reactions to moments of deep emotion, such reactions also have the potential to cause a great deal of damage.  In such moments, we are blessed to have our own “Abrahams” who ask us the challenging but valuable questions that remind us of our best selves.  This interpretation reminds us to treasure such people in our lives (even though we sometimes may find their questions annoying!) and also to do our best to serve as worthy Abrahams for those we love.

Second, this interpretation reminds us that we tend to make the best choices when we don’t rely exclusively on either our rationality or our emotions.  We need both****.  Our humanity is discovered, defined and deepened in the creative space, in the constant dialogue between our hearts and our minds.  And if we aspire to wisdom, we will need to listen to both–apparently, just like God.

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*An ancient, Aramaic translation and paraphrase of the Bible.  See here for more information about “Targum”.

**Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic that apparently dates back to the 2nd century C.E.

***The Torah: A Modern Commentary (Revised), ed., Rabbi W.G. Plaut (New York: URJ Press, 2005), note to Gen. 18:23 on page 125.

****Here it seems worth reminding ourselves that for the Bible, the heart is the source of thought and skill as much as of feeling.  Regardless of what we now understand about human physiology, the Biblical view might instruct us about the importance of integrating reason and feeling in order to become “wise-hearted” (see, for example, Exodus 31:6 and Psalms 90:12).

The Power and Limits of Words

For the week of October 13th, 2012

Parashat “B’reisheet”
(Genesis 1:1-6:8)

Among the astounding presumptions of the Torah’s cosmology is the power of spoken words.  God says, “Let there be light… (Gen. 1:3)” and light comes into being.  God says, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let the birds fly over the earth… (Gen. 1:20)” and fish and birds come into being.  The Torah takes it as a given that spoken words, at least God’s spoken words, have the power to create (or change) physical realities.  In B’reisheet, God speaks the world into being.

 That this was an important theological claim for our rabbis is seen in a comment of Ben Zoma on Genesis 1:7, “And God made the firmament… .”

This is a verse whose apparent implication caused Ben Zoma to shake the world [of Jewish learning].  ” ‘And God made!’–(is) an unbelievable utterance,” he said.  “Did not the firmament come into being by God’s word–“by the word of the Lord were the heavens made, and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth (Psalms 33:6)?”1

 For Ben Zoma, of course, it was important to emphasize God’s power even while upholding the belief that God doesn’t have a body.  Genesis presents us with God who doesn’t have (and doesn’t need) hands or arms or eyes to make things (or, to make things happen!).2  Setting aside the related question of how a God with no mouth can speak, the creation narrative captures the rabbis’ sense of the awesome, spiritual mystery of a God who is clearly the Source of creation but also transcends it.  Unlike us, God doesn’t make things through physical effort but with ideas and intentions that are translated into spoken words.  God’s words have the power to create.

Of course, at times, our spoken words also have some power to change physical realities.  Leaders “declare” war or peace and people’s lives are sacrificed or saved.  Judges and juries “announce” sentences and people are jailed or set free (or sometimes killed) by the power of those spoken words.  Clergy “pronounce” couples married and a whole set of legal and property rights as well as behavioral expectations are created.  We “promise” to meet people somewhere or do them a favor and, on the basis of our spoken words, they act differently because of an expectation that our words have created.

 Yet, we also know that sometimes, spoken words can be empty or meaningless.  They have no power at all to effect change or create new realities.  A person says, “We should get together sometime” but we know it will never happen.  An unhappy child yells at a parent, “You can’t tell me what to do!”  but, of course, the parent usually can.  A chronic liar promises us, for the one hundredth time, that they’ll act differently this time and we just don’t believe them.  These words have no power to create.

 With human speech, the key to words that have power seems to be a relationship of trust.  In order for spoken words to be effective, the ones to whom the words are spoken must believe in the integrity and authority of the speaker–the speaker can do what he says and he will.  After all, if I don’t believe that you mean what you say or that you have the authority to make such a statement, your words are just sounds.  They can’t create new realities.  The creative power of spoken words depends on the quality of the relationship in which those words are spoken.

All of which brings us back to God and creation.  If one of the ways in which human beings are “created in God’s image” is the potential, creative power of our speech, then perhaps, we can read aspects of our own, human experience back into the Genesis story3.  Perhaps, for God’s creative speech to be effective, God had to have a depth and intimacy of relationship with the universe in which God’s integrity and authority were beyond question.  Maybe, the universe had to be deeply connected with God, had to “feel” God’s power and love and Truth, in order for God’s spoken words to have that much ability to create and form a new world.

And perhaps the same is true of God’s creative words to us–words that tell us to protect the vulnerable in our society, to regard every human being as a potentially holy reflection of God, to balance compassion with justice, to be good caretakers of the earth, and to do our best to sanctify each moment.  The effectiveness of these holy words in reshaping reality depends on the quality of our relationship with God.  They only have the ability to create or change us if allow ourselves to feel God’s integrity, power and love as well as the Truth of those words.  Otherwise, they’re all just empty sounds or indecipherable marks on parchment.

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1Quoted in The Book of Legends–Sefer Ha-Aggadah:  Legends from the Talmud and Midrash, eds., Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky (New York:  Schocken Books, 1992), #16, pg. 8 and citing as its sources Genesis Rabbah 4:6 and Yalkut B’reisheet 6.

2For the rabbis (and most of Jewish tradition), the Torah is limited by the ability of human language and imagery to describe what is, ultimately, beyond words.  So, when the Torah speaks of God “seeing” or “speaking” or of a God who frees slaves “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,” these are only inadequate, human metaphors for a reality that is, ultimately, beyond the power of our words to name.

3Clearly, this idea won’t work for fundamentalist readers of the Bible.  To suggest that the universe (or we) have a choice in the face of God’s spoken command, that the authority of God’s command depends on the quality of our relationships with God, can be heard as denying God’s absolute power.  But isn’t it also possible that the same God who is understood as the source of humanity’s free will chooses to make the power of these commandments contingent on the evolving quality of our relationship with God?

Trapping Torah

For the week of September 15th, 2012–28 Elul, 5773

Parashat “Nitzavim”
(Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20)

“No offense, Rabbi, but I’m just not a spiritual person.”  Like most clergy people, I’ve heard these words (or variations on this theme) many times.  Folks seem to feel like they are missing a ‘spirituality gene’ or maybe, that theirs is somehow defective.  Or perhaps, they’re viewing spirituality more like a talent (such as being able to sing in tune); you’ve either got it or you don’t.  Or maybe, they’re saying that spirituality is more a matter of taste, like loving chocolate chip ice cream or rap music.  Some people enjoy it and others just don’t.

For my part, I believe that every human being is spiritual.  By “spiritual,” I don’t necessarily have in mind formal religious belief or observance.  By spiritual, I mean that every person has a need for and the potential to express their longing for meaning, for a sense of connectedness, for a way to make sense both of the world and of the best way to live in it.  Organized religion, its teachings and observances, may be the experience that most meets this need, nourishes its expression and provides that sense of connection.  But it may not provide the best path to spiritual nourishment for everyone.  Still, acknowledging the limitations of organized religion doesn’t change my belief that we all feel the need for meaning, that we all want a sense of connectedness.   It also doesn’t change my sense that Judaism can provide a beautiful, rich and fulfilling path for many of us.  And, according to Nitzavim, it’s well within our reach.

This week, as Moses continues with his series of farewell addresses to the Israelites, he says the following:  Surely this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.  It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us that we may observe it?”  No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it (Deuteronomy 30:11-14). 

The midrash offers the following story as an interpretation of this last verse:  The prophet, Elijah, ever mentioned on good occasions, said:  Once as I was walking on the road, a man who met me mocked and reviled me.  I asked him, “My son, since you have refused to learn Torah, what will you say on the Day of Judgment?”  He replied, “I have an answer:  Understanding, knowledge and spirit were not given me from Heaven [so how could I study Torah]?”  I said, “My son, what is your work?”  He replied, “I am a trapper of fowls and fish.”  I asked, “Who gave you the knowledge and spirit to take flax, spin it into cords, weave the cords into nets, use the nets to trap fish and fowls, and sell them?”  He replied, “Understanding and knowledge [to do my work] were given me from Heaven.”  I said, “To take flax, spin it into cords, weave cords into nets, and use nets to trap fish and fowls, understanding and knowledge were given to you from Heaven.  But do you suppose that, for words of Torah, about which it is written, “The word is very near to you [Deuteronomy 30:14], understanding and knowledge were not given to you?”*

As I read the midrash, Elijah is teaching that we can’t use the ignorance defense.  We can’t say, I didn’t know what my actions meant and I was incapable of finding out.  We can’t really say, “I’m just not spiritual or intellectual enough to understand what God wants from me.”  We can’t say, “It’s beyond me to know what it means if I make this choice or act in this way.”  No, says Elijah, we all have the potential to hear and understand.  To this trapper-fisherman, he basically says, “How could it be that God would give you the ability to figure out the complex skills of your trade but not give you the ability to understand something as important as Torah?”  You can do it.

All of us are spiritual.  And while we may need to translate the heart-promptings we hear in ways that make sense to us as individuals (using the tools that come most naturally to us), we all can do it.  We need to do it.  We may translate those promptings through writing or dancing or painting or singing or building things or working at social justice or being a good friend or spending time out in nature.  But for me, as a rabbi, the question is how best to help people nourish and express their very personal, spiritual sensibilities using the riches of the Jewish tradition.

So, if I were Elijah (how’s that for chutzpah?!), I’d tell this fisherman-trapper, “Start with what you know.”  I’d say that there is actually Torah in the work of trapping.  I’d explain that in the same way individual fibers of flax can be woven into strong cords, individual human beings can be woven into strong communities of faith.  That’s why Nitzavim makes a point of listing the diverse kinds of individuals who are standing together to enter the covenant (Deut. 29:9-14).  No individual can fulfill the covenant alone.

I’d also tell him that the ropes of those cords can be joined into nets and that each part of the net is joined to and dependent on the others.  If there’s a hole in one part of the net, the whole thing becomes ineffective for holding onto what’s most worthwhile.  I’d explain that the Torah teaches we are all responsible to and responsible for each other for the exact same reason.  If we’re going to “catch” righteousness and compassion, it has to be a group effort.  And I might also say that in order to catch fish or trap animals, you have to learn to pay close attention to their habits/experiences.  You have to do your best to understand other creatures, to identify with them and also to recognize how your fate is bound up with theirs.  I’d point out that if you start paying this kind of attention, you soon realize that all creation is bound together, just like his nets.

Finally, I’d explain that “the Torah” in trapping and fishing has been right there in front of him all along, if only he could have opened his eyes to see it.  Because it is.  And because all of us can.

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* Quoted from: The Book of Legends: Sefer Ha-Aggadah,  eds., Hayim Nahman Bialik & Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, trans. William C. Braude (New York:  Schocken Books, 1992), pg. 407, #51.  They cite the following sources for this story: Tanchuma, Va’yelech, 2; Tanna d’bei Eliyahu Zuta 14; Yalkut, Nitzavim 960.

Finding a Place to Stand

Link

For the week of September 8th, 2012

Parashat Ki Tavo
(Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8)

Among the most striking features of Ki Tavo is the dramatic ritual (see Deut. 27) that the Israelites are commanded to enact once they cross the Jordan River.  While the exact details are subject to interpretation (and debate),* Moses explains that the Israelites are to set up two, great stones on Mount Ebal upon which are written the words of the covenant God is making with them (Deut. 27:4).  Then, after making offerings to God on an altar they will build (Deut. 27:5-7), half the tribes (or perhaps, just their tribal representatives) are to stand on top of Mount Ebal while the other half stand on Mount Gezirim.  Meanwhile, some of the Levites and priests stand (perhaps, in the valley between the two mountains) and proclaim the blessings and curses that are the rewards and punishments for obedience or  disobedience to God’s laws.  And all the people are required to answer “Amen,” thereby accepting the terms of the covenant anew.

The message inherent in this ritual is clear, absolute and fairly graphic–obedience to God’s teaching will be rewarded with wonderful blessings and disobedience will be punished with terrible curses.  Yet, as Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Israeli K’nesset, notes in his new Torah commentary, “…life is an every-growing series of compromises between desires and abilities, between the dream and the possible.  Few things in life are perfect.  Even the Torah, the teaching that God gave through Moses, is a teaching of life and not theory.  Its laws are directed at a life that contains a measure of imperfection.”**  We note, for example, that the Torah includes rituals of purification and atonement.  In those passages, the tradition seems to presume that we’ll sometimes go astray and make mistakes and it offers us a mechanism for reconciliation and renewal.

In contrast, Burg points out that Ki Tavo represents a moment in which Moses “…loses hold of the moderating reins of real life and hurls binary thinking at the people: either life or death, either blessing or curse, either my way or the highway to destruction. …. On the surface, there is no apparent middle ground between the two opposing absolutes.”***

This absolute, binary stance should feel both familiar and disturbing to us.  The rhetoric of the culture wars (especially during a Presidential election year), is frequently couched in such  absolutes.  In this framework, you’re either “Pro-Life” or “Pro-Choice.”  You are either in favor of murdering innocent babies or you are a terrible misogynist, who cares nothing for the right of women to exercise agency over their own bodies.  When it comes to climate change, you are either a deluded, liberal alarmist who has been duped by so-called “scientific” evidence or you are a science-denying, small-minded conservative who stubbornly refuses to accept the consensus of most of the world’s scientific community.  In such a worldview, there’s no middle ground.  You either stand on Mount Ebal or Mount Gerizim.  You (and your perspectives and actions) are either blessed or cursed.

We should acknowledge that there is some comfort in this kind of absolute dichotomy.  We can congratulate ourselves on being people of character who have strong principles.  We can take positions that are both clear and relatively easy to articulate.  Best of all, we can distinguish ourselves from (and feel superior to) those people on the “other” mountain.  We are good.  They are bad.  Of course, paradoxically, both sides tend to believe (and insist) that they are the ones standing on top of Mount Gerizim–the place of blessing–so, it must be pretty crowded up there!

For my part, I prefer the interpretation that imagines only the leaders of the 12 tribes are actually standing on the two mountains.****  I prefer to imagine that the bulk of the people are standing in the valley between the two hills.  At certain points in the ritual, they turn towards Gerizim and, at other times, towards Ebal.  Standing in that valley, we possess less clarity and certainty and will be less able to bask in self-righteousness.  But we also may be better able to recognize (or be more open to recognizing) the possibility that some measure of significant Truth can be heard from both hills.

Standing there, in the messy, uncertain, complicated middle, we may find ourselves in the most hopeful and authentically human place.   The valley “in-between” would seem to be the place that offers the most possibility for compromise and for moving forward together in a positive way.  But it definitely is not a place conducive to “gotcha” soundbites or simple, binary distinctions between “us” (the good guys) and “them” (the bad guys).  All the same, I believe that, in most cases, this “in-between” place is actually the most holy spot and the one where God “wants” us to stand.  It’s the place in which we realize that life (whether potential or fully realized) is not something to be ended lightly and women should not be denied their right to decide what happens to their bodies.  It’s where we recognize that the mounting evidence for climate change deserves our serious attention and action but should not be allowed to create hysteria or remove the ongoing obligation for a critical review of that evidence.

And there’s one, other observation, closely aligned, I think, to Avraham Burg’s central point.  What seems to be missing from this ritual between the two mountains is any symbol of teshuvah (repentance).  After all, our rabbis teach that the gates of repentance are always open.******  So where, in this entire ritual, do we find a symbol of how we might experience remorse, learn from our mistakes, reconcile with those we’ve harmed and God and make amends in order to become better, truer human beings?  In what way could this ritual take account both of the inevitability of our failures and the ongoing possibility of return and redemption?  Perhaps, only if we place ourselves in the valley “in-between”–the place from which both success and failure are still possible, the place from which we may choose blessing or curse.  If we are honest, that uncertain, imperfect valley between the two hills is the place in which most of us live our lives and determine the shape of our character.  May we stand strong there and may we choose well.

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*See, for example, the note to Deut. 27:12 in The Torah:  A Modern Commentary (Revised Edition), ed., W. Gunther Plaut (New York:  Union for Reform Judaism, 2005), pg. 1353, which points out that the construction of these verses and the precise roles of the participants are unclear.

**Very Near to You:  Human Readings of the Torah, Avraham Burg, trans., J.J. Goldberg (Jerusalem/New York:  Gefen Publishing House, 2012) pg. 413 [I’m indebted to my friend, Rabbi Michael White, for recommending this wonderful book to me!].

***Burg, ibid.

****See the note to Deut. 27:12 (in The Torah) referenced above.

*****Midrash Deuteronomy Rabbah 2,12 in a comment on Deut. 4:7 and Psalms 69:14 that teaches, in the name of Rabbi Samuel ben Nachman, “The gates of prayer are sometimes open and sometimes closed, but the gates of repentance always remain open.”

Should Mitzvot Become a Habit?

For the week of September 1st, 2012

Parashat Ki Teytze
(Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19)

Among the amazing assortment of mitzvot (commandments) taught in this week’s Torah portion, we find the following instruction:  “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.  Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life (Deut. 22:6-7).”  The purpose of this mitzvah, at least according to some of our teachers, is having compassion for the suffering of animals (i.e., the mother bird doesn’t have to witness us taking her young away).  The Hebrew name for this category of mitzvot is Tza’ar ba’alei chayim (preventing the suffering of animals) and there are a number of examples in Ki Teytze.*

But the midrash (the classical literature of Biblical interpretation) offers an additional lesson.  In Deut. 22:7, the Hebrew commandment to send the mother away is written as Shaleiach t’shalach (a repeated form of the verb, usually understood to imply some special emphasis as in, “You shall surely send….”).  In Deuteronomy Rabbah, our rabbis teach that the verb, shalach is repeated “…to tell you that if this precept comes your way a second time, do not say, ‘I have already done my duty,’ but every time it comes your way you must fulfill it.”**

Here, we confront the difference between fulfilling a mitzvah (a religious obligation) and just doing a nice thing.  If I’m helping out because I’m trying to be a nice person (and I want to feel good about myself), my kindness often extends only as far as my good feeling.  If I’m feeling especially grumpy (or experiencing “compassion fatigue”) and you ask me for help, I might tell you, “I gave at the office” (in other words, “Leave me alone; I’ve already done my part”).  But if I understand compassionate behavior as an obligation, no matter how I’m feeling at that moment, I’m supposed to try to help if I can.  Doing so is simply  my responsibility.  For that reason, according to the rabbis, compassion needs to become a fixed habit–the way I try to live in the world, every single time.

For many of us, especially in the liberal Jewish world, the idea of committing to a religious habit is a challenge.  We generally want each individual, religious act to feel meaningful, to be a satisfying, outward expression of our own feelings of fairness, compassion and our connection to holiness.  In fact, many of us tend to discard religious practices that we don’t find “meaningful” (or, if we’re honest, sometimes, that we don’t find convenient).  We’re suspicious of rote observance–of religious practices that people seem to do automatically and without much real feeling. So, why would we want to commit to developing a consistent habit, requiring ourselves to perform a religious act, over and over, even when we don’t feel like it?  In other words, why would we want to accept something as a religious obligation, as a mitzvah?

For my part, the answer depends on what is at stake in the religious behavior.  In this week’s instance, I believe that showing compassion for animals is almost always right, even when I don’t feel like it.  Acting so as to avoid unnecessary suffering for animals is not only the kind of person I aspire to become; it’s the kind of person I believe God calls me to become.   And if a religious commitment is truly and deeply the right thing to do, it’s not supposed to depend on my mood.  Instead, I must try my best to develop that behavior into a habit.  Of course, I try to make the action a habit not in order to empty it of meaning but to insure that I do my best to live a life consistent with my highest aspirations and most deeply held values.

Yes, the optimal religious experience is not only doing the right thing but doing it with the right intention (Jewish tradition calls this “kavnnah“) and, in the act, feeling deeply connected to our own humanity and whatever we understand by the word, “God.”  But if every, single instance doesn’t feel like a moment of deeply personal, religious expression (and how could it, really?), I suppose we can take consolation in the fact that, in the long run, the accumulation of such actions will still move both our individual character and the world towards greater holiness.

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*See, for other examples, Deut. 22:1, 4, 10 and 25:4.
**Midrash Deuteronomy Rabbah 6,7