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.

Selichot: Preparing to Return

As is traditional, late last night (Saturday, September 8th), a small group of us gathered to study and pray together in observance of Selichot (the first, official, repentance ritual of the High Holy Day season).  I love Selichot.  While there is something awesome about the grandeur and pageantry of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, Selichot offers a quieter, more intimate opportunity to begin the spiritual work of reflection, repentance and renewal that is our central goal during these Days of Awe.  For the first time this year, we sing and listen to the beautiful, stirring melodies that will accompany our journeys back to who we meant to be, the people we will try, once more, to become.   The music moves me and helps me to get spiritually focused more quickly and powerfully than words alone could ever manage.

Before the service, we spent an hour studying texts that were drawn, primarily, from a wonderful book about repentance by Dr. Louis E. Newman.  I also gave folks an adapted version of a journal created by Michelle Shapiro Abraham* to help them move through the process of teshuvah (repentance).  The journal entry for today started with a quote from Rav Kook (that I first learned in Dr. Newman’s book):  “One of the foundations of penitence, in human thought, is a person’s recognition of reponsibility for his actions, which derives from a belief in man’s free will.  This is also the substance of the confession that is part of the commandment of penitence, in which the person acknowledges that no other cause is to be blamed for his misdeed and its consequences but he himself.”**

Following Rav Kook’s teaching, I offered the following prompt:  ‘As I begin the process of doing teshuvah this year, I acknowledge my tendency to make excuses for my own misdeeds.  Too often, I have unconsciously blamed my wrong words or actions on others or on circumstances.  To begin accepting responsibility, I need to “catch myself in the act” and reflect on the excuses I often use, almost unconsciously, to let myself off the hook.’

For my part, as I wrote, I identified a rationalization I often use to avoid things I should do but am anxious about doing.  I tell myself that I’m just too busy and the demands of my work are too intense; I obviously don’t have the time to do whatever it is I’m avoiding.  In other words, I blame my job.  It’s because of my job that I can’t become the person I meant to be.  That’s one of the “dodges” I need to acknowledge and work on as I prepare to return to my better self.  What are some of yours?

A healthy, fulfilling, joyous and peaceful 5773 to you, to those you cherish and to all creation!

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*You can find Michelle’s original journal in the URJ publication, “Reaching for Holiness.”  If you’re a member of BETC and you’d like a copy of my revised version, just stop by the synagogue and ask me for one.

**Quoted in Repentance:  The Meaning & Practice of Teshuvah  , Dr. Louis E. Newman (Woodstock, Vermont:  Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010), pg. 83.

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