Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Torah Reviews its Memories



As people age realize they are nearing the end of their lives, they begin to engage in a process called life review. Life review is different for each person and involves a progressive return to memories of our life, actions and the people we’ve encountered. Or, in Jewish speak, it’s our psyche helping us do the work that will enable us to reach a point where we feel like we’ve done enough teshuva so that we can move on to the next stage in peace. 

This week’s Torah reading Nitzavim- Vayeilech, found near the end of the Torah, is comprised of two parshioyot which are read together as a single unit. This particular double parsha has always struck me as a sort of life review for the Torah, strange as that may seem. The work of the five books has been to get us ready to be an independent, moral people ready to enter the Promised Land. Here we are, a couple weeks before we complete our Torah cycle, prepared to enter. 

 It all comes back to the names of the Torah portions themselves. Simply put, Nitzavim means to stand and Vayeilech means “and he walked or he went.” Two words with polar opposite meanings that are supposed to harmonize into one joint meaning. Let’s take a closer look. 

Nitzavim is a rarely used word for standing (as in “you stand”) as opposed to the more commonly used word Omdim. According to various sources Nitzavim connotes not merely standing but also making oneself available to the exchange of ideas or taking a stand for something you believe in. 

Nitzavim I will associate with Moshe. Why Moshe? The parsha begins “Atem Nitzavem Hayom kulchem” You all stand this day. What is hayom/this day? Moshe’s final day, the day of his death. The whole book of Deuteronomy has been Moshe’s final goodbye, his life review of all that has happened since he answered God’s call to set the People Israel free from slavery, help them accept the Torah and ultimately take them to the edge of the River Jordan. 

I read Moshe’s use of the word nitzavim almost as a plea to this group of people who can be as recalcitrant as they can be accepting. Don’t just stand here, but engage, listen, be prepared to entrench, take a stand! `

Vayeilech, and he walked, I associate with Avraham and the famous scene in Parshat Lech Lecha: God said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you (Gen 12:1).  The word Vayeilech echoes Abraham as he answers God’s call to leave all that he has ever known to go to an unknown place and begin a new future. A new future of which, through Moshe, you and I have become the recipients.  

Life review.   The Torah is reminding itself and us that the story began with one person being asked to Lech/Go and ultimately make a covenant with God not only for himself but also for his family, then and in future. 

It ends with one person standing and asking others to stand/take a stand/nitzavim at that moment for themselves and also for  “him that is not here with us this day” (Deut 29:14).

What are the messages of Nitzavim- Vayeilech?  Two opposites can form one single unit. Take a stand in order to move to the next level.  Walk into the unknown in order to listen well and know what is worth believing in.  All are instructive messages with which to begin our review of this past year and begin planning for the new year.


The Virtues and Zeal of Rehabilitation

Numbers 8:1-12:16

This week’s parsha begins in a rather mundane way, with God telling Moses to instruct Aaron how to kindle the lamps of the Menorah. The next verse is the one that really interests me. “Aaron did so; he kindled the lamps at the front of the Menorah, as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (Numbers 8:3) Why did the Torah include this verse? What is so special about Aaron carrying out this fairly ordinary command that it warrants its own rather repetitive sentence? 

Rashi interprets the phrase “Aaron did so” to say that this shows Aaron’s virtue in that he did not deviate from God’s command in the performance of a mitzvah, even one which Moses instructed him to do in the name of God.  Rashi is known for interpreting Torah verses in the pshat, the simplest or face value sense of the words. It makes sense that Aaron would follow God’s command and, as Moses relayed God’s commands to Aaron the majority of the time, it also makes sense that he would follow commandments relayed by Moses. At this point I am not sure where the sense of Aaron’s virtue comes into play, especially since it was not too long ago that we experienced the incident of the Golden Calf.  Perhaps Rashi is aiding in the process of the rehabilitation of Aaron’s character.  

I found two other explanations that resonated. The first is from Or HaChaim, a 17th century Moroccan rabbi and Torah commentator. He wrote that for Aaron to light the Menorah he would have to clean the lamps of Menorah each day. In order to clean and properly prepare the lamps, he would have to remove them, clean them, and reassemble them. In essence, Aaron would be performing the mitzvah of building a new Menorah each and every day.  By stating, “Aaron did so” in the verse, we receive confirmation that Aaron took on the obligation of fulfilling this important mitzvah each day and also obligated his children, the future Cohanim, to fulfilling it as well.  

This explanation satisfies my sense of academic inquiry (and fits with my theory of character rehabilitation), but I needed a different explanation to fulfill my sense of personal curiosity. I found it in a commentary by the Vilna Gaon, a famed rabbinic scholar in the 18th century, expounding on Rashi’s comment that Aaron’s following the instructions was a virtue. He said that Rashi’s point was that not only did Aaron never deviate from the precise instructions but, and here is the part that caught my interest, he never varied in his enthusiasm for this same commandment in all the years that he kindled the Menorah in the Tabernacle. The passion, zeal, and commitment that he felt the first time he completed the act stayed with him each and every time he completed this mitzvah.

The simple words “Aaron did so” now take on a whole new meaning. They teach us that we too can make a mistake and be rehabilitated. They teach us that we can strive to perform a task, even something that seems fairly bland like kindling lights, with passion and commitment, each and every time we conduct the act. The lesson that we learn from these seemingly innocuous words is potent - our commitment to an act need not diminish over time if we have the proper kavannah (intention) as we perform it.

We’ve recently celebrated Shavuot and received the Torah. Who knows what we can accomplish if we truly put our hearts, minds and souls into becoming partners with the Creator in balancing the world?


Food for thought:

Is there anything that you do on a regular basis that you resent that could be elevated if you changed your attitude toward it?


Friday, May 5, 2017

Why Holiness Isn't Boring

      
         I used to think that reading about holiness in Leviticus was rather boring. That changed when I was able to reframe my relationship with the text after an in depth study of the first few sentences of chapter 19, also known as the holiness code.  
In Leviticus19:2 God tells Moshe: “Speak to the whole  Israelite community (kol adat) and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, your God am holy.” 
So what’s unusual here? We’re used to God telling Moshe to speak to the people of Israel but not to the whole Israelite community. That’s new. That’s inclusive – men, women, and children– everyone is included in the term community. 
Biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom writes that this is the only place in Leviticus where the term eda occurs in what he called a commission speech - a speech with instructions that are to be heard by every responsible Israelite – and that’s enough to show its importance. 
Other commission speeches containing eda (another form of adat) occur in two places in Exodus: one regarding the preparation of the paschal sacrifice (Exodus 12:3) and another for assembling the building materials for the tabernacle (Exodus 35:1).
Milgrom goes on to say that the word eda “unambiguously means the entire people Israel … Its unique placement here underscores the importance of the prescriptions that follow: they are quintessentially the means by which Israel can become a holy nation.”
         The verse continues: “...and you, Moshe, will say to them, you [second person plural] shall be holy, for I, Adonai Your God, am holy.” 
         So why are we to be holy? Because God is holy. Yes, but what does that mean? We already know that the command to holiness for the people Israel is an inclusive one because it is being given to everyone. And the commandments that come after, commandments that tell us how to behave in order to be holy – to keep Shabbat, to honor one’s parent, tonnot worship idols– are given to us as a group.  The verbs that are used are in the plural.
One might think that such important commandments would be addressed in the singular to one person at a time, or if in the plural, than to small groups of people, not to everyone all at once.  Research suggests that the commandments are written this way to show that any Jew can attain the highest principles of Judaism, can observe the mitzvot and strive for daily holiness – that’s nicely egalitarian.               
         There are commandments that do use singualar verbs. One should note that those with singular verbs are specifically actions between people (bein adam l’chavero) whereas the actions with the plural verbs are related to actions that reflect on God (bein adam l’makom).
         In the commandment to be holy because our God is holy, the verb used is t’hiyu, which means, “you [in the plural] will be.”
         One way to emulate God is to be holy like God. How? We act in holy ways by fulfilling mitzvot that encourage godliness to the world. Our parasha brings us a little closer to figuring out how to do that – through inclusion and equality and the equal opportunity commission of mitzvot.
          

 Note: 
This dvar appears in the May 4, 2017 edition of the Washington Jewish Week. But it's based on a dvar I wrote years ago in Rabbinical School about holiness. I was prompted to revisit that dvar because of all the turmoil going on in the world today. Particularly in our country, in our government. 

I think it's important for us all to remember that we are put here to emulate the Awesome One Above through bringing acts of holiness into the world. Particularly in the face of insanity. And hopelessness. And craziness. It's the only way we can keep our own sanity and hope and integrity. 

Shabbat Shalom, 
Rabbah Arlene

     
       






        


Sunday, March 12, 2017

Purim thoughts 2017

Purim. A holiday when we wear masks and disguises. Our outsides get to take a break from all the posturing that it does on a daily basis. Our innermost selves are allowed to run riot for a day.

Is one aspect of ourselves better than the other? I don't think so. I think sometimes our insides and our outsides get mixed up and we forget what is real. We forget what is truth. And we forget just what is important enough to fight for even if the result is that we make ourselves vulnerable.

May this holiday of Purim remind us of the importance of acknowledging our core and give us the courage to make ourselves vulnerable - especially when we are fighting for something we believe in.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Is Seeing really believing?

Parshat Bo  Exodus  10:1-13:16  

While there is great truth to the phrase “seeing is believing,” we know that it is not a complete truth. For while it frequently takes witnessing something with one’s own eyes to integrate it into our psyche and believe in its authenticity, the belief doesn’t always kick in immediately. We see things and don’t believe them. 
On the one hand, skepticism is a healthy and necessary tool in life. On the other hand, however, we too often see things that are truth and our brains refuse to accept what our eyes are witnessing.
That’s what is happening in this part of the Torah. Pharaoh witnesses the awesome and terrible plagues and their impact on himself and his people with his own eyes. Yet it takes 10, each worse than the one before it, until he is convinced of the existence and might of the God of the Israelites. 
In his commentary, Noam Elimelech, an 18th century rabbi and one of the founders of the Hassidic movement, wrote that a Tzaddik, a righteous person, would need to see such wonders of the Creator only once and be impressed, ecstatic and understand. A rasha (a bad guy like Pharaoh) would need to be told over and over, by a Tzadik (in this case Moses), of God’s wonders and of God’s goodness, and even would forget once time passes. 
Such is the story in a nutshell of Moses, Pharaoh, the plagues, the release of the Israelites and the attempt to recapture them. Pharoah believes for a moment and denies reality once again.
This story is familiar not just because we tell it each year as part of the Torah reading cycle and then again at Passover. It is familiar because the moral of the story represents a universal truth. Seeing is not always believing, at least not at first sight, even for good people.  Along with sight we need to be convinced intellectually and experientially so that not only do we believe, but also remember that belief and lesson throughout our lives. 
The parsha ends by introducing us to tefillin (phylacteries) (Exodus 13:9). We wear the leather boxes and straps on our heads and on our arms and hands. They contain words of Torah and serve as a physical reminder of our belief in God, of our beginnings as a people and of the need to remember the important things in life and to teach and act on them in each generation.  
Abstract concepts such as the need for dignity, respect, acceptance and freedom cannot remain abstract if we remember and retell them on a regular basis. It is only when we live the lessons learned, when we become Noam Elimelech’s tzaddik, and not only believe but also actuate these lessons in life, that the negatives of history will not repeat. 

Table Talk:
1.  Tefillin are the ultimate aide de memoire, having physical, intellectual and philosophical aspects to them. Can you think of any other items or activities that function in a similar way? 

2. How does belief work in your life to shape the things that you do and are willing to go out of your way for?  

This Dvar Torah was published in the Washington Jewish Week Vol. 53, No. 5   2/2/17

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Be the One to Stand Up!



Ethics of Our Fathers 2:6


Hillel used to say: 
A brutish man cannot fear sin; 
an ignorant man cannot be pious, 
nor can the shy man learn, 
or the impatient man teach. 
He who engages excessively in business cannot become wise. 
In a place where there are no men strive to be a man. 

~~ Or, in words for today ~~

iIf there is no one willing to stand up and take responsibility, 
BE THE ONE TO STAND UP   

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Miketz/Chanukah - A Single Person Can Make a World of Difference

Torah Portion Miketz (Genesis 41:1-44:17)


A common greeting for Chanukah is “Chag Urim Sameach,” meaning happy holiday of lights. The Haftarah that we read on the first Shabbat of Chanukah is Zechariah 2:14-4:7. It contains mention of Zechariah’s vision of the menorah and its lamps or branches that stood and will stand again in the rebuilt Temple.  As we are all well aware, light is a pervasive theme of Chanukah, in fact of most traditions that occur around the time of the winter solstice.  Light banishes the long night’s darkness during the winter months. Light spreads hope and openness and transparency. One looks into a flame and becomes mesmerized by the beauty and paradox of a constant light that is ever changing.

I experience a sense of awe, possibility and hope every time I kindle the Chanukah candles and gaze at their flames. There is something about fire. It is powerful and dangerous, yet also cleansing and mesmerizing. The light of the smallest candle can fill a space so much larger than itself. It tells us to take courage, to peer into the darkness, into the cracks and corners of our world and our lives. It illuminates the possibilities of our lives. It reminds me that if the flame of one little candle can breathe such potential, imagine the impact that each of us can make.

One person can make a difference. Witness the legacy of Joseph in the four Torah portions, including this week’s Miketz , that tell his story.  He goes from being  a bratty younger brother who is sold to slavers, is imprisoned in Egypt, becoming its second highest leader, saving the country from famine and finally, forgives his brothers for trying to kill him. If one person can do all of that, just imagine the difference that many people standing as one can make!

The Haftarah, meanwhilie, contains a prophecy about rebuilding the Temple. The prophecy that will be fulfilled in large part due to the pragmatic pluralism practiced by Cyrus the Great over the areas that he governed. Cyrus’ position was to respect and allow the traditions of the people of his empire. It helped keep the peace and ensured that taxes would be received. In many ways this attitude is model of governing for our world today.

Zechariah contains the famous words Lo b’Chayil v’lo b’koach, ki im b’ruchi amar Adonai Tzva’ot “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit – said the Lord of Hosts.” (4:6)

This verse contains a powerful message both for Chanukah and for our world today. We recognize this timelessness and timeliness nightly in the second blessing over the Chanukah candles: bayamim ha-hem -- in those days, bazman hazeh – in this time. It takes more than armies and war and physical strength to make change and to live a good life. It requires faith – in God, in a higher power, in the goodness and possibility of mankind.  When I see the words “but by My Spirit” it tells me that I must nourish a personal godliness while recognizing that the godliness I see in others may be very different from my own.  It requires the moral strength of having one’s own belief while at the same time holding space and respect for others without feeling threatened.

That is what Chanukah represents to me, that Judaism is a constant light that is ever-changing. The faith we hold, the traditions that imbue our lives with meaning, those same traditions that we often fight against, the sense that being a Jew means something – to me this is the answer to the Sages question in the Talmud, MaiHanukkah? What is Hanukkah?

Food for Thought: 
1. What does the concept of “light” mean to you?
2. Chanukah was a time of conflict not only against an oppressive ruler but it also was a civil war dealing with religious practices and ideas and the reality of assimilation. Who were the real winners of the Chanukah story?