Re’eh ~ Giving Is Its Own Punishment?

This Torah portion is the longest in Deuteronomy.  And it is full of all manner of things.  Re’eh means “see” and as with so many Torah portions it is the first word that is the title.

See, I set before you good and evil.  The good is the doing of good deeds and obeying the “rules”.  We Jews believe that giving rewards the giver more than the recipient. But here is where I get confused, there are awful punishments in this portion, particularly the pinning of a person to a wall or door with an awl through the ear.  We are admonished here to remember that we once were slaves but the treatment of servants here is not wonderful.

This portion contains the rules of kashrut, kosher eating.  It also contains the rules for Passover and Sukkot. So needless to say it is a jam packed parsha.  But for me, it is the core concept of giving and remembrance are the most important.

According to Maimonides the second to the highest level of “charity” is anonymous giving to anonymous recipients; the highest being helping someone to make their way through employment, loans and other forms of assistance.  So remembering we once were slaves, extending a hand of help to pull others out of poverty, oppression and enslavement should be one of the highest forms of help.   But many American Jews are on the immigration bandwagon, demanding the deportation of honest working people, the breakup of families.  Do we have a need for immigration reform? Sure we do.  But aren’t we the ultimate immigrants, from leaving Egypt to the formation of Israel we have wandered the earth unwanted, turned away?

So shouldn’t our remembrance, as in our repeating the story of our exodus at Passover, extend to giving? Shouldn’t memory require action?  Keeping the memory of wrong alive is only meaningful if we ensure that wrong, that evil, does not flourish. Should we not treat others as we would have wished to be treated? Isn’t that what we learned in kindergarten?

We are further obligated to action by everything in our tradition. Everything, we are taught, especially in Reform Judaism, s about social action, about tikkun olam, repairing the world. I am grateful that my tradition and belief allows me to interpret Torah as it applies to my life and times and as I personally read it.  And so I take from this portion the good and release the confusing and punishing. Doing good should, always, be its own reward.

 

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Va’etchanan ~ Sh’ma redux and redux

I wrote this two years ago, and since I have been laid up and didn’t write this week, and because I like this, here it is again.

People often talk about Deuteronomy as the “laws” book, and there is a lot of that.  But Leviticus is all about rules too.  In fact, much of the Torah is really two strands, the historical saga and the rules.  These are always intertwined.

Va’etchanan – pleading. As with other parshat, it comes from the beginning of the portion where Moses tells of how he pleaded with G-d  to be allowed to enter the promised land, to be told no. He is only to see it from a mountaintop. The notion of pleading with G-d is interesting.  How often have you tried to bargain with your G-d, for relief from a behavior, redemption from a wrong, freedom from an addiction, life or peace for a suffering loved one?   Just as Moses was told no, so I think are we; I just don’t think it works that way.  [tweetshare tweet=”I struggle to pray for grace, dignity, courage, strength, serenity and love and for the same for those I love.  The G-d I understand is more likely to help me to find those things than to grant specific wishes.  As usual, however, I digress.” username=”IyXDESKC7WZImwBH2rIY3LE^gzyLO&v):1:1″]

I learned something new last week, because I am a Torah rookie. The Sh’ma has more verses than we normally presume, one of which is the v’ahavta prayer.  In this Torah portion the Sh’ma in all its glory and verses is repeated by Moses as an exhortation to the people.  What it is, really, is another “pleading” to retell our story, to remember the rules that make us Jews, to remind ourselves and our children in our homes and all the time what we believe.  As with so much in the Torah and our tradition, we are ever reminded of where we came from, we are encouraged to cry “never again”, we are instructed to teach our children well.

Whether you take a literal view of the Torah, or, like me and many reform Jews, a more expansive and interpretive view, everything you need to know about living in the world at peace and without anarchy, is contained here.  As is, again, our central prayer, the verse that binds all Jews, everywhere, of every kind, together.  And so we should plead with G-d for that, for a world in unity, at peace and without anarchy.  Isn’t that a vision of the world redeemed some day? And why we pour a glass for Elijah, on the off chance.  Shabbat Shalom

 

 

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Devarim – sticks and stones

This  week we begin the final book of the Torah, Deuteronomy or Devarim which means words in Hebrew.  We are standing at the Jordan, waiting to cross over and enter the promised land.  Moses will never make that crossing, and he chooses to prepare the people by recounting the stories of the trials and hardships that brought them to this moment.  We are called the people of the book, we should be called the people of the story; the people of words.  We recount our history at every chance, for good reasons.  We say of the Holocaust’s racism, bigotry and murder “never again”.  How to avoid it if it fades from memory?  How will our children remember our history if we don’t retell it?

It is all about communication, though, isn’t it? And we strive for the right words to contain our feelings, to express our desires, to describe our history.  And this week a Jewish girl named Aly Raisman did her brilliant Olympic floor routine to Hava Negila on the 40th anniversary of the slaughter of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.  Her own re-telling, her own “never forget”.

In our daily lives we use words carelessly, we toss them around with little thought.  But when we have strong feelings, we struggle to find the right words, words that are adequate.  And nowhere do words seem so careless as in our current presidential politics.  Things are being said that would have previously been unthinkable, and should be still.  The words reek of that racism and bigotry and give rise, as historically, to violence.

Moses chooses his moment to recount, to use words to prepare the people, for building, for memory, for empowering them, for providing rules/structure.  Shouldn’t we take this moment to disavow the childhood admonition about sticks and stones? To remember that words can hurt us, can be destructive? We should take Moses’ example and use our words, and our recounting, to  empower each other.  In our national politic we should use our words to disavow ignorance and hate, deception and lies.  In our personal lives we should use our words to strengthen and honor each other.   We need all our strength as we stand ever on the banks of the Jordan, waiting to enter the promised land hand in hand, a people of words.

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Devarim – Last Week and the beginning of the end

Devarim is the beginning of Deuteronomy, the last of the five books of Moses, the Torah, and the beginning of the end of the cycle, bringing us again to the High Holy days and the joy of Simchas Torah and beginning all over again.

I am not sure being a Temple President is doing G-d’s work, but I like to think it is as it keeps me from doing this.

Most people who think of it at all, think of Deuteronomy as the lawyer’s book, the book of laws – all those gift prints for lawyers offices – “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue” and so on. Being a word geek I was happy to learn that the root words are deuteros for second and nomos for law (yes, Greek). So Dueteronomy is the book of “second” laws. It is the book in which Moses re-iterates and review the laws of the Torah as he rebukes the people for their failing during their 40 years in the desert.

What spoke to me this time around was that this parsha is about wars. And there is lots of commentary, oddly, about “good wars and “bad wars” and the price of war generally. Obviously this resonates presently. It is in this parsha that Moses tells his successor, who will lead the people into Israel and into battle “Fear them not, for the Lord your G-d, He shall fight for you.” As I understand it, more than 7,000 rockets have fallen on Israel and the physical destruction of so many places, In Israel and in Gaza is horrifying. For the frightened children on either side, there is no “good war” no “bad war”, just fear and destruction. So save a place in your prayers for all the innocents. But I digress.

Although this is the week of Devarim, it was also Tisha B’av, about which I am sad to say, I knew nothing. It is characterized as the “saddest day in the Jewish calendar”. The 9th of Av is the day on which the first Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed approximately 2000 years ago. In looing further, I found that our “mythology”, or “history” goes that many things have happened on this fateful day:
1. The spies slandered the land and decree to wander the desert for 40 years resulted;
2. The destruction of the First Temple by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 423 BCE;
3. The destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE;
4. The fall of Betar and the end of the Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans 65 years later in 135 CE (look it up!);
5. Pope Urban II declares the First Crusade; tens of thousand of Jews are killed and communities obliterated;
6. the Jews of England are expelled in 1290;
7. The Jews of Spain are expelled in 1492;
8. World War 1 breaks out in 1914 when Russia declares war on Germany; the German resentment of the Treaty of Versailles set the stage for WWII and the holocaust;
9. On Tisha B’Av, the deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto begins.

So, indeed, the saddest day of the year – the 9th of Av has much to answer for. For the orthodox it is a three week period of mourning and a fast of one day. It is a day of spiritual reflection and accounting, foreshadowing the coming of Yom Kippur.

The Temple in Jerusalem was the center of Jewish life and identity, much as Israel is the center of identity for us today and why it’s perilous position feels so real and emotional to us. In this country we are in a war of words. We are a people of words, people of the book and we know the destructive power of words; politically socially and emotionally. This of “juden” printed on a yellow star to be worn on the chest. Think of “never again” and Am Israel Chai. it is why the words of the press, accounting war in bodies and not peril or fear are so hurtful.

In this parsha, Moses reminds the people that the ways of the book are everything, they are the laws by which we strive to live. And, really, he is reminding us to learn from our mistakes. As Deuteronomy urges us to pursue justice, so to the Qu’ran, verse 5:8 “O Believers, be steadfast for God with justice. Do not let hatred of the people make you act unjustly. Be just for justice is next to piety. AS we pray for peace and justice, take your Shabbat with you out into the world and carry shalom with you everywhere you go.

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