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.


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.

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.

Tetzaveh – Exodus 27:20 – 30:10

This Torah portion is primarily about the priestly vestments, clothing, adornments and the altars.  Two things struck me particularly.  The commentaries point out that in the Torah portion Moses’ name is not mentioned at all yet the “directions” are to him.  So it is selfless and ultra present at the same time. Moses said to G-d that he would be nameless in the Torah as a result of the people sinning with the golden calf.  The ultimate selflessness, to remain nameless in the holiest of holy works.  And yet, he is in this most intimate relation with G-d in this portion, G-d providing him with the instructions required for the priests to maintain the relationship between G-d and the people.  Which directs my attention to the tzedakah question – nameless?  I think so.  We as Jews talk about tzedakah, about charitable good works, about tikkun olam, all the time.  There are those who do many good works but feel it necessary to be recognized as often and as publicly as possible.  How close to G-d does that put the person?  The good is the good but I think the desire for a “return” undermines the value of the good.  Sometimes the recognition, the price to the recipient, is too much.  There are those who do small good works but do them anonymously.  How close to G-d does that put the person?  Much closer I think.  It is much more intimate an act to do small acts of kindness and charity without hope of reward.  Not to say that there aren’t those that do great works without the need of public reward.

The other theme in this portion that struck me is that of the “everlasting” light that is supposed to burn from morning until night.  Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?  All the time versus some of the time.  I loved a commentary I read which is essentially that this contradiction is a metaphor for the contrast between the perfect and the imperfect. That it is our job to find a relationship between the divine and the human, the eternal and the temporal.  And isn’t that the meaning of our lives, the striving for a perfection that we know perfectly well is unattainable, yet we continue to strive.  And as with tzedakah, doesn’t the striving for the unattainable put is in a more intimate relationship with g-d.  And this is not the same as striving for “success”.  It is striving for the divine; the perfection of our selves.  Ironically striving to attain the perfection of our human selves is by definition to only attain a better imperfection! 

Ultimately in this portion, both themes that spoke to me are about doing the best we can not because it is asked of us, not because it will gain us material goods or rich recognition, but because it brings us closer to the divine.  They are both about improving our relationship with G-d and what is best in us; in having a more intimate relationship with G-d and with ourselves.  Shabbat Shalom.

Bo ~ Identity & Identification ~ Shabbat January 11, 2014

So, we are in the middle of the exodus.  And we are at the last of the plagues.  Moses has made his demands of pharaoh, to no avail; the other plagues have come and gone, to no avail.  G-d sends the locusts so that nothing will grow, to no avail.  G-d sends the locusts so that nothing will grow, to no avail!  Then G-d sends the utter darkness, and still pharaoh is not convinced.  You wonder here who is the more stubborn, but I will address that momentarily.  Finally, G-d is going to kill the first born sons of Egypt.  This threat ultimately moves pharaoh and he virtually drives the Israelites out of Egypt so fast that we are all commanded, or should I say condemned, to eat nothing but matzo for seven days to commemorate the occasion for all eternity.

As to stubborn, I read a wonderful midrash about a fat man and a donkey.  There was a very fat man riding on a donkey.  As they go along the donkey is thinking “I will be so glad when this fat man is off my back” and the fat man is thinking “I can’t wait to be off the back of this donkey.”  When the fat man finally alights, it is impossible to tell who is happier, the fat man or the donkey! As with pharaoh and the Israelites, after the plagues and the killing of the first born, we can’t know who was happier when the Israelites finally left Egypt, them or pharaoh.

Last week I called it the Passover portion because the ritual is commanded there.  This week is literally the Passover portion because it is here that Passover gets it’s name.  In this portion the slaughter of a lamb is commanded of the Israelites and the blood is to be sprinkled on the doorways and lintels of their houses so that when G-d comes for the first born of Egypt he will literally “pass over” their homes, not killing their sons.

In the commentary on this portion, there is much talk about the darkness and the journey and how those might be metaphors for us.  There is a lot to think about in those metaphors.  What spoke to me most, however, was the idea of the marking of the homes of the Jews.  This is a moment of both identity and of identification.  As was the “marking” of Jews by the application of spray paint to their homes and stars to their clothes and finally numbers to their very skin during the holocaust.  Are identity and identification the same?  Or are they different?

The question is, is it necessary for us to identify ourselves as Jews in order t feel the completion of our identity as Jews.  The answer, as always, is probably different for different people.  And in order to complete our identity as Jews, do we need identification with others in our community?

Taking the idea of the metaphors in the portion, if we think of the exodus itself as a metaphor, if we all have our own internal Egypt, then how do we come through the wilderness of our feelings into the light, into spiritual and emotional freedom, if not through and with other people, if not through identification with others.  The Jews were not commanded to, nor did they, march through the wilderness one by one; they did not survive alone – leaving aside for a moment the question of divine intervention.  They survived the plague of the killing of the first born sons only through their identification with the group.  They survived the wilderness, in large part, because they were together one imagines.

The philosopher Michael Walzer wrote (and is loosely quoted in our Mishkan Tefillah Prayer book) that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt; that we imagine or believe that there is a better place, a promised land; and that the only way through the wilderness is by joining together.

So what of Jews who are not religious but who identify themselves as Jews?  How many of those do you know?  Have you been to New York, or Boca, lately?  There are many more “cultural” Jews than religious.  I think of my dear friend Sylvie who was Israeli and who was by her own admission what they call entirely secular, but she still identified herself as Jewish.  To be Jewish, many of us would proudly say, is a culture, a cultural identity, in a way that most religions are not, crossing boundaries of nationality.  Jews tend to be Jewish and whatever else they are.  I would identify myself, for instance (accurately or not) as English on my mother’s side and Russian/Polish Jew on my father’s.  It would not occur to me to identify my mother’s family’s religious affiliation.

The rituals of our faith, in many instances, have become the rituals of our identification, of our culture.  These rituals stay with us despite our intransigence regarding formalized religion or affiliation.  My grandmother did not belong to a Temple during my lifetime, nor did she particularly profess to prayer that I can remember. But she always lit Yahrzeit candles in her home, where else would I – the daughter of a shiksa – have learned to burn them safely on the stove.  She attended family seders, she buried my grandfather in a Jewish cemetery and she hummed Ein Keloheinu when she was unobserved.

So what matters more, culture or religion? Identification or identity?  Perhaps it depends on the context, is it personal or is it communal?  Is it inward or outward?  My identity is personal, my faith is part of that identity.  Identity is at our centers and is who we most basically are.  Identification is by its nature communal, when I want to make a statement to the world about who or what I am.  When I wish solidarity with a principle, idea or nation.  Or when I simply wish to be a part of a greater whole.

Religion and religious ritual seem to me to be, to some extent, where identity and identification intersect.  I am here because I practice my faith, my spirituality here in the sanctuary, among other places.  But I am also here because it is important to support the community, the whole, and the identity of the community through my identification with it.  In the end, they intertwine I think.  The ritual symbols of our faith sustain us personally but, just as we burn our chanukiah in the window because it is a symbol of our freedom to do so, so too the mezuzot on our doors proclaims our identity and identification, our freedom, our exodus from Egypt, wherever that might be, through the wilderness to safety, to home.