A Land of Milk & Forgiveness

This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, is most wonderful.  You could say that about most but some are hard to deconstruct or find happiness in.  This one is easy.  Moses continues to tell the people what they will find when they enter the land of Israel, the promised land.  Something he will never do.

So even as he describes this beautiful land flowing with milk and honey, he reminds the people of their shortcomings and failures.  What I take from this is a truly resonant lesson, to remember your failings and mistakes, they are part of who you are, but not to live in them.  The people, even as they they are scolded for their shortcomings are about to go forward to something new and wonderful.  And best of all, we are told, G-d forgives them.

Forgiveness is a powerful force.  More so for the forgiver than for the forgiven. In this case, however, the forgiven are freed for the way forward to a new life.   In life I have found that forgiving has everything to do with moving forward. When you live in bitterness, regret, anger it affects only you, not whoever is the “target” of those feelings unless of course it is yourself. Moving past those feelings is possible only with acceptance of the reality of your, or their, failings and with forgiveness.

It is also interesting that this portion of forgiveness and moving forward also includes the second, virtually unknown, part of the shema, the central prayer of Judaism. The “chapter” reminds us of the power of prayer.  And so this portion as a whole exhorts us to two of the most powerful forces we can bring into our lives, forgiveness and prayer. Imagine the beautiful and peaceful way forward impelled by those forces, if only we can internalize them.

Shabbat Shalom.

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.


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



Shemot ~ Redemption and Terrorism

It is impossible to have been unaffected by the terrible events that transpired in France this week. And the Torah portion for this past week, Shemot, ends with a promise of redemption; ironic timing. So much happens in the parshat that choosing one thing to write of is problematic. Joseph has passed away and the people Israel are multiplying. Perhaps for this reason Pharoah and thus all Egypt changes its view of the Israelites, seeing them as a threat. “A new king arose over Egypt and he did not know Joseph”. The new king orders the death of all male Jewish babies and bravely, the midwives Shifrah and Puah refuse this command. As a result of this refusal, the Egyptians are commanded to throw all the babies into the river.

Moses is born to Yocheved and is raised by Pharoah’s daughter. He commits murder and flees, marrying Tzipporah and becoming a shepherd. While herding at the foot of Sinai, the burning bush appears and G-d commands him to return and demand that Pharoah “let his people go.” He does and, in short, is unsuccessful such that the suffering of the Jews is multiplied despite their belief in Moses that redemption is at hand.

In the space of a single generation, the lives and fate of the Jews is abruptly changed from a reasonably peaceful and presumably prosperous presence in Egypt to a feared and despised presence with the murder of their male children a priority of the culture. In the space of how many single generations has this happened to the Jews, the rise of anti-Semitism and the near complete destruction of the Jewish population in the Shoah. The inquisition and the forced conversion or death of the Jews of Spain.

How quickly public attitudes, fears and prejudices shift and change. The terrible rise of anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli sentiment throughout Europe, really in the space of generation or so, in this the third largest Jewish population in the world.

The swiftness of this shift is frightening and, coming in the wake of Chanukah, a festival of freedom poses a powerful lesson. Freedom, liberty and security are not to be taken for granted. The mundane, grocery shopping, turns to a nightmare at the hands of a terrorist with a gun in the blink of an eye; a cup of coffee in an Israeli café is blown to bits on a sunny day. We light our candles in the window because we can, because we declare ourselves publicly as Jews, as proud and as free. But we are at risk in doing so. Can we be as brave as Shifrah and Puah, resisting the public bent to anti-Semitism, speaking aloud our horror and resistance to acts of terror and physically violent anti-Semitic behavior?

Moses returns to speak with G-d and bemoans the difficulty of the lives of the Israelites and G-d’s response is the promise of redemption. But we do not have the luxury to wait for a modern redemption, G-d gave us will, G-d gave us choice and G-d gave us the ability to act. And act we must. If I am not for myself who will be for me. If I am only for myself, what am I. If not now, when? And so, what we learned “at Sinai’s foot” we need to attend ~ freedom is every and it is not easy.

And special thanks to Rabbi Joe Black for sparking this train of thought.