Our Torah portion this week, Ha’azinu, is a poem delivered by Moses to the Israelites as his life is coming to an end. Up until now in the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses has shared a lot of laws and reminded the people of their history. Now, as death approaches, he shares final thoughts and warnings.
Moses is fortunate to be able to do this; he knew exactly when his life would be over. We, on the other, do not know when our last day will be. Moses was able to consider his words, understanding that they would be part of his legacy. Do we have that opportunity as well?It is not often (despite what we see in the movies) that we have the chance at the end of our lives to share how we want to be remembered, what we want our descendants to uphold, what values we want passed on.
Many do write ethical wills while they are in good health, but the most effective way for us to ensure a positive legacy is not through words or documents. Even though Moses was able to share these thoughts, what we know about him and what we esteem comes from the way he lived his life. It was not just a poem at the end of his life, but years of sacrifice and leadership that made him so memorable and deserving of emulation.
In our own lives, this is true as well. We write our metaphorical poems and record our legacies every day of our lives. Any day could be out last, so let us consider how to act to wisely ensure that the values that matter to us, the love we have shared, and the positive deeds we have performed will remain even after we are gone.
This coming Shabbat is Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath that comes between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Traditionally, it has been considered (along with Shabbat Hagadol before Passover) to be one of the most “important” Shabbatot of the year; it was one of two times during the year when rabbis were required to give a sermon to get the flock in order. Why is this Shabbat so critical? In the coming days, we will observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. According to our tradition, this is the day on which our sins are forgiven and wiped away…well, at least some of our sins. Transgressions committed against God could be erased, but those committed against our fellow human beings could not be forgiven until we had made proper atonement for our offenses. But can’t this process occur at any time? Can’t we choose to make things right with God and those around us during the other 364 days of the year? Yes we can. Yom Kippur, however, is kind of like marking a fiscal year; it is the day that Judaism recognizes as a time to take care of all that unfinished business. The fact that it is accompanied by fasting and prayer helps us to focus on our spirits and less on the everyday distractions that often prevent us from being our best selves. Shabbat Shuvah is the day on which we rest and recharge from Rosh Hashanah to prepare ourselves properly for the task at hand. We need all our energy–physical and spiritual–to make the changes so that we can be right with our fellow humans and God. Shabbat Shuvah (with or without a sermon!) is essential for our success. Wishing all a Shabbat Shalom, and meaningful and productive fast.
As the clock ticks down to Rosh Hashanah, there is a lot on my mind. Just like any Shabbat, there are all kinds of preparations that need to be completed: food prepared, Divrei Torah to write, clothes to get ready, etc. In the midst of all those preparations, we can sometimes lose sight of why we are doing all this preparation. If we have a wonderful meal on the table, new clothes, shiny shoes and the house all tidied up, but we have not given serious thought to the hard job of Teshuva–doing atonement–we are not really ready for the holiday. We are lucky to have this coming Shabbat to take a break in the rush to get ready for the spiritual part of the holiday. It is a great time to consider: what have I done well this past year? What needs improvement? What goals did I set last year, and did I achieve them? How will this year be different? None of this is rocket science, but it is easy to forget the “reason for the season.” Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah from my family to yours!
If you’ve ever been “irregular,” you know what a blessing it can be when you finally “go.” What a relief it is. You may even thank God that if finally happened!
In Jewish tradition, there is actually a blessing that one is supposed to say every time one uses the toilet. The blessing, know by its short form Asher Yatzar in Hebrew, is recited by more observant Jews as another way of elevating and sanctifying even the most base and animal-like functions of daily life.
Here is the text of the blessing in Hebrew and English:
Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, King of the universe, who formed man with wisdom and created within him many openings and many hollow spaces. It is obvious and known before Your Seat of Honor that if even one of them would be opened, or if even one of them would be sealed, it would be impossible to survive and to stand before You even for one hour. Blessed are You, Adonai, who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.
This past Shabbat afternoon, I taught a lunch and learn at my congregation, Beth El – The Heights Synagogue, about the mind-body-spirit connection. I referred to this blessing because it is key to understanding the Jewish view of the human body. The blessing is quite biological in its content; there are openings in our bodies that need to stay open, and things that are closed that need to stay closed. Any of us who has ever had something that wouldn’t close (or heal properly) or had something that should be open that isn’t (constipation, for example), knows just how difficult and painful it can be. If it is not eventually resolved, the results can be quite serious.
What is central to the blessing is the idea that if things are not working properly it would be impossible to survive and stand before God. In other words, if we are not healthy we cannot do what it is that God expects of us: clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, supporting the cause of the disadvantaged, pursuing justice, seeking peace, etc. We need our bodies to help make this world a better and more whole place. Our spirits and good thoughts alone won’t cut it; we need to get our hands dirty and put some elbow grease into it.
So it is that every time our body works successfully, an observant Jew thanks God that it is all working…because when it does, we can fulfill our mission in God’s creation.
It seems odd at first to say a blessing after using the bathroom, but upon further reflection, there is something meaningful about reminding ourselves on a (hopefully) “regular” basis to be thankful to God and to get busy with the work of creating a better world. Not only that, it compels us to take care of ourselves (eat right, exercise, get enough sleep, don’t smoke, etc.), so that we can best ensure that we will be able to stand before God and our fellow human beings.
The beginning of Parashat Ki Tetze gives instructions for when an Israelite soldier finds a woman attractive among the captives of the conquest and wishes to take her as a wife. The man is to bring her to his home, trim her nails and cut her hair. She also removes her captive’s garb. These seem to be signs of mourning. The text continues by telling us that she is to mourn her parents for thirty days–presumably because she will never see them again. At first read, this text might appear to be sensitive. The man’s emotions are clear: he is in love and has desire. The verses tell us that he must first take into her feelings; her mourning for what her life was and might have been is real and must be recognized. This seems unusual since the Torah does not often deal with feelings. While we may take some comfort in knowing that the Torah has sensitivity toward the woman’s feelings, we must not forget that it does not change her fate. Her life was not in her control; she became an object rather than a subject in her destiny. Even so, it is instructive that the Torah mentions that when it comes to emotions, we must look beyond what we are feeling alone. There is always another side to the story that deserves validation and respect. Shabbat Shalom!
Parashat Shoftim is perhaps most well known for the verse containing the commandment, Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” It is popular because it expresses a notion that is at the core of Judaism and Jewish practice.
It is an idea that we can all get behind, but when it comes to putting it into action, it is a little more complicated. First, not everyone agrees on what justice might be in a given case. Second, we have a well-established legal system to which we turn in order to administer affairs of justice. Third, there is a not-so-fine line between pursuing justice and vigilantism.
Despite the “messy” nature of justice, the Torah exhorts us–repeating the word justice–to pursue it. As we are in the month of Elul, it is worth thinking about how we do or do not follow this commandment. We should ask ourselves, “when was the last time I pursued justice?” Can we remember what it was or when it was? If not, it means that we must recommit to the pursuit of justice despite the obstacles.
“Justice, justice shall you pursue,” is not just a platitude. It is at the core of how we must live our lives.
Parashat Re’eh begins with a statement from God given through the prophet Moses. We are told that God has placed before us blessing and curse—and it is plain to see, in Hebrew, “Re’eh.”
There are instructions later in the Parasha that the Israelites, once they enter the Land of Israel, are to place a list of blessings on Mt. Gerizim and list of curses on Mt. Ebal. These two mountains overlook the town of Shechem (Nablus today). Gerizim is to this day covered in greenery, while Ebal is barren and rocky. It is easy to imagine that the Israelites looking at these two mountains would clearly see the difference between blessing and curse, between following the commandments and going after false gods. It is an amazing visual aid.
We are familiar with the phrase, “seeing is believing,” but that is only partially true. Sometimes we cannot accept something until we see it with our own eyes. Other times, our eyes can deceive us; we make judgments about what we see on the surface and miss what is going on behind it.
We know that life is never that simple. Unlike Gerizim and Ebal, life is not black and white (although sometimes it is!). Most of the time there are shades of gray…and other colors too. That is why it is so important to see—really see—in order to do our best to determine what courses of action will lead to blessings and which (God-forbid) will lead to curses.