“Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?” That is the challenge that Abraham placed before God when he heard of the Lord’s plans to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham negotiated with God until they agreed that if 10 innocent people could be found, the cities would be spared destruction. I think about the question posed by Abraham this Shabbat in the context of the epidemic of gun violence in our country. Just yesterday another school shooting “swept away the innocent.” Who in that school could have possibly been wicked? Who deserves to have their life cut short in such a violent way? The Constitution does guarantee the right to bear arms, but too often the 2nd Amendment seems to be an impediment to achieving the very aims of that same Constitution: “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Too often it seems that the Constitution is used as a weapon itself, and the innocent are swept away along with the guilty. Will we, like Abraham, raise our voices? Will we protest? Thoughts and prayers are nice but that is not what Abraham did. He spoke truth to power. Can we follow his example?
There is an expression in the fitness world that is often found on motivational posters: “If It Doesn’t Challenge You, It Won’t Change You.” In other words, if we are doing exercises that don’t really push us beyond our comfort zone, we won’t see results; using the same weights and the same number of reps over and over is not only a recipe for boredom, but also for disappointment. As a trainer, I continually work on progression, moving my clients from one level of challenge to the next. This philosophy is true not just with regard to fitness, but in other areas of our lives as well. At work, if we stick to the tasks we know well and never challenge ourselves to learn new skills or new parts of the organization, we will stagnate. In school, if we only take subjects that interest us or are only on one topic, we will never expand our horizons and perhaps even our points of view. In our relationships, if we merely ever stick to the tried and true, there is a danger of allowing love or friendship to slowly die. We must always challenge ourselves. I am reminded of this especially on this Shabbat when we read Parashat Lech Lecha. The Lord spoke to Abram and told him to go forth from everything with which he was familiar to a new land where God would make him into a great and mighty nation. Talk about getting outside of one’s comfort zone! This was the ultimate challenge and not only did it change Abram (to Abraham!), but it altered the history of humanity. Change is scary; it is tough to leave behind that with which we are comfortable. One truth in life, however, is that change is inevitable. We can be objects and have things happen to us, or we can be like Abram and be the subjects of our lives by challenging ourselves to be more tomorrow than we are today.
As I write this message it is Halloween night across America and Dia de los Muertos in many Spanish-speaking countries. I have lots of memories of trick-or-treating as a kid…and of lots of candy too. I don’t want to comment on whether Jewish families should participate or not, but rather to note that the macabre focus on the dead in Halloween is foreign to Jewish tradition. But wait…what about Yizkor…and Yahrzeits…and Kaddish…and sitting Shiva? It is true that Judaism has a way of memorializing the departed, but death is never glorified. Martyrdom is not something to be admired, but seen as a sometimes necessary evil. The Kaddish prayer is a praise of God and doesn’t even mention death. The Book of Psalms tells us that “the dead cannot praise You [God].” In other words, the preference is to be alive. The Torah teaches us that we always have a choice. Life and death are before us, so “choose life.” We do not know what happens after we are gone. We do not know for sure about the full nature of the spiritual world. All we can know for sure (and even that in a limited way) is the world of creation in which we live. It is for this reason that Judaism never came up with a Day of the Dead. Rather, each day is a day to focus on living life to the fullest. May we all be blessed with many years of good health and life! Lechaim!
Parashat Breisheet–the very first Torah portion–is always a joy to read. The stories of the Creation of the World, the Garden of Eden, and the first generations on the planet are among the most well-known in the world.Despite their popularity, there is a fair amount of discussion/controversy around these early accounts of life in our universe.
“True believers” take the story literally and accept that the world came into being exactly as described in the Torah. More progressive readers of the text see Breisheet as a myth created by the ancients to help explain how everything came to exist; those who read it this way find ways to both appreciate the stories and honor their understanding of scientific explanations of the origins of life.
The name Israel (Yisrael in Hebrew) means to struggle with God; we will get to that story in several weeks. A hallmark of Judaism is that we do strive to understand the nature of God and our universe. Not everyone agrees on how everything came about; in fact, it is hard to find a topic on which everyone agrees at all! This is a tradition that we can fine (literally) “in the beginning.”
Nevertheless, we can all value the accounts in Breisheet. They are the legends that have been told over and over by generations upon generations in the Jewish and human family. We may understand that they are not to be taken literally, and at the same time comprehend just how powerful and beautiful the stories are.
It is natural for us as human beings to want to feel that we are in control of our own destinies. We like to plan for the future, set goals and try to achieve them. Additionally, we may also put up a front to hide our disappointments, pain and embarrassment when those plans do not come to fruition. No matter how much we think we are in control, the truth is there is so much that is outside of our power. Natural disasters can affect us. Economic trends can touch us and our families. A diagnosis can throw our plans into a tailspin. We also know that we cannot change other people or control their behavior. The only person that we can change is ourselves…and we know how difficult that can be. The holiday of Sukkot in the middle of which we find ourselves is all about vulnerability. From an historical standpoint, we celebrate the time in the wilderness when we wandered for forty years; we were totally dependent on God’s providence to survive. We celebrate the harvest time; until it happens, we never know whether it will be a year of bounty or a year of scarcity. The sukkah (the temporary hut we build at our homes for the week) is open on top so that rain and wind can get in; we cannot control the weather. Vulnerability is often seen as a negative, but it also has a positive side. When we are vulnerable we often reach out to others and open ourselves up. When we lower that mask of infallibility, we connect with others. Vulnerability teaches us to be humble–not to abase ourselves, but rather to understand our true place in God’s world. The Yiddish expression is “Man plans and God laughs.” I don’t know if God laughs, but we know our plans are often sidetracked. When they are, it is an opportunity for us to regroup, refocus and recommit…and to seek comfort and support in those around us.
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.