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.
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.
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!
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.
The Jewish community in the US has not been the same since the massacre in Pittsburgh last year. The incident in San Diego, as well as the arrests of those wishing to do Jews harm in Toledo and Youngstown have only made things worse. There is a real sense of fear. At my congregation there are those who have chosen to stay away from the synagogue until more stringent security measures are put into place–which is quickly in process.
Tonight we held a “dry run” for an evacuation drill that we will hold on Shabbat during services.
What has our society come to? Who could have imagined such a scenario. As we prepared for the dry run, we discussed not only how we would evacuate the building, but also how we would help those who might have a hard time getting out quickly. It was a sobering and sad conversation knowing just how vulnerable we are, and knowing that we even have to have these kinds of conversations.
The cold truth is that it isn’t a question of if there will be another mass shooting (most likely perpetrated by a white supremacist), but rather a question of when and where. There is an epidemic of hatred and gun violence in our nation and there is very little political courage being shown by our elected officials to confront the issue; it comes at an enormous cost to families, the healthcare system, and our society.
This coming Shabbat morning we will have our drill. It will be a sad interruption in our holy day of rest–like smashing a glass at the end of a Jewish wedding. The difference being that the breaking of glass at a wedding is only a momentary pause in an otherwise joyous day. The reality of what evacuation and active-shooter drills represents appears unfortunately to be here for quite a while.
I am saddened that in this country that I have called home for my entire life it has come to this. Jews have a long history of being persecuted in nearly every place we have lived. I always believed that this country of immigrants was different…and I hope that it still can be. In the meantime, sadly, we prepare for the worst.
Oseh Shalom Bimromav, Hu Yaaseh Shalom Aleinu v’al Kol Yisrael v’al Kol Yoshvei Tevel v’imru Amen. My God who makes peace in the heavens, make peace for us, for all Israel, for all who dwell on Earth. Amen.
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.