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.
I usually stay away from politics in the Thought for Shabbat, but it seems unavoidable this week. Israel and the Jewish community appear to have been dragged into a discussion where many feel we have no place. There have been charges against some Jews of disloyalty to both the United States and Israel. This is a familiar trope and one that should cause all of us concern—no matter what our political affiliation.
Sadly, the divisions that have deepened in US society seem to have reached the Jewish community as well. Israel was for many decades a bi-partisan issue; American Jews believed that no matter who controlled Congress or who sat in the White House, it was important for them to have good relations and strong connections with the Jewish State. Our current situation is a long-simmering departure from that.
What is worse is that this schism can potentially fracture communities, congregations and even families. Individuals and communities need to engage in serious study/workshops/seminars that help us learn to communicate with those whom we love but with whom we may have deep differences of opinion.
It is my hope that in what promises to be a tumultuous period ahead that we will remember our love for each other. What we share as a community and congregation is greater than what separates us. Let our words and actions be guided by the teachings of Aaron to “love peace, pursue peace and bring others closer to Torah.”
Today, not only are we about to begin Shabbat, but it is also Rosh Chodesh Av–the first day of the Hebrew month of Av. On the Hebrew calendar, every month begins when there is a new moon in the sky (even if it isn’t visible); it is a lunar calendar (as opposed to the Gregorian calendar which is solar). Even so, the Jewish calendar has a solar correction because the sun and the moon aren’t always lined up; there is a leap month every few years so that Passover always ends up in the spring, Rosh Hashanah in the fall, etc.
Judaism is especially attuned to the cycles of nature. We not only mark the cycles of the moon, but also the various seasons and harvests that accompany them. Prayer times are set by the pattern of sunrises and sunsets.
There is only one major observance that does not line up with any astronomical or natural cycles: Shabbat, the day of rest. It does not reflect anything going on in the cosmos; rather it is based on the biblical story of Creation. Even so, it is an important part (the most important!) of the cycles that make up Jewish life. The mega-cycle of the year on the Jewish calendar causes us to appreciate the world around us, to confront our responsibilities, and find our place in the world. Each holiday asks us to focus on what we need to do in the world. Passover focuses on freedom, Shavuot on responsibility, etc. All the cycles give us context for our lives so that we are not simply running on a treadmill from cradle to grave. The calendar encourages us to live in and appreciate the moment.
I cannot help but see a parallel to the world of physical fitness. Many of us have our regular cycle of upper body days, lower body days, group classes. We may even have a rotation of cardio equipment we use. For those who take this seriously, the cycles and patterns provide a sense of orderliness; they present a plan where it is possible to see progress–to look back on where we have been, where we are, and where we hope to go. These cycles can be quite effective.
In our society we often hear that we should not get “stuck in a rut.” We need to “break the cycle.” There is, however, a flip-side. We can use these patterns to help us organize our lives, set goals and even give our lives a sense of meaning.
On this new moon, I am reflecting on the bad things that happen in our world (that is a theme of the month of Av), and what I can do to prevent them. On this Shabbat (on which we conclude the Book of Numbers), I am thinking about closing one chapter and beginning another. I look to these cycles to help me find my place in the world and what I can do to reflect God’s presence in it.
The end of this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, outlines the offerings to brought to the Tabernacle and later to the Temple. It begins with the daily offerings, the weekly Shabbat offerings, and is then followed by the various festivals.
It is noteworthy that there was an offering presented by the priests every morning and every afternoon. Sacrifices were seen by the ancients as a way to connect with God; during a sacrifice, the boundary between life and death was crossed and that mysterious and powerful act was thought to bring God’s presence nearer. The Torah legislates that this does not happen only at special occasions or even just weekly, but rather every single day.
As a personal trainer, I can relate to this. In ancient times, the goal of sacrifice was to draw near to God. This could not be done in a haphazard way; it had to be done on a regular basis if there was any hope of achieving this aim. The same is true for almost any goal we set for ourselves. Whether in business, education or physical fitness, we need a regular program to help us get where we want to be.
I tell my clients that it is good that they see me on a (mostly) regular basis, but once or twice weekly may not be enough to lose the weight, tone up, build strength and endurance, etc. The effort needs to be daily, lest we miss a day…and another…and another.
Parashat Pinchas reminds us that this approach is valid not just in our earthly pursuits, but in our quest for the Divine as well.
I write this Thought for Shabbat from the airport in Houston on my way back from a wonderful vacation with Michele.
We had the good fortune to travel to Alaska for a tour/cruise. It was a beautiful trip with great memories.
We went primarily to see the majesty of nature before it is altered beyond recognition by global climate change; unfortunately, so much damage has already been done and we saw and experienced it first hand. It renewed in me the need to act in ways that are sustainable and even help to reverse the damage that has been done.
Princess Cruises’ motto is “come back new.” I certainly feel refreshed, but I think I’m still me. What is new, is an appreciation of the enormity and beauty of God’s Creation—and the obligation that each of us has to “till it and tend it.”