TQ White II, Presented 10/14/2005
Fulfilling the PromiseMoses last speech is sort of a narrative that summarizes a difficult view of our behavior and relationship with God. It includes a lot of flowery language but it comes down to this: God was near and life was good. We took Him for granted and cared for other gods. God turned away so we felt lost.
Moses tells us that we should “do all the words of this law.” If we do, he says, we shall “prolong” our days and get to the promised land.
Well, where I come from, the word ‘law’ usually doesn’t refer to a story that describes bad behavior and consequences. Still, you have to give Moses his due, so I search for the lesson.
The other part of this portion is equally problematic. Moses is at the end of an incredible life of service. He has sacrificed everything to do God’s will and to bring his people into the promised land, except he doesn’t get to join them. The reason, God reminds him, is that he “sanctified Me not” in a an earlier story that took place at a spring at Meribeth-kadesh.
The conditions for getting to the promised land figure prominently in both sections and so I find my focus.
I think it’s safe to say that few of us think that we are going to relocate to some new homeland that is going to make a difference in our life that is worthy of being seen as a divine reward. I think it’s equally fair to say that most of us don’t expect God to physically intervene to prevent us from achieving our life’s goals.
So I figure that this is the final the story of an obedient man who heard the word of God and accepted God’s truth when he was told he “trespassed”. When God said “thou shalt not go thither,” Moses didn’t receive it as a command or even as a punishment, but as a statement of fact. It wasn’t that God wouldn’t let him go to the physical place. Moses understood that he was unable to enter the land of milk and honey because he was not able to live the life that was promised or to achieve its joy.
Moses explained the problem in his final speech to the people. When, “of the rock that begot thee thou wast unmindful,” the penalty, God says, is that “I will hide My face from them.” The consequence of this instruction is a coin with the promised land on one side and God’s absence on the other.
I’ll tell you now that the direction I am going is that the real meaning of the promised land is a place where one feels fully embraced by God and all the goodness that results from that relationship and that Moses couldn’t go because, in the practical reallity of leading his tribe, he came to believe that he was the critical instrument of God’s will. But first, let me talk a minute about Moses’ at Meribeth-kadesh.
At Meribeth-kadesh, the Israelites are dying of thirst and they are angry about it. They confront Aaron and Moses and complain that they have been led to disaster. The leaders said nothing and went to pray. God offered Moses a miracle. Go to the rock, He said, and speak to the rock. It will produce water.
Moses goes outside, gathers the people and says, “are we to bring you forth water out of this rock?” Then he smacked it with his walking stick and the water flowed. He didn’t even seem to notice that it was amazing.
God immediately chastized Moses complaining that Moses “believed not in Me, to sanctify Me” and as a consequence, he would never get to the promised land.
The usual explanation of Mose’s flaw is that he hit the rock with a stick instead of speaking to it and that this was disobedience. I think that’s wrong.
Not only does God actually say “believed not” and “sanctified” as the wrongdoing, but it is clear that Moses language allowed the people to believe that the miracle of the water was because he, Moses, was there to bring about God’s bounty. Moses used the term “we” when he announces the miracle.
In his speech, Moses said that the crucial flaw appears when one “waxed fat” and “forsook God”. The text makes clear that the meaning of “waxed fat” refers to the sense of entitlement that comes from being well fed, that at some point, people are inclined to accept God’s bounty as a given and give priority to other things that lead us away from God.
So Moses, at Meribeth-kadesh, had been running a big organization for a long time. He had repeatedly called on God for help and gotten it. He was used to being the central character in the story of the Israelites and their God. But then, he forgot about God and, thinking only of his role in asking for help, used “we” and didn’t give God credit for the miracles that sustain the people.
Sanctify means, among other things, give authority to. Moses did not give authority to God for saving the people from drought.
But yesterday at Yom Kippur services, we were told that God will forgive anything if we repent and make good. It can’t be that God would not forgive this incredibly loyal servant. So, what about this transgression makes Moses incapable of entering the promised land?
To figure that out, we need to consider the idea of ‘promised land’. A hundred times throughout the Torah it’s promised to the decendants of Abraham in one fashion or other. Most of the time it’s described vaguely as a homeland where things are going to be good. Often, though, there are more details and those tend to describe the things that God is going to do to insure that the people there are going to happily, peacefully be able to worship God, or, more practically, live a life that is consistent with God’s will.
Since the land is already there and God has already given it, what is needed from a person to for this dream to come true? The ability to keep God frontmost in your mind. Not to be distracted by other gods or, to extend the concept, not to allow other priorities to interfere with your ability to sanctify God. Without that, one can’t live in a manner consistent with God’s will because it’s not possible to separate His will from your own.
Moses demonstrated, at Meribeth-kadesh, that he was not able to do that.
Moses was not a bad guy, nor was he impious. He was the judaism’s great leader. At Meribeth-kadesh, he wasn’t thinking, “It’s all me and God doesn’t matter.” He was just being a person, doing the job of being a leader under stress. Trouble came, he turned to his divine resource, sought help and got it.
It is not a big flaw that he came to assume that God would help nor is it evil that he sort of came to feel like the reason that God was doing these miracles was because Moses was there to ask for them. Like many of us, he was doing his job well and when it was time to bring water out of a rock, well, he was the guy that went to God to make it happen. That he felt like it was his achievement, well, it’s not unreasonable.
But it’s a killer if you want to have the place you end up actually be the promised land. Even if he had crossed the Jordan, the promised land wouldn’t have fulfilled its promise because Moses, despite all his virtues, had come to the feeling that his job and his performance were a contribution to the happiness of his people that was comparable to that of God. Who made the water come? God wouldn’t have done it unless I asked, so it’s “we.”
And why is this so bad? Why can’t one achieve the ‘promise’ of the promised land if one is not able to put God above all else, all the time?
Personally, I am not figuring that God is going to be pouring water out of any rocks on my behalf anytime soon. I expect no manna to fall out of the sky. I don’t really expect God to be doing any physics experiments in my life. I do, however, believe that, to the extent that I live my life in a manner consistent with God’s will, I will have a better life for myself, my family and my community.
It’s not easy to do that in the modern age. We are led to believe that making money to support your family is the absolutely most important thing you can do. We think that making sure that our children are able to go to a good college is the sine qua non. It is suggested that our fulfillment as a person is closely related to our status at work and the excellence with which we perform our jobs. These are, of course, all good things and there are many others as well.
So the years go by and we do our jobs, just as Moses did. We achieve some level of success. We have some excellent children of which we are very proud. And we think, it’s a miracle that I am able to do these things. But, of course, we have to work very hard for long hours. We don’t really have time to get to Friday services. Not much time to do some volunteer work. Not much time to study Torah.
We know we have to prioritize and in our judgement, we just can’t do it all. We just don’t have the time to acknowlege the important things that we are told to do by God. Our focus on ourselves and the ‘other gods’ in our lives, cause us to feel lonely, to wonder if God is really there. In our family, accomplishments and friends, there are so many beautiful things, but we fail to recognize that they are miracles.
We live a life of prosperity and ease that the people in the Torah could never have conceived and yet the promise is not fulfilled. We are, somehow, not in the land of milk and honey. It’s not that God hasn’t made fulfillment available. It’s that we are not doing our part.
So, like so many others in the Bible, Moses is a slightly tragic figure. A hero that fell short so that we could learn a lesson. Moses, were he at Meribeth-kadesh today, would not merely have failed to thank God for the water, he would have failed to keep the Sabbath. He would not have realized that his success at work is because his parents taught him well. He would not have focused on his good fortune in having met a good wife and of having children that were healthy and kind.
He would have, to the extent that he reflected on these things, thought that they happened because he was hardworking and lucky, not because he was blessed by God with advantages. He wouldn’t recognize the miracle. Having gotten used to it, having taken it for granted, he would feel no joy. because he was used to miracles.
And that Moses of today would have been equally unable to find the promised land because he would have to make judgements about his successes and his failures, to adjudicate priorities, and always wonder if he was doing the right thing. Without sanctifying God, without ‘giving authority’ to God, he is left to his own devices and must evaluate his success and virtue on the teeny little scale that he invented himself.
But if he had been able to keep God foremost, if he had, if only I could avoid flirting with the gods of pleasure and sloth and status, then I could focus on my family, do tzedakah, comfort the bereaved, help the sick, keep faith with those that sleep in the dust. And I could do it safe in the knowledge that God had shown for 3500 years that these are the right things to do and that even if I don’t understand why or how it will work out, even if I have to go for a year or more without a job, even if I can’t always pay my bills, I can find joy in the miracles of a healthy family and wonderful friends and be confident that I am doing the right thing by doing God’s will because it is God’s will and, as Moses tells us in his final song, that is the path to the promised land.
Cindy Barnard, 30 Sept 2005, 27 Elul 5765
Deuteronomy 29:9 - 30:209 You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God — your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, 10 your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to waterdrawer — 11 to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, which the Lord your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions; 12 to the end that He may establish you this day as His people and be your God, as He promised you and as He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 13 I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, 14 but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.
What a privilege it is to stand this day, as Rosh Hashanah approaches on Monday night, as my son celebrates his thirteenth birthday and we welcome him as abar mitzvah tonight, as the year 5766 is about to dawn full of promise - just maybe - for a little morepeace; a little more health and security for all people; a little more ahavat rei’echa, love of our fellow humans.
What does God mean in instructing us to stand this day? We stand at attention to listen to God’s promise of an extraordinary covenant, we stand in respect and awe, we stand because we want to reach just a little higher.
Tomorrow morning Daniel and Frank are going to share their words of Torah with us. I’ve had the good fortune to get a preview of Daniel’s d’var Torah, the words of teaching he has prepared, and I will tell you, I have learned a thing or two from my son. His analysis of what God wants from us really struck a chord for me, and I want to share a brief story from a 10th century midrash on the same theme. When you hear Daniel’s comments tomorrow you will see why I chose this one.
There was a king with two servants -- one dim-witted, not too bright, but a good fellow; and the other one energetic, creative and hard working. Now, the king had to go away for a couple of days. He left the servants, and ordered each of them to carefully watch over a room freshly filled from the harvest with grapes, wheat, and flax.
The king returned from his journey, and immediately summoned the servants to account for their precious stores. The first servant, the rather dim-witted one, obediently escorted the king to the room he had guarded, and look! The wheat, grapes and flax were in perfect order. Not a single bit of fruit or grain had been disturbed. The king thanked his servant. He had done a competent and trustworthy job!
The king then turned to the second one. “And you?” he asked. The second servant led the way to his storeroom and flung open the door. The room was utterly empty and swept clean. The courtiers who had gathered around were stunned. This was the best, smartest, most excellent servant in the palace! What had happened to the grapes, the wheat, the flax? Had they been stolen, or sold?
The king was silent. The servant beckoned the king to another door. The servant opened the door with a low bow. The king stepped slowly to the entryway and behold!
There was a dining table covered with a beautiful white tablecloth… made of the flax! There was on the table a great decanter full of a fine, delicious wine… made of the grapes! And the room was full of the aroma of two enormous loaves of fresh baked bread… made of wheat ground from the flour!
The king was overjoyed with the servant. “You,” he said, “have taken the most care of the treasure I left with you. You did not merely hoard it or guard it; you improved it.”
And so it is with us. We stand here this day with the grapes, the flax and the wheat which God has given us. We have our lives, our work, an abundance of resources around us, and it is up to us to transform what God has given us into what human creativity and passion can accomplish... to leave this earth a little better than the way we received it. In this way we will stand here in fulfillment of God’s covenant. And indeed, ken y’hi ratzon, may this be God’s will.
[My teacher, Rabbi Dr. Byron Sherwin tells this story from midrash Eliyahu Rabbah.]
D'var Torah: Nitzavim / Vayeilech September 19, 2003 by Cindy Barnard
It is Elul, and the summer and the old year are dying. It's a poignant time of year, full of spiritual hard work. We're trying to put away old regrets and unfulfilled hopes and promises while we cling to the hope of a new year and another chance at possibilities.
In Nitzavim, Moses does not have the hope of another year, new possibilities, to soften his regrets. He knows that he is about to die, and he is leaving his fractious tribe in full knowledge that they are entering generations of exile, conflict, and pain.
So Moses says to us, as he is about to die and he has his last opportunity to teach: Nitzavim etchem hayom hakol. "You stand here, all of you, this day."
Nitzavim, you stand. Neitziv is different from omed, which also means to stand. Neitziv is more like "be present," almost like stand up and stand FOR something. Rashi, the great Torah commentator of the eleventh century, links neitziv to the similar word in Hebrew for monument. In other words, Stand up, be a monument to your faith and to God.
In fact, standing up for what you believe leads us to the idea of hineni - "I am here" -- remember, that declaration of faith from Abraham we read nearly a year ago - and will read again over the high holidays.
Neitziv - Stand up, stand up for something, be a monument, hineni, be here and present with your people and with Gd.
And that idea, hineni, I am here, leads us once again back to today's parashah. Because what does Gd say? "It is not with you alone that I make this covenant… I make it both with those who are standing here with us today before Gd, and with those who are not here with us today." Asher yishno po imanu omed hayom - Not only with those who are with us today, but asher eineini po imanu hayom. With those who are not here with us today.
Our tradition is full of troubled exploration of this problem - How can Gd make a covenant with those who are not here? How can unborn generations be obligated to a covenant which they did not negotiate and choose? Is this a real covenant? This resonates particularly strongly with contemporary American Jews, who have been imbued with powerful secular ethical concepts of free will and the right to make autonomous decisions.
The Jews-by-Choice among us have solved this problem. They have come to covenant afresh, have studied and made the decision to choose.
What of Jews by birth? How can we be part of a covenant without free will to choose? How can Gd have made this covenant with us three thousand years ago? How can we be asked to "stand up and be a monument" for something we didn't agree to?
Judaism is incredibly realistic. Just as we inherit the color of our eyes and the shape of our jaw, we do absorb the values and ethos of our families. It is simply the truth that a covenant with the parents will in fact bring the children along. We are born into this covenant just as we are born into ideals of democracy and fairness.
What we make of the covenant is, of course, entirely up to us. Rav Hanina teaches in the Talmud that Gd will predict whether an unborn child will be strong or weak, wise or foolish, rich or poor - but is silent when asked, will this child grow up wicked or good? Rav Hanina concludes, "Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of Gd."
So it's a paradox. We are obligated - and we choose. We are part of the covenant - but even Gd cannot say whether we will fulfill it.
It is up to us whether we are "here" or not for the covenant. We make that choice. When Gd, through Moses, says, I make this covenant not only with those who are here today, but also with those who are not here - Gd is offering the covenant, but knows that yirat shamayim, the fear and awe of heaven, the acceptance of the covenant and all its treasures and obligations, is not up to Heaven but to each of us. And so we read later in this shabbat's double parashah, the Torah and covenant is not in the heavens and beyond reach. It is "very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart."
But we have to take it, accept it, speak it with our mouth and embrace it with our heart and do it with our hands and bodies.
If you have ever been in a kindergarten Hebrew school class at Oak Park Temple, you know the favorite joke. The teacher takes attendance, calls each child by name, and each is supposed to say, "ani po,” I am here. But of course they love to answer, "ani lo po," I'm not here. It gets rollicking giggles, every time.
But guess what? We all have to say, ani po. Hineni. I AM here. Because nitzavim, you stand here, you stand for something, chides Moses. Indeed we do.
We all know the phrase, kol yisrael arevim zeh ba zeh, "All Israel is responsible one for the other." There is a rabbinic tradition that this mutual responsibility was born as Moses died. When we had Moses, we relied on his leadership to pull us together and forward. We could squabble and kvetch, because we knew he'd rescue us. Rather like orphaned siblings, though, when Moses died, we were left to rely on each other. And here we are, reading parashah nitzavim-vayeilech, and Moses is dying, and here we are together, and we have to take care of each other. All Israel is responsible, each one for the other.
It is time, as Moses dies, to listen to nitzavim, you stand here, you are a monument, to faith and to our covenant with Gd.
We are here, we are responsible for each other and the continuation of our tradition. Paradoxically, it is our obligation and it is our free choice to accept the covenant, and to live it. As we say in the Torah service, the world stands on three things. We live the covenant through those three: we live it through study, faith and acts of loving kindness. Here at Oak Park Temple, the autumn is rich with opportunities for all three. Learning, worship and community.
As the fall closes in, and 5764 approaches, may we all reflect on how each of us can fulfill nitzavim: to stand up, to be here, to be a monument to the precious, rich, irreplaceable covenant Gd offers us.
Cynthia Barnard, Shabbat Shuvah, September 17, 1999
In the next few days, many of us will give each other the customary wish for the season, "an easy fast." Now I know pretty much everyone here, and have considerable affection for you all; but yet, I am going to wish you a very difficult fast. In fact, I am going to assert that the fast leads us directly to the three pillars of Judaism, to God, Torah and Israel, and that its difficulty is part of the process.
Why would I wish you a difficult fast? Any reasonably thoughtful child in our congregation might come up with one explanation: If your fast is difficult, that must mean that you usually enjoy a full tummy. If you are bothered by the unexpected inability to reach for food to satisfy you when you are empty, why, you are truly blessed. As the rabbi spoke on erev Rosh Hashanah, gratitude is the essential basis of religious feeling - our hunger must remind us, by its very novelty, of how fortunate we are.
But this level of meaning is not enough. Anyone can skip a few meals to attain a recognition of how lucky they are to feel hunger only when they choose, how lucky to have Grandma's briskit waiting at the end of this long day. But "luck" is existentially frightening, it is not faith and it is not Torah.
In tonight's parsha, Haazinu, "Jeshurun became fat, and kicked then he forsook God who made him, and lightly esteemed the Rock of his salvation." When we are sated, we might forget to be grateful to God. We might be complacent. Jeshurun is a name for Israel, possibly derived from the word ashrei, happy. Can we be too satisfied, too happy, too complacent? And if so, how does fasting bring us back to God?
One purpose of the fast, obviously, is noticing absence. Absence of food in the stomach, yes. But also absence of a much deeper, more complex nature. We are commanded (Deut 8:10), "You shall eat and be satisfied, and you shall bless." On this fast day, we have lost the opportunity to bless God at the conclusion of our meal, because there is no meal. We should notice this loss, we should feel it. We should miss that blessing. This should make our fast more difficult.
So the fast of Yom Kippur brings us physical hunger and it should also bring us some spiritual hunger. It should bring us to remember that every bite, every swallow, truly comes from God. It should remind us to bless and thank God when we do eat.
In some traditions, fasting is "mortifying the flesh." Is this our view of fasting? Torah uses the term "afflict" in ordaining our observance of Yom Kippur (Lev 16:29 and 16:31): "in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all. It shall be a sabbath of rest to you, and you shall afflict your souls..."
Here is the beautiful leap that the Talmud takes in discussing affliction, the leap which brings us a new insight.
In Egypt, Israel was afflicted by Pharoah with hunger, slave labor, and abuse.
In the wilderness after the Exodus, it was God who afflicted Israel with hunger and thirst, then assuaged it with manna and water.
And now, Israel is a free people. It is up to us to choose to afflict ourselves for a specific purpose. And the affliction of the body, the fast, is not an end in itself, it's a way to get our own attention, to reach deeper inside ourselves.
Fasting in Judaism is not punishment, it is not mortification of the flesh, and it is not in service to some ascetic ideal.
Fasting is a choice we make. It is a commandment, and we accept it, we accept the Torah, in order to teach ourselves to be closer to God, by noticing the absence of food, the absence of blessings, the absence of our normal daily rituals. Fasting is a luxury which a free people can choose to accept. Some starving Jews in concentration camps still chose to fast on Yom Kippur, both as a recognition of their religious obligation and as a stubborn statement that they were still strong enough, and free enough, to choose.
If you are very fortunate, you have at some point had (or will have) wonderful young children around you, who need to be fed even on Yom Kippur. You have the surreal, difficult experience of fasting yourself but feeding others: being hungry ourselves, yet nursing the baby, or fixing macaroni and cheese for the kids - and thereby remembering what an extraordinary blessing these children are, what a gift. You have, right there, the food in your hands and the growl in your stomach. You can see and feel how our choices as adults give these children the opportunity to learn about being Jews and about being strong, courageous, thoughtful adults who can make their own choices.
And as we look about us late on Yom Kippur afternoon, we marvel at all these other strong, thoughtful adults who are making the same shared stubborn optimistic choice of a holy people, a nation of priests. We reflect on the strength we draw from each other every day, from c'lal yisrael, from our community.
So the fast is about gratitude for the luck that we are not often hungry. It is about Grandma's briskit.
The fast is about God and it is about Torah, our tradition, and it is about Israel, valuing our community and each other.
And a difficult fast means that we "get it." We are aware of the fast, aware of ourselves, and aware of God's presence and what it demands of us.
I want to share yet two more levels of meaning of the fast on Yom Kippur: what it is, and what it is not.
The Talmud teaches that "The merit of a fast day lies in the charity dispensed" (Berachoth 6b) and, "If on a fast day, the distribution of alms is postponed overnight, it is just as though blood were shed" since the hungry, who needed it, might have died of starvation. Recall the Haftarah for Yom Kippur, in which Isaiah roars to Israel, "this is the fast that I have chosento undo the bonds of oppression, to let the crushed go free, and to break every yoke to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the outcast poor into your home ." (Isaiah 58)
In this way, the fast connects us beyond all of Israel and with all of humanity. On Rosh Hashanah morning, the rabbi taught that empathy is a primary quality we must possess and nurture in order to be fully human. A difficult fast should teach us empathy for the hungry, renews our connection with our fellow Jews and all people.
So a difficult fast should connect us to God, to Torah, to Israel and beyond, to all people.
Finally, then, let's remember what the fast is not. The fast is not magic or a quid pro quo. It's not a button we push to get results. We don't have the right to bargain with God, to say, OK, I fasted and now you gotta give me - whatever it is I want.
We have to earn our atonement and our self-respect and our redemption through our acts every day, all year, of righteousness, tzedakah, and g'milut chasadim, loving improvement of our world through deeds, prayer and study. The fast is one way we are commanded and we choose to teach ourselves these lessons - it is not an end in itself. It helps to get us refocused and ready for the challenges of our lives.
The yomim noraim, the Days of Awe, are all about preparing us to make the right choices: choices that connect us back to our best selves and to the world around us, to God, Torah and Israel.
So why do I want us all to have a difficult fast?
I hope that it is hard for us to fast because we are used to being full and it makes us grateful that we aren't empty very often, reminds us poignantly of God's gifts and our need to earn them.
I hope that its difficulty overwhelms us just a bit, reminds us of the demands that Torah places upon us, the need to live up to the very high standards of our tradition for an ethical and just life.
And I hope that it is difficult because it brings us to empathy with those in the community of Israel and throughout our world who are so used to hunger every day, every night, and brings us to act to fill their stomachs and lighten their burdens.
Making the right choices in an imperfect and complex world can be very difficult, and we just need to do the very best we can. I hope that wrestling with a difficult fast makes some of those choices a little clearer, maybe a little easier, for you throughout the coming year.
And then, as we learn in our Torah and Haftarah portions this week, "It is not a vain thing for you, because it is your life The Eternal will guide you always, filling your throat in parched lands and renewing your body's strength And you shall eat in plenty, and be satisfied, and praise the name of Adonai your God, who has dealt wondrously with you And you shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am Adonai your God."
D'var Torah: September 25, 1998
Tonight is Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat during the period we call the “days of awe,” the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. During these ten days, we hope for a special pause in the hustle of living to turn back to our real selves, the highest ideals and principles that we believe in.
Shabbat Shuvah is not named for our Torah portion this week, as most of our Shabbat names are derived; it is named for the haftarah reading for the week from the book of the prophet Hosea, and this is what Cantor Green has chanted for us today. Shuvah, commonly understood as repentance and returning, a return to God.Hosea says,“Return, O Israel, to the eternal your God.”Shuvah, Yisrael, ad adonai elohecha.
What does return mean? Return to what? Return to temple for the two days a year that many Jews associate with organized religion?Well, certainly, that’s a start.But what else?
Hosea spoke 2800 years ago, but it might as well have been last week. Listen to him:Never again shall we say “Our God” to the works of our hands.We quoted him earlier this week, as we ushered in the new year with our Rosh Hashanah services.In part of that service, we lamented that "many have said to the works of our hands, you are our gods." We admitted to God, "You are absent only when we shut You out, only when, full of ourselves, we leave no room for You within our hearts."
This is a brilliant characterization of the soullessness of our dying century.This is the malady which so many people are attempting to cure with the current return to spirituality and religion.We worship the works of our hands virtually every day.That self-worship fills our hearts and leaves no room for God. Our entire society, the world, worships its own creations. We forget that all we can really do is rearrange the raw materials given us by God.
Still, Hosea recognizes that how we rearrange those raw materials does matter.It matters a lot.That is what this Shabbat is all about.Be humble – and yet proud. Live your faith humbly through your actions - and be proud of those actions, that faith, the good you can do.
The humility-pride continuum is fascinating.Judaism refuses to take the simple path of predetermination or the simple one of existentialism. We do not say, God is directing our every move and we are merely God’s instruments.And we do not say, God is long since gone (or never lived) and it’s up to humans to invent the world in our own image.
No, Judaism says, you are smart people.You can handle reality, which involves ambiguity and complexity. The chasidic master Bunam of Przysucha taught us that each of us should carry two slips of paper at all times. One should say, “for my sake the world was created.”This reminds us of the extraordinary importance of each human life, the inestimable potential for good in every one of us.And in the other pocket we must carry another paper:“I am nothing but dust and ashes.”And this is to remind us that we are accountable to a greater power than just ourselves, that the work of our hands is not to be worshipped. We must earn our worth through a relationship with God which includes study, prayer and action.
We are nothing but dust and ashes; be humble: remember God gave us this glorious work of creation. We did not create it, and we can’t really create. We can rearrange, we can give matter new forms, we can make beauty and we can make horrific brutality, we can do a great deal, but we are not the Creator. Don’t be foolish enough to say “our god” to the works of our hands. We remind ourselves with the blessings, the brachot, and the simplest one is a perfect example. What is the first bracha that our children learn in preschool? With their challah, they remember that Adonai is "hamotzi lechem min-ha’aretz,” the one who brings forth the bread. We may plant the seed, water and nurture it, reap and mill and bake it into bread, but it is God who gave us the earth, the rain, the sun, and the laws of nature that allow for growth of that seed.
And yet, Judaism says, for our sake the world was created: be proud too. We are not to give up in passive depression when things are tough, we cannot blame all evil and pain on an omnipotent God, we stand up for ourselves and improve the world we’ve been given. We don’t think of pain and suffering as a way of exalting us, as something we are to accept as special evidence of God’s love – as some other traditions do. We hate pain and suffering. We fight them. We work to eliminate them. It is up to us to complete the work of creation which God began. We are partners with God, every one of us has a role, however large or small it may seem, in perfecting this world.
And this is what we have to be proud of: the work of our lives. Our work, our role, is the path to t’shuvah, repentance and returning, which is what the high holidays are really all about. Hosea says, Return, O Israel, to the eternal your God … The wise shall understand these things, the discerning shall know them: that straight are the ways of the Eternal.
Now what are the ways of God, darchai adonai? What then, shall we know?
And this is the great challenge of Reform Judaism since its inception, and a challenge which we have largely failed thus far. We are not wise in understanding, discerning in knowledge. In fact, as Eric Yoffie, the president of the Reform movement, has said, there is a literacy crisis in our community. Less than a year ago, he said, “Ours is a uniquely ignorant generation… And the great irony of our ignorance, of course, is that we are simultaneously the best educated generation of Jews that has ever lived. Wonderfully educated in the ways of the world, we are abysmally ignorant in the ways of our people. Too many of us can name the mother of Jesus, but not the mother of Moses. We know the author of Das Kapital, but not the author of the Guide for the Perplexed….”
If we believe that we, dust and ashes, are yet partners with God in work of perfecting creation -- if we want to return to our great moral and ethical tradition, the rich teachings of Judaism -- then we need to know what those teachings are. To take actions grounded in morality and ethics implies a choice, and choice implies knowledge of the options for action, the principles and implications of those options. Yoffie, again, says that "there is no task more urgent and no mission more compelling than deepening the study of Torah in our midst."
In this week’s Torah portion, in Deuteronomy 31:9, we find the first reference to a written Torah, and the first instructions to read the Torah aloud to all the people – men, women, children, and the stranger among you. The Torah reading and the haftarah reading are telling us the same thing: listen and learn… thendo.
The resources for learning in Judaism are phenomenal. Within our own temple, we have adult education and outreach opportunities, several torah study groups, a vigorous book discussion group, and in October our redesigned book and learning fair will feature resources for individual and group learning. We have our library, thoughtful and generous leadership willing to share their time to teach us, and many opportunities through committees to form new connections and learn in new ways. The temple’s own Web site, and the beautifully designed Web site of the UAHC, are wonderful places to begin if you are comfortable with that method of learning.
And this is the start oft’shuvah. T’shuvah is repentance and returning, and this is the season in which many of us try to work toward a deeper understanding of what repentance and returning will mean to us. The road map is here. It is not just study, but the connection between learning and doing. Learning how to do, how to choose what to do.
I am constantly impressed with the torah study group, the book group, the conversations and emails among some of those in our temple who are really trying to learn – this is not an abstract, theoretical crowd. This is a bunch of people – you all – who really want to understand what our tradition has to teach and to offer us today, to find and follow darchei Adonai, the paths of God, and to use that perspective to find and follow their own paths in life that make sense and that make a difference.
Last Shabbat, Rabbi Gerson reminded us all that the Judaism we learned as a child is not the right size, the right style, to fit us as adults. We can't stop learning at 13 or 15 and think that we know Judaism. As we grow older, we have the extraordinary possibility of learning it all again, with new insights every time, and with the really profound pleasure of sharing with others who are doing the same.
This is something that any member of our community can do. And it's a lot easier, more rewarding, and more fun with other people. There is no end to the process; it’s a lifelong opportunity to continue to study and think, to be alive, to choose actions. But there is a beginning to the process, and every one of us can make that beginning right now. Check the Messenger every month for book group and Torah study options. Check our library and the book and education fair. Check the web sites for the incredible discussion groups on email, the lectures you can study online, the funny and profound and reflections on our holidays, even the recipes!
Return, O Israel, to the eternal your God… Never again shall we say “Our God” to the works of our hands… The wise shall understand these things, the discerning shall know them: that straight are the ways of the Eternal. We are dust and ashes, and yet the world was created just for each of us. We owe everything to God's grand design of creation, and yet we are necessary to complete the work of creation. Our tradition reminds us to do good the day before we die – and the punch line of this serious joke is that, of course, we do not know what day this will be and so must do good every day. Our prayerbook gives us a list of obligations without measure… and Torah, learning, is equal to them all, because Torah leads to them all. If we learn our tradition we can make wise and informed choices about our lives and the ways in which we will use our lives to continue to perfect the work of creation. This is the truest t'shuvah, and may it be a sweet year full of learning and doing for us all. Amen.
Dvar Torah 7/31/98 Susan Klonsky
Back in February, Deb Spector offered me the opportunity to give a Dvar over the summer. I didn’t ask which parsha it would be. I just agreed on a far-away July date when I figured we’d be in town.
I wanted a d’var in order to share with you a learning experience that I have been given over the past year, as a member of the Institute for Master Teachers sponsored by the Community Foundation for Jewish Education. I have just spent the better part of the year studying what are known as the best practices in Jewish education. Religious schools frequently lag far behind secular schools in the use of well researched successful methods of teaching. The CFJE has attempted to address that lag, especially the retro teaching style which prevails in many of our Jewish schools.
The Institute represents a concentrated effort to professionalize Jewish teaching in Chicago’s reform, reconstructionist, and Conservative schools. Lecturers from university education departments and thinkers on the spiritual and moral development of children met with us on a weekly basis. Best of all I got to hang out with some fine American and Israeli teachers, and learn about their schools, and their philosophies of instruction, and their motivation for doing what they do. I wanted to publicly thank the congregation and Sally Brown Winter in particular for giving me this opportunity.
During the CFJE institute I heard this story from a veteran teacher at one of the biggest North Shore synagogues--which I won’t name. Teachers at this school are explicitly prohibited from teaching 2 things--Bible stories which involve miraculous or supernatural events (which leaves out big stories from Genesis on up--no more creation story, no Chanuka miracle, no more parting of the Red Sea, and you could eliminate Daniel and so on and on.) And stories involving a vengeful, punitive or scary God (No Abraham & Isaac story, no Sodom, Lot’s wife, Jonah, nothing that might make God seem mean or cruel). (One more reason to thank God we’re not on the North Shore!) Here I have to make clear that at Oak Park Temple, we teachers are never told what or what not to say within the broad and basic parameters of the OPT curriculum.
Having said all this, I can no longer delay the inevitable. We have to look at this parsha. A few months ago I finally looked up the parsha in my Tanach. Like most of Deuteronomy, I found this parsha is full of minutiae about counting the (male) noses of the Jewish tribes and ordering the society--setting up the mechanisms of governance as they prepared to cross over to the promised land.
It wasn’t a democracy they were setting up. This was a time of kings. Slavery was a perfectly acceptable social convention--unless you happened to be one of the enslaved. So if many of the rules and regs which are set forth in Deuteronomy have been discarded by modern society, the question is--what can we take from these chapters?--besides some insight into the history of our forebears--what can we find here about how to live in the world?
On first reading, it struck me that a lot of this content felt new to me. When you consider our school year calendar it makes sense. This parsha is about stuff that happened AFTER the Exodus -- and AFTER the giving of the Law at Sinai. 38 years after, to be precise.More to the point, these are chapters that take place during our summer months--when Religious School is on vacation. These are chapters and stories that our school children never read or hear, because we STOP each year at the same point in the Torah cycle...in early spring, after Pesach or Shavuot. And we resume with Bereshit in the fall.
A lot of stuff happens in between, in Torah, that we don’t study. We never hear the whole story.
So, think back now to your Jewish education. What were YOU told happened to us in the desert? Okay. We got out of Egypt, pursued by Pharoah’s soldiers. We escaped by God’s intervention. We got to the other side, we partied, and were chastised for celebrating the drownings. Right away, we started grumbling about the conditions. We get fed mannah from heaven. We tell kids it tastes like each person’s personal favorite food. You like pizza, it tastes like pizza. Moses heads up the mountain to get the word. Then there’s that whole messy business with the golden calf, but eventually we build the ark according to God’s specs.
When God decides, at last, that the people are ready, everybody except Moses gets to go into the Land. At least that’s how I remember it.
Actually, a few more things happen. In fact, this parsha basically chronicles a military campaign, in which the Israelites fought their way across the Sinai, conducted by Moses with firsthand instructions from on high. It lasted nearly 40 years, we read, "until that whole generation of warriors had perished from the camp." God was waiting until the generation of rebellious, whiny, and disobedient men had died off.
Most of the second chapter of Deuteronomy discusses the military conduct in relation to various tribal territories. Some are to be treated with respect, paid for their food, and not disturbed in any way.
But others are to be annihilated, brutally and unequivocally, by the Israelites as they pass through. Here are some of God’s instructions as cited by Moses in this chapter:
"This day I begin to put the dread and fear of you upon the peoples everywhere under heaven,s o that they shall tremble and quake because of you whenever they hear you mentioned." (Translation: You shall be the baddest dudes in the desert.)
When King Sihon resisted, the narrator notes, we retaliated: "At that time we captured all his towns, and we doomed every town--men, women and children--leaving no survivor."
Moreover, "Not a city was too mighty for us.
The army of the wandering Jews moved on, making its way toward the promised Land. "So the Lord Our God also delivered into our power King Og of Bashan, with all his men, and we dealt them such a blow that no survivor was left...60 towns,...we doomed them as we had done in the case of King Sihon of Heshbon;[again] we doomed every town --men, women and children--and retained as booty all the cattle and the spoil of the towns."
To various tribes of the Israelites, Moses apportioned tracts of land. Finally, "we seized the Arabah, from the foot of the slopes of Pisgah on the east to the edge of the Jordan, and from Kineret down to the Sea of Arabah--the Dead Sea."
Moses sends the leaders out saying: "The Lord Your God has given you this country to possess. You must go as shock-troops, warriors all, at the head of your Israelite kinsmen..." It will fall to Joshua of Nun to complete the conquest of Canaan, immortalized in song ("Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho," a gospel tribute to a military event.)
Not a pretty picture, is it? We squirm at the notion of our ancestors behaving like Huns and Visigoths. We imagine Moses as a spiritual beacon, a man above men. This is a hard pill to swallow.
And to our modern ears, these passages evoke many unpleasant and terrible contemporary images. We recall modern scenes of civilian slaughter, not only of the Shoah, but also of My Lai, of "ethnic cleansing." And yes, of Deir Yassin. We don’t like to find these images of mass, indiscriminate killing and pillaging in our Book. But they’re here.
I don’t know about you. But I never thought of the wandering in the desert in terms of armed assaults on the towns in our path. I never imagined a God of justice endorsing the killing of every man, woman and child we encounter on our way. And I know I never heard this story in all my years in Sunday School. Or told this story.
What are we to make of this? I have to ask myself this question as a Jew, a teacher and a parent.
As a teacher and a parent, I want a school that nurtures the Jewish community of the future, a school that encourages critical Jewish thinking. And I also want to retain a sense of history, to understand the historic context in which these events occurred.
Recently I attended a bat mitzvah service at which the student was sharply critical of her parsha; an earlier desert passage which seemed to invent and perpetuate caste and class distinctions, assigning permanent rank and privilege to members of certain gender and tribal groups. Afterwards, I sat next to a guest who is a distinguished anthropologist. The scholar was indignant that the bat mitzvah child "didn’t understand the context"--slavery was simply the prevailing social and economic order of the times, he argued, and it was arrogant for a child to criticize or disagree with the Torah portion, and worse, irresponsible of her teachers not to have prevented it.
This young woman, whom he wished to shush, was arguing, "I don’t want to live my life like that. And I’m a Jew." It is obvious that a 13-year-old may lack the historical perspective to analyze these matters in context of the times in which they were written. But at 13, of course, iconoclasm is a badge of honor and of intellectual boldness. And rightly so.
We want our kids (and ourselves) to be able to take this material apart and put it back together again in a way that makes sense to us in our time. We’ve got to distinguish between disrespect and respectful dissent. We Jews are not dogmatists by heritage. Discursive inquiry and argument is our stock in trade.
Yet when it comes to study of Torah, especially with children, we are highly selective.
We police ourselves..We silence ourselves. At some developmental levels, it’s perfectly appropriate to skip certain stories and graphic, gory details. In my own work with young children, I try to steer away from the bloodthirsty.
But as kids mature, we need to challenge them and encourage them to embrace our tradition of inquiry. This is the fulfillment of our obligation to study, our obligation to use our minds well.
But there’s still that pernicious tendency to silence ourselves. To silence by not welcoming the inquiry of children and young adults. To steer away from the difficult, the unpleasant. The challenge for us as parents and teachers is not just to stay one step ahead, or just to be very entertaining in our teaching. We can’t get by with pat answers to probing questions.
In all other domains, don’t we want kids who prod and poke and question? In our Jewish school it must be safe to question, to dissent, and to reject as well as to embrace.
I am in the midst of Thomas Cahill’s new book, The Gifts of the Jews. Here, we learn anew that the Torah is a quilt--not a "crazy" quilt. There’s a distinct pattern. But pieces came to Torah from the Sumerians, the Ammonites, from Mesopotamia, and so on. The Hebrew tribes were not all one thing. Torah has roots in a number of significant regional civilizations. Torah embodies an evolved, unified tradition of faith and a distinctive world view. But there’s a lot of stuff in it that represents differing viewpoints and voices.
So, turning again to this parsha: That’s what we’re hearing--conflict. To my ear, this week’s parsha is a dangerous parsha. This passage can be misused as a contemporary mandate for annihilating or at best relocating people who stand in the way of expansionism today. This was the call to arms of a Baruch Goldstein, of a fanatic who justified a genocidal act by quoting Torah. So, this is a parsha that should not be overlooked; understanding this piece of our story is vital; being able to hear it and turn it over is part of the completeness we want our children to have. We need to get better at this.
Today, the literalists, the fundamentalists, in Israel’s religious right seek their mandate in scripture. They are the dogmatists, who have selectively abandoned our intellectual tradition of debate and inquiry, and the mitzvah of study, when it serves their purpose.
Today, our congregation is on the cusp of a major expansion and renewal of our school. As we imagine together and consider what our school might become, I hope we will leave some empty spaces, places for our children and young adults to express themselves, to question and explore. Empty walls on which they can paint murals--the world through their lens--or publish a literary magazine uncensored and unvarnished--of their Jewish reflections on Torah and Jewish life, their dreams for a world of peace and justice. I hope we will find new ways to study Torah in its fullness, the entire Torah, with our children, to deepen our understanding together.
This is a legitimate, valid pedagogy. It’s real study, not make-work. We are a modern, thinking, inquiring people. We want to shape curious, caring, thinking and wide-awake Jewish kids. At times, this process can be risky and loud, messy and uncomfortable. But it’s living Judaism. And that’s what we’re about
D'VAR TORAH - MARK BURGER
SEPTEMBER 3, 1991
In a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, there was a poor tailor named Jonathan and a rich money lender called Reb Zekeles. Reb Zekeles insulted Jonathan, a man of limited Jewish learning, during Simchat Torah. Reb Zekeles gave back the Torah scroll rather than stand next to Jonathan, who was mistakenly called up as well. Furthermore, Reb Zekeles, supposedly a scholar, called poor Jonathan an ignoramus in front of the whole congregation. In the hushed silence, Jonathan vowed that he would become a greater scholar than Reb Zekeles in one year. "in that case," sneered Reb Zekeles, "I will build you a house for nothing." Jonathan responded "if I don't become a greater scholar than you, I will sew for your wife, for nothing, a fox sable coat with ten tails."
Jonathan went straight home, and deserted his family, taking with him the money for his daughter's wedding. He hired a tutor, and with little sleep or food, Jonathan and the tutor studied Torah and many other holy works.
One year later, Jonathan the tailor and Reb Zekeles were tested by the town's rabbi and a committee of scholars. They all agreed that Jonathan was now the superior scholar. Reb Zekeles was forced to build the house. Once the house was built, however, Jonathan donated the house to the community. Rejecting offers to become a rabbi in his own right, he went back to his family and his tailoring. From then on, when he was called up to receive the Torah, it was no accident.
This week's Torah portion contains Moses' farewell address to the people of Israel. Moses states that the Torah "This instruction is not too baffling for you nor is it beyond reach..." "it's not up in the heavens or beyond the sea," says Moses, but "is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart."
We like to think that our ancestors in Eastern Europe were all Tzaddikim, learned scholars and devout followers of Judaism. In Singer's and other's writings, however, we find that not to be the case. Most Jews then were either like Jonathan or Reb Zekeles.
The Jonathans were uneducated, often illiterate, and were dependent on the rabbi and a few scholars for guidance on Torah and everything else, a system little unchanged since biblical times. A few elite made decisions and interpretations for everyone else. Working stiff Jews kept the faith alive in their homes through memorized prayer and ritual, laced with superstition. This worked as Jews were kept together in ghettos, apart from everyone else.
A Reb Zekeles, through privileged birth or circumstance, were able to go to school and study. But they devoted more of their time to wordly affairs and getting rich. Devotion to Torah became limited to subsidizing rabbis and scholars. If the faithful complained about a Reb Zekeles drifting from Torah, they couldn't be too loud about it, for they had him to thank for his support. And a Reb Zekeles could avoid feeling guilty by the fact that he was at least upholding the tzedakah portion of his Judaism.
What made Jonathan unique was his willingness to break out of the mold and personally reach for Torah. But at what price to his family? The wife and daughters did patch together a living while Jonathan studied, and were overjoyed when he passed the test, and came home.
So where does that leave Reform Jews of late 20th Century America! We Jews who are either a working stiff Jonathan or well-heeled Reb Zekeles? I have heard it said that the Jewish Reform Movement is about picking and choosing how to be a Jew, what may be put down as "Cafeteria Judaism." Maybe so, but if one is going to pick and choose, one has to at least know what to pick and choose from.
If we are to escape from the shadow of not agreeing with the way Orthodox Jews follow the faith, but feeling compelled to defer to them because they have more people studying than we do, then the answer is clear in this week's Torah Portion. "Kee Ha Meetsvah," this instruction, which God enjoined upon us, is not too baffling and not too far from us. It is very close to us, in our mouths and in our hearts.
We can take the leap that Jonathan the tailor did, and study Torah in order to make up our own minds, which is perhaps the divinely inspired thing to do. It is not necessary, however, to abandon spouse and family, livelihood and friendship to do so. A Midrashic commentary compared Torah to a flame; if you get
too far, you get cold, but if you get too close, you get burned. The beauty of Torah is to take it in like a good book, play or painting; deeply, appreciatively, but at your own pace and depth of understanding. it would also be nice to add some reverence.
Torah is not the private property of a Reb Zekeles or someone sitting alone on a mountain top. it is not the property of those who are supposedly holier than thou. Torah is a gift from God to all who study it, in whatever understanding. It is the obligation and responsibility of all Jews to make the leap that Jonathan the tailor did, if perhaps in moderation. However you play the game, you gotta read the rules. Amen.