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.
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.