People Need People

Parashat Vayera 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת וַיֵּרָא
Torah Portion:
Genesis 18:1-22:24

People need people. I was reminded of this in recent days through encounters with friends old and new.

Earlier this week I received word that the mother of a childhood friend had recently been diagnosed with an aggressive and inoperable form of brain cancer. Though I had not spoken with or written to my friend for many years, I wrote to her, offering my love, support and prayers during this difficult time. She wrote back saying she couldn’t express how much she appreciated my message. We will speak next week, after she visits with her mom. Though she has a healthy network of family and friends to bolster her spirits, the unexpected grace of friends from long ago signals that even in her loneliest of moments, she is never and has never been alone.

Also this week, I’ve continued to hold our beloved Rosie Weinberg in my prayers as she’s faced a series of medical challenges. One of CAA’s elders, who inspires us with her joy, wisdom and spunk, Rosie is now on the mend and full of smiles. I am grateful for her daughter Shelly for sending me a photo of Rosie sitting up, dressed, and beaming as she prepared to leave the hospital and go to rehab. Rosie wouldn’t be where she is today without the countless medical professionals, friends, and loving family who have been doing their part to restore Rosie to good health. It’s amazing what can happen when people care for other people!

That people need other people is one of the primary messages of Parashat Vayera, a patchwork of stories alternately uplifting, horrifying, inspiring and mystifying. In the Torah portion for this week, Abraham appears in all but one of the stories, taking on different roles in relation to God, his wife Sarah, and the world around him. Each story highlights the importance of taking care of the people around us.

In the one scene where Abraham is absent, we encounter Lot’s two daughters, fearful following the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah that the human race will end with them and their father. Their plan to lie with their father and become impregnated by him defies the Torah’s own prohibition against incest but gives rise to two of Israel’s neighboring nations, the Ammonites and Moabites, the latter of which is the tribe of Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David. Once we get past the sordid details of the story, we discover two women who love humanity so much, even after what they witnessed in Sodom and Gomorrah, that they will sublimate their own sense of decency in order to ensure humanity’s survival.

Earlier in the parashah, Abraham, who is still recovering from being circumcised, spies three guests coming toward his tent and jumps up and runs out to greet them. He then beckons Sarah and one of his servants to get busy preparing a feast for their visitors. The three visitors turn out to be agents of God; they appear to deliver the news that the elderly Sarah would give birth to Abraham’s heir within the year. In this incident, Abraham and Sarah set the standard for the mitzvah of hospitality for all time. We also find the basis for allowing the telling of untruths if they are intended to spare feelings and to maintain family peace.

Later, God announces to Abraham that Sodom and Gomorrah had doomed themselves to destruction because of their violent and lascivious behavior. It is in this context that Abraham comes to the aid of his fellow human beings as he pleads with God to save the towns if God might find only ten righteous people among the dwellers. Ten such people could not be found, and the cities were destroyed. Nonetheless, Abraham forever earns a place in the panoply of biblical heroes for the chutzpah he musters to argue with God on behalf of people he did not know.

The penultimate scene of the parashah depicts the birth of Isaac and the subsequent dispersion of the blended family that had once included Sarah’s handmaid and her son, Ishmael, whom Abraham had fathered. The story is all the more poignant because it shows our ancestors at their most vulnerable, feeling alone and scared, trying to take care of each other while also causing harm to others. It is a heart wrenching story that bears a profound lesson about how difficult it can be sometimes for human beings to know what is right for themselves, for their families and for their descendents.

It is ironic that this parashah, which has presented image after image of human beings doing what they think is best for other people, ends with Abraham nearly sacrificing Isaac at God’s behest. After all these lessons about the interdependence of human beings, we learn that Abraham was ready to give up his beloved Isaac, the one whose birth was foretold in the opening verses of the parashah, the one on whom the prophecy of Abraham’s greatness and blessing depended. The contrast between the Akedah, the sacrifice of Isaac, and all that came before further highlights the reality that people need people.

What a contrast, too, between my encounters this week with my friend and Rosie. As my friend comes to terms with her mother’s terminal diagnosis, so many people, including myself, will reach out and hold her, giving her the strength and courage to cope with the inevitabile. As I look at the photo of Rosie on my phone, on the other hand, I am overjoyed that she is doing well. How awesome that so many people have come to her aid and have helped her regain her health and spirit! Here are two cases that prove that people need people. Let us all be there for one another whenever we are needed.

The Noah Story as a Model for Mindfulness

Parashat Noach 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת נֹחַ
Torah Portion: Genesis 6:9-11:32

This week I looked at the story of Noah with fresh eyes, and I saw it for the first time as a model for mindfulness. Maybe that is because I’m in a six-week introduction to mindfulness meditation and I’m seeing everything as either a model or a catalyst for mindfulness. Be that as it may, let me share the lesson about mindfulness that I see in this week’s Torah portion.

First, it must be said, Noah is, on one hand, the quintessential children’s bible story. It features a great big boat, lots of animals, and a nice man doing what God tells him to do. But, on the other hand, once you get past the great big boat, the animals and the nice man, you’re left with an R-rated drama depicting the total destruction of humanity and the entire natural world. Throughout the story, Noah remains silent, never arguing with God to ease up on humankind. To cap it all off, shortly after the flood waters dissipate and the land dries, Noah’s son Ham walks into his father’s tent and finds his father naked and asleep, an unfortunate incident for which Ham would forever be cursed.

I’d like us to see Noah as something other than either a cute children’s story, on one end of the narrative spectrum, or on the other end of the spectrum, a profoundly disturbing and tragic attempt by God to create a more perfect world populated with blameless human beings.

In the mindfulness course I am taking, I am learning to practice a variety of mindfulness meditation techniques, all of which seem to have two things in common. All these practices seem to have two things in common: breath and presence. In essence, mindfulness is about quieting the mind and achieving release and relief from life’s stressors. Breathing, so elemental to sustaining our lives, is constant, always with us, and yet we can have some control over it. Our breath is something that we can focus on as we strive to be fully present in any given moment. By taking breaks during our everyday lives to simply breath and be present, we allow ourselves to then re-engage the world with peacefulness and, often, new insight.

The story of Noah takes place in a mythic period of human existence but it takes place in this world, not middle earth or outer space. Noah’s world is our world — a world filled with chaos and pain and darkness but also semblances of order, joy and light. Noah’s world was, for God, beyond repair. God saw no order, no joy, no light and so God decided to start all over again. God saw in Noah and his family the best chance to replant humanity in newly tilled soil.

I think we can all relate to the need to replant ourselves every now and then, to pull ourselves out of the soil and set ourselves down in more hospitable ground. Or, like Noah, to find refuge in an ark until the storm passes over. We all live with stress and tension — in our places of work, in our homes, in our heads. I would argue that we should each find our own ark where we can regroup and face the world with renewed energy and clearer vision.

There are some obvious challenges using the story of Noah as a metaphor for mindfulness, but we can learn from the ways in which the story doesn’t conform to an ideal state of mindfulness. For one, once he emerges from the safety of the ark, the world as he knew it had been obliterated, with the exception of his family and the animals who were on the ark with him, and with the exception, apparently, of vegetation and the very ground upon which he had walked before the flood. So some things were the same, but the conditions for life had been drastically altered. 

When we emerge from a meditative state, we can expect that not much will have changed outside of ourselves. We are not Noah, and for that we should be grateful! Part of being mindful is accepting the world as it is, knowing that we are called to engage in tikkun olam, to do our part to improve it. As much as we’d like to, we can’t just will the world around us out of existence, though I must admit that sounds very tempting. We can, however, strive to be present in it and do what we can to increase the order, joy and light.

Another challenge is that Noah is most certainly not in a quiet, serene setting. He’s not secluded in a dark room with only a scented candle. Nor is he sitting in the lotus position on a hill with a view of Mt. Monadnock on a beautiful day. No. Around Noah is noise and stench and confusion. Who of us would choose to take refuge under such conditions?

For us to be fully present and mindful in the world, we need to learn to breathe deeply even under trying circumstances. Even with the noise, stench and confusion of life, we must remember to breathe. Just three breaths in and three breaths out, consciously inhale and exhale. Quiet the mind while you breathe. Maybe close your eyes if you’re not driving or on a Zoom call with your boss or client. The noise, stench and confusion won’t go away, but you can reorient yourself in a way that makes it all more bearable. In this sense, maybe we are all like Noah. We’re on a busy, bustling ark at the same time that we’re taking refuge from the world around us. 

I am no expert in mindfulness. I have much to learn. In fact, I am interested in the ways others might see the story of a Noah as a metaphor for mindfulness. What lessons can you find in the story to help you live a more peaceful life? How can the story help you be more present in the here and now? I suspect if you join me in reframing the story of Noah as something other than a children’s story or a horror story, you will find your own riches that will bring order, joy and light to your life.

Shabbat Shalom.

Creating in the Image of the Divine

Parashat Bereishit 5782

One of the great ideas of the Torah is that the first human was made in God’s image. We read in chapter 1, verses 26 and 27 of Bereishit (Genesis): 

Vayomer Elohim, na-aseh adam b’tzalmeinu ki-d’moteinu… Vayivra Elohim et ha-adam b’tzalmo. B’tzelem elohim bara oto, zachar u’nikeiva bara oto. God said, “Let us make adam in our image, after our likeness… And God created adam in God’s image, in the image of God did God create (adam).

The idea of the first human being created in the image of the Divine was a radical idea in the ancient Near East. Heretofore only ruling kings had considered themselves made in the image or likeness of a god. The Torah rejects the idea that only the powerful and elite bear a resemblance to the divine, and asserts emphatically that we are all endowed with characteristics of the Sovereign of Sovereigns. We hear echoes of this assertion later in the Torah when we learn that the entire People of Israel is to be “holy” because God, their Creator and Ruler, is holy. Nowadays, we believe the Torah calls us to live lives of godliness — to become partners with God in creating a more perfect world and to extend to one another the same attributes of lovingkindness and justice that our tradition associates with God.

In chapter 5 of Bereishit, we learn that part of what it means to be created “in God’s image, after God’s likeness,” is that we should ourselves must seek to create others in God’s image:

Va’yehi Adam sheloshim u-me’at shana va-yoled bidmuto c’tzalmo, vayikra et sh’mo Shet. When Adam had lived 130 years, he begot a son in his likeness after his image, and he named him Seth (Gen. 5:3).

Adam was made in God’s image, and lo and behold, Adam’s child is made in his image. The late 12th-early 13th century French commentator, Rabbi David Kimhi, suggests that the likeness that Adam has imparted to Seth is something entirely human. Just as Adam had matured into an intelligent human being capable of learning from his mistakes, so too will Seth grow in intelligence. Kimhi suggests that the reason Cain and Abel are not listed here is because they were children of the younger, more reckless, less intelligent Adam. The image that Adam wanted to impart to his offspring was, thus, first realized in Seth. 

I think there is a lesson here about parenting, specifically, but generativity and the creative enterprise, more generally. That is, in whatever we create — whether it be children or students or ideas or things of beauty — we should strive to imbue our creations with the best aspects of who we are. In the case of Adam, this meant waiting 130 years for those best aspects to emerge within himself before trying again to create another human being. Sometimes we need to be patient before embarking on the act of creation to ensure that we have the skills to fashion something worthy of our own name.

But the text in chapter 5 is ambiguous. It says that Adam begat a son “in his image, after his likeness.” Who is the “his” here? If it is Adam, then let’s remember what Kimhi teaches us about what it takes for you and me to be creative. If, on the other hand, the “his” is engendered language referring to God, then perhaps we can find different meaning in the teaching of his Spanish contemporary Nahmanides, or Ramban.

Ramban teaches:

Obviously every living thing begotten from another living thing is in its likeness and after its image. This verse is telling us that Adam begot a son in God’s likeness, after God’s image, just as Adam himself had originally been (The Commentator’s Bible: Genesis, p. 58). 

Ramban’s view is shared by the Eitz Chayim Torah and Commentary, where we read “The first two human beings transmitted ‘the image of God’ in themselves to all future generations” (p. 30).

What Rambam and the Eitz Chayim teach us is that we are passing on to our children more than our own DNA, even more than our own character traits, for better or for worse. When we raise children or express generativity in other ways, we are transmitting something much larger and greater than ourselves. We are transmitting the very image and likeness of God that has been handed down to us from the time of Adam and Eve. 

What a responsibility! On one hand, we need to be capable stewards of God’s image. We need to give it exercise. We need to show it off. We need to nurture it so that God’s very being is experienced in the world. On the other hand, we must realize that God’s image is not for our own glorification but for the glorification of humanity for all time. We must be capable stewards, but we also must be capable teachers. To use a metaphor from track and field, we have to be careful that the baton does not get dropped as we pass it off to the next generation.

Ultimately, I think both Kimhi and Ramban are correct. Through our creative acts, we reproduce the best and worst of ourselves, but when we strive to pass on the best of ourselves, we are also passing on the image of the Divine that we inherited from those who came before us. To be a good steward is to care for that image of the Divine within each of us — to allow the Godliness within us to flourish. When we are ready to pass that picture of Godliness onto others, we must do so with utmost love and care.

Perhaps Adam needed to live 130 years before he was prepared to transmit his own image to his child. Perhaps, too, he needed that time to understand how to care for and nurture the image and likeness of God himself and to feel confident that he could then teach his child. It is my prayer that we can follow in Adam’s footsteps in our own, much shorter lifetimes, so that the best of us will flourish in future generations and God’s image will continue to shine light on the world.

What Can We Learn about Teshuvah from God, Moses and Joshua?

Parashat Vayeilech 5782 / פרשת וַיֵּלֶךְ
Deuteronomy 31:1-31:30
Shabbat Shuvah

This Shabbat is Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat of Returning. It is so named after the reading from Prophets that exhorts us to return to God, a fitting message for the Shabbat that falls between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, a period known as Aseret Yemei Teshuva or Ten Days of Repentance. Though Shabbat Shuvah gets its name from the haftarah this week, the Torah reading itself, Vayeilech, suggests how we might approach the task of “returning.”

In Vayeilech, God summons Moses and Joshua to the Tent of Meeting for an intimate conversation about the future:

The LORD said to Moses: The time is drawing near for you to die. Call Joshua and present yourselves in the Tent of Meeting, that I may instruct him. Moses and Joshua went and presented themselves in the Tent of Meeting. The LORD appeared in the Tent, in a pillar of cloud, the pillar of cloud having come to rest at the entrance of the tent. (Deut. 31:14-15.)

Once God is present before Moses and Joshua, God warns them that the People will stray after foreign gods upon entering the Promised Land. To teach them the errors of their ways, God will hide God’s countenance from them, causing great misfortune to befall the Chosen People. (In next week’s Torah portion, Ha’azinu, Moses reads a poem to the People in which God publicly reveals further details about their faithlessness and resulting demise.)

But it’s not the prophecy of Israel’s downfall that strikes me as most apropos for Shabbat Shuvah. Rather, it’s what God says speaks directly to Moses and Joshua. To Moses, God says, “You are soon to lie with your fathers.” (Deut. 31:16) Here we have God alerting Moses to the fact that his death is imminent. This was no surprise to Moses, of course, for he already knew that God would take his life before he got to enter the Land. Still, I imagine that upon hearing these words “You are soon to lie with your fathers.” Moses might have engaged in a quick review of his life and asked himself how might he make the best use of the days that remain. Though Moses would have more of God’s teaching to share with the People, how else might he make constructive use of his limited time here on earth?

Isn’t the question of how we can best use our time the central question of teshuvah? If we’re honest with ourselves, when we do heshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our souls, we’ll recognize that we don’t always use our selves to make the world a better place. We squander time with vanities and frivolities. Worse, we engage in injurious speech and hurtful behavior. What if we knew our lives were coming to a close? How might we correct course for the good and right?

Facing our mistakes, working to mend our ways, and staying true to the course we set for ourselves are all daunting tasks. This is what we must do, though. It is also what Joshua had to do when he would lead the people over the Jordan River:

And God charged Joshua son of Nun: “Be strong and resolute: for you shall bring the Israelites into the land that I promised them on oath, and I will be with you.” (Deut. 31:23)

God girds Joshua for a difficult future with the words “Hazak ve’ematz, Be strong and resolute.” I have offered these words to students, friends and loved ones when they were about to face a trial in their lives. Strength and resolve does not mean setting one’s fears aside or denying the magnitude of the challenges ahead. Rather, strength and resolve entail believing in one’s self, despite one’s fears, and committing always to move forward.

As I think about the work of teshuvah, of returning and repentance, I imagine each of us standing in place of Moses and Joshua in the Tent of Meeting. Like God reminds Moses, the days of our lives are not infinite. We shouldn’t forget that. Before our time runs out, how can we make a difference, and how can we prepare the way for those who will carry on after us? While we need to treasure each day, we also need to lean into whatever will come our way with strength and resolve. In this respect, we are not only like Moses, but we are also like his disciple Joshua, who would one day succeed him.

We cannot know what the future holds. We don’t have the benefit of God’s prophecy to prepare us for tomorrow. As we take stock of where we are today, though, we can choose to do better going forward and enter the unknown with strength and resolve.

Why We Do the Things We Do (or Don’t)

Ki Tavo / פרשת כי־תבוא
Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8

(I am pleased to share this devar Torah from September 2015, which also coincided with the eve of Selichot. In it, I encourage us to consider, as the rabbis did, what motivates us to change.)

This Saturday night is Selichot, a service that punctuates the coming of the Days of Awe in just over a week. The Selichot service represents a sort of “greatest hits” of the High Holy Days, with penitential hymns and familiar melodies from Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Selichot, which means roughly “apologies” or asking forgiveness for our wrongdoings, is intended to help with the process of teshuva, repentance or, literally, “turning;” we are to contemplate how we can become the best version of ourselves in the year ahead.

Part of doing teshuva involves asking ourselves why we do the things we do and why we don’t do the things we don’t do. Why do we strive to avoid negative behaviors? We do strive to do only good?

These are questions that are addressed in a way in this week’s Torah reading. In Ki Tavo our ancestors are told that as soon as they enter Canaan, they are to undergo a ritual to remind them of the blessings that follow from obeying God’s mitzvot, commandments, and the curses that will ensue should Israel go astray by neglecting the mitzvot and going after foreign gods.

In his article Between Fear and Awe, my colleague Rabbi Shai Held, Co-Founder and Chair in Jewish Thought of Mechon Hadar, discusses two forces that prevent us from falling into disfavor with God, forces that help avert the terrible curses that await us if we disobey God’s commands. The forces are fear and awe, both of which are reasonable translations of yirah which the Torah commands us to feel. Rabbi Held shares the debate between rabbis across generations whether it is preferable to obey God out of fear of punishment or whether obedience should be rooted in awe and reverence for God’s self.

At one point, Rabbi Held notes that the word todah has a similar dual meaning as yirah. Today can be at once thankfulness for our bounty and praise for the One who Gives. In reality, though, the connection between todah and yirah is more than comparative. They are opposite sides of the same coin. We may be motivated to walk in God’s ways as much by todah, with all it connotes, as we are by yirah with all its connotations. Is it not the case that we avoid bad behaviors and exhibit good ones because sometimes we look forward to the benefits that come with making certain choices? Is it also not the case that sometimes we make choices out of respect and gratitude for God or, on a human level, for another person?

I encourage us to examine why we do what we do (or don’t) as we undergo a close examination of our souls during this penitential season. Perhaps by seeing where we are on this grid of fear<>awe/thankfulness<>gratitude we will be able to do teshuva in a way that will lead us on the right path not only for the coming year but well into the future.

Justice for Our Planet Shall We Pursue

Parashat Shoftim 5781 / פרשת שׁוֹפְטִים
Torah Portion: Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9 

This week, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a summary of a report 6-years in the making, involving more than 200 authors whose work is derived from some 14,000 peer-reviewed studies related to the physical science of climate change. The full report is almost 4,000 pages long. The summary, however, is only 40 pages. 

I read about the report in Jewish Currents magazine, where I found an interview conducted by the magazine’s newsletter editor with a staff writer from The New Republic who covers climate policy. What I learned from the writer, Kate Aronoff, is that the information found in this new report is both horrifying and hopeful.

She says, “It’s not so much new information as a synthesis that allows us to say with confidence that climate is ‘unequivocally’ caused by human activity — mostly the burning of fossil fuels. While much of it isn’t new, the tone scientists, who tend to underplay things, take up in it — calling this ‘code red for humanity,’ for instance — should be a wake-up call.”

But, Aronoff says, the mainstream media outlets are boiling the 4,000 into “the most doom-filled headlines you can imagine. The big takeaway of the coverage has been that climate change is now irreversible, that we have passed the 1.5 Celsius degree temperature increase threshold..” She explains that while there is some basis for these claims in the report, these headlines don’t present the full picture. In fact, we’ve warmed the planet by about 1.1 degrees, which is very concerning, and there’s enough carbon in the atmosphere for that to to increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. BUT that hasn’t happened yet, in part because we have forests that absorb carbon from the atmosphere.”

Rather than read into the report the idea that we’ve passed a point of no-return, Aronoff  says, we should adopt the mindset that “there’s no point at which you can say that we might as well just give up. There’s plenty of  suffering that can be prevented.” She points to the fact that every 10th of a degree Celsius of warming “translates to tens of thousands of lives lost, so every little incremental step we can take to mitigate climate change matters a tremendous amount.”

Aronoff then goes on to list a number of policies which, if adopted and executed wisely, could keep things from getting “infinitely worse.” 

What Aronoff and the scientists behind the climate research are suggesting, I believe, is that we must all do our part to prevent things from getting infinitely worse by adopting new mindsets and modes of behavior and by getting involved in the political system. From my point of view, heading this call is a matter of environmental justice.

In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (or “Judges”), we read the words: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof — Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that Eternal your God is giving you.” What does this mean? It means that for us to achieve the ideal of transforming the world into the malkhut Shadai — the kingdom of the Almighty — we must be committed to pursuing justice under all circumstances, in all places and for all time. Rashi, the medieval biblical commentator, says “consider what you do, and conduct yourselves in every judgment as if the blessed Holy One were standing before you.” The pursuit of justice includes enforcing our laws equitably and judging without prejudice. But it also means creating a world in which all human beings can survive and thrive, where the image of the Divine can shine forth from each unique soul.

In a world increasingly ravished by drought, wildfires, devastating flooding, warming waters, catastrophic storms, rising tides and rising temperatures, we must take seriously our tradition’s call to pursue justice for the natural world.

We see a hint of this imperative for environmental justice in the laws of warfare, that are also part of this week’s reading (Deut. 20:19): When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its fruit trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down.” While the Torah does permit armies to cut down non-fruit-bearing trees for the construction of siegeworks, in general it prohibits the kind of deforestation that makes human life unsustainable. Fruit trees take years to bear fruit, and the Torah prohibits us from using the fruits for the first three years of a tree’s life. This wartime prohibition is a reminder of our dependency on the natural world for our very existence. If we destroy fruit trees, we might not be alive to eat the fruits of trees that we plant in their place. If we destroy our planet, the science is saying, at some point we won’t be able to repair it. And if we can’t establish a healthy balance between humanity’s needs and what is needed for the planet to sustain us, we will eventually perish and it will happen at the rate of tens of thousands per 1/10th of a degree Celsius, if not quicker. We already see how our friends and families in other parts of the world are suffering, not to mention what is happening in economically depressed countries who lack the medical resources to soften the health-related blows of climate change.

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. Let us do all in our power to secure justice for our planet and all God’s creatures.  Tzedek for ourselves. Tzedek for all people. Tzedek now. Tzedek always. Justice, justice shall we pursue.

Being Our Own Worst Enemy

Parashat Eikev / פרשת עקב

Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25

As the People of Israel stand poised to enter the land that God had promised them, they learn yet another important lesson about gratitude and humility. In Parashat Eikev, Moses exhorts the people to observe God’s commandments upon entering the land so that they may “thrive and increase and be able to possess the land…” (Deut. 8:1). At the same time, Moses reminds Israel how God cared for them in the wilderness, despite their having angered God on several occasions. Indeed, Moses adds, “it is for not any virtue of yours that that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess” (Deut. 9:6). God is a God of forbearance who is bringing Israel into the Land because God loves them, as an act of grace, not because they necessarily deserve all that God has given them or will continue to give them.

Moses continues: “Remember, never forget, how you provoked the Lord your God to anger in the wilderness: from the day that you left the land of Egypt until you reached this place, you have continued defiant toward the Lord” (Deut. 9:7). Should Israel forget God’s beneficence and come to believe that they have brought prosperity on themselves, they should think again. Should they forget God’s acts of hesed – lovingkindness – toward them and assume an attitude of haughtiness and entitlement, they will begin to ignore the commandments and spurn God, thus, provoking God’s wrath in a way they couldn’t possibly have imagined. In short, nothing good could come from taking their relationship with God for granted.

Where I see this point being made most dramatically is in the phrase, “Remember, never forget.” The Hebrew here is “Zechor. Al tishkach.” “You are to remember your tendency to anger God. Don’t forget all that you’ve done to put your relationship with God in jeopardy. This is serious business, folks. You don’t want to keep getting on God’s bad side after all that God has done for you from the time God freed you from bondage in Egypt until now.”

Anyone familiar with Israel’s battles during the exodus from Egypt will recognize the phrase “Zechor. Al tishkash.” which is used elsewhere in the Torah, albeit in a slightly different grammatical form and separated by several verses. In chapter 17 of Exodus, we read how Israel did battle with a nomadic tribe of Edomites known as the Amalekites and were victorious. Later, in Deuteronomy chapter 25, Moses recalls that event: “Remember (Zachor) what Amalek did to you on your journey” (Deut. 25:18), i.e. they attacked the weakest Israelites – the elderly, the infirm, the weak – from behind. “Therefore, when God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget (Lo tishkach)!” (Deut. 25:19). When faced with an ever-present reality of being surrounded by enemies, Israel is told “Remember… Don’t forget.”

What are we to make of the dual use of this phrase “Zechor. Al tishkash.” — once in reference to the Amalekites; once in reference to Israel’s own transgressions against God? Just as Israel needs to be wary of external threats to their existence, like the Amalekites, they must also be wary of internal threats, threats like hubris, entitlement, and becoming disconnected from their God. In other words, Israel must not become its own worst enemy.

In our lives, how often do we find ourselves becoming our own worst enemies, impeding our own progress, or worse, bringing about our own downfall? We develop habits, attitudes, behaviors that impede our functioning. We strive for success in all we do, yet sometimes we encounter obstacles that we ourselves create. And while we might believe that the world is our oyster, the reality can be quite different. Life is full of setbacks. In fact, sometimes it seems that the odds are stacked against us. But we forget that because of how we go through the world, we may be the very thing that brings us down.

Like our ancestors before us, none of us is entitled to “thrive and prosper.” Success requires hard work and self-discipline. It also requires an attitude of humility and gratitude. The moment we fail to remember how interconnected we all are, the moment we forget God’s grace-filled presence in our lives, we risk becoming lone agents in the world and struggling for own survival. We must remember and not forget that it is through the outstretched arms of friends, family, co-workers, teachers, and others, that we are strengthened. These are the outstretched arms of God, for which we must be grateful. Remember. Don’t forget.

The One

Parashat Vaetchanan 5781 / פרשת וָאֶתְחַנַּן
Torah Portion: Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11

Dear Reader,

We live in a world whose divisions among humankind are too numerous to count. Rather than allowing ourselves to celebrate our differences, too often we use our differences to justify everything from dismissive eyerolls to murder and outright warfare. In Judaism, we recognize that we live among many nations with many beliefs. While it is true that the Torah contains many stories of God sanctioning the wholesale slaughter of peoples whose belief systems God deems too tempting for the nascent nation of Israel to resist, the larger, enduring picture is one in which Israel and the nations of the world live harmoniously side-by-side and are united in their allegiance to the One God, each in their own ways.

I was touched by the insightful teaching of my friend and colleague Rabbi Lewis Warshaeuer this week. Rabbi Warshaeuer’s creative reading of this week’s Torah portion, Vaethanan, speaks to the commitment of our sages to create a world in which “God’s name shall be One.” I am honored to share Rabbi Warshaeuer’s teaching with you here. Enjoy!

Bivrachot/With blessings,
Rabbi Dan


The One

Rabbi Lewis Warshauer
Parashat Vaethanan 5781
July 24, 2021 / 14 Av 5781

Jews like to think that Judaism is a refined monotheism, purged of the dross of the pagans. But parts of the Bible point to a more raw set of ideas about God and other gods:

And when you look up to the sky and behold the sun and the moon and the stars, the whole heavenly host, you must not be lured into bowing down to them or serving them. These the LORD your God allotted (halak)to other peoples everywhere under heaven (Deuteronomy 4:19)

A very plausible reading of this passage is that the God of the Israelites has actually authorized other nations to serve—that is, to worship– the sun and moon and stars.

Not surprisingly, the rabbinic sages resisted this notion. The Talmud has an explanation attributed to Rav, the first-generation leader of Talmud scholars, that is based on a play on words:

The verse teaches that God caused the nations to slip [sheheḥelikan] by matters (that seemingly indicate that idol worship is effective) in order to expel the nations from the world (due to their decision to engage in idol worship.) (Avodah Zarah 55a)

But another Talmudic passage (Megillah 9a-b) takes a different view of this verse, based on the Greek translation of the Bible. The oldest translation of the Bible into Greek, a work known as the Septuagint, is attributed by modern scholarship to the Jewish community in Alexandria and is thought to date as far back as the 200’s BCE. The Talmud however, attributes the translation to a semi-miraculous event in which seventy Jewish scholars, summoned by King Ptolemy, and each working independently, came up with identical translations from the Hebrew into Greek.

Not only that, but the translators (still, according the Talmudic version) changed certain Biblical verses when rendering them into Greek in order to keep them from being misinterpreted. One of these was the verse from Deuteronomy, which was changed from “these (the sun and the moon and the stars)… God allotted to other nations” to “God allotted to shine on other nations”—thus removing the plainer sense of the Hebrew text that God allotted the heavenly bodies to other nations for worship purposes.

Given all of this, one might ask: What are Jews supposed to believe about these matters? I would reframe the question: How have Jews expressed themselves about such matters?

For the answer, one needs to turn not to this passage in the Book of Deuteronomy– which is read in synagogue once year, nor to the ancient Greek translation, which is not part of the Jewish liturgical tradition—but to the Siddur, the prayer book. The Siddur provides a guide to two questions raised by the passage in Deuteronomy: what is the role of the sun, moon and stars; and what is the role of the nations of the world.

The opening daily prayers that lead up to Shema Yisrael include blessings, praise, for God who has created and activated the sun and the other lights in the sky in order to enlighten the world. The words of the Siddur depict them as sentient beings:

They are all beloved, they are all clear, they are all mighty

They all do with reverence and awe the will of their Creator…

With song and hymn they utter praises…

The daily prayers have, in effect, converted a Biblical notion of the sun, moon and stars as objects of worship by the nations of the world into subjects worship God and witness God’s greatness.

Regarding the nations of the world, the Jews express themselves most memorably in the Aleinu prayer at the end of the daily prayers by quoting the prophet Zecharia:

God shall reign over the whole earth

God shall be one and his name one

This is a way of saying that Jews do not aspire that all of humanity become specifically Jewish, but that all humanity will eventually recognize that there is one unity and unifying force in the universe.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Lewis Warshauer

Rabbi Lewis S. Warshauer teaches adult education seminars in Judaism. He has served as adjunct rabbi at Congregation Habonim in New York City and was a teaching fellow in the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Kollot/Voices of Learning program. Rabbi Warshauer served as assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Kansas City, Missouri, from 1997 to 2000. He received his ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1997, and was a recipient of a Wexner Graduate Fellowship.As part of his rabbinical training, he studied at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem. He also studied at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem.

Moses’s Concession: Too Little Too Late?

Devarim / פרשת דברים
Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22

I wrote the following devar Torah (word of Torah) in June 2015 while on a family road trip. I hadn’t thought about it at the time, but every day is a family road trip of sorts. As individuals, communities, and nations, we are always on the move. Each day presents new challenges and new opportunities. We can’t always know when the next pandemic, flood or political crisis will appear. We also can’t always know when we’ll see the next rainbow, celebrate a birth, or land our dream job. In effect, we all write our words of Torah in the midst of life as we live it, on the road trip of life.

We are facing unprecedented challenges in our world today, challenges that make it difficult to plan and embark on a road trip that is fun and enjoyable. Floods, wildfires, deadly heat, Covid-19, warfare, social unrest are just some of the roadblocks that we face. Now, more than ever, human beings need to realize that we’re all on this trip together. Though the forces of nature and the will to power by narrow-minded, hard-hearted rulers and lawmakers may exacerbate our differences and cause further division, we the people must strive to stay connected across the great divide. We must not lose sight of the Divine spark in our rivals, lest they become our enemies. And we must not only muster restraint in confronting our enemies, but actively work to create a world that permits our enemies to become no more than rivals, if not friends.

This piece from 2015 speaks about the importance of compassionate leadership in times of travail. Moses seldom met those who contested his leadership or lost faith in God with compassion. Yes, he argued with God not to destroy the entire People, but he never empathized with those who disagreed with him. In this essay, I credit Moses for sowing the seeds of compassion as the Israelites are about to overtake Canaan, but I wonder how the journey might have been different had Moses shown such compassion all along. Perhaps the journey would have taken only a year or two. Perhaps the generation of adult males who left Egypt would have lived to enter the Land. Perhaps Moses himself would have been privileged to accompany the People into that Land. Perhaps we would have inherited a kinder, gentler Torah without so much killing and without endless portrayals of the basest aspects of human nature.

I’ve couched my comments in terms of leadership. In truth, we all have the capacity to lead and we must exercise that capacity daily. This is the meaning of being a “light unto the nations” and “a holy nation and kingdom of priests.” May we all exercise compassionate leadership every day of life’s road trip.

Blessings,
Rabbi Dan
7/16/2021


This week we begin reading the last of the Five Books of Moses, Deuteronomy or Devarim, which comprises Moses’s final speech, a pep talk of sorts, to the People of Israel before they enter the Promised Land. He reminds Israel of their trials and tribulations during their 40-year sojourn from Egypt to the banks of the Jordan River, highlights key commandments revealed by God along the way, and exhorts Israel to remain faithful to their covenant with God.

As Moses begins to address Israel’s fateful insistence on spying out Canaan and their subsequent lack of faith that they could succeed in conquering the land, Moses says:

We set out from Horeb and traveled the great and terrible wilderness that you saw, along the road to the hill country of the Amorites, as the Lord our God had commanded us. (Deuteronomy 1:19)

“The great and terrible wilderness?” What could Moses mean by this phrase and why would he include it here? I believe the answers to these questions present a lesson about leadership, in general, and Moses’s leadership, in particular.

According to Rashi, the French medieval commentator, the wilderness is termed terrible  because “in it were serpents as [thick as] beams and scorpions as [big as] bows” (Sifrei). Surely, though, that is only part of the reason. Indeed, while the wilderness would have been home to countless venomous, frightful creatures, nowhere in Torah do we hear people complaining to Moses that there are too many snakes and scorpions. Rather, the people feared both a lack of food and water and the threat of attack. Regardless of what Rashi speculates or what the Israelites themselves murmured about, the reality was that the wilderness was a dangerous, inhospitable place for much of Israel’s journey. Moses, therefore, is exhibiting what a high school teacher of mine once called “a firm grasp of the obvious.”

What’s remarkable about Moses’s observation is that heretofore Moses hadn’t acknowledged the harsh conditions in which Israel found themselves. All those times when the people complained about the paucity of food, water, and safety, Moses responded out of anger and frustration: “How dare you challenge God’s plan after all God has done for you!” Moses never empathized with his followers. As a consequence of his lack of compassion throughout the trek, Moses created a gulf between him and his followers that the people filled will animosity and resentment.

Had Moses once conceded, “I know life is hard for us now. We are in a strange, foreboding place. Of course, you are miserable,” just maybe the malcontents in his midst would have seen Moses as one of them, as someone who shares their suffering, as someone who “gets” them. Had Moses exhibited an ounce of empathy, perhaps the masses wouldn’t have pushed him so hard to produce water that he would strike a rock not once, but twice, insult the people in his charge, and forfeit his chance to enter the Holy Land with them.

Is Moses’s acknowledgement of the people’s hardship this late in the game worthless? Is it too little too late? He certainly can’t go back in time and become a different leader. He can’t now create a culture of compassion and cooperation that hadn’t existed previously. Nonetheless, Moses’s recognition of the harshness of the wilderness at this point does serve an important function. As Israel readies itself to cross the Jordan and take possession of the Promised Land, Moses reminds them of all they’ve overcome to reach this moment. “You made it through the wilderness with God’s help and your own determination. Have confidence that you can now complete the journey into the Land to which God has led you.” Coming from a person who hadn’t previously connected to the people he had been leading, this message would now embolden Israel to fulfill the next stage of its mission.

Leaders can learn from both Moses’s mistakes and his successes. Leaders can more easily lead when they connect on a personal level with their charges. Leaders can avoid accusations of indifference and aloofness by empathizing with their charges as they face “great and terrible” circumstances. At the same time, leaders can effectively motivate their communities by holding before them a mirror, by reminding them all they are capable of.

This week we see something that Moses did well, and we should give him due credit. Imagine, though, how different our nation’s story might have been had Moses shown the people of Israel such compassion earlier on in their journey.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Daniel Aronson

Life is a sacred journey.

Parashat Matot-Masei 5781 / פרשת מַּטּוֹת־מַסְעֵי
Torah Portion: Numbers 30:2-36:13

This week has been one of those “cradle-to-grave” weeks that rabbi’s sometimes have, one of those weeks that take you on an emotional roller coaster and remind you, as the song title goes, “Life is a Highway.” (Tom Chochrane, 1991). At the beginning of the week, I had the privilege to officiate at a beautiful garden wedding. The next day, I witnessed the conversion of a newly adopted baby to Judaism, and this Shabbat our community will welcome her and hear the Hebrew name by which she will be known each time she is called to the Torah and at sacred rites of passage. Throughout the week, I also worked with two congregants in preparing for memorial services for their loved ones and on Wednesday I led an afternoon service for a man marking the 10th anniversary of his mother’s passing when she was 90 years old. Yes, life is a highway, and we’d best treasure every moment on this sacred journey from cradle to grave.

The Torah, in its most expansive sense, tells the story of the Jewish people from the very beginning of time to the end of days. The Five Books of Moses that constitute the Torah scrolls themselves conclude just before the Israelites enter the land that Adonai had promised to bequeath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their descendents, i.e. us. The books of the prophets, beginning with the book of Joshua, take us from the conquest of the land of Canaan to the establishment of the monarchy and the division of the territory into two kingdoms and ultimately to exile. The Oral Torah, the books of law and lore that were the brainchild of the rabbis in the early centuries of the first millenia teach us how to navigate the journey until the time when the Messiah will come and the Temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem. Throughout the journey, the Land of Israel has been the destination, but to focus on the destination is to miss the real point of the Torah, which is that life itself is a sacred journey — one with twists and turns, one leading to where, we do not know for sure, but one that brings us closer to God and forges us into the human being that God wanted each of us to become.

This point is driven home in the opening verses of the second half of this week’s double Torah portion, Mattot-Mas’ei (Tribes-Journeys). Parashat Mas’ei begins: These were the journeys of the Israelites who started out from Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron. (Numbers 33:1) What follows is a mostly dry list of 20 place names where the Israelites stopped on their 40-year march from Egypt toward Canaan. 

At the steppes of Moab, on the east bank of the Jordan River, Moses records these place names knowing full well that he will not be among the Israelites who will enter the land that he just spent 40 years leading them to. Why would he do this? 

One reason is to remind the Israelites how faithful and resilient they are. God led them blindly on this trek. They had no idea what was around the corner or, for that matter, where they were going. The ones who lacked faith didn’t complete the journey. Those who did are invited to look back and to recall all they had endured. If they were focused only on the future, they would forget how great they are. They would forget how they had grown from a motley crew of slaves to a nation bound by a covenant with God. When we forget that life is really about the journey, we fail to internalize our own sense of greatness.

But another reason why Moses recorded the place names was to remind the people of all that God had done for them during their journey, miracles great and small. Even though God became incensed with them on more than one occasion, God never gave up on them. As the Israelites prepare for their greatest adventure — conquering and entering the land — they must recall how God has always been there for them and will be there for them now. 

Throughout the journey of our lives, we experience all kinds of things that show us what we are capable of and how much we are loved by God and those around us. At each step of the way, we grow stronger, we learn. We emerge from our darkest moments into the light, from our lowest moments to the heights. And, yes, we go from light to darkness and from exultation to despair, too. At the end of the day, it’s the highs and the lows, the mystery and the discovery, that make us who we are.

This week has been one of those “cradle-to-grave” weeks that rabbi’s sometimes have, one of those weeks that take you on an emotional roller coaster and remind you, as the song title goes, “Life is a Highway.” (Tom Chochrane, 1991). At the beginning of the week, I had the privilege to officiate at a beautiful garden wedding. The next day, I witnessed the conversion of a newly adopted baby to Judaism, and this Shabbat our community will welcome her and hear the Hebrew name by which she will be known each time she is called to the Torah and at sacred rites of passage. Throughout the week, I also worked with two congregants in preparing for memorial services for their loved ones and on Wednesday I led an afternoon service for a man marking the 10th anniversary of his mother’s passing when she was 90 years old. Yes, life is a highway, and we’d best treasure every moment on this sacred journey from cradle to grave.

The Torah, in its most expansive sense, tells the story of the Jewish people from the very beginning of time to the end of days. The Five Books of Moses that constitute the Torah scrolls themselves conclude just before the Israelites enter the land that Adonai had promised to bequeath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their descendents, i.e. us. The books of the prophets, beginning with the book of Joshua, take us from the conquest of the land of Canaan to the establishment of the monarchy and the division of the territory into two kingdoms and ultimately to exile. The Oral Torah, the books of law and lore that were the brainchild of the rabbis in the early centuries of the first millenia teach us how to navigate the journey until the time when the Messiah will come and the Temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem. Throughout the journey, the Land of Israel has been the destination, but to focus on the destination is to miss the real point of the Torah, which is that life itself is a sacred journey — one with twists and turns, one leading to where, we do not know for sure, but one that brings us closer to God and forges us into the human being that God wanted each of us to become.

This point is driven home in the opening verses of the second half of this week’s double Torah portion, Mattot-Mas’ei (Tribes-Journeys). Parashat Mas’ei begins: These were the journeys of the Israelites who started out from Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron. (Numbers 33:1) What follows is a mostly dry list of 20 place names where the Israelites stopped on their 40-year march from Egypt toward Canaan. 

At the steppes of Moab, on the east bank of the Jordan River, Moses records these place names knowing full well that he will not be among the Israelites who will enter the land that he just spent 40 years leading them to. Why would he do this? 

One reason is to remind the Israelites how faithful and resilient they are. God led them blindly on this trek. They had no idea what was around the corner or, for that matter, where they were going. The ones who lacked faith didn’t complete the journey. Those who did are invited to look back and to recall all they had endured. If they were focused only on the future, they would forget how great they are. They would forget how they had grown from a motley crew of slaves to a nation bound by a covenant with God. When we forget that life is really about the journey, we fail to internalize our own sense of greatness.

But another reason why Moses recorded the place names was to remind the people of all that God had done for them during their journey, miracles great and small. Even though God became incensed with them on more than one occasion, God never gave up on them. As the Israelites prepare for their greatest adventure — conquering and entering the land — they must recall how God has always been there for them and will be there for them now. 

Throughout the journey of our lives, we experience all kinds of things that show us what we are capable of and how much we are loved by God and those around us. At each step of the way, we grow stronger, we learn. We emerge from our darkest moments into the light, from our lowest moments to the heights. And, yes, we go from light to darkness and from exultation to despair, too. At the end of the day, it’s the highs and the lows, the mystery and the discovery, that make us who we are.

When we come together at the end of someone’s life, we remember where they have been so we can celebrate who they eventually became. We celebrate their journey along life’s highway. If we were lucky, we were on that journey with them. 

And having traveled much of life’s highway ourselves, how can we not be excited about welcoming new life into the world? While we know the world can be a cruel place and the highway isn’t always well maintained, we also know that this new life has the potential to change the world, to repair the highway. We pray that this new life will fall gently from the high places when it will inevitably fall. We pray that this new life will rise to great heights and from there see what is possible. We pray that new life will experience awe, as did our ancestors on their journey through the wilderness, and we pray that life will present them with an unfolding bouquet of discovery. 

When we come together at the end of someone’s life, we remember where they have been so we can celebrate who they eventually became. We celebrate their journey along life’s highway. If we were lucky, we were on that journey with them. 

And having traveled much of life’s highway ourselves, how can we not be excited about welcoming new life into the world? While we know the world can be a cruel place and the highway isn’t always well maintained, we also know that this new life has the potential to change the world, to repair the highway. We pray that this new life will fall gently from the high places when it will inevitably fall. We pray that this new life will rise to great heights and from there see what is possible. We pray that new life will experience awe, as did our ancestors on their journey through the wilderness, and we pray that life will present them with an unfolding bouquet of discovery.