Friday, September 28, 2012

You Can't Always Get What You Want

13 Tishrei 5773 / September 28-29, 2012

You may view the land from a distance, but you shall not enter it – the land that I am giving to the Israelite people.” – Deuteronomy 32:52

At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Ha’azinu, we find God instructing Moses to ascend a mountain so that he may look out upon the Promised Land from a distance before his death.

Moses, who the Torah describes as our ultimate prophet, who helped lead us out of slavery in Egypt and led us through the desert for 40 years to the edge of the Promised Land, was not going to be permitted to enter.

I can only imagine the sense of frustration and disappointment that Moses must have been feeling in that moment.  To have come so close to attaining your ultimate goal and then to not be able to see it through could be nothing short of maddening.  I would have been angry.  I would likely have acted out.  I would have viewed myself as a failure.  I certainly would have questioned God’s decision.

We’ve all experienced disappointment and setbacks in our lives in some form or another.  Part of life is that you can’t always get what you want.  How do we deal with disappointment?  What is it to work really hard for something, and then to come up just short?

British poet Alexander Pope once wrote: “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”

What are our expectations for our lives?  Assuming we’re even remotely ambitious, Pope would argue that we’re primed to be disappointed at some point or another.  The key, however, is to not let the potential for disappointment keep you from acting in the first place.

If you knew ahead of time that you would be unable to finish a particular task, would you do as much of it as you could, as Moses did, or would you resign yourself to defeat and give up? 

Our tradition makes clear that like Moses, we are meant to embrace the work itself, and that even if we aren’t sure if we’ll be able to reach our ultimate goals, that we still need to try. 

We learn in the Mishna, in the section dealing with the Ethics of our Ancestors:

It is not upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
- Avot 2:21

While having end goals is important, the reality is that it is not the end that is truly transformative, but rather the work you do in order to try and get there.

Set lofty goals.

Work hard towards them.

Recognize that we all face disappointment during our lives.

Know that through your hard work, even if you don’t end up reaching whatever your particular end goal might be, you will be changed, and you will have changed the world around you for the better.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Live Your Life (ayy ayy ayy)

6 Tishrei 5773 / September 21-22, 2012

The Lord said to Moses: The time is drawing near for you to die…

The Lord said to Moses: You are soon to lie with your fathers…

In addition to these two statements of impending death for Moses, this week’s portion, Vayelech, also states that before his death, Moses completed writing the entire Torah – meaning that Moses also supposedly wrote the part of the Torah that describes his own death!  Thus, not only was he made aware that his time was coming to an end, but he knew where and when the end would be.

What would you do if you knew you were going to die?  What if you knew the exact day and exact moment that you were going to pass?

What are those acts you’d otherwise perceive as selfish that you’d want to do?

What are those acts of love and kindness that you would strive to do for others before your time here on earth is done?

Who would you convey your love to?

What is on your personal bucket list?

We are currently in the 10-day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that is traditionally viewed as “the 10 Days of Repentance.”  We’re meant to examine our lives at the deepest level possible, to apologize wholeheartedly for our misdeeds, and to commit to our continued growth as human beings.  A natural byproduct of this examination is the realization that we are indeed only human – we all make mistakes, and we all have areas in which we can improve in order to continue striving to be the people we really want to be. 

The traditional liturgy for the High Holidays alludes to a Book of Life and a Book of Death, and unlike Santa Claus who is searching for naughty and nice as it relates to giving presents, we’re meant to view the Divine as judging us based on our actions, with that judgment either being life or death in the year to come.  A bit harsh comparatively! 

But what we can take from this is that from a Jewish perspective, we recognize that life is fragile, fleeting, and that any year could very well be our last.  While we may not have the ability to know the exact day and time as Moses supposedly did, we can live our lives wholly, meaningfully, and expressive of the love and gratitude that we all have within us, as if it might be our last chance to do so.

So take that vacation.

Give that charitable gift.

Express your love.

Show your gratitude.

Live your life.

Wishing you and yours a happy, healthy, sweet new year.

May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life, and may we live lives worthy of being written about in books.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Claim It

28 Elul 5772 / September 14-15, 2012

The Torah is not beyond reach.  It is not in the heavens and it is not beyond the sea.  It is close to you – in your mouth and in your heart…” (paraphrase of Deuteronomy 30:11-14)

The ancient rabbis used these verses, found in this week’s Torah portion Nitzavim, to argue that while the Torah had divine origins (which is the traditional understanding), it is now an accessible earthly object, to be studied and meaningfully interpreted by human beings.

The Torah in many ways is the original collection of Jewish wisdom, belief and cultural values.  It contains the traditional narrative of the Jewish people, beginning with the creation of the world and ending with the Israelites poised to enter the Promised Land.

The ancient rabbis placed an incredibly high value on setting aside time regularly to study Torah.  For example, we learn in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Ancestors, that we should make our study of Torah a fixed habit (Avot 1:15), and that we should not say that we’ll study Torah when we have the time, because it’s possible that we’ll never have time (Avot 2:5).  Rather, we need to make time, and the best to do so is to have that time be a fixed one.

How do we go about studying Torah today, after setting aside a fixed time to do so regularly?

First, it’s key to remember that Torah is both available and accessible. There are more resources at our disposal now than ever before, including plenty of wonderful online resources.

Second, there are wonderful people out there who can help guide you along a course of study.

Third, one of the best ways to ensure that you engage in regular Torah study is to have a study partner who you enjoy studying with!

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year (one of four Jewish new years – true story!), begins on Sunday night.  As you consider what types of resolutions you might like to make for the year ahead, if any, I’d encourage you to consider adding the following:

“From this Rosh Hashanah until next Rosh Hashanah, I will commit to studying ________ (10min, 30min, 1hr) of Torah per ________ (day, week, month), in order to enhance my understanding and appreciation of my roots, and to be a more literate and knowledgeable Jewish community member.” 

If you need a study partner I’m happy to be that person, and/or to set you up with someone else who might like a learning partner. 

Whether you believe in the Torah’s divinity or not, whether you believe in God or not, understanding where we’ve come from is essential in knowing where it is we’re going.  Set aside a fixed time, no matter how short.  Open yourself up to a new type of learning.  Recognize that the Torah is not in heaven – it is here, and it is ours.  Claim it.

Here's wishing you and yours a year of happiness, health, and sweet sweet Torah learning.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Blessings and Curses

Ki Tavo
21 Elul 5772 / September 7-8, 2012

In this week's portion, Ki Tavo, Moses continues his speech to the Israelites by highlighting a pretty horrific list of curses that the Israelites will be subject to if they don’t follow the proper path (read: the Torah’s laws) once they enter the Promised Land.  Juxtaposed with the curses are a number of blessings that they will receive if they do remain true to the Torah’s teachings.  As we’ll find later on in the Prophets and Writings sections of the Bible, (*SPOILER ALERT*) the Israelites don’t do a particularly great job of adhering to the Torah’s laws, despite Moses’s warning, and pretty frequently end up worshipping idols and being punished for their actions.

What is it to be blessed?  What is it to be cursed? 

What power do words really have?

Words have a unique ability to express warmth, love and compassion.  So too, do they have the ability to spew hate, encourage divisiveness, and to make others feel less than human.  Our ability to speak provides us with an unbelievable amount of power, and as we’re only human, we have all used words for bad, when the opportunity existed to use them for good.

We’re now well into the month of Elul: the month of the Hebrew calendar that immediately precedes the High Holidays (and the Jewish new year), and traditionally, a month full of introspection, given its lead up to Yom Kippur where we stand together as a community accounting for our personal and collective shortcomings as human beings.  From last Yom Kippur until now, we have all used words in hurtful ways – essentially turning our words into weapons with which we curse others.  And now, with the High Holidays nearly upon us, it’s time to reflect on such situations, to apologize wholeheartedly to those whom we’ve hurt and to resolve to take steps to better ourselves as human beings. 

We do not exist in order to be stagnant beings.  Rather, we exist in order to continually strive to improve… to constantly work at becoming better people.

We have the power to be the ones offering up blessings and curses, and we have the ability to ourselves be blessings or curses unto the world. 

Be a blessing.