Thursday, August 29, 2013

I'm Not Perfect... and Neither Are You!

25 Elul 5773 / Aug 30-31, 2013

In this week’s double portion, Moses wraps up his recapitulation speech to the Israelites and reminds them that if they forsake the covenant with God, that God will be furious and punish them accordingly.  Obviously, Moses was under the impression that threats were the best way to inspire action.  And yet, later in the portion, Moses says to the elders of the nation that he knows that once he’s gone (because he’s not permitted to enter the Promised Land and is going to die soon) the Israelites will act wickedly and stray from their Divine instructions. 

If Moses knows the Israelites are going to stray, why even bother harping on the punishment for failure to follow the instructions in the first place?  Is he trying to motivate the Israelites to prove him wrong?  Is he consciously (or subconsciously) setting the Israelites up for failure by making them believe that no matter what they do, they’re going to fail?

The irony of all of this is that the Torah is meant to be digestible and accessible.

Surely this Instruction, which I enjoin upon you this day, is not too baffling for you; nor is it beyond reach.  It is not in the heavens… Neither is it beyond the sea…

If the Torah is ours here on earth and is easily comprehendible (there’s a bit of room for argument on that point to be sure…), why would Moses be so sure that the Israelites would stray from their intended course?

Ultimately, it’s because to be human is to make mistakes.  Regardless of our intentions, we inevitably mess up things that we perceive as simple.  From honoring our parents, to loving our neighbors as ourselves, to having homes completely free of chametz on Passover, we all come up short sometimes of where we’d like to be.  Fortunately, Judaism not only anticipates, but also embraces this lack of perfection.  Our daily traditional prayers offer an opportunity to express our regret for our shortcomings.  The High Holiday season, just around the corner, offers us the chance to do so as well as part of a community – reminding us that just as we have shortcomings, so too does everyone else.

In the portion, Moses also makes known that after going astray, when the Israelites decide to “return,” that they’ll be greeted with open, loving arms. 

This Shabbat, may we all – as individuals and collectively as a community – reflect on our areas of desired growth, and position ourselves such that our arms are open and loving to all.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Why Don't You Ever Call Your Mother?

Ki Tavo
18 Elul 5773 / August 23-24, 2013

In this week’s portion, Ki Tavo, Moses begins to wrap up his final speech to the Israelites.  The portion reads a lot like a scared straight narrative, as Moses basically lays out the most devastating curses imaginable (going so far as saying that the Israelites will end up eating their own children), which he says await them should they stray from God’s very specific instructions.

Needless to say, this doesn’t seem like a covenant I would necessarily want to be a part of if given the choice.  There’s a lot of pressure…  “If you do everything I say, I’ll give you blessings. But if not, I’ll curse you like woah.”  Sounds like there’s just a bit of a power imbalance in the relationship (pimp – sex worker comes to mind), which admittedly is to be expected given that we’re dealing with a divine being traditionally understood as being all-powerful, and that is Biblically characterized as not only loving, but jealous and wrathful as well.

Given our leadership’s historical mechanism for motivating, it’s really not surprising to me that for millennia, one of the primary motivators as it relates to inspiring Jewish action has been guilt (or being threatened with punishment). 

“You have to go to Hebrew school, son, because I had to suffer through it when I was your age, and if you don’t, you’re off the baseball team.”

“Why don’t you ever call me?” (says the Jewish mother while answering a telephone call from her daughter)

“How were Rosh Hashanah services this morning?” (says the father who knows full well that his child didn’t attend services)

The reality, however, is that for much of the Jewish community, fear of divine curses isn’t really a motivator these days.  As a result, I’m prepared to argue that while there are some who are motivated by adherence to the Biblical covenant as expressed in this week’s portion and the blessings and curses it embraces, a path that focuses more on the joys and warmth of Judaism would be more welcoming and inviting for those for whom guilt and punishment are not motivating forces.

It’s time to start envisioning a Judaism so full of meaning, warmth and joy that people will line up to be a part of the communities we form, as oppose to attending with resentment, due to being pressured by external guilt or threats.

As we prepare to enter the High Holiday season in a couple of weeks, start taking stock of your internal motivations for being part of Jewish community.  What inspires you?  What about Judaism brings you joy?  How have guilt and external pressures shaped your own experience of the Jewish community, and how can we break free of those artificial bonds?  Think about the Jewish community you want to be a part of.  Resolve to build it.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Under Promise, Over Deliver

Ki Tetzeh
11 Elul 5773 / August 16-17, 2013

By this week’s portion, Ki Tetzeh, Moses must have been parched, as he has literally been speaking for what seems like months (at least when divvied up into separate Torah portions that’s the case!).  This week, we come across a whole slew of laws, ranging from the need to stone rebellious children, to not cross-dressing, to an exclusion of eunuchs from the community (sorry Lord Varys).

Within all of the requirements shared this week, I am particularly intrigued by the one regarding vows: 

“You must fulfill what has crossed your lips and perform what you have voluntarily vowed to God, having made the promise with your own mouth.”

Effectively, if you make a vow, you will be held accountable.  But if you don’t make a vow, then there’s nothing to be held accountable for. 

What’s going on here?

We’re learning that the phrase, “I swear to God” has some historical roots, and that if one used that (or a similar) phrase, one would be obligated to follow through with the promise made!

What makes the phrase different or unique?  A couple of things: first, invoking God’s name without a purpose in and of itself would be using God’s name in vain (a violation of Commandment #3 of the 10 Commandments).  And second, by bringing God into the equation, the vow being made is no longer between people – but rather, in the traditional understanding, shifts to being between a person and the Divine.  And it’s pretty obvious that the tradition’s stance is that once you bring God into the equation, you’d better deliver on your vows.

On a more encouraging note, there’s also some positive psychology in play here, as the tradition doesn’t allow for simply putting promises into words, but an understanding that doing so necessitates the actualization of said words.

We regularly use language that invokes God when making promises:

“I swear to God that I will…”

“With God as my witness, I will not…”

What does it mean when we do so?  Are we heightening the level of our commitment?  Are we using that language simply to placate others into thinking we’re more serious than we really are? 

While from a traditional perspective, using God’s name in this way obviously ups the ante, for those of us who don’t necessary believe in a God who would somehow hold us accountable for our language choices, what can we learn from this section?

Ultimately, I think the takeaway point needs to be that we need to think twice about the words that escape our lips, and that we must strive to account for the promises we make. 

This Shabbat, reflect on how frequently you make promises to others (including to God and/or to yourself), and what your scorecard is as it relates to promise fulfillment.  What is it that leads you to make promises?  What is it that drives you to fulfill the promises you make?

By delivering on our promises, we maintain our own positive reputations and relationships.  The lesson therefore is that if it’s not a promise you’re going to be able to deliver on, don’t make it!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Royally Confused

4 Elul 5773 / August 9-10, 2013

I don’t know if you heard, but apparently a royal baby was born in England recently. How fitting that in this week’s portion, Shoftim, Moses provides the framework for the Israelites appointing a king over themselves (the one whom God chooses of course) should they choose to do so once having conquered the Promised Land.  We learn that the Israelite king may not have too many horses, wives, silver or gold, and that he must have a copy of the Torah nearby at all times, which he must make a habit of studying regularly.  Eventually, this allowance resulted in the coronations of our ancient kings, including Saul, David, Solomon, etc. 

Ultimately, we learn that even though an allowance was created for instituting a monarchy, God was not thrilled that the Israelite nation decided that it desired a king.  Hundreds of years later, in response to the prophet Samuel asking God whether or not to appoint a king per the wishes of the Israelite nation, God responds: “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not be king over them.”  [1 Samuel 8:7]

God is upset that the Israelite nation feels to need to have a human king, given that God’s own kingship should have been sufficient.

I struggle with the adoration and attention being given to the British royal family.  Aside from the fact that America was founded as a reaction to the policies (and arguably the existence) of the British monarchy, monarchies inherently suggest that simply based on birth, some human beings are inherently better and worth more than others.  This runs directly counter to the principle enshrined in the U.S. Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”  Granted, while at the time of the Declaration that statement did not include women or minorities, it has (thankfully) since evolved.

The royal wedding cost British taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.

Our contemporary understanding (informed by the Western liberal tradition) of what it is to be a human being and which truths we hold to be self-evident, coupled with our tradition’s emphatic statement that human kings are not pleasing to the Divine, should dissuade us from glamorizing an institution whose very existence runs counter to the spiritual ethos of both.

This week, consider making a contribution to HIAS or the Ellis Island Foundation in honor of the new royal baby.

This Shabbat, reflect on the Divine spark that resides within every human being, regardless of what family s/he is born into. 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

It's All About Community

27 Av 5773 / August 2-3, 2013

In this week’s portion, Re’eh, Moses continues his long-winded speech to the Israelite nation.  In addition to reminders about kosher restrictions, the remission of debts, and the three pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot), he makes a particular point to focus on the rules and regulations surrounding sacrifices.

He reminds the Israelites that unlike their actions in the desert, where they’ve offered sacrifices to God all along their journey, upon entering the Promised Land, they cannot simply offer sacrifices wherever they please.  Rather, they are required to offer up sacrifices “in the place that God will choose in one of your tribal territories.”  Ultimately, as we know, that meant the Temple in Jerusalem.

It seems a bit intense to think that in order to connect with the Divine, our ancestors were required to trek all the way to Jerusalem.  (Admittedly, many contemporary Jews still flock to Jerusalem - and specifically the old city and Wailing Wall area - as a spiritual and holy site)

For our ancestors, based on the guidelines, worship inherently meant a communal activity in a public setting.  There effectively were no options for worshipping at home.  For millennia, our institutions (first the Temples, now synagogues) reflected that reality – after all, there are certain traditional prayers only said in the presence of a quorum. 

And yet, nowadays, many of us don’t prioritize communal worship (partially because we feel awkward about the concept of worship in general).  We often think that we’re able to connect with the Divine, worship and exist on our own.  We pride ourselves on being independent (some would argue bordering on selfish / hyper-individualistic). Individual connections are important and valuable.  However, I would argue that being part of a larger community is an essential component to living a complete Jewish life.

We find in this portion the following instruction: “don’t harden your heart or shut your hand against your kinsman.”  We’re meant to be open and generous with those in our community – and being part of a community is a necessary prerequisite for fulfilling that obligation. 

This Shabbat, reflect on the various communities (Jewish and otherwise) that you’re a part of (or wish you were a part of).  What about the communities makes them attractive / alluring?  What value does being part of a community add to your life?  If you were to build a community from scratch, what would the building blocks be?

By directing our attention to the beauty and meaning that can be harnessed by sharing our lives with others, we can begin to form the connections necessary to truly be witnesses to the awe and inspiration of the world around us.