Parshat Vayeshev: Approaching Hanukkah
I'm going to tell a hard truth: dreidel is a structurally broken game. I haven't studied game theory, but dreidel always seems to wind up with less and less at stake eacah round, with very little suspense, and a lot of people just eating their gelt and walking away.
But that's the opposite of how Hanukkah works. Hanukkah is a holiday where, every day, there is more going on. There's a famous debate in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b) about whether we should light the menorah with one more light each night, or start the menorah with eight lights, and take one away each night. The answer is that we add candles every night, because, we say, "ma'alin be-kodesh v'ein moridin," which means, "we go up in holiness, not down." Every day, there's more light.
It's easy to say this, but often times in our lives, we feel like we are playing dreidel, rather than lighting the menorah. We feel like we are counting down time, rather than building up to something. And that's a tough feeling to live with.
The way to address it, I believe, is through gratitude. Gratitude is a core Jewish value. Every morning, when we wake up, we are supposed to thank God for granting us the ability to face the day. Every time we eat food, we are supposed to thank God. Every time we do a mitzvah, we are supposed to thank God.
What we are trying to do, is cultivate an appreciation for the world around us. It's not always easy – sometimes, we feel frustrated, bored, or hurt – but we are still obligated to say blessings upon waking and eating. Even when it's hard, we are commanded to engage in acts of gratitude. Because it is gratitude – counting up rather than counting down – that can help us when we feel like we are playing dreidel, spinning endlessly without much change.
And this wouldn't be right unless I ended with rescuing the dreidel. I think that the "rules" of the dreidel game came after the design of the dreidel as a fun, spinning toy that had the phrase "nes gadol hayah sham," "a great miracle happened there," written on it. And maybe that line can motivate us: "a great miracle happened there." Gratitude is a simple miracle, but it can be a hard one to institute in our lives. The miracle of the oil in the Hanukkah story is really a miracle of gratitude. Where can you fit that miracle into your life?
Parshat Vayeitzei: Embracing Happenstance and Surprise
This is the time of year for a lot of traveling. Some of us go to warmer places, some of us go to colder places, some of us escape from the holidays, some of us travel to the holidays.
The illusion of travel – of a trip – is that it's a coherent line between two points. That is, we leave somewhere, and we arrive somewhere else, and that's a trip.
But I don't think this really captures the texture of how travel feels. This week in the parashah, Parshat Vayeitzei, we open with a story about Jacob. Jacob, who had left Be'er Sheva and was on his way to Haran, "came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place" (Gen. 28:11). Jacob has a dream – a dream that angels are traveling up and down a staircase to heaven – and offers prayers in that place.
Jacob's dream here is deeply significant, but I don't want to talk about its content, as much as I want to talk about its circumstances. It comes when he has, we read in the commentaries, wandered off of the beaten path. That is, sometimes, if we want to get to the most powerful places, we have to allow ourselves to depart from our plans. We have to be able to let go of our erstwhile visions and goals, and reformulate them as we travel.
I've been here at TBI now for nearly six months. I've found that visions and goals I glommed onto on day one have changed; and that is healthy, and right. But all the more so our goals for our lives! Our lives are not lived in linear manners; they do not involve the slow unfolding of a clear and coherent itinerary. Our lives, particularly in their most interesting moments, involve departures, changes-of-course, happenstance, and accident. Sometimes these moments are filled with terror or sadness; and they, too, represent not a departure from our life's course, but rather, our life's course.
Jacob's dream is significant, largely because it is unexpected – because it comes at us from a place of surprise. So often, we cultivate in ourselves a fear of surprise. So often, we feel disappointment at changes of itinerary, we feel frustration at delays on a path, when in actuality, we need to embrace these moments if we want to get to truly deep places. Living a Torah life does not mean simply moving one-foot-in-front-of-the-next from year to year.
Living a Torah life means sometimes sleeping wherever you find yourself, even if your pillow is a rock, and being able to pray, "Behold, God was in this place, and I – I did not know." Living a Torah life means having an orientation (a word that comes from searching fro East) toward meaning, whichever direction we face. And toward service of God.
Parshat Vayera: Checking In, Not Checking Out
Fridays in November are a mad rush before Shabbat. Today, Shabbat begins at 4:23 p.m. here in Blue Bell; barely enough time to cook, work, travel, write.
Sometimes it feels as if we are in a rush all the time. Weeks fall into each other, without it ever feeling like there is a pause. Before we know it, it's December, and then January. We race around, and things pass us by.
This week, we read Parshat Vayera. At the very beginning of the parashah, Abraham is resting, recovering, we are told, from his circumcision. Angels appear at his tent, and he runs out to greet them. He literally runs – vayarotz, we read, he ran. Abraham becomes a model of what is called zrizut – running to do a mitzvah. Later in this parashah, in the story of the binding of Isaac, we read that Abraham woke early. Once again, he is a model of zrizut – running to do what is right.
But this running is not like our running. Abraham's running isn't about being in a rush; it's about passion and love. There's a famous piece of writing by Franz Kafka that talks about this. Kafka writes: "I could conceive of another Abraham – to be sure, he would never get to be a patriarch or even an old-clothes dealer –, an Abraham who would be prepared to satisfy the demand for a sacrifice immediately, with the promptness of a waiter, but would be unable to bring it off because he cannot get away, being indispensable; the household needs him, there is always something or other to take care of, the house is never ready; but without having his house ready, without having something to fall back on, he cannot leave -- this the Bible also realized, for it says: 'He set his house in order.'"
Kafka imagines an Abraham who is in such a rush, he can't get anything done. We've all had days like that or weeks like that. And sometimes, it feels like our world forces us into this kind of life – constantly being in a rush, unable to pay attention to anything in a deep way.
And Abraham challenges us to do the opposite. Abraham challenges us to run – to pursue passionately what really matters in the world. To wake up early for it, to run for it, to make sacrifices for it. Abraham tells us: if we want to be deeply involved in the world, we have to have zrizut. We have to have the ability to passoinately pursue things. This is counterintuitive. Normally, we think that the way to address our busy lives is to stop and check out. Abraham says: No – the way to deal with our busy lives is to check in, not check out. That's what Shabbat is all about: not a day of checking out, but a day of checking in.
We're in a period of the year where it's very easy for time to go by in a flash. So I want to challenge us to spend our time intentionally. To do what we really need to do, to be present in the way we must be. It's not easy, on these short days, but it's important. Shabbat Shalom.
Parshat Lekh Lekha
A week ago I wrote about the project of faith in the days before the election. After the election, we – all of us – need faith more than ever.
Faith isn't about believing something to be true. Faith isn't about whitewashing or closing our eyes. Faith is about acting in line with our values.
There's a story I heard this week from a Christian theologian about faith – he said it was true. A century ago, a man walked across Niagara Falls on a tightrope. A crowd gathered to watch, but he made it all the way across. He said to them: Now, do you think I could do that with a wheelbarrow? And they all said yes. And he took a wheelbarrow, and pushed it across successfully. On the other bank, he asked the people, Now, do you think I could do that with a wheelbarrow full of rocks? And they all said yes, and he took the wheelbarrow, filled it with rocks, and made it safely to the other side. The people cheered, and he asked them, Now, do you think I could do that with a person sitting in the wheelbarrow? And they all said yes. And he asked – will you volunteer? And everyone was silent.
Faith is getting into that wheelbarrow. And I'll tell you – I would not have gotten into that wheelbarrow. We're not supposed to hear that story and say, "Oh, of course you should get in." We're supposed to hear that story and say: Wow – we really have to risk and trust to do what God asks of us in the world.
This week, we read Parshat Lekh Lekha, as Sarai and Avram are called by God to leave their land, their birthplace, their family home, to go to a place that God will show them. And nothing about it is easy – but they are models of faith.
Our country feels like it is tearing itself apart. And it's not sufficient to say: have faith that it will get better. What we have to do is ask: what can I do to make it better? How can I be personally kinder and more loving? How can I live Torah values? All of us, wherever we are politically, wherever we are geographically, wherever we are emotionally, can stretch ourselves to live our values of love and doing what is right.
Our values include being together as a community in times of stress or fear. Our values include hearing differeing voices resiliently and listening with empathy. Our values include never belittling the weak. Our values include sticking up for Jews and strangers (for we were strangers in the land of Egypt). Our values include support of Israel. Our values include study of Torah.
Let's make this a year of living our values, even when it's hard. Even when we want to check out. If we don't make living our values the most important thing in our lives, then we shouldn't be surprised if our social fabric suffers. So come together for prayer, for love, for study, for community.
Parshat Noach: On the Election
I want to talk about the presidential election.
For months, many of us have lived with this election every day. We've read articles and tweets, we've had arguments and disagreements. We've been full of joy and we've been full of fear; we've been full of inspiration and we've been full of disgust.
We cannot hold such strong emotions and yet deny them entry to our Jewish lives. And we cannot face important decisions and not wonder what the Torah might tell us about them. And we cannot have a large communal experience of an election like this, and expect that we can switch off our feelings in synagogue. And a rabbi cannot expect to reach congregants in places that matter to them if during an intense communal event, the rabbi is silent.
At the same time, there is a longstanding – and important – disinclination for a rabbi to talk politics from the bimah; or for a synagogue to engage in politics. This disinclination comes from two good places, and one bad place.
The two good places:
1) It is important for a rabbi to be a rabbi to all congregants, regardless of political positions; the spiritual work of a rabbi must stand regardless of politics, which can impede pastoral relationships. And the more fractious and factional the political culture – the more divisive and zero-sum – the more a rabbi must guard against this. So too with a synagogue.
2) The West has, since the 17th century, sought to remove religion from the operation of the state. During the Thirty Years' War (1618-48), Western Europe saw tremendous bloodshed as a result of the mixture of religion and politics. In the wake of that war, philosophers like Baruch Spinoza and his intellectual descendant, Thomas Jefferson, sought to establish a firm distinction between religion and the state. It's for the good of religion, and for the good of the state, to keep them separate.
Rabbis should vote and have opinions. I have many opinions, and plan to vote on Tuesday, as is my duty. But rabbis also need to stand up for the importance of the separation of religion and the state. That means pushing back against state interference in religion, and also holding ourselves back from expressing our opinions.
Now for the bad place:
3) Sometimes, rabbis and synagogues avoid talking about political issues because such issues are depicted as "mere" matters of conscience. Rabbis, the argument goes, should restrict themselves to talking about matters of spirit and character; Torah, it goes, should be here to inspire, not to tell us what to think, or when we are wrong. There are two problems with this. First, the Torah is absolutely about telling us when we are wrong. The Torah assesses punishments for misdeeds, it demands confession of sins, and a turning-away from wrong behavior. Insofar as a political argument is about a sin (which is sometimes the case), there is certainly a right and wrong in the eyes of the Torah. And it's the duty of Jewish teachers to explicate how this works. Second, politics is not some minor sideshow to what matters in our world; rather, politics is about how the state affects our lives. That's why we go to AIPAC – because politics matters. We have learned in the twentieth century that, whether or not we Jews want to find politics, politics will find us.
I'm not going to talk politics here, for the reasons above. But I do want to talk about the election, and share some Torah that might help us, a little, as a community with many viewpoints.
This week, in Parshat Noach, we read the story of the Tower of Babel, the tower early humans built with its top in the heavens. And there's an interesting detail in the story that expresses why the people build the Tower – and it's something we usually miss. We read (Gen. 11:4), "And they said, 'Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.'"
The people have a fear – scattering – and their way of dealing with the fear, is pride.
Rabbi Shai Held pointed out that we should notice here the way that fear leads to pride. That is, when we are feeling afraid, we are likely to act prideful or arrogant. When we're feeling scared, we get haughty.
Many people, on all sides of this election, throughout the country, are feeling fearful. And it's important that we guard ourselves against fear.
Fear leads to pride and haughtiness. It leads us to dehumanize and forget other people. It leads us to hate. The story of the Tower of Babel depicts a society in which there are no names; there's a midrash that says, in the society of the Tower of Babel, bricks were more important than people. That's what fear and pride do to us. They cause us to see people as means rather than as ends. We need to be careful not to see people who disagree with us as less human than we are.
The contrast to fear is faith. This week, at the very end of the Torah reading, we are introduced to the characters of Abraham and Sarah, journeying to a place they do not know. Faith is hard. Faith is about knowing that what is before you is hard, and saying, "Nevertheless." Faith is about keeping our ethical and Torah sense front and center in a complicated world. Faith is about mesirut nefesh, doing things that are risky and frightening because they are the right things to do. Faith is about holding fast to the idea that God cares about us and that it is our task to come closer to God.
So in the coming days, and in the coming weeks, choose faith over fear. Our great communal project is not a Tower of Babel; it's a faithful journey to the Promised Land. And we're in it together, as we always have been.
Parshat Bereshit: Women in the Torah
Have you ever heard of the Bechdel Test? The Bechdel Test is a test developed by cartoonist Alison Bechdel that you apply to movies. To pass the Bechdel Test, a movie must 1) have at least two women in it who 2) talk to each other 3) about something besides a man.
Two women who talk to each other about something besides a man. How would our Torah reading do this week?
This week, in Parshat Bereshit, we're given two different narratives of the creation of human beings. In the first account, Gen. 1:27, we read, "And God created the human in God's image ... male and female God created them." Later, in Gen. 2, we read a different account of creation. We read in Gen. 2:4-7: "When the Lord God made earth and heaven -- when no shrub of the field was yet on earth and no grasses of the field had yet sprouted ... the Lord God formed Adam from the dust of the earth. God blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and Adam became a living being. ... The Lord God said, 'It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.' And the Lord God formed out of the earth all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them ... but for Adam no fitting helper was found. So the Lord God cast a deep sleep upon the man; and, while he slept, God took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that spot. And the Lord God fashioned the rib that God had taken from the man into a woman; and God brought her to the man."
These are clearly two different accounts of creation. The first, from Gen. 1, is in a context of God creating, day after day, different things, according to their type. In this account, God creates humans, "according to their type," which refers to their sex. The second account, from Gen. 2, has a different order – first Adam, then the animals, and then Eve, who is created from Adam. The second account is chaotic, and it brings us the famous story of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the snake, and more.
There's a lot to say about the different accounts of creation – clearly we are not supposed to take either account as natural history, being that they differ even from each other – but I want to look at the creation of women. In the first account, women and men are created alongside each other. In the second account, women are essentially created as an adjunct to men.
When we read Jewish texts, we have to read them with questions like those of the Bechdel Test in mind. Questions like: do we see a depiction of a woman in which she shows agency, or in which she is a prop for a story about men? Often, I think, the Torah can surprise us this way. Many female characters show real agency – Sarah and Rebecca, of course, but also Shifra and Puah (the midwives from the Exodus story) – and we won't notice this wonderful aspect of the Torah unless we read culture with a critical and feminist eye. We also have to point out narratives in which a woman is represented solely as an adjunct – like the creation of Eve from Adam in Gen. 2 – and be honest when they are patriarchal or disappointing (that doesn't mean that we can't find other spiritual or religious meaning in them; it means to read them with a warning label).
You can use the Bechdel Test in your own life to think about movies and culture – in my house these days, Frozen, which passes the test so well, is on repeat, whereas Cinderella just mysteriously never seems to load properly. You can use it to think about gender. But you can also apply a critical eye to other things in your life. What voices do you hear? What faces do you see? What stories do you listen to?
And go further into yourself. What parts of yourself do you favor as important – maybe passing over other aspects? What parts of your identity do you value most – is it possible you are missing something? Often, I think, we tell ourselves a story about our personalities and characteristics, that passes over important parts of our lives. That glosses over or ignores hidden strengths; that hideds painful parts; that doesn't do justice to the love we bring into the world.
So, as we begin the Torah again at Parshat Bereshit, live a little of the Bechdel Test. In the Torah, in the culture, in yourself.
Sukkot and Tragedies
A little more than a week ago, on Yom Kippur, we stood in synagogue, saying, "On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is seald: who will live and who will die." We spoke about being written into the book of life, the idea that God looks at the world and judges it, and everything makes sense.
But tomorrow, on Sukkot, we read the opposite theological message from the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). We read that suffering in our world happens nonsensically; we read that there is no real difference between the righteous and the wicked in the eyes of the world; we read that life is fleeting.
I've been thinking about the two totally different theologies of Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot. I've been thinking about the idea, which I learned from a teacher of mine, Rabbi Michael Goldman, that perhaps the theology that we express on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is purposefully undercut by the theology of Sukkot. That is: saying that everything makes sense, and that God has a book of life – that's a theology that works only three days out of the year. The rest of the year, we can't say it with a straight face. We can't say that everything makes sense. And Sukkot comes along to remind us that the world doesn't work this way.
There was a terrible tragedy this week at another local synagogue, and many of us have felt the pain of it reverberating around the community. I have felt it, and so many others have, too.
When we are faced with a tragedy, it is our duty, as Jews and humans, to avoid the Rosh Hashanah theology. It is our duty to avoid saying that anything makes sense. Instead, it is our duty to say, "This does not make sense. And I will not try to make sense of it."
The theology of Sukkot tells us to cling to the light as it gets dark. The theology of Sukkot tells us to sit close together, to huddle, maybe in a corner, and not in the center of the room, and to be present for each other. But it makes no great claims about how the universe will respond. It makes no claims that things will work out a certain way. It only tells us that there is value in sitting close.
There is value in sitting close. So set aside the machzor, the prayerbook for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Set aside the theology that says our world makes sense. And sit closer, in the Sukkah, with each other.
Sukkot: What do we own in Judaism?
What firsts do you remember? Do you remember the first time you met someone important? The first time you traveled somewhere? The first time you achieved some personal goal or milestone?
I can remember the first piece of Talmud that I really learned – it was from the third chapter of Masechet Sukkah, called "Lulav HaGazul," and it was about a stolen lulav. Briefly, it told us that, on Sukkot, when we shake the lulav and etrog together, it has to be, on that first day, our own lulav – not a lulav that we just found sitting around, not a lulav that we stole.
I think this was a fitting piece of Talmud to read first. What this text tells us is: there are some experiences that have to belong to us. There are some experiences that we have to "own." We have to be in them, with a "feel for the game" of that specific ritual experience. To inhabit Jewish ritual with the sense of play that comes from real ownership.
And often, I think, we approach Judaism as if we don't really own it. We approach it too delicately, as if someone else owns Judaism, and we are scared that we might get our fingerprints on it. We are scared to stand or sit at the wrong moment, we are scared to fall behind the stage directions, we are scared we are doing something wrong. There's a lot in Judaism that is complicated, and of course, we want to know the rules of the game. And synagogues should do more to teach the rules of the game (we will!). But sometimes, we learn the rules, but never learn to play. We go through the Passover Seder frightened of the directions in the Haggadah – "wait, were we supposed to cover the matzah? which one is the middle? did we forget to eat the eggs?" – instead of feeling like, "I am telling the story of my people's national liberation, from a book that I really know very well, and I'm not going to break it."
When we pick up a lulav and etrog, we have to own them – we have to be in the experience for it to be effective. When we sit in a Sukkah, we "own" that space – we make it our own, our home, our domain. But it's not just Sukkot. We are all owners of Judaism, and our feel for the game is what will be passed on. Do we want to pass on to future generations a fear that we will break it? Or do we want to pass on a sense of passion and ownership? More than that, do we want to live with a sense that we are trying out someone else's religion – or do we want to say, "this is what we do, because we are Jewish"?
This Sukkot, try to own your Judaism. What experiences can you inhabit more authentically? Is it feeding the hungry? Lighting the menorah? Supporting Israel? Where can you display a non-anxious feel for the game? Where you can you sit in Judaism, like a sukkah?
Parshat Ki Tavo: Affirming Each Person's Judaism and Building Gratitude
What did your grandmother's kugel taste like? What did your name change from at Ellis Island? These seemingly simple questions can sometimes cause pain to a person who is a Jew-by-choice (or who did not know their grandmother; or is not Ashkenazic). They can be painful, because a Jew-by-choice is just as Jewish as a born Jew, but usually exists without the same cultural and family history. These kind of questions, which might seem to unite Jews, can make a person feel excluded and "less than." And that's not right. But we can learn something important about gratitude from thinking about this issue.
This week, in Parshat Ki Tavo, we have a beautiful description of the ritual of Bikkurim, of first fruits. At the beginning of the harvest in the late spring, the Torah tells us, a person is to take some of the first produce of their land, bring it in a basket to the priest at the Temple in Jerusalem, and give it to him, saying, roughly, "My ancestor was a wandering Aramean ... we journeyed to Egypt in small numbers, and became there a great nation, and ... God brought us out with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm."
It's a beautiful text. But the Mishnah, the code of Jewish Law, seems to limit it. It gives an opinion that a person who has converted to Judaism should not say this – since his or her genetic ancestors did not have this experience (Bikkurim 1:4). I think this is painful. It can seem to suggest that a Jew-by-choice is excluded from one of the central narratives of the Jewish people.
But Maimonides, writing a legal opinion in the 12th century (Responsum 293), differs. He writes that every Jew-by-Choice, of every generation, is a child of Abraham and Sarah – the very first Jews, who brought many people to Judaism. The convert, he suggests, more than any born Jew, connects at a gut level to our most holy and ancient forebears. We think it's kugel that makes our ancestry? No, Maimonides says – it's Abraham and Sarah. Ancestry is not simply about our immediate situation; it is about our place in the long story that God is telling in the world.
This is deeply powerful, and suggests something that goes beyond the experience of the Jew-by-Choice. It suggests that we Jews have to take a long view of history to really appreciate where we are today. We are not only the children of our grandparents; we are the children of their grandparents, and their grandparents, all the way back to Abraham and Sarah. Our experience is not simply our own; our existence is one that Jews have prayed for for thousands of years, and, moreover, our lives matter not only for us, not only for genetic descendants, but for anyone who is Jewish hundreds, if not thousands, of years from now. When we continue something, like the tradition of chanting Torah, like the practice of not eating kitniyot, like the value of feeding the hungry from Jewish communal funds, we are doing so because we want a Judaism in which these things are practiced as well, hundreds and hundreds of years from now.
I think this is also what the Bikkurim ritual is getting at. When we bring our first fruits to the priest, we are not simply grateful for the immediate world around us. We are not simply grateful for our ability to have a technological approach to it, one in which we can create fruit and agriculture with raw materials God has scattered about. Rather, we are grateful for our place in God's redemptive plan. That is, gratitude is not about simply affirming our self as the most important thing, and our self's relationship to the world as fundamentally a relationship of taking; gratitude is about asking what plan God has for us in the world, and about living the redemptive message of Yitziyat Mitzrayim: a message about freedom and creation, a message about love and memory and honoring and pausing and liberating.
So ask yourself, this week: what are you deeply grateful for? Not only for the immediate things, like family, food, health, which are real and important and holy – but for the earlier things, for the bigger things. If you can think of them, if you can discuss them with your friends, you'll be living this ritual.
Parshat Ki Teitzei: The Art of Losing
Ye'ush. Can you say it? Yay-oosh. Ye'ush is a concept in the Jewish laws relating to lost objects, which we read about in this week's Torah portion. Any lost object we find, we are supposed to get back to its owner. But with some objects, the owner has given up hope of ever getting them back, and then, they become ownerless.
That "giving up of hope that it will come back" is called ye'ush. And we've all done it. An early memory of mine is losing Star Wars figures in the sand box at my local park. I'd come back every week, looking for them, and never found them. Eventually I gave up. That's ye'ush. Or maybe more profound things, too. Dreams or hopes for our lives, that we've given up on. That's ye'ush. Visions of our future. Relationships. Home improvement projects. Self-improvement projects. So often in our lives, we do ye'ush on these things.
But the Talmud teaches something else about ye'ush, too. The Talmud teaches us that one day, in the future, all of our lost objects will be returned to us. It's this delightful suggestion, where the Talmud is thinking about the destruction of the Temple, and it wants to tell us – that will come back to us. It's a deep yearning.
This is the language of Hatikvah. In Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem, we say, "od lo avdah tikvateinu," our hope is not yet lost, and the word "avdah" is actually an explicit allusion to these laws of lost property. We are saying: we have been away from our land for so long, but we have not given up hope. We remember; we don't forget.
And it goes farther than this. Another name for Rosh Hashanah is "Yom HaZikkaron," the day of remembering. It's a day for remembering – and facing – things that we have lost, and want to move past, and things that we have lost, and want to return to. It's a day, and a time of the year, for saying: I'm taking stock of my life, my hopes, and my losses, and bringing them with me on Rosh Hashanah.
So ask yourself, this Shabbat, what are the hopes, what are the losses, what are the journeys, that you have made in your life, and that you want to make in the coming year.
Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah.
Parshat Shofetim: How Much Space We Take Up
Today is #StarTrek50 – fifty years since the first episode of Star Trek premiered. One of the big themes of the show is exploration – "to boldly go where no man has gone before" – and we see humans spread throughout the galaxy. But if you've watched consistently, you might have also noticed something called "the prime directive," which is a rule that the humans apply when they encounter aliens. The rule is, roughly, to live and let live – to refrain from intervention in certain types of societies. To hold back.
And this is deeply resonant with the parashah we read this week, and with a principle we learn in Judaism. This week, we read Parshat Shofetim, and much of it describes the Israelites' expansion in the land. They grow, they expand, they explore. But at the same time, the Israelites narrow their activities – there is a focus in this part of the Torah on making sure that only one place is appropriate for sacrifice, only one God is appropriate for worship, only one Torah is learned. There's an expansion, and also a constriction.
The phrase for this, according to the Mei HaShiloach, the Ishbitzer Rebbe, is, "al y'dei tzimtzum, tizkeh leharchavah"; that is, by means of constriction, one merits to expand.
This is an important lesson in many domains. It plays out in interpersonal and communal settings. Tzimtzum is the idea that sometimes we have to hold ourselves back – sometimes, we have to allow others to take over, or we have to allow others to speak, or move back so others have room to participate and stand. It plays out in our spiritual lives: sometimes, we need moments of silence, of pausing, of space, in order to have a broad experience.
By means of constriction, we merit to expand. It's a paradox – by making our egos smaller, we can merit having more space; by focusing on God and Torah , we can merit the space of the land; by holding our own voices in check, we can broaden our communal horizons; by allowing others to take positions of authority, we can achieve broader and more lasting greatness.
It is so important to engage in tzimtzum, constriction, in our lives. It is so important to remain conscious of what the Mei HaShiloach tells us. So ask yourself: where can you have more Tzimtzum in your life? Where do you want to see more broadness and opportunity – and is this an area where, paradoxically, you can perhaps step back?
Parshat Re'eh / Rosh Chodesh Elul
Seeing isn't a simple thing. We often think it is – we talk about being an eyewitness, or use phrases like "seeing is believing." But we know that eyewitness testimony is actually unreliable, and that seeing is not believing. Seeing is deceptively complicated – seeing is not simple, is not straightforward, but involves trying to see past, to see deeper.
And this comes up this week in Parshat Re'eh, where at the very outset of the parashah we are told, "See, this day I set before you blessing and curse" (Devarim. 11:26). It sounds simple, right? Blessing and curse are before us – so, simple, choose blessing. But it doesn't work that way. The world is far more complex – blessing and curse are mixed. We've all had experiences in our lives where we've learned from failure or mistake. We've had experiences that seemed wonderful and joyous, but were also painful. We have relationships that bring us joy, and also bring us sadness; we enjoy food and drink, and then feel over-full or hungover; we love the summer, and we get sunburned; and so on. "See, this day I set before you blessing and curse" feels too simplistic.
The Meor Eynayim, a 19th century Hasidic rabbi, says that this text actually is naming the complexity of the world. He says that what it actually means is, "If you see, then you'll see that blessing and curse are constantly mixed before you." And I think that makes sense. But he goes even further. He points out that the word for blessing is preceded by the Hebrew article, et, את, and that this word, which begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and ends with the last letter, is there to tell us that blessing contains everything. That is, that blessing is never a simple thing. That the blessings in our lives are always complicated, and that this doesn't make them less sweet – rather, it means that if we truly want to see the blessings, we need to embrace their complexity.
And that's a message for today, Rosh Chodesh Elul, the start of the High Holiday season. Sometimes, we think that the changes we need to make in our lives are simple changes, clear changes. But they aren't. The ability to change ourselves, to do teshuvah, to build relationships, isn't a simple thing. It's a messy thing. Sometimes, we might start observing a spiritual practice that causes friction with our families – that's messy. Sometimes, we get back in touch with an old friend, and it isn't simply happy. Sometimes, we acknowledge that we are wrong, and that certainly isn't fun.
So my challenge for you is to embrace the complicated parts of your life – the complicated blessings, the complicated relationships – and to see them in this way, and to find love in and through them. Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov.
Renewal and the Holidays: Parshat Eikev
Often, when I hear someone speak about faith, I tune out. I hear statements like, “have faith,” as trite, or as telling me to ignore what I see or feel around me, or to believe something I don’t believe. Faith cannot be the same as make-believe, and it cannot involve denial of our authentic emotional experiences.
But there’s another way of looking at faith. It’s to think about faith as confidence, as “belief in” rather than “belief that." To think about faith as the process of holding fast to something — holding fast to our hopes, our values, our spirituality, our relationships.
This week’s parashah, Eikev, has a statement telling us to observe the commandments. And the Degel Machane Ephraim, a Hasidic teacher from the early 19th century, says something really interesting about this. He says that the root of observance is faith. Okay — that sounds kind of pat if you stop there. But he continues — the root of observance is faith that every day, we and our world are created anew. That every day, we are a “briyah hadashah,” a new creation, and new possibilities flow from that every morning.
This is profound. All of our mitzvah observance — loving the neighbor, treating each other kindly, saying the Shema, giving tzedakah, hearing the Shofar — are rooted in the idea that every day is totally new. That we can reinvent ourselves. Our entire Jewish practice is based on the idea of renewal.
And this points to the High Holidays, which are approaching. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and the month of Elul preceding them, are times of renewal and new self-creation. They are times when we tell ourselves, more loudly than any other time, as loudly as the Shofar sounds, that we can start anew.
Sometimes, our experience of the world is one in which we feel deeply stuck. We feel trapped. We feel like we can't break out of patterns. Judaism promises us – and challenges us – that we can break free. By saying that every day we are created anew, Judaism tells us that the condition of our world is not actually endless repetition, but is actually, just below the surface of our experience, possibility and potential. What faith means, is that we are able to act in our lives as if there is potential and possibility present in the world
Are there relationships in your life, where you feel like you need to start anew? Are there spiritual practices that were once a part of your life, that have fallen away? Are there new hopes you have for the future? The root of what it means to live a Jewish life, the Degel suggests, is holding fast to the idea that every morning, every day, is truly, deeply, new.