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Friday, September 21, 2012

Parshat Vayelekh (and Shabbat Shuvah) - Returning to the Mountaintop

This week's parashah/portion is Vayelekh (Devarim/ Deuteronomy 31:1-30). As Moses prepares to die, he continues his oration to the people. In this parashah, he informs them that God has revealed to him that, after his death, the people will go astray, break the covenant that God has made with them and worship alien gods. As consequence, many evils will befall them. But God reveals to Moses that they will realize the error of their ways and proclaim, " 'surely it is because God is not in our midst that this evil has befallen us.' Yet I (God) will keep my countenance hidden on that day, because of all the evil they have done in turning to other gods." (Deut. 31:17-18).

Rabbi Isaac Meir Rothenburg Alter of Ger (1787-1866) commented on this passage, that if a person is aware that something is hidden from him, then the disaster is not so great, for he will follow his yearning, and break down every barrier that exists in order to discover what is hidden. However, tragedy occurs someone is unaware that there is something more concealed within that which is hidden, and therefore they have no desire to seek it out.

It would seem from the Torah text that the people will become aware of God's hiddeness. They will therefore seek God out in the time when they are to experience the greatest punishment and darkest despair. In many ways, this is the essence of teshuvah, return or repentance, which is the main focus of these ten days beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur.

This Shabbat, which falls in the midst of those ten days, is called Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of Return. On this day, we are meant not only to rest, as we do every Shabbat, but also to continue our focus teshuvah, returning to God and to our truest self as the main task at hand.

Keeping this in mind, I found myself having a different reaction to both the Torah text cited above and to the commentary. For in reading the text, I found its essence not merely to be the idea of God being hidden, which is certainly frightening on its own, but that the hiding was a consequence of the people's actions.

I don't see this hiding as a "punishment" from an external force, in the classical sense, but simply a result of the people going astray. The text seems to be saying that when we forsake the Divine, then it is as if we turn our backs on God. God is therefore hidden to us. Our actions are not merely the reason for the punishment, they actually are the punishment itself. For our actions will cause us believe that "everything bad is befalling us because God is no longer in our midst. " For in turning our backs on God we become unable to metaphorically see God's face (experience God's presence in our world). It is as if God is hidden from us, when reality it is that we have turned away from God. We become devoid of any sense or experience of divinity in the world. We believe that God has abandoned us and that we are utterly alone.

This sense of being alone can beget depression, despair, apathy, and a sense that our lives and existence is meaningless. If we remain in this state, we are bound to continue in the downward spiral and act in ways that are increasingly antithetical to what God wants of us. In this way we not only continue to turn our backs on God, but we move further and further away from Divinity. We do this by distancing ourselves from other people and our connection to the world.

When we do this we then fulfill the most dire of the prophecies in this parashah and find ourselves at the bottom of an extremely steep slope of despair and hopelessness. From that place, where it is almost impossible to feel the light and warmth of God's presence, let alone imagine that it even exists, we believe even more strongly that we are there because God has abandoned us. We are unable to realize that God is merely hidden from our view because we turned our back on God in the first place.

Yet, if we had simply turned around near the beginning of our downward journey, we would have been able to realize that God was there waiting all along. If we had realized that God was "hidden" from us because of our own action, or inaction, then we would have been able to use all of our effort to break down the barriers between us and God so that we could discover God's hidden face.

However, once we get to the bottom of the ravine, simply turning around will not help. Even our greatest efforts might not be able to break down the barriers or help us climb back up the slope. Mere teshuvah, in its simplest sense, will not be enough to pull us out. But, if this is so, then how do we rise again so that we can stand on the top of the mountain in the presence of the Divine together with all of humanity and all of creation?

The answer to this query is deceptively simple, yet it requires courage, faith and trust - three qualities that we often lack when in a state of such utter despair. For the answer lies in relationship and community. The answer lies in the willingness to allow others to reach down into the abyss and help pull us out. This process begins with simply allowing one to hear the voice of God in the voice of others. This requires silence and a kind of deep hearing with our soul. When in a place of despair, it requires paying attention to the negative
voices in our minds and then allowing them to fade. Then we can begin to hear the distant call of God in the voice of family, friends and loved ones.
Hearing these voices in our stillness, we slowly begin to allow them to penetrate us even just a little bit, until finally, we turn around and see a hand reaching for us, which has been there all along. We feel the darkness in which we have been living. We feel its coldness, we smell its bitterness, we taste its darkness and we realize that we are ready to make climb upward toward the light with the help of others.

Eventually we reach the top where we can feel the light of God and see the divine countenance in the faces of those who helped lift us up to this place. That is the beauty of the communal teshuvah that we perform together on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. That is why we are meant to do this difficult work in community, and not merely alone. Finding that community is not always easy, but when one does find it the change can be profound. It is also the beauty of being part of a community, as society and a world, where there exists a social compact to remind us that we are meant to be there to help one another.

On this Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it is time to look around us and see where we are. Are we at the top of the hill, the bottom of the pit, somewhere in between, or perhaps in both places simultaneously? If you are at the bottom of the pit, then allow yourself to know it, even though it may be painful. Honor the place where you are. Take the time to experience wherever you are at this moment before you turn to take the next step on your journey. Then from your silence and your stillness, listen to the voice of God and look for God's countenance - for it is never more than just a 180 degree turn away – in the faces and voices of those around us. Then you can continue your journey of Teshuvah.

If you are already at the top of the hill (or somewhere on the slope, as is usually the case), look down at those to whom we can reach out and help. And if different pieces of you seem to be located in different place, acknowledge the complexity of life and do all of the above! It's easier – and more difficult – than it may seem.

I wish you all g'mar hatimah tovah - may you be sealed for goodness in the Book of Life. And may we each work with everyone to see that this is true for us all.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Parshat Ki Tavo: Neither an Oppressor nor a Wanderer Be

This week's parashah/portion is Ki Tavo (Devarim/ Deuteronomy 26:1 -29:8). The opening lines describe the ritual that the people are meant to enact when they enter the Promised Land and bring their first fruits of their harvest as an offering of thanks to God.

When the people bring the basket of first fruits to the priest we read: "And the priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down in front of the altar of YHWH, your God. And you shall answer and say in front of YHWH, your God:   My father was a wandering Aramean, so he went down to Egypt and resided there with few persons and became a large, powerful and numerous nation there. And the Egyptians oppressed us and degraded us and imposed hard work on us. And we cried out to YHWH ... And YHWH brought us out from Egypt ... to this place and gave us this land ... and now, here, I've brought the first of the fruit of the land that you've given me, YHWH." (26:4 - 10) .

The phrase used to begin this ancient ritual, Arami oved avi , is subject to numerous translations and interpretations. Rashi, in the 11th century France understood it as “an Aramean sought to destroy my father”, referring here to Jacob's uncle Laban. In the 12th century, Rashi's grandson, Rashbam, understood it as “my father was a wandering Aramean,” which became the standard translation in many languages.  Rashbam believed the verse referred to Abraham, who was born and raised in Aram.

So which is correct?  Perhaps both.  For perhaps the essence of the text is that this mysterious Aramean is both our wandering ancestors and the one who oppressed him. So too we are each at times wandering aimlessly, at times we are oppressed and at times we are the oppressor.  And in many of these instances, we are actually all three simultaneously, for we are oppressing ourselves. Our action, or inaction, can oppress us. They can cause us to get stuck where we are. To not move ahead. To not see where we are meant to go. As both oppressor and oppressed, our actions have consequences for ourselves and for others with whom we are in contact, as well as for our society and our world.

Whatever the translation, the Torah clearly felt this was an essential ritual. It's performance was to be required for all when the people were in the land. It was the way that they would thank God for the first fruits of their harvest. If they didn't perform the ritual using the exact Hebrew formula as written in the Torah, it would be as if they were still food from God's earth. Reciting this historical passage was a way of connecting and identifying with our ancestors and our history in a very powerful manner. Yet, there were those who were less educated and illiterate who could not recite the passage as written. And so,we read in the Mishnah (first post-biblical law codes) that if the person bringing for their offering could not read the Hebrew, they were allowed to have a prompter. However, it eventually became clear that those unable to recite the Hebrew on their own were not bringing their offerings at all, because they were embarrassed to use a prompter. Therefore, the rabbis ruled that all people would have a prompter, thereby not embarrassing those who were less knowledgeable. This story really struck me and actually I found a connection between it and the original text.

For the rabbis were faced with quite a dilemma. The ritual was to be performed exactly as written in the Torah. But those who were less well educated could not participate. And so they developed what seemed like a reasonable compromise. Those unable to recite on their own could use a prompter. But what the rabbis forgot was the effect that having a prompter would have on the sense of kavod/honor of those who needed to use one. And so, those people would rather forgo the ritual of thanking God, rather than embarrass themselves.

When the rabbis realized this, they knew that another decision had to be made. They could end the need for the ritual totally, which would be against the Torah. They could tell those who were less educated that they could not participate, which them would force them to defy Torah law or they could translate the ritual from Hebrew to Aramaic, the language of the day. But that too would defy the law, as they would not be reciting the text as written. But what they did was find a brilliant solution that retained the law as written, but also maintained the dignity and honor of all the community. They required that everyone use a prompter. That way, no one would know who was educated and who was not.

In the terminology used in the passage itself, the rabbis had a choice to let those less well educated become “wanderers”, unable to bring their fruits to the Temple and thereby separated from the community. Unable to recite the ritual, they would be forced to wander in a spiritual no man's land, eating the fruit of God's earth without being able to properly acknowledge God. Following this approach, the rabbis would also be oppressors, they could force people to either do it “the right way” or no way. Period. No questions asked. But instead they found a middle ground. And this middle ground was not rooted in wandering or in oppression, but it was rooted in honor, kindness and compassion – kavod, hesed and rahamim.

The rabbis did the same thing when they created a chamber in the Bet Ha'Mikdash/Holy Temple where people were to go either to give tzedakah/charity or to take from tzedakah for themselves. The door to the chamber was closed, so no one would know who was entering the chamber to give and who to take. No one was left to wander without money or food because they were ashamed to enter the chamber. And no one felt oppressed by being force to be seen taken money, nor did anyone need to oppress others by forcing them to be in that situation.

And all of this was rooted in respect, kindness and compassion. Perhaps the foremost of these was compassion – rahamim. For compassion means “to be with the pain of others” and rahamim, comes from the same root as the word rehem/womb. Rahamim reminds us that we are all intimately connected to one another, we are all a part of one another, just as the fetus growing in the womb is a part of its mother. We are all connected. We are all one. That is the root of compassion.

Without becoming political in any way, I believe that this teaching is something we should all consider in this election year. For as we prepare to determine the direction our country will take for the next four years, and as our brothers and sisters in Israel continually try to determine the direction they take, let us remember that ultimately we must be guided by kavod, hesed and rahamim. Respect, kindness and compassion. We must be guided by the knowledge that we are all one within God, we are all connected to each other and to everyone and everything in the universe.

We are all indeed our brothers' and sisters' keepers. But to what degree? Whatever choices we make, let us remember that we must not create a country that oppresses others through rules and laws, even when they might be well intentioned and meant to help others. Nor can we let our fellow human beings become aimless wanderers, trying to find their way by themselves. There must be a balance. There must be a way. And that way must be guided by respect for each individual – no matter how much we might disagree, kindness towards all of God's creation – human or not, and compassion for all of humanity and for our world. For we are all one. If we use these three principles to guide us, then we will continue to build a nation and a world where no one wanders helpless and alone and no one oppresses or dictates to others. That is the world I believe to be envisioned in our Torah. And it is the world in which I hope we shall live soon an in our own time.


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