This week, we read from the very end of the book of Deuteronomy, the potion called Zot HaBrachah – this is the blessing. This portion often gets short shrift as it is read during our Simchat Torah celebration along with the first lines of the book of Genesis; as we both end and begin the Torah Cycle reading once again.
It is an interesting portion in itself: Moses’ last words to the people before his death. Our reading begins: This is the blessing with which Moses, the man of God, bade the Israelites farewell before he died. (Deut. 33:1) Moses knows the end is near; and it seems that he wants to make an impression on those who have come to hear his message. The midrash imagines him saying,
[I know I will die soon…but] Wait until I bless Israel. All my life, they have had no pleasant experiences with me, for I constantly rebuked them and admonished them not to fear God and fulfill the commandments. I do not wish to leave this world before I have blessed them. (Legends of the Jews by Louis Ginzburg, Vol. III, p. 452)
Moses doesn’t want the people to remember him only as the unbending disciplinarian upholding correct behavior and thought. He wants to be remembered as kind, compassionate, understanding and capable of delivering words of blessing. However, as much as he wants to speak words of blessing, soon after he begins to speak, the focus of the text shifts to a third person narrative and we are left wondering who exactly is speaking. The text says: When Moses charged us with the Teaching as the heritage of the congregation of Jacob. (Deut. 33:4). The commentators wonder who ‘us’ is…..the men? The women? All of the people of Israel? Only those present? All who are yet to come?
Ramban, a 13th century Spanish commentator draws our attention to the second half of the verse noting that it says the congregation of Jacob, instead of the House of Jacob. The reason? Many will join Jacob in the generations to come. Each will receive his spiritual heritage as they become a part of the people of Israel. The community will be richer because of its diversity. So too with us. Just like the biblical community, ours is one made up of some born into Judaism, some who have chosen Judaism, and some who are exploring where they fit. Thus, these words are meant for everyone; we are all a part of the ‘congregation of Jacob.’ The words of blessing are for us all.
“For it is no minor (or trifling, or empty) thing for you — and if it seems that way, it is your fault” we read in the Jerusalem Talmud (Peah 1:1). At the conclusion of Moses’ great song or speech to the Israelite people that is Parashat Ha’azinu, we read that:
Deuteronomy 32:44-47 Moses came, together with Hosea son of Nun, and recited ALL the words of this poem in the hearing of the people. And when Moses finished reciting ALL these words to Israel, he said to them: Take to heart ALL the words with which I have warned you this day. Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully ALL the terms of this Teaching. For this is not a trifling thing for you: it is your very life.
Why the emphasis on “all” — four times in three verses? To remind us that each and every word is significant. There is so much to be gleaned from our sacred text. “Turn it and turn it again, for all is in it; see through it; grow old and worn in it; do not budge from it” Rabbi Ben Bag Bag says in Pirkei Avot (5:22).
As we prepare to conclude the cycle of reading Torah on Simchat Torah, and as we prepare to immediately begin again, I invite you to think about how to make this a year of greater learning. With our Torah study group, in Beit Midrash sessions at Temple, through personal study or chevruta discussion. Open yourself to words of Torah, and Torah becomes open to you. It is our very life as Jews and I am excited to begin a new year of study together!
P’tirat Moshe, a fascinating midrash, reconciles a textual discrepancy regarding the death of Moses. While this week’s Torah portion makes Moses sound old: “I am now one hundred and twenty years old and can no longer be active;” in just two week’s time we read “his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated.” Which is it? Was he ready for his leadership to end or not?
In the words of Midrash:
“The Holy One said to Gabriel: “Go forth and bring the soul of Moses.” Gabriel replied: “He who is equal in important to sixty myriads—how can I bear to watch him dying?”
Then the Holy One said to Michael: “Go and bring the soul of Moses.” Michael replied: “I was his teacher, and he my pupil. How can I bear to watch him dying?”
Then the Holy One said to Samael: “Go and fetch the soul of Moses.” Now, the angel Samael, chief of all satanic spirits, had long been awaiting the soul of Moses. He immediately clothed himself with anger, girded on his sword, wrapped himself in ruthlessness, and went forth to encounter Moses. Samael found him seated and writing the Ineffable Name in a scroll. The radiance of his appearance was like the radiance of the sun’s visage; indeed, Moses looked like an angel of the Lord of hosts.
Samael was so frightened and went back and reported to the Almighty. The Holy One commanded once more: Go, bring the soul of Moses. Samael straightaway drew his sword from its sheath and stood over Moses. At that Moses became angry at him, took the rod upon which God’s Ineffable Name was graven, and struck Samael with all his might, until Samael fled from him. With God’s Ineffable Name in his hand, Moses pursued Samael until he overtook him, plucked a radiant beam from between his own eyes, and blinded the eyes of Samael.”
Though Moses was far from ready to die, at least according to Midrash, the time had come for him to pass on the mantle of leadership. He charged his successor Joshua with the words Chazak V’ematz, be strong and courageous, before God Godself came to collect his soul.
Rabbi Aaron Meyer: “My rear end hurt. I had been sitting in the car for the last three hours, alternating between listening to the radio, listening to an audio book, making faces at other drivers, and trying to remember the last time I had the luxury of feeling bored when I uncovered my GPS to again check the amount of time left on the drive. Staring at the thing constantly didn’t help pass the time, and apparently neither did trying to pretend I’d forgotten it was there. The ETA still read “Forever.” I wasn’t even close…yet.
Everyone in this room knows this phenomenon. Whether you are thinking of its modern permutation, of staring at the little airplane on the 5” screen in front of you making its way at a glacial pace toward your final destination — though glacial speeds are the topic of a much-needed sermon for another day — or whether the young people in your life also have a habit of incessantly asking “are we there yet, are we there yet,” we all know from the excitement and hope of traveling to a new destination…and the challenge of not being there, yet.
“Yet.” It’s actually the most powerful word I know. A single, small word that injects hope and possibility every time it is used.
“Are we there?”
“Not yet” means we are going to get there — to our final destination, be it the soccer field or DisneyWorld. “Not yet” opens a door open instead of allowing “no” to slam it shut.
“Yet.” It’s actually one of the most powerful words in Jewish practice. Franz Rosenzweig, a German Jewish philosopher and theologian, struggled with his place in the Jewish community throughout his youth. Attending High Holy Day services in 1913, hearing the sounding of the shofar with the clarity of a ringing bell, Rosenzweig found his way firmly back within the fold in an unusual way. He wasn’t particularly observant, but when asked if he observed this or that mitzvah, he answered “not yet.” He answered by recognizing that the future held potential not realized in the present.
“Yet.” It’s actually one of the most powerful words in Jewish philosophy. Naomi Rosenblatt, author of Wrestling with Angels, situates “yet” as the greatest opportunity for humanity. “Being created in the image of an infinite God,” she writes, “means that our spiritual potential for growth and transformation is limitless. If there is no ceiling on the concept of God, then we who are made in God’s image have infinite space to grow. We never reach the end of our potential. Never. Not in our marriages, not in our careers, not in our relationships with our children and our friends.” Not yet have we become the best we can be, she explains, because the future holds potential not realized in the present.
As we open a new chapter in the book of our lives, labeled 5780, I hope you will join me in making it the year of “yet”: in our personal lives and in the life of Temple Emanuel because this year, because we, because Temple holds potential not fully realized in the present.
On Rosh Hashanah, we are asked to reflect on the year that was. Who were we? Who are we now? Who do we want to be? Where did we fall short of being our best possible selves, and where did we have successes we need to carry forward? If your ledger looks anything like mine, this is a pretty scary proposition. When did we say things inarticulately that caused hurt to friends and colleagues? How often did we say things that were intentionally hurtful to loved ones? Where did we over-engage when we should have empowered others and where did we take the lazy way out when we could have made a difference. Al chet shechatanu — we have all wronged God and our fellow human being, and we are not the people we need to be. Yet.
“Yet” is the blessing of being human. “Yet” allows us to view ourselves — our mistakes and regrets — as missteps along our journey rather than the sum total of our identity. “Yet” allows us to leave the door open, to forever yearn to reach our highest potential, not because who we are now is bad but because we can always, always be better. It is the positive self-talk that allows us to be more than we ever imagined possible.
Imagine where you might embrace the word “yet” in the coming year. That destructive habit you are trying to kick? It’s not that you can’t, it’s that you haven’t fully committed…yet. That challenge not accomplished? Spending more time with family or friends? The slump you can’t crawl out of at work or in your romantic life? A Steeler’s win? It’s not impossible: they, you just haven’t figured it out…yet. Every single time we are presented with a challenge, we can allow a “no” to subconsciously close the door on our potential, or we can embrace the option that more is always possible. You can. You will. At least leave that door open: that’s the beauty of yet.
“Yet” is the very reason that I am here. Personally, of course, because the rabbi I have yet to become is far greater than who I am now and I’m counting on your help to get there, but also because yet — because possibility and optimism and potential — is almost tangible at Temple Emanuel. I felt yet throughout the interview process. I felt yet on Installation weekend. And I feel it today as we stand on the cusp of the year 5780.
The founding members of this synagogue realized the need for organized Jewish life in the South Hills, born of the desire to educate and inspire the next generation. For nearly 70 years it has done exactly that with tremendous success. Our collective recognition that synagogues the world over can’t continue to do what they have always done and expect to get what they have always got isn’t a critique of who we have been, or how we have been doing things, but the realization that the landscape of Jewish life and involvement has changed significantly.
The synagogue of tomorrow faces considerable challenges today. You know these challenges. Geographic mobility is increasing at a time when inherited familial commitment, compelling us to life-long relationships with our home synagogue, is decreasing. We know that the traditional markers of adulthood — home ownership, marriage and family, joining the synagogue — are being pushed later and later. In a broader American culture that has largely disowned a sense of collective responsibility in favor of radical I’m-only-for-myself individualism, transactional “what have you done for me lately” relationships with synagogues are becoming the rule rather than the exception. And maybe synagogues the movement over have taken the adults in our community for granted, seeing them as the chauffeurs for their children rather than offering compelling and engaging programming to meet their needs. I could go on…we could go on: and this is where the “yet” comes in. The “yet” at Temple Emanuel to overcome these challenges is tangible, and I’m excited to work together to actualize and realize that potential.
We will do so by ensuring that meaning and relevance are at the core of everything we do. Meaning and relevance. Abstract teachings, random historical facts, and unanchored Jewish practices? Not meaningful. Acquiring knowledge of our common Jewish narrative and historical past to build resilience in our children and ourselves? Meaningful. Furthering knowledge of our values — middot and mitzvot — to inspire moral choices and actions to fix this broken world? Meaningful. Engaging in Shabbat services and tefilah experiences not with an eye toward repetition but a focus on the the best selves we have yet to become? Meaningful. And when those meaningful experiences are relevant to life right here and now, when they immediately applicable to our lives, then we have a recipe for success.
We will actualize and realize the palpable “yet” at Temple Emanuel by articulating and following through on a clear value proposition, a definitive answer to why people must belong to the Temple. Cultivation of conscience uniquely happens here, as does its application. In 1871, Isaac Mayer Wise, the architect of American Reform Judaism, wrote that “intelligence and conscience are the arbiter of faith.” Reform Judaism prizes both critical and reflective thinking, trying to understand not only the world in which we live but our role within that world, and gives us an unapologetic vision for our shared future born of both universal values and particularistic concerns. As Jews we must engage with words of Torah, we must engage with mitzvot…
…and, to fulfill our purpose, to satisfy our conscience, we must alleviate suffering by providing hot meals prepared in the synagogue kitchen, we must translate our values into actions that work tirelessly for justice and equality, and we must work to create systemic change using every tool at our disposal including civic engagement. Cultivation of conscience, our value proposition, will be realized not through committee contemplation nor while trapped within study’s ivory tower but though the tangible external actions that we will engage as a community.
Finally, we will meet the challenges of our day and realize our “yet” by embracing not only Jewish tradition but the Jews who practice it. This means we have an obligation to create both a more expansive definition of Jewish community and a more expansive definition of Jewish practice. With regard to community: everyone who has chosen to embrace Judaism in their lives — people who were born Jewish and continue active expressions of their faith and heritage, Jews-by-choice who meritoriously opted to engage with Judaism, and interfaith couples who have chosen a Jewish home or practice for their lives — all have equal footing here. Everyone who has chosen to embrace Judaism in their lives — people of all abilities, and sexual orientations, and gender expressions, and others who have been marginalized by the Jewish community — all have equal footing here. And with regard to practice: Our tradition is predicated on the ability to bring the highest values of 3,000 years of Jewish experience into the modern world. That can only happen when we don’t shy away from the modern world. Together we will explore how we can embrace technology to advance our mission, how we can expand the definition of Shabbat practice to include more Jews doing more Jewish things on a Jewish day, and how we can reimagine everything we do as a synagogue to meet the needs of 21st century Jews.
We have a bit of work to do. This is where our “yet” comes in: the yet at Temple Emanuel is tangible — our future holds potential we have not yet realized in the present. I feel that sense of yet when Rabbi Locketz and our teachers retool lesson plans and the entire Torah Center to help our students and our tradition not only survive but thrive. I feel that sense of yet every time I speak with Iris Harlan and enter the ECDC classrooms to find teachers nurturing curiosity of our youngest members. I feel that sense of yet when we embrace new melodies and new musicians on Shabbat, enriching our experience, and when David Weisberg and the Temple Board meet to discuss the biggest issues of our day. I feel that sense, that embodiment, of yet in each of you as we meet, brainstorm, discuss, and vision how Temple can best meet your needs, and through those conversations come closer to its full potential in this new year.
As we open a new chapter in the book of our lives, labeled 5780, I hope you will join me in making this the year of “yet.” Saying “yet” in our personal lives, as we continue to stretch toward our highest potential, not because who we are now is bad but because we can always, always be better. Saying “yet” in the life of Temple Emanuel, because our sacred community holds potential not fully realized in the present. There is always the possibility of improvement: that’s the beauty of yet.
Shanah Tovah Umetukah — May this be the absolute best, sweetest year…yet.”
Parashat Nitzavim, which we read both this week and on Yom Kippur morning, is most famous for two different passages. The idea that Torah is not in the heavens, thus unobtainable, but as close as the air we breathe is found in Nitzavim, as is the idea that all of us were gathered at Sinai for revelation: both our ancient ancestors and every subsequent generation. There is a third major concept found in the text as well to which I want to call your attention.
“Adonai your God will return with your exiles and have mercy upon you.”
Rashi recognizes that this texts reads differently than it should.
Had it meant to convey that God would be responsible for returning the Jewish people from exile, it would have read “v’heishiv.” Instead it implies that God went with us into exile.
Geographically, this is an important concept for a people long removed from their homeland: God’s presence can thus be felt no matter where we are in the world.
Spiritually, this is a key concept as we approach Rosh Hashanah. We are not yet the people we need to become, having repeatedly missed the mark during the previous year. That doesn’t mean that God’s presence is further removed from us, however, only that we need to reorient ourselves to perceive God in our midst.
“Remember us unto life, O King who delights in life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life, for Your sake, O God of life”….for you are stuck with us until we do.
Sacrifices? Again? Didn’t we already finish the book of Leviticus? Before you let your eyes glaze over, let me show you why this passage in Ki Tavo is one of the most interesting you will ever see.
“You shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land…put it in a basket and go to the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name. …The priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down in front of the altar of the Lord your God. You shall then recite as follows: My father was a wandering Aramean…”
Great. Pick your produce, put it in a basket, bring it to the Temple in Jerusalem — which they couldn’t actually say directly to maintain the narrative fiction that the Temple didn’t exist yet — and then recite this specific formula. Fine. But what if you couldn’t read?
The Mishnah, the rabbinic document of about the year 200, has a creative solution to this problem. They say:
Mishnah Bikkurim 3:7
Beforetime all that could recite [the prescribed words] recited them, and all that could not recite them repeated [after the priest]; but when these refrained from bringing [their first fruits] it was ordained that both they that could recite them and they that could not should repeat the words [after the priest].
Those who could recite the formula recited the formula, those who couldn’t repeated those words after the priest. Except now we have singled out those who are unlearned…and they simply ceased to come. The priests quickly changed their tune, ordaining that EVERYONE would recite the formula after them, lest anyone feel shame.
Jewish tradition is not — and has not been — an inflexible, rigid system of law but rather a blueprint for living a more moral, uplifted, God-like life. It has and continues to respond to the realities of our contemporary situation, accepting us for who we are while pushing us towards who we must become.
We read in Deuteronomy: “Adonai, your God, goes along in the midst of your camp, to rescue you and to deliver your enemies before you. Therefore your camp shall be holy so that God should not see anything unseemly among you.” (23:15)
While I take a more universalist approach, believing in a God who is concerned about the fate and welfare of all of humanity, I love the idea of God’s presence in our midst. This isn’t a new conception in Torah, for we also read:
“Let them make for Me a sanctuary that I might dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8)
Nor is it a new conception in rabbinic thought, as we read in the writings of Joseph Soloveitchik:
“Halakhic man declares: the higher longs and pines for the lower…
and he possesses the tools to make it so.”
The idea isn’t new, but we still have yet to embrace it in practice. Too often we, I, act in ways convenient or self-interested but far removed from our highest values. Too often I worry God would have cause to look upon our actions, mistreatment of others, our world as unseemly.
The high holy days give us a chance to press reset, to try again. To embrace this week’s Torah portion in the modern day, we would do well to follow the teaching of Danny Siegel:
“If you always assume the person sitting next to you
is the Messiah waiting for some simple human kindness —
You will soon come to weigh your words and watch your hands.
And if the person chooses not to be revealed in your time —
It will not matter.”
Miss Torah Study this morning? Get caught up in two minutes or less and join us next Saturday morning in the WRJ room at 9:00am.
Deuteronomy Chapter 20 contains many of the laws related to how war should be waged by the ancient Israelites. Taken on their surface, these rules give us moderns pause — could our ancestors have been so cruel and callous about the taking of human life?
Our history of interpretation — and the reality of being a historical people without sovereignty for much of Jewish history — removes the fangs from our ancient text.
As but one example, in Deuteronomy we read: In the towns of the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites you shall not let a soul remain alive.
Maimonides clarifies that you have to extend an offer of peace before every war, even to these peoples…and that the command was time limited: we are now so intermarried with these nations as to nullify this decree.
Even better, though, is his notion of a three-sided siege.
“When siege is laid to a city for the purpose of capture, it may not be surrounded on all four sides but only on three in order to give an opportunity for escape to whose who would flee to save their lives.”
By suggesting a law so absurd by military standards as to be almost humorous, Maimonides telegraphs his intention to protect life during war wherever possible. Neither cruel nor callous is his, and our, interpretation of Torah.
This week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, offers us a choice – blessings if we follow God’s rules, or curses if we don’t. It is up to us to choose and then to accept the consequences that follow. Our behavior, ultimately, our choice, will indicate whether God rewards or punishes us.
Simple, right? We act and God responds. But the idea that we choose between blessings and curses has sparked much debate about our free will to make that decision. Can it really be that God who knows and foresees all, allows us to determine our future?
Our commentators say yes – as it is written in Pirke Avot 3:15: ‘everything is foreseen, and freewill is given.’Maimonides explains by teaching that ‘although God knows all human actions, no one is compelled…to do any particular action amongst all actions; rather, each person decides what they will do.’ In other words, it ispossible for God to both know the future and to allow it to unfold based on how we choose. Blessing or curse, it’s up to us.
The responsibility of choosing well is highlighted this Shabbat as we begin the month of Elul. This is the month leading up to the High Holidays, traditionally the time when we reflect on the past year. We think about how the choices we made impacted us. And we look ahead to the New Year and hope we choose well, that our actions bring blessing into our lives.
Re’eh Anochi notein lifneichem hayom bracha u’klala…Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse….The choice is ours.