This week’s torah portion Re’eh takes place on the verge of a great transition. The people are about to enter the land of Israel, and Moses gives a grand speech to help the people prepare, but there’s only one problem: he will not be entering the land of Israel with them. He has never been to Israel, and he never will have the chance to go to Israel. He has heard that it is a land of great blessing, but he also knows that the challenges will be far from over.
So what kind of speech should Moses give? Does Moses really have something to offer, really having no insight whatsoever into what the people are going to be going through?
Moses starts this week’s with the word Re’eh, which means "See!" or "Look!".
The Italian 16th century commentator Ovadiah ben Ya'akov Seforno says that Moses is telling people to pay close attention, to not be half present, half somewhere else as we tend to be most of the time. This is an especially important reminder given what he is about to say next:
רְאֵ֗ה אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה׃
See I set before you today blessing and curse.
Blessing and curse. Two things. Perhaps if the people are not paying full attention, they will only hear one or the other. They will hear the blessing OR they will hear the curse, so Moses calls to them and says, "Re’eh!", "Pay attention!, you have before you both blessing and curse".
When faced with transitions into the unknown, it is hard to hold onto the full range of possibilities that may lay ahead. Oftentimes we find ourselves assuming either the best or the worst. Perhaps someone is starting a new job and they just keep thinking about how great it is going to be, to leave all of the problems of their old job, and they are only seeing the blessings that lay ahead, forgetting that it is unlikely that their new job will be totally perfect. Or perhaps someone’s child is leaving for college, and the parent can only think of their grief how much of a gap it will leave in their life and not the new opportunities that they can now come their way.
But if we pay full attention and if we really see, we can remember that every transition comes with both blessings and curses.
Moses can’t know what is going to happen to the people but he can remind them of this core truth: that what lies ahead is both blessings and curses.
Transitions bring the blessings of new and unexpected sources of pleasure, sources of learning, sources of growth, opportunities to practice new skills and to accomplish things we never thought we would be able to and new relationships. Transitions also bring the curses of loss, of grief, of regret, of longing for what was, of fear of the unknown, of distrust.
It may be tempting to skip over the curses part, to 'look on the bright side', to 'focus on the positive'. But I'm afraid that sometimes when we do so, we miss out on witnessing important parts of our reality.
As Moses says later on in Deuteronomy, "I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse, so choose life". Choose life and choose blessing, but before doing so, acknowledge also that death and curse are also present.
We often do not choose to go through transitions and they sometimes show up when we might rather they didn’t. But when we come to them, may we each hear the voice of our inner Moses saying, "Re-eh! Pay full attention to everything that is going on and that may come your way!" And so may our eyes be fully open to the blessings and the curses and the joys and the sorrows so that we may step into this new reality fully present and fully prepared, and fully ready to choose life wherever it may be bringing us.
So let’s start this off Jewish-style, by asking a question.
What do we use words for?
Words, our tradition teaches us, have power. We can use them to hurt and to heal, to build and tear down, create and destroy. The universe, with all its wonders, was created with words. This week, our parsha has laws about vows. Who can make them. Who can abridge them. What has to be done with them. What’s so important about making promises? We do it all the time, right?
God used words to create reality. And so, in fact, do we. When we make a vow—even just a “sure, I’ll put the trash out later,” and how much more so an actual promise, an oath--we create a future reality. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z”l, quoting Oxford philosopher J.L. Austin, calls this “performative utterance.” We create that obligation. We create that future.
What’s another word for an obligation? A covenant. Like the covenant, for example, between God and Israel, one that has stood the test of time for millennia. Or the promise God made never to destroy humanity by flood, no matter how annoying we may be.
When someone says “Behold, you are betrothed to me” under the chuppah, they’re not describing a marriage, they’re creating it. When the Rabbinical court, the Bet Din, used to announce the new moon, they weren’t just saying “Hey, we can’t see the moon tonight”—they were creating a new month! When someone asks me to do something and I say, “consider it done,” I’m not speaking metaphorically; they know that they can rest assured it will be completed. As it is said, “You must believe in things that are not true. How else can they become?”
What else do promises do? They create trust. I trust, when someone gives me their word, that they will keep it, and the people who know me are aware that my word is my bond. Our courts, our governments, our social and political institutions, all of these are built on a foundation of trust. Without trust, our relationships break down. A free society simply cannot exist without trust. We must always, always strive to be worthy of the trust others place in us. When we give our word, it must always hold the weight of the world.
And now, I trust that Liz will lead us in Musaf.
Nusach (3/26/22) Today’s Parsha is Shemini. It contains numerous mitzvot, including many relating to Kashrut. We are, in some respects, a religion which seems sometimes bogged down with many rules. I think all Jews, more or less, know that there are rules of Kashrut. Some are universal. No bacon or pork chops. Today’s parsha tells us that bats are not kosher, so if you were thinking of having one of those flying mammals with bearnaise sauce, think again. Same with a mouse and Hollandaise sauce. Non starter. But other rules are not universal. There are, however, 4 species of locusts that are kosher. Is swordfish Kosher? Jell-O? Cheese? There are different rules relating to these items. Which brings me to what I really want to talk about today, which is not the Parsha itself. 1 I want to talk about Nusach. “Nusach” can be translated as “Rite.” Not W-R-I-G-H-T, not R-I-G-H-T, not W-R-I T-E, but rather, R-I-T-E. There are two categories of Nusach. One the one hand, there is musical nusach. And, on the other hand, there is Nusach Ha’Tefillah, or Liturgical Nusach. Musical Nusach: Which melody does the Chazzan use for Chatzi Kaddish in our Ashkenazic rite? There are many. (Sing examples of Chatzi Kaddish). after Maftir Before Musaf Shabbat Erev Rosh Hashanah Before Musaf R”H Before Amidah Neilah Tradition calls for one or the other, depending on the occasion. 2 But, that’s not my real subject today. It is Nusach HaTefillah, or Liturgical Nusach. It means again two things. The actual text of the prayer and the order of the prayers. With regard to the order of the prayers, for example, when does a particular shul say a certain prayer or do a certain ritual? For example, when on Shabbat morning, does a shul say the Song for Shabbat? It is found on p. 72 in our siddur. Do we say it after page 71 and before page 73? Clearly, that is where the compilers of the siddur put it. But, we don’t do that. We say it after the Shacharit service is over, just before the Torah reading, and we moved it there to permit persons who are saying Kaddish, which is recited thereafter, to be able to do so, just in case they’ve come to shul a bit late. That is our Chevrei Tzedek nusach. There is also a tradition in many synagogues to move it to the end of services, after the Mourner’s Kaddish after Alenu, and then 3 one can say Kaddish again. And, some have the traditions to have one Mourner’s Kaddish just for people who are in mourning at that time, and the other for people observing Jahrzeit. Those are different Nuschaot (that’s the plural of Nusach) relating to the order of services. And how is a certain ritual done? We lift the Torah and open it for all to see, AFTER the Torah reading. Some Jews do it BEFORE the Torah reading. We open the scroll and some lift the Torah and keep it closed. We Ashkenazim wind our tefillin on our arm in one direction, but many Jews wind the tefillin the opposite way. Then there is the actual text of prayers. A Reform prayer book is quite different than ours. Our Conservative 4 movement has tinkered with the text of prayers here and there. References to the restoration of the Temple and also passages relating to the restoration of animal sacrifices have been redacted from the Siddur in large part. The Conservative movement has given us the ever popular 115a and 115 b, permitting the shul to determine if it will recite the Imahot (the matriarchs) during the Amidah. The machzor we use on High Holidays has other changes. If you are flipping through the siddur you’ll find other choices to be made by the individual davenner. Now, when I grew up, and............... I suppose I am still growing up, the rule was that it was proper and indeed mandatory that you follow the Nusach of your family. Nusach Avotai, it was called. In the days when children were born and raised and stayed in the same town their whole lives, when no one moved more than a few miles from his birthplace, and we’re talking a very long time ago, 5 this was easy. Now, it’s not so easy. Under the theory of following your family’s nusach, there would be none of these choices. You had a set nusach. That was it. But, what about the situation where a person’s family was Orthodox, and now he’s conservative, or vice versa? Does he keep the family nusach? And what about an intermarriage? In a sense, I am the product of a “mixed marriage.” My mother was from an Orthodox Litvak family. My father, on the hand, came from a purely secular Viennese family. So, what was the nusach of my ancestors? These days, we have quite a lot of Jews who began life not as Jews. Their parents are Roman Catholic or Presbyterian. What is their nusach? And, what do you do if you typically use an 6 Ashkenazic conservative nusach like we do, and you’re invited to a Bar Mitzvah at the Iranian shul here. Do you bring your own siddur or use theirs? My own view is this: Ka’asher B’Roma, Assei K’Romanim. (When in Rome, do as the Romans). It is important to pause here and note that there are many different Nuschaot with different Jewish liturgical text. The Sephardim say different words. Jeff Amdur grew up at a shul which used Nusach Sephard, and they add 4 words in Kaddish which we do not say in our liturgy, the kedushah in the Amidah is very different textually, and so forth. There are Iraqi, Italian, Syrian, Yemenite, and many other Nuschaot. One famous one is called Nusach Ari, which is the textual nusach of the Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria, who passed away in the late 1500's. He created a special nusach for his followers, and what does that mean? It means he did not use the Nusach of his ancestors. He made up a new one. 7 The Ari taught that there are 12 gates, corresponding to the 12 tribes, through which our prayers ascend to God. He created a 13 th gate, a 13th set of prayers. But, this 13th rite, this 13th Nusach was rejected by nonChassidim. The Ari’s concept was that since you don’t really know from which tribe you came, you should make sure that you use the nusach...the prayer text...of your ancestors, otherwise, your prayers would not ascend to God. Things are, as I noted, quite different today. This brings us to my personal confession. On February 14 in the evening we had a ritual committee meeting. I brought up the issue of nusach, noting that some people who have davenned here have added words not in the siddur and deviated from the siddur. We discussed this, and anyone who attended that meeting would say that I was an advocate of sticking to our nusach and not deviating...not adding a word or taking out a word. I mean, we have this 8 siddur, and we have chosen it, and we should stick to it. No decision was made that night. The discussion was simply to stimulate some thoughts on the issue. But then, the very next morning, I got up and looked at the news on the internet. On the computer was a story about a Catholic priest in Phoenix who had resigned. What offense had he committed? It seems that over a period of 20 years he had performed thousands of baptisms. The story on the internet said: “As he administered the ritual, the priest would say, "We baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit." But the correct wording is "I baptize," according to the Vatican's instruction.” The story continued, “No one, including priests, "may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority, " according to 9 Vatican teachings.” What this priest had done was to change the nusach on his own. He said that he did this unintentionally. But, he did it. As a consequence, thousands of persons, according to Catholic Halacha, were not actually baptized. And the consequence?.......... Well.......... The Phoenix diocese put up on their website information about this problem, including some FAQ’s. Here are a few: Does this make my marriage invalid? May I continue to take communion? A few days later, a similar story appeared with regard to a Priest in suburban Detroit. A young priest, watched and listened to a video of his Baptism ceremony and learned that he had been baptized incorrectly by the Detroit priest, using the same incorrect pronoun, thereby invalidating his Baptism, and since, one had to be Baptized to become a priest, this invalidated his ordination, 10 and, therefore, as the dominoes fell, this invalidated the Baptisms he had done, and the weddings! And, of course, in both cases....in Phoenix and Detroit, their Halacha states that a non-Baptized Catholic who dies cannot go to heaven, but his soul is relegated to purgatory. An awful penalty for someone else’s inadvertence. Now, it is not my intention to criticize the Catholic church. They can practice as they wish. I ran this story by my friend, retired Episcopal Bishop Robert Ilhoff, who spoke here during one of our limudim. He was the head Episcopal Bishop of this area. Maybe some of you recall his talk. Bishop Bob responded: ”Sometimes, I am really glad for the 16th Century Reformation. That poor priest only changed “I’ to “We.” We [Episcopals] do not labor under such a strict rule about 11 liturgy (thank God). People change words all the time in our liturgies. The intention is what counts for us and it can be argued that it is the Church which baptizes so why not say, “We.” Our attitude is that if the priest intended to baptize, the words used are secondary. I wonder if the present Pope would agree with the authorities in Arizona; this seems extreme even for the most doctrinaire Roman Catholics. The Roman Church like ours and so many others now begins the Nicene Creed, “We believe…” For centuries, it began “I believe….” It has been decided that the Nicene Creed is not one’s personal creed but the Creed of Christians in totality, hence the “ We believe.” Organized religion is sometimes its own worse enemy! Shalom to you and Cheryl.” It is interesting that Bishop Ilhoff said that what counts is intention. We have this concept also. Hebrew for 12 intention is Kavanah. Your inner intention when you daven. This is the opposite of Kevah, which is the formulaic text which guides our prayers. Kavanah means that we need to focus on the prayer and its meaning. Intention is critical. If you happen to be passing outside a shul on Rosh Hashanah just as the shofar is being blown, have you satisfied your obligation to hear the shofar? Well, what was your intent? As I wrote out this d’var Torah, I also was doing my daf yomi, my daily study of Talmud. We were learning the tractate of Yevamot, which deals largely with Levirite marriage. You know the concept. A man’s brother is married and he dies childless, so the first man must marry his widowed sister-in-law. This it Torah law, and we don’t really do this anymore, so far as I know. The details of this are really mind-boggling and largely irrelevant. But, as it frequently does, the Talmud drifts into a discussion of 13 something else. Here the Talmud drifted into a discussion of a verse from Deuteronomy, specifically Chapter 14, verse 1, which says: “You are children of your God. You shall not gash yourselves.” The biblical commentators saw this verse as a response to the practices of the Amorites, one of the peoples that lived in ancient Israel, who engaged in such practices. But the rabbis of the Talmud were particularly interested in the Hebrew phrase lo titgodidu, meaning “you will not cut yourselves.” Reish Lakish said to Rabbi Yohanan: I should read here the verse: “You shall not cut yourselves [titgodedu], ” which is interpreted as meaning: Do not become numerous factions (agudot). 14 Do not divide yourselves into factions? Don’t we do this all the time? As noted previously, we have different prayer ritual, we differentiate ourselves by our Ashkenazic or Sephardic origin, by dividing ourselves into Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, etc., and in so many other ways. In Israel, they divide themselves into about 12 political parties. You know the story of the Jewish man who finds himself stranded on a desert island. He builds a shul. Then he builds a second shul. Ultimately, he is rescued. His rescuer asks, “Did you go to both of the two shuls?” The castaway points to one and says, “Certainly not. I would never set foot in that one!” I interpret this expression not to split into factions together with the phrase “you shall not gash yourselves.” That is, it is ok to recognize that some of us pray differently, some have a different skin color, some have a different accent, some have a different sexual 15 orientation. That’s ok. It’s ok to be different. What is not ok, is to gash the other person for his differences. To attack someone because he is Reform or Orthodox, or not Ashkenazic, or winds his tefillin in the other direction, or whatever. So, with all due respect to the Ari, and to others, I changed my mind that morning when I read the story of the Catholic priest who used the wrong pronoun. I don't think that our God cares if we daven with nusach Sfard, or nusach Ashkenaz, or nusach Ari, and I don't think our God cares if we use a reform prayer book or an orthodox one or our Sim Shalom. I have the feeling, though I cannot prove it, that our God cares about bigger things than pronouns and prayer text. Now, if someone got up to daven and said, "Today, I will do Shacharit in Swedish" I think that would give me pause. But, then, I suppose that this is done in Sweden. So, what of it? 16 Let’s not gash ourselves. Let’s enjoy Jewish unity. As we say on Rosh Hashanah in the Amidah, VaYeasu Chulom, Aguda Achat, La’asot R’tzoncha B’Levav Shalem...” “Let us all come together, as one community, to do God’s will, with a full and complete heart.” And let us say.... Amen. Shabbat Shalom. 17
Hinei Mah Tovu MaNayim, Shevet Achim Gam Yachad. (Sung)
Behold! How good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell in unity. (Please excuse the non-gender neutral text and the rough translation). This is from Psalm 133, by the way, one of the psalms that somehow didn’t make it into the Siddur. It’s too bad, because the entire psalm is only three verses long and could have replaced a longer one!
But why is it good to dwell together? To talk together. To be together? This tale illustrates the point well.
The story is told of the Rabbi who noted that a member of his congregation, who had come to services regularly and participated in other synagogue events, just stopped coming. So, after a few weeks, the rabbi decided to visit him. It was a chilly winter evening. The rabbi found the man at home alone, sitting in front of his fireplace, before a blazing fire.
Of course, the man welcomed the Rabbi and led him to a big chair near the fireplace and waited. The Rabbi made himself comfortable but said nothing. For a few minutes, in silence, the Rabbi contemplated the play of the flames around the burning logs.
After some minutes, the Rabbi took the fire tongs, carefully picked up a brightly burning ember and placed it to one side of the hearth, all by itself. Then he sat back in his chair, still silent. His host watched all this in quiet fascination.
As the one lone ember's flame diminished, there was a momentary glow - its fire was almost gone. The Rabbi jumped up, grabbed the tongs, and he picked up the nearly cold, dead ember and placed it back in the middle of the fire. Immediately it began to glow once more with the light and warmth of the burning coals around it. The Rabbi put down the tongs and said simply, “It’s time for me to go.”
As the Rabbi reached the door to leave, his host said, "Thank you so much for your visit and especially for the sermon. I shall be back in shul this Shabbos."
I suppose the Rabbi could have just cited —Al Tifrosh Min HaTzibbur - “Do not separate yourself from the community” (Pirke Avot 2:4). But, instead, he illustrated the point beautifully.
Hinei Mah Tovu MaNayim, Shevet achim gam yachad.
It seems to me that over the years there has been less personal togetherness, in the broad sense of the word. There is not as much interpersonal contact, fewer personal relationships. I’m not so sure this is a good thing. Let me give you some examples:
In the old days, you’d go to the brick and mortar store. A salesperson would ask if you needed help, and you would speak to that person and with the cashier also if you made a purchase. Now, you order on line, at home.
In the old days, you’d pay a toll and thank the toll taker. Now, you have an easy pass.
In the old days, there were no self serve gasoline stations and there was no self checkout at the grocery store.
You want a book to read? Instead of the library, you download the book to your Kindle or other similar device. Instead of going to the movies, you watch Netflix, Amazon, pay per view, or Hulu or some other such on-line source.
You want groceries? You don’t have to go to the store. PeaPod and other services deliver your order, made on the computer, directly to your house. You want dinner? You call grub-hub, and the dinner arrives at your home.
Of course, you still have to visit the dentist, and if, God forbid, you need an operation, that happens in the hospital or surgi-center. But the amount of human interaction with medical providers has gone down also, because a large amount of medical care is delivered by inanimate objects these days, whether it is kidney dialysis, MRI, EKG, EEG, Echocardiogram, CT scan, or pills.
I heard of an instance recently where a patient was at the hospital emergency room and the ER doctor wanted the patient seen by a specialist. But, there was no specialist available at the hospital at that time. Into the ER came a “telemedicine” machine, and a television
monitor showed the patient the doctor’s face from some faraway place, and the doctor could see the patient’s face, and the patient could speak to the doctor and the doctor could respond, and ask questions and so forth. This was the exam by the specialist who was many miles away from the patient.
I learned recently that close to 50% of the people who get prescriptions, get them delivered instead of in the old days, when you went down to the pharmacy and spoke to the kind pharmacist and called him “Doc.”
If you want to speak to a friend---- Well, we used to go to the friend’s house and chat. Now, you text or email. Want to get a bunch of people together to show them your vacation photos? No...You just post them on your facebook page.
When I was younger, much younger, I’d tell my mother... “I’m going out to play.” I’d be gone for hours, playing with my friends. Cops and Robbers, Cowboys and Indians, stickball, baseball, football, and so forth. By these in-person games, one learns to deal with other people. Now....it is estimated that youngsters spend about 9.5 hours per day on average interacting not with a person, but with a screen. TV, computer, I-phone, tablet, and so forth.
About 18 years ago, Rabbi Reisner wrote a lengthy Teshuva for the RA committee on laws and standards, on making a minyan over the internet. Of course, there are problems with time zone issues and so forth, and he concluded, that the minyan itself must be accomplished by having 10 people in the same place, basing on guidance from the Shulchan Aruch, which states:
“The ten (who constitute the minyan) must be in one place and the leader with them. If one stands in the doorway from the threshold and outward, that is, were the door closed, from the point where the interior face of the door rests and outward is treated as outside. If a few of them (that is, the potential minyan) are inside and a few are outside, and the leader is positioned in the entrance he connects them (to form one minyan). But if part of the ten were in the synagogue and part were in the courtyard they do not connect (to form a minyan).”
He also ruled that anyone else can join the minyan electronically, by phone, or other device, but you had to have 10 people in the same place initially to properly constitute the minyan. Besides the shulchan aruch, Rabbi Reisner emphasized in his ruling the importance of community and of personal contact. That was in 2001. These days, many conservative and reform synagogues “live stream” their Shabbat services, so that people don’t have to go to shul and can watch. Of course, this does benefit those who are infirm and can’t get to shul.
It benefits the remote relative who can’t come to the shul from thousands of miles away for a family Bar or Bat Mitzvah or wedding. But, I suspect it probably discourages local people from attending in person.
Now, it is the custom/halacha on Rosh Hashana to ask forgiveness from your friends and colleagues for any insulting thing, or transgression you may have committed against them during the year. Can you do this by sending an email out to all of the contacts in your address book, marked “Undisclosed recipients” - Sorry for the bulk email, but please forgive me if I have wronged you during the year? And, do not reply as this email is not set up to receive responses?
Hinei Mah Tovu MaNaim, Shevet Achim Gam Yachad.
Well, what’s wrong with isolation? Why not live a hermetic life, other than for an occasional visit to the dentist?
Psychologists nearly universally agree that in order to better understand other people, and to work with them toward a common goal, you have to see them in person, and discuss. We’ve all seen how email, devoid of inflection, can be misinterpreted.
Psychologists agree that the large amount of time that people, not just kids, spend on their electronic devices, is not good for working together for a common good, and indeed, may psychologically interfere with one’s ability to communicate and reason and work out differences, and therefore, leads to increased polarization of opinions and ideas, more depression, anger, anxiety, more of an “Us vs. Them” mentality, and even suicidal tendencies.
But, our Jewish tradition is not screen based. Our tradition is to come together to pray, to learn and to discuss. The same psychologists who tell us that too much screen time and exposure to social media is bad for one’s mental health advise that attending religious services is one of the best things for one’s mental health.
Coming together to discuss things? That is what Talmudic discourse was all about. Now, I realize that the sages in Talmudic ages didn’t have the possibility to text each other. They HAD to get together. In doing so, while they argued with each other, they learned to have enormous respect for the other person’s view.
Since it is Rosh Hashana, let me give you an example.
Rabbi Eliezer says: From what Bible source do we know that the world was created in Tishrei? It is said: “God said, Let the earth sprout vegetation, seed-bearing plants, fruit trees each bearing its own kind of fruit containing its own seeds” (Genesis 1:11).In what month does the earth sprout vegetation while the trees are full of fruit? You must say that it is in the fall month of Tishrei:
Rabbi Yehoshua says: From what Bible source do we know that the world was created in Nisan? It is said: “And the earth brought forth vegetation: seed-bearing plants of every kind and trees [beginning to] make fruit each with its own seed” (Genesis 1:12). In what month is the earth full of vegetation while the trees are beginning to produce fruit? You must say that it is in the spring month of Nisan.
Now, each of these Rabbis was certain of his answer. They each had a Proof-text— a verse of Torah which they argued supported their position. We know today that Rabbi Eliezer’s view turned out to be the prevailing view, because, right after we blow shofar during Musaf on Rosh Hashanah, we say, “Hayom Harat Olam.” Today is the birthday of the world.” But we don’t obliterate the minority opinion of Rabbi Yehoshua. We don’t ridicule him for expressing his view. Rather, we preserve his opinion and give him credit for it and we study his opinion. Because, you know, it could be that he was right, but above all, it is important to treat the other person with respect and to value a different opinion.
Yes, our tradition says, “Hinei Ma Tovu MaNaim, Shevet Achim Gam Yachad.”
And so, as we come together to pray and to fulfill the obligation to hear the blowing of the Shofar, we really should draw on the great verse in the Amidah for the High Holidays. It is the true bipartisan verse of our davening. We’re so much better than the politicians. In the Rosh Hashana and Y”K Amidah we say, in the U’vecheyn paragraph....
Va’ye’asu Chulom, aguda achat, la’asot retzoncha, b’levav Shalem. We should all come together, as one congregation, to do God’s will, with a full and complete heart.
Now we all know that the Hebrew word for heart is Lev. Spelled with two letters only. Look at the front of the Siddur. Lev Shalem. But in this prayer, written in around the 3rd century, we say “Levav.” Why the extra Vav? The rabbis say that each of us, in our hearts, has a Yetzer HaRah, and a Yetzer HaTov. An evil inclination and a good inclination. Each vav represents one of these inclinations. Our hope and prayer, on Rosh Hashana, is that the good inclination in our hearts can be motivated through teshuva to predominate over the evil inclination, to swamp the evil inclination with goodness, and to relegate it to the tiniest and most insignificant part of our humanity. Indeed, let us come together and continue to be together.
Hinei Ma Tovu MaNaim, Shevet Achim Gam Yachad.
G’mar Chatima Tova.
How many of you have ever heard someone say that there were 600,000 people at Sinai?
Do you know where this number comes from?
In this parsha, there is a census. They count all of the men above the age of 20 who were able to bare arms. Except they don’t count the Levites.
And at the end, we read:
All the Israelites, aged twenty years and over, enrolled by ancestral houses, all those in Israel who were able to bear arms—all who were enrolled came to 603,550. (Number 1:48)
Which, rounded, is the 600,000 that is regularly counted.
So that’s where the idea that there were 600,000 people at Sinai came from.
But there’s just one problem. Which maybe someone here has already guessed.
This number does not count women, children, or even the Levites. So applying the count from this particular census to the number of people present at Mt. Sinai gives us an incorrect picture. From the perspective of Mt. Sinai attendance, this census is extremely exclusive.
BUT within the context of Bemidbar, there is a reason only these people are counted. These are the people who are going to be in the troops. The counting is part of their organizing for if they need to engage in battle. This count is useful when it is applied to the right cause. But it’s important to know who you want to count in what case and for what purpose. Because who you count is who you pay attention to.
There are two areas of modern day counting that I wanted to bring our attention to this week, one is related to the Jewish community more generally and one is related to our particular Chevrei community.
In the larger Jewish community, there have been a flurry of articles this week regarding the number of Jews of Color in the US. One article claimed that 12% of Jews are Jews of Color, another responded that there are only 6%. A third writes that there have been systemic problems in the counting of Jews of color in demographic surveys which has most likely led to a sharp underestimation of the number of American Jews of Color. The problems named include:
They concluded: “we recommend that future Jewish population studies adopt better and more consistent practices for sampling populations, weighting responses, and formulating more comprehensive and sensitively worded questions.”
When I learned this, I had a lot more appreciation for the repetition in our Torah portion which after counting each tribe, repeats over and over again who it is that is being counted: . We need to know how many Jews of color there are, just like we need to know how many people of any demographic there are. Part of being inclusive means making sure everyone is being counted, so that we can try to take into account the various needs that different demographics have.
At the same time, I want to acknowledge that there are times when we can’t do a perfect accounting. Take the Chevrei community for example. If we wanted to, we could count who is in the community by looking at the membership, but if we only think about who our members are, then we miss out on everyone else that is touched by what we in this community do. The people who come for high holidays, family members of members, former members, people who come for a limud or a discussion or because they want to see a friend or a relative lead Havdalah. All these people “count” in our community too, if in a different way than members, and if we only count members, we don’t count all of the other ways that people engage in our community.
Of course there are times that membership counts, and we for sure do need to keep working on looking out for one another and making time. This parsha is the point where Moses needed to know who were the members of his community that were eligible to be in his troops.
But Moses’ community expanded beyond that, and so does ours.
So my challenge to you is to look beyond our membership and think, who else do we need to count when we think of the greater Chevrei community, and what could counting mean?
And what might this counting look like?
Here are a few suggestions of ways to further expand who we include when we count:
My hope is that we too can reach out both internally and externally, we also do it with that kind of love, that we cherish each encounter we have as an opportunity both to lovingly count and to lovingly be counted. Shabbat Shalom.
Dvar Torah---Behar Bechukotai
In this week’s parsha, Behar-Bechukotai, we are introduced to two milestones---the shemittah (Sabbatical year) and Yovel (Jubilee year). The shemittah occurs every seventh year---all agricultural work ceases, debts are forgiven, and food is given to the needy. The yovel is even more momentous---besides giving the land a rest, all slaves are set free, and excess land is redistributed to the needy. Some call this the most radical law in the Torah.
Its ecological and environmental applications are widely celebrated today; locally, Pearlstone Farm holds a Shemittah festival where much of their land rests and their surplus produce is donated. Beyond being a call for celebration, Shemittah also serves as a sobering reminder to respect the earth. Jewish eco-activist Richard Schwartz writes:
“While Judaism teaches about a Sabbatical year in which the land is allowed to lie fallow and recover its fertility and farmers may rest, learn and restore their spiritual values, today, under economic pressure to constantly produce more, farmers plant single crops and use excessive amounts of chemical pesticides and fertilizer, thereby reducing soil fertility and badly polluting air and water”.
This significance of time and anniversary, the intricacy and exactitude of cycles of years, calls to mind an Abraham Joshua Heschel quote. He is talking here about Shabbat, but I think the same message of release and harmoniousness applies:
“To gain control of the world of space is certainly one of our tasks. The danger begins when in gaining power in the realm of space we forfeit all aspirations in the realm of time. There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.”
Shemittah and yovel certainly have much to do with the material world, which seems to contradict Heschel. Besides focusing on tangibles such as agricultural produce, the laws only go into effect in the land of Israel. However, this very same fact means that for the vast majority of Jewish history these laws have not been put into practice. All the post second-temple period rabbinic minutiae, occupying pages and pages of Talmud, are entirely theoretical because no Jewish agriculture was happening in the land of Israel at the time.
Rather than letting the control of physical space determine the usefulness of a law, the rabbis study everything, and this yearning for a messianic future becomes its own devotion, its own equilibrium amidst diaspora. Studying the rain cycles and exotic produce of the holy land while you’re in a Belarussian yeshiva in the depths of winter was the ultimate lesson in delayed gratification.
But even today, the shemittah and yovel are considered rabbinic laws in Israel, meaning they are not as binding as biblical laws. Some point to the difficulties of calculating the actual year while others say these laws are not applicable until a majority of Jews live in the holy land. The Israeli Rabbinate permits the symbolic sale of land to Gentiles in a similar way that chametz is sold before Pesach. Therefore, we can say that we are still waiting for the actual fulfilment of shemittah and yovel, continuing this unbroken thread of longing and idealization that has been practiced for most of our history.
Currently, as we all stay home and do our part to fight the Coronavirus epidemic, we should also consider the future, how we tell and remember this phase of our lives. We are seeing plenty of injustices right now, and many more will probably come to light years from now. Harmful workplace practices at meat production plants have led to employees, mainly migrant workers, getting sick. Layoffs continue to rise, and we don’t know the long-term consequences.
The laws of shemittah and yovel are idealistic, and we do not yet live in a world where their liberatory ideal can be upheld for all, and it’s unclear historically if they were ever even practiced in biblical times. And yet, our devotion, our ritualized yearly reminder that this is what has been promised to us, keeps us moving towards that possibility. Telling and remembering becomes its own form of justice, of dignity. Keep notes, keep your eyes open, to any injustice you see now, because history tends to get flattened to convenience.
If shemittah and yovel can teach us anything right now, it’s that there is fulfillment in ritual, in anniversary, and that this roteness becomes a source of meaning. We are still waiting for the absolute joy of Yovel, the word itself comes from the transcendent delight in hearing the shofar blast that announces its beginning. But in the meantime, we can use these sacred reminders as our renewable commitments to justice, to doing what’s best for the earth and for each other, not because there’s historical precedent but because it is the right thing to do. The unbroken cycle of Torah reading often allows things that have become overly familiar to us to gain new meaning based on what's happening contemporaneously. Reading about shemittah and yovel during the coronavirus epidemic brought a renewed sense of importance to ancient ritual, and to being aware of yourself in time. Yovel cannot happen without the labor of the years leading up to it. We must sanctify this work as much as we sanctify the reward.
Dvar Torah – Parshiot Acharei Mot/Kedoshim 2020
A crazy thing happened recently when I went down to the basement to bring up the boxes of my Passover dishes. One of the boxes was falling apart and needed to be replaced. What did this box say on it? Corona! Perhaps a coincidence but sadly, one that is very interesting at this time when we are dealing with social distancing and the Corona COVID19 deadly virus. On Passover, when we refrain from Chometz, we are eating on a holier level and clearly this box no longer was appropriate for this special holiday.
Just what does it mean to be holy? This is addressed in detail in Parshat Kedoshim, which immediately follows Parshat Acharei Mot. In Parshat Acharei Mot, we learn about forbidden sexual relationships. Rashi notes that being holy means refraining from these forbidden acts. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin explains that a person who is holy is one who can control sexual temptations and prevent the destruction of one’s family life. Ramban, however, notes Rabbi Riskin, goes further than this and comments that holiness applies to more than sexual behavior. Holiness applies to all elements of human nature. The commandment to be holy is relevant to every part of daily life. Loving your neighbor as yourself and not placing a stumbling block before the blind are commandments in this parsha that refer to being holy. Both approaches are similar, though, notes Rabbi Riskin, because both “understand that the religious key to human conduct requires love and limits, the ability to love others and the self-control to set limits on one’s desires.
Being holy is not just for the Kohanim, not just for the Levites, and not just for any one group of people. G-d asks Moshe to speak to the entire congregation, notes Rabbi Rachel Esserman. It is written “Kol Adat Bnei Yisrael” – all the congregation. Everyone is considered holy. Each person should determine whether any business decisions they make bring holiness into the world. While most people don’t have fields where they can leave food in the corners as we are commanded in the parsha, we can give Tzedakah and volunteer our time. Anything we can do to make a difference for those who are needy is an example of being holy.
Mrs. Michal Horowitz notes that in this parsha we see an emphasis on avoiding “rechilut” being a tale bearer and speaking “lashon hora” evil words about others. The text reads “Lo telech rachil biamecha” – “You shall not be a gossipmonger amongst your people…I am Hashem.” The Baal HaTurim teaches that the word “Rechiel” (gossiper) is spelled with an extra yud to teach that if one gossips and speaks slanderously about someone else it’s as if they transgressed the entire Aseret Hadibrot – Ten Commandments. The letter yud has the numeric value of ten. In Mishlei (Proverbs) 18:21, adds Mrs. Horowitz, it is written “Death and life are in the hands of the tongue.” This also extends to what we post online, in an email, a text, on what’s app or social media.
Holiness can sometimes involve an extra challenge and the ability to rise above it. Rabbi Norman Lamm explains that it is easier for a wealthy person to keep the Sabbath. For someone who is poor, however, it is more of a challenge to keep this Mitzvah. This reminds me of my late husband, who became an observant Jew in his 20s. Decades later, he still felt challenged when he would pass an eating establishment that was not kosher. Non-Kosher food that I had never tasted didn’t faze me as I grew up keeping Kosher. For someone who came into it later in life, it is far more difficult to maintain these rules. Rabbi Lamm further explains that the way to become holy is to practice the many commandments described in this parsha – examples are avoiding idol worship, being charitable, not stealing, paying laborers on time, not exploiting the less fortunate, not slandering others, and not putting a stumbling block before the blind.
Rabbi Berel Wein adds that being holy is a much greater challenge and a much greater Mitzvah for one who is out in the workplace or the marketplace. Someone who is in an occupation surrounded by Torah can easily be holy. It is when one has to face the rest of the world and when they have both the opportunity and the challenge of being holy. He comments that “Holiness is viewed as not being an exalted state of being out of the reach of the average Jew but rather as a natural and necessary by-product of living a life of Torah observance.”
“Being holy is not defined by synagogue attendance or outward signs of piety,” comments Stuart Binder. We find holiness in our relationships with others. When we are compassionate, respectful of others and ethical in our behavior holiness is evident. We are not holy just because G-d gave us the Mitzvot, adds Rabbi Andy Shapiro Katz. We are holy when we do the Mitzvot and act towards others as we are commanded.
Every one of us can be holy in our own way. While I had to replace a broken cardboard box that happened to have the word “Corona” written on it, I think about the way we are being holy in this time of corona virus. We are using “boxes” on our computers, with Zoom gatherings in shuls and community organizations. We share words of Torah, and of holiness and emotional support for one another. When we help to feed the poor, to donate supplies and to see what the needs of others are at this challenging time, we are being holy and following the commandments G-d gave us in Parshat Kedoshim.
Wishing everyone a safe weekend and a speedy end to social distancing so that we can eventually further our Mitzvot of being holy in person.
Chevrei Tzedek is community built and community run. We rotate who gives sermons. On this blog, you will see a variety of styles, reflecting the diversity of our community.