At CSK, we occasionally ask our community members to lead Friday Night Shabbat services. From those services has emerged a collection of Divrei Torah (words on Torah) written by our very own. Please have a look at some of them below:
This week’s Torah portion is Eikev, which can be found in Dueteronomy 7 through 11. Moses is instructing the children of Israel for the last time before they enter the promised land and he leaves them for his eternal home. After all they had been through together, God was still willing to clear the promised land of its current inhabitants. But God expected the people to obey His laws and commandments and to be grateful for the benefits that he was to bestow to the Israelites. This is a major theme in this portion of the Torah, no doubt because the children of Israel had thus far demonstrated a tendency to do just the opposite. It is in this Torah portion, for example, that we read of the golden calf, and Aaron’s great sin in the production of the idol. God tested the children of Israel for 40 years in the desert, subjecting them to hardships to learn what was in their hearts and whether they would keep God’s commandments. At the point of near famine, he provided manna to the people, making it clear that man does not live by bread alone. The promised land was full of stronger nations, but God would dispatch them to make way for the Israelites, in keeping with his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The promised land was going to be good land, a fruitful land, and the children of Israel could do well there and be happy there. But, it was going to take some work in order for that outcome to come to fruition. The Israelites would have to sincerely believe in God, follow His laws and be thankful for his miracles which will be performed daily. God instructed the priests to make the ark of the covenant to house the holy words of God. We were instructed to speak these words daily, and teach them to our children, and affix them to our gates and doorposts. In short, we were to be immersed in the words of God, to stay obedient to God’s will, and to exhibit gratefulness for all that God had done for us. Was that so much to ask? Apparently, yes, it was so much to ask. And here is why. We are inclined to do just the opposite when left to our own devices. Here is a list of our human characteristics which are on full display throughout the Torah, and beyond:
We quickly forget what God has done for us
We only see miracles if they are enormous and spectacular events like the parting of the Red Sea
We begin to think that our success is determined by the exercise of our own self will
We become arrogant, spoiled, entitled, conceited and do not seek a closeness and understanding of our relationship with God
In our own way, and according to our own lives, we all do this. It is human nature, unchecked by God’s call to us to walk with Him instead of journeying alone. Moses was the first Life Coach, so to speak. He urged the Israelites to possess an attitude of gratitude. It is within this parasha that we are commanded to give thanks to God three times per day, reminding us of the everyday miracles in our lives like the food we eat and the air we breathe and the materials available to us to make our homes and our clothes.
We are surrounded by blessings all of the time, but it is our nature to take them for granted over time. That is the path that leads away from God, away from belief and away from the long term possession of the land. In later readings, it’s clear that this is exactly what happened to the future generations of the Israelites. But God has never abandoned us even if we abandon Him. If we seek Him in our lives, in whatever way we can understand this to be, He will respond according to His will for us. We don’t get to decide what that looks like, but we can accept the journey with God as we enter the promised land of our lives.
So I see this parasha as a metaphor for personal belief in God and for a willingness to be shown what is in store for us rather than decide this path for ourselves, by ourselves. Our way produces the golden calf. The high is intense, but it is temporary. There will be a price to pay, and it is likely to be dear. Our way is the inclination to do evil and pursue the pleasures of the senses at the expense of all else. The Israelites partied quite hard once the golden calf was upon them. But they had a vicious hangover in the morning. Moses reminds us that we always have the choice. But his final admonition is to choose life.
May this be our will.
The parasha for this week is Re’eh. Re’eh mentions so many different things but I want to concentrate on one in particular. When God says (and I paraphrase) “Follow me and you shall be blessed. Do not follow me and you shall be cursed”. That is pretty severe. But what is God really trying to tell us here? We can look at our lives from two different perspectives: Positive and Negative. Or another way of saying that: Optimistic and Pessimistic.
God is giving us the choice on how to live our lives and how to look at the events that affect our lives. It is our choice on how to interpret them and the attitude that we bring to them will affect us as persons and the people around us.
With many events in our lives we can look at them from the two perspectives. It is our choice to look for the good or look for the bad. When researching this I came across a little joke by Rabbi Lam:
A family had twin boys whose only resemblance to each other was their looks. They were opposite in every other way. One was an eternal optimist, and the other boy was a gloom pessimist. Just to see what would happen, on the boys’ birthday their father packed the pessimist’s room with lots of games and gadgets. The optimist’s room he loaded with horse dung.
That night the father passed by the pessimist’s room and found him sitting amid his new gifts with a sorrow face. “Why are you sad?” the father asked. “Because my friends will be jealous and I’ll have to read all these instructions before I can do anything with this stuff. I’ll constantly need batteries, and my toys will eventually get broken.” answered the pessimist.
Passing the optimist twin’s room, the father found him dancing for joy in the heaps of manure. “What are you so happy about?” he asked. To which his optimist replied,“There must to be a pony in here somewhere! Thanks for the gift Father!”
Jokes are all well and good but are only exaggerations of reality, so let’s bring in some reality. So I am going to bring in a recent personal experience of mine as an example. Some of you know, and some of you don’t know that I had a heart attack 3 weeks ago. Me! At 53 and in what I thought was pretty good health.
I don’t smoke.
I eat healthy.
I am not overweight.
I am not a big drinker.
So why me?! But, here is the choice that is up to me. I can look at these facts and lament my situation. Bemoaning my condition and complaining and falling into a depression. Or…. I can look at the EXACT same facts from a different perspective.
I don’t have to quit smoking.
I don’t have to change my diet.
I don’t have to lose weight.
I don’t have to start exercising.
I don’t have to cut back on drinking.
And most important I am here in front of you today talking!
I can take the same exact set of facts and look at them from opposite sides. It is up to US to decide how we choose to look at our lives and the events that affect us. Sometimes it is hard or impossible to find the good side of events.
We have all experienced tragedy that cannot possibly have a positive side. This is where we need to rely on our family, friends and our great CSK community so that these events do not spiral us down into a depression. But again, that choice is up to us as individuals. Keep it bottled in (which cannot be a good thing) or bring in who we need to talk to, share with and try to get over it together.
Us Jews have always been known to be pessimistic. Let’s try to change that stereotype. Let’s try to be more positive, try to look at the bright side. It is not an easy thing to do, but in my opinion very well worth the effort.
As many of you know, I married my Beshert, Ben, just about four months ago. And it’s funny, because when we met, just a little over two years ago, in spite of my quasi-religious upbringing and not having a drop of non-jewish blood in my body, I actually insisted on explaining to Ben that I wasn’t “really” jewish. Yes I had a Bat Mitzvah, yes I kept Kosher as child, and yes, at one point, I used to ask my parents to drop me off - by myself - at Saturday morning services - but for all intents and purposes, I had “moved on” to more “open-minded” spiritual practice and had “no interest” in limiting myself to the confines of a specific religion.
Knowing Ben was a rather rare and handsome young bachelor, I thought pretty quickly about how I was going to keep him around. It took me about three minutes into our first conversation to let him know I was Jewish (even though I subsequently insisted I wasn’t) because something told me this was probably pretty important to him. Boy, was I right. The insistence that I “wasn’t actually Jewish” came after I realized just how important this was to him. That’s when I started to feel guilty, like I’d lured him in under false pretenses. I wasn’t really an observant jew…anymore. I’d gone to college in the northeast. I became a hippie. “Yoga is my religion,” I insisted. But Ben said I was jewish because I was jewish … and that really bothered me. You’re not listening to my “truth”, I would protest! I kept trying, but I just assumed Ben was so excited he met another Jewish girl that he really liked that maybe he wasn’t willing to listen. And that’s probably true to some degree. But if marrying a strictly “Jewish” girl was this important to him, then I wasn’t his girl, I insisted.
So two weeks later, Yom Kippur rolls around, and I made my usual unconventional statement for high holy days. I drove to the beach and took the day to meditate. Being in synagogue felt stuffy to me (of course, now I love High Holy Days at CSK…just a little shameless plug…) Ben called me to invite me to his break-fast and, upon hearing what I was up to that day, I finally managed to concern him just a little bit. Of course, he called Rabbi Scott, who I didn’t know personally yet.
Apparently he’d already told Rabbi Scott he’d “met a girl he liked”, but this time, he was calling with some trepidation. “I don’t know, Rabbi Scott,” he said. “It seems she’s got some really unconventional Yom Kippur practices…”
(yes, this is a true story.)
Though I have since received some Rabbinical approval for my Yom Kippur beach trip, the overarching point I was trying to make was that I had no time to listen to anyone who told me that any of the “rules and regulations” of the religion I was born into were for “me.” I went to the beach that day because, for the most part, rules were terrifying to me. And now here I am, perhaps having what you might call a bit of a full circle moment,because today’s Torah portion which I’m going to speak with you all about, Vaetchanan, is actually all about rules. Our favorite set of rules as jewish people: the Ten Commandments.
Today, only two years after trying to convince Ben I wasn’t into rules, I find I have a totally different perspective on them. Whereas rules once made me feel distant and afraid and rebellious, I now find that rules keep me safe, they give me direction, they help me know how much God cares about me and how much God loves me. The second Ben and I got married, I found myself on the plane at the start of our honeymoon thinking “wow, thank God…literally…that we have rules. I don’t know what I would do without rules! How do people do marriage without rules?!”
I was reading an interpretation of today’s torah portion earlier and visions of Jewish mothers past started beckoning me. As I was reading Moses’ explanation to the Israelites it felt like a never ending list of “honey-dos” and “if you loved me you would do the dishes when I ask!’s” In some translations it sounds like Moses is basically saying “look at all God has done for you! Now won’t you just listen to him and follow these commandments even though you’ve been wandering around aimlessly for 40 years. You should be grateful!” I’m not kidding, if you put them all in a New York jewish accent, you wouldn’t know the difference.
But, aside from some of the “Jewish mother” characterizations that some of these interpretations reminded me of, at the end of the day, it became clear: the commandments weren’t meant to be weapons. They were meant to end the wandering that the Israelites we of course exasperated from. Sure, the jewish people were physically wandering around aimlessly for 40 years, but in every other way they were also wandering because they didn’t have any rules. If they knew right from wrong, they still had no way of enforcing it, no boundaries and limitations to adhere to, no instructions. There are many studies that show that kids with rules actually feel more loved by their parents than kids who are just allowed to do whatever they want with no enforced guidance. It’s funny, because I can imagine how scary it must be to enforce certain rules as a parent, but that’s how much God loves us. As children of God, we aren’t left in the dark, we are given guidance for how to get to the light. God gives us the commandments and saves us from our “wandering”, literally and figuratively.
And so here we are, this month, when Moses stresses to the Israelites how important it is to keep God’s commandments as he reads each one to them. And my favorite part is when he explains that there will be many other people, places and things that might start to feel like God, but that there is no God other than God. Maybe a job offer and whether or not we get that offer can feel like “God” while we’re waiting to hear the news. Maybe God feels like the person who we look up to the most, whose approval we’ve started to not only crave but rely on. In this portion, Moses reminds us that “God alone is God.” God knows that other things might start to feel like God, but we should know that God has given us this set of commandments, these rules, to always remind us how to find him if we get lost…which, in today’s world, is pretty easy to do.
I never liked rules until I started thinking of them this way. I used to think of them as conditions from God: “if you love me, you’ll do all of these things for me. And then I’ll love you if you do them. Deal?” Now I understand, God’s love for me is not in question, but whether or not Iexperience that love has a whole lot to do with whether or not I can actually hear what God is saying. In this portion we hear the shma and v’ahavta for the first time, and many of us cover our eyes during the Shma so we can hear God. We take our hands to our face and they give us direction and focus. The commandments give us that ability to hear, that ability to know how to get back to the light when we feel lost in the darkness.
And so the rules, they’re not so bad after all. And we can all interpret them in different ways (as we clearly do) and we can try to make sense of them in a way that resonates us and works for us and our specific truths, but we can rest assured knowing that we aren’t “wrong” if we struggle with some of them. And we aren’t failing if we can’t adhere to all of them perfectly. None of us can. Instead we can know we are loved because we have those rules from God in the first place, and no one, especially not God, is expecting us to be perfect. We are only human ... which is exactly why we need rules.