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Parashat Nitzavim

Surely this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens…no, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” These words from Parasha Nitzavim are always read on the Shabbat preceding Rosh Hashanah, reminding us that being part of the Jewish people, those committed to living life by the Torah (i.e. the Instruction) is not reserved for some spiritual elite (in the heavens). Rather, Judaism is a concrete way of life on this earth we are meant to practice. The parasha goes on to remind us that the practice of Judaism is based on walking a path of good, life and blessing.

This Sunday evening, we begin a new month (Tishrei) and a new year – 5777. Tishrei corresponds to the astrological sign of Libra, or the scales. As we begin the New Year, we reflect on the old one and examine our deeds. The rabbis teach that few are perfectly good or wicked; rather, we weigh the balance of our deeds over the year past and think of ways to add to the scale of good, life and blessing. One of the central prayers of the days of awe from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, U’nataneh Tokef, teaches that through teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah add to the right scale.

Teshuvah requires us to attempt to heal broken relationships; tefillah requires us to examine ourselves in an honest and critical way while working for spiritual growth; tzedakah requires us to approach the other with an open and giving hand. These teachings about self mastery and improvement are “not too baffling nor beyond reach.” While they do require practice and effort, they are “in our mouth and our heart, to observe it.”

So many people in the world are seeking happiness. Yet, in Judaism, we do not wish each other a “happy new year”, but rather a “good new year”. We believe that happiness is actually a derivative of good. Judasim, as learned through study of Torah and judicious practice of its mitzvot, teaches us to live spiritually and ethically, embracing good, life and blessing.

Shabbat shalom and Shana Tova, a good year.

Being a part of a community is so much more than simply belonging. We are tasked to actively engage in that relationship, to build and maintain it. The means through which we engage is the covenant that we establish not only with God, but also with ourselves. We are tasked to remember our covenant, that awesome relationship with God. Yet what exactly does that mean, to remember it? Surely the command should be to live it, to practice it?

We have a powerful example in this week’s Parasha, Ki Tavo, about how our ancestors saw this process. In the Declaration of the First Fruits, each member at some point was commanded to bring their First Fruit to the priest and donate it to God. What is most interesting however, are the words the farmer is commanded to say:

I acknowledge this day before the Lord your God that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to assign us. (Deut 26:3)

The farmer will then continue:

My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meagre numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and populous nation…The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents…Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me. (Deut 26:5–10)

Through this process, that person would be recalling the covenant with God, remembering the times in Egypt, with our ancestors there during slavery and redemption, and God’s promise of redemption. The act of donating the fruit was secondary to retelling our story. It was not simply a passive activity, but one where practically each and every member of society had to participate. Furthermore, it was not simply a recitation of a few lines, but one that had to be done in company of other people, namely the Priests. The only mention of the fruit is the in the last line. The story, our story, is the focus. Each and every thing we do is predicated on remembering the primacy of community, our shared history, and commitment to strengthening the bonds with one another.

Recalling that special relationship with God was an important act, commanded to all and not to be done in isolation. We see this even today, in ways that recall our special relationship with God, such as at the Seder and now during the High Holy Days. We are commanded to interact with one another, while acting in the bond with God. In a culture where originally all was passed down orally, telling our story and performing specific actions were key ingredients in keeping the traditions alive. How much more so today where, even though things may be written, we are still called upon to recall our story and to act. The First Fruits was something all were expected to do, as most were involved in the agrarian portion of society. Today, we are all expected to interact with our covenant with one another, because there is no other way to sustain that relationship other than through cooperation.

We are community because we act together, not simply because we happen to belong to the same institution. The model of the First Fruits is key to understanding our faith. The actions we perform only have a transformative aspect when they are seen in the context of our history.

May this season of preparation continue to enhance the bonds between us and our community.

While driving I was listening to the radio hosts talking about how we’re being foiled (yet again) into thinking we’re getting good or decent value from the products we buy, while a number of companies have been reducing the size of the goods they sell, without advertising that fact.

Some of the examples given related to packets of chips, bars of chocolate, loaves of bread, eggs, and a new one for the latest round of investigation — coffee. It appears as though some of our local baristas are involved in an elaborate scheme to dupe us out of our morning fixer upper. Then came the phone calls from listeners, each adding their own spin on how their cup of coffee is no longer what it used to be. One man said the cup no longer felt as heavy as it did before, while another reported that it seemed he was getting more froth and less coffee.

So, you may ask, what has this got to do with this week’s parasha ? Well, we learn in Ki Teitzei, that “You shall not have in your pouch alternate weights, larger and smaller. You shall not have in your house alternate measures, a larger and a smaller. You must have completely honest weights and completely honest measures, if you are to endure long life on the soil that Adonai, your God is giving you” (Devarim 26:13–15).

From this teaching, our rabbis derive the mitzvah that we are not to possess inaccurate measures and weights, and the mitzvah continues to explain that we should do this even if we will not use them in trading. The intention of the mitzvah is to ensure that when you sell goods, the weights you use to measure the product with must be just and equal. How many times do we open a packet of potato chips, or a bottle of cold drink, and wonder if we’re really getting inside that which is written on the outside?

Merchants have to ensure that the weights used to counterbalance the scale for your goods are equal to what is written on the measure. But if we go back to what the mitzvah says, it doesn’t read; “Don’t sell something that you say weighs “x”, but it actually weighs “y” ”. It says “Don’t keep deficient scales or weights”.

In many instances, the basic nature of Judaism is to keep us far from transgressing the laws. So, there exists the concept of building a “fence around the Torah”. This concept is derived from a verse in Parasha Acharei Mot, that reads; “And you shall guard My observances”. Our sages derive from this verse the need to make fences around the Torah.

These fences are primarily decrees that are declared by the sages, in order to protect us, and the law. A clear example that we can all relate to is; if you go to a museum, and the most prized jewel in the world is on display in the museum, there aren’t just signs that say; “Please do not touch”. The museum authorities are aware of this phenomenon called human nature.

Even if you weren’t even thinking of stealing the jewel, they aren’t taking any chances. They’ve put a glass cage, with state-of-the-art alarms, around the jewel, and they’ve probably got one or two guards permanently there. With no way of getting near the jewel, you cannot steal it. Building fences around the Torah works in the same way.

If you don’t own any deficient weights and measurements, you cannot sell anything that you say is “x’, but is actually “y”. But, do we really need a fence around the Torah when it comes to acting in an honest and open manner? Do we need to be told not to keep inaccurate measures, so that we won’t be tempted to use them? Does our local barista need to be reminded that a cup of coffee should be a full cup of coffee?

Perhaps it’s a reminder to step back from the hustle and bustle, and think about how we should treat others, and not get stuck in the detail and routine. Then perhaps we can treat others the way we would like to be treated.

A good lesson here is to be fair and just in everything that we do, two principles which can be equated to weights and measures. Moreover, if your outlook revolves around being fair and just, it is more likely that others will treat you fairly and justly.

This week our parasha, Shoftim, speaks about laws and justice. It is focused very much on the legal system and the means by which judges would be chosen, courts would operate and calls to the people “justice, justice shall you pursue”. The commentators ask why the word justice is repeated, why not just tell the community to pursue justice? One of the responses given is the first “justice” encourages us to seek justice through the legal system, the second calls upon up to pursue justice in our personal lives and in all that we do.

Last week we began the month of Elul and one of the symbols of this time of year is a scale of justice. We imagine God, the Divine judge seated on a great throne assessing our deeds and our actions during the past year and passing judgement upon us. Have we lived our best life? Have we concerned ourselves with justice? Are we using the precious moments we have been given wisely? Every day during Elul we sound the shofar, the alarm, calling upon us to take the time to do our accounting, to place our deeds on the scale and see how we have fared, consider what changes we would like to make. The shofar calls upon us to stop and listen.

There is a story told of the Rabbi of Berdichev who saw a man hurrying along the street, so focused on a point ahead, he did not look to either his right or left.

Why are you rushing?” asked the rabbi.

I am pursuing my livelihood!” said the man.

But how do you know,” said the rabbi, “that your livelihood is running before you so that you have to rush after it? Perhaps it is behind you and all you need to do to encounter it is stand still and you are running away from it”.

How many of us are like that man? Running, chasing an elusive dream, a destination which is unreachable and as we race, we move further from our truth. The call of the shofar reminds us that we need to stop and listen; listen to the sounds of our souls, listen to what we really need, listen and perhaps we will hear the music in our hearts and find that we have already reached our destination. All we needed was to stop to find it. This season of Elul, we have the opportunity to stop and listen, take stock of a year of running and chasing and remember for what we are really searching.

This Shabbat we usher in the new month of Elul. It is the month in which we begin the preparations for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year; not just thinking about the honey cake recipes and the table arrangements but focusing on our spiritual preparations as well. Just as we need time to get ready to celebrate Rosh Hashana in our homes, we need time to prepare our spiritual selves as well. During this season of Elul we prepare to wipe the slate clean, we have the chance to heal the hurts, make right the wrongs and to begin again, refreshed and cleansed. And it is the time of year when we hold a mirror up to ourselves and really see what is there, warts and all, cracks, stains, the good and the bad. And then we make our resolutions. We think about what we would like to change, how we can be better, what challenges we would like to set for ourselves in the coming year. Some of us write them down, others just spend the time thinking and then we embark on the new year refreshed and ready to implement the changes.

But too often we forget that none of those changes will happen without practice and consideration. I have been enjoying the Olympics these past few weeks and to see the skill and talent of the athletes is incredible. But sometimes we forget the amount of hard work, dedication and commitment it takes to reach that elite level in sport. Nobody would imagine that someone like me could dive into a swimming pool and beat one of the Campbell sisters. That is not because I do not have the ability or the potential, but at this point that is all I have. To become an athlete of that calibre takes dedication and commitment. It takes a lot of hard work, making mistakes along the way but it does not happen just by thinking about it from a lounge chair. (Which is a shame because if that were the case Australia would have many brilliant sportspeople.) To become a champion takes skill and effort. Pirkei Avot, the Jewish Ethics of the Sages, says “lefum tza’ara agra” according to the effort is the reward.

It is the same with Elul and making changes in our lives. It is easy to make resolutions but difficult to implement them. It is much easier to go through life as we are, to continue to stay in the safe, comfortable places we find ourselves. We would never expect to be proficient or an expert at anything just by sitting back and thinking about it or watching, we need to do. But in other areas of our lives we think we can be experts straight away with no assistance, no commitment, no practice. To become a better person, to become kinder, more compassionate, more loving, does not just happen. It takes time, effort and commitment, just like sport. And just like working to master any task, after a time it can become just a part of who we are, a regular part of our lives, not something we need to constantly think about and focus upon.

I hope that this new month of Elul can bring for us all a time of reflection and contemplation, of shaping our future and then working to make our dreams a reality in the year ahead.

In this week’s Torah portion we find the second paragraph of what has come to be known as the shema. In the early days of the Reform movement that passage was removed from the siddur because the composers of the new prayerbook did not feel that it reflected a worldview with which they agreed. The second paragraph of the shema speaks about the rains. It asserts that if the Jewish people follow the commandments and remain faithful to God then rain will fall in its season, crops will flourish and the harvest will be abundant. But if the Jewish people turn away from God, choose to follow different paths and ignore the commandments, then the rains will not come at the appropriate times, the people will be afflicted with drought, flood, famine and disaster. The early Reform Jews determined that the world does not exist in that place of reward and punishment, there was no discernable link between our moral behavior as a people and the weather, so the paragraph was removed.

In the most recent Progressive siddur the paragraph has been returned as an optional reading for the Progressive communities. The sentiment of the prayer has not changed, the circumstances of the world have not changed, yet the prayer is now in the siddur. So what changed? The passage has come to have a new interpretation and meaning which is separate from the literal, giving it a new poignancy and depth of understanding.

Even though we know our moral behavior does not effect the weather, we have learned that our behavior does effect the environment in which we live, including the weather. Our actions are changing the weather, with the frightening report recently that July was the hottest month on record for the world’s weather. We are having an incredible impact upon the rains, the temperature and each have far reaching consequences upon our crops, our food supplies, the levels of the oceans and so much more. So although the weather patterns are not affected exactly as the Torah describes, our behavior is linked in a very direct way to the environment in which we live. Understood in this way, the second paragraph of shema becomes a poignant message about our responsibility to care for the environment and the world in which we live.

Interestingly, the rabbis of the tradition noted that the second paragraph of the Torah is in the plural. It is not individual reward and punishment but rather collective. If we as a people do not follow the laws, we as a people, will suffer. Even though some may adhere, if the majority do not, then these incidents will befall the community. It is the same with the environmental message today. What each one of us does has a profound impact on those around us. We do not exist as islands, our behavior directly affects everyone on this fragile planet on which we live.

So as we read the passage from the Torah, we recite the words of shema, may we use them as inspiration for carving a path to make change, to help create a world which is safe and sustainable for all.

This week’s parasha starts off with Moses describing how he had pleaded with God to allow him to enter the land of Israel. We are told that God refused Moses’ request, but allows him to see the land from a mountain overlooking the land.

It is interesting that this is the first parasha we read after Tisha B’av, it is the first Shabbat of consolation, guiding us from a national day of mourning, on what is known as the Sheva De-Nechamta (the seven haftarot of consolation), as we seek to be healed and gain strength on our journey towards Rosh HaShanah. The Shabbat itself has a special name, “Nachamu”, meaning consolation. It is so called because of the opening words of the haftarah for Shabbat Va’etchanan, and is in reference to the timing after Tisha B’Av.

It begins:

Nachamu, nachamu ami… (Comfort, comfort My people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and say to her that she has served her term, that her sin is pardoned for she has received declare to her that her term of service is over)”.

It deals with the suffering of the people, and acknowledges the importance and centrality of Jerusalem in our suffering. It also deals with consolation for those who have suffered.

Consolation, or comforting, is a major step in one’s healing process. Not only is the actual support structure an extremely beneficial aspect of dealing with grief and/or loss, but the one providing the comfort or consolation also benefits from their efforts in this process. Together, these two aspects form a cohesive two-way model of effectiveness in this area. There are benefits to both parties in this format, and the “comforter” becomes a vital part of the healing process.

Now let’s go back and look at what happens to Moses at the beginning of the Torah reading. Moses finds himself in a position where he needs to be comforted. His requests to enter the land of Israel have been denied, and in allowing Moses to see the land that he cannot enter, God is offering him consolation. Moses’ punishment is followed by sympathy.

Similarly, we find that God is looking to console us, as the opening lines of the haftarah indicate. The Temple has been destroyed, and our people are living in exile. While the suffering is linked to the actions of the people (and is part of a punishment), the notion of consolation still plays an important part of the healing. Once again, it is God who is offering the consolation. The question is asked; “Why is the word comfort said twice in the opening verse of the haftarah”? The Midrash Eicha Rabbah answers that it is because Israel received a double portion of punishment, and therefore a double portion of comfort is due to her now. It is for that reason that God reassures Israel twice, saying; “I, I am the One who comforts you”.

Perhaps it is God’s way of showing that while we are punished when we do wrong, God will still be there to comfort us as we seek to recover and heal, and build up our strength. Consolation and comforting are there for us to help ourselves and others we seek to recover from the three weeks of mourning and Tisha B’Av, and to help us prepare for and build up to the upcoming High Holy Days in just over six weeks’ time.

May this Shabbat of Nachamu comfort us following the darkness that we experienced leading up to Tisha B’Av, and may we be guided and inspired by the light that is the hope leading to Rosh HaShanah.