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Archive for Setembre de 2012

Privilege and gratitude: keeping the balance in between

With Yom Kippur just behind us and Sukkot just ahead of us, we turn our attention to the last parashah of the Torah read on Shabbat (the very last parashah V’zot Habracha is only read at Simchat Torah). Ha’azinu is the song Moses teaches the people as an everlasting testimony just before his death. It discusses the consequences of Israel’s (the people’s) betrayal of God. Unfortunately, from the time of the giving the Torah, through the 40 years that Moses guided the people through the wilderness and until this very day, the cycle of the relationship between the people and God has been one of distancing and then coming close again. The poem of Ha’azinu recalls that tumultuous pattern: God is the faithful one who created us, who chose the descendants of Jacob to be an exemplary nation. Instead, we “waxed and grew fat” and forsook God for worship of the material world. Eventually after a period of trial and tribulation, the relationship will be healed. The poem concludes with God taking back the people and Moses telling the people to engage with Torah for it is “your very life.”

We are in the heart of the month of Tishri, the month that particularly encourages one to reengage with God and Torah. We all have many different understandings of what the source of life we call God can be – but at the heart of each of them is that each of us is part of the One and therefore each person has a spark of holiness should be respectful of that holiness in others. The words of Torah followed by thousands of years of teaching of tradition can help us stay connected to these ideas. We do not have to go through the pattern described by Ha’azinu, which suggests when we are in need we turn to God and when we become wealthy and privileged we become selfish and greed. We can break that cycle, showing that even with the incredible material wealth and blessing of security we have now in our lives, we will not become complacent but even more grateful and aware of others less fortunate.

The name of the poem “Ha’azinu” teaches us to be balanced in our life; the word “Ha’azinu”, meaning listen, is related to the Hebrew word “ozen”, which means balance. Ha’azinu is always read in the month of Tishri, parallel to the sign of Libra, whose symbol is the scales and balance. Let us take the energy of these last ten days of awe and repentance into this Shabbat and days of the year ahead. May we balance our privilege with tzedakah; may we remember the source of love that feeds us and maintain our generosity, compassion and loving-kindness.

Anuncis

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Forgiveness – Yom Kippur 2012

 

Some weeks ago I received a letter from a congregant in which he explained the reasons why he plans to stay home instead of joining the congregation this Yom Kippur. This congregant was critical about how during Yom Kippur services, we admit that we are guilty of sins against God and ask for forgiveness, a practice which to him leads to the concept that God’s love is conditional. But this person thinks that God’s love is unconditional, a concept that puts him at odds with the idea of forgiveness. In his letter, I read a fair criticism of the common practice of teaching religion from a perspective affectionately called “carrot and stick.” I recognized in that letter the effect that this pedagogical model has had on many Jews — the abandonment of any religious practice.

 

The equation of religion with guilt, (Jews have become experts in this field) has led many – no doubt – to reject Judaism. But is this a fair conclusion? Can we only find forgiveness through a process of guilt, shame, fear? Does Love make no demands? The spiritual exercise of teshuvah, literally coming back to oneself and pondering our actions, is the main goal of Yom Kippur. Should this self-reflection lead us to humiliation? Or to exultation? Does Judaism condemn us to spiritual paralysis through fear? Or instead, does Judaism honor us by means of the tension between love and ethics?

 

It is necessary to open this reflection by acknowledging that Judaism has been associated with fear and guilt — and this is a negative. A literal reading of the biblical text could lead us to believe that we are to be punished if we misbehave, or blessed and rewarded if we behave properly. Reading the text literally can lead to the superstitious belief that we are worshiping a feared Divinity, a Divinity that is capable of bringing destruction. Certain religious authorities might have encouraged these childish beliefs within Judaism because they can use such simplified ideas to instill fear and thereby acquire power over other individuals. 

 

Jews offended by these ideas react by throwing out the baby with the bath water. In the past we have heard “Everything is allowed” or “It is Forbidden to forbid.” Rules can beget frustration. But if we focus only on prohibitions, and these are lifted one after the other, the rejection of all rules leads inevitably to the question of how licit is anything. If we reject all guidelines, we would be functioning as Jews arbitrarily, which can lead to indifference. When all is permissible, there is only whim and, eventually, total paralysis.

 

By trying to escape rules, which some consider enslaving, we have created a new form of slavery in which the self replaces the Divinity. We  reject fasting and  penance. By freeing ourselves from all guilt, we were protected from feeling guilty.

 

The second half of the 20th century was a period that embraced the concept of relativism. People embraced a new psychology and claimed that neutrality was possible and that being judgmental was a bad thing. Everything could be reasoned, justifiable. All values were valid.  Guilt was no longer laid out in prayer but on the couch of the analyst, who took the role of the expiatory goat who would carry all of our sins outside the encampment. For those who have advocated the theology of the self, the outcome has been  erasing all points of reference. There is no confusion between cause and effect, between good and evil, between taking responsibility and lack of responsibility. Pardon becomes superfluous, needed no more, because there is no longer transgression, no more guilt. Goodness is in the self, and not in the transcendent. The death of God has moved what’s ideal from the outside into the inside. Our only focus of interest is ourselves, a despotic self / egoAs a result, people become egocentric

 

Criticism of religion was necessary, but when we eliminated the idea of guilt, the idea of responsibility and fallibility also disappeared. Humility gave way to hubris, to pride. We no longer consider the consequences of our actions – a world in which asking pardon, or to be excused for certain behaviors, has no place is an egotistical world, a world where we no longer think about our fellow’s freedoms. It is a self-righteous world.

 

But asking for forgiveness opens the door for us to become better people. Asking for forgiveness is not about feeding guilt; rather it is acknowledging our capacity to recognize the consequences of our actions, their repercussions and our potential for improvement. This is the principle of teshuvah proposed by Judaism, an extraordinary feeling of optimism about the capacity of human nature and our ability to change for the better. Teshuvah is a voluntary action that moves individuals off of the defendant’s bench and leads them onto the rehab path. There is no automatic expiation by making null the very concepts of good and bad. 

The responsible choice is within reach if we make the effort. Lo ba shamayim hi, says Devarim (Deuteronomy 30:11-14), “It is not in the heavens… the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” The choice is accessible to each one of us, and it gives us back our humanity…the realization that we are a mixture of fallibility and the intention to do what is good and right.

 

To ask for forgiveness is to place the Good in front of us, an ideal toward which we should walk. It is about acknowledging that we are not all-powerful, that we must continuously reassess the concepts of good and bad, even if today they are not very trendy. It is very interesting to see how speeches that reintroduce the nerdy concepts of good and bad are labeled negatively as “moralizing.” Maybe the challenge today is to moralize without instilling guilt. In other words, being able to convince with no threats, acknowledging our fellow as a being able to reflect.

 

If ideas of forgiveness and good and bad are reintroduced, do they render God’s love conditional? In matters of the heart, it is not relevant, but it is when dealing with ethics. It is a must. This tension between Love and Law is expressed wonderfully in a double divine attirbute middat ha-din andmiddat ha-rachamim. The attribute of justice and rigor and the attribute of compassion, rechem, which, by the way, means “womb”.

 

One of love’s manifestations is the ethical demand. It is because I love you that I want you to reach for the highest of my ethical demands. It is because I love you that I respect you. This embrace in love is not the blurring of limits. The midrash tells us in a very imaginative way that as we walk on the path of the Shechinah, the Divine presence, She steps back. She does not stop loving us, but she steps back. She keeps distance between Her and usIt is when there is too great a distance between Her and us that  bad things happen. If we do  good things,  She gets closer to us. God, a guarantor of Ethics, cannot be indifferent to Good and Bad. Indifference is violence. Complacency is abandonment. Ethical demands are translated into law, mitzvah…they are not a straightjacket but a source of freedom and spirituality. Positive (Aase) and Negative commands (lo taase) are markers on our paths leading us towards the Good.

 

Midrash Pirke de Rabi Eliezer says: “The mitsvot are friends of humans.” Honoring parents, keeping shabbat, not worshiping idols, not stealing, not cursing the deaf and putting a stone block in front of the blind, not hating, not looking for revenge or bearing grudges against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself. This is what Vayikra (Leviticus 19:18) commands us to do. Loving your neighbor means knowing to ask for forgiveness, acknowledging her or his humanity.

 

Forgiveness is not then a source of guilt or despair. Forgiveness has in itself a liberating power. This is why Yom Kippur is a solemn but joyous festival, a joy that links together keva and kavanah, the rigor of the method with the spontaneity of the intention and that leads us to the hope of making a better world .

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Teshuvah and Taking Responsibility

The Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is known as Shabbat Shuva, the Sabbath of Repentance, an important marker in our journey through these first ten days of the new Jewish year. This is a time to engage in self-reflection, to identify those parts of ourselves that we wish to improve upon, rededicating ourselves to the task of sacred living in the year ahead. It is much easier to turn a blind eye to our mistakes, our failings, and our misgivings, to submerge our sins in the river of denial. It is much easier to throw the work of repentance into the “too-hard” basket, to call this work “somebody else’s problem.” But our tradition reminds us that each of us must make amends, each of us must perform works of teshuvah, and work to repair our relationships with one another and with God.

We read Parashat Vayelech this Shabbat. Only thirty verses in length, Vayelech is the shortest of all of the parashiot in the Torah. Knowing that he is about to die, Moses entrusts the leadership of the Israelites to Joshua, who will guide them across the Jordan River and into the Promised Land. Three times in these thirty verses, Moses tells Joshua to “be strong and resolute” (vv. 6, 7, and 23). In order for Joshua to lead the Israelites properly, he will need to demonstrate strength, courage, and resilience. In order for us to perform the work of t’shuvah, we will need much of the same; we will need to be strong and resolute.

Such spiritual work is not easy. It can sometimes seem as difficult and as daunting as engaging in the conquest of the Promised Land. But we cannot absolve ourselves from challenging situations and expect to grow. Dr Louis Newman has written, “Judaism teaches that teshuvah forces us to take responsibility for the past, even as it

promises us freedom from that past. It seems, in fact, that our ability to overcome the mistakes of the past increases in direct proportion to our determination to own them. Paradoxically, we can escape the burdens of our past only by running toward them, rather than away from them (Newman, Repentance: The Meaning and Practice of T’shuvah, p. 202).

Shabbat affords us an opportunity to reflect, to give thanks, and in the peace and quiet of our weekly rest, to take an accounting of our lives. How do we wish to grow? How do we wish to change? How do we wish to improve upon ourselves and our relationships? What are those niggling aspects of our lives that lead us to say, “If only I didn’t…” or “If only I wouldn’t…” or “I regret that I hadn’t…” or “I really need to work on…”? Rabbi Lawrence Kushner teaches that our first inclination is to push these ideas as far away as we can because we resist doing this work of self-improvement, this necessary work of healing. But we would do better to realize that these are “…rejected parts of ourselves that in this time of great closeness to God come out our unconscious yearning for redemption” (Kushner, God was In this Place and I, I Did Not Know, p. 71).

All of us have made mistakes. All of us have caused hurt and pain. All of us can do better. The gift of this season is that we have an opportunity to become aware, to seek and offer forgiveness, to seek healing, to seek love, and ultimately to seek redemption. Engaging in these difficult processes, may all of us be “strong and resolute,” and benefit from the blessings of renewal and redemption that this season in our calendar invites us to experience together.

Shabbat Shalom and G’mar Chatima Tova

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What’s happening today? If we look at the world around us, we see a sorry picture of the human condition: News of war, terrorism, violence and bloodshed dominate the headlines.  It is not easy to live in this world, whose symbolic birthday, Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate today. However, I do not want to address today’s big events, but the small things…as small as the drops of water that make up the oceans. It is not by chance that Judaism cares so much about the little details….

 

Sometimes it seems as if we live in a sick, indifferent world … one where we must pick up the droppings of our pets but can ignore the poor and the needy, those on the fringes of society; a world in which we drive faster cars but do not  stop to let pedestrians cross the street; where we buy expensive clothing but fail to clothe the naked; where we throw away food while others go hungry. We wear headphones that render us deaf to the pleas of the others; we have parents who would rather plunk their children in front of the TV or give them video games than interact with them; we have a society fascinated with reality shows that transform spectators into Peeping Toms who prefer to devour stories of love and friendship rather than meaningfully live their own lives.

 

It is true! The poor and needy, and the lonely,  are invisible. Unless we look, we neither see nor hear them.

 

What has happened to us?

 

Is indifference at the root of all these behaviors? Or is it the constant flow of bad news in the headlines? Have we become misanthropes? Have we delegated our ethical responsibilities to official institutions? Is the answer to be found in a better balance between the individual and the collective?

 

Hillel, in an extraordinary formula, gave us some elements toward an answer: “Im ein ani li, mi li? If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” (Prike Avot 1:14) In other words, it is essential to think of oneself first. Altruism always begins with a dose of selfishness. Remember the hassidic teaching that reminds us to carry two pieces of paper in our pockets. In one pocket, the paper should read “I am dust” and in the other “the world has been created for me.” One calls for humility, the other for optimism.

 

We human beings find ourselves in this permanent tension that is symbolized by the two pockets: the whole and the nothing, the infinitely big and the infinitely small. Awareness of one’s needs and desires is the starting point for walking toward our fellow. We must learn that having a good sense of self helps us to treat others well.

 

We know that God is one. And it is because of this unity that the world was created, says the Bible. The creative subject is the individual, despite the fact that the individual contains many different aspects. When God spoke to Abraham in the foundational commandment to our people, saying, “Lech lecha … Go! leave your father’s land,” God gave the command in the singular. He ordered Abraham to leave Ur, and its idolatry,  and embrace a new way — monotheism. The prophet, the philosopher, the revolutionary who says “No!” to the status quo is the one who enters a metaphysical solitude that invites reflection. Abraham Joshua  Heschel  reminds us that what we share is a deep sense of solitude. Day after day, the question arises in our minds: is each of us alone in a desert of the I? Am I alone in this universe of which I am a part but from which I feel so alienated? In the face of this solitude, the book of Genesis tells us, “It is not good for man to be alone…” (Gen 2:18) Although Abraham’s departure from Ur put him in strange territory, he did not remain alone. He left Ur with his wife and surrounded himself with his family Sarah and his brother’s son Lot. “and made many souls, [JPS translation: And the persons they had acquired]” (Gen 12:5) ,  people who shared the same values … in other words, a community. Their spiritual world then opened to others. They did not seclude themselves in their own world. Acting ethically begins by building a sense of “who am I?” im ein ani li, mi li? If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

 

But living an ethical life does not stop at the “I.” The individual needs the other, our fellow, to exist. Ethics needs the “you.” Ethics means to go beyond oneself. The commandment “Love your fellow” cannot be fulfilled within the “I.” Ethics means to think in the transcendental, that is, beyond oneself.  Hillel continues, “u ke she ani leatsmi, ma ani? And if I am only for myself, what am I?” Individualism has limits, boundaries. Judaism views the creation of human beings as putting remedy to Divine solitude. If God –kiveyachol, were it possible, experiences solitude, al achad kama ve kama, even the more so we, humans, experience it.

 

In the episode of Cain and Abel, Cain’s response to the question “Where is Abel your brother?” was, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”(Gen 4:9) One lesson from this story is that death is the consequence of indifference. It is because Cain thinks that he can live without Abel that he kills his brother. It is because I am indifferent to the fate of my fellow that I let him die. Remember the commandment from Leviticus (19:16): “Do not be indifferent to your fellow’s blood”, and even more, “If your kinsman, being in straits, comes under your authority, then you shall uphold him.” (Lev 25:35)

 

Rashi, quoting the Midrash, explains: “Rather then you must hold him. Do not let him fall any further to a state where it will be difficult to set him back up on his feet. As soon as his means fail hold him right there. Think of a donkey carrying a load. As long as the load is still on top of the donkey, a single person can steady it and keep it in position. Once it falls to the ground, even five people may have difficulty raising it back to its place.”

 

This Midrash points out the importance of helping another before the person’s situation becomes hopeless. Therefore, it demands that we acknowledge other people’s difficulties before it is too late. Attention to the other should be preventive, pro-active.

 

Coming to the other, taking care of others, reinforcing the idea of community does not mean that the individual should disappear or that differences should vanish for the sake of community. Denying differences is another expression of indifference toward the other. It is because the other is different from me, that the other  is strange to me that I must care for the other and I am bound to acknowledge that another’s needs, hopes and desires are different from mine. If I impose my desires upon another, I am deaf to the person’s difference. I am only looking for an image of myself in the other. The other becomes hevel, vanity, and stops being  other.

 

But if I pay heed and try to understand the difference, I am no longer indifferent. I am making room for the difference to have a voice. I am giving life to the other. Establishing social relationships involves making room for the other to exist. Cain, whose name means “possessive”, took all the room for himself. He did not allow room for his brother, Abel. If I leave, I abandon my ethical responsibilities, I alienate myself from the world. I die. This is the Abel Model.

 

The model that the Bible proposes is God’s. God created the human being after making room, tsimtsum, for humans, while remaining a constant presence and support for mankind. The God of Israel is not a distant god, indifferent to our fate but as Buber describes God,  The God of the Community. We must strive to be like our ideal of the Divine, ready to pay heed. Shema Yisrael, the two most famous words in Judaism, invite us twice a day to pay attention. Hearing the difference does not mean to seek in the other what’s similar to ourselves, but instead to appreciate how we are different. The other is not a mirror, but an open window to the beyond. Paraphrasing Rabbi Elimelech of Lizsensk, in our families, in our schools, in our working places, how do we welcome the different one? The one who cannot keep up with our evaluations and statistics? The one who has dreams? In short, one, who being different in a normative world, cannot develop fully. Can we see and appreciate the fruits of what that person has to offer? Opening my hand toward the other means, first of all, taking care of my family, then those who live in town, and finally those from other towns. The community is the base from which the individual extends himself or herself beyond and, in its turn, the community extends itself beyond.

 

There are many groups, associations, communities and institutions whose goal is to take care of the other. But one can raise the question: Are institutions, governments, policies and circumstances to blame if today there are more people in need? Pointing our fingers to the anonymous organizations, are we not like Adam, who answered God’s accusation of eating the forbidden fruit, “the woman you put at my side”, is the responsible one? Are we not pointing fingers at others because they cannot defend themselves?

 

What has happened? We live in a society that talks a lot about freedom, solidarity, love, liberty, respect, and where, paradoxically, the number of people in need continues to grow. Perhaps with all this talk, we have forgotten to act. Shammai advises: “Emor meat ve aseh arbeh – Talk little. Do much.” Maybe we have lost trust in the ability of our communities and institutions to respond to people’s needs. Social work has become a profession, requiring a college degree, a situation that is positive on one hand; but on the other we have delegated our responsibilities of caring for our fellow human beings to the professionals. As we have mentioned several times in our committees or in private conversations, we tend to give money instead of giving ourselves. We cannot delegate what it means to be human to institutions. Should it be the government’s responsibility to remind us to find joy in the good news of our friends, to bury our dead, to give our children water to drink? Building a more compassionate and humane society should not come at the cost of dehumanizing the individual. Social institutions such as New Hope Ministries do great work, certainly; but they will never be able to replace the human warmth of individuals. Shaking hands, a smile, a phone call, an invitation to dinner or lunch are important ways of reaching out to others, and we should extend ourselves. But it seems that as institutional doors have opened, the doors of more individual homes have closed.

 

It is important to remember that as a community that cares about others, we must be vigilant and multiply our efforts to make out of our congregation a true kehilah in its original sense of assembly, putting together. We need to learn to be brave and open our doors, to reach out to others, to be present to hear the needs of each individual who needs help. Life is not a private affair. We learn to pray (and also to live!) in first person plural: We. We do a mitzvah in the name of all Israel carrying our two hats as individuals and as community. This is how all generations are present in each moment. Our own existence should be a symbol like no other of our hope to live for a reason higher than ourselves.

 

Hillel concludes, “ve im lo achashav ematai? If not now, when? These Days of Awe  remind us of our own finitude. Do not lose the opportunity of being  who you are for those around you, your friends and not-so-much friends. Let’s be present and open to others, helping them. Let’s stop being judgmental, and let’s learn to be open and love our differences– and move beyond indifference. Let’s make room for the individual in the community, the particular in the universal. Let us learn to be Jews aware of our humanity because we cannot be (good) Jews without being first (good) humans.

Shanah Tovah.

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Some time ago, I participated in a discussion about the meaning of the High Holidays. One of the individuals in the group stated that the time offers her the opportunity to communicate closely with God. This is why she often prefers to stay home rather than attend services, especially during Yom Kippur. In order to justify her feelings, she quoted an halachic statement: During the 10 Days of Awe, the period of time between Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur, it is a mitzvah to ask forgiveness from other people for our sins and mistakes and whom we may have treated unjustly or offended, while Yom Kippur is consecrated to repentance for sins committed against God. Since God is everywhere, she did not see any need to ask God’s forgiveness in company of members of her synagogue community. Therefore, she stays home on this day. Upon hearing her words, however, the first passage that came to my mind was “Do not separate from the community.” (Avot)

 

That conversation led me to reflect deeply on why we spend these days in community. If teshuvah, this coming back to oneself, is at the core of these holy days, why do we not spend them in a retreat, a place where we could examine in depth the relationship between creature and Creator? It would be a place much less stressful, where we would not need to concern ourselves with other people’s prayers and needs and all the obstacles that can alter the dialogue between God and the individual.

 

If we spend these days together, in community, is it because somewhere there is a deep connection between teshuvah (repentance) and community – a relationship that cannot take place in individual prayer? Leviticus Rabbah explains the situation in these terms:

 

“When Jews are together, they are like a giant and their arms are like one long arm that can reach up to heaven and obtain God’s forgiveness.”

 

Based on these words, we can imagine a collective effort of thousands of voices from the four corners of the earth that during the High Holidays sing the same prayer at the same time: selach lanu ki chatanu.

 

Praying in community can be a source of strength, cohesion, and mutual support. Indeed, praying in the presence of others, our fellows, while we are asking forgiveness is far from inconsequential. Is it not God who requires each one of us to witness others admitting their faults? Is it not true, during this trial which begins on this first day of Rosh Hashanah, when each of us will face the supreme Judge, that the community, which is also called edah (witness) in Hebrew, is obligated to give testimony (in Hebrew, ed)? If we have to ask for forgiveness from our fellows before we can address ourselves to God on Yom Kippur, it is because the relationship each of us has with other people is the paradigm, the template, for the relationship we want to have with God. If our fellows’ forgiveness takes precedence over God’s forgiveness, it means that how we treat others is an essential first step toward Divine forgiveness. Our ethical relationship with people is the starting point for our relationship with the Other. It is like a sketch of a masterpiece. We cannot create a masterpiece without making a sketch first. Similarly, we cannot obtain divine forgiveness without asking for human forgiveness first. This is the interpretation of the passage from Pirke Avot: “He in whom the spirit of his fellow-creatures takes not delight, in him the Spirit of the All-present takes not delight.” (Pirke Avot 3:13)

 

How can we ask God to forgive the sins we committed against God when we behave in an unethical way toward others? When we are part of a community, we are all responsible for our ethical behaviors toward one another, Jew and non-Jew alike. When our eyes meet the eyes of others during these days, those eyes are mirrors that reflect the ethical standards, the behavior of each one of us and remind us to be mensches. Can I, or you, look at those eyes directly? Or do we need to avoid them?

 

It is only together, as a community, that each of us can present ourselves to God to be judged. Facing our Judge, we are hostages of one another. Our fellow is not our Hell (what compels our worst behaviors) but rather the witness of our highest ethical behaviors: if the people we hurt are not here today, if our witnesses fail to present themselves, our cases are weakened. Our fellows open the door to the Divine.

 

We can ask ourselves why in Judaism, our relationship with others  is so important. Why is it paramount, to the extent that Rabbi Akiva ranks as the most important principle in Torah the famous passage (Lev 19:18) “Love your fellow as yourself. I am the Lord”? The Talmud says that the hermit cannot be saint. In Judaism, the highest form of behavior does not consist of renouncing life’s pleasures, excluding oneself from the community and practicing aestheticism. Rather, the ideal Jew is the chassid, the tsadik, the Just, who lives in an ethical way. It is in this daily facing of life and how we relate to others where ethical behavior finds its full expression, the Jewish ideal. And it is through how we treat others, the respect we show them  and how we relate to them, that we express our reverence for God, who created human beings in God’s image.

 

Judaism has created the idea of “fellow”, and with it the ideas of humanity and humaneness. Judaism teaches us that loving one another and love of the Divine are synonymous because in each human face we can see God’s face. The mitzvah of loving one’s fellow does not mean to love based on an individual’s  position in society, according to medals, merits, power or money, or how famous that person is.  We Jews value each individual’s human dignity and accord each one the place that God has accorded to that individual. The immense purpose that God has for our fellows is encapsulated in these following words: created in God’s image. (Gen 1:27)

 

If, in all our dealings with our fellows, honoring God is implicit in the virtue of our being guarantors of our Creator’s purpose and magnificence , the challenge is constant and burdensome. “Love your fellow as yourself” is not an easy task if we want to accomplish this obligation sincerely and unhypocritically. The challenge is to put aside natural selfishness in order to fulfill a mitzvah. In a hassidic story, a student raises the following question: “Our sages have taught that everything has its place, even human beings have their place. If so, why then do humans feel sometimes in a narrow place? Answer: Because they want to occupy the place of the other.” This dialogue succinctly expresses how difficult relating to others respectfully can be. Our fellow is an annoying impediment who stands between us and our desire for power, our tendency to behave unjustly or violently…all natural inclinations, but never excusable.

 

Alain Finkielkraut wrote in his bookWisdom of Love: “The Other, that’s the problem! … It is not me who loves the fellow in a natural way, it is the other who is my responsibility and my mishap, who haunts me and crushes me – in short, who makes violence to my nature by commanding me to love the other.” It is not surprising, then, that the Torah will command us to love our fellow, a starting point in the difficult, ethical path that humans must follow to show reverence to God.

 

At the same time, this love cannot be an all-encompassing love but needs to be narrowed. It should not lead to the disappearance of the self into the other because you are also created in God’s image. Rabbi Akiva reminds us,  “Your own life takes precedence over that of your fellow.” (TB BM 62a) This commandment is as difficult as the one to love our fellow. It is easy to love those who are like us, who reflect our own image, with whom we share friendships, interests, desires, love. It is much harder to love those who are different from us, who reflect a distorted image of ourselves – an image that we may not like at all! – who criticizes us, who  constantly questions us, who challenges our routines, our prejudices, our autonomy.

 

 

And loving our fellows should also include loving our enemies, who deny us, who want us dead, who are amoral. For certain, Torah does not ask from us what’s easy. There is no need to command me to love my friends. It is a requirement: “Love your fellow as yourself.” This also means to love as yourself those who are far away from you. Through the countenance of our nemeses, we have to see their humanity and look for the hidden Divine within them. Proverbs reads (25:21) “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat. If he is thirsty give him water to drink.”

 

But if love is respecting the other, how can we love our enemies when their acts are reprehensible and unethical? Do we limit the love for those who deny us? Again, there are no limits. The answer to this conundrum  lies in the concept of teshuvah, returning to oneself. The Talmud teaches us that God does not want the death of the sinner, but that the sinner should change ways and live. Therefore, teshuvah is the ability to change bad into good, enemy into friend, hate into love, “bad-factor” into benefactor. But we also know that we cannot accomplish this task  through magic or the  miraculous. It demands effort, time and constant questioning. And let’s not forget that the enemy that we find so hard to love may be ourselves. Frequently, while we easily find fault with others and not in ourselves, there is something in our fellow’s visage that makes us aware of what needs to change in us.

 

The presence of the community is essential to the quest for teshuvah. During this High Holidays, we have a chance to deserve love and to spread love, the  kind of love that expresses itself in simple actions. It is in this mutual, ethical relationship within the community that we will stand in front of the Creator to plead our cause and ask for forgiveness.

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Beginning Again

Beginning Again

This is time of year filled with awe and wonder. We stand on the edge of a new year, looking back on the one which has passed and looking forward to the future. It is a time of anticipation and reflection, filled with memories, hopes and dreams.

Our Torah portion this week mirrors the cycle of the calendar year. The Israelites stand together with Moses at the top of the mountain, looking forward to the land they are about to inherit. The future is stretched out before them, an amazing tapestry of possibilities which they consider with excitement and joy. At the same time they are looking back at the road they have travelled; their miraculous escape from Pharaoh, the years of wandering in the desert, their mistakes and achievements, the moments of triumph and the times of sadness, transgressions and misdeeds.

Moses, the man who has led them on their epic wanderings is preparing for his own death, preparing for the moment when he has to leave his people in the hands of a new leader. He knows these will be amongst his final words, his last chance to leave an imprint upon them. The Israelites are gathered together, all in one place, together with the generations who were and those yet to be, to listen to the voice of their past and move towards the future.

On Sunday night we celebrate Rosh ha-shanah the time when we, like the Israelites, will gather together and move into our future. We will great the new year with all the possibilities it holds. But before we cross to a new land, we like the Israelites spend time looking back on the past, reflecting on its lessons, recalling its joys and its sorrows. We too remember those who are no longer beside us but whose presence we continue to feel. We recall the triumphs and glories as well as the moments of degradation and sadness. And we undertake a process of cheshbon ha-nefesh, soul searching, where we repair our relationships and ourselves so we can walk into the new year and all its possibilities, refreshed, cleansed and ready to begin again.

May the new year be sweet, filled with blessings, beauty and endless possibilities. Shabbat Shalom.

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All Life is Sacred

All Life is Sacred

There is a very powerful teaching from Moses at the beginning of this week’s parashah Ki Tavo that should be quoted in full given the extraordinary expectation of our ancestors of us. Moses says:

The Lord your God commands you this day to observe these laws and rules; observe them faithfully with all your heart and soul. You have affirmed this day that the Lord is your God, that you will walk in God’s ways, that you will observe God’s laws and commandments and rules, and that you will hearken to God’s voice. And the Lord has affirmed this day that you are, as promised you, God’s treasured people who shall observe all God’s commandments, and that God will set you, in fame and renown and glory, high above all the nations that God has made; and that you shall be, as God promised, a holy people to the Lord.”

But there are many potential problems with this teaching:

1) how do we know precisely what are God’s laws and rules? Especially, given some of the harmful laws and rules of the Torah, and their lack of mitigation by generations of rabbis, how can we “observe [them] faithfully with all our heart and soul?”

2) Just what does it mean to walk in God’s ways and to hearken to God’s voice?

3) Is it not rather ostentatious to seek fame and renown and glory above other nations?

4) And what does it mean to be a holy people? While each of us can come up with many challenges regarding some of the potential chauvinistic and triumphalist inferences one can draw from these passages, there is something beautiful and inspiring in them as well.

What if we could really make a difference as part of a community, part of a nation, living with sacred purpose, that is as a holy nation? What if we chose to live life as if , as Immanuel Kant said, “the maxim of our actions were to become universal law?” What if each of us were to understand that because of the very life force that pulses through us we have obligations to all other manifestations of life? What if we as Jews were to say this notion, of serving the unity of creation with all our heart and soul and being, is an original idea of our ancestors and worthy of our implementation? What if we as Jews were to say that we receive this teaching of our tradition and therefore commit to live our lives with a sense of obligation to certain principles, the ultimate one being that all life is sacred? Should we not thereby approach every other human, the other animals of whom we are one species, and the environment that sustains us all with more love, care, concern, attention, intention, humility and decency?

Our world cries out for this behavior. In this Torah, Moses challenges us to be a personal example. In these weeks before the dawn of a new year, we really have no more excuses.

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