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Archive for Juliol de 2013

Parashat Ekev

In this week’s parashah Moses continues his recounting of the events which have befallen the Israelites during their wanderings. He reminds them of the miracles, the incredible moments as well as the hardships and challenges they have faced. And then comes the poignant warning: remember that any goodness you have or will receive comes to you not because of your merit, it was the grace of God which provided it for you. So be sure to thank and bless God for all the kindnesses which have been bestowed upon you. Moses is aware of and concerned that it is easy to love and give praise and thanks to God when times are difficult, but the danger is when things are going well, it is then we can fall into arrogance. To believe that we are the architect of all our achievements and that we need not be grateful for our blessings for they were deserved. We have all heard the expression; “there are no atheists in foxholes,” and the great dangers Moses warns the people about are the dangers of affluence, security and success.

 

Nehama Leibowitz, the great Torah scholar suggests that Moses reminds the people to thank and praise God for the small moments in life to highlight the everyday miracles. It is easy, she suggests, to have faith in God and give thanks when a person experiences revelation, the exodus, manna falling from the sky, it is far more difficult amongst the mundane of everyday life. The generation that are about to enter the Promised Land have heard from their parents about the great miracles which happened for them, some even experienced those moments. But Moses is aware that as time moves on and all they have are the stories, it will be easy to forget all that God has done for them. For that reason, Moses reminds the people to stop, notice and give thanks for the small miracles which happen around us every day; the blessing of food to eat, a roof over our heads, the natural world. And if we stop to say a blessing of thanksgiving, we will notice what we may otherwise dismiss as part of the every day. We no longer have the great miracles happening but Nachmanides says that miracles are everywhere around us, we just need to open our eyes to see and appreciate them. 

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Parashat Vaethanan

The Jew as Witness

 

It is extraordinary how six short words and two large letters can have such impact on our self-understanding as Jews, yet this is the significance of the first words of the Shema. The Shema, taught in this week’s Torah portion, is encased in our mezuzot and tefillin, enshrined in our evening and morning prayers, ataught to our children and recited by us on our death. Yet while these words are present in our lives, their significance is not always pondered.

 

The first two words invoke our sense as a people, a nation. Moses begins his instruction “Shema Yisrael” – hear Israel. So many of us think “Jewish” is our religion, when there is not even a word for religion in the Torah. Israel comprised a collection of tribes who shared a land, a language and a way of life. Of those tribes, Judah was the primary one to survive, and thus our identity as Jews. What follows is what makes us unique as a people – we not only share land, language and law, but also a faith that shapes our values.

 

Moses instructs us “Adonai Eloheinu” – meaning Adonai is our God. But Adonai is actually a substitute for the original word in the declaration of the Shema which is comprised of four letters – yud, hey, vav, hey – that are a form of the verb “to be”. Moses is instructing us, that “Being” is what our God is.

 

In the final two words, Moses then teaches “Adonai Echad” – thus, Being is One. From this derives the understanding that our God is all about the unity of being – meaning all life is interconnected, and we are just an aspect of all that is. Everything in life flows from that – all our obligations to do right by others, to protect our environment, to care for animals, to care for our bodies and souls, to act with compassion and humility – everything is connected to everything.

 

Finally, two large letters – an “ayin” at the end of the first word and a “daled” at the end of the last word. Together these letters spell the Hebrew word “ed”, or witness.

 

The task of each Jew is to give witness that life is a unity and all of us are called to serve it.

 

These days many Jews love our food and culture, but are less aware of our faith and call to consciousness. Yes, we are a proud and ancient people, as in “Shema Yisrael”. But we are also unique for we are also a faith people – and it is our faith that has spurred our ability to survive tragedy, as we recalled on Tisha B’Av this week. Our words and deeds, our behavior throughout our waking moments, is meant to demonstrate that we internalize our core teaching: connected to all, we strive towards concern and consideration for all.

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TO BE SPIRITUAL IS NECESSARY BUT NOT SUFFICIENT

 

Each year we come to this time of confrontation, when our greatest prophets challenge us to get out of our solipsistic thinking and do something positive and helpful for life itself. Alas, it seems as if as the years go on, the pleas from Moses and Isaiah, the greatest prophets of the Jewish people and perhaps all humanity, fall on ears turning more and more deaf. Jews, like many others, are “seeking spirituality”. Certainly, it is necessary, crucial, for each of us to be touched deep in our spiritual core, for our souls to feel connected to the source of life and light we call God, and therefore to each other. But spirituality is ultimately a launching point for action and goodness.

 

The entire book of Deuteronomy is a series of speeches by Moses imploring people to in essence “love God” (the spiritual element of being) as part of a covenant to be a people of justice and right action (the human element of doing). In his opening message read always in conjunction with the opening of Deuteronomy, Isaiah shares his vision with the people: “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth, for the Lord has spoken: ‘I reared children and brought them up – and they have rebelled against Me! . . . that you come to appear before Me – who asked that of you? Though you pray at length, I will not listen. Your hands are stained with crime.” (Excerpted from Isaiah 1: 1-15). Read in their entirety, these verses clearly state the essential Jewish proposition taught since the time of Abraham, that to “walk with God” means to do that which is just and right.

 

Reading through the Torah, Jews are often surprised that it does not speak much of spirituality. Today, many people want to turn their back on religion in order to pursue the spiritual life. It seems as if people are asking for a life of inner reflection without a sense of responsibility or obligation for the other. Judaism, like certain other spiritual practices, teaches that the earth and all on it is the living expression of God. To be truly spiritual therefore is to embrace fully the human realm and all its requirements. Absolutely we must be in touch with our inner self – but not exclusively so. Thus, Isaiah further teaches in the name of God, “Wash yourselves clean, put your evil doings away from My sight. Cease to do evil; learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged.” (Isaiah 1:16-17) To truly be a spiritual person, one must walk the walk, talk the talk.

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Reflection, Responsibility and Repentance

 

The combined parshiyot of Matot-Masei brings us to the end of the book of B’midbar, reviewing the journeys our ancestors took in the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness to the point they are ready to begin their conquest of the land. It also presents details of the idealized border of the land and its apportionment. The way the weekly readings of the Torah are organized, these sections are always read between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av, known as the “three weeks”. Coincidentally, this period commemorates the time from the breaching of the walls of both the First and Temple (by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the Romans in 70 CE) walls the Temples’ destruction on the 9th of AV. In each disaster, nearly one third of our people were killed, until the Sho’ah, the greatest disaster that befell the Jewish people. The haftorot selected for these weeks accordingly do not evoke the readings of the Torah but rather this season, a time of admonition.

 

The opening words of the prophet Jeremiah (read last week with parashah Pinchas) reflect the themes of divine providence and imminent doom. Yet Jeremiah also reveals a promise of God’s ultimate protection. The continuation of his message, read this week, is an extensive indictment of widespread faithlessness, ingratitude and apostasy, addressed to the entire nation. However, Jeremiah continues to offer hope, in that repentance, return to God, will lead to God’s blessing. The message of the prophets, from Moses to those who prophesied during the time of the First Temple is consistent – our presence in the land is conditional and based on our relationship with God and application of justice.

 

This period of the three weeks is then followed by seven weeks that lead to Rosh Hashanah. During those weeks, we read special haftarot from the prophet Isaiah providing a hopeful message of reconciliation and healing. This three week period thus presents us with the first intimation of spiritual growth. Just as the seed must be planted in the cold, dark ground before it sprouts, so too the individual must explore the deep and dark areas to achieve greater spiritual growth.

 

Jeremiah calls us to begin already that reflection on responsibility – not just on a personal level, but collective as well. The culmination of this first round of review is the ninth of Av, a fast day on a par with Yom Kippur. 

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