Archive for Agost de 2016

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.

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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.

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Eichah, how can it be? How can it be that in the face of overwhelming knowledge of the consequences of our action, we continue to plunder our planet?

How can it be that we continue to consume animals in the way we do, knowing that our consumption supports cruel factory farming that further despoils the environment?

How can it be that self-centeredness and greed so permeates our lives that one per cent of the people on earth have 90% of its wealth, with some individuals wealthier than countries?

How can it be that we can close our eyes to the suffering of refugees fleeing from war and famine? Eichah, how can it be?

This Shabbat followed by the commemoration of Tisha B’Av, we will hear the plaintive cry of “Eichah” from three different prophets. First, Moshe, in the opening of his book of Deuteronomy; second, Isaiah, whose prophecy is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, and finally Jeremiah, whose book Eichah we read at the evening and morning services of Tisha B’Av.

Our tradition has established that these three cries of Eichah are all read at the culmination of these three weeks of darkness between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av. The 17th of Tammuz commemorates the day the walls of Jerusalem were breached, first by the Babylonians in 576 BCE and then the Romans in the year 70CE. The destruction of the First and Second Temples were horrific, devastating events as consequential for the Jews of those times as the Shoah for us. For millennia we have been reflecting on what befell us in those dark times; as well, the message of our prophets has been that we must take responsibility for those acts of devastation, for we were not merely victims but responsible citizens of the world making choices that had disastrous consequences. Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah all charge us to make an honest assessment of where we went wrong as a people.

These three weeks, culminating in the commemoration of Tisha B’Av in that sense are a parallel to the time leading up to Yom Kippur. Just in the month of Elul and over the Yamim Noraim we are called to do a fearless individual moral reckoning, so too in this time are we meant to undertake an honest communal moral reckoning.

Eichah though is not just a plaintive cry, but also a call to action. Judaism’s way is not to wallow in the darkness, but to examine it to see where cracks of light can come through. The point of moral accounting is to have resolve to make changes – this season of the three weeks we are called to make changes to community and society to be more responsive to the problems of “how can it be?”, and more responsible for making it no longer so. The word “Eichah” in Hebrew can also be vowelled “Ayekha” – the first question from God to human: Where are you?

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With our double Torah portion this week we conclude the book of Bamidbar, the book of Numbers which details the wanderings of the Children of Israel in the desert. It recounts the tales of their challenges and their triumphs, their struggles and their joys. It is a snapshot of life on the road. Amy Scheinerman says that most of this book is the story of Moses’ struggle to keep this Israelites together, to create a community out of a disparate bunch of former slaves. Alan Cook notes that while this portion is called matot, tribes, referring to the 12 tribes into which the Israelites were divided, there is no portion called B’nai Israel, the children of Israel, no portion which identifies the unity of the people. The individual nature of the tribes is celebrated, they stand apart from the other tribes, often only coming together to fight a common enemy and in this portion, we read about the tribes of Reuben, Gad and the half tribe of Menasseh who ask not to settle in the Promised Land but instead to be allowed to remain outside in land which is more suitable for their cattle. As much as Moses has tried, it has been an uphill battle to bring the groups together, to create community, to show the value of joining together rather than walking the journey alone.

It is a lesson we still need to learn today. Robert Bellah wrote in “Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life” :

American cultural traditions define personality, achievement and the purpose of human life in ways that leave the individual suspended in glorious but terrifying isolation.”

(As found in Amy Sheinerman, Voices of Torah)

Bellah’s book was penned in 2007, how much more is that true of our lives today. We celebrate individuality, we strive to stand out, to be unique and to be noticed. In a shocking study where children were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up a large number responded “famous.” What does that say about the world we are creating and what we value? Have we lost our way? Lost our sense of community?

Like the Israelites in the desert, we too need to understand the significance and importance of community. At the beginning of the second portion of this week’s Torah, Masei, it says “eleh masei b’nei Yisrael” “these are the marches of the Children of Israel.” At the end of the marches, they have become the Children of Israel. No longer the tribes, they are now one, united, a community working together, leaning on one another, supporting, nurturing and caring for each other. Through the desert wanderings they have learned that community is important, that being on a shared journey is significant and can bring richness to life which did not exist before.

In the portion we are commanded to set aside six cities of refuge. The rabbis note that six is the number of words in the shema, the prayer which speaks of the unity of God, and the oneness of creation and humanity. This suggests that when we connect with the unity that is God, we can draw from that well of strength to join together as one community. It is the embracing of the oneness of the Divine and the oneness of humanity which will provide an antidote to the loneliness and isolation of our world and connect us to something greater than ourselves.

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