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Themes in this week’s Torah section include: the importance of gratitude and the importance of celebrating the fruits of our labour. These are also relevant to our preparation for the High Holiday period.

Moses instructs the people that when they enter the Land of Israel and cultivate the land they are to bring the first-ripened fruits to the Temple as a sign of gratitude.

The word for gratitude in Hebrew is “hodaya” (“todah” means thank you). This word shares the same root as the word Jew, “Yehudi”. The Sages connect these words and teach that a fundamental aspect to being a Jew is cultivating a sense of gratitude and hence, there are many prayers and rituals within Judaism that connect us with sentiments of thanksgiving. In fact the first prayer of the morning, the very first words a Jew is encouraged to say each morning are: “model ani” (“Modah ani” for a woman), meaning “I am grateful”.

We also know that studies in psychology show that feelings of gratitude and practices In our lives that help us remember what we are grateful for, lead to greater levels of wellbeing.

So, instilling routines in our lives to remind us of things we are grateful for can be helpful making our lives and the lives of those around us more harmonious. We can learn from the ancient tradition of bringing the first-ripened fruits to Jerusalem as an act of gratitude and consider how it might be relevant to us today.

Firstly, we can make time regularly to consider the fruits of our labor, to celebrate them and to give thanks for them. So often we can achieve something and quickly go on to the next thing, not making time to fully recognize the success, and also not making time to give thanks.

A second aspect is that making time to give thanks reminds us that we are not alone. Every achievement we have is a composite of many factors – luck, help from others, hard work and more.

During this month of Elul, it is a fitting time to reflect on what we are grateful for in our lives and also to consider what we have been working towards over the year and what fruits have come from it. It is a time to celebrate what we have achieved and to thank others for the help they have given. We can also make time to consider how we can make giving thanks a regular part of our lives. What routines will we put in place for the year to come so our levels of wellbeing can be even better.

Wishing you a Shabbat shalom and a Shabbat of gratitude.

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The true test of someone’s character is not when things are going smoothly, as fundamentally, those situations do not test our character. It is when times are challenging that our moral integrity truly presents itself. How that person reacts to adversity is really the litmus test. In this week’s parasha, Ki Teitzei, we have a host of laws that delineate the expectations for how the Israelites are expected to act in relationship among themselves, towards other nations and all of God’s creatures. They are the foundational guide to how we are to build a healthy, holy and just society.

Having these laws is an extremely powerful guide, yet what I find most telling are the laws that pertain to times of war. War is a time that can potentially lead to the unshackling of our human restraints. Where violence is involved, our base instincts are in danger of taking over and extreme acts of brutality are possible. These laws are reminding us, that even in those circumstances, we are not to allow ourselves to lose control. We are taught to know that “All is fair in love and war” is simply not true. Specifically, in this week’s parasha, we are reminded not to take advantage of the weak or the captured. This is embodied in the law about allowing a captive woman to mourn for her parents a full 30 days. Only once that period has concluded, according to the rabbis, may the soldier marry her, but only if she consents. It has been the way of war for a vast portion of human history, that the conquered were enslaved or even forcibly married. Our tradition forces us to restrain ourselves in a time when that would be exceedingly difficult and in the process doing away with a barbaric tradition, compelling us to have compassion on the weak. If we can achieve that in a moment of war, then how much the more so in peace, it should be no challenge.

This is further reinforced by the injunction at the end of the parasha, to destroy the nation of Amalek. The reason given is that Amalek attacked the weakest members of Israel. By abusing the weak, their true character was revealed. The test of our morality is how we treat the weak or the most vulnerable in our society. Those who abuse and take advantage of the weak are the lowest of the low.

I pray this week that we always keep in mind those who may be less fortunate than ourselves and in challenging moments, we always remain true to our tradition and keep our hands open to assist those who are in need. Further, I pray that while we may be facing many threats, we always remember who we are and govern ourselves accordingly.

Justice, Justice, you shall pursue!” is one of the key phrases from this week’s Torah reading. Moses instructs the leaders of the Children of Israel to appoint judges and gives details about giving testimony and how each individual has the right to be judged fairly.

The sages ask: “Why is the word justice (tsedek) repeated twice?” One explanation is that there are two types of justice: strict justice – black and white with no wriggle room; and justice that is informed by compassion, a justice that considers the person, their intention, their history including social considerations.

The main text of the Kabbalah, the Zohar, states that justice combined with understanding and compassion is a higher principle and one that is worth striving to live by. Even though you might not be a judge, each of us makes judgment calls many times each day. This week the Torah invites us to consider how we judge things and how much understanding we apply to our discernment process.

This is also the first Shabbat of the Hebrew month of Elul, the month leading up to Rosh ha-Shana, the Jewish New Year. It’s a time of reflection and self-judgement in which we think about the year gone by and ask ourselves: “What went well in the last year?” “How can I improve?”. It’s not a black and white process, we have a whole month to consider different aspects of our life – our health, our emotional wellbeing, our finances, our intellectual endeavors. How can we improve as individuals, a community and a society? This is the process of repentance, teshuvah, which literally means “to return”. Return to what? Return to our essence and to connect to what is truly important in our lives. It is a time to make amends, to find healthy ways to forgive and ask for forgiveness. It is also a time to notice where we need help and to ask for it.

The name of the month, Elul, is the acronym of this phrase from Song of Songs: “Ani Le’dodi Ve’dodi Li – I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is mine”. And so it is important that the process of teshuvah is meant to be a compassionate one, where we act with gentleness in our judgment towards ourselves as well as others.

Are we animals or just lower than the angels? A little bit of each, according to our tradition, which teaches that we are physically the same as animals but intellectually and morally superior to them. As our tradition has evolved, so too has a discussion about our greater similarity to animals – and therefore what is the “ideal” form of kashrut, or fit manner of eating. In parasha Re’eh, the laws of what animals are “tahor”, pure to eat, and which are “tamei” or forbidden, is repeated. The land animals that are “tahor” must chew the cud and have a cloven hoof, the pure sea animals must have fins and scales (NB, all fish that have scales have fins, so it is the former characteristic that is determinative), and only birds that can be domesticated are “tahor”. It seems that the Torah suggests that our superiority to animals enables us to eat them. Yet, nearly all the laws of kashrut are to limit our eating of animals. Is eating kosher animals an ideal or an accommodation to human nature?

All evidence indicates that one of the things that has distinguished the human animal from the other primates is our ability to kill animals and eat their flesh. Perhaps the development of human civilization stems from our being carnivores. Again, the mythic stories of Torah hint that this might be the case – after the disaster of the flood, the Noah story describes humans as over and against animals: “the fear and dread” of us is upon all the animals. The question with which we must grapple is what is the ethical approach to animals. We are clearly animals – if we are to be “a little lower than the angels” we must look at them with eyes that are not merely human but humane.

Many traditional rabbis look back to the opening story of the Torah, the beginning of all life in the imaginative Garden of Eden and say that the ideal human relationship to animal is to recognize the sacredness of all life, and not to consume animals at all. That story teaches that we should eat a vegan diet: “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food.” (Genesis 1:29). According to the great 20th century mystic, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, vegetarianism is the ultimate ethical way of eating. Chasidic traditions have disagreed, teaching that to eat animals elevates their souls.

While the Jewish jury is out on what is the ideal approach to eating animals, Judaism clearly states that we must not treat animals cruelly. These days, that requires that we rethink our approach to the farming of animals and their slaughter, their testing for products and many other issues. This week’s parasha tells us that we will have blessing if we follow “the commandments of God”. Throughout the Torah the notion of blessing, life and good are interconnected. If animals, as it is suggested, are driven by instinct, then humans have the power of discernment and the ability to make moral choices. That most of us consume animals does not absolve us from thinking about and taking responsibility for how they live and how they die. That we are permitted to eat them does not require us to do so, and now more than ever we should reflect on the Torah’s dietary options. Our daily choices have life long consequences.

In this week’s parashah, we find the well-known words from Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals); “V’achalta v’savata u’veirachta et Adonai Elohecha al ha’aretz hatovah asher natan lach – when you have eaten your fill, give thanks to Adonai, your God, for the good of the land which God has given you” (Devarim 8:10).

Our sages taught that it is this verse that forms the basis for the commandment to give thanks after we partake in a meal. While the main foundation for the rather involved Birkat Hamazon lies in the verse quoted above, we learn that it is actually made up of four different blessings. Perhaps even more surprising is that three of the blessings are not food-based. The four blessings are; a blessing for God Who sustains the world with food and nourishment, a blessing for the land of Israel, a blessing/request for the protection and renewal of Jerusalem, and a universal praise of God.

So, why all these blessings? And why do we recite the Hamotzi blessing (over bread) before we eat and the Birkat Hamazon after we eat? Most other times, we recite blessings before or at the time of the event, not afterwards. The Ramban (Nachmanides) says that the Birkat Hamazon is actually a response to arrogance and pompousness. Just a few verses later in this week’s parasha, Moses warns against the eating of the land and enjoying the earth’s abundance without recognition of from where it is that we get our riches, imploring us to remember our history. In a land as good and abundant as the one described in the Torah, it is too easy to enjoy the wealth and opulence, and to forget the source of our blessings.

In that light, the intent of the Birkat Hamazon is to act as a shield to help avoid the lonely emptiness that results from self-gratification and arrogance, and to ensure that we act with humility.

It is a reminder that, in case we forgot, the food that we are so lucky to be able to enjoy, did not just appear out of nowhere, and that there are many factors involved with growing, sourcing, and preparing that food. Moreover, it is a reminder that there are many people who are not as fortunate as we are, who struggle each and every day to get enough food just to survive. Acknowledging their difficulties when we have so much helps us to realize that we need also to show humility, especially during fortunate times.

Reciting Birkat Hamazon, after we have finished enjoying our meal, and doing so with appropriate intentions, allows us to properly express our gratitude and fortune, acknowledging the many aspects that resulted in the food on our plate, and how lucky we are.

This week as we continue Moses’ journey back through the Israelites’ wanderings we find him recalling the moment when he pleaded with God to reverse the decree and allow him to enter the Promised Land. Moses made one mistake and as punishment he is denied the fulfillment of his life’s work, his dream; to bring his people to the land God promised. For more than 40 years Moses has dealt with the stubborn, rebellious Israelites, he has tended to their needs, ministered to them, navigated their relationship with God and after everything, he is told not only will he not go with the Israelites but he must prepare Joshua the next leader who will succeed him.

Imagine the pain of that position, the struggle he must have had, to realize that his dreams would not be fulfilled, that another will go in his place and more than that, he must prepare that person. It would have been tempting to walk away, say: “I am too old, you take over, good luck!” to allow bitterness, anger and jealousy to cloud his actions. But Moses did not do that. He accepted his fate, confronted his mortality and his humanness and sat together with Joshua, teaching and guiding him, as he had the Israelites throughout the years. Moses then turns to the people he so loves and does the same for them, he instructs, he nurtures and he continues the work he has been doing for 40 years. And through this teaching he secures his legacy and ensures his dream will be realized, if not through his own hand.

Moses this week teaches us all an important lesson about disappointment, accepting who we are and being content and proud of having done enough. Few of us, if any, will achieve all our dreams, will reach all our goals, will have lives where we fulfill all our desires. As Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein writes:

…maturity impels us to confront our own limitations, to accept what cannot be changed, in the faith that with all our failings and weaknesses, with all our unfulfilled dreams and our disappointed hopes, each one of us in our unique individuality is cherished by God, who wants us to be the very best we can be but who accepts our humble contrition over what we did not achieve.

(Reform Judaism 10 Minutes of Torah)

Moses reminds us that we are not perfect, not even he who is described as the greatest prophet that ever lived or will live, the one who was chosen by God, who met God face to face, spoke directly with the Divine, even he was flawed, even he made mistakes, and so do we.

Too often the messages we receive are that every avenue is open to us, that we can be and do and achieve anything of which we dream, that all we need to do is work and it will happen. But that is not the reality of the world. I may want to be a world class violinist, I may have dreams of becoming a world changing scientist who discovers a cure for cancer, I may want to be an opera singer, but I will not become any of those things. I can dream and hope and wish but that will not guarantee my success and that is ok. We need to learn from Moses that even one of the greatest leaders did not achieve all that he wanted and that was ok. We possibly won’t do or become everything we hope but Moses teaches us how to be gracious when we don’t, to not berate or blame ourselves but instead to be proud of what we have achieved, to find the good in the steps along the way and to celebrate all that we are rather than mourn what we are not.

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 to pursue a 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: do the deeds that heal earth and humanity.

The rabbis established the scriptural readings in our calendar with great spiritual intention. These readings of Moses and Isaiah always precede Tisha B’Av, the time we commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples. According to tradition, not only the Jewish people, but also God’s Shekhina, or in dwelling presence, went into exile. The Temples were destroyed not because people were not spiritual enough, but because they thought that if only they were spiritual that would be enough. We stand on the verge of the destruction not just of the Temple but of an earth that will sustain human life. May our spiritual pursuits awaken us to our human obligations to act justly and do right, to protect our planet and to provide for those in need.