Monday, August 25, 2008

Parashat Ekev

Parashat Ekev begins with a reminder that if we follow the commandments God will reward us with blessing. Standing at the Jordan, the Israelites could see before them the greatest of the blessings God offers: the Holy Land. In Deuteronomy 8:7-9, we read that the land is
“a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; 8 a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey; 9 a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing…”

This land that the spies found to be flowing with milk and honey also will provide seven species of valuable produce for consumption and trade. Next we are told that the stones of the land will yield iron, and that copper can be mined from the hills. It is a sharp contrast to desert life, where the land provided nothing but scorpions and snakes, and where the hills gave us sand and more sand. It is hard to imagine a better reward to a generation of people who have never known anything but desert life.

The next section, immediately following the description of this amazing land, reminds us of desert life again. Beginning with verse 12 we hear an admonition to not forget the travels in the desert. It would be easy after living in this prosperous land to not remind the future generations about the trials of the forty year journey through the desert. Why bother them with the difficulties of the past when we can enjoy what we have today? The Torah answers this very question.

We are commanded not to forget that God brought us out of Egypt. God led us through the wilderness, gave us water and food where there is none to be found. God would not let our clothes wear down or our feet swell. We did not have to worry about the day to day. We had food, water, and clothing provided for us by God. It was a miraculous time.

In the Promised Land there will still be food and water, but humans will grow and harvest the food. Humans will draw water from the wells. After a little while in the Promised Land it would be easy to believe that the crops that we grow and the water we draw are from our efforts alone. We might forget that the figs, pomegranates, wheat, barley, olives, and honey are gifts from God.

So we are commanded to never forget the wandering in the desert. A reminder not that we have had it so rough, not a chest beating for all we have endured. This is a reminder that everything we have is a miracle from God. Remember the miracles in the desert? Remember the water flowing from a rock and the manna falling with the dew? We still live with miracles! They just are not as blatant as they used to be, so we are commanded to remember the miracles of the past in order to acknowledge the miracles of today.

During prayer services we remind ourselves of this in the Modim section of the Amidah. We thank God “for your wondrous gifts at all times, morning, noon, and night.” We also remind ourselves of this when we pray nissim b’chol yom, the blessing section for our daily miracles. Reminders in our liturgy and our Torah are there to keep us from thinking that everything we do comes from our power. The gifts of having food and water, sharing time with our loved ones, and providing the basic necessities for them are miracles.

May we all be able to realize the miracles of every day, big and small. May we find that as we work towards perfecting the world, we acknowledge God’s work with our hands. May it be God’s will that we continue to be instruments of making miracles.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Parashat Va'etchanan

The Reubenites and the Gadites named the altar "Witness", meaning, "It is a witness between us and them that Adonai is our God."
(Joshua 22:34)

Gabriel had his four-year check up this week. Not a big deal—it was mostly looking in the mouth, ears, and eyes. The usual doctor stuff. The one thing that was different this time was Gabriel’s first hearing and vision test. He passed both with flying colors and sounds, so no worries. The hard part was getting Gabriel to take the tests.

The first test was for hearing. He had to put the ear phones on and listen for a beep in one ear or the other. We tried to make a game out of it. “How fast can you raise your hand after a beep?” “Great job!! Two points for Gabriel!!!” (You use a lot of exclamation points when talking to a four-year-old.) When the nurse was finished, she took off the earphones and told us that his hearing is great. Never one who lets people go without a joke, I asked, “What can you tell us about his listening?” She responded, “Try being interesting,” without skipping a beat. I must have been the 1001st time she had heard that one.

This week in Parshat Va’etchanan we read the Shema, our Jewish credo. It’s the first prayer we memorize in religious school. It’s the beginning of the instructions written in our mezzuzot and our tefillin. “Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai alone,” is how it is translated in “Gates of Grey.” The first word, shema, is the command form of the verb lishmoa, “to hear.” We are commanded to hear that we have one and only one God, and we refer to God as Adonai. Hear. Not listen, just hear. Like Gabriel’s hearing test, it leaves us wondering about the difference between hearing and listening. It makes us wonder why the word is not hitbonen “concentrate,” or hakshiv “pay attention.”

In the book of Joshua, chapter 22, Joshua sends the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh back to their land holdings across the Jordan River. Before they cross the river, the three tribes build a “great conspicuous altar.” This angers the other tribes, as they believe the altar is for worshipping other gods. The Reubenites, Gadites, and Manassites explain that they built the altar not as hillul hashem (so to speak), but for future generations, so that if the tribes in the Promised Land were ever to question the validity of the outer tribes’ stake in Klal Yisrael, the altar would serve as a witness. In fact, they name the altar “witness,” as it says in Joshua 22:34 (see above), and the inner tribes are pleased.

Just like the “great conspicuous altar” served as a witness to the future generations of the Reubenites and the Gadites, the Shema serves as a witness to our future generations. The words of the Shema are as familiar to our Jewish youth as the Pledge of Allegiance is to most American youth. We pass these words down from generation to generation, reminding ourselves and our children to keep the words of the Shema on our heart and minds, to write them on our doorposts and in our phylacteries, and to discuss them and teach them at every opportunity. When we go into any synagogue, anywhere in the world, we can be assured that the words of the Shema will be recited aloud. We feel at home when we hear the familiar words of our liturgy, even if different nusach is used. Any Jewish person who walks into any synagogue is welcomed by the familiarity of the words we say, which serve as our testament. The Shema is our way of proving, as it were, the validity of our faith in God, and our connection to the Jewish people.
There is a textual link to this idea in addition to the theological one. In Joshua 22:34, they build the altar as a witness that “Adonai is God.” In the words of the Shema, we declare that Adonai is God. We are commanded specifically to hear, but there is a hidden command in the verse. The enlarged letters ayin and dalet in the first and last words of the Shema spell the word eid, or witness—the name of the altar built by the Reubenites and Gadites. The implicit command is that we are to use this creed as a witness for future generations. We need only hear the shema, and we have witnessed the faith of generations past. So too will our grandchildren’s grandchildren witness our faith every time they hear the Shema, wherever they are. These six words hold such meaning that our faith is reaffirmed every time we read them, every time we utter them, and every time we hear them.

Just by hearing these six words, we serve as witnesses. Sometimes when we hear we are being passive, just letting sounds flow into our ear. With the words of the Shema, we cannot hear them without listening. It is culturally impossible for us to just hear these powerful words, so we are commanded to hear them, and God knows that when we hear these words, we are connected as a people of faith. Just letting the words enter our ears makes us a part of a people that has survived generations.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Parashat Devarim

Deuteronomy 1:12-13
12 How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering! 13 Pick from each of your tribes men who are wise, discerning, and experienced, and I will appoint them as your heads."

The first thing that struck me about this choice for our continuing chevruta is the first word in Hebrew: eichah. With Tisha B’av this coming Sunday, and Megillat Eichah in our purview, I have to point out that this is an appropriate pericope to study indeed (Thanks to Rabbi Brad Levenberg for suggesting these verses).
Back to the text, Moses bewails the need to share in the leadership of the Israelites in a review of Parashat Yitro where his father-in-law tells him the same thing. Moses appoints a leadership team to help him. In sharing in the responsibilities of managing the Israelites, Moses hits on an extremely important aspect of Jewish Life: We cannot be alone.
So too on Tisha B’av, our day of mourning when we lament over the tragedies that have befallen our people age after age. We do not eat, and mourn on a personal level by how we treat our bodies. But that does not suffice. We gather to mourn and pray. We read aloud the words of the book of eichah, “How lonely sits the city Once great with people! She that was great among nations Is become like a widow; The princess among states Is become a thrall.” We sit lonely, but not alone.
When we are at our most desperate, we call on our community as Moses does when he appoints leaders of tens, fifties, hundreds, and thousands. When we are mourning personal or communal losses, we call on our community to cry with us. When we are feeling lonely, we call on our community to remind us that as a Jewish people, we are never alon.