Netzavim and New Year: Spiraling


Teshuva.  Tefilah. Tzedakah.

That’s what we will keep hearing next week, as we welcome the New Year.  Those are the keys to unlock the door to a good New Year.  Those are the balms, we read, for our souls that have missed the mark so many times over the last year.

I’m not so good with Tefilah, and Teshuvah is tough.  I just studied a bit with my weekly Torah class on this topic.  There’s a section of Deuteronomy (Chapter 30:1-10) that we read this time of year, in parashat Nitzavim.  Within ten verses, the word “shuv” or turning, appeared eight times.   That makes you pay attention.  Turning back, turning inward, turning toward…it’s not just turning in circles.  I don’t really want to go back to the beginning, or back at all.  I would prefer to move on, maybe envisioning spirals instead of returning back to “Go.”   Teshuvah, as “atonement” doesn’t really capture the idea; we go back to those times when we chose the lesser option, but we don’t stay there either.  Rather, we use it to impel us move beyond, choosing better.

Now, Tzedakah has been in my heart and mind a lot.  As many of you remember, I recently started coming downtown Chicago every day for a new job, and among all the good things, there is the constant reminder of those who literally have no place to go.  I see the same people along Jackson Blvd, and if I change my route, I see completely different people, with the same needs.

Tzedakah isn’t charity; “charity” is from love, “tzedakah” is from righteousness.  It’s not something we do out of the goodness of our hearts – it’s commanded that we live righteous lives, and that includes taking care of the vulnerable in our communities.

But it’s so hard, not the sharing or giving part, but the enormity of the need and feeling I can’t really help in any meaningful way.  I’ve started talking to some of the women, especially.  How did they get on the streets?  It seems to start with “I moved here with/for this guy”.  One day, there was a new face on the street, and she seemed so young.  I gave her some money, but stayed to ask her name.  “Do you have any family?”  She had a mom.  “Have you called her?”  She’d been thinking about it.  She’s the same age..younger, in fact…as my daughters.  I imagined their faces, looking up from the hand-made cardboard sign.  “Call her.  Trust me, she’ll want to hear from you.   Call her. If it were my daughter…”  and I started tearing up.  “Call her.”  I haven’t seen her since, though I keep an eye out.  Maybe she did call.

One woman I’ve seen regularly is named Michelle.  Yesterday, it was getting chilly, so I offered her a cup of coffee, and asked how she takes it. She seemed surprised I asked.  When I mentioned I was taking the coffee to a woman on the street, and the barista said, “Michelle?” Yes, Michelle.  As I gave her the coffee, she hugged me.  “I worry about you, Michelle. I don’t know how to help you.”  She asked me to pray for her.  I don’t know how.

Which brings us back to Tefilah.  I’m still not so good with it, and I really don’t know how that helps Michelle, or any of the others I see.  Maybe it’s connecting the three – Teshuva, Tefilah and Tzedakah – in a continuous spiral, one leading to the next and to the next.  I’m better with action than with deep reflection, or at least, that’s the way it seems sometimes.  Actually, I reflect on things all the time.  Is that prayer?  Is that “turning”?   Is Tzedakah handing out the money, or is it looking for them each day? Good things to think about next week.


Posted in Holidays, Shabbat musings | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ki Tavo: Pledges and oaths

icon_pledgeThis week’s parasha, Ki Tavo says that when you bring that basket of first fruits of your harvest to the local priest, to offer it up to God, “you shall recite as follows before Adonai your God: “My father was a fugitive Aramean.  He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation.  The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us.  We cried to Adonai, the God of our fathers, and Adonai heard our plea…Adonai freed us from Egypt….He brought us to this land…[why] I now bring the first fruits of the soil…” (Deut 26:1-10)

Say it every year, every harvest, repeat these words. It’s our origin story.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Say it every day, every morning in school, repeat these words.  These, too, are our origin story.

What are the important concepts in these recitations?  For the Israelite farmer, it’s remembering that our history was one of oppression and slavery; we cast our lots with those folks who came out of slavery and were freed; in short, liberty.  The following texts read “you shall enjoy together with the Levite and stranger in your midst, all the bounty (Deut 26:11), and you must remember to give part of your yield to the most vulnerable in your society – the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.  In short, justice for all.

What’s the takeaway from the Pledge?  Liberty and justice for all, exactly those words.

These are not loyalty pledges.  These are acknowledgements of the most important social values the people have; never forget the fundamental values of the community.  A loyalty pledge, however is a “legal” document that is required for an individual to get the advantages of membership in a group, like employment or tax benefits…or vote.  Over and over, loyalty pledges, especially the ones that target “subversive” groups or organizations, have been found to be unconstitutional.  I remember when I moved to Connecticut.  In order to register to vote, I had to swear to uphold and defend the Constitution of the State of Connecticut, and the United States (in that order, mind you.  Pennsylvania was the same; must be something about those 13 original colonies.)  Well, I thought long and hard about that, but in the end, I decided to go along with it, since it didn’t require me to state I was part of any particular group or political bent.

It does us well to beware the loyalty pledge.  We shouldn’t have to prove or provide personal statements of faith, especially religious statmements, to be a part of our society.  It is crucial that we remember that as we finally see the finish line to this seemingly endless political race.  There are those out there who would find it very easy to cross the line into loyalty pledges, professions of religious alignment, and more, if they haven’t called for them already.

However, it does us well to remember fundamental values of our society, in a formal statement.  We do this allt he time, publically and powerfully.  Secular wedding vows. Citizenship oaths.  Testifying in court.  Ki Tavo reminds us to state clearly who we are, where we came from, what we believe in, and how those values permeate our daily lives, and our unending gratitude for the bounty we enjoy.


Posted in Shabbat musings | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ki Tetze: Keeping an eye out

community“If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it. You must take it back to your fellow.  If your fellow does not live near you, or you do not know who he is,you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him. You shall do the same with his ass, you shall do the same with his garment, and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find. You must not remain indifferent. “  (Deut 22:1-3)

There was a wonderful commentary on this text by my friend Rabbi Sam Feinsmith, a founder of Orot, an outstanding source of adult Jewish learning in the Chicago area. (Check out their programs)  In it, he talks about how easy it is to stop ourselves from seeing the suffering around us, and as we approach the High Holidays, to look inward and see to what extent we ignore our own suffering, pretending not to see.

I see another aspect of this text.  To me, another perspective involves community.  This parasha spends a lot of time describing the things that make for a smooth-running society.If you see something valuable that belongs to someone in your town, if they lose something important, you have to make sure it gets returned.  What if you don’t know who the owner is?  Take the valuable home, and start finding the owner.

In order for this to work, everybody pretty much has to know everybody in town.  You need to know where to look for the owner, and know who owns what.  And this isn’t just evoking some nostalgic small-town time, when a farmer knew his neighbor’s horse or cow.  Think about it –do you know your neighbor’s car or dog?  You have to know each other, to know what each other owns.

“You must not remain indifferent.”  Rashi (11th c France) says it means that you can’t pretend you didn’t see it.  It’s the same verb as in the first verse, “do not ignore it.”  You can’t just walk by and not act.  Even if you’re not on your way home, even if it’s inconvenient, the commentators say, you have to take it upon yourself to rectify the situation, returning property to the owner.

The text first talks about one’s animals, an extremely valuable item, but you must do the same with his garment.  Later in this chapter, we read that if you make a loan to someone, you can’t keep his pledge over night, “that he may sleep in his cloth” i.e., his garment as used as an IOU for the loan.  This is about the needy person’s dignity.  He may owe you money, but you still have to treat him with respect.

Dignity, respect, awareness of one’s valuables, and knowing each other well enough to take the time and effort to return what’s lost.  These are the things that make for a strong community, a strong society.  You have to look, you have to want to see the people around you,  you need to be on the lookout for people in your community who do need help.  You can’t pretend not to see.  This time of the year, we are encouraged to look inward, and that’s important for true teshuva (repentance).  As we gaze inward, let’s remember to take a look at how often we see outside ourselves, too.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Shoftim: Righteous justice

justice_iconYou may be familiar with the line from this week’s parasha, Shoftim, “Justice justice shall you pursue…tzedek tzedek tirdof”   It is one of the more famous statements about justice that the Torah has given the world,  like the one that’s written on the Liberty Bell, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land and all its inhabitants thereof” from Leviticus 25.

But that’s not the one that caught my eye this week.  It’s from the same section as “tzedek tzedek tirdof”.  I noted the verse that begins the parasha, “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that Adonai your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with righteous justice” (Deut17:18) What is righteous justice?  Rashi (11th c France) said it meant that we should have judges that not only have the competency to know the law, but the righteousness needed to rule well.  The text could have just said, “rule with justice” , but seems to add a layer of meaning with the adjective, “righteous.”  There is more to being a judge than just knowing the law.

Shortly thereafter, we get a description of what another kind of leader should look like in the Land, a king.  He should be a local, not a foreigner, a guy who doesn’t have a lot of wives or horses, not too wealthy, and one who has by his side, “mishneh Torah”, translated by JPS as “a copy of the Teaching.”  Again, Rashi says that means he should have two scrolls, one in storage and one that goes with him as he travels, but Onkelos (1st century convert who wrote an entire translation/interpretation of Torah into Aramaic) says the word “mishneh” means more of a discussion than a straightforward copy.    The king should be engaging in discourse.

I have in my notes for this section, “The discourse takes the place of the Instruction.  Human interaction with the Law changes the Law.” (Yes, I do write notes like this)

Human interaction with the Law changes the Law.  We’ve seen this before; just a few weeks ago, we re-read the story of Zelophechad’s daughters, when the Law was set out for inheritance, but the reality on the ground, of a man with only daughters, required Moses (and God!) to change the laws to be more just.  Here, God (through Moses) was acting as the kind of judge God wants us to have.  It’s not enough to know the law, but one must apply it with righteousness, compassion, reality, connection to the people whom these laws actually affect.  And, thousands of years of interaction with the Law, in the form of Talmud, continued commentary, scholars and righteous wrestling, the Law has changed, too.

Today, as then, we have different kinds of leaders, both judges and national rulers.  Our rulers help choose judges.  We choose the rulers, and we have to take the teaching of Torah seriously in this regard, not as a theocracy, but as a guide to what makes a society the best it can be.  We need rulers who appoint judges who not only know the law, but can apply that law with righteousness, ones that can foresee how actual people are affected by their rulings.  Compassion, reality, perspective, ideals and the touchstone of righteousness are all crucial components for leadership.  Choose wisely.  Rashi, as usual, was right.

Posted in Shabbat musings | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Re’eh: Find a way out of no way

homeless__large“There shall be no needy among you.” (Deut 15:4)

“If however there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land…do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman.”  (Deut 15:7)

“For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.” (Deut 15:11)

Within one chapter, Torah tells us there will be no needy, there might be some needy, and there will never cease to be the needy.  What is one to believe?  What’s to be learned from that?  Why does Torah present us with such a contradiction?

As some of you know, I started working downtown Chicago in a new job, working for Spertus Institute the graduate college of Jewish studies.  I had been working out of my home, and although it was full time, there was a certain freedom to walking down the hall for one’s “commute”, and getting errands done during lunch, etc.  Now, I’m taking an early train, walking a mile each way, back and forth from the school to the train station.  It’s a beautiful time of the year (for now!) and the Michigan Avenue view is unequaled.  It’s good to be working among people, too, instead of in near constant solitude.

There are other people I see every day, whom I never saw on my commute down the hallway:  the homeless that inhabit every single block on my mile walk.  They have signs, they have bundles, they have eyes and stories that pierce my heart every single morning and afternoon.  Far from being invisible to me, they fill my eyes.  Earlier this week, a particular man who habitually inhabited a certain corner, wasn’t there.  I thought about him all day, and almost felt relieved when he showed up again today.

I can’t help them directly. I don’t have enough money to give to each of them, day after day, mile after mile.  It will be cold soon, and I have no idea what that will be like. Sometimes I share some breakfast, or a sandwich, or some money, but it’s not enough.  There are so many, and if I walk down a different street, I will see a whole other group.

I don’t have the answers.  Torah tells me there will be no needy, but in case there are…well, there are.  What are we to do?  Open our hands to the poor.  Our pockets may not be limitless, but our hearts can be.  There will be no needy, if we do the work that has to be done, so that no one falls through the cracks in the sidewalks.  It’s not just an ideal that Deuteronomy speaks about, it’s not just a dream world.  There are real solutions.  One city I read about goes around to the streetfolk and offers them a day’s work and pay, cleaning, gardening, doing the work a city needs doing.  Another city has a shower-mobile and volunteer hairdressers that give people their dignity back by simply giving them a shower and a haircut.  In San Francisco, Kevin Adler founded MiracleMessages, making short videos of some homeless, posted them, and have begun reuniting families, getting people off the streets.  We can fix this.

These verses aren’t a contradiction. They are an injunction, and direction to go.  They tell us that if we help those in need, they will no longer need.  Find the way, find the connection between those verses, fill in the blanks.  Instead of “hardening our hearts and shutting our hands”, we open them both, finding a way out of no way.



Posted in Shabbat musings | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

V’etchanan: Left behind

being left behindSometimes the relevance of Torah just looks you in the eye and says, “I’m here.”

“Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country… but God ..would not listen to me…for you shall not go across.” (Deut 3:25..27)

People leave, and others cannot follow where they go, no matter how much we want to.  A friend died this week.  He had been ill, he struggled with the pain and the decline, until he couldn’t any more.  He was a man full of joy, and his family and friends feel the loss.

It’s hard to be left behind.  Moses not only knew he was never going to see the Land, but he knew he was going to die soon, too.  How does one face that?  God tells Moses, “Give Joshua his instructions, and imbue him with strength and courage” (Deut 3:28)  The ones that are surrounded by such love and purpose are the ones who can leave behind the strength and courage needed for others to carry on.  We are imbued, we are given a gift of their strength.

Moses was left behind, never quite fulfilling his life’s mission.  Again, how does one face that? And again, Torah tells us to go back to the basics.  Later in this parasha, as Moses talks to the people, he revisits two moments in the life of the community:  the Ten Commandments and the Shma.  These are the core, the foundation, the basis for the entire community’s identity and the essence of what’s important.   The way to live and how to build a just and righteous society, followed by the reason we do so:  You shall love God with all your heart and soul and might.

Sometimes we feel we just aren’t going to complete what we set out to do in life.  Sometimes that life is too short, or ends too abruptly, without a chance to say goodbye.  Sometimes we simply run out of time.  But it does us well to remember that Moses’ life wasn’t about him getting to the Land, it was getting the people  to the Land, getting them ready to take the next step without him.  In that, he did accomplish his life’s work.  He gave them what they needed to carry on, just as my friend gave those lucky enough to know him.

Being left behind hurts the heart.  Remembering the important foundations, whether it’s  of a life well lived, a society well built, or a love well tended…these help ease the hurt a bit.  I hope Moses was comforted by that.  We are.

Posted in Shabbat musings, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Matot/Masei – changing the ending

the storyWe all make lists.  I think making lists is the most optimistic thing a person can do.  It’s like buying green bananas, or ordering an entire season of theater tickets.  The book of Bamidar is all about lists.  It’s even in the English translation of the book.  Bamidbar is “in the wilderness”  Numbers is ….lists. There are two full censuses in the book, listing everyone in the community, by tribe.  There is also, in this last parasha of Bamidbar, a list of places traveled over the last 40 years;  a triptik, for those of you old enough to remember what that is.

Mostly what Bamidbar is, however, is about boundaries.  We read about the camp -how it’s laid out, who camps where, how the Mishkan (Tabernacle) travels, etc.  We read about who comes in and who goes out. When you come in, when you have to leave, and when you’re allowed to come back in again.   Who lives on the edge – people like the Nazir and the Sotah, the accused wife.  What happens outside the camp – like the Red Calf.  All the other offerings that were made in the Mishkan by the Aaron and the priests, but not that one.  Pinchas’ shishkebab, when he skewered two people cavorting in front of God and everyone, was about people who crossed the line between acceptable behavior to God and wholly unacceptable behavior.  And, as Pinchas’ “reward”, he became High Priest, and received his own set of highly restricted behavior – very clear boundaries set up around him and his role in the community.

There are leadership boundaries.  Korach crossed the line, but Eldad and Medad (the two guys who prophesied back in the camp while Moses had the rest of the Elders all experiencing a communal God-experience), they didn’t cross the line. They were welcomed.  The most important leadership line that got crossed was that of Moses at Meribah.  It’s the tipping point of Moses’ journey, the point of no return.  He hit the rock, the people got their water, but from that point on, Moses was never to see the Land himself, and he knew he was forever in an outsider role.

There are boundaries around time. In Chapter 28 we read, “Be punctilious in presenting to ME at stated times the offerings…”  and we read about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. And there was a very detailed list of what got offered up to God on what day. It was sacred time, separate from other time.

And of course, there are the boundaries with other people’s lands.  We move from trespassing God’s borders to other people’s borders.  Here, at the end of the wilderness, the end of the wandering , we get the travelogue of where we’ve been.

Finally, there are boundaries in the land that end the book of Bamidbar.  We are about to come into the Land, but it’s not empty.  There are other people who already live there.  What to do? We read of God’s last instruction to Moses, his last task to the people. Chapter 31:1 “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites, and then you shall be gathered to your kin.”  Finish this last war, and then you will die.   Here, God describes the perfect holy war and then commands the soldiers to go outside the camp, purify themselves, and then they can come back in.

But there are more changes to the narrative,  more challenges to the boundaries. Lland had been apportioned to each tribe.  Yet, the Gadites and the Reubenites now say, “We don’t want to come into the Land.  We like the land right here on the east side of the Jordan, and we’d like to stay here.”  Moses said, fine, but you have to fight with the rest of the Israelites in this last, epic battle; the Gadites and Reubenites agreed to come fight, after they’d built their houses and places for their animals, and got their families settled in.

What?  The Land now includes what’s east of the Jordan?  And that’s ok with Moses?  Apparently it is.  Moses takes it upon himself to approve a major change to the initial narrative:  Go into the Land.  But some people didn’t want to.  So the goal was adjusted to reflect the wishes of the people.

In Bamidbar 33:52 Moses tells the people:   “When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you shall dispossess all of the inhabitants of the land, you shall destroy all their figured objects, you shall destroy all their molten images, and you shall demolish all their cult places.  And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have assigned the land to you to possess.  You shall apportion the land among yourselves by lot….But if you do not dispossess the inhabitants of the land, those whom ou allow to remain shall be stings in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall harass you in the land in which you live…”

Extremely harsh.  And, to my thinking, not a great way to end the book. Or a great way to start in a new Land, with a new society.  But that’s not where it ends.  This is where the whole idea of boundaries gets a second look, through an old story.

Of all the stories in Bamidbar, the one that gets revisited is Zelophechad’s daughters. Back in Chapter 27, five daughters of Zelophechad approached Moses as he was giving instructions of land inheritance.  They said it wasn’t fair that just because their father died without sons, they would lose their whole inheritance.  And right there, right in front of God and everyone, the Law was rewritten to reflect fairness and the reality of life.  Moses checked with God, and God agreed.  The daughters were right, God was wrong.  The daughters got their inheritances (with restrictions, of course – they had to marry within their tribe, otherwise they’d lose the land), but the Law was changed to make things more just, because people pointed out the problem.

That’s the real lesson of how Bamidbar ends.  After the bloody, vicious, vengeful war and the instruction to dispossess and slaughter the people who were already living in the Land…we get a story of rewriting the Law to reflect justice. We couldn’t live at Sinai forever, it was an unrealistic place to live out the word of God.  We had to start putting all these things into practice, and once we did, we saw where they needed to be adjusted to fit humans, not God.  God may have defined the perfect holy war.  As humans, we know there is no such thing.  We don’t have to live with the vengeance and the slaughter.  We can change the ending.  We have to change the ending.




Posted in Shabbat musings | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment