Lessons in Humility – Parshat Nitzavim 5782

The privilege and good fortune of a full life on earth carries with it countless inescapable lessons of humility along the way. Whether it’s the result of saying, “Watch this!” as a child or being let go from a job you’ve held for years, humans don’t have to learn to be humble. It’s forced on us.

This is also the reality we’ve learned after two and a half years of navigating Covid. You can wear a mask, get vaccinated, practice good hygiene, and keep your distance from others, and still get Covid. It’s clear these preventative measures help slow the spread and lessen the severity, but you can’t convince Covid that you’re too good or too proud to be susceptible. 

The Torah, naturally, suggests that this isn’t the first time humanity has encountered a reminder like this, and it surely won’t be the last. This week we read Parshat Nitzavim, which teaches us this lesson, albeit in a slightly cryptic way. 

This Torah portion is primarily about establishing ourselves as a people and the warnings against becoming complacent. It begins with God telling the Israelites about the covenant they’re making together and how binding it is. Nitzavim is typically translated as “stand firmly,” which makes sense as one of the final moments of the Israelite nation receiving direct guidance from God and from Moses before they enter the Land of Israel.

While much of the parshah talks about what not to do, one verse focuses on the intention behind those transgressions. Deuteronomy 29:18 states: “When hearing the words of these sanctions, such a one may imagine a special immunity, thinking, ‘I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart’—to the utter ruin of moist and dry alike.” 

It’s not entirely obvious what is meant by “moist and dry alike,” but the message is that no one is immune, so to speak. Overconfidence and arrogance – these are the characteristics that make us believe that our actions somehow don’t affect the rest of the community. In reality, though, what we do sends ripples into the world, branching out like a contagion. 

There’s a quote attributed to the 19th-century Jewish scholar Rabbi Bunim of P’shiskha that combines two opposing Jewish teachings. “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket; one should read: ‘For my sake was the world created,’ and the other should read: ‘I am but dust and ashes.’”

We must see value and worth in ourselves, and at the same time acknowledge the relative insignificance of this ephemeral gift we’re given. That just gives us all the more urgency to make the most of the time we have, and there’s no time like the new year to get started.

Discomfort Over Resentment – Parshat Ki Tavo 5782

 

I absolutely love Brené Brown. She speaks my language. I’ve listened to almost all of her books as well as her podcast. I’ve got her quotes about leadership and vulnerability hanging in my office. One of the best pieces of learning I’ve taken from her is about discomfort over resentment. In recounting all those times she said yes to an obligation that she wishes she’d said no to, Brené suggests that we often say yes to something to avoid discomfort, only to have it bring up resentment later, which ends up lasting a lot longer than the discomfort.

For example, if she’s asked to bake four dozen brownies for a bake sale, but doesn’t really have the time, Brené shares that if she agrees to the baking, she’ll then resent the entire situation, and her attitude will show it. When she delivers those resentment brownies, her words might be, “Here’s your brownies. I had to stay up all night to make them. They were a big hassle; I hope you’re happy.” That kind of resentment can really hurt relationships. On the other hand, had she been honest at the outset by saying, “I cannot make four dozen brownies by tomorrow, but I’d be happy to either buy some or contribute some funds for someone else to bake them,” she would’ve had to endure being uncomfortable for about three minutes, but then could have moved on. 

In teaching this skill, Brené reminds us to ask ourselves in these situations if we prefer “discomfort now over resentment later.” This really resonated with me, probably because I never really knew how to express it before. As someone who has had struggles like this, applying this perspective has been immensely helpful in setting new priorities and boundaries. This concept helps to make sure that I lead with gratitude and joy instead of bitterness and hostility. Plus, there’s a link to our Torah portion (you knew I was getting there).

Our Torah portion this week, Parshat Ki Tavo, brings us closer to the final lessons God wants the Israelite nation to learn before they enter into the Promised Land. Our text reminds us again of the blessings and curses that come to us as we choose to follow or ignore the laws we’ve been given. Specifically, we learn of the requirement to make an offering of “first fruits” for the priests in the Beit HaMikdash, and the different ways in which we are supposed to thank God and give praise (before prayer was a daily activity). Finally, the text reminds us of how we’re supposed to take time to rebuke one another when we’ve misstepped and the ways in which we can do so with compassion and kindness.

Chapter 28, verse 47 teaches, “Because you would not serve the Lord your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything.” This statement comes in the midst of blessings and curses given for following the mitzvot to varying degrees, but it’s more about the attitude we adopt rather than the commandment itself. The real curse comes when we don’t serve in joy, when we’re resentful of the commandments our faith has prescribed. The Torah is reminding us that it’s ingratitude that keeps us from true connection to God or any sort of joy at all.

How true this is for our interactions with others too. Resentment, just as Brené Brown illustrates, keeps us from joyful connections with our fellow human beings. Like Parshat Ki Tavo teaches, mitzvot are the focus of Torah, but it’s the joy and gladness of Judaism that keep us full-hearted.

Happy Accidents – Parshat Ki Teitzei 5782

Fans of Bob Ross may remember that part of his teaching philosophy was about embracing those “happy accidents” that happen when something unintentional turns into something beautiful and artistic. It reminds me of the notion of the unintentional mitzvah, an idea as old as the Torah itself.

This week we read Parshat Ki Teitzei. We receive laws about war and taking care of hostages, laws about our clothing, laws about family relationships, laws about taking care of the poor, and so much more. Ki Teitzei is actually the Torah portion with the most number of mitzvot (commandments) in it, but the recurring theme is how we should execute and fulfill the mitzvot prescribed to us.

In particular, the laws cover taking care of the more vulnerable members of the community. While earlier in the Torah we learn about leaving the corner of the fields for those who might be hungry so that they can maintain their dignity and pick the food, Parshat Ki Teitzei offers one more way we can support those in need.

Chapter 24, verse 19 presents an interesting unintentional mitzvah when it states, “When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the fatherless and the widow.” No one, in this scenario, is purposefully choosing to overlook a sheaf of grain. For whatever reason, the harvester accidentally missed that sheaf, but that accident is now a mitzvah.  

We encourage our children to give tzedakah and donate to worthy causes. In fact, we have deemphasized big Hanukkah gifts (those come from other family members) in favor of a small donation each of the eight nights. It feels good to give something back, whether that’s signing up for a meal on someone’s Meal Train or supporting Ukraine through a local campaign. Most of the time, Duncan and I coordinate these so we know how much money is going where, or who’s responsible for dropping off dinner to a friend. Once in a great while, though, we accidentally double up – an unintentional mitzvah, if you will. And if you’re going to make a mistake, what better kind of mistake to make than doing an extra mitzvah?

Accidents, by nature, aren’t choices. However, we do have the choice in how we react to something we’ve overlooked. True, it was our intention to donate once or add just a few coins to the tzedakah box, but if a mistake unintentionally supports the community or helps someone else who might not have otherwise benefited, then our mistake becomes a bigger gift. Parshat Ki Teitzei and this specific commandment are meant to remind us that sometimes it can be better to let it go, to embrace the happy unintentionality and make a mistake that might just lift someone else up. 

Punishment Fits the Crime – Parshat Shoftim 5782

One of the parts of parenting that Duncan and I struggle with the most is giving reasonable and logical consequences. We’ve gotten better at it now as the children are older and are a tiny bit more rational than when they were in preschool, but it still isn’t easy. It’s much easier, in the frustration of a slower than necessary bedtime routine, to demand, “If you don’t get out of the bathtub right now, there’s no iPad time tomorrow.” This consequence is threatened in the heat of the moment, and it’s not at all logical or relevant to bath time. Plus, enforcing it often causes more pain to us than to our children because we need those 30 minutes of screen time while we’re making dinner as much as they do.

Even God struggles with determining logical consequences throughout the Torah. Remember, Moses isn’t allowed into Israel because he didn’t listen to God, who instructed him to talk to the rock, but Moses instead remembered and acted on an earlier instruction to hit the rock to get the result he wanted. Seems like an outsized punishment for Moses’s mistake, doesn’t it? As a parent figure, it seems that God has to learn about logical consequences too. And in fact we finally have some workable guidance in this week’s Torah portion. 

Parshat Shoftim is a section of Torah that completely focuses on the legal system, justice, and context for the laws. This text includes the commandment to establish judges and officers, as well as a listing of punishments for certain transgressions against mitzvot. We also learn about the laws regarding false witness and murder. 

In chapter 19 God reiterates a lesson that has been shared before in the Torah (twice, actually). You may know it as “eye for an eye,” but a more complete reading includes “Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” These are not meant to be taken literally, but as an instruction to have the punishment fit the crime, and neither more nor less harsh than the original transgression.

It’s easy to go on consequence overload when you’re in an emotional moment. The Torah is itself, however, a grounding resource. Reading these same texts year after year is what grounds us emotionally and spiritually, and it reminds us, especially in this week’s portion, that only when we’re in that grounded space can we act justly.

There Will Always Be More – Parshat Re’eh 5782

Over the last number of years as I’ve worked on routines and strategies for keeping my life and my family’s lives in order, I’ve noticed a peculiar and often frustrating phenomenon. I’ll finish doing something like laundry – the entire act from washing, drying, folding and putting it away – only to notice that it’s still not done because someone has changed clothes or there was one lone sock left on the floor and now not clean. Or I’ll do the grocery shopping, making a meticulous list for each place I need to visit and each item to pick up, then get home and put the food away before realizing the one item I forgot. Chores never really end, but these situations enhance that feeling even more.

Beyond these trivial tasks of everyday life, there are bigger problems that remind me of this cycle too. Look how far we’ve come in pushing down Covid numbers, only to have monkeypox consume the news. The work in just about every field is never done. 

We read Parshat Re’eh this week, as the Torah races to the finish line of its lessons. In our parshah we learn about the blessings and curses that will come with the observance (or lack thereof) of the mitzvot we’re given. We receive some final warnings about following the laws against idolatry, laws for keeping kosher, and the importance of treating each other as equals. Finally, we receive some more information on our three pilgrimage festivals.

The core of the laws given in Parshat Re’eh focus on taking care of one another. As we know, living in a community requires us to care for others, and knowing that need is ever present can be exhausting. Chapter 15, verse 11 states it outright: “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land.” Knowing that this is overwhelming thought, the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Pesachim 113a, teaches “better to flay carcasses in the marketplace than to depend on public assistance because you feel the available work is beneath your dignity.” In other words, each of us has an obligation to do our part to help ourselves as a way of lightening the never-ending load on the community.

Our communal structure needs to be built on the understanding that while we may dream of a time when there are no more needy, the reality is that there will always be a need. Instead of finding that notion overwhelming and wanting to quit, we’re reminded to set up assistance programs and strategies for support that lighten the load while encouraging growth and self-sufficiency. 

The work will never be done, there will always be another load of laundry, another medical conundrum, or societal problem, but the way through it is to plan each and every day to finish that day’s portion so we can rest up and start again tomorrow.