Above the Law – Parshat Shoftim 5778

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Rules don’t always apply to everyone. There are plenty of examples in the home where decisions are meant for the younger set. Rules like “no ice cream for dessert tonight” might be what we tell the kids, and then I have a spoonful after they go to bed. Or it’s “no TV on weekdays,” except the minute they’re asleep Duncan and I can’t wait to catch up on our shows. It’s not that as the parents we are above the law, but it is true that as the rule makers we may have different needs, and we have the ability to bend the rules to meet those needs.

Laws, however, are different than rules. Our duty to obey the law is pretty crystal clear, and that responsibility falls on everyone the same way, no matter their position in society. In fact, part of what makes laws work is that they apply to everyone, with the objective to create a fair, orderly, and just society.

This week the Torah reading reminds us of this fact. The portion is Parshat Shoftim, a section of Torah that completely focuses on the legal system and specifically on justice and the context of the laws. This text includes the commandment to establish judges and officers, as well as a listing of punishments for certain transgressions against mitzvot (commandments). We also learn about the laws surrounding false witnesses and murder. Ultimately, it’s a sense of fairness and justice that’s at the heart of creating these laws.

Chapter 17, verses 14-15 raise the question as to whether or not the king is actually required to live according to the mitzvot. On the one hand, the king is not considered to be a god or of divine birth. Even though the king is seen as being approved by God, the king is also a servant of the people, required to uphold standards, solve disputes, and wage war if necessary. Verse 18 then teaches that the king has the responsibility of writing his own Torah scroll or having it written for him. It’s this requirement that reminds us that the king is not above the law, but subject to it like everyone else. Even the king must obey the words of the Torah.

We live in a world where all the time we see people in positions of power trying to overstep their bounds, ignore the laws, or try to get away with something. Whether it’s a teenager thinking she’s invincible or a politician skirting tax laws, thinking laws don’t apply to you comes at a severe price when those laws catch up with you. The Torah this week in Shoftim reminds us that we are all equal in God’s eyes. Whether you’re a leader or a follower, the words of the Torah still apply. We are all kings of our own castles, all beholden to the same standard: to uphold that which is right and just and to teach the next generation to do the same.

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Go Unnoticed – Parshat Re’eh 5778

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“Out of sight, out of mind” suggests that we’re going through life like infants, with no sense of object permanence, which of course is absurd. I, for one, am never able to fully put things out of mind. Whether it’s craving a piece of chocolate cake regardless if there’s cake nearby or thinking about my family as they are spread across the globe, things that are meaningful to me are never far from my thoughts. To be conscious of multiple things at once can be helpful. It means we can concern ourselves with a refugee crisis even if we go about our daily lives without seeing any refugees. We can care about providing food and water and humanity even if the recipients aren’t in our own backyard.

However, just because we can comprehend something’s existence without seeing it doesn’t mean we can focus on ten things at once. With big, global issues vying for a place in our thoughts, occasionally we’re blind to the issues that are right in front of us. This is completely natural; it’s simply a fact of life that we can only think about so many things at once. The question is, how do we deal with that?

This week, Parshat Re’eh gives us some guidelines for this very problem. In our parshah we learn about the blessings and curses that will come with 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.

In chapter 12, verse 19 we read, “Be sure not to neglect the Levite.” As you may know, the Torah never shares words without some purpose. The Levites were a tribe who had great responsibility in caring for the nation, and at the same time, they were not “among the people” in the general sense. German Orthodox rabbi from the 19th century Samson Raphael Hirsch teaches, “Among a population engaged in farming and raising cattle, such ‘unproductive’ members of society could easily come to be neglected and resented. The people might fail to recognize the vital role of the Levites in their spiritual and moral welfare.”

In other words, the Levites aren’t “productive” members of society when it comes to working the land or feeding the cattle; their productivity is less defined and more difficult to see on the surface. Their role is the moral compass of the people, a job that might be easily overlooked by the general population. Parshat Re’eh and Rabbi Hirsch remind us that just because something isn’t right in front of our eyes doesn’t mean it’s without concern or fails to contribute to society. For a community to succeed, we have to not only fulfill our own responsibilities, but put trust in others to do the same.

Love Lift Us Up – Parshat Eikev 5778

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“Love is a four-letter word.” It’s a humorous nod to the frustrations and difficulties we encounter in even our closest relationships. Perhaps the real frustration is that love has so many sides to it. Think of all the ways we both praise and denounce this emotion in popular music. “Love stinks” and “love hurts” and “love bites.” Yet, “all you need is love” and “I will always love you.” Love is supposed to be this positive notion of warmth and connection, but there are plenty of challenges and harsh realities that go along with it. Letting go of a loved one can be extremely painful, and a broken heart at the end of a relationship hurts physically and emotionally. Sometimes love comes with strings attached, which complicates things further.

The Torah this week in Parshat Eikev brings us back to the give and take of a loving relationship. Last week we read the V’ahavta and learned about all that we should do to love God. This week we read of what happens when God loves us. The parshah begins with a reminder of the blessings and rewards of success that will come to the Israelites if they guard and observe the Torah and all its commandments. We are then reminded of our responsibility to remove idolaters from our midst. The final section of the parshah is a reminder of the Israelites’ experiences in the desert, their missteps, and what they learned from each of these moments.

The text begins with the main elements of God’s promises to the patriarchs in addition to the land of Israel. “And He will love you, and bless you, and make you multiply.” This relationship suggests that God’s love is a blessing, and that blessing manifests itself in the continuation of our nation. While being a great nation and inheriting a great land are essential for our prosperity, love is always included as a benefit of being chosen by God.

Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Only a blessing that flows from love deserves to be called a blessing.” Love is ultimately at the core of how God shows blessing to the Israelites and how we fulfill our end of the agreement by multiplying. How fitting that this lesson of love between God and humankind and from person to person comes as we near the High Holidays, a time when we ask forgiveness from God and our fellow humans. May we use this as a reminder into the new year to approach all our interactions from a place of love.

How Lucky You Are – Parshat Vaetchanan 5778

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There are countless conversations I’ve had with people in generations before me about how lucky I am to live in the world today, and I feel similarly about my kids’ lives. It seems that every new generation has certain things easier and faster. Need to know information? Google it, or even better, let Alexa tell you. Back in my day – who’d have ever thought I’d be saying “back in my day” – I had to use the card catalog and encyclopedias to find information. These days, if you want to find something to watch on TV, just speak into the remote. Believe it or not, I remember being the remote, getting up to tune the knob to another channel. These advances in technology give the older generation some perspective, but sometimes it’s difficult for the younger generations to understand just how lucky they are, especially when forced to suffer inconveniences like a dead iPhone or when there is actually “nothing” on TV.

Technology aside, the phenomenon of generational comparisons goes back to Moses in the Torah. The Israelites are constantly pointing out how much better life was before they left Egypt; they don’t yet grasp how lucky they are to be free. Parshat Vaetchanan, which we read this week, offers some insight into this concept. The Torah portion continues with the retelling of the laws here again in the book of Deuteronomy. We also read about God’s persistent refusal to allow Moses to enter the Land of Israel. The Torah then issues a caution to uphold the mitzvot as the key to building an Israelite society. Moses then sets three cities of refuge, and we receive probably the most well-known instruction in the Torah, the Shema. 

The text begins with the following words from Moses:

I pleaded with the Lord at that time, saying, “O Lord God, You who let Your servant see the first works of your greatness . . . Let me, I pray cross over and see the good land.”

Moses begins by asking to see the land of Israel. He does this publicly, in front of the nation. Several commentators pick up on how out of character this is for him. Moses rarely pleads on his own behalf, always for the greater community. Yet here he is facing his own mortality and the fact that his mistake has cost him seeing the land of Israel, and he is heartbroken.

Perhaps, as one final lesson to the Israelites, Moses is trying to teach remorse for sins and show them the true blessing of living in a free land, which he won’t experience. Perhaps he’s showing them that you should never lose hope about what may come and that even our deepest prayers may be eventually answered. Whatever the impetus for this plea, it’s a reminder that each generation walks a unique path. It may not always be easy to see in the moment, but we are all blessed to live in the world today.

Creatures of Habit – Parshat Devarim 5778

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A few year ago, the summer before Matan was born, we bought a new couch. Our old couch was still in great condition, but we expected, and rightly so, that a larger couch would better suit the needs of our growing family. We went and sat on many couches looking for the right balance of child friendly, clean lines, adequate seating, and comfort. We settled on a couch that was a sectional and included a chaise lounge.

Previously, my regular couch spot had been the corner of the sectional. Everyone knew this was my spot. But with this new couch, I had great visions of using the forward-facing chaise lounge to relax with my feet up, back straight, TV ahead. What happened? The couch arrived, and my grand plan to move to this new spot lasted only a few months after Matan’s birth. Back to my corner I went. After so many years in the same spot, it just didn’t feel right to move. The perspective was different, the cushions not squished just so, and it simply didn’t work.

As human beings we are hardwired to become creatures of habit. When we stay somewhere too long, or do something the same way long enough, it can be very difficult and even painful to make a change. The Israelites are acutely aware of this in our Torah portion this week, Devarim. Devarim stresses the covenant between God and Israel and looks toward Israel’s future in a new land as they build a society that pursues justice and righteousness. The central theme of this section of text is monotheism – the belief in one God – and building a society around the laws we’ve been given over the course of the four previous books.

The Israelites at this point in the Torah have been stationary for a bit. They have created camps outside the land of Israel and grown as a nation. They have become accustomed to this transient lifestyle, and there is some concern for how they will adjust to their new land. In Moses’s first discourse to the people, he begins, “The Lord our God spoke to us at Horeb, saying: ‘You have stayed long enough at this mountain.’” God understood the danger in the people growing too comfortable where they were, reluctant to move toward an unknown future.

A big shift can be scary, but our growth as an individual or community often requires a change. A growing family needs more space, just as a growing synagogue or school might. When we first got the new couch, I went back and forth in different spots for three months so that I could properly nurse and snuggle with Matan. It wasn’t a huge, life-altering change, but the discomfort of changing routine and losing my cozy corner was both physical and emotional. While living in the routine and within our (sometimes literal) comfort zone is easy, and even necessary at times, we grow and learn much more when we stretch into new, uncharted territories. Parshat Devarim reminds us that it is our job to keep moving, to search out the next challenge, and to overcome it together. Does that mean I’m giving up my spot? Not a chance.