Conversations About the End – Parshiyot Nitzavim and Vayelech

Every night at bedtime, I tuck my kids in with a deep snuggle and we recite the same words “I love you forever and ever with my whole heart.” One evening, this prompted my daughter to ask me if her Papa loved her. She believes he did, even though he died before she was even an inkling in my mind. This led to a conversation (on a six-year-old level) about death, relationships, the lasting effects of love, and how “forever and ever” can be a feeling of love even when I’m not necessarily by her side. As you can see, our pillow talk is light and easy going! 

It isn’t easy to talk about death, especially when it involves thinking about our own or the possibility that loved ones might have to learn how to live without us. However, we learn in the Torah that not only are we obligated to try and face this reality, we must prepare for it.

This week we read Parshiyot Nitzavim and Vayelech, the two parshiyot that often surround the High Holy Days. Parshat Nitzavim reminds us that we always have a choice in life and that the proper path is to repent, to follow the rules, and to generally be good people. Parshat Vayelech teaches us about Moses’s process to transfer leadership to Joshua, and the final words he will share as the leader of the Israelite nation. The final words begin his goodbye to the people Israel.

These last few chapters are Moses’s way of letting the Israelite nation know that he won’t be with them forever, and they need to prepare for the time when he won’t be physically present. The last time Moses left the Israelites to go up the mountain for an extended absence, they were fearful and fraught. They broke the Commandments, created their own rules, and ended up in chaos. This time, Moses wants to ensure that the nation has the strength, faith, and guidance to move forward without issue.

Moses takes the time to share a plan of blessings and reminders to the people. He calls out the mourning they will feel and reminds them that while it would be easy to return to their “wicked ways,” it’s essential that they maintain faith and understanding in God’s protection. 

So too must we remind our loved ones that we will always love and support them. One way we do that is through tangible, concrete assurances like wills, trusts, and mementos like photos, videos and letters. Another way is by reminding our loved ones now that even once we’re not physically together, which may be painful at times, the love and connection will always be there.

Uncover Your Eyes – Parshat Ki Tavo 5780

I’ve always found the ways in which we think and talk about our senses and how they can deceive us as interesting and often humorous. Think of phrases like “hiding in plain sight” or “it’s always in the last place you look.” To me, these are more than just pithy observational cliches. They speak to what it means to “see” versus what it means to bear witness to the world. We can “see” a lot happening around us, but rarely do we stop to actually take it in, think about its meaning, and react to the need presented before us. When we walk around the world with our eyes truly opened, we not only observe injustice and hatred, suffering and strife, but we are then motivated to take action and work toward change. 

As the traditional morning blessing from the siddur (prayer book) reads, “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, ruler of the world, who opens our eyes.” Each morning we thank God for the opportunity first to take in the beauty of creation, and second to move beyond that to begin to actually see the work that we can do to make our world a different, and perhaps better place. 

This is evident in our Torah portion for the week, Parshat Ki Tavo. This week we read the section of the Torah that again reminds us of the blessings and curses that come to us as we choose to follow or ignore the laws of the Torah. 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 thing). Finally, the text reminds us of how we’re supposed to take time to rebuke one another when we’ve taken a misstep and the ways in which we can do so with compassion and kindness.

As the text nears the end, Moses begins his third giant speech to the Israelite nation. He shares: “To this day the Lord has not given you a mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.” Abraham Joshua Heschel interprets this to mean “the ability to understand, to see or hear the divine significance of events, may be granted or withheld from man. One may see great wonders but remain entirely insensitive.” 

In other words, as human beings we often see the world with our eyes, but remain blind to the problems right in front of us. As the wise Torah sage Paul Simon expressed about another of the five senses, “Still a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest.”

Parshat Ki Tavo is the yearly reminder that it’s not enough to use our senses passively; we must open our eyes and ears to really see the true world around us – the good, the bad, and what we can work together to fix.

Team Building According to Torah – Parshat Ki Teitzei 5780

I have worked in many different offices and organizations in my career as a rabbi and educator. One of the universal truths I’ve learned from working in different organizational environments is that the people determine the mood and attitude of the office more than the work itself. And this general atmosphere effects productivity too because the morale of an office can change the quality of work people do and their satisfaction while doing it.

When I was in my Masters in Education program, we spoke a lot about the culture of the place and how happy teachers resulted in happy students. As an administrator and a rabbi, part of my job is to make sure that staff members feel appreciated and respected. That goes a long way to making sure the work gets done and the team works together.

This is a lesson not lost on the Israelites in the Torah. This week, Parshat Ki Teitzei shares a number of laws to govern society. We receive laws about war and taking care of hostages, laws about our clothing, laws about family relationships between parents and children, laws about taking care of the poor, and so much more. Ki Teitzei is actually the Torah portion with the most number of mitzvot within it, but the recurring theme is the desire and ways in which we should execute the mitzvot prescribed to us. 

Towards the end of the parshah we receive a list of miscellaneous laws. They talk about a variety of potential situations, like asylum for escaped slaves, lending at interest, and prostitution. One that stuck out to me was the sanctity of military camps. When you think of a nation’s military, you don’t often think of a holy or sanctified space. And yet, the Torah teaches in chapter 23, verse 15: “Since the Lord your God moves about in your camp to protect you and to deliver your enemies to you, let your camp be holy; let Him not find anything unseemly among you and turn away from you.”

Clearly, a military needs to work as a well-oiled machine with unified vision and purpose. Their mission must be explicitly defined, and most importantly, according to the Torah, there should be an atmosphere of respect. The work environment determines their success. 

Parshat Ki Teitzei suggests that when we go out into the world to join forces with others working for common goals, we must do it with purpose and lead those around us to a place of sacred partnership. Building a team of any kind requires establishing a collaborative purpose, vision, and mission. The Torah reminds us that when we have this, morale is high, productivity evident, and outcomes incredible. 

Preserving the Future Now – Parshat Shoftim 5780

I’m not quite a hoarder, but I am a saver. You never know when an outfit might come back in style, or when you might need baby gear for a visiting friend. In addition, I always try to conserve resources and do what is best for the environment, the world, and even my bank account. I feel an obligation to create minimal waste because I know that what we destroy or use up now might not be available for our children and grandchildren to use in the future. 

This attitude about religion and the environment stems from as far back as the Torah and this week’s parshah. This week we read Parshat Shoftim, in the middle of the book of D’varim, which outlines our legal system, the responsibilities of judges and prophets, punishments for witnesses, and more. The Torah recognizes that the legal system and those in charge of it must be hip to the times.

In what are essentially laws about laws, we come to laws about fruit trees in chapter 20. The Torah tells us that when we engage in a war against a city and it takes a long time to capture it, we must not destroy the trees. When there are trees left over after a war, we can eat from them, but must preserve them.

Why do we bother saving vegetation in this way? It’s partly symbolic. The Torah is filled with the eternal hope that life renews itself and that while war might be happening right now, there will be a future without it. The Torah demands that we maintain a vision of a bright future even in the darkness of the present. We are the custodians of the earth, but not the outright owners, and as such, we owe it to the future inhabitants to maintain and care for what we have today.

This applies to Judaism as well. As an inheritor of a tradition that existed well before I came into being and one that I hope to pass on for more generations, I know it is my sacred duty to protect and conserve it so that it is still recognizable many years from now.

The Company You Keep – Parshat Re’eh 5780

Life as a rabbi can be hard. Life as a parent can be hard. Life as a woman can be hard. Put them all together, and it makes for a fairly challenging journey at times. 

While this is my personal combination of life experiences and identities, we all have some combination of struggles and challenges we’re facing at any given moment. There are times for all of us when our particular combination makes balancing everything more difficult. Like everyone, I have good days and bad days, and, like everyone, it never fails that when I’m struggling with something in one aspect of my life, other aspects are affected too. Why is it that work always seems to escalate when my children are at their neediest?

It’s in these moments – when everything piles up at once – that I’m grateful for my “village.” My village is a tight-knit circle of friends who have similar life combinations and understand exactly what it’s like to be where I am. Most are working mothers, and some are rabbis too. This village of women is present for me at my highest of highs, and they let me sit in a puddle of tears in their offices (or virtually now) when I don’t think life can get any worse. They support me through 3 a.m. text messaging sessions and playdates where we try to hide from the kids. They cut out shapes for programs I lead because I can’t do it, and they entertain my children when I’m on my last nerve. This village is the best company I could imagine keeping.

My village does this for me because they know I do it for them. It’s important that we hold each other up; we never tear each other down or criticize (unless we’ve been asked). We don’t judge the messy kitchen, the unwashed hair, or the kid wearing a tank top in the fall. We commiserate and collaborate. Each of us is the village, and the village is us.

In our Torah portion this week, Parshat Re’eh, we learn of the importance of having this type of village to surround you. 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. 

As God is listing these rules, a curious section of text about living with idolaters stands out. The text states that all living in the town of idolaters shall be put to the sword. Is this saying that if you live amongst idolaters, even if you yourself are not one, you will be put to death? Again, the village is a representation of you, both positive and negative. 

Whether it’s the beginning of a new nation or a parent teaching a child or a reminder to ourselves about our own friends, the lesson is clear: the company you keep is who you become, for better or worse. How does your village help you be the best version of yourself?