To See and Be Seen – Parshat Ki Tavo 5779

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When my children were little, we read a lot of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Eric Carle. The bear goes around and shares what it sees in the world. A red bird, a blue horse, the bear lists all the animals it sees on his daily adventure. Between this book and games of “I Spy” we spent a lot of time practicing using our eyes to take in the world around us.

Each morning our daily prayers give us a list of bodily functions and sensory moments to give thanks for. The morning blessings can read like a checklist of your day: wake up, straighten and stretch our bodies out, put on clothes, eat breakfast, look at the world around us. Each of these is a unique blessing. I’m often struck by the words of the blessing about seeing, “Pokeach Ivrim.” Blessed is God, who opens the eyes of the blind. This is a curious prayer for a couple of reasons. Are we supposed to read it literally, believing that God actually causes blindness and then miraculous recovery? And if you haven’t experienced this miracle, why would you even say this blessing in the present tense anyway? I’ve often asked kids what it means to see, and their answers are always enlightening.

Parshat Ki Tavo, which we read this week, reminds us again 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 activity). 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.

Chapter 28, verse 26 takes into account the notion of blindness in a whole new way. “As a blind man gropes in the dark,” the verse reads. The question from the Talmud seems obvious: Isn’t a blind man equally disadvantaged both in daylight and in darkness? No, it answers, in daylight he can hope that others will see him and help him. In the dark, however, there will be no one to give help. In this way, the Torah suggests that the sense of sight is about more than observation and utility. To see the world and to see people also means to see their needs and their state of mind.

The Torah, in Parshat Ki Tavo, pushes us to look beyond the surface and into the nuances and deepness of the situations around us. We are asked first to look for poverty, hatred, injustice, and then not just see it, but stand up and make change.

When I teach the brachah of opening your eyes, I do an exercise asking everyone to close their eyes tightly for a while, then open them wide. The room usually appears brighter and looks a bit different. As I ask people to open their eyes I ask, what do you see?

So, close your eyes tightly, keep them closed, and then open them wide. What do you see? How will you help?

Finders Keepers – Parshat Ki Teitzei 5779

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As the parent of small children, I spend a ridiculous amount of time labeling their items. Shoes, hats, sunscreen, medications, lunch items, underpants, and socks all have names on them so that they won’t be lost at school. I have a whole new appreciation for my mother and the work that went into labeling my clothes when I went to summer camp. Of course for the most part, it’s not the end of the world if one of these items is lost. A majority of our material items are easy to replace. However, there are sentimental items that aren’t so easily replaced, and if something more valuable to us is lost, we hope and pray that someone, somehow might be able to return it to us.

The laws related to our concept of “finders keepers” are clear in our Torah portion this week, Ki Teitzei. We receive laws about war and taking care of hostages, laws about our clothing, laws about family relationships, including 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 (commandments) in it, but the recurring theme is how we should execute and fulfill the mitzvot prescribed to us.

Chapter 22, verse 1 reads, “If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow.” The text continues listing every step you must take as the finder of an object to return it to the owner. The Talmud continues this line of thinking, reminding us to look for an identifying mark on every lost item we encounter and then do our best to return it to the owner.

This was the first piece of Talmud I learned in rabbinical school. It is called “Eilu Metziot.” These are the found things. We began by learning the intricacies of what items might be lost and what a sign must be. Then the Talmud takes a turn into the emotional nature of losing an object. There are actual discussions of how long it might take someone to give up on their search to find a lost item. These laws also remind the finder to do their best to find the item’s owner to return it.

Think about what a process finding and returning must have been back then. This was well before the time of social media and the ability to put out a post to hundreds (potentially millions) of people to find a lost dog, retrieve a stuffed animal from an airport, or return a wedding ring found on the beach. While most possessions are just “stuff,” some things are sentimental, and their loss can be profound. The Torah this week reminds us, among the intricacies of war and family life, that the responsibility to care for others extends well beyond tending to people’s physical needs. It also includes considering their emotional needs, regardless of the value that might be attached.

Letting Go – Parshat Shoftim 5779

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On his children’s television show, Fred Rogers sang a song (written by him) called “What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel?” He also used the lyrics from the song as part of his testimony in a now famous appearance before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Communication in 1969. The song helps children understand that emotions like anger are normal, and there are healthy ways to express them.

I, like other people I know, sometimes have difficulty letting go of a perceived wrong or a disagreement. If something touches my soul or digs deeply into my beliefs, it tends to stay with me. I still remember the kids in elementary school who invited me to a sleepover just to torment me. I never fully forgave them, possibly because I didn’t use the tools Mister Rogers suggests in his song. Instead, I mostly kept it bottled up and only let it out in other, less healthy ways. Having a memory like I do, I remember everything really well and have to work diligently at letting things go. For better or worse, my daughter Shiri remembers every last detail too, and I know where she gets it.

Everyone has their own process for dealing with anger and then forgiving; sometimes it serves our best interests, and sometimes it causes more grief than it’s worth. The Torah picks up on this process in Parshat Shoftim, this week’s portion, a section of Torah that completely focuses on the legal system, on justice, and on context. 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 surrounding false witnesses and murder. The notion of motive comes to light as the Torah discusses the challenge in proving intent.

In chapter 19, verse 4 we learn about a person who has wronged another in the past. “Yesterday, or the day before” are the words the Torah uses, suggesting that a quarrel normally lasts three days. After that, people can be assumed to have overcome their conflict. And if the resentment lingers, perhaps it is because the aggrieved party is deliberately prolonging it.

Sometimes it feels good to be angry, maybe because we feel justified in our hurt or because we subconsciously want others to feel some pain too. But if the anger lasts longer than it should and becomes a grudge, then it’s time to seriously consider the consequences. As we head into the new year, this week’s Torah portion reminds us that anger without healthy expression and grudges without forgiveness simply don’t solve problems, they compound them. So, what do you do with the mad that you feel? The High Holidays are just the right time to consider that question . . . and maybe sing about it.

Self Inflicted – Parshat Re’eh 5779

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Living with two young kids, I find my life is made up of one lesson in responsibility after another. If you make the choice not to eat dinner, you’ve then made the choice not to have dessert. If you get hurt because you didn’t pay attention to the directions or rules I gave, I’ll feel sad that you’re hurt, and then I’ll remind you that rules are meant to keep you safe.

And it’s not just on the kids; parents have to accept responsibility too. We usually bring after-school snacks for the kids at pickup, but one day Duncan was coming to school straight from a meeting and didn’t have time to run home and grab a granola bar. What followed was a 45-minute tantrum because one child was hangry, and it took approximately that long to then calm down enough to eat and get the blood sugar level back to normal. Learning that our actions have real results is a lesson even adults struggle with sometimes. More often than not, we bring both the good and the bad consequences on ourselves, and there’s no one else to blame.

This lesson is prevalent in the Torah, with God bringing in the final rules and structure to the Israelites on their journey. 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 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 these final laws, God reminds what is essentially a “toddler” nation in chapter 11, verse 28: “And curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced.” Is God responsible for curses that fall upon the Israelite nation, or do the individuals through personal behavior bring the curses on themselves?

As you read the laws of the Torah, you can see they are as much about our relationship with God as they are about our own personal choices. The essence of Jewish law, “love your neighbor as yourself,” is about loving others, but it first assumes that we love ourselves. Our first obligation is to treat ourselves as holy and worthy of respect. On the other hand, when we make choices that lead us off the path of goodness, we receive consequences which might be negative.

This week, the Torah is reminding us that we must own our behavior and understand that our actions have reactions, both good and bad. It’s easy to blame God for the bad things that happen in our lives, but as we head into the month of Elul and the High Holiday season, the first step toward living a new year of goodness and fullness is taking real ownership of our decisions.

Testing My Limits – Parshat Eikev 5779

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It seems that when we feel comfortable around certain people, we tend to let down boundaries and test the limits of those relationships. While I know my spouse, Duncan, loves me, I also know I can rail, scream, cry, and otherwise vent to him after a tough day. He can take it because he loves me, I love him, and together we provide a mutual safe space to have this flood of emotion. My children are the same way. They usually keep themselves pulled together when we’re out in public, and then they have a release of emotion and let it all out when we’re home. And boy do they test the boundaries! But at least I know I’m not alone; this type of boundary testing has been going on as long as there have been deep, trusting relationships, including in the Torah.

This week we read Parshat Eikev. We learn of the blessing and reward you receive if you keep the laws of the Torah and of the consequences for those who don’t follow those laws. The Torah recaps the lessons learned from the Golden Calf, the breaking of the first set of tablets, and Moshe’s prayer for the people. We finally receive the second section of the Shema, followed by a clear warning to guard the Torah and its commandments.

As the relationship between God and the Israelite nation deepens, there are moments when the people lash out and moments when God lashes out. Now, at the end of the journey, God tests the Israelites one last time before they go into the land of Israel and become forever bound by the covenant.

Chapter 8, verse 2 reads, “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that He might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep His commandments or not.” What is God testing in the Israelites? They left everything they knew to follow these laws, so what’s left to test? Was it a test of their faith to see if, after everything, they still had faith? Was it a test of their gratitude to God, even if they knew they were going to survive and flourish?

Perhaps it’s the same kind of test we use in our closest relationships. We’re not trying to push the other person away, but the result is that we test and push the boundaries of that relationship. In a strange way, it’s how we reaffirm our love and commitment. In this moment, God is seeking that reaffirmation. Having these limits or boundaries with God and with each other doesn’t mean that there’s less love or that the love is restrained. In fact, it’s the opposite. Knowing when you can and can’t cross those lines (and when you can stretch them) is the ultimate kind of trust. And that’s true love.