Hide and Seek – Parshat Vayelech 5782

Last year during the containment days, as we waited out one of the upward curves of Covid-19, we played our fair share of games of hide and seek. One hide and seek benefit for the parents? When it was our turn to hide, we’d get to hide in a dark room and have a few minutes of solitude while still giving the kids something fun to do. And on the kids’ turn to hide, we could sit down with a book or a cup of coffee for a few minutes, and “pretend” we couldn’t find them. When everyone was home all the time, this would give us a few moments of reprieve to recharge ourselves before we had to return to what seemed like an endless stream of education, entertainment, breaking up fights, and fighting boredom. I’m proud to say only once did the kids get so bored of hiding that they actually gave up on the game and revealed their own location. 

Our Torah portion this week, Parshat Vayelech, recounts something similar to hide and seek with God and the Israelites. This week we read of the difficulty leaders have in transferring over their power, in particular the final days of Moshe and the gift of life he had in living 120 years. The Israelites approach the land promised to them and witness the transfer of power to Joshua. Finally, Moshe writes the words of the Torah and passes down the commandment to the Kohanim to read the Torah. Moshe’s final moments with the Israelites are near, and he prepares for this by coming up with a transfer of legacy, tradition, and history.  

In chapter 31, verse 17 we read that God speaks to Moses and says, “I will abandon them and hide My countenance from them.” Basically, God’s presence depends on the Israelites living by the laws that have been given to them, and if they don’t follow in God’s ways, God will hide from them, and terrible things will happen. What would happen if people stopped looking for God and then stopped following the mitzvot altogether? It could lead to the breakdown of the beautiful society God worked so hard for the Israelites to build and maintain.

The concept of hide and seek goes beyond physically hiding. Whether you’re searching for a person or a solution to a problem, it’s the discovery that keeps us engaged. Without finding answers, without learning, we lose interest and life becomes chaotic and depressing. Without the interaction and mutual understanding to be in partnership, our entire relationship with God would fall apart. Parshat Vayelech is the reminder that our relationship with God is not static. It changes and grows based only on how we continue to seek and find holiness. and connect. In order to go, to move forward on our path in life it is essential not to be passive in looking for that which brings us meaning, but to engage, to look and to connect in any way we can. 

The Curse of Invincibility – Parshat Nitzavim 5781

Our actions cause reactions. As the English 80s rock group The Fixx sang, “One thing leads to another.” You only have to look as far as the local news for the past year and a half to see what it means literally for something to go viral. The domino-effect spread of Covid-19 has changed virtually every aspect of our behavior and our lives. Originally we thought only certain portions of the population were at risk, and while severity does depend on other factors, for purposes of spreading itself, the virus doesn’t know the difference between us. And now because of a more contagious variant, we’ve begun to reinstate some of the precautions we previously had in place in order to protect each other. 

Perhaps more dangerous than the novel coronavirus itself is that there are those who believe that they are invincible or that somehow others are impervious to the spread of the virus. The moral imperative that we must respect fellow human lives – and, sadly, the disregard for this imperative – is certainly not a new idea. The Torah spends almost the entirety of its books focusing on lessons to live a moral and ethical life, and this week we read Parshat Nitzavim, which teaches us this lesson quite clearly. 

The Torah portion begins with God telling the Israelites about the covenant they are making together and how binding it is. In the course of the text, God implores us to choose life. The goal is to see blessings and curses and to know that when we make choices, it affects not only us, but all those in our community. This is clear in chapter 29, verse 18 as we read, “When such a one hears the words of these sanctions, he may fancy himself immune, thinking ‘I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart’ – to the utter ruin of moist and dry alike.” The Torah is warning us against those who think themselves or their family members to be invincible. 

Believing you’re immune or impervious to the world isn’t heroic or courageous in any way. It’s a curse. God reminds us that this mindset ultimately leads to devastation and to the destruction of our society. Judaism is not “every person for themselves.” It is a religion based on the strength of our relationships and connections. It is a religion that is fulfilled when we’re in community and looking out for the good beyond our own homes or our own needs. What we’ve learned in the 18 months since Covid-19 has taken hold of our society is exactly this. We’re all in this together, and as such, we must work together towards what strengthens us.

All Consuming – Parshat Ki Tavo 5781

Did you nibble on your children when they were young? I find that I can’t help it, and I mean this in the most motherly, unaggressive way you can imagine. Especially when my kids were babies, they were totally irresistible with their little rolls of love and sweet faces. I would devour them with my kisses. A few years ago, researchers developed a term for this feeling, which they call “cute aggression.” In other words, it’s the point at which something is so cute you just want to smoosh it or eat it up. Of course that feeling goes away as they mature and get a bit smellier and lose those baby rolls, but I still live for their snuggles (when they’re willing to snuggle). 

What’s been difficult these last 18 months is realizing how much we depend on human contact as a coping mechanism. We continue to give so much of ourselves without realizing we’re depleting our human contact reserves without the ability to refill them as often as we could before. This week, the Torah has an interesting and seemingly macabre teaching about how we give of ourselves physically and emotionally.

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 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.

In the giving of these rules and laws we receive a strange lesson: “You shall eat your own issue, the flesh of your sons and daughters that God has assigned to you, because of the desperate straits to which your enemy shall reduce you.” At first glance, chapter 28, verse 53 is rather odd if not downright troublesome. Is God predicting that we’re going to need to eat our own children because of our enemies? That certainly makes me question if God has our best interests at heart. What could this mean if we move past a gruesome literal interpretation?

Perhaps the verse is a metaphor for the way in which we might “devour” or consume each other’s needs in times of trouble and moments of distress. This verse also reminds us that in old age, or in periods of struggle, we often turn to each other and give of ourselves in ways that might be all consuming. But that reminder comes with the warning that we risk depleting our personal resources when we let ourselves be consumed.  

Part of our daily humanity is finding the balance between giving and receiving support. When we don’t support others, we become disconnected from the community and turn into enemies, but when we don’t draw boundaries for ourselves, we can become our own enemies. May we take this lesson with us into the new year.

Promise Me This – Parshat Ki Teitzei 5781

As I was preparing for my bat mitzvah, I wondered why the boys were learning how to lay tefillin and a talit, and I wasn’t being taught the same. I like ritual, and I thrive on routine. I also respond well to tactile learning; I need to feel things, hold items in my hand in order to find connection. I decided I wanted and needed to learn how to lay tefillin, so my father agreed to help me learn. He taught me to wrap the soft black leather straps of my great grandfather’s tefillin around my small arms. I placed the well-worn box between my eyes and wrapped myself in my grandfather’s talit. I felt embraced in Judaism and connected to my past and my traditions.

And then my dad reminded me that talit and tefillin are not mitzvot you can take on just for a day. They are commandments which, once you’ve committed yourself, you must do for the rest of your life. In my case, my obligation to wear these garments had to be more than a teenage rebellion against a “boys only” culture. It meant being sure of my words and committing to the cause anytime I was in daily minyan. I had a choice to make. Saying “yes” to tefillin wasn’t like saying I wanted dessert tonight or deciding on a certain new pair of shoes, it was actually pushing me to fulfill a promise for my adult Jewish life. 

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, 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.

In the midst of these laws, God is establishing a society that will set safeguards on how we treat one another and how we’ll connect with all in our community. In Chapter 23, verse 24 God issues forth a commandment that I feel is one of the most important lessons to being true to yourself and others. “You must fulfill what has crossed your lips and perform what you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God, having made the promise with your own mouth.”

The intent of this commandment is between God and the people; however, I believe the sentiment is one that should exist between people as well. What you say you’ll do, you must do. The Torah is asking us to hold ourselves and each other accountable for the commitments we make. This means that we must think deeply about what we’re committing to and whether or not we’re able to fulfill that commitment.

Parshat Ki Teitzei intends to remind us of the power of our words and our promises, and to think critically before we agree to do something so that we’re not letting the community (or ourselves) down. If we are all created in God’s image, then our promises to one another should be treated with the same respect as holy covenants.

The Danger of a Single Story – Parshat Shoftim 5781

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at TEDGlobal 2009, bonus session at the Sheldonian theater, July 23, 2009, in Oxford, UK. Credit: TED / James Duncan Davidson

A few years ago I was introduced to novelist Chimamanda Adichie through a TED Talk. In the video, Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice, and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding. Specifically, the author relays a story of her experience going to university. Her roommate was startled to learn that she, a girl from Africa, could speak English and also know how to use an oven and stove. Chimamanda Adichie says, “What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.”

The danger of a “single story” is that we so often let one person’s narrative color our entire understanding of the issue or situation and don’t stop to take the time to actually look at all angles and facts about the story.

The concept of a single story and the problem behind it are not new; in fact they are very present in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shoftim. This is 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.

As these laws are articulated, the rabbis worry about a single story narrative. While judicial matters are being discussed, the Torah puts out rules for how a case can be decided. In chapter 19, verses 15-21, they lay out a plan. “A single witness may not validate against a person any guilt or blame for any offense that may be committed; a case can only be valid on the testimony of two witnesses or more.” It goes on to talk about false testimony and the need for a thorough investigation.

The Torah is clearly trying to work against the single story narrative. Our text is instituting a protection against a “he said, he said” situation where there is no research or effort to back up statements or experiences. 

Throughout history the narrative of a single story has plagued minorities especially. From the evil of Haman in our Purim story, to the horrific genocide and displacement of the Maya people in Guatemala, to the Rohingya refugee crisis, when only one viewpoint matters, it can have unimaginable results. One single story or one single stereotype of a people can bring epic destruction and lasting consequences. In a world where misinformation and falsehoods are easier than ever to spread, Parshat Shoftim teaches us to investigate, to get a second, third, or fourth opinion, and to remember that single stories aren’t the whole story.