Creatures of Habit – Parshat Devarim 5778

creatures-of-habit

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.

 

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Speak My Language – Parshat Devarim 5777

speak-my-language

One of the hardest parts for me about spending time in Israel is the way my brain works with foreign languages. I am easily able to understand Hebrew in written or oral form, but when it comes to actually speaking the language, sometimes I’m at a loss. I stumble over conjugation, I can’t access words I know I’ve learned, and I turn into a one or two-word answer girl.

Languages are just not my strong suit. I had the same trouble with Spanish in school. My teacher promised to pass me out of Spanish 4 as long as I promised not to take Spanish 5. Language – how we communicate with one another – is of the utmost importance in our world. It can be frustrating not to understand what someone is asking of you, not just person to person, but in a larger, global sense as well.

This week in our parshah, we enter into the final book of the Torah, D’varim (Deuteronomy). D’varim 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 during the course of the four previous books.

In chapter 1, verse 5 we learn: “On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this Teaching.” What was Moshe expounding? Hadn’t he been sharing the Torah all along the way? The Sfat Emet teaches that Moshe went on to interpret the Torah in many languages so that future generations of Jews in many lands would have access to it in terms that they could understand. The Torah is written in lashon kodesh, in Hebrew, as that is the “holy tongue,” but right here we learn that the most important piece is not the language in which it is written, but the language we use to understand it.

The Torah keenly picks up on the notion that we are better off when we engage with one another on and with terms and languages we share. Whether that means changing your wording and trying again with a toddler, or exercising a little more patience in conversation with someone who speaks a different language literally, culturally, or politically. We have a Torah imperative to understand one another, though it may not always be easy.

Do You Love Me? – Parshat Devarim 5776

Do You Love Me?

One of my favorite scenes in Fiddler on the Roof is when Tevye and Golde sing their duet “Do You Love Me?” It’s a moment of pure honesty when Tevye questions the state of their marriage after all these years. This kind of emotional check-in is natural; it’s a part of continuing to build a relationship and partnership together. Do you love me? Do you like me? Are you mad at me? These moments happen all the time, perhaps because we’re questioning our own emotions and therefore seek to validate them.

This week in our parshah, we enter into the final book of the Torah, Devarim (Deuteronomy). 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 the summation of the laws we’ve been given over the course of the four previous books.

Chapter 1, verse 27 reveals the Israelites’ conversation with Moshe: “It is because the Lord hates us that He brought us out of the land of Egypt to hand us over to the Amorites.” Though their theory is incorrect, it’s understandable that the Israelites would express this concern. They’ve been moved out of the only land they’ve ever known. They’re scared, and so they blame their fear on God instead of reflecting rationally on the situation.

In fact, Rashi interprets this line as “If God really loved us, God would have given us the land of Egypt and sent the Egyptians into the wilderness.” Their fear blinds them to the possibility that, as difficult as the journey has been, it is because God loves them that they left Egypt. In other words, because I love you I’ve given you the chance to grow, change, and build a whole new nation.

“Do you love me?” is mostly a rhetorical question in the musical. We know they love each other. Sometimes we ask questions when we already know the answers, and as our parshah teaches, this validation is often all we need. Even Tevye and Golde acknowledge: “It doesn’t change a thing, but even so, after 25 years it’s nice to know.”

The You That I See – Parshat Devarim 5775

The You I See

When I was 13 years old and celebrating my Bat Mitzvah, somehow it was clear to everyone that I would become a rabbi.  As for me?  I was a typical teenager, so of course I thought they were completely nuts.  Ok, yes, I loved being in the synagogue.  Sure, I wanted to push the boundaries of what women were allowed to do in my shul.  Alright fine, I was a natural Torah reader and thrived standing on the bimah.  Well now that I think about it, I guess the signs were pretty clear.

But at that age, in my mind there was no way I was going to be a rabbi.  This continued to be my train of thought as I worked through high school, despite the fact that I lived in Israel for a semester and, upon my return, wanted only to study Hebrew, Israel, and Judaism.  In college I was also active in Hillel, leading the conservative minyan and basically acting as a one-person religious life committee.  Then there was my job as youth advisor and Hebrew school teacher at the conservative shul in town.

I mean come on!  Who I was on the outside screamed “Rabbi!”  Except inside, I didn’t believe that was my path.  How could I have totally missed these obvious clues?  Part of the reason is because I fully expected to use my college degree in Judaic Studies towards Jewish communal work, or perhaps Jewish education.  That is until Rabbi Abby Treu, who then worked at University of Michigan Hillel, finally opened my eyes.  She convinced me that more than anything, I was hiding from my own insecurities, my own disbelief that I could be a rabbi.  She saw something in me I didn’t see – that I couldn’t see – and I am so grateful for that push of enlightenment.

This week in our parshah, the Israelites follow a story not so different from mine as we enter into the final book of the Torah, Devarim (Deuteronomy).  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 book begins “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.”  Addressing words to all Israel?  How is this possible?  Isn’t this the same Moses who at the beginning protested this leadership role, stating that he was not ish devarim, a “man of words”?  Know anyone who’s afraid of public speaking?  Moses started that.  And yet, here he is years later confidently sharing his message with the people.  Moses didn’t take speech classes or join the Mount Sinai debate team.  His speaking ability didn’t necessarily improve, but he did accept that this was his calling, and he embraced it wholeheartedly.  In doing so he led a nation and was true to himself.

Had Moshe not had the nagging voice of God pushing him to move forward, to speak, to assume his role as leader, he never would have grown into himself, and he never would have made such an impact on our people and our history.  Let’s face it, our story as we know it would be completely different.  And had my friend Rabbi Treu not pushed me to consider the obvious evidence before me, I never would have had the courage to apply to rabbinical school, and I doubt I’d have found as much satisfaction in my career choice.  Now I can say with certainty that being a rabbi feels like exactly what I want to do with my life.

We begin the final book in the Torah by understanding that our success in life comes from growing into our own selves.  Sometimes it’s hard on your own to recognize what makes you truly happy, but when the right person can help reflect that back to you, it makes all the difference.  In this Shabbat of Hazon, this Shabbat of Vision, we are inspired to envision ourselves as we want to be, with all the potential others see in us.  This is your push.  Shabbat shalom.