Line of Sight

line-of-sight

The following is the d’var Torah I shared Friday night, August 18.


You can only look for blessings in curses for so long until you stop and think . . . is this the best use of my time? Should I be spinning my wheels trying to find some good in a bad situation or should I make my own good situation?

This phrase – the blessings in the curses – has a lot of different variations, but I come back to the same question each time. Here’s another version of the same theme. “It could always be worse.” That’s an interesting one. So basically, what you’re saying is you’re waiting for it to get worse. Why would you do that? “Every cloud has a silver lining.” So now in this statement, we’re trying to hide the sadness, trying to distract ourselves from it. Quick, look over here! Something happy! I’m not extolling the glorious virtues of sadness and despair. I’m not saying we should wish for it. What I’m saying is we shouldn’t automatically try to dilute it or write it off by pointing out that it’s not so bad after all. It’s dangerous when we don’t know the difference between what’s good and what’s actually bad.

Recently this bizarre moral ambiguity has been a topic in the news, specifically in political coverage, but let me be clear. This is not a partisan or political issue. It doesn’t matter who it’s coming from – the president, Congress, a teacher, your neighbor – when someone turns a deaf ear to speech that is meant to incite, or when someone confuses words that call for hate with words that call out hate, we have officially blurred the lines between right and wrong.

The difference between right and wrong is a primary theme in this week’s parshah, Parshat Re’eh. Not every issue is black and white of course, but God shows us there is usually a rigid dichotomy between curses and blessings. Parshat Re’eh begins with the line, “See, I set before you today blessings and curses. If you follow the commandments on how to be a good person, then blessings will be there, and if not, curses will follow.” There is a clear path to blessing, and it begins with following the mitzvot, the commandments for ethical and moral living that God sets forth.

And how do we know what’s good? The Torah has examples. The Torah teaches us that loving your neighbor as yourself, and not standing by the blood of your fellow, and restraint from unnecessary violence . . . these are the ways in which we create and uphold moral standards. This is blessing, this is good, and it stands to reason the opposite is bad.

Hillel teaches in Pirkei Avot (no surprise that I love this text):

In a place where there are no people, strive to be a person.

As another translation suggests, in a place where there is no leader, strive to be a leader. Basically, in a place where no one is acting with moral courage or conviction, strive to be that person. Don’t take the easy way out with this pseudo political correctness that likes to suggest that there’s good in everything. There’s not good in everything. Maybe it’s true when you get laid off, because a better opportunity comes your way. Or maybe it’s true when you’re snowed in in Portland, because you end up spending special family time together. It most certainly is not true in the form of moral equivalency, where good and evil must both be appeased. They must not. Not now, not ever.

Re’eh means see. Re’eh . . . it is reminding us to use our eyes to see two paths, blessings and curses, and the vision to know the difference.

Advertisements

Seeking Sadness – Parshat Re’eh 5777

seeking-sadness

Do you know anyone who’s only happy when they’re miserable? It’s a bit of a paradox; happy and miserable are opposites. “Happy” in this sense really means emotionally fulfilled. I went to a therapist when I was a teenager, and apparently she saw this tendency in me. It’s true – I used to look for the bad so I would have something to be complain about. In fact, this is something I struggled with until my early 20s when I was finally able to realize that seeking out the negative meant I was missing out on the positive. I was searching for something to be upset about instead of celebrating all the good that my life had to offer.

This week we read Parshat Re’eh. In this Torah portion we learn about the blessings and curses that come with observance (or lack thereof) of the mitzvot we’re given. We’re cautioned a final time about following the laws against idolatry, laws for keeping kosher, and the importance of treating each other as equals. Then the parshah provides some details about our three pilgrimage festivals. In general this section of text offers final guidance and laws designed to help the Israelites to be a longstanding and functioning society.

A part of this section has some interesting things to say about authority and how we solve problems. As God is trying to teach the Israelite leaders how to lead, God makes it known that when it comes to crime and punishment, it is not our responsibility to seek out illegal activity, but to simply investigate that which has come to light. Specifically in chapter 13, verse 13 we receive a prohibition from seeking out danger or criminal activity. The authorities are required to investigate only if the crime is reported to them by others. In other words, witch-hunts and entrapment are off limits. Instead, we are to give serious thought to all sides of an issue, use logic, and give benefit of the doubt.

If you’ve been reading or watching the news lately, as I’m sure you have, you’ve probably noticed that logic isn’t always part of the equation. Especially with the help of social media, we find it easier than ever to make accusations not based in fact. Instead, we jump to conclusions based on headlines meant to incite rather than inform. As with anything in life, it’s easy to find what you’re looking for if you look hard enough, and if you subscribe to the theory of confirmation bias, you don’t even have to look that hard.

This week as we read Parshat Re’eh, we’re reminded that looking at the glass as half full or half empty doesn’t just apply to individual circumstances. The mindset we choose affects everything from career trajectory to success in relationships. And yes, there will be bad in our lives and in the world. We’re not supposed to ignore the bad, we’re simply supposed to seek the good first.

 

Still Cravy – Parshat Re’eh 5776

still-cravy.jpg

When I was pregnant, all I wanted to eat was French fries, soft serve ice cream, pizza, and peanut butter. Literally, all the time. Of course the choice was mine. I could eat those amazingly craveable foods and satisfy the urge, but I would probably gain an obscene amount of weight during the pregnancy. Or I could really listen to what my body needed in those moments and continue to maintain my mostly healthy lifestyle, perhaps satisfying the cravings in moderation. Usually, I ended up compromising somewhere in the middle. It’s hard to win when it comes to cravings. Even now that I’m not pregnant anymore, I’m constantly trying to find the middle ground between what my body needs and what my brain tells me I want.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received on my journey in pursuit of daily health and fitness is to listen to your body, to know what your body needs. If you’re bruising a lot, you might need iron; if you’re chronically tired, try reducing the carbs. As you might presume, conscious eating isn’t a new medical theory. In fact, the idea of being conscious about our cravings and what we put into our bodies started as early as our Torah.

We read parshat Re’eh this week as the Torah races to the finish line of its lessons for us. 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.

Within the laws about kashrut (Jewish ethical and spiritual eating) we begin to engage in the conversation about how and what we’re supposed to eat. As the text details the laws of ethical slaughter, the Torah very clearly describes in chapter 12, verse 20 that when someone has the urge to eat meat, he may, as long as time and care are taken to obtain that meat. This is the difference, according to renowned Torah scholar Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, between human beings and animals. Rabbi Kook suggests that an animal does not have the mental capacity to weigh urges and instincts against careful thought. Human beings, on the other hand, take into account ethical, rational, and thoughtful behavior.

Of course in the past century, science has been able to uncover much more about the way animals act, respond, and communicate. However, the Torah still commands us to employ thoughtful consideration before eating and to obey rules like not eating the blood of animals, pausing to offer blessing, and choosing certain foods over others. Beyond kashrut, our parshah this week reminds us that eating right, like other aspects of our lives, is about balancing urges with intelligence to make decisions that are right for us.

Touchy-Feely – Parshat Re’eh 5775

Touchy-Feely

Two friends are out walking their dogs, and one friend says to the other, “Yesterday I taught my dog to whistle.” The second friend turns and says, “That’s incredible! Can I hear it?” The first one says, “Of course not. I only taught it to him – he didn’t learn it.”

I’m not sure this concept is obvious until you actually stop to think about it. Teaching doesn’t automatically equal learning, in the same way that cooking dinner doesn’t automatically mean a certain two-year-old is going to eat it. I’m not talking about anyone in particular, of course. The point is that it’s the responsibility of the learner – or the eater – to digest the information.

In rabbinical school, my classmates always made fun of me because of the way I sat with my pen and paper and outlined every piece of reading material we were ever assigned.  That was how I learned the information best, by the tactile nature of handwritten note-taking.  I could never take notes on a computer; to this day, I need to write by hand in order to remember.  These notes and outlines were the key to my success in school, and I still have them.  If there’s ever a “rabbi edition” of the TV show “Hoarders,” you’ll get a first-hand look at my boxes of handmade flashcards.  

There are multiple theories as to when and why absorption of data happens, but the way we interact with our world and the way we take in information differs from person to person and from subject to subject. You may have heard of the theory of multiple intelligences, developed by Howard Gardner, a psychologist who determined that there are eight modalities that are used in order to hold information.  The theory suggests that for a lesson to stick, or material to be learned, we must take it in in a way that speaks to us individually.

The Torah is perhaps the first curriculum written for multiple intelligence learning.  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.  

The parshah begins with Re’eh, “see the blessings and curses,” but just a verse later we read “if you do not hear the commandments…”  The Torah understands that we absorb information differently – some by seeing, some by hearing, and some by touching.  There are Israelites who might have heard God’s booming voice at Sinai, but because they couldn’t see it, didn’t believe it.  There are those who might have seen the grand show from Sinai, but needed to actually hear God’s voice in order to take it all in.  

I mentioned before that there are multiple learning theories. There’s also the theory that it’s the subject matter that is the bigger factor in successful learning. If you’re going to learn how to drive, how would you like to learn? By reading about driving, by engaging in a lively debate about driving, or by getting behind the wheel? Learning to drive needs a hands-on approach. Now let’s say you’re learning about the subject of legal ethics and pose the same question. Most of us go for the lively debate, right?

The Torah gives us the subject-based side of the coin too. We have commandments based on intellectual and spiritual concepts:

Hallow God’s name. (Lev. 22:32)

Don’t bear a grudge. (Lev. 19:18)

And we have commandments that are purely tactile or auditory:

Hear the sound of the shofar. (Num. 29:1)

Eat matzah on the first night of Pesach. (Ex. 12:18)

To live a Jewish life, we have to engage our intellects and our senses. What a concept!

As I reminded my classmates back in school, we all learn differently, and, guess what, we all graduated.  This week as we read parshat Re’eh, we are reminded that Judaism is experienced uniquely by each of us and in each of the ways we are commanded to do so. Listen to the Shema, see the flame of the candles, taste the sweetness of the wine, celebrate Shabbat. Most importantly, make it your journey of learning.