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.

Above the Law – Parshat Shoftim 5778

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Rules don’t always apply to everyone. There are plenty of examples in the home where decisions are meant for the younger set. Rules like “no ice cream for dessert tonight” might be what we tell the kids, and then I have a spoonful after they go to bed. Or it’s “no TV on weekdays,” except the minute they’re asleep Duncan and I can’t wait to catch up on our shows. It’s not that as the parents we are above the law, but it is true that as the rule makers we may have different needs, and we have the ability to bend the rules to meet those needs.

Laws, however, are different than rules. Our duty to obey the law is pretty crystal clear, and that responsibility falls on everyone the same way, no matter their position in society. In fact, part of what makes laws work is that they apply to everyone, with the objective to create a fair, orderly, and just society.

This week the Torah reading reminds us of this fact. The portion is Parshat Shoftim, a section of Torah that completely focuses on the legal system and specifically on justice and the context of the laws. This text includes the commandment to establish judges and officers, as well as a listing of punishments for certain transgressions against mitzvot (commandments). We also learn about the laws surrounding false witnesses and murder. Ultimately, it’s a sense of fairness and justice that’s at the heart of creating these laws.

Chapter 17, verses 14-15 raise the question as to whether or not the king is actually required to live according to the mitzvot. On the one hand, the king is not considered to be a god or of divine birth. Even though the king is seen as being approved by God, the king is also a servant of the people, required to uphold standards, solve disputes, and wage war if necessary. Verse 18 then teaches that the king has the responsibility of writing his own Torah scroll or having it written for him. It’s this requirement that reminds us that the king is not above the law, but subject to it like everyone else. Even the king must obey the words of the Torah.

We live in a world where all the time we see people in positions of power trying to overstep their bounds, ignore the laws, or try to get away with something. Whether it’s a teenager thinking she’s invincible or a politician skirting tax laws, thinking laws don’t apply to you comes at a severe price when those laws catch up with you. The Torah this week in Shoftim reminds us that we are all equal in God’s eyes. Whether you’re a leader or a follower, the words of the Torah still apply. We are all kings of our own castles, all beholden to the same standard: to uphold that which is right and just and to teach the next generation to do the same.

The Dirty Work – Parshat Shoftim 5777

The Dirty Work

When I was at summer camp as a kid, I had a love-hate relationship with the chore chart. Every cabin had a paper plate wheel that matched up your name with a task that was part of cleaning the cabin. The tasks included things like sweeping, laundry, garbage, and table server at mealtimes. They ranged from the most desired (easiest) chore of holding the dustpan, to the least desired (grossest) chore of cleaning the bathrooms.

However, everyone’s favorite spot on the wheel wasn’t a chore at all – it was a free spot, which gave one camper per day a break to sit back and relax while others did the work. I’d like to think that taking a turn on the free spot was rejuvenating and good for my soul, though I know it didn’t necessarily improve cabin morale, it just made the other campers yearn for their free day.

A benefit of having a chore chart is that the cabin stays clean, but the point of it all is to teach responsibility and the value of combining our efforts for a greater good. Each one of us has a role to play. The Torah makes this point as well. The Levites had certain defined responsibilities to the people, as did the Kohanim and the other tribes. Every person’s job throughout our journey in the desert was critical to the survival of the Israelites. But what framework did the Torah provide as we moved forward after our nomadic period? How did the responsibilities change once we were living in a firmly-rooted and established society?

We arrive at this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim. In Parshat Shoftim, a section of Torah that focuses entirely on the legal system, we read the commandment to establish judges and officers. We also cover a list of punishments for violating certain mitzvot, and we learn about laws regarding false witnesses and murder.

In chapter 19, verse 10 we read:

“Thus blood of the innocent will not be shed, bringing bloodguilt upon you in the land that the Lord your God is allotting you.”

This is the final line in a conversation about the communal responsibility to ensure public safety for society. The Talmud in tractate Makot uses this verse to infer that society is responsible for public safety in all regards, such as keeping the roads safe and drivable.

In the chore chart of life, having every position filled and accounted for is what keeps things running smoothly. But here’s the key: the responsibility for public safety does not fall solely on the law enforcers or the justice system. You don’t have to work in sanitation to do your part by composting and recycling, and you don’t have to work for ODOT to report dangerous road conditions. We are responsible for safety. We each have a role to play.

On a related note, any tips for convincing my kids that bathroom duty is in fact the best job on the chart?

Guardians of the Soul – Parshat Shoftim 5776

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Baruch sh’amar v’hayah ha’olam, baruch Hu. Blessed is the one who spoke and the world was, blessed is He. These words open one of the central prayers of our morning liturgy. How fitting that each day begins with the reminder that the world was created as God’s mouth was opened, using words to bring into being the cycle of life that gives us life every day. I love this prayer for a number of reasons, but perhaps the greatest reason is that it reminds me daily of the power of words.

If God’s words have the power to create or destroy an entire universe, then surely our words too have the power to lift up or tear down each other’s worlds, since we all have a spark of the divine inside us. This is the lesson I try to hold with me as I open my mouth to speak or close my mouth to listen. We must be in tune with our words. How might they be interpreted by others? How might they lift up or destroy someone else’s world?

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. It’s worth noting that the Torah recognizes that the legal system and those in charge of it must be hip to the times.

The text begins with chapter 16, verse 18: “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice.” In other words physically, at the gates of our cities, we are to set a guard for the type of person we think would be an asset to our community. Taken metaphorically, according to a 16th century commentator, we must set guardians at the gates of our souls. The gate at our mouths guards against lying or speaking malicious gossip, the gate at our ears guards against being eager to hear malicious gossip, and the gate at our eyes guards against forming the habit of seeing the worst in others.

Judgement comes not only in the form of legal rulings, but also as we use our own minds to understand how and what we should be doing and saying in the world around us. Parshat Shoftim reminds us that our world – the cities, towns, and communities we are a part of – are built upon good judgement and how we treat one another. It is our obligation to be aware of the gates to our soul, the gates to creating a world in which we can work together to create, uplift, and celebrate.