Clingy – Parshat Vaetchanan 5781

I’ve always been bothered by the end of the movie Titanic when Rose climbs on to the door in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean after the ship goes down. There seems to be room for Jack to climb on top of the door with her, and yet he dies and she survives. Why do they both not get to make it and only one of them is pulled to safety? There has been much debate about this scene over the 24 years since the movie came out, including a segment on the television show Mythbusters that recreated the tragic ending with a replica of the door. The obvious answer is because it makes the story even more dramatic and moving, not to mention the tragedy of the Titanic isn’t a happy story to begin with. But if you prefer a bit of dark humor, you could say the reason is because Jack didn’t want to be the clingy one in this relationship. 

Of course in this memorable movie scene, “clinging” is a matter of life and death. However, when we turn the verb “cling” into the adjective “clingy” we’re usually referring to people, things, and ideas we hold onto for emotional reasons, not physical necessity. For example, there are some things that we cling to in order to give us hope or sustain us through a rocky patch. “The light at the end of the tunnel” is a cliché that reminds us that if we can just reach a certain point, a reward will follow. Or, as my trainer says, “You can do anything for 30 seconds.” It’s a little bit of hyperbole, but knowing that those 30 seconds will end is the hope I cling to in order to push through the last two minutes of holding a plank. What are some things you cling to? 

Parshat Vaetchanan, which we read this week, offers some insight into this concept. The Torah portion continues with the retelling of the laws here again in the book of Deuteronomy. We also read about God’s persistent refusal to allow Moshe to enter the Land of Israel. The Torah then issues a caution to uphold the mitzvot as the key to building the new Israelite society. Moshe then sets three cities of refuge, and we receive probably the most well-known instruction in the Torah, the Shema. 

In chapter four we receive a verse of Torah that is still used today in the congregation just before the reading of the Torah. “While you, who are clinging to the Lord your God, are all alive today.” In the midst of recounting the destruction of those who didn’t serve God, this verse tells us that Israel is alive today, and Judaism exists today because the people have “clung” to God. Faith, in a sense, is that floating door in Titanic, and that is how we survive. 

“Clinging” to faith looks different for each of us. Holding onto Judaism can look like maintaining multiple traditions over generations, or simply keeping a recipe as sacred to the family. Some of us cling to God, while others cling to the specific words of Torah that bring us meaning and comfort. However you interpret it, this idea of holding tightly to each other and to our tradition is the reason Judaism has survived, and if we remain clingy, it will continue to survive.  

Always Learning – Parshat Vaetchanan 5780

Parenting is full of obligations we have to our children. I want to teach them to be kind and compassionate. I want to teach them to be productive members of society and to take care of themselves. I want to teach them the alphabet and the alef-bet and help them reach all the appropriate learning milestones so they can succeed in life. The truth is there will always be much more to learn than I have time to teach, or in the case of math, can’t teach them myself. I rely heavily on our awesome community and fantastic teachers to provide the basics, but I know that at the end of the day, there is always more to learn, even as adults.

The idea that you can never really know it all can be overwhelming, especially if you’re not a quick learner, and yet Judaism is based around the concept of being a lifelong learner. This week we read Parshat Vaetchanan, the second section of text in the book of Deuteronomy. It is perhaps one of the most famous texts in our Torah. Moses requests to enter the land of Israel, but God remains firm in the punishment of forbidding Moses from stepping foot in the Promised Land. The Torah sends out a caution to observe the commandments therein and reaffirms that idols are prohibited, which we learn in the Shema, stating there is only one God. We also receive the second giving of the Ten Commandments and are told to teach these words to our children. 

In chapter 5, verse 1 we read, “Moses summoned all the Israelites and said to them: Hear, O Israel, the laws and rules that I proclaim to you this day! Study them and observe them faithfully!” The obligation to learn and to understand is not just based in childhood. It is an obligation that is lifelong. Even if we don’t learn everything we need for the world in a traditional educational setting, we have an obligation as adults to continue the process. 

Being a lifelong learner means understanding that we are never complete, that our knowledge base is never full, and that we can always open our minds and learn more about the world and learn from other people. Parshat Vaetchanan reminds us that we are all simultaneously learners and seekers. Knowledge is to be enjoyed and pursued throughout our lifetimes and everywhere we happen to find ourselves.

What will you learn this year?

Subtle Changes – Parshat Vaetchanan

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I feel like a lot of parenting is making small changes to daily life that (hopefully) add up to a big shift in behavior. When we had infants, we’d notice that a five-minute shift in bedtime routine could change an entire sleep pattern. As they got older, we learned the sweet spot for nap time and changed our schedule accordingly to fit that need. And when Shiri’s weekday morning routine became problematic, we changed our screen time rule to only once per week. Each shift was minimal in the grand scheme of the work of being a parent, and yet those subtle differences totally changed the way that our family interacts.

There are plenty of examples of minimal changes that produce maximum reward. Trying to stick to a budget? Just making your own coffee two days a week can add up to some major savings compared to the daily latte. Working on weight loss? Trading one junk snack for a vegetable is remarkable. Working on getting more sleep? Five extra minutes of screen-free downtime before bed makes all the difference in the world. Subtle, small tweaks lead to major positive results, and we see the same phenomenon in the Torah.

Parshat Vaetchanan, which we read this week, offers some insight into this concept. The Torah portion continues with the retelling of the laws here again in the book of Deuteronomy. We also read about God’s persistent refusal to allow Moshe to enter the Land of Israel. The Torah then issues a caution to uphold the mitzvot as the key to building an Israelite society. Moshe then sets three cities of refuge, and we receive probably the most well-known instruction in the Torah, the Shema.

Significantly, the text contains the Ten Commandments. But this is the second time that Moshe shares the commandments with the Israelites, and while the intention and meaning of the commandments largely remain the same, there are a few notable tweaks. Instead of “honoring your father and mother” it reads “revere your mother and father.” Instead of “remember the Sabbath day” it reads “keep the Sabbath day.” Small changes in words that lead to significant interpretive differences. The order of mother and father is switched, as is the verb, to remind us that we should both honor and revere both parents. “Remember” versus “keep” Shabbat is a subtle change that tells us about how we should both guard sacred time and plan ahead for it.

Visually there’s not much difference. You have to be a careful, close, and critical reader of these texts to actually notice the changes that were made. However, these subtle tweaks to the text lead to broad positive outcomes in the society that is being built. Parshat Vaetchanan reminds us that it’s sometimes the small changes that are most effective over time.

How Lucky You Are – Parshat Vaetchanan 5778

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There are countless conversations I’ve had with people in generations before me about how lucky I am to live in the world today, and I feel similarly about my kids’ lives. It seems that every new generation has certain things easier and faster. Need to know information? Google it, or even better, let Alexa tell you. Back in my day – who’d have ever thought I’d be saying “back in my day” – I had to use the card catalog and encyclopedias to find information. These days, if you want to find something to watch on TV, just speak into the remote. Believe it or not, I remember being the remote, getting up to tune the knob to another channel. These advances in technology give the older generation some perspective, but sometimes it’s difficult for the younger generations to understand just how lucky they are, especially when forced to suffer inconveniences like a dead iPhone or when there is actually “nothing” on TV.

Technology aside, the phenomenon of generational comparisons goes back to Moses in the Torah. The Israelites are constantly pointing out how much better life was before they left Egypt; they don’t yet grasp how lucky they are to be free. Parshat Vaetchanan, which we read this week, offers some insight into this concept. The Torah portion continues with the retelling of the laws here again in the book of Deuteronomy. We also read about God’s persistent refusal to allow Moses to enter the Land of Israel. The Torah then issues a caution to uphold the mitzvot as the key to building an Israelite society. Moses then sets three cities of refuge, and we receive probably the most well-known instruction in the Torah, the Shema. 

The text begins with the following words from Moses:

I pleaded with the Lord at that time, saying, “O Lord God, You who let Your servant see the first works of your greatness . . . Let me, I pray cross over and see the good land.”

Moses begins by asking to see the land of Israel. He does this publicly, in front of the nation. Several commentators pick up on how out of character this is for him. Moses rarely pleads on his own behalf, always for the greater community. Yet here he is facing his own mortality and the fact that his mistake has cost him seeing the land of Israel, and he is heartbroken.

Perhaps, as one final lesson to the Israelites, Moses is trying to teach remorse for sins and show them the true blessing of living in a free land, which he won’t experience. Perhaps he’s showing them that you should never lose hope about what may come and that even our deepest prayers may be eventually answered. Whatever the impetus for this plea, it’s a reminder that each generation walks a unique path. It may not always be easy to see in the moment, but we are all blessed to live in the world today.

Sinai Moments – Parshat Vaetchanan 5777

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For me, all of my “Sinai moments” are tied in some way to family. If you’ve never considered your own Sinai moments before, the idea is fairly self-explanatory. These are events in your life which carry a certain power or splendor, akin to the feeling Moshe and the Israelites might have had upon receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. The Torah describes the scene as majestic, with thunder and lightning and grand theatrics. Clearly this was a moment that changed an entire people and connected them to one another and to future generations in a way they were not connected before.

We use the term now with some hyperbole, but nevertheless there are moments in our lives that affect us in monumental ways. My Sinai moments include my rabbinic ordination, my wedding day, and the days my children were born. Often these moments are joyous and uplifting, but they are undeniably powerful and life-changing. And for me, these moments were in some way, shape, or form tied back to my connection with my family, specifically those who came before me and those who might come after.

Parshat Vaetchanan, this week’s Torah portion, continues with the retelling of the laws here again in the book of D’varim. We’re also reminded of God denying Moshe’s entry into the Land of Israel. The Torah then reiterates that our mitzvot are the building blocks on which our society is formed. Finally, Moshe establishes three cities of refuge, and we receive the most well-known instruction in the Torah, the Shema.

Within the commandments about passing on our great tradition, God commands the following in chapter 4, verse 9:

And make them known to your children and to your children’s children: The day you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb . . .

The importance of passing on our tradition from generation to generation repeats throughout the Torah, but in this instance, the Torah includes grandparents. The Babylonian Talmud picks up on this notion in tractate Berachot, page 21b:

When a child is taught Torah by a grandparent, it is as if that child received it at Sinai.

Now you understand why our momentous, awe-inspiring occasions – the ones we call Sinai moments – often center on family. A Sinai moment by definition is one generation to another sharing tradition and wisdom. I take great joy in hearing my mom share with my children the stories from the Torah that she shared with me when I was a child because it tells me the preservation of our family culture and Jewish heritage are secured. Parshat Vaetchanan simply articulates one of the Torah’s primary imperatives, which is to educate our children and future generations on the beauty of our heritage.