New Year’s Reinventions

reinventions

Susan Nanus entered rabbinical school when she was 54 years old. Now 67, Rabbi Nanus is a member of the clergy team at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, a thriving center of Jewish life (and of historical note, the first synagogue in Los Angeles). You might not have heard the name Susan Nanus before, but you might be familiar with the work she did in her previous career. In her late 20s, after graduating Yale Drama School, Susan started earning a living as a playwright and screenwriter. She went on to have a successful 30-year writing career, which included award-winning TV movies and plays on Broadway.

Throughout those decades of her first life, Susan was actively involved in the Jewish community, working part time in Jewish education. But it wasn’t until much later in life that Judaism inspired her to go in a completely new direction and reinvent herself as a rabbi.

I have transition and reinvention on my mind as we enter the High Holy Days. A new year brings with it an interesting mix of feelings. There’s the comfort of the yearly cycle, knowing we can expect familiar traditions, familiar change of seasons, and familiar annual events. At the same time, there’s a sense of rejuvenation that suggests anything is possible when we start fresh. How will you reinvent yourself in the new year?

This week we read Parshiyot Nitzavim and Vayelech, the two parshiyot that often surround the High Holy Days. Parshat Nitzavim reminds us that we are responsible for our choices in life and that the proper path is to follow the rules and be good people (and to repent when we’re not). Parshat Vayelech teaches us about Moshe’s process to transfer leadership to Joshua and the final words he will share as the leader of the Israelite nation. At the heart of these Torah portions is the transition – the reinvention – of Moshe from current leader to former leader.

In chapter 31, verse 2 of Deuteronomy we read, “I am now one hundred and twenty years old, I can no longer be active.” Although this transition may have been on his mind for quite some time, this is the moment when Moshe reveals that he is ready to help the change in leadership occur. It’s the kind of transfer of power we should aspire to; Moshe knows the time has come, and his acknowledgement of that sends a strong, levelheaded message. The self-awareness to understand when you’ve done all you can do means you’re putting the needs of your people ahead of your own. This is the model for leadership, and this is the model for transition.

It is challenging to let go, and yet even Moshe, who led the Israelites to redemption, was able to recognize when it was time to step down. Nitzavim and Vayelech remind us that change is necessary, but our High Holy Days remind us that change can be just the beginning. Shabbat shalom.

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Write On – Parshat Vayelech 5777

Write On

One of my favorite parts of the week is writing these little d’vrei Torah for you. Good thing I became a rabbi, right? The act of sitting with an open chumash, reading the parshah, and thinking about how these ancient words can be relevant and thought-provoking for today excites me. Each week for the past six years I have challenged myself to write on the Torah portion. This is more than a writing exercise; it is a way for me to find myself in the ancient words of our people. This is an opportunity to ground myself in the comfort that my struggles are not new, but were experienced and overcome by our forebears. Each week, I feel as if I write my own little piece of the Torah.

This week we read from parshat Vayelech, which speaks to the difficulty leaders have in transferring over their power. We read of the final days of Moshe and the gift of life he had to live to 120 years. The Israelites witness their approach to the land and 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 by coming up with a transfer of legacy, tradition, and history.

Chapter 31, verse 19 reads, “Therefore, write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this poem may be My witness against the people of Israel.” The imperative to write it down isn’t just for Moshe, it’s for all of us. This is where we receive the mitzvah that each Jew is to write a personal copy of the Torah. You may have seen synagogues work towards acquiring a new Torah and asking individuals and families to sponsor one letter, word, verse, or chapter of the Torah, such that their financial contribution fulfills this commandment.

Personally, I read this section of the text a little differently. Perhaps we should write for ourselves a literal Torah, in other words the exact replication of the text, or perhaps the commandment is to write our own commentary. We use the Torah as the basis for our laws and traditions, but it’s in the subsequent texts where we discover how to apply these lessons to our lives. Maybe what we are commanded to do is take the words of our history and write our own narrative alongside it, as others have done before us. Think about it this way: at this rate I have written my own Torah every year since 2010!

Write it down, the Torah commands. Read the text and relate to it, interpret it, own it and share it. As we hope to be written and sealed for the new year, may we also endeavor to write for ourselves, for our family, and for the future.

Something For Everyone – Parshat Vayelech 5776

Something For Everyone

One of my favorite shul memories from my childhood is going with my Zayde to services on Shabbat morning.  He had a regular ritual that during the Haftorah he and his friends would disappear from services into the small kitchen for a l’chaim.  I remember this was called the “key club” because someone from the group had to provide the keys to let them into the otherwise locked space.  The men would enjoy a beverage and a chat during Haftorah, and return to sing their hearts out during Musaf.  

Likewise, there was a group of women that had a special ritual too. Toward the end of the service I remember the women exiting to the social hall to set out kiddush.  

And the children? We too had our special time, and of course it was the best ritual of all. During the Torah service, I was whisked away on a parade through the sanctuary to a special kids-only space where I could play, pray, and learn without having to be quiet.  

What was great about the Shabbat mornings of my memory, and those just like it in synagogues all over, was the emphasis on the idea that Jewish ritual and practice are open to all. Everyone finds a way to connect.

This week we read from parshat Vayelech, which speaks of the difficulty leaders have in transferring over their power.  We read of 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.  

The Torah teaches us in chapter 31 that as Moshe is going through this transition, he makes the following request to gather the people.  “Gather the people, men, women, children and the strangers in your communities – that they may hear and so learn to revere the Lord your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching.  Their children too, who have not had the experience, shall hear and learn to revere the Lord your God.”  Everyone is invited to learn, and everyone is considered to be an inheritor of our tradition.  This also means that we are individually responsible for engaging and enjoying this rich tradition in a personally meaningful way.  

Most notably, Moshe mentions the children “who have not had the experience.” It is commanded in the Torah that we bring children into our communities so that they can learn.  Imagine Mt. Sinai as the world’s biggest Tot Shabbat.  Noisy as it must have been, that idea is what Jewish learning is about.  

Whether you come for the l’chaim, the kiddush, the d’var Torah, or the communal davening, the Torah’s lesson this week is that one need only show up to partake.  Judaism is for us all, men, women, and children, and the job we share is to gather together to teach, to learn, and to listen so that our beautiful traditions live on.

Objects in Mirror are Closer Than They Appear – Parshat Nitzavim Vayelech 5773

Change isn’t easy.  It has become cliche, but it’s evident whenever circumstances take a directional turn.  Think about your last move or even your last spring cleaning.  Did you pack up with dispassionate efficiency or did you reminisce as you looked at each piece of paper, book, or memento?  Did you purge the old to make room for the new?  What seemed like a straightforward process has now taken three times as much energy, and what’s worse, it feels as if you’ve taken steps back and not moved forward at all.

This week we read parshiyot Nitzavim and Vayelech, the two parshiyot that often surround the High Holy days.  Parshat Nitzavim reminds us that we always have a choice in life and that the proper path is to repent, to follow the rules, and to generally be good people.  Parshat Vayelech teaches us about Moshe’s process to transfer leadership to Joshua, and the final words he will share as the leader of the Israelite nation.  Wedged within these words is the commandment of teshuvah, repentance.

The text informs us in chapter 30 that repentance is a mitzvah in its own right.  God teaches that if we repent and open our hearts to understanding the wrong we have done and make actual effort to change, then God will bring us comfort, love, and wellbeing.  The Torah presents repentance both as an obligation and as something innately human.  But, it also understands that this act can be difficult.  Chapter 30, verse 11 states, “Surely, this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.”  The rabbis of the Talmud understood this verse as referring to the entire Torah.  God is reminding us that while the laws might seem intricate and complicated, they are exactly within our reach.

The great Medieval commentator Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (RamBaN) narrows the focus of this verse to refer only to the laws of repentance.  He teaches that it is difficult to break a bad habit, to fully repent, and to change one’s way of life.  And yet, every day there are people who prove that it can be done.  In fact, according to RamBaN, repentance is a lot like the give and take of packing.  A midrash also offers us the metaphor of a mirror.  The figure we see in the mirror seems to be twice as far from us as it really is.  But with every step we take toward the mirror, the reflection takes a step toward us.  So it is with repentance.  Our goal seems so far off, but God says to us, “Take one step toward Me, and I will do the same and meet you halfway.”

In this season of repentance, we are reminded that life is a give and take.  In order for this to work in any relationship, you must make the first move, the first step towards giving.  Whether in regard to decluttering a space, mending existing relationships, or even getting through life day by day, meeting each other halfway can make all the difference in the world.