Writing Your Ethical Will – Parshat Vayelech 5780

Writing-Your-Ethical-Will

Passing down the life lessons I’ve learned to my children and loved ones is a unique challenge. Of all the things I want to share with those who come after me, sharing my thoughts on how to live life seems simultaneously deeply satisfying, yet extremely complicated. But as daunting as it is, I know how important it is.

It still upsets me that when my father died, he didn’t create an ethical will for me. He was my rock, my go-to person for problem solving. I longed for his voice. I sat at my computer for weeks writing down all the lessons he had taught me, and I came up with a list of 100 phrases, book titles, or statements from my memories of him that resonated with me. These 100 statements lived on my wall as I finished my graduate programs and on the desktop of every computer I’ve ever had. I pasted them below for your reference and enjoyment. When I’m having a rough day or I’m unsure of a decision, I turn to the list. At the very least it gives me a smile, and in the best moments it helps me to think through a problem just like we were sitting together. While I still wish my father had done the work of collecting these himself, my active role in creating this list has meant the world to me, and to this day when I’m teaching, I teach in his honor.

We’re nearing the end of the Torah, and Moses and God are trying to get in all their last “tidbits of love” for the Israelite nation. The end of the Torah is filled with poems and lessons learned, rules for remembering, and nostalgia for what once was. The name of the parshah, Vayelech, means “and he went.” The focus is on Moses going to the mountain and what his death will look like. And the lesson is what he taught the people and how he will be remembered. As we read Parshat Vayelech this week, we are reminded of how essential it is to be clear about what your values and morals are as the next generation takes over.

I purposefully wrote a slightly shorter d’var Torah this week so you could use the extra time to sit with a loved one and write down your vision and mission for life. Create something that will live on and go after you as a blessing.

Steven Posen’s Words of Wisdom

1. Always wake up with a smile 35. Acceptance 69. The whole shebang
2. Laugh good hard belly laughs 36. Since you were a little girl, parents check in on you always 70. Mourn the past, live in the present
3. I mean it Eviee, you gotta breathe 37. Overpacking isn’t good 71. Rabbi or plumber, there is a leak to fix
4. Take time on one word, one blessing 38. Growing up is hard 72. Shabbat is for resting
5. Tell people you love them 39. Being a grown-up is harder 73. Just throw your money out
6. Roots: know where you are from 40. Transitions are a part of life 74. Orange pants; wear your mistakes; bleach and black
7. Wings: fly to the world 41. Chronically intermittent 75. Backwards is better
8. Who moved my cheese 42. Chart it out 76. Slow down
9. Gung-ho 43. Indulge once in a while 77. Facilitate
10. For what it’s worth (FWIW) 44. Children are a blessing 78. Make your own decisions
11. Perfect pride in everything 45. Perseverance 79. A parent’s job is never done
12. Everything can be summed up in a bullet point 46. Singing in the shower is the best place to practice nusach 80. Compete with yourself; you are your best competitor
13. Dreams are attainable 47. Importance of a note card 81. Who are you; genetics
14. Nachos or nachas 48. Know your weaknesses 82. LOVE LIFE; celebrate it
15. Listen and hear 49. Grow your strengths 83. God’s hands
16. Learn to watch 50. Smell the green 84. Holy vessels; what we are
17. Space it out 51. Pick your battles 85. TRY IT
18. Door off the hinges; you loose 52. Sometimes it feels like gas; learning is hard, but always comes 86. Don’t separate from the community, embrace them
19. Stand up straight 53. Prioritize addiction 87. PROJECT YOURSELF
20. Aleinu length; modesty 54. Hold my hand 88. Career is not life
21. Love the one you’re with 55. Feeling like a dead duck 89. I’m always flying overhead
22. Parents can learn from children 56. Doing instead of learning, or vice versa 90. On your way, don’t know where
23. Forgiveness 57. Time is of the essence 91. Bless you
24. Love the little things 58. BE ON TIME 92. LIVE YOUR LIFE
25. Beauty of prayer 59. Always say THANK YOU 93. Share your opinion
26. Copyright your heart 60. Let it out 94. Give thanks daily
27. Challenges, not a sickness 61. GO BLUE!!! 95. Enhance yourself naturally
28. Pack it up and take it with you 62. Sometimes you fail 96. WHO YOU ARE is not where you are
29. Change is good 63. Own it: actions, words 97. Knowledge and wisdom are different
30. Fly higher than the plane 64. Savor it: life 98. Say it in a rhyme
31. It is O.K. to leave 65. Problem solving; frame of mind 99. Make it fun, they’ll come back
32. Betzelem elohim; we are all created in God’s image 66. Tradition: the way WE do it 100. KNOW THAT I LOVE YOU
33. Family is life 67. Use your words  
34. Fun is what YOU make it 68. Belief; trust in God  

Renewing Ourselves – Parshiyot Nitzavim and Vayelech 5778

renewing-ourselves.jpg

*Next week I’ll be posting my Rosh Hashanah sermon, so this week I’ve included d’vrei Torah for the portions covering the next two weeks.

About a year after Matan was born, Duncan turned to me and said, “You know I love you now more than ever, but do you ever get the feeling these days that we’re more like roommates than husband and wife?” Never before were truer words spoken. It is so easy to get lost in the single-minded focus of the first year of a child’s life. Add to that one three-year-old, two crazy work schedules, and so much more, and we often ended up like two ships passing in the night. As we learned, unfortunately intimacy sometimes takes a backseat to necessary sleep, and a romantic anniversary lunch date can quickly turn into swapping calendars and talking about the kids instead of focusing on our relationship. A marriage, or any partnership that involves an intimate human connection and closeness, requires reaffirming the commitment. Commitment is not a one-time thing; it’s an active, ongoing process.

This applies not just to personal relationships, but to Torah and even to religion in general. Judaism as a faith is based on the relationships we maintain with one another, with text, and with God. Over the next two weeks we will read Parshat Nitzavim and Vayelech. These are the two parshiyot that often surround the High Holy days. Parshat Nitzavim reminds us of our free will in life and that the proper path is to repent, to follow the rules, and in general to be good people. Parshat Vayelech teaches us about Moshe’s process of transferring leadership to Joshua and the final words he will share as the leader of the Israelite nation.  

The text begins in Parshat Nitzavim that we should “enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, which the Lord your God is concluding with you this day with its sanctions.” This is interesting timing. Didn’t the Israelite nation already affirm their commitment to God’s mitzvot and to God when they stood at Sinai and agreed “na’aseh v’nishma”? “All that God has said we will do and we will understand.” Why are we now asked to enter into the covenant once more?

Shneur Zalman, the 18th century rabbi of Liyadi, views this relationship as an intimate marriage. He teaches, “Just as a husband and wife need to reaffirm their commitment to each other when the early days of romantic attraction have given way to the day-to-day struggle to overcome accumulated disappointments, so too God and the people Israel need to reaffirm the covenant at this later date.”  

Like new parents trying to maintain intimacy when daily life takes over, our relationship with God and with our faith community requires attention and intentionality in order to be maintained. These two parshiyot at the end of the Torah remind us that we are in need of constant work and engagement in order to find fulfillment in Judaism. What a perfect reminder in the new year that the text is there, the community is ready, and all it takes is intention.

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.

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.