IF you go out, then here’s the list… The Torah portion of Ki Tetze

Rudyard Kipling wrote his famous poem, “If”, about the first word in this week – and next week’s – Torah portion. Well, maybe. At least this is what comes to my mind this week when reading that “Ki”. “Ki” has many meanings, including the more commonly used “because”, but here it is “If”: “If you go out to war”… Already Rashi (1040-1105) points out on the opening verse (Deuteronomy 21:10) that the real war, the toughest war of all this section is talking about, is the internal war one wages against one’s own self. This is also why many suggest this “ki” as “when”: the war we wage against ourselves is going to happen; it’s just a question of time “when” comes the moment that we look at ourselves in the mirror and say, ‘eh, this needs a little work’. The core of our lives s conditional: if we go out, if we take things on, there will be struggles, challenges, fights and wars. But ultimately, only if we go out, we can expect to eventually arrive, as will be the opening next week.
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The Torah portion of “Ki Tetze” has the most commandments any parasha in the Torah has: 74 in total: 27 “positive” (do this and that) and 47 “negative” (don’t do this and that). On the surface, all these commandments are dealing with our immediate physical existence, starting with “if you go out to war” and on. But already Rashi (1040-1105) comments of the opening verse (Deuteronomy 21:10) that the real war, the toughest war of all this section is talking about, is the internal war, one wages against one’s own self, one’s own evil inclination.
This continues throughout the rest of the reading. The commandments can be understood on a “pshat”, simple level, as directive for a safer, more wholesome living, and, at the same time, as holding deep spiritual messages.
For example,
During my studies at the Haifa University, I wrote a paper about “the roof in the Arabic houses”. I postulated that by analyzing the roof, I can learn a lot about how the people underneath that roof live their lives and maybe even, see the world. The Torah looks at roofs too. Deuteronomy 22:8 states: “When you build a new house, then you shall make a railing for your roof”… which totally makes sense. In the ancient world, and still in some parts of the world today, the roof is a usable place where one can dry fruits and seeds, hang laundry, sleep in the summer or sunbathe in winter, play, sit and chat and more. Such a roof, should have a railing so no one falls. But, this is so obvious! Does the Torah really need to tell us that?
The Kabbalists add a less obvious layer. They play with the fact that in gymatria “gag-cha” – your roof – is numerically equal to G-d’s four letter name (26), and tell us that we should have a railing – or what today we would call “boundaries” and discuss extensively – around ourselves to protect ourselves and disallow disruptive things from coming in. Our human “gag” – roof, the highest point in our being is our mind, our thoughts, and much of our connection with the Divine. That part needs to be secure and safely guarded.
The next verse (22:9) states: “You shall not sow your vineyard with two kinds of seeds; lest the fullness of the seed which you have sown be forfeited together with the increase of the vineyard”. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for “two kinds of seeds” is “kil’ayim”, which literally means – two prisons. Rav Hirsch (1808-1888) explains in his commentary that “two prisons” implies that we are not to mix two different kinds – of seeds or anything that grows, people too. Things that inhibit and limit each other’s growth, that “imprison” each other, and don’t allow mutual growth, have no room in the same “mix”. Our goal should be to strive to develop to our fullest potential; boundaries and a good environment – are key necessities, but something – or someone – who holds us back and restrains us, is a no-no. Elsewhere in the parasha, we’re told that it is a man’s duty to “gladden his wife” (24:5), and yet, what if that’s not possible? In the very same parasha, we’re also given provisions for separation, and even – divorce, for the very same reason of “not mixing things” that imprison each other.
And one more for this Shabbat: In the beginning of that chapter (22:1-4) is a famous favorite mitzvah, that of returning lost objects. The mitzvah of hashavat aveda – returning lost objects – is what’s called “a double mitzvah” because the Torah says “hashev teshivenu” – “indeed you shall return”, using the same root-verb twice. There is also an added negative one: “lo tuchal lehit’alem” – “you will not be able to ignore / avoid”. The sages teach us that if you find your neighbor’s lost object you must return it. This too seems to make sense; why state the obvious? Then the sages add: you must return it, meaning even 100 times! That’s when it becomes less obvious and one wonders: really?? 100 times? What can we possibly return 100 times??
So maybe the construct hashev teshivenu does not only refer to returning a lost object but also to another word that shares the same root: teshuva. Tshuva, which we quickly translate to mean “repentance” shares its root with “answer” as well as “return”. If so, this is also about us noticing within us – or others – things that are lost; different qualities that have gone astray, that we forgot somewhere and no longer use to our betterment, like the ox within us symbolizing our insistence and stubbornness who maybe now no longer works for us; or our lamb – symbolizing our meekness and more. In that sense, these are the things we must notice and can’t ignore; the things we must return back to ourselves. Even more than lost objects – a garment, a donkey – and especially in the month of Elul before the High Holidays, this is a reminder for making teshuva with each and every one of our separate, lost pieces – our outer covering, our physical, hardworking drive – and even if it takes us 100 times, still, never-ever give up on bringing those back home.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rooftops from Brooklyn NY

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Shoftim & Shotrim: 19S goes to see BlacKkKlansman

On my last visit to 19S Bellevue Hospital’s prison “med-surg” floor, R. is asking me to do something for him. This is exactly the sort of opening that prison authorities warn against: “no sooner will you go in there”, say the authorities, “they’ll start asking you to do stuff for them, bring things, Don’t. The slightest thing will give “them” ideas”; before you know it, you’ll be running drugs for them” … No one has ever done this with me. The requests I got were for Bibles, rosaries, Korans, a prayer, a wish for well-being, a ‘can you maybe visit again, sister’. R’s request, though unique, is likewise not the kind the guards worry about: he’d like me to go see BlacKkKlansman, for him.
The movie which is described as “entertaining” is anything but. Set in 1970s Colorado Springs, the plot follows the first African-American detective in the police department, Ron Stallworth, who sets out to infiltrate and expose the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. He first calls the chapter, pretending to be a white man. While he is “the voice” of the operation, he then recruits his Jewish coworker, Flip Zimmerman, to act as him when meeting the Ku Klux Klan members in person. In a play of the recent Torah portions, we could say that “The Black” and “The Jew” separate and mix “sight” and “sound” in order to cultivate their relationship with the local Ku Klux Klan chapter. Under the pretense of expediting his membership, Stallworth even begins a series of phone calls with David Duke, the Grand Wizard, or national director, in Louisiana, who eventually comes to visit, spewing his rhetoric against Blacks and Jews.
I am guessing R, with his long-time prison history, did not get to see the film, but the painful history and its results in the present, are all too familiar to him. In one of my visits he tells me of his recent court case: “my charges were dropped”, he says, visibly upset, “but I was sent back in here, and ya’ know why? So that ya’all can have a job! And a pension! This isn’t about us”, he continues, as he points to his darkish skin color, “ya’all need us in here, for yourself!”
I’ve become very marginally familiar with the complexities of the system back in CA when I had a chance to visit the notorious Folsom State Prison. The visit left me shocked for a while, as I learned, among other details, that prisoners (“good prisoners” are rewarded and sent to) work in factories, like hospitals laundries, for 99 cents / hour (“what you want, they already get room and board”). In San Francisco I work with Delancey; In NY I take on internship last year at Bedford Hill Correctional Facility – NY State women’s “max”, and now, find myself assigned to the 19th Floor at Bellevue. I often wonder: what if each guard took one or two prisoner and even only half the relative budget assigned per inmate, and got a house and garden to grow stuff and have a “real” job; like how about real “rehabilitation”. I don’t doubt the need to protect society, but am still stunned by the way we do it.
Per Wikipedia, “Incarceration in the United States is one of the main forms of punishment and rehabilitation for the commission of felony and other offenses. The United States has the largest prison population in the world, and the highest per-capita incarceration rate”. Of adult prisoners, “Whites” comprise about 2/3 of their number in the larger population while “Blacks” comprise 3 times their population in society at large.
The Torah knows of prison or jail: we hear about it when Joseph is thrown into “beit ha’asurim” – in Egypt (Genesis 39:20). We know of refuge cities, but those are designed to protect the transgressor; we know of plenty punishments – and for the Torah, capital punishment is an option, at least on paper; one can also become a servant to another in order to pay a debt, but I am not sure of the idea of one taking away another’s freedom and life, at times, for good.
The Torah in this week’s parasha talks to us about placing “officers and judges in all your gates”, with the purpose being – a just system. Officers and judges – is in the plural; “your” gates – is in the singular, perhaps because we are all responsible as one. And perhaps also, as the AriZaL points out, because each one of us is a little country of itself, and we need “officers and judges” to determine what to let in and how much. Rav Chaim Vital talks about our own 7 gates in our face: the eyes, ears, nostrils and mouth, and another gate of touch. Jacob talks about chancing upon “Sha’ar Hashamayim’ when traveling north (Genesis 28:17), a point where one can connect heaven and earth. We can bang on the wall forever, but only through the gate can we allow the “flow”. How wide the gate, how generous, protective or closed are the guards and judges? Finding that point will determine our wellbeing as individuals and as a society.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

 

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On seeing angels – the Torah portion of Re’e

J. is a 50-year-old man. He’s tall and athletic; he walks with a dancing gait – that is, the short distance he’s allowed to do so in the hallway; he has short dreads and a well-trimmed beard, or at least so it looks. It’s possible that between his arrest and hospital time, he just didn’t have a chance to shave. Or maybe he’s covering the massive lump in his jaw, which the doctors think might be cancerous. When I come to visit, he says, ‘thanks the Lord for every beautiful day, sis!!’ in a cheerful, well-rehearsed singing tone, but soon becomes very teary. I learn that he’s suicidal; that while in prison, he’s been repeatedly raped, taunted and harassed, infected with HIV and other dangerous diseases. He has the mind of a child; he wants his mamma; his education barely exceeds grade school and he can’t spell even the simplest words.
The patient in the next room is a robust older man who’s skillfully maneuvering himself around on a wheelchair, as he’s slowly losing his foot to an infection. He’s been in state prison for more than 25 years, and proudly tells me he’s a terrorist. He says he wants to “blow the whole f-g place up”. He loves having “a suicidal” next door, whom he’d like to recruit for one, final, “little good deed” so we can show all them m-f what the h– we mean”. He’s yells at me from the door: “don’t visit him; he wants to die? let him die”, he emphasizes the word purposefully, “You can’t do no nah-thing for him, but we? We can give him what he wants! it’s time someone show these m- f – a thing or two, I’m not f– kidding”. There is not one sentence without a string of curse words. I listen to the frustration underneath; the years, decades, centuries or feeling mistreated; the fear to tear up too, to not be ‘man enough” and show even a glimpse of the immense overwhelming sadness in his heart.
This is but one hour at my internship at Bellevue which is coming to its end; my heart breaks and sores countless times a day. Our humanity seems so futile, so Divine. We are utterly helpless to extinguish suffering and pain and misery; we are the angels that can place their palms on the ground so another won’t be harmed (Psalms 91:11).
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After weeks of emphasizing listening, the Book of Deuteronomy commands us “to see”, to celebrate the gift of our eyes; of this world’s beauty and the choices it presents. At the end of this week’s Torah portion, we’re told about aspects of the kosher laws (which animals we can eat), as if, just as we choose what to put inside our stomachs, we should watch what we feed our eyes.
One of the non-kosher birds is the ra’a (ראה – spelled like re’e). The Talmud says about the ra’a that, being a prey bird, “it stands in Babylon and sees a carcass in the Land of Israel”. This is the Talmud’s way of warning us from those times when we’re confused (Babylon, Bavel, related to the root for bilbul, confused) and criticize things we don’t understand from afar, parallel to any such situation where we hasten to condemn things we don’t fully understand. After ‘”graduating” listening, we’re invited to see, but not without a warning: the eyes have the danger is being superficial, as opposed to the ears, which are more internal.
It is interesting to look into where the verb “lir’ot”, to see appears in the Torah. The first is G-d who checks what he created and “sees that it is very good” (Genesis 1:30). There are those who say that G-d did not just “see” the world like we would, but that He put the power to see the world as a complete, full picture. It is easier for us to see the world in separate, often unrelated pieces, but creation was one and we are called to see it as such.
A couple of other places to note the verb “lir’ot”: when Abraham took Isaac to the akeda, it says he “saw the place from afar” (Genesis 22:4). The midrash says that he asked Isaac what he sees, and Isaac said he saw a pillar of fire stretching from heaven to earth atop the mountain. Then he asked his servants, who said they saw nothing. Hence he said to them, “sit here (and wait) with the donkey” (22:5). Donkey in Hebrew is chamor, from the same root as chomer, materialism. Seeing then, already early on, has nothing to do with what “objectively” was ahead, but with what was inside each one. This is not the only place where the Torah suggests that seeing a matter of choice; a matter of what’s in one’s heart (Number 15:39).
And on the other hand, at the height of our closeness to G-d, at the Giving of the Torah, it says: “and all the people see the sounds”… We didn’t hear the sounds, but saw them. There was no separation. We were one and our senses were one.
And last favorite voice on this: Sforno, the Italian commentator of the early 1500’s, says that re’e here is a serious warning: “see, I set before you blessing and curse” – two opposite, definite extremes. You might think, says Sforno, that there are more options in between, but don’t be fooled. There aren’t. The in-between is itself the curse. Choosing life is a choice to see good.
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We continue to hear about the Land we’re going to, “a Land of milk and honey”. There are many commentaries what is this milk and honey? Perhaps goats and date palm trees? What could it be? Rav Uri Sharki points out that – in some cases, possibly, symbolically- milk and honey are the only two edible foods produced by non-kosher animals: bees and humans. If so, the gift of the Land is not its lushness, but it’s ability to take something not edible, not digestible, “impure” and turn it into something “pure”, digestible, healing, sweetening, which is also then, what we are called to do.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

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“Eat a little something”… Parashat Ekev

This week we read the famous 3 words: ואכלת, ושבעת וברכת – “and you shall eat, and be satisfied and bless’ (Deuteronomy 8:10), and one must wonder: how did this turn into four paragraphs and some blessings and closing singing verse after every – piece – of – bread?
Anyone who’s been to any Jewish event knows the power of food. We joke about the theme of the holidays: “they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat”. Indeed, almost every holiday has its unique flavors and foods.
I find our relationship with food intriguing on many levels. Most of us are so used to it, that we don’t often think about it; and while we think, we go over to the kitchen, open the fridge, and wonder, mmm… it often takes a negative occurrence to have us stop and think about the stuff we put into our body: what is it? Is it good for us and those around us?
Is eating a mitzvah? At first, you might shrug, but leafing back to Genesis, we notice the first time the root צ.ו.ה – letzavot –to command – appears in the Torah:
וַיְצַו֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֔ים עַל־הָֽאָדָ֖ם לֵאמֹ֑ר מִכֹּ֥ל עֵֽץ־הַגָּ֖ן אָכֹ֥ל תֹּאכֵֽל׃
And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat (Genesis 2:16).

What is it about eating? Why would this be the first mitzvah (vayetzav) to eat from every tree in the Garden? What do we learn from the act of eating about our relationship with G-d?
Consider that this comes after the human’s creation. The human! The only one in all of creation of whom it is said that s/he made in G-d’s image! Wow! What a grand being! But just a split second before the human gets too haughty and get too many ideas about his loftiness, s/he is told about eating. If there is anything to remind us of our limitations, of how we can be just like animals, of how we are not immortal – it’s our need to eat (procreation and sexual desires are there too, and if you’d like to dig through a Hebrew dictionary you’d be amazed at the closeness of the words used for both). On any fast day my mind plays tricks on me: ‘hey, let’s get a little something’; ‘no, I’m fasting’, ‘oh, right, so how about fruit?’ ‘I told you, I’m fasting’. ‘right, right’ (two seconds quiet) ‘so… tea maybe’? This is the internal battle and it’s a constant reminder that we are made “in the image of”; a “spark of the divine” but not G-d. We are “created” —- and not “creator” — just in case something got into our head.
The midrash tells us about Abraham and Sarah who “made souls” (Genesis 12:5) and taught people about the One G-d. We “know” how they did it: they had people over for a meal and at the end of the meal, told them to thank whoever gave them that food, slowly realizing it’s Hashem.
In many cultures, fasting seems what’s more “godly”, more “angelic”, being able to manage without food, sort of like G-d! but our tradition tells us that it’s just as much a mitzvah to eat on the day before Yom Kippur as it is to fast on Yom Kippur itself! which in a sense means – to celebrate our being fully human is our duty and highest form of being. This is something we can’t do when we imitate G-d and angels, but when we “dig in” and while we aim to be “spiritual”, we also enjoy the very earthly gifts we got. From G-d.
Interestingly, we are not the only ones who eat, and I find this idea fascinating: When the sacrifices are accepted, it is described as the mizbe’ach (altar) who eats them (extensively in the current Masechet Zavachim); and the Land of Israel is described as “eating its inhabitants” (Numbers 13:32). Though often viewed negatively, what this tells us is that the Land, which is an active, willing, living being (possibly any land but specifically here the Land of Israel) consumes and thereby changes those who live on it as they become an integral part of her! This metaphor leaves a lot to think about…
Eating also has dangers: two verses after our original one (Deuteronomy 8:11-18), the Torah says:
הִשָּׁ֣מֶר לְךָ֔ פֶּן־תִּשְׁכַּ֖ח אֶת־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ לְבִלְתִּ֨י שְׁמֹ֤ר מִצְוֺתָיו֙ וּמִשְׁפָּטָ֣יו וְחֻקֹּתָ֔יו אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּֽוֹם׃
Take care lest you forget the LORD your God and fail to keep His commandments, His rules, and His laws, which I enjoin upon you today.
12
פֶּן־תֹּאכַ֖ל וְשָׂבָ֑עְתָּ….
When you have eaten your fill….
14
וְרָ֖ם לְבָבֶ֑ךָ וְשָֽׁכַחְתָּ֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ הַמּוֹצִיאֲךָ֛ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֥ית עֲבָדִֽים….
beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the LORD your God—who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage…
וְאָמַרְתָּ֖ בִּלְבָבֶ֑ךָ כֹּחִי֙ וְעֹ֣צֶם יָדִ֔י עָ֥שָׂה לִ֖י אֶת־הַחַ֥יִל הַזֶּֽה׃
and you say to yourselves, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.”
18
וְזָֽכַרְתָּ֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ כִּ֣י ה֗וּא הַנֹּתֵ֥ן לְךָ֛ כֹּ֖חַ לַעֲשׂ֣וֹת חָ֑יִל לְמַ֨עַן הָקִ֧ים אֶת־בְּרִית֛וֹ אֲשֶׁר־נִשְׁבַּ֥ע לַאֲבֹתֶ֖יךָ כַּיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה׃ (פ)
Remember that it is the LORD your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers, as is still the case.
Excessive eating can lead to forgetting the Source of it. That means that the Torah views eating as a tool, not an end! Our whole “mission statement” is folded in this one section: Eat to your heart’s content. Be satisfied and enjoy. Use all this to connect with Hashem via blessings and remembrance. For He gives you the strength to be. In order to maintain the covenant giving to your ancestors.
Now, let’s have a little something. All this writing, makes me hungry…

Shabbat Shalom.

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Live. Pray. Love – by – Moses

Prayer and hospital go hand in hand. Or maybe it’s prayer and life. I remember a saying: “as long as there are tests, there will be prayers in public schools”. In the end, everybody prays, every blade of grass has its song, says Rabbi Nachman, and this is so much stronger in the hospital. People ask for prayers for healing, though we know that not everybody can be fully healed in the physical, visible sense. I am often asked what is prayer good for, if G-d doesn’t answer: “S/he is a good person; why the suffering? Why is G-d doing this to him / her / me?” I am asked if we can expect miracles, because we believe, don’t we? And there used to be miracles, so why not now? And I want to say, “yes” but instead to sit quietly, maybe nod, constantly aware that what we don’t know is so much greater than what we do know, and how baffling it is to stand at the edge.
This week’s Torah portion, Va’etchanan, opens with Moses’ prayer and his appeal to go into the Land. On one hand we can read it as history: Moses prayed, great. On the other, it is Moses praying!! Even in his prayer, he remains our teacher. If we think about it, it’s a little crazy that Moses, the closest person to G-d, even stops and prays. Does Moses not trust G-d to know what he wants without him having to say it? Does G-d not know what Moses wants or needs? What is prayer and how does prayer work? And if G-d does know, how can the words of a human “change” His mind??
The Maharal (1512-1609) says that this kind of thinking is erroneous and that what prayer comes to do is complete the human being where there is a miss. What makes humans human is their power of speech. Therefore the human needs to create a vessel, with this power of speech, for Hashem to pour into it His great abundance. Having a request is an indication of a lack, for perfect beings don’t need to ask for anything. But humans are in desperate need for G-d’s gifts. Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook (the son of; 1891-1982) says that prayer is about making a change within us, not within G-d. In some writings it’s considered a ladder, climbing up, closer but never quite, face to face, eye to eye, with the Divine.
The Kabbalists say that that the word “va’etchanan” equals in its numerical value 515 which is the number of Moses’ prayers. Had he added one more, he would have been granted his request, so – he didn’t. Deep down he knew that it’s better for everybody is he does not go into the Land. At the end of the day (and even though it’s the core value of the Book of Deuteronomy!), the one who is teaching it, will not be the one doing it. More than “a place” it’s about a relationship.
King David much later will say ואני תפילה “va’ani tefilla”, I am prayer. Prayer in it’s ultimate form is not something we “do”; it’s something we are. The word “va’etchanan” which means beseeching, imploring is also equals to the word shira, long, continues song, maybe as a way to remind us that prayer’s goal is not ‘to get stuff”, but to not be alone where we are already.
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This is also the same Torah portion when Moses says the famous שמע ישראל… “Shma Yisrael”, Hear, oh Israel, you people, listen, and not “us”, as if he’s already on the outside, waving goodbye. This is Moses’ tragedy: he’s born “outside” and dies “outside”. This is also Moses’ greatness: being on the “outside” does not mean one is not a part of. This is who we are too: Moses is amazing. The leader after him is going to be a little “paler”. The midrash tells us that Moses is like the sun while Joshua is like the moon and yet. We have both and more, among our People and within ourselves.
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Galgalatz (one of Israel’s most listened to radio stations) plays love songs today. It’s Tu Be’Av, often mistranslated for brevity as “Jewish Valentine Day”, the day when the unmarried go out to the field to choose and be chosen. Love, especially in this week’s Torah portion, is a choice. The Torah instructs us: ואהבת… “and you shall love”… Is that a simple future tense, telling us how things will be, that we will love? Or is it a commandment? And how is it possible to command someone to love?
For Rambam, love of G-d is a result of knowledge, which is why it comes right after the Shma – שמע – “hear oh Israel, Hashem our G-d, Hashem is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Knowing G-d’s Oneness and totality is the key to the love. If not, we’ll love one side and not the other, while that “other” stands and threatens other parts. The more we know, the more we’ll love. This is crazy, considering modern sentiments, but the Torah comes again and again to remind us: it’s all there, in the oneness. Open your shutters and let the light in; choose life, choose love.
Shabbat Shalom.

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The Power of Goodbye – The Book of Deuteronomy & Shabbat Chazon

The opening scene in the classic movie “Hair”, although set back in Oklahoma, those last minutes between father and son in the quiet foggy early morning, awaiting for the rickety bus to appear around the corner, always remind me of Moses in the last of the Five Books.
– You got all your stuff?
– Oh yeh
– When you get there, be sure to give us a call so we know where you are
– Fine (silence, except the sound of their footsteps echoing as they walk to the nearby junction, the son flags the approaching bus to stop)
– Let me give you some money
– Oh, I’m ok
– Just take it, in case you run into amount of trouble, you never know what can happen
– Thank you
– Well boy (slap on shoulder) It’s just the smart people who got to worry; the Lord will take care of them idiots (a chuckle, a semi-very awkward hug) well, see you.

And off he goes to a world his parents know not.

The Book we’re beginning this week is unlike any other: according to tradition, what’s left in our hands is the actual farewell speech Moshe gave the People. It is his own way of organizing the Teachings for us, with some repetition, some adjustments and some new nuances.

Unlike Claude Hooper Bukowski’s dad, Moses has lots to say; so much so, that the book is called Dvarim, literally “things” or “words”. It is also known as “Mishne Torah”, “Second Torah”, and it might be tempting to see it as a repetitious lecture of a bitter, old man, rambling on and on, sorry for himself for not fulfilling his one and only dream: going with the People into The Land.

But, Moses is not a modern movie scene, and although he is 120 years old, until his very last moment, he maintains his strength and never stops being “Moshe Rabeinu”, using everything he has, including not only God’s words, but his own experiences, frustration, anger and shortcomings in order to teach us.
Take for example, the first chapter of this Book. If this is Moses’ reminiscing about the journey, shouldn’t he start early on, let’s say in Egypt, or maybe with the Golden Calf? But since the purpose is to teach, it is the Sin of the Spies that is most critical right now. As the People are about to enter the Land, what if they “chicken out” again? What if they ask to send another set of spies? Will they miss this opportunity, or will the promise be fulfilled this time?

It is now that we hear Moses’ version of what happened 40 years ago, and interestingly, it’s a different story from what we read when it occurred, in Numbers 13-14. Back then, when the spies came back, it was Caleb and Joshua who responded to the People, encouraging them to be strong and go for it (13:30; 14:6), while Moses and Ahron kept quiet. Here, Moses tells us that he did respond, and this is what he said (Deuteronomy 1:29-30):
וָאֹמַ֖ר אֲלֵכֶ֑ם לֹא־תַֽעַרְצ֥וּן וְֽלֹא־תִֽירְא֖וּן מֵהֶֽם׃
I said to you, “Have no dread or fear of them.
יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶם֙ הַהֹלֵ֣ךְ לִפְנֵיכֶ֔ם ה֖וּא יִלָּחֵ֣ם לָכֶ֑ם כְּ֠כֹל אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָשָׂ֧ה אִתְּכֶ֛ם בְּמִצְרַ֖יִם לְעֵינֵיכֶֽם׃
None other than the LORD your God, who goes before you, will fight for you, just as He did for you in Egypt before your very eyes,
Moses’ response stands not only in contrast to his earlier silence, but to Caleb and Joshua’s response. His is not a “let’s go, be strong, we can do it”, but, a “don’t worry, Hashem will fight for you”, using part of an expression he used earlier, in Exodus (14:14), before crossing of the Sea: “Hashem will fight for you, while you keep quiet”.
Moses continues here and shares a shocking insight explaining why he’s not entering the Land (1:37):
גַּם־בִּי֙ הִתְאַנַּ֣ף ה’ בִּגְלַלְכֶ֖ם לֵאמֹ֑ר גַּם־אַתָּ֖ה לֹא־תָבֹ֥א שָֽׁם׃
Because of you the LORD was incensed with me too, and He said: You shall not enter it either.
Wait, what? Isn’t Moses not entering the Land because of the famous incident of hitting the rock (Numbers 20:7-13)? Why is he saying this here? Was Moses not going to the Land anyway? Is there something about Moses that makes God not let him into the Land, no matter what?
Possibly.
Let’s look for a moment at who are some of the future leaders: Joshua, from the tribe of Ephrayim, the house of Joseph; Caleb, from the tribe of Judah; Pinchas, the high priset, son of El’azar, grandson of Aaron, from the tribe of Levi and the house of Joseph (according to the midrash); and the Daughters of Tzlofchad, from the tribe of Menashe and the house of Joseph. All the way back to Genesis, Joseph and Judah are those who are concerned with the “group”. They are the “national leaders”, and now, their descendants share that same concern.
These people present a different kinds of leader, the kind needed in the new Land. They are active. They fight. They challenge. They take initiative. They have opinions. They argue. And question. And they don’t wait for miracles, nor accept ‘don’t worry’, and ‘Hashem will fight for you’ as an answer. To be sure, they love Hashem, Torah and the Land, but the partnership with Hashem that’s now needed is the kind Moses doesn’t know and can’t lead.
The tragedy of this book is that Moses knows it too. Therefore, next week, after begging Hashem to enter, he will say it again, with a slight nuance (3:26)
וַיִּתְעַבֵּ֨ר יְהוָ֥ה בִּי֙ לְמַ֣עַנְכֶ֔ם וְלֹ֥א שָׁמַ֖ע אֵלָ֑י..׃
But the LORD was wrathful with me for your sake, would not listen to me…
“For your sake”, for your benefit, to help you grow. Moses, who can see into the future, knows there will be great challenges and difficulties; ah, how he’d wish to prevent the stumbling and getting hurt, but can’t. It can be so hard to watch one’s child “trying things out” and not stopping them! But doing so, will mean stifling the next generation’s growth into becoming who they will become. For their own sake, he accepts his plight to join those who stay behind. He’ll go all the way to the bus stop at that lonely intersection, and then leave us with his version of an awkward hug and goodbye, unabashedly teaching us the pain of goodbyes, even if necessary. Especially in the week when we’re mourning the destruction of the Temple, this too, is an invaluable teaching.
Shabbat Shalom.

 

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The People of the Journey & the Journey of the People: Matot-Mas’ei

L and I are introduced warmly because “you’re both from Israel! isn’t it wonderful?!” I quickly notice that my Hebrew is too fast for her and that she has an accent I can’t quite place. The hospital worker who made the connection says that L needs assistance and maybe I could help? Sure. She just needs someone to walk with her and her two children across the street to an emergency room a couple of blocks away.
It doesn’t take us long to realize that we come from very different sides of Israel as she’s from a large Palestinian village in the “West Bank”. 6000 miles from here this would matter so much it might be the end of the conversation, but in NYC, somehow’ almost magically, it’s possible. On the eve of Rosh Hodesh Av, when we commemorate the destruction of the Temple and all its ramifications, exile and dispersion, I’m reminded of what are (so far) my 3 favorite words in Gemara (Baba Batra 14:b): —- Shkoyach (good job!) Moses, for breaking them, says (supposedly) G-d regarding the smashed Tablets. Somehow, good things – might at times – come out of the broken shards scattered around us.
When it’s time for good byes, we hug once and again. The 5-year-old tugs at me, “Don’t I get a hug too?” I think, this evening was one of those times.
*******
Reuven and Gad approach Moses with a scary request: Even after this whole journey, on the verge on entering the Land, they wish to be allowed not to go into the Land; to create the first diaspora, purposefully, not through a horrible disaster but through a valid, different scale of priorities, and a new promise: for those “overseas” to help those in the Land, to be there for each other.
Ultimately, per later prophets, we’re taught that everybody should be and will be in the Land, one day, but for now, that history needs completion; that we don’t do things all at once, that life takes time, for us as individuals and as a People.
*******
This week’s reading is made of two Torah portions: Matot – Mas’ei, literally meaning: The Staffs and The Journeys of”. I am especially fascinated by the latter, a grammatical construct that needs another word, that begs for the rest: the journeys of… ? tell me more! Ah, sorry, it’s the end of the Book; you’ll have to write in your own…
Of course, the Torah – past the portion’s name – continues the verse (Numbers 33:1-2):
אֵ֜לֶּה מַסְעֵ֣י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָצְא֛וּ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם לְצִבְאֹתָ֑ם בְּיַד־מֹשֶׁ֖ה וְאַהֲרֹֽן׃
These were the journeys of the Children of Israel who went out from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron.
2
וַיִּכְתֹּ֨ב מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶת־מוֹצָאֵיהֶ֛ם לְמַסְעֵיהֶ֖ם עַל־פִּ֣י יְהוָ֑ה וְאֵ֥לֶּה מַסְעֵיהֶ֖ם לְמוֹצָאֵיהֶֽם׃
Moses recorded the starting points of their various journeys as directed by the LORD, and their journeys by their starting points are as follows:
This is followed by a list of 42 sites, described rhythmically with “and they traveled from… and they camped at…”. In Hebrew from is described with the letter מ- mem, which (coincidentally) equals 40, while at is described with the letter ב- bet, which equals 2, altogether 42.
The list is often challenging to read, like a strange “laundry list” which makes no sense. Some of these places, we have never heard of. For example, we don’t know that this particular journey passed through a specific place called חרדה – Charada (Numbers 33:24), but we might wonder, as Charada in Hebrew means – anxiety, and how fitting for this to be right in the heart of the journey! The place we left, is far; the place we’re going to, is nowhere in sight; it’s just us and this desert. Have we chosen correctly to leave the “flesh pots of Egypt”? should we have stayed? Gone elsewhere? Plod along? How do we know that tomorrow will be better? That we did right by our kids? By or forefathers? By our time on this earth? Each moment is our best guess. At times, we feel confident and secure, and at times, anxious. For the Torah “slips”, either one is an integral part of the journey.
We’re often called “The People of the Book”, but I think even more so, we are the People of the Journey. Many years later, a famous Chasidic story will tell us about Reb Yitzchak who traveled far to look for the treasure in his dreams, only to find it back at home. The verse that talks about the “starting point of our journeys” maybe teaches just this: in Hebrew, motza – is indeed, the starting point, but the same root, matza (not matza the Pesach bread, which is spelled differently), is also a “find”. The Children of Israel return to the Land of their forefathers, where it all begun. Our own journey might, at the end of the day, lead us back home, to find and rediscover our very origins as a new found treasure once again.

Shabbat Shalom.

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