To Walk in God’s Ways

15 Aug

Karen James was 19-years-old when she competed as a swimmer for Canada in the 1972 Munich Olympics. An innocent teenager in a more innocent time than our own day, she was walking back to the Olympic village. Rather than walk all the way around to the main gate, she and a teammate climbed over the chain-link fence near her dormitory. Four decades later, she is now telling her story of bearing witness to one of the most horrific acts of terror the world has ever known, the murder of the 11 Israeli athletes.

I heard Karen James speak last Sunday at the BB & T Center in Sunrise during the opening ceremonies of the JCC Maccabi Games that brought together hundreds of Jewish teens from around the country for athletic competition and Jewish solidarity. Temple Torah’s own Sam Bernstein and Harlan Kagan participated and many of our members volunteered to make the games a success. Karen James, in her address, described that when she climbed the fence, she noticed a group of men hiding behind a bush who climbed the fence shortly after her. She only realized later, after her dorm was on lockdown, that those men were terrorists who were holding the Israelis hostage. After the athletes were murdered and the games continued as if nothing happened, Karen went home. She had worked her whole life to make it to the Olympics, but now she couldn’t wait to get home. Karen is Jewish but grew up secular and for many years did not speak about Munich. In recent years, she has been speaking publicly about her experiences. She said that doing so has brought her closer to her Jewish roots.

Karen James’s message on Sunday night was sobering in that the world does not seem to have gotten much more peaceful in the last 42 years. The world is still pathetically indifferent towards violence and terror and hostile towards Israel in its effort to combat terror. Nearly 200,000 Syrians have been murdered by the Assad regime. The brutality of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has been largely unchecked until America’s action last week to save the Yazidis from genocide. Israel’s recent operation in Gaza to protect its citizens from rockets from above and terror tunnels from below highlighted much of the world’s indifference to terrorism against Jews and their outrage at Israel’s response to defending itself from terrorism. There have been no mass demonstrations demanding the world fight genocide in Syria and Iraq. Yet, throngs have people have gathered in European capitals spouting vicious anti-Semitism that has also reared its ugly head in pockets of America, including Miami. In a world that seems so helplessly out of control, what are we to do? We find some guidance in today’s Torah portion.

In Parashat Ekev, we encounter the theme of reward and punishment that is especially prominent in Deuteronomy. Serve God well, and you’ll receive abundant blessings; fail to serve God, and you will suffer the consequences. In this context, Moses relates to the people: V’atah Yisrael, Mah Adonai Elohecha shoeil mei-imach, And now, Israel, what does God demand of you? Ki im l’yirah et Adonai Elohecha lalechet b’chol d’rachav—Only that you revere the Lord your God, to walk in His paths, to love Him, and to serve God with all your heart and soul.

The Midrash Sifre comments on the phrase lalechet bidrachav, to walk in all His ways. Quoting Exodus, the Midrash says, “These are the ways of the Holy One—“gracious and compassionate, patient, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, assuring love for a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and granting pardon (Ex. 34:6). Just as God is gracious and compassionate, you too must be gracious and compassionate…Just as the Holy One is faithful, you too must be faithful. As the Holy One is loving, you too must be loving.

In the face of helplessness and despair over a brutal, violent world, our sacred teachings remind us that it’s in our power to bring loving kindness into the world. The Talmud notes further “Hakol bidei shamayim hutz mi-yirat shamayim” Everything is in the power of heaven except for the fear of heaven. God can’t control how we feel and think, nor can God control the choices that we make. This is a good thing. Imagine if we were robots and every action was pre-programmed. It would be a boring world. We are free to choose between good and evil, between following God’s ways and rejecting them. We cannot be compelled to be good. The decision whether to love God and to follow the Torah’s teachings is totally under our control.

The Torah empowers us to engage in the world and demands that we not sit idly by. When people are hungry, we have the ability to feed them. When a friend is suffering, we have the ability to reach out and offer support. The tragic death of Robin Williams has awakened our society to the inner suffering of individual with depression and our duty to offer help. When our brothers and sisters in Israel and Jews around the world are under attack, we have the duty to bear witness to the truth, lobby our officials to support America’s democratic ally, Israel, and, if possible, to visit Israel and be there with our people in person.

Karen James told Jewish teenagers this week about when she witnessed first-hand horrific violence in the making. However, embedded in her message was great hope. The Maccabi Games themselves testified that despite all of the challenges in the world, hundreds of Jewish teens can gather proudly as Jews and engage in friendly, sportsmanlike competition. The Maccabi Games remind us that lalechet bidrachav, to walk in God’s ways, means that God expects us to engage in society and affirm life. Through our efforts in this endeavor, let us find the strength to bring about peace and loving kindness into our world.

#TieBlog #Ekev

14 Aug
Moses breaking tablets

Moses breaking tablets

The rabbinic term for the fifth book of the Torah is Mishneh Torah, repetition of the Torah. This is because the book is a collection of Moses’s sermons that he gave to the people on the banks of the Jordan River shortly before his death. The Greek term “Deuteronomy” is synonymous with “Mishneh Torah.” In Moses’s sermons he reminds the Israelites of their history and exhorts them to stay true God’s law. In recounting 40 years in the desert, our Torah portion this week contains Moses’s recounting of the sin of the Golden calf and his breaking of the tablets of the Decalogue. The original account is from Exodus Chapter 32, Parashat Ki-Tissa. As you read the selection below from Parashat Eikev, it will be clear how this week’s tie connects to the portion.

Deuteronomy Chapter 9
8 At Horeb you so provoked the Lord that the Lord was angry enough with you to have destroyed you. 9 I had ascended the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, the Tablets of the Covenant that the Lord had made with you, and I stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights, eating no bread and drinking no water. 10 And the Lord gave me the two tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God, with the exact words that the Lord had addressed to you on the mountain out of the fire on the day of the Assembly.
11 At the end of those forty days and forty nights, the Lord gave me the two tablets of stone, the Tablets of the Covenant. 12 And the Lord said to me, “Hurry, go down from here at once, for the people whom you brought out of Egypt have acted wickedly; they have been quick to stray from the path that I enjoined upon them; they have made themselves a molten image.” 13 The Lord further said to me, “I see that this is a stiffnecked people. 14 Let Me alone and I will destroy them and blot out their name from under heaven, and I will make you a nation far more numerous than they.”
15 I started down the mountain, a mountain ablaze with fire, the two Tablets of the Covenant in my two hands. 16 I saw how you had sinned against the Lord your God: you had made yourselves a molten calf; you had been quick to stray from the path that the Lord had enjoined upon you. 17 Thereupon I gripped the two tablets and flung them away with both my hands, smashing them before your eyes. 18 I threw myself down before the Lord — eating no bread and drinking no water forty days and forty nights, as before — because of the great wrong you had committed, doing what displeased the Lord and vexing Him. 19 For I was in dread of the Lord’s fierce anger against you, which moved Him to wipe you out. And that time, too, the Lord gave heed to me.

#TieBlog #Vaetchanan #Shabbat Nachamu

8 Aug
The Ten Commandments are read three times a year, including this week.

The Ten Commandments are read three times a year, including this week.

I love my Ten Commandments tie because there are three occasions during the year when I can wear it in connection with a public reading of the Decalogue. They are read in Parashat Yitro, which falls in the winter. They are also read on Shavuot at the beginning of summer. Both of these readings are from Exodus Chapter 20. Parashat Vaetchanan is the one time during the year when we read the version from Deuteronomy Chapter 5. Believe it or not, there some subtle differences. Exodus instructs, “Remember (Zakhor) the Sabbath day….” Deuteronomy instructs “Observe (Shamor) the Sabbath day….” Exodus explains the Sabbath in spiritual terms, invoking God’s initial Sabbath following the creation of the world. Deuteronomy appeals to social justice, reminding the reader that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt and that all human beings and animals that serve them must have a day of rest each week. The Friday night hymn, Lekha Dodi reflects the midrashic view that God gave both versions of the Decalogue in a single utterance. Shabbat, therefore, is simultaneously a time for spiritual renewal and reflection on social justice in the world.

Jewish people at war without and within

1 Aug
Max Steinberg, z"l, an American immigrant to Israel who served in the IDF and fell in Gaza.  An alumnus of Taglit-Birthright, pundits have ascribed partial blame to Birthright for his death.

Max Steinberg, z”l, an American immigrant to Israel who served in the IDF and fell in Gaza. An alumnus of Taglit-Birthright, pundits have ascribed partial blame to Birthright for his death.

This Shabbat is Shabbat Hazon, the Sabbath of contemplation prior to the fast day of Tisha B’Av, the day on which the First and Second Temples were destroyed. The Sages of our tradition ascribe the fall of the Second Temple as punishment for sinat hinam, causeless hatred among Jews, that cleared the way for the Roman destruction. In recent weeks, our community has united in support of Israel in its difficult but just campaign in Gaza against Hamas terror. Yet, even in a crisis such as this, unity is not total, and harsh words can be said to one another amidst heated disagreements. In services at Temple Torah on August 2 (beginning at 9:00 AM), join me in a discussion of the classic texts on sinat hinam and reflections on the meaning of Israel to us as extended family. We will refer to this Shabbat Hazon study sheet. Whether or not you can attend, feel free to post on Facebook or Twitter a response to this question: In what ways do you feel that the people of the State of Israel are like family? #Israelisfamily

#TieBlog #Devarim

1 Aug
Parashat Devarim begins "These are the words...." Hence, a crossword puzzle tie.

Parashat Devarim begins “These are the words….” Hence, a crossword puzzle tie.

Parashat Devarim begins: “These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on this side of the Jordan in the wilderness, in the Arabah opposite the Red Sea, between Paran, and Tophel, and Laban, and Hazeroth, and Dizahab” (Deuteronomy 1:1).

When Moses is first called upon by God to lead the Israelites out of Egypt he tries to get out of the task by saying he can’t speak. Now, 40 years later, Moses delivers to the people a long succession of speeches that are compiled in the book of Devarim/Deuteronomy. Moses has found his groove as a speaker, and he spends the fifth book of the Torah reminding the people of their sacred mission. His facility with Devarim/ words inspires this week’s crossword-themed tie.

Speaking of words, there is another important link between the Torah portion and the season. This is Shabbat Hazon, the Shabbat immediately preceding Tisha B’Av, the fast of the Ninth of Av commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples. The sages teach that sinat hinam, causeless hatred among Jews, easily enabled the Roman destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. Therefore, this season is a time to reflect on the words we say and how we say them. Let’s focus on words of kindness, rather than words of hatred.

#TieBlog #Mas’ei

24 Jul
"Pray for the peace of Jerusalem."

“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”

Parashat Mas’ei concludes the Book of Numbers. The account of the people’s journey through the wilderness is complete. They have completed forty years in the desert and stand on the banks of the Jordan River ready to enter the Promised Land. The book ends on a hopeful note. Ironically, the Jewish calendar is now in the midst of the three weeks leading up to the Ninth of Av, our national catharsis in recalling the calamities of Jewish history. The hopefulness of the Torah reading is tempered by the pain that we recall at this time of year. It happens that as we close Bemidbar this year, the State of Israel is in the midst of a bitter struggle against the violence of Hamas and their firing thousands of rockets into Israel. It is easy to despair. At the same time, the Torah reading reminds us that the pain of our past should not paralyze us. We have reason to be hopeful for a brighter future. My tie bears the message from Psalms 122 “Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem.” So may it come to be.

#TieBlog #Matot

18 Jul
On a Mission from God

On a Mission from God

This tie could work for many Torah portions, but seems particularly apt for Parashat Matot. Throughout the reading we are reminded in different ways that the Israelites are on a mission from God. There are positive and negative applications of this notion. The portion begins with laws about vows. Invoking God’s name in a promise to do something is a big deal and should not be taken lightly, according to the Torah. The particulars of vows as described here are anachronistic; namely, we cannot imagine in a Western society women’s vows being annulled by their fathers and husbands. Nevertheless, the concept of vows should prompt us to think about the power of our words and give us pause, particularly when we swear in the name of God. The contemporary practice of swearing before testifying in court is a vestige of this ancient practice. Whenever we speak, it is worthy to think of ourselves on a mission from God.

The portion’s discussion of the war against Midian exemplifies taking “on a mission from God” too far. Moses is incensed that the soldiers “only” killed the Midianite men and not the women as well. As great as Moses was, this is his low moment. A similar situation is found in http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/translations/shabbat-zakhortzav/haftarah-portion/shabbat-zakhor when Saul does not follow through to the letter on the destruction of Amalek. Samuel, like Moses, condemns Saul’s excessive mercy. Rabbi Louis Jacobs once said in reference to that text, “I believe that Samuel heard it (i.e., the command to destroy Amalek), but I don’t believe God said it.”* I believe a similar interpretation applies to Moses. In this case, he misunderstood God who usually commands kindness towards the stranger. Moses is led astray by his understanding of “a mission from God.”

Moses redeems himself to some extent by insisting that the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe join in the efforts to conquer the Promised Land, before they settle in the pasture land east of the Jordan River. Moses insists that the entire people must be all in to fulfill their mission from God.

As we study Parashat Matot this week, let us reflect on what it means to be on a mission from God and how that concept applies to us today.

*Cited in Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, Living a Life That Matters, New York: Anchor Books, 2001, p. 96.

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