Remembering one hurricane while preparing for another

28 Aug

 

Elie Wiesel tells a story that takes place in the small town where he grew up in the Carpathian Mountains. A father used to tell his son that he must get up early every day. The son, however, was lazy, and he couldn’t get up. One winter day though, the son couldn’t resist his father’s urging, and he joined his father to go to the Bet Midrash for early morning services and study. It’s early in the morning with snow everywhere. As they were walking, the father noticed a silver coin in the snow. The son picked it up. The father said, you see, my son, if you go to the Bet Midrash early enough then God rewards you.  But the son said, the man who lost it got up even earlier.

One lesson of this story is that we never know when we are going to find a treasure, and we never know when we are going to lose it. One moment we may have what we need, the next moment we may lose it.

Today’s Torah portion, so rich in laws that help create a civil society, contains a law pertaining to lost objects. If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; but hashev t’shivem, you must surely return it to your fellow (Deut. 22:1). The double emphasis of the verb “to return” in the Torah verse teaches us the obligation to repeatedly and diligently return lost property. The Talmud elaborates upon the laws of returning lost property, hashavat aveidah, in the second chapter of tractate Baba Metzia. It is interesting to note that for generations, this chapter has often served as a young student’s introduction to Talmud study, including in many yeshivot and day schools today. Children, after all, are constantly losing things and finding things, and it makes sense that their teachers would want them to inculcate Jewish values in respecting the property of others.

The Talmud teaches us that we are only responsible for returning a lost article which has some form of identifying mark. Therefore, the rabbis taught: One who finds coins…in any place in which large numbers of people are commonly found, these belong to the finder, because the owner despairs of recovering them (Baba Metzia 21b). In other words, if one finds a dollar bill on a busy street, it is not necessary to search for the original owner. The owner has no hope of finding the dollar.

However, the Talmud also explains that if one finds something that has a siman, a “sign” which demonstrates the owner’s identity, then the finder is obligated to return it. Since the object has an identification mark, the original owner has not despaired of ever finding it again. We must, therefore, do everything in our power to return the object to its hopeful owner. Sometimes these signs are easily apparent – a person’s name engraved on the watch you find – and sometimes the signs are more subtle, such as the location where the object was found or the manner in which the object was placed down.

The Mishnah further underscores the value of restoration: If one returned [an animal] and it ran away, and he returned it again and it ran away, even [if this happens] four or five times, he is still obligated to return it [yet again], for it is stated [in the Torah]: hashev t’shiveim, “return, you shall return them…”

The rabbis, whose own experience was not always so different from ours, compared their experience to what to them was the idealized time of the Holy Temple. The Talmud teaches that during the Temple Period, the Temple served as a national lost and found. All outstanding lost property was returned in Jerusalem during the Festival seasons, when the entire community of Israel gathered to celebrate at the Temple. The rabbis taught: There was an אבן טוען, a “stone of claims” in Jerusalem. Anyone who lost something would turn there, and anyone who found a lost object would turn there. The finder would stand [by the stone] and announce [his find] and the owner would stand [by the stone] and give the [evidence of] identifying marks and take the object (Baba Metzia 28b). Thus, according to the rabbis, in an ideal and just society, people would return lost objects to their rightful owner.

The rabbis did not live in an ideal world, and neither do we. Some of the difficult aspects of our existence are beyond our control, while others are more in our control. This weekend our community is bracing for a strong tropical storm, perhaps a hurricane. This is the season of this natural wonder. The tragedy of Hurricane Katrina is a glaring example of the fragility of life–how overnight one may suffer the loss of their home and the entire world that they know. As a result of the Hurricane, millions of people lost their homes and businesses. The hurricane was beyond anyone’s control. However, with the lack of a speedy, coordinated government response at the federal, state and local levels, New Orleans degenerated into anarchy with rampant looting and lawlessness. People were walking into abandoned stores, loading up shopping carts and walking out in full view of police who were powerless to stop them. Clearly, this breakdown of society is precisely what Deuteronomy sought to prevent through laws protecting people’s personal property.

In contrast to the lawlessness of New Orleans during the Katrina disaster, it is of some consolation that the aftermath of the hurricane  also brought out the best in people. Millions of people across our country mobilized to fulfill the mitzvah, as it were, of hashavat aveidah, returning a lost object. Americans opened up their hearts, their wallets and their homes to give people shelter, food and hope for rebuilding their future.

The city of Houston hosted thousands of New Orleans residents who fled there for refuge while their homes were underwater. In a disaster, we might not be able to restore lost homes, at least not instantly, but we can help restore lost hope. I would like to conclude by noting that we are now in the month of Elul and have begun the spiritual preparations for the High Holidays. In this light, there is a clear connection between the laws of lost property and teshuvah, the process of repentance that defines this season. Our Torah portion teaches, hashev t’shiveim, “you shall surely return [lost property].” This month we focus on another word with the same Hebrew root, teshuvah, meaning “turning back” or “returning” to God. The awe of the hurricane as a wonder of nature also bids us to reflect on both senses of return. This season is an opportunity for our country to do genuine teshuvah and examine how we can do better to care for the most vulnerable people in our society who do not have adequate shelter or the means to care for themselves. The memory of Katrina serves as an opportunity to heal racial and class divisions in our society. It is an opportunity to remind all branches of government to coordinate with one another to protect the citizens they serve. Ten years ago hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens stood at the even toen, the claimant’s stone, and America responded. God forbid there should ever be another disaster like Katrina. In coming days I pray for the safety of our community, and I pray that God will grant us the strength to tap into our better angels of courage, generosity, patience, compassion and kindness.

#TieBlog #Ki-Tetze

27 Aug

Originally posted on Rabbi Ed Bernstein:

"When you go out to war..." (Deut. 21:10) “When you go out to war…” (Deut. 21:10)

This week’s Torah portion, Ki-Tetze, begins and ends with accounts of war. The midrash interprets the various laws of the opening section (Deuteronomy 21: 10-21) as a narrative thread underscoring the ravages of war. A soldier in the heat of battle covets a female prisoner and, under the power of lust, marries her (vv. 10-14); in the end, he will lose feelings of affection for her and for the children he fathers with her (15-17), and those children will grow up disrespectful (vv. 18-21) of their parents.

The very end of the portion (25: 17-19) recounts the Amelekites’ surprise attack on the Israelites in which they preyed upon the most vulnerable. We have the paradoxical instructions both to “Remember!” and to “blot out the memory of Amalek.” Rashi notes that immediately prior to this section we have the commandment to keep…

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21 Aug
Slips of paper with reminders for a healthier mindset

Slips of paper with reminders for a healthier mindset

The month of Elul has arrived. Since last Sunday in daily minyan we have heard the sound of the shofar. The shofar blowing this month is our wake up call. Another apt metaphor relates to spending time on the beach (something many of us did yesterday to bring in Shabbat). Sometimes the water gets choppy and there is an undertoe. The lifeguards tell the swimmers to come back in. During Elul, when we hear the sound of the shofar, it’s like a lifeguard calling to us that it’s time to come back in. It is time to begin the process of taking stock of ourselves and preparing for the New Year.

In this light, our Torah portion this week, Shofetim, contains a simple statement that speaks directly to this theme:

“You shall be whole-hearted with the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 18:13).

The context of this verse is a description not of things that create whole-heartedness with God, but things that detract from it. The text specifies use of divination, soothsaying, sorcery, consulting ghosts, necromancy or other attempts to use magic as a means either to determine God’s will or usurp it. According to the text, these actions are abominations that are done by the other nations and should not be imitated by Israel.

The text says to avoid all of these things in order to be whole-hearted with God. However, it does not give us any positive instructions here on what that entails. Therefore, I would like to examine some Hasidic statements that do explore what it means to be whole-hearted with God.

Pinhas of Koretz, an 18th century student of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, notes:

There are only two commandments in the Torah that must be performed “with the Lord your God.” One is “You shall be perfect with the Lord your God, while the other is “Walk humbly with your God.” The reason why the Torah stresses this in these two commandments is because in both it is very easy to fool others. A person can act as purely innocent, and yet be involved in all types of devilish schemes, or he or she can pose as the most humble of all people, while pride rages within. The Torah stresses that in both the cases God Himself, as it were, tests you, and while you may be able to fool others, you cannot fool Him.

Pinhas’s teaching closely parallels another famous Hasidic teaching by R. Simcha Bunim, an early 19th-century Chasidic master. He suggests that every person carry in his or her pockets two pieces of paper. On one should be written, “For my sake was the world created,” while the other should contain the words Abraham recited when calling upon God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah: “I am but dust and ashes” (Gen. 18:27).

Just as R. Pinhas teaches we can’t fool God, R. Simcha Bunim teaches we can’t fool ourselves, or at least we shouldn’t try. When we are honest with ourselves, we have a sense of wholeness that brings us closer to God.

Each paper should enter our minds at the appropriate time. When we are feeling arrogant, we grab hold of the paper bearing the words, “I am but dust and ashes.” Remember, it was none other than Abraham who said that, and we are certainly no greater than he.

On the other hand, during moments of despair, it is helpful to meditate on the words, “For my sake was the world created.” There is always some special mission in the world that any one of us has the ability to accomplish.

I would like to suggest a simple exercise. Print out the attached photo and separate take two discs.  Place “I am but dust and ashes in your right hand. Place the other disc, “The world was created for me,” in your left hand. The left hand is regarded as the hand of receptivity and passivity. So, we put in each hand the message that may be opposite that hand’s natural inclination. Hold them in front of you and meditate for just a few moments on which message you need most in your life as you prepare to enter the new year. For some of us, we may strive for more assertiveness and others for more humility. The statement that you need more now, clutch it a little tighter and raise that hand a little higher.  Close  your eyes and reflect silently for a few moments on which of these values will help you in achieving wholeness with yourself and with God.

May the new month of Elul inspire us to examine our hearts so that we begin the new year Tamim im Adonai, whole-hearted with God.

#TieBlog #Shofetim

20 Aug

Originally posted on Rabbi Ed Bernstein:

The scales of justice The scales of justice

“Justice, justice you shall pursue.” This is the clarion call of Parashat Shofetim (Deuteronomy 16: 20). It is in the context of Moses instructing the Israelites to create the institutional infrastructure for a just society. The scales of justice on my tie evoke this central and eternal Jewish quest for justice.

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#TieBlog #Re’eh

13 Aug

Originally posted on Rabbi Ed Bernstein:

Parashat Re'eh--Look and see Parashat Re’eh–Look and see

The “eye chart” tie relates to the very first word of this week’s portion: Re’eh/ Look/See. As Moses addresses the Israelites throughout the book of Deuteronomy, he appeals to multiple senses. Many of us are well familiar with Deuteronomy 6: 4, Sh’ma Yisrael/ Listen up, Israel! Adonai is our God. Adonai is one. In the opening to this week’s Torah portion, Moses appeals to the sense of sight in laying out the choice faced by the Israelites: Re’eh/ Look (folks)! I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced.

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Gratitude in response to complacency and despair

7 Aug

 

In our household at the end of a Shabbat meal our family usually sings outloud Birkat HaMazon, the Grace after meals. Our 6-year old daughter has taken it upon herself to lead Shir Haamalot, the opening Psalm (126) in the prayer. If someone else dares to start singing before her, she has a fit because she wants to start. This shows the power of ritual to give us a framework towards an ethical imperative, in this case, expressing gratitude. Does this ritual guarantee our children always express gratitude at the appropriate times? No. Sometimes they need gentle reminders; however, ritual helps.

 

The Jewish practice of reciting grace after meals is rooted in a verse in this morning’s Torah portion. In fact, this same verse is the centerpiece of the liturgical text of Birkat HaMazon The verse reads:

וְאָֽכַלְתָּ וְשָׂבָעְתָּ וּבֵֽרַכְתָּ אֶת־ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ עַל־הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה אֲשֶׁר נָֽתַן־לָֽךְ

When you have eaten and you are satisfied, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which he has given you (Deut. 8:10).

 

The Torah goes on to explain two verses later, “When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, וְרָם לְבָבֶךָ וְשָֽׁכַחְתָּ אֶת־ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ הַמּוֹצִֽיאֲךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִֽים

“[B]eware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God who freed you from the Land of Egypt, the house of bondage” (14). The Sages later enacted the practice that we recite blessings before we partake of food since everything belongs to God, and we seek permission from the owner, as it were, before making use of it. However the Sages also remind us that the grace after meals is Biblically mandated. The Torah itself in its own explanation acknowledges that in moments of satisfaction, it is easy to forget the ultimate source of all goodness. Therefore, when we finish eating, before we run to do something else, our tradition bids us to say Birkat HaMazon.

 

The Torah reminds us that gratitude helps us guard against complacency and indifference to the world around us when we are blessed with plenty. Last week, I discussed the two recent cases of horrific violence  in Israel: a Haredi Jew stabbed six people at the Jerusalem gay pride parade, one of whom died; and one or more members of an extremist Jewish terror cell firebombed a Palestinian home, killing an 18-month-old boy. One has to wonder how the criminals who carried out these blasphemous acts could be so blinded by hate that they failed to imbibe the basic value of gratitude for the blessings of living in a free Jewish state.

 

Israel and the Jewish community must engage in deep contemplation over these acts of violence to ensure that we do not tolerate a culture of hatred and incitement that led to these acts.  Even in this challenging time gratitude is essential. Gratitude helps us avoid total despair when we are down and things are not going our way. The name of our people, Yehudim, grew out of a moment of despair. Leah the matriarch had endured many years of being in the shadow of her sister Rachel, whom Jacob loved. The names of her first three sons, Reuven, Shimon and Levi, reflect her great anguish. Yet when her fourth son is born she says Ha-pa’am odeh et hashem, “This time I give thanks to God.” Al ken kar’ah sh’mo Yehudah (Genesis 29:35). Therefore she named him Judah.” When Leah names Judah, it is the first time in the Torah that anyone thanks God with the verb lehodot, to thank, related to todah. It is Yehudah, Judah, who goes on to become a leader among his brothers. It is his name that lives on in our people today. In this spirit, we should be grateful that the Jewish community across the board in Israel and around the world has been so outspoken against acts of violence committed in the name of Judaism.

 

My own angst about this particular moment in Jewish history was assuaged to some extent when I read a brilliant poem by Chanie Gorkin, an 11th grader at Beth Rivkah High School in Crown Heights. The poem is titled “Worst Day Ever?” and was posted on PoetryNation.com. Over the last few weeks, it has spread like wildfire on Facebook and social media because it struck such a chord with so many people.
The poem reads:
Today was the absolute worst day ever

And don’t try to convince me that
There’s something good in every day
Because, when you take a closer look,
This world is a pretty evil place.
Even if
Some goodness does shine through once in a while
Satisfaction and happiness don’t last.
And it’s not true that
It’s all in the mind and heart
Because
True happiness can be attained
Only if one’s surroundings are good
It’s not true that good exists
I’m sure you can agree that
The reality
Creates
My attitude
It’s all beyond my control
And you’ll never in a million years hear me say
Today was a very good day

Now read it from bottom to top, the other way,
And see what I really feel about my day.

 

The wisdom of Chanie Gorkin teaches us that even in the face of trouble, we must seek something positive. In the wake of unthinkable violence carried out in Israel in the name of Judaism, we must continue to be grateful for the free and democratic State of Israel and pray and act whenever we can for its well-being. We must never take this gift for granted. We must continue to give thanks to God for the blessing lehiyot am hofshi be’artzenu of being a free people in our own land and work hard as a people to live up to the responsibility that this gift entails. The Torah teaches us to be grateful to God for the blessings in our lives, both to guard against despair during difficult times and to guard against complacency when things are going well. Let me close with a prayer that each one of us will find within us the strength to give thanks to God for the blessings in our lives, whatever our present situation. May God hear our thanks and grant us the ultimate gift of Shalom, peace and wholeness.

 

 

#TieBlog #Ekev

6 Aug

Originally posted on Rabbi Ed Bernstein:

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…

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