To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.

- Ecclesiastes 3:1

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Reflections

Dear Friends,

Our Torah portion this Shabbat is Shofetim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9).  It addresses the foundational value of a just and compassionate society in its admonition that in order to live meaningful, productive and affirming lives we need to seek out justice and spend our days in the pursuit of righteousness (16:20).  That moral underpinning is at the heart of every task and the key obligation of every leadership role an individual plays in his communal and personal life.

Often, people mistake justice for vengeance.  Justice is not the swift sword which exacts a punishment equal for a wrongdoing.  Rather, it is a striving to create a society in which all are treated with equal care and consideration; in which the life of one individual is not deemed more important than the life of any other human being; in which the human imperfections which cause our xenophobic initial response to the other are quashed by a greater human quality which acknowledges the sacred commonality of every living creature as a divine creation.

If this is the underlying premise of our quest for justice, then we should not be surprised when later in this parsha the nature of a just life takes the form of exemptions from fighting in war (20:5-8).  Each exemption addresses the injustice which would occur if a young person could not experience the basic joys and wellbeing of growing into adulthood:  the enjoyment and satisfaction of building a new home (20:5), the sense of accomplishment in harvesting one's own vineyard (20:6) and the unbounding love and bliss of the newlywed (20:7).

The parsha also delineates one additional exemption offered to the individual who acknowledges feelings of fear and faint-heartedness (20:8).  Our initial reading might suggest that the exemption would be for a person experiencing

these emotions before entering battle, but Rashi, quoting Rabbi Jose, the Galilean (2nd cent CE), shares a different insight.  Rabbi Jose understands the fearful and faint of heart as the individual who is troubled by what he/she might have already experienced in war.  The trauma of war is so devastating that the individual is exempt from having to return to the battlefield and experience those horrors again.

Viewed from that perspective, Rabbi Jose implies that the earlier exemptions need to be understood as a therapeutic approach to help the returning soldier deal with his/her PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder):  by having the opportunity to find a loving relationship, to create a warm and inviting home environment and to establish oneself in a career.

Perhaps then, a just society is that future awakening to a world in which all are exempt from the battlefield because we pursue instead a mutual respect and understanding for the rights and basic human dignity of every person, thereby fulfilling the hopes of the Prophet Micah that the sense of justice will be experienced when

"they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation and they shall never again know war.  But every person shall sit under his grapevine or her fig tree with not one to disturb him." (4:3-4)

May the time not be distant...

Shabbat Shalom,

Hesch

Dear Friends,

Our Torah portion this Shabbat is Re'eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17).  The parsha opens with the reminder that constantly before us are choices and with those decisions will come consequences (11:26-28).  We tend to think of cause and effect in its immediacy:  we do something and the response happens soon thereafter.  But our parsha speaks of the longterm ramifications of our actions:  blessings and misfortunes which will play out over time.

There is a poignant model for this in response to helping those who are in debt (15:1-11).  Attempting to eliminate the neediness of others within the community, the Torah calls upon us to listen intently to the obligations that we have in creating a just society (15:5) for as Rashi states, only then will there be no needy among us (his reference to the preceding verse, 15:4).  In essence, we are beckoned to live in a way that all forms of neediness will be addressed.  What a profound, awesome and perhaps neverending quest.  And yet to succeed at it in some way, even in a small way, will bring blessing into our lives and the lives of others.

Certainly, we cannot help but be aware of the neediness in our society today.  The lines for assistance only grow longer at food pantries and soup kitchens. The charitable donation bins for clothing and the social service centers which provide aid for daily necessities seem to be ubiquitous in every city and town.  The needs of daily survival portrayed in films depicting the dystopian horrors of future post-apocalyptic struggles are in actuality being experienced today.  And yet, our understanding of neediness and indebtedness extends beyond the literal sense of those concepts.

There is a profound neediness which stems from feelings of isolation, of loneliness and despair.  The cry of the disenfranchised, the homeless, the poor; the longings of the elderly as well as the diminished hopes of the young all speak to a neediness which only grows each day.

The Torah warns us "shamoah tishma," (15:5) "only if you listen carefully," only if you choose to sensitize yourself to the needs of others rather than attempting to close yourself off from the incessant din of neediness will there be any possibility of eliminating the poverty of body, mind and spirit.  In our choices, we will experience blessing when we live with a constant awareness and  responsiveness to addressing the neediness in every aspect of life.

This is the reason that the Torah reminds us "not to harden our hearts, nor shut our hands" (15:7) in the face of someone who is in need.  Yes, the task is overwhelming.  Unfortunately, it has always been and sadly will continue to be, but as we are reminded in the ethical axioms of the Talmud:  we are not required to complete the work, but neither are we permitted to refrain from our obligations.

The Torah paints for us a stark reality:  "the needy shall never cease (to exist)" which is why we are called upon "to open your hand to the poor and needy" (15:11).   The choice is ours:  the blessings or the misfortunes. Will we open our hands or harden our hearts?

Shabbat Shalom,

Hesch

Dear Friends,

Our Torah portion this Shabbat is Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25).  As Moses continues to speak of the moral implications of a commitment to the covenant, the parsha conveys an underlying axiom which has transcendent merit:  to live a full and meaningful existence, one needs to see that life not a sprint but rather a marathon.

This is understood right from the openings words of the portion as the biblical commentators grappling with the implications of its first words, "and it shall come to pass..."   "When?"  they ask.  The answer is both "in this moment" and "over the course of time."

When I first came to Connecticut to serve as the rabbi of Temple Beth Tikvah, I was startled by the distance I needed to travel to make pastoral calls, especially to the hospitals.   I had come from a congregation in New Jersey where the hospital was a brief ride from the synagogue, so a pastoral visit could work easily into a full schedule of other daily responsibilities.  But in Connecticut, the hospital was a much greater distance from the synagogue and with time for parking, the pastoral visit and the return journey to the synagogue, the scheduling of other rabbinic concerns became a greater challenge.   At first, I thought I would just try to drive faster on the Interstate and even contemplated buying a radar detector and then my angst met with some moments of insight:  all that needs to be accomplished will.  It is going to take a little longer, but "it will come to pass" (and it did) in due course and with diligence "over time."

This is the message in our parsha, that the fullness of life can only truly be experienced over time, through reflection and introspection.  How we live, the values we affirm each and every day through our actions, will bring us the blessings of a life well lived.  What, the parsha asks, will we say in our hearts and how will we affirm the commitment to the covenantal relationship?  Only when we honestly attempt to answer that question will we find blessing and inner contentment in our lives.

A first step toward that goal is to "stop believing one's own press!"  When we start to adhere to a "holier than thou" attitude in life, we delude ourselves (9:4-5).  In Jewish folk tradition there is a belief that the world continues to exist because of 36 anonymous, righteous individuals in every generation.  They are known as the "lamed vavniks." (the Hebrew letters which have the numerical equivalent of thirty-six).  It is through these individuals that we understand the warning against self-righteousness, for if an individual believes that he/she is one of the lamed vavniks, that is a clear indication that he/she is not!  It is only through a contrite heart and an awe-filled openness to humility that the spirit of righteousness can take root in our souls.  As the psalmist reminds us (51:19), "the real offering to G-d is a contrite spirit."

It is with this message in mind that Moses starts to bring closure to his second discourse to the community of Israel by asking the question, "What is really required of us?" (10:12).  The answer is as important today as it was for the Israelites:  be open to the awe-filled aspects of life, make each step of your journey have meaning and purposefulness, love with all your heart and soul and serve others and the Other with the a conscious determination and commitment to make this a better world.

And the reward, the blessing of life..."it shall come to pass."

Shabbat Shalom,

Hesch

Dear Friends,

Our Torah portion this Shabbat is Vaetchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11).  The parsha opens with a continuation of Moses' first discourse to the community.  The emphasis shifts from the physical aspects of the journey to the spiritual dimensions of the unique nature of being a covenantal community.  The key question:  "What does it mean to be in relationship with the Other and with one another?"

As a rabbinical student, many years ago, I was fortunate to have many wonderful teachers.  Sadly, in certain cases, I only truly appreciated their teachings once I was a congregational rabbi and could reflect through my experiences on the practical lessons my teachers had been offering through the sacred texts we explored.  One teacher I think about often because when we were in class his tangential axioms seemed to distract from the textual material.  It was only as I experienced life that I realized that at every turn he had been using the text to offer life lessons.  Here is an example.  He used to say (a million times), "The job of a good teacher is to help his students remember what they already know."

I was reflecting on that axiom this week as I explored the parsha.  Moses offers this admonition to the Israelites regarding the importance of the obligations to be a covenantal community (4:9),  "take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live."  In essence, remember what you already know:  how to live a just and compassionate way of life.  The laws, the precepts and the obligations are not the goal, rather they are the means to a fulfilling way of life.

But, you already know that!

There is nothing new, nothing to be discovered as a "eureka" moment.  Rather, it is so much a part of you that a more literal translation of the text would emphasize it better.  Rather than "watch yourselves scrupulously," the previously cited verse literally means, "guard your soul more (very much) so as not to forget,"  in order to remember that living a meaningful, compassionate and just life is an inherent part of existing as a caring human being.

This reminder is then followed in the subsequent chapters of the parsha with the reiteration of the Ten Commandments and the underpinning of Israel's uniqueness known as the Sh'ma (6:4):  "Hear, O Israel, Adonai is our G-d, Adonai is One."   The verses which follow this statement of faith remind us how to affirm this each and every day:  by an awareness of mind, body and soul (6:5), by consciously reflecting on it throughout our waking day (6:6), by imparting the importance of this message to our children and grandchildren every chance we have (6:7), by binding ourselves to actions which will affirm the unique nature of being in relationship with the Other and with others (6:8-9).

When we are able to do this;  when we remember to do this;  then we give life to our souls, meaning and purposefulness to our existence.  This is what it means when the liturgical text asks that we be blessed with "m'chayai mayteem," the renewal of life for those who have forgotten how to live.

May we find a way to be good teachers to ourselves by remembering what we already know.

Shabbat Shalom,

Hesch