How to Walk with G-d

How are we supposed to live our lives?  It seems fairly simple when we look at Parshat Ki Tavo. The portion states “G-d will establish us as His holy people, as He swore to you, if you keep the commandments of G-d and walk in his ways.”[1] What does it mean to walk in G-d’s ways? In words attributed to the Prophet Elijah,כל השונה הלכות מובטח לו שהוא חלק מעולם הבא, שנאמר “הליכות עולם לו:” אל תקרא הליכות אלא הלכות  “Whoever repeats laws, it is clear that he will be part of the world to come, as it says (Habbakuk 6:3) ‘All the paths of the world are his’-do not read paths, rather laws.”[2] This pun between the words הליכות, or paths, and הלכות, or laws, is meant to make them viewed interchangeably. What, however, does it mean to walk in G-d’s ways? Here we go to Eliyahu Rabbah, a Midrash which is ascribed to the Prophet Elijah, which states “and you should walk in His ways-in the ways of heaven. Just as the ways of heaven are to be merciful and have mercy on the wicked, to accept them in repentance, so too shall you be merciful to one another.” [3] This is exactly what it says back in Parshat Eikev, “Now O Israel, what does G-d demand of you? Only this: to revere G-d and walk in G-d’s paths, to love G-d and to serve G-d with all your heart and soul.”[4] As Rashi states, “Just as G-d is merciful, so too shall you be merciful. Just as G-d does acts of lovingkindness, so too shall you do acts of lovingkindness.”[5]

Our job is clearly to walk in G-d’s ways. If we do so, we will be rewarded for our efforts. If not, we will be punished by the curses enumerated in our parsha. In line with the rabbinic principle of  מדה כנגד מדה, what goes around comes around. However, does this philosophy work for us as 21st century Jews? I worry that it too easily gives us an excuse for blaming calamities and natural disasters on our sins. Our goal therefore cannot be to simply live in a kumbaya world where everyone gets along with one another and all works perfectly. Similarly, it is counterproductive for us to see every bad thing that happens to us as a curse from G-d.

A Mishnah from Tractate Berachot enumerates how the philosophy of Ki Tavo is not necessarily one to enumerate. It reads “a person is required to bless G-d for the evil just as he blesses G-d for the good. As it is written, ‘you shall love the LORD your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.”[6] How does one love G-d with all their might? Through each measure (both good and bad) that G-d gives us.[7]  What matters is not what happens to us as much as how we respond to the cards we are dealt. As Arthur Kurzweil said on Tuesday, to say גם זו לטובה. To walk with G-d is not to praise Him when it is easy, but rather when things aren’t going the way we like. Of course this is easier said than done but it is what it means to truly walk with G-d and be a ירא שמים, one who is G-d fearing.

Our laws and our traditions are pathways to teach us the proper way to act in the world. They demonstrate to us how we are supposed to conduct ourselves even when we are struggling with our own personal situations. That’s why the remedy given for someone who is “troubled” is to help one in need, so that the person does a mitzvah while at the same time feels better about his/her situation. Jewish laws, the halakhot, are supposed to guide us on the path of making a positive difference in the world. Without the goal of being G-dlike through helping the needy and doing good, even when we’re feeling down or upset, we will not be on a path towards G-dliness. Through helping others with love and kindness we will ensure that we are blessed at all times-as our parsha says ברוך אתה בבואך וברוך אתה בצאתך-you shall be blessed in your coming and in your going.[8]

We see an example of this today as we honor the great milestone of Phil’s 90th birthday. Phil is what we call a gute neshama, such a caring, sweet person. The same can be said for his dear wife Pearl and his devoted daughter Barbara, who is the backbone of our shul.

We are also remembering an אשת חיל, Gladys z”l who was the matriarch of her family. As her shloshim ends, we pray that her sons find comfort as they continue to say Kaddish in her memory.

[1] Deuteronomy 28:9

[2] Babylonian Talmud Megillah 28b

[3] Eliyahu Rabbah Chapter 24, Section At the time when a person is honored.

[4] Deuteronomy 11:22

[5] Rashi on Deuteronomy 11:22

[6] Detueronomy 6:4

[7] Mishnah Berchot 9:5

[8] Deuteronomy 28:6

The First Year of Marriage

So much of Parshat Ki Tetzei centers on marriage, though not from a perspective we will discuss today. We no longer have “war brides” or polygamy, nor is virginity our primary concern in finding a partner. Rather, we will turn to the Sixth Aliyah, which begins “when a man marries a new wife he is not taken into the army, nor shall it impose upon him any manner; he shall be free to reside at his home for one year, and he shall bring joy to the wife he married.”[1] Our ancestors are given this law just as they are about to enter the land of Israel.

Why exempt one from battle who was just married? There are numerous servicemen and servicewomen in the United States who deploy soon after marrying, not granted this reprieve. In contemporary Israel, only women are exempt from service on account of marriage, not men.[2] What’s interesting to me is that in last week’s parsha, Shofetim, it states, “Whichever man has bethrothed a woman and not married her, let him go home lest he die in battle and another marry her.”[3] That section deals with unfinished business, as opposed to this one, which talks about a consummated process.

The Talmud points out that the woman in our parsha is called אשה חדשה, a new wife, and that it does not matter whether she has been married before.[4] Rashi asserts that the point is not the wife’s status but rather a man bringing joy to his wife.[5] I would add that because this woman has just married, for her to be left by her husband would be an act of exceptional cruelty, especially if he disappears, making her an agunah, or “chained women,” forbidden to move on to someone else. There’s also something to be said for the fact that a husband and wife need to learn to live with each other before they separate for any length of time.

Nowadays we have the honeymoon as a week, maybe two, for the bride and groom to be alone and celebrate together. The Torah, in contrast, teaches us to have a yearlong honeymoon with the special custom of dipping challah into honey. Just as we dip challah in honey on Rosh Hashanah for a sweet new year, so too do we dip for the entire first year of marriage for a sweet new life together. There’s also a tradition to call the couple hatan and kalah (bride and groom) during their entire first year of marriage, to emphasize the newness of their relationship. I’ve also heard (though found no basis for it) a tradition of the couple not separating from one another during the first year of marriage-that a wife would actually accompany her husband to work! Of course this is impractical nowadays with two-income families-not to mention that the couple might just get tired of one another if they’re never able to be apart.

Why emphasize this today at the auf ruf of a couple who is not getting married until July? I would argue that the longer one is together the more difficult it can be to rekindle that sense of newness and freshness. That’s why our parsha teaches that one who has recently married needs time to develop the relationship with his/her partner before going off. The Torah recognizes that without a solid foundation, the marriage will not have what it needs to succeed amidst life’s challenges. The joy of the Shanah Rishonah where the focus can be on just the couple, creates a basis that will weather any storm or surprise. This is evidence that the purpose of marriage in Judaism is not merely procreation but rather for a couple to bring joy to one another.

Sam and Heather, I know you’ve succeeded to bring joy to your families this morning. It was such a mitzvah that you joined us here to celebrate your aufruf, the synagogue which Sam’s grandfather, Bernie Berko, helped build and shape, and that you were called up to the Torah that he dedicated in memory of his father. We wish you nothing but happiness and bliss as you continue to strengthen your relationship, bringing joy to one another as רעים אהובים, loving companions. Mazal Tov on your aufruf! So that we can celebrate together as a congregation, I ask that we turn to Page 838 and continue responsively.

[1] Deuteronomy 24:5

[2] Section 39 of the Israeli Security Service Law

[3] Deuteronomy 20:7

[4] Sotah 44a

[5] Rashi on Deuternomy 25:5 ושמח

A Call for Healing

Let us take a moment of silence to remember all who perished in 9/11, including Glen Winnick, who had his Bar Mitzvah at the Jericho Jewish Center, served as a volunteer fire fighter and worked at the World Trade Center.

I put on the headphones and slowly stepped into the room. I felt the cold metal in my hand as I carefully gripped the handle. I steadied myself, pushing my finger back to the trigger and saw the target. I raised the pistol, aimed and fired. The guy next to me had what looked like a semiautomatic machine gun and kept firing round after round. After I finished my ammo, I was shaking. I spoke to the congregant who brought me and said, “this is such a foreign experience to me.” He replied, “going to a shooting range in Arizona is like eating a deli sandwich in New York.”

This was my one experience with guns. For some gun use is recreational. For others, however, gun use is pathological. By the time I finish this talk, 15 people will die from guns. The fact that over 300 people are shot each day demonstrates that we have a broken process that must be changed. It’s far too easy to obtain a firearm and use it for destructive purposes.

One need only think of the shootings in Charleston, San Bernadino, Paris, Orlando, Sandy Hook Columbine, and all those that have not made the national news. I imagine that each of us decries these shootings and felt our heart wrenched for the innocent victims. Whenever we hear of innocent blood being spilled, our hearts are torn and we can get full of anger and outrage. We worry about our lives and those of our loved ones and we strive to protect ourselves. That’s why we have increased security for this year’s high holidays. At the same time, we want to have a sense of healing and wholeness, some semblance of an answer to this senselessness.

This summer I read an article by Rabbi Joshua Flug entitled “Gun Control in Halachah”[1] in Jewish Action, the magazine of the Orthodox Union. Rabbi Flug begins with next week’s parsha, which states that one may not place hazards in his/her home.[2] Rambam, or Maimonides, a 12th century physician for among others the Sultan, asserts that any potentially lethal hazard must be removed from one’s possession.[3]

There are different opinions as to whether one can bring a gun into shul on Shabbat. The Talmud records a debate between Rabbi Eliezer and other rabbis over whether a weapon counts as carrying. While the rabbis assert that it does, Rabbi Eliezer proclaims that a weapon is an adornment to one’s clothing, like jewelry, and therefore is permitted.[4] The Shulchan Aruch states that some forbid entering a synagogue with a long sword because a synagogue lengthens the days of life through prayer whereas a sword shortens them.[5] However, Mishnah Berurah cites Eliyahu Rabbah which states that one can bring a sword as long as it is covered.[6] Of course a sword is different than a gun, so we need to go to the modern Poskim, rabbinic decisors. The Tzitz Eliezer states that one can bring a gun to shul as long as the bullets are taken out, for then it no longer resembles a weapon.[7]

But is this really the final word? What do we do when a terrorist enters our house of worship? I remember too well the shooting at a Sikh Temple outside of Milwaukee as well as the murder of African Americans at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. We also remember bombings of Jewish institutions throughout the world, in Istanbul, Buenos Aries, Atlanta, Jerusalem to name a few.

I’m sure we have different views on guns, yet I imagine we agree that these senseless acts of violence need to stop. There’s a group called Rabbis Against Gun Violence, of which I am a member. In June after the Orlando massacre, a book was written for which rabbis were welcome to submit essays, poems or thoughts. Here is what I wrote, called “Two Worlds”:

 

In which world will my daughter grow up?

The world in which people are loved for who they are

Or the world in which people are hated for being different?

 

In which world will my daughter grow up?

The world of open-mindedness and compassion

Or the world of prejudice and racism?

 

In which world will my daughter grow up?

The world in which we work together

Or the world in which we grow apart?

 

In which world will my daughter grow up?

The world of self-fulfillment and happiness

Or the world of frustration and anger?

 

In which world will my daughter grow up?

The world where guns are melted down to make building tools

Or the world where guns are used for wanton acts of violence?

 

I will do my part to ensure

That my daughter grows up in the world of embracing others

Loving all people regardless of race, religion and sexual orientation

And pray that the world in which she will live

Will no longer know the horror of these shootings.

 

We need to act to ensure a better future, one where people are taught love not hate, one where there is room for those who look different or are of a different race or religion. Obviously I’m preaching to the choir. However, I believe that healing begins with oneself, letting go of any prejudices or animosity that we feel and striving to bring forth a world filled with love and compassion. This is easier said than done in our world which too often has violence and senseless hatred, yet if we work hard to teach the next generation kindness and acceptance, we have a chance to bring it forward. As Rabbi Shalom Noach Borozovsky teaches in his book Netivot Shalom, we cannot be another, only ourselves, and we must use our full self to engage in תקון עולם, repair of the world.[8]

Almighty G-d, let us pray for all the victims of the shootings. May we be vigilant against those who seek to do us harm while trying to bring goodness and healing to those who have experienced tragic losses. Let us never take life for granted, striving to live each day with a sense of wholeness and purpose even when newspaper articles, the internet and the television seem to be focusing on violence and divisiveness. G-d, help us to do everything we can to work constructively to repair the shards of emptiness and desolation in our world, and in so doing, we must do our part to bring healing. May we protect ourselves while concurrently praying for the day when “men shall beat their swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.”[9]  In your name רפאך, the healer, we pray, Amen.

[1] “Jewish Action,” Summer 2016.

[2] Deuteronomy 22:8

[3] Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Rotzeach 11:4

[4] Mishnah Shabbat 6:4

[5] Shulchan Aruch 151:6

[6] Mishnah Berurah 151:22

[7] Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, Tzitz Eliezer 10:18

[8] Netivot Shalom, Parshat Lech Lecha

[9] Isaiah 2:4

If You Only Observe My Commandments

Have you ever wished that someone would just do what you asked of them? Perhaps it is an obstinate child or a friend who won’t take your advice. Have you threatened to punish the person for his/her disobedience? A familiar passage from the end of our Torah reading should come to light.

The sixth Aliyah in Parshat Eikev has become the second paragraph of the Shema. It begins by stating that if the Israelites listen to and follow G-d’s commandments, specifically when they are living in the land of Israel, they will be rewarded with rain in its proper time as well as flourishing crops. In contrast, if they disobey, there will be no rain. The commandments are supposed to be bound on our hands and between our eyes (the Tefillan) and inscribed on the doorposts of our homes and our gates (the Mezuzah).

This passage, at the center of our worship, has troubled many, including the rabbis, who stated צדיק ורע לו רשע וטוב לו, “the righteous suffer and the evil prosper.”[1] Because of this, the Reform Siddur has excised this paragraph of the Shema and the Reconstructionist offered an alternative section about blessings that will befall our people when they enter the land of Israel.[2] The question is just because there are examples liturgy?

In the Conservative Movement, rather than removing passages which seem incongruous with contemporary life, we keep them in and try to reinterpret them. I truly believe that our performing mitzvot contributes to improving society. Our taking one day out of a week to rest recharges our batteries, making us better parents, employees and friends. Following the commandments to look after those most vulnerable in our society helps protect those who have no advocates, strengthening them to hopefully one day be in a position of self-sufficiency. Our inviting people who have nowhere to go to Rosh Hashanah dinner or Yom Kippur breakfast not only engenders goodwill but also motivates them to “pay it forward” and continue to look out for others.

Even if we do not always see the manifestations of justice in the world, we must strive to believe in a G-d who is just, who wants our betterment and for us to do what we can to strengthen those who need support. A Talmudic statement reads מה המקום נקרא רחום וחנון אף אתה  הוי רחום וחנון, “Just as G-d is compassionate and merciful, so too must you be compassionate and merciful.”[3] The passage continues that we must follow every one of G-d’s 13 attributes because we are commanded to “walk in G-d’s ways”[4] and as G-d is called all of these things so too must we emulate G-d.

What it means for us to listen to G-d’s commandments is not just a matter of obedience but also to take on the opportunity to emulate G-d in providing for those who have needs. The people of Israel are viewed as   אגודה אחת, a collective bundle. If one of us is suffering, all of us are suffering. We therefore must ensure that we are the best people we can be, as we are emissaries of G-d working to make the world a better place. In that vein, all of us will have the crops that we need, the resources that we require in our proper time. Let us stop relying on G-d to provide for those in our midst and take it upon ourselves to contribute to creating a just society. In that vein the second paragraph of the Shema remains relevant to us, one which must be said and acted on by us at least twice a day.

[1] Babylonian Talmud Berachot 7a

[2] Deuteronomy 28:1-6 in Kol HaNeshamah

[3] Sifrei Eikev 49

[4] Deuteronomy 26:17

The Ten Commandments Part II

Once again we find ourselves reading the Ten Commandments this Shabbat. Deuteronomy means deutero nomos, or second word, and it is often a repetition of what came before. However, there are some key differences between this version of the Ten Commandments and the one we have in Exodus, and I’d like us to look at why they are different. In Deuteronomy Moses says he will serve as the people’s intermediary because they were afraid and would not go up to the mountain an account of the great fire.[1] We do have a parallel to this in Exodus, where the Israelites tell Moses, “You speak to us and we will obey; but let not G-d speak to us, lest we die.”[2] However, prior to that Moses says to G-d
“The people cannot come up to Sinai, for You warned us, saying ‘put boundaries around the mountain and sanctify it.”[3] Why would Moses say in Deuteronomy that the Israelites had an option to ascend and chose not to when in Exodus he asserts that G-d forbade them from ascending?

Perhaps another difference between the texts will shed light on this. In Exodus G-d is proclaiming the words, whereas in Deuteronomy it is Moses. According to Midrash, the people heard the first commandment from G-d and could not take it-their souls departed from them. After the angels revived them, G-d said the second commandment, and the Israelites’ souls departed again. Finally they pleaded with Moses to say the rest of the commandments, and he did so. This is one source for the 613 commandments, for the gematria of the word תורה is 611, corresponding to the 611 commandments that Moses taught them, whereas the additional 2 corresponds to the commandments they heard directly from G-d.[4]

The next difference of note is that the Exodus text takes place at Mount Sinai, whereas the Deuteronomy text occurs at Horev. Ibn Ezra responds to this conundrum by stating that Horev is just another name for Sinai.[5] However, perhaps Horev was a different place where the Israelites made a covenant with G-d before accepting the commandments. Moses is speaking to the next generation of Israelites here (as the ones at Sinai had already died in the desert) so he is emphasizing that this covenant was not only with that generation but to those that followed. Further illustrating this point is that the commandments are referred to in Exodus as d’varim,[6] or statements, just referring to those words alone, whereas in Deuteronomy Moses refers to hukim v’mishpatim, [7] an inclusive term for all of the commandments. Moses is now addressing the Israelites with all of the commandments so that they will observe them when they enter the Land of Israel.

Now we examine the content of the commandments themselves. The first major change (besides just the absence of a “vav”) is in the fourth commandment, where in Exodus it says zachor (remember) whereas in Deuteronomy is says shamor (observe).[8] The well-known Midrash to this is that G-d said both words at the same time, something which the mouth cannot say and the ear cannot hear. After all, this is G-d saying the words, and G-d had the power to communicate in ways that we as mere humans cannot. We refer to this in Lecha Dodi when we proclaim שמור וזכור בדבור אחד, ‘observe’ and ‘remember’ were said with one word. The next major difference is that the passage in our parsha focuses on the importance of one’s slaves resting on the Sabbath day because we were slaves in the land of Egypt.[9] It thus ties our redemption from slavery to our giving our slaves a respite from labor on the Sabbath. While we no longer have slaves, this same law would apply to our servants as well. In contrast, the Exodus text has our resting on the Sabbath as an act of imitatio dei, following in G-d’s example of resting on the Sabbath.

The next change of note comes in the ninth commandment, where in Exodus the word שקר is used for not being a false witness whereas in our portion the word  שואis used. שוא was previously used in the third commandment for not taking G-d’s name in vain. The Yerushalmi takes a similar line of thought as to what we previously discussed, stating that the words שקר ושוא were both said at the same time.[10]

Finally we reach the tenth commandment, which uses the word תחמוד, or “covet,” when referring to one’s neighbor’s house. However, in our parsha it uses תתאוה, speaking about an inappropriate desiring, when referring to one’s neighbor’s wife, as opposed to Exodus, which uses תחמוד again. The Torah Temimah indicates that desiring leads to coveting which leads to taking by force.[11] Hence, one cannot even have desirous thoughts about one’s neighbor’s wife. Generally Judaism does not penalize people for their thoughts but here an extra fence or precaution is taken to prevent someone from engaging in an inappropriate act.

Why so many differences in the two sets of 10 commandments-especially if the tablets were stored in the Ark which followed the Israelites throughout their journeys? It appears to me that the differences indicate that one should not place too much import on these commandments. It is true that they are the basis for creating a just society, but they are not the be all and end all. This is the reason why the recitation of the 10 commandments was taken out of our daily liturgy, as people were ascribing too much import to these commandments and not all the other aspects of living Judaism. We should learn from this that while we stand for these commandments and relive their majesty each time they are read, we cannot stop there but rather must utilize it as a base point for increasing our observance and turning to all of the mitzvot. As we turn towards the coming year 5777, let us determine how we want to strengthen our Jewish observance in the year ahead. How do we want to make Shabbat, Kashrut, Prayer or Hagim more integral parts of our lives?

[1] Deuteronomy 5:5

[2] Exodus 20:16

[3] Exodus 19:23

[4] Babylonian Talmud Makkot 24a

[5] Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 5:2

[6] Exodus 20:1

[7] Deuteronomy 4:45

[8] Mechilta Exodus 20:3

[9] Deuteronomy 5:14-15

[10] Yerushalmi Nedarim 3:2

[11] Torah Temimah on Exodus, Page 265

Og, King of Bashan

One of my favorite streets in Jerusalem is Emek Refaim in the German Colony. I lived off of it when I studied at Pardes and the Conservative Yeshiva, and I loved going out on Saturday night to the restaurants-especially Burgers Bar. Emek Refaim is generally taken as meaning “valley of the ghosts” but an alternative meaning is “valley of the giants,” and it is that on which I want to focus today. Og King of Bashan, who was killed in Parshat Hukkat, is described in this week’s portion as the only survivor of the Refaim.[1] The Refaim were a group of giants who lived during biblical times. They were larger than any other people-as we learned in Tractate Soferim, Og was so big that he could hide Abraham’s feet in the palm of his hand, and Abraham himself was the height of 74 men![2]

What happened to the Refaim? In Genesis,[3] King Chedarlaomer waged war against the Refaim and killed them all, except for one refugee[4] who told Abraham of the destruction and of how his nephew Lot was captured-and that refugee is said to be Og.[5] Abraham made Og into his servant and there is even an account of Og being Eliezer who went down to find a wife for Isaac.[6] A different account has Og surviving the flood by sitting on one of the wooden planks in the ark after promising Noah and his sons that he would serve them forever.[7]

Where in this story did things go wrong, where Og became a king who waged war against Israel during its journey in the desert? Midrash Rabbah presents a different account-that Og had told Abraham about the capture of Lot so that he would die in battle, at which point Og could marry Sarah.[8] It appears that Pharaoh and Avimelech were not the only two jealous of Abraham’s marriage to Sarah. It was therefore quite to Og’s surprise when Abraham can back unscathed from his defeat of Chedarlaomer, and Og would from that point on be at war with the descendants of Abraham.

In addition to Og surviving from among the Rephaim, the Torah describes him as having an iron bed which can still be found in Rabbat B’nei Amon and which was 9 cubits (13.5 feet) long and 4 cubits (6 feet) wide. According to Midrash, when Og was a boy placed in a crib, he broke through the wood and hence needed iron to sustain his massive frame.[9] He was certainly a giant of a man.

Why should we care about this? After all, Og had become an enemy of our people so his massive size should not be described in such great detail. The Midrash states that Og’s giant nature needed to be described to show the greatness of Moshe in defeating him.[10] Similarly, many verses are given to describing Goliath in detail in order to show the greatness of David in being able to defeat him. This is why G-d had told Moses אל תירא אותו “Do not fear him,”[11] as you have the ability to defeat him. Through faith in G-d, Moses was able to defeat this giant and conquer his land.

As we prepare for Tisha B’Av this evening and tomorrow, the day on which we recount the destruction of both our Temples, our expulsion from Spain and all the other calamities that befell our people, we need to take a moment to have the faith of Moses that through trust in G-d we will eventually prevail over those who seek to do us harm. If the giant Og could have been defeated, how much more so can we defeat our adversaries. We also have to keep in mind the possibility that people are not always who they appear to be. According to our tradition, Og began as a “gentle giant” and full-fledged member of the household of Abraham. It’s only later on that he turned against our people. As vigilant as we are and as we must be against our enemies let us also keep in mind the possibility of their repentance and turning back to join with our way of life.

[1] Deuteronomy 3:11

[2] Tractate Soferim 21:9

[3] Genesis 14:5

[4] Genesis 14:13

[5] Midrash Tanhuma 153:25 and Talmud Niddah 61a

[6] Masechet Soferim 21:9

[7] Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer 23

[8] Bereshit Rabbah 48:8

[9] Devarim Rabbah

[10] Lekah Tov

[11] Numbers 21:34