Archive | D’var Torah

Lech Lecha: transformation and faith in God

Posted on 06 November 2019 by admin

This week’s Torah portion is Lech Lecha and in it we get to know Avram. At the beginning of the portion God calls out to Avram, “Lech lecha, you yourself go from your land, the place of your birth, your father’s house, and go to the land that I will show you.” From that moment of divine call, a call to change oneself, a call to uproot oneself, we can see this entire portion is about personal change. Throughout this portion, Avram goes through a complete transformation.

The first transformation is his physical location, which at first glance doesn’t seem much like a personal transformation, but in reality is a trigger for one. Avram leaves his home and his family to a land he isn’t even told about before he leaves. It is a profound statement of faith in God, but it is also personally transformational because Avram is forced to be completely independent without any reliance on kinship ties that are so common in the Middle East, even to today. In Israel today, it is called protektzia or the personal connections one call rely upon to get one out of trouble or prevent it from happening in the first place. Avram was forced to forgo his family connections and learn to be strong and independent. We see Avram’s increased independence in how he interacts with his neighbors. At the beginning of the portion, he is afraid of the Egyptians and feels that he needs to resort to trickery to survive. By the end of the portion, Avram is a conquering warrior who turns the tide of battle and saves his nephew Lot during the war of the five kings against the four kings.

The second transformation is a transformation in Avram’s expectations for the future. In the beginning of the portion, Avram and Sarai are childless and Avram believes that he will have no one to inherit. By the end of the portion, he has a son, granted, with his concubine Hagar, but even more he has God’s promise that he will have an heir through Sarai. His more positive outlook is symbolized by the promise that God makes to Avram. God promises that he will have descendants and that, even though they will spend 400 years in slavery in Egypt, they will go free and become as numerous as the stars. It is a transformation of a bleak outlook, slavery in Egypt, to a limitlessly positive view of the future with innumerable descendants. Avram goes from the prospect of never having children to having more great-great-great etc. grandchildren than he could ever imagine. Avram went from a negative view of the future to a limitlessly positive view of the future.

The third transformation is Avram’s spiritual transformation. True enough: At the beginning of the portion, Avram hears God’s command, packs up and moves without even knowing where he was going. That shows a certain faith. But it takes Avram another 24 years of spiritual journey before he enters into the Covenant with God that changes him from Avram to Avraham, incorporating part of God’s name in his own name. It took 24 years of spiritual exploration before Avraham could establish with God the Covenant between God and the Jewish People.

So we see over the broad sweep of this Torah portion, that the message here is one of transformation: physical, mental and spiritual transformation. And we encounter God as a God of becoming. I am reminded of a saying attributed to Lao Tzu: “When you let go of what you are, you become what you might be.” The message I take from Lech Lecha is not to fear change, but to embrace the becoming. All that lives, grows and changes over time. Only that which was never alive remains unchanged. But God wants us to live, to be and to become, embracing the changes we encounter on our own personal journeys of transformation.

Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano and the vice president of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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Feel adrift? Fight to reconnect with Judaism

Posted on 31 October 2019 by admin

As any member of the clergy can attest, one of the greatest blessings of serving the community is the opportunity to be with families day after day, year after year, at key moments in their lives. Jewish tradition suggests that the joys of b’nei mitzvah, weddings, baby namings, b’rit milah and more offer us a sample of olam haba (the world to come). And even funerals, as difficult as they can be for all of us, often contain a certain sacred beauty as we experience the wisdom of people’s diverse lives. The repetition of facilitating these rituals not only teaches us about people, but also offers us a unique perspective on Jewish text and tradition. When you experience lifecycle moments over and over again, you begin to notice patterns in our tradition.
Often at key moments in life, Jewish tradition counsels us to respond in seemingly contradictory ways to how we naturally feel. At weddings, a time of immense joy, we break the glass to recall Jerusalem’s destruction; at funerals when perhaps we’re most upset at God we’re directed to praise: (Baruch Dayan HaEmet) Blessed is God, the true judge! This habit of contradiction nudges us toward gratitude when we could easily overindulge, or pulls us back toward our Creator and to life when we might slip into darkness. Jewish texts and rituals help us regain a sense of balance through life’s unpredictable ups and downs
Parashat Noah, one of the earliest texts of the Torah, what scholars call our primeval history, foreshadows this guidance. As we sadly can relate, major natural disasters change our lives and change us. The flood changed Noah and his relationship with God. After the flood we read in Genesis: “Noah removed the cover of the ark and saw that the face of the earth had dried.” (8:13) Noah looks out and sees that the flood is over, but he’s stunned by God’s destruction and doesn’t move. Only God’s call to Noah brings him back to action. “God spoke to Noah, saying: ‘Go out from the ark . . .’” (8:15–16)
Midrash Rabbah teaches that in this verse God says “go out,” meaning “Bring my soul out of captivity” (Psalm 142:8) — this means Noah, who was imprisoned in the ark for 12 months…. “Because You delivered me” (ibid.) — that You delivered me [says Noah] and said to me: Go out from the ark. (Genesis Rabbah 34:1). According to the rabbis, Noah became accustomed to life in prison [life in the ark] and he needed a nudge back to reality, and also that Noah became complacent because God was delivering him because of his grace — so God reminded Noah of his own responsibility for himself. In other words, Noah shouldn’t expect God to free him from the ark; he must get up and go himself.
Given that Noah witnessed God’s massive power — to bring floods, to destroy the earth, to select just one family to save among millions of people — it could be easy for Noah to throw up his hands and expect an all-powerful God to take him to his next step. But Torah says different. It’s up to Noah to begin rebuilding, to again become a partner with God in furthering creation. Noah affirms this relationship with God as well, as we read: “Then Noah built an altar to God, and took from among all the clean animals and from among all the pure birds, and offered burnt offerings on the altar.” (8:20)
Parashat Noah serves as a reminder for us to strive to rekindle our relationship with God and leverage that relationship to find a sense of balance in a world of extremes. At the times when it’s most likely for us to drift away from Jewish meaning, that’s when we should do our best to reconnect. Especially in the weeks ahead as we act to rebuild neighborhoods, we can look to each other, our neighbors and God for this exact guidance and perspective.
Rabbi Daniel Utley has served Temple Emanu-El since 2016 where he aspires to help millennials, teens, and interfaith families find joy, meaning, and connection through Jewish life. He is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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Bereishit is chock-full of wisdom and secrets

Posted on 23 October 2019 by admin

This week we will begin a new cycle of Torah reading; this Shabbat is referred to as “Shabbat Bereishit,” from the first word of the opening verse—“In the beginning, G-d created the heavens and earth…” It is always read at the end of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, known as the “saturated month,” packed with holiday events. 

A common perception going into this weekend is that the most auspicious days of the year are over — the Days of Awe, followed by the Days of rejoicing (Sukkot) followed by a day filled with dancing (Simchat Torah). Now it’s time to settle down and dive back into a normal routine of work. Not so fast. 

There is an old Yiddish adage that says: “how a person acts during Shabbat Bereishit determines the way the entire year will go.” At first glance, the concept of setting the tone seems misapplied. Rosh Hashanah is the head of the year, a time where everything is decided, and this Day of Judgement has already passed. We have also gone through the cleansing process of the Day of Atonement and celebrated in the sukkah. What then is the unique character of this Shabbat that provokes such a statement?

Fundamentals:

One answer has to do with the content of this first parsha, which serves to encapsulate all biblical themes and messages that will unfold throughout the Torah: from the notion of a First Cause who sustains and guides the details of the universe — “in the beginning God created” — to the formation of a complex creature of unique intelligence, “a speaking being” possessing a moral sense yet with an inner pull toward both good and evil. 

The commentaries point out how its specifically this portion, more than any other, is loaded with wisdom and secrets. It is not simply the first in the order of chapters but the foundation of our general outlook: the essentials that one must internalize and keep at the forefront of the mind to succeed in life.

But there is another idea that pertains to the specific calendar placement. The holidays have just ended. An analogy is given of a merchant who travels from city to city accumulating items, filling his bag, without paying specific attention to the value of those acquisitions. Upon returning home, he sits down exhausted from the long trip. Just then, he is filled with tremendous excitement. He reaches for his bag and begins to unpack it, to see what he has gained. This Shabbat we begin to unpack our holiday bags; we discover all that was accomplished and begin to tap into the awaiting blessings.

Actualization:

Exploring this idea from a different angle, this week serves as a bridge between the end of one stage and the beginning of another. At some point during the High Holidays there is deep reflection. During prayer or maybe while listening to a good sermon or stirring melody a moment of truth and personal discovery occurred. Insight led to resolutions. We reconnected to our Judaism with increased vigor. Feelings of gratitude welled up from the pleasure of sitting together with the family. And this Shabbat plays a vital role in determining what becomes of that experience — whether it will vanish from the mind or make an impact.

Extra focus this week — to sit in shul, listen to the Torah portion and learn, sanctify the day and reflect — stamps the month. It also ensures that all the accomplishments of the past few weeks do not remain in potential but flow into the coming new year. In order to build this abstract bridge, one must be able to reflect, extract the good, and look to the future to transfer that good.

Building bridges:

The process of making a bridge, from a more mystical perspective, is transporting holiness into the ordinary. On Yom Kippur we elevate by detaching from the physical. On Sukkot we reveal that even within our eating, drinking and most physical pleasures we can remain fully connected — even more so, when we infuse our ordinary activities with purpose and holiness. We now take that power into the year. 

A similar bridge — a transfer of holiness — occurs every week. Shabbat bathes us in bright light. We are spiritually satiated. Then Saturday night arrives, which provokes a distinct mood. On the one hand, we are fresh from the holy restfulness of Shabbat. On the other hand, we are eager for a new start, anticipating all the events of the coming week. So, this night contains contrast, a mix of emotions, a blend of light and darkness.

This dichotomy gives rise to a melancholy feeling; the typical “Saturday night blues” run wild. But it is always within such a void that the opportunity to build a bridge occurs. In Jewish tradition, this is done through a special meal to “escort the Queen.” We burn a braided candle, sing songs, tell stories, and mentally extend the flavor of the Shabbat that has passed to carry some of its sanctity and serenity with us into the ordinary. 

Similarly, this coming portion in the calendar is a link between the saturated month of Tishrei and an empty month of Cheshvan. It is a most sacred time to absorb and transfer the powerful concepts and all the personal resolutions of the recent holidays, so that they penetrate our everyday lives.

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Why we study Torah again and again

Posted on 16 October 2019 by admin

This week’s Torah portion is a special Torah portion specifically for Hol HaMoed Sukkot — the intermediate days of Sukkot and we will soon be celebrating Simchat Torah. Now, when I am teaching Torah, I like to begin with asking the question of why we study Torah again and again and again, year after year after year. The answer, I assert, is that God is trying to speak to us through the text. Was it written word for word on Mount Sinai, dictated by God to Moses? Or did multiple authors write it, authors that we label J, E, P and D? I don’t know, I can’t tell you. But I do believe that whatever our Holy Scripture’s origins, God is trying to speak to us through the text and that’s why we continue to study it over and over and over. If God is speaking, we say, then we’re going to try to listen. As I read the text, suddenly it appeared, as if it were a diamond suddenly dusted off, catching the light, and glittering with a fiery sparkle. It felt like God was speaking to me out of the text. “See, see!” it said to me, “Moses tried to know Me too!”
Why would it be so hard for Moses to know God? Moses spoke to God peh el peh, mouth to mouth. Surely he knew God deeply and intimately, in exactly the way that we desire to know God. Yet Moses must ask, “let me know your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor.” And Psalms 103:7-13 tells us that God did grant Moses’ request:
“He made known His ways to Moses, His deeds to the children of Israel.
“The Eternal is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.
“He will not contend forever, or nurse His anger for all time.
“He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor has He requited us according to our iniquities.
“For as the heavens are high above the earth so great is His steadfast love toward those who fear Him.
“As east is far from west, so far has He removed our sins from us.
“As a father has compassion for his children, so the Eternal has compassion for those who fear Him.”
What are God’s ways? God loves us, forgives us, and has compassion upon us. But Moses wants to know God even more intimately, more fully, more completely: “Oh, let me behold Your Presence!” Yet God denies this request saying, “you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live.” We cannot know God as thoroughly as we want for we are merely mortal. We cannot know God fully and live. But God loves us and promises: “I will go in the lead and lighten your burden.” Perhaps we cannot know God fully. Perhaps we will never understand God to our satisfaction, but we can take comfort knowing that God loves us, will lead us, and will comfort us when our burdens are heavy.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.

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The Days of Awe and spiritual nourishment

Posted on 02 October 2019 by admin

Holidays provide quality time with God

Just as the body needs certain nutrients to function well, human beings have an emotional need for connection with others that must be fostered. Connecting involves awareness that someone special stands before you—each person has a rich interior world—and then trying to give more to that person, or to understand them better. Actively setting aside time for those we care about is crucial for creating strong relationships, and even more important when it comes to developing the bond between parent and child. Simply being available or physically present is not a substitute for spending quality time together.
There are some parents, for example, who are commendably devoted to ensuring their family lead a productive and enjoyable life. They spend hours each week driving their young children around town—to movies, friends’ houses, to sports matches, to get Slurpees and more. The parent places an abundance of exciting material things around the children, but little nourishment inside them.
In turn, the kids may end up using the parents, who they see mainly as providers. In this case, the relationship becomes more about a means to get things they want, than a way in which to better know each other.
Another imbalance is a relationship based on excess fear. In such a situation, the child is cautious of every action, dreading punishment by a dominant authority figure, and constantly trying to live up to all the expectations.
The Super-Parent
Unfortunately, people project these distorted parental images when relating to God. So, even when they succeed in recognizing and internalizing the Creator of the universe as omnipresent and all-powerful, the interaction mainly entails asking for what they lack and desire, or worrying about the repercussions for some transgression. The true bond, however, is never discovered, uncovered or nurtured.
So, as we enter the most foundational period in the Jewish year, the High Holy Days, we must also prepare mentally, revisiting what kind of mindset we adopt when stepping into the shul (synagogue) to pray. Congregational leaders invest time crafting and delivering their most stirring sermons (which are hopefully devoid of personal political views), but the bulk of the work in building a personal connection is up to the individual. This is your “quality time” with God.
10 Days of Repentance
Explaining Isaiah 55:6, “Seek G d when He is to be found, call out to Him when He is near,” the Talmud addresses and implicit question: isn’t God always near? One explanation is that during this upcoming period—the days from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, known as “The Ten Days of Repentance”—our spiritual efforts are particularly effective. The opportunity for personal transformation is ripe. And, while repentance and prayer are always appropriate, they are especially powerful during this special time, as they are immediately accepted.
But to “come nearer to God” first requires the person to overcome childish conceptions of the Creator as simply a provider or punisher. The superficial titles of Rosh Hashanah as “the day of Judgment” and the “Day of Atonement” for Yom Kippur don’t make this task easier; they may also create a narrow view of the High Holidays. But the deeper aspect of Rosh Hashanah — the “head” of the year — is rebirth, acceptance and rededication.
A new year brings new opportunity. In more mystical language, as the “soul” sustaining the previous year departs from existence, a new life enters, a loftier light than has ever entered this world. This renewal leads to a comprehensive assessment, or judgement, wherein we can tap into the source of all blessing and define our entire year. “For everything comes from You, and from Your own hand we give to You” (I Chronicles 29:14). As the brain guides and sends signals to the body, so the two days of Rosh Hashanah are the storehouse and control center of all the months that follow.
Closing Gates of Intimacy
The deeper aspect of Yom Kippur — atonement — is, as the Hebrew root word indicates, a type of “cleansing,” or, more than a pardon. The glue that binds these 10 days together is the potential of teshuvah, a “return” to the essence. Prayer is seen as a means to attach, not only to attain.
On a psychological level, Yom Kippur allows us to uncover a relationship with God that is not based on our performance, but on an essential bond that can never be tainted. On a spiritual level, we can travel beyond the usual boundaries of time and space, to erase all our undesirable deeds from existence and to polish our soul.
The introspection and toil during those 26 hours, the heartfelt prayer and fasting, the desire to grow and to be real with ourselves, washes away any moral grime. Like a dusty air conditioning unit that is replaced with a new filter allowing clean air to blow through the vents and into each room, so too the soul’s most essential energy can now penetrate our mind and limbs at full force, without obstructions. Our thoughts will be different. We become wiser and stronger inside.

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Before God as community, and as individuals

Posted on 25 September 2019 by admin

Gathering everyone into God’s covenant


I am always in awe of this week’s Torah Portion, Nitzavim, because in my mind’s eye, the sight must have been overwhelming: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God — your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer — to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God…”
Imagine all those people standing before God, entering into a covenant with God. But it wasn’t just the tribal heads, the elders and the officials, the so-called important people, who entered into the covenant. No, the covenant includes women, children, non-Jews who were attached to the community, the most menial of workers, everyone. Being Jewish in covenant with God wasn’t reserved for the privileged few, but for us all, no matter how learned or ignorant, wealthy or poor, powerful or vulnerable.
Yet, that inclusion extended even further: “I make this covenant with its sanctions, not with you alone, but with both those who are standing here with us this day before the Eternal our God and with those who are not with us here this day.”
There are at least two ways to interpret these verses. The first is practical. Just because you were sick in bed and couldn’t stand before God at that moment, didn’t mean you weren’t included. The second interpretation is more profound: “Not with us this day” includes anyone who ever was Jewish, and also anyone who ever will be Jewish. All the Jews who ever lived, all the Jews alive today, all the Jews yet to be born or choosing to join the Jewish people in the future, we all stood at Sinai. Past, present and future, we all entered into the covenant with God both collectively as a Jewish people, and individually, uniquely.
In only a few days, we shall stand before God on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We shall confess our sins collectively: ashamnu, we have trespassed, bagadnu, we have betrayed, gazalnu, we have stolen, we have collectively committed an aleph-bet of sins. Yet even as we gather in the largest crowds of the year, even as we admit our collective guilt, each of us stands alone, individually, uniquely before God. Even in our multitudes, we, alone, bear our own individual failings and our own unique shortcomings. We are all called before God to answer as a community for the sins we have committed. Yet, each of us needs to contemplate and to resolve how to become a better person, individually and uniquely. We each of us stood at Sinai, and we will each of us stand to account before God.
I wish you all a sweet, happy and healthy New Year.

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Keeping it fresh: Appreciate the newness of every moment

Posted on 18 September 2019 by admin

Every day can be unique, with the correct mindset

This summer featured a fun dose of fresh and new for our family vacation. We went on an Alaskan Cruise with my extended family — (Wow, Alaska is stunningly beautiful!) — and spent time in Vancouver and Seattle, two other places we had not previously visited. One of summer’s special blessings is the opportunity to experience necessary moments of renewal by taking a break from our normal activities. But of course, before you know it, summer comes to a close and we are back to the grind again. In these first few weeks of September, we might already find ourselves sneaking peeks ahead to December, or February or June, thinking about our next opportunity for travel. Aside from going to the Southwest or American Airlines apps and booking flights, are there other ways to find renewal amid, rather than outside, our routine? 

A teaching from this week’s parashah, Ki Tavo, offers some insight along these lines. On the doorstep of the land of Canaan, our ancestors are commanded to bring forward the bikkurim, their offerings of first fruits, when they ultimately get settled in the fertile land that God has given them and begin reaping its bounty. Each Israelite is instructed to go to the Kohen, the priest, and tell him: “I acknowledge today before God that I have entered the land that God swore to our fathers to assign us” (Deuteronomy 26:3). Later in the parashah, we also read hayom hazeh, this day, “the Lord commands you to observe these laws and rules, to observe them faithfully with all your heart and soul. You have affirmed this day that the Lord is your God, that you will walk in God’s ways…” (Deuteronomy 26:16-17). The repeated use of the word hayom in this chapter and the next chapter grounds the action in the immediate present. Reflecting on the one time the phrase hayom hazeh — this day — specifically appears in the text regarding the command to observe the mitzvot, commandments, the great medieval biblical commentator Rashi (11th-century France) quotes an earlier teaching saying that each day the mitzvot should be like new in your eyes. Said another way, an Israelite in that era was expected to relate to the commandments every day, in the same way, as that day when he was on the doorstep of Canaan, excited about reaching the end of the desert-wandering period, and in the same way as when he was offering his first fruits to God in the spirit of gratitude for being settled in the land and enjoying its fruits.

Even at the beginning of something exciting and completely new — entry into Israel, the promised land — our ancestors were reminded several times to be present in the day and moment at hand. Our experiences on a daily basis are not always going to be as awe-inspiring as seeing Israel for the first time, or as breathtaking as seeing the Alaskan glaciers for the first time. But the Torah reminds us that it is important for us to appreciate the uniqueness and newness of every moment and every day, even if those moments and days could just as easily be classified in the “ordinary” or “routine” category. Truly, is anything ever completely routine or the same? 

We may feel as though we are repeating patterns and cycles of life, but the third year on a job is not the same as the first year or the first day, the experience of 11th grade is different from first grade, and the 23rd year of marriage is different from the first, or the eighth or the 12th. There is something fresh and new to be found in even our longest cycles, if we only look for it.

May this coming New Year of 5780 bring each of us countless fresh, precious and blessed moments in our lives.

Rabbi Ari Sunshine in senior rabbi at Congregation Shearith Israel in Dallas.

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Thoughts on the month of Elul

Posted on 12 September 2019 by admin

Introspection is important to begin the New Year


In developing any business or refining a craft, it is essential to establish set periods for gathering information and assessing performance. Sometimes this process takes the form of setting goals, while other times it’s gaining an overview of activities to know where you stand. Financial calculations involve income and expenses. In other areas, it’s more about evaluating personnel.
The same type of thorough analysis applies to one’s spiritual performance and character traits. Each person is given a chelek be’olam, an area of the world (i.e., community and people) in which to make an impact. The process of intermittent self-review, to access performance, is called a cheshbon hanefesh, or an accounting of the soul. And this month, Elul, is known as the season of “accounting.”
Unlike Rosh Hashanah — the Day of Judgment — where we stand in awe and concentration in prayer, during Elul we take stock amid our busy schedules, through setting aside time for careful review and self-reflection. To be sure, there are already traditional slots for reflection installed throughout the year. Usually, five minutes of introspection and review at the end of each night is enough to determine what needs to be fixed. Before entering the Shabbat, one looks back and evaluates how the past week went. Then there’s an assessment — right before Rosh Chodesh — when the new month begins. But the accounting that takes place during Elul is different.
Throughout the year, the emphasis is on action. Reviewing our performance is helpful only as it leads to better decision making the following day. Elul, however, is a more comprehensive evaluation. How am I doing in general? Where do I stand in accomplishing my most important goals? How is my relationship with God, within my private time and space? What are my biggest weaknesses? In which areas am I doing particularly well and how can I further commit to cultivating those? The objective is to mentally scan every facet of life and find ways to improve.
Such an examination may appear to be essential for personal growth and beneficial to perform more often. Yet, too much reflection can reduce our productivity by taking time away from study or positive deeds. Our energy, therefore, should be spent not on reviewing past mistakes or making a general assessment, but on judging how best to move forward.
There is another danger when it comes to the more intense reflection: Honest analysis of one’s character and performance, if done in excess or at the wrong time, can be psychologically damaging. Choosing to take a closer look inside oneself is a particularly difficult task — you may not like what you see. Someone, for example, who realizes the extent to which he or she is falling short in crucial areas can naturally become despondent and decide to give up. So, what we don’t see about ourselves, in effect, shields us emotionally.
For this reason, some of the most successful people in the professional arena are also some of the least introspective individuals, seldom stopping to consider how they’re perceived by others around them. At the same time, this failure to reflect allows them to keep moving, to be highly efficient and confident.
If so, the commentaries ask, why should we focus so much attention on intense self-examination during the entire month of Elul? The surface answer is a preparation for the upcoming “Day of Judgment” (i.e., Rosh Hashanah). Change is already in the air. Or, from a more positive angle, there’s an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch. Knowing that each year brings new mazel — the time to reinvent oneself — adds hope to what otherwise may be a grim personal picture.
But on a deeper level, this type of introspection is placed in Elul because it’s the month of compassion and divine assistance. More specifically, the kabbalistic works relate that during Elul, the 13 Attributes of Mercy — “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in kindness and truth…forgiving of iniquity, willful sin and error, and cleansing…” (Exodus 34:6-7) — are predominant during this time, shining strong behind the scenes.
Explained more concretely, God interacts with creations through various channels or manifestations. The heavenly attribute of din, or, judgment, is designed to make a just, but sharp, assessment which often results in undesirable consequences for us. The attribute of rachamim, mercy, introduces another approach, a warmer relationship with God in which flaws are discounted, and a setting for growth is created. We receive a gust of inspiration rather than fear. This environment of compassion, in turn, allows us to perform an in-depth cheshbon hanefesh — an analysis of where we stand — where we can internalize what we discover without the usual risks or side effects.
So, in this sense, even without the upcoming holidays, Elul would still be designated as a refuge in time, a window of opportunity to evaluate oneself without any excess judgment or pain, to probe within and uncover more resources to accomplish our mission. If we use this month wisely, the stage will be set for a sweet new year.

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Parashat Shoftim and pursuit of justice

Posted on 04 September 2019 by admin

Torah and its focus on the rule of law


This week’s portion is called Shoftim, or “Judges” in English. The first three verses speak about appointing judges and how they should act. And, in these verses, is one of the most famous and often quoted phrases within the Bible:
You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Eternal your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Eternal your God is giving you.
The famous phrase is: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof — Justice, justice shall you pursue. This is an interesting and unusual Hebrew construction that almost demands interpretation because it is so unusual. You see there is verb construction in Hebrew that intensifies the meaning of the verb. The absolute infinitive is paired with the conjugated verb to intensify the meaning. OK, forget the grammar lesson; let me just give you an example. In the Garden of Eden, God says to Eve eat from any tree in the garden, except for that one because if you do, mot tamut, you shall surely die. “You shall surely” verb, that’s the construction. But here, it’s a repetition of a noun and that’s kind of special, so it has to be interpreted.
Interpretation number one: Rabbi Ze’ev of Zbarzh believed “justice, justice shall you pursue,” as excessive righteousness, being holier than thou, you shall chase away. Just as we can sin by disregarding what is just, we can also sin by being overly scrupulous.
Interpretation number two: Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pshischa interprets the phrase as “with justice you shall pursue justice. Even the pursuit of justice must employ only just means, and not falsehood.” That is, the ends don’t justify the means and we can’t have true justice if we lie or cheat to achieve it.
All of these instructions for setting up the rule of law are not some theoretical musings on the ideal justice system. Rather, we do all of this for the very practical purpose, as it says in our section, “that you may thrive.” We are blessed to live in the United States where we enjoy, however imperfect it may be, the rule of law. And we are prosperous in part because we live by the rule of law.
The counterexamples are all out there. If you don’t have judges with one set of laws, you end up with Somalia, where the strongest warlords impose their capricious rule. If judges are subject to bribery, influence, or patronage, you end up with Russia. In Russia, it’s not what you know as much as whom you know, that determines if you can get ahead. Or, once you’ve gotten ahead, whether you can keep your place.
We are blessed to live in the United States under the rule of law. Let us pursue and establish justice, that we may continue to thrive.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.

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Understanding the spirit — and letter — of Jewish law

Posted on 28 August 2019 by admin

Deuteronomy 12:28 reads: “Safeguard and hearken to all these words that I command you…when you do what is good and right in the eyes of Hashem your God.”
A basic question we may pose is: Isn’t it sufficient to obey all the words of the Torah? What, in addition, is being asked of us by stating that we must also do “what is good and right?”
There is a need to state this to countermand a lifestyle that, while religiously observant, is empty in terms of inner beauty and spirit.
One could simply “go through the motions” of Jewish life, but not connect with one’s heart and soul. Rather, one must act with goodness and righteousness even when complying with mitzvot. The Torah is communicating to us an overview of both behavior and attitude to permeate a person’s approach to God’s commandments.
It is not possible or desirable for the Torah to list every possible human action or interaction. Rather, the Torah gave us representative laws and then their guiding principles, what we can call meta-halacha. This goes beyond the law, and addresses itself to the spirit of the laws that should never get lost in our compliance with the laws themselves.
There are two faces to the law: the outer one, called the letter of the law, and the inner one, called the spirit of the law. Nahmanides teaches us that we are to obey mitzvot, but also do them for the right reason. If one ignores the spirit of the mitzvah, you fulfill only one part of the Torah declaration: “Do what is good and right.”
The Talmud (Bava Metzia 83a) provides a powerful example: Rabbah bar Bar Chana was a scholar and wealthy individual. He hired porters to transport barrels of wine. The workers were negligent and broke the barrels. The rabbi wanted payment from the workers for the damages and lost wine. He took their clothing in lieu of payment.
The porters went to Rav to stake their claim. Rav ruled in their favor and their garments were returned. Bar Chana asked Rav, “Is this the law?”
Rav affirmed his ruling, citing a verse from Proverbs (2:20): “In order that you may walk in the road of good men.” Technically, the porters were at fault, but Rav dealt with them, according to a higher spirit of the law.
The porters were still unhappy. They had worked all day and wanted to be compensated for their labors (though they had damaged the barrels). They complained that they were hungry and needed their pay to purchase food for themselves and their families.
Again, Rav ruled in their favor. The astonished Bar Chana again asked: “Is this the law?”
Rav affirmed his decision quoting the end of that same verse from Proverbs: “And you shall guard the path of the righteous.”
Rav explained that based on strict law, he would have to rule in favor of Bar Chana, who hired the porters. But Rav took into account all the circumstances of the case: wealth, poverty, scholars and laborers.
Rav said the facts have to be tempered by the situation. Ethically, the porters were dependent on their daily wages for their very sustenance. So, Rav went lifnei me’shurat ha’din — beyond the letter of the law.
The Torah requires us to do what is both good and righteous, to keep both the letter and spirit of the law. If an individual concentrates only on one, it causes a shift in the delicate balance of things. One could end up dangling dangerously off the side. When we balance the two together, we reach physical and spiritual heights. We can then walk on a high wire without fear of falling.
We thereby formulate a religious balance and harmony.
That is precisely what we should seek, as we begin the month of Elul, one month preceding Rosh Hashanah.
Shabbat Shalom.
Chodesh Tov.
Rabbi Wolk is community chaplain of Jewish Family Service and rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shaare Tefilla.

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