It's so very difficult - almost impossible - for us to focus on anything but Israel but I'd like to share some thoughts with you about yesterday's Torah portion and try to relate it in some way to our beloved homeland.
It all started in Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden. Even before Gd commanded Adam about what he could – and could not - eat in the garden, Gd placed him there to work it and to protect it – l’avda ul’shamra. We understand what it means that Gd placed Adam in the garden. And we can understand that Gd charged him with working in the garden. But what does shamra – to protect it, mean? Protect it from whom? There was no one else around!
Rabbi Yossie Levine, of the Jewish Center in New York City, says that l’shamra, in addition to its meaning of protecting something, also means to accept responsibility. In his read, לשמרה - l’shamra - is the overarching ethic within which our commandments and their restrictions apply. Gd instructs Adam, the way he does, to make sure that nothing goes wrong on his watch. We know that it didn’t exactly work out that way. Enter Eve who proceeds to be enticed by the serpent to eat from that forbidden tree. As we know, instead of admitting guilt, she blames the serpent. And then Adam follows suit.
The responsibility of preserving the integrity of the heretofore pristine garden rested solely on Adam’s shoulders. It is he who was instructed by Gd with the words l’avda ul’shamra. And yet he is totally unable to step up and to recognize his failing. Both Adam and Eve deny personal responsibility for their actions. They say, in effect, “it wasn’t me”.
The pattern of not taking responsibility continues. We observe the inability, or the unwillingness, to take responsibility spilling over into the next generation. The first instance of sibling rivalry unfolds, leading tragically to the first murder:
As it is written in Genesis 4, verses 8-10: “While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. When the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ what followed was Cain’s no-responsibility response, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’
Cain doesn’t deny personal responsibility as his parents did. He doesn’t say, “It wasn’t me,” or “It wasn’t my fault.” But he does deny moral responsibility. In effect, he asks why he should be concerned with the welfare of anyone but himself. If there is no morality in nature, then we are responsible only for ourselves. That is the voice of Cain throughout the ages.
In essence, Cain fails to avoid the mistakes of his parents. When Adam sins, God asks, איכה – Ayeka - Where are you? – in the hope that this will provide Adam an opening to explain his guilt. When Cain sins, Gd asks the same question. Gd casts no blame and He points no fingers. Instead, He begins with a question. He opens the door to a conversation, giving the guilty party the opportunity to accept responsibility for what he has done wrong. In neither of these Biblical accounts does that happen, however.
These two stories are not just stories. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks views them as an account, at the beginning of the Torah’s narrative history of humankind, of a “failure, first personal then moral, to take responsibility”.
Carrying on with the theme of responsibility, we find a fascinating phrase in the account of Moses’ early years. As we’ve learned, Moses grows up, he goes out to his people, the Israelites, and he sees them suffering from the horrible slave labor to which they were subjected. He further witnesses an Egyptian officer beating an Israelite. The text then says: “He looked this way and that and saw no one” - vayar ki ein ish (Ex. 2:12), or more literally, ‘he saw that there was no man’.
It is difficult to understand this literally. One would think that there must have been many people present. One commentator seems to nail it – he says that the phrase means, “he looked this way and that and saw that there was no one else - - no one willing to intervene, that is.”
It took a Moses to act which is what made him a role model for responsible behavior. Responsibility appears when we are active, not passive, when we do not wait for someone else to act because perhaps there is no one else – at least not there/not here, not then/not now.
When bad things happen, some look the other way. Some wait for others to act. Some blame others for failing to act. Some just complain. But there are some people who say, “If something is wrong let me try to make it right.” Like Moses, they are the role models of responsibility. They are the ones who make a difference in their, and in our, lifetimes. They are the ones who make our world a better place. They are our shomrim – from l’shamra, the word we learned about with Adam. They are the ones who take responsibility.
The horrific Hamas attack on Israel has clearly heightened our awareness – indelibly - of being responsible for each other.
Let’s not forget that when Adam and Eve behaved the way they did, Gd called out, Ayeka - “Where are you?” As Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi pointed out, this call was not directed only to the first human beings. It echoes in every generation, including our own. Gd gave us freedom, but with freedom comes responsibility. Gd teaches us what we ought to do but He does not do it for us. He acts through us, not to us. His is the voice that tells us, as He told Cain, that we can do the right thing in the face of the evil that surrounds us.
In closing, the Hebrew word for responsibility is achrayut, which comes from the word acher, meaning “other.” Our great Other is Gd Himself, calling us to use the freedom He gave us, to make the world that is - more like the world that ought to be. The great question, the question that the life we lead answers, is: which voice will we listen to? Will we heed the voice of desire, as did Adam and Eve? Will we listen to the voice of anger, as Cain did? Or will we follow the voice of Gd, calling on us to make our world a just and responsible world?
Let us remember that a responsible life is a life that responds.
With prayers for the return of our hostages and we pray for comfort, for healing, for strength and for safety in this terrible time for our beloved homeland, Israel. Amen.
Rabbi Marge Wise
A Heartfelt Prayer for our beloved homeland, Israel:
"E-loheinu V’E-lohei Avoteinu, Our God and God of our ancestors.
The Jewish people are one nation with one heart, and today that heart is broken.
With the grim news of so many of our sisters and brothers in Israel killed, wounded, and kidnapped, we turn to You, Harofeh Lishvurei Lev, the healer of broken hearts.
Be with our brothers and sisters who have been taken captive and with the families of the victims.
Watch over the hostages, break their bonds, and bring them out from darkness to light.
Comfort the families of all those murdered and bring them under the shelter of Your wings.
Bring complete healing, of body and spirit, to all of the wounded; bind up their wounds and grant them healing.
Tzur Yisrael, Rock and Redeemer of the people of Israel:
Bless the State of Israel during this time of war and tragedy.
Guide its leaders with Your light and Your truth.
Help them with Your good counsel.
Shield Israel with Your love and spread over them the shelter of Your peace.
Shomer Yisrael, Guardian of Israel:
Strengthen and bless the defenders of Israel who stand guard over our land — on the land, in the air, and on the sea.
Deliver them and crown their efforts with triumph.
May their enemies get their recompense.
May the Holy Blessed One, preserve and rescue our soldiers from every trouble and distress.
Send blessing and success to their every endeavor.
God, protect, preserve, and restore peace and wholeness.
עוֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם בִּמְרוֹמָיו הוּא יַעֲשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן
Oseh Shalom Bimromav Hu Ya’aseh Shalom, Aleinu Ve’Al Kol Yisrael.
And let us say: Amen."
With life and death as particularly appropriate themes for this season, I would like to share some thoughts about parshat Nitzavim, the first of the two Torah portions which we read in synagogue yesterday.
Nitzavim is the perfect segue to the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, which explains why this parsha is always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashana!
To begin with, it’s worth noting that what is not found in our Torah is a preoccupation with death. The ancient Egyptians, on the other hand, were very focused on death. Their monumental buildings were an attempt to defy death. The pyramids were giant mausoleums. More precisely, they were portals through which the soul of a deceased pharaoh – the Egyptians believed - could ascend to heaven and join the immortals. Predictably, the most famous Egyptian text that has come down to us is The Book of the Dead. Only the afterlife is real in Egyptian theology: life is merely a preparation for death.
There is nothing like that in our Torah. Jewish tradition surely includes a belief in olam haba, the world to come, i.e. life after death, and a belief in techiyat hamaytim, the resurrection of the dead. In fact, there are several references to the latter in the second paragraph of the Amidah and in the last line of the hymn of Yigdal.
These concepts, however, are almost completely absent from the Tanakh, from the full canon of our Bible. Why is that?
The answer is that obsession with death ultimately devalues life. That’s why “No one knows where Moses is buried” as it says in Deut. 34:6: וְלֹא-יָדַע אִישׁ אֶת-קְבֻרָתוֹ, עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה, no one knows where his grave is, so that his tomb should never become a place of pilgrimage and worship. That’s why in place of a pyramid or a temple such as Ramses II built at Abu Simbel, all the Israelites had for almost 500 years - until the days of King Solomon - was the Mishkan, a portable sanctuary, actually more like a tent than a temple. Repeatedly, we find the theme of Gd not being associated with death, but rather with life.
It is in this contrast with Egyptian tradition that we can feel the drama behind words that have become so familiar to us, the great words in which Moses framed the choice for all time:
הַעִדֹ֨תִי בָכֶ֣ם הַיּוֹם֮ אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָ֒רֶץ֒ הַחַיִּ֤ים וְהַמָּ֙וֶת֙ נָתַ֣תִּי לְפָנֶ֔יךָ הַבְּרָכָ֖ה
וְהַקְּלָלָ֑ה וּבָֽחַרְתָּ֙ בַּחַיִּ֔ים לְמַ֥עַן תִּֽחְיֶ֖ה אַתָּ֥ה וְזַרְעֶֽךָ׃ See, “I call heaven and earth as witnesses, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that you and your children may live”.
Can we “defy” death? The answer lies in a form of immortality - which I think we all seek in one way or another. Judaism, as we noted, believes in an afterlife. But Moses teaches us a very different approach. He tells us that we achieve immortality by being part of a covenant – a covenant with eternity itself, that is to say, a covenant with Gd.
When we live our lives within a covenant, something extraordinary happens. Our parents and our grandparents and our great grandparents live on in us. We, in turn, live on in our children and in our grandchildren and in all the generations that will follow. They are part of our life. We are part of theirs. That’s what Moses meant when he said, near the beginning of this week’s parsha:
“It is not with you alone that I am making this covenant and this oath, but with whoever stands with us here today before the Lord our Gd, as well as those not with us here today”. (Deut. 29:13-14) וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר אֵינֶנּוּ פֹּה, עִמָּנוּ הַיּוֹם What Moses meant in a larger sense is that when we renew the covenant, when we dedicate our lives to the faith and to the way of life of our ancestors, they become immortal in us, as we become immortal in our children, and in all those whose lives we touch.
Indeed, children are our immortality. That’s what Rachel meant when she said, “Give me children, or else I am like one who is dead” (Gen. 30:1). That’s what Abraham meant when he said, “Lord, Gd, what will you give me if I remain childless?” (Gen. 15:2). We are not all destined, however, to have children, biologically. The rabbis tell us that the good we do constitutes our toldot, our posterity.
Therefore by teaching children – our own, or our grandchildren, or nieces and nephews, or our friends’ children - to continue the traditions of our beloved Judaism, we achieve a form of immortality.
We now sense the full force of the drama of these last days of Moses’ life. Moses knew he was about to die, he knew he would not cross the Jordan and enter the land he had spent his entire adult life leading the people towards. Moses, confronting his own mortality, asks us in every generation to confront ours.
Our faith – Moses is telling us – is not like that of the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, or virtually any other civilization known to history. We do not find Gd in a realm beyond life – in heaven, or after death, or in some mystic disengagement from the world, or in a philosophical contemplation. We find Gd in life. We find Gd in love. We find Gd in joy. To find Gd, it says in this week’s parsha, you don’t have to climb to heaven or cross the sea (Deut. 30:12-13). Gd is here. Gd is now. Gd is life.
And so Moses, the greatest leader we ever had, became immortal by making us his disciples. As we are taught to do, in one of the first recorded instructions from our rabbis, in Pirkei Avot, the Sayings of our Forebears: “Raise up many disciples”.
In conclusion, then, to make a difference, all we need to do is to write our chapter in the story, all we need to do is to do deeds that heal some of the pain of this world, and all we need to do is to act so that others become enriched for having known us. Our charge is to live so that, through us, our ancient covenant with Gd is renewed in the only way that matters: in life. Moses’ last testament to us at the very end of his days, when his mind might so easily have turned to death, was: “Choose life”.
In that spirit, it is my prayer that each of us will be written and sealed in the Book of Life - - for a life of good health, for a life of meaning, for a life of peace, for a life which includes the opportunity to make a difference, for a life of growth and of greater understanding, and for a life, above all, which brings honor to the Creator of us all, to our Eternal Gd. May we merit to be Gd’s partners - now and for eternity - - and let us say Amen.
Rabbi Marge Wise
Central to parshat Ki Tavo, which we read this past Shabbat, is the section which lists the blessings which will come to the children of Israel if they walk in Gd’s ways and then the Tokhakha follows, the warning, which describes the things that will befall the people if they are not faithful.
The blessings and curses can be viewed as a symbolic reminder of our covenantal obligations, reinforcing our commitment to a covenant rooted in acts, not only words.
Expanding on this theme, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel also invokes our covenant with Gd when he asserts that the blessings and curses are meant to impart a sense of our partnership with the Divine as we struggle to cope with good and evil. Observing the Torah’s written laws is not enough to continually bring sanctity into our lives. The Torah not only stipulates that certain acts are prohibited, but it also demands that we accept our responsibility to foster and maintain an ethical and just society.
In his widely-read volume, Gd in Search of Man, Heschel writes:
It is in the deeds that human beings become aware of what life really is, of their power to harm and to hurt, to wreck and to ruin; of their ability to derive joy and bestow it upon others…The deed is the test, the trial, and the risk. What we perform may seem slight, but the aftermath is immense.
Understood this way, mitzvot ben adam l’chavero - commandments between human beings – totally speak to our covenant with Gd. The majority of the mitzvot found in this Torah portion focus on supporting ethical and compassionate relationships with other human beings, and on creating just communities.
Heschel further taught that we have the opportunity to heal our world and to make it a place of peace. The list of blessings and curses in the Torah reminds us that we must choose every day to be active partners with Gd, working to repair the world.
This work must be individually as well as communally-based if we are to build a truly just society. We do not only hold the fate of our personal lives in our hands, we also hold the fate of all human beings. Through acts of holiness, we help to cause Gd’s presence to dwell in our midst and to become sacred instruments through which Gd’s justice, goodness, mercy, and love enter and improve the world. In other words, Tikkun Olam!!
I hope you’re all having a shavua tov – a good week.
Rabbi Marge Wise
Please stay tuned for additional Wise Words!