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Posted By The Stash

Sometimes people complain that “I can’t get that tune out of my head.” A great deal of advertising relies on the power of music. So does G-d, who commands Moses to turn the section we read today into a song “so that it will never be forgotten”. In fact, this parasha is written in a double column that suggests it may have been sung responsively by two large groups of the Israelites, alternating throughout. A fine technique for enhancing listening skills—which lies at the heart of the parasha’s message.

The underlying point of the parasha is that eventually the Israelites will behave so badly that it will seem as though they had never experienced G-d, only through remembering the key point of this song—that G-d alone is Divine-- would they recall the behaviours the Torah required. This in turn would allow them to slowly find their way back to an appropriate level of Jewish observance. Certainly an appropriate example of Repentance for this Shabbat that bears the same name.

We may well wonder: how could a generation that experienced so many open miracles ever forget G-d to the extent that they required a musical aide-memoire? The ever sympathetic mussar tradition answers: it is all too human to stray from the path of appropriate and righteous behavior. Our ancestors’ closeness to G-d in their desert journeys made them more conscious of the Divine, but still left them all too vulnerably human. And there is nothing wrong with that. On the contrary, Judaism acknowledges human frailty, as our machzor says: “You O L-rd do not desire the death of the sinner, but only that they repent and live.” The ability to change, to move on, to avoid repeating past errors, lies at the heart of the process of repentance.

Indeed, the process of repentance as conceived by our Sages has three stages, the last of which is “azivat chet”—the complete loss of any inclination to repeat the error repented for. Maimonides argues that a person can only be sure they have attained this state when they refrain from error when they find themselves in a situation identical to the one they were in when the error first happened. This human ability to overcome one’s inner impulses and recreate their psyche actually leads to a person with a totally new personality—a new person will emerge from the process of repentance. How appropriate to connect this process with Rosh Hashana, the anniversary of Earth’s creation! By successfully engaging in repairing our relationships with G-d and humans, we recreate our world, and repair the breaches we have inadvertently or deliberately created In the fabric of our lives and those lives that intertwine with ours.

Many of us have much to repair and precious little time to do it. That is one of the purposes of the lengthy prayers of the High Holy Days. Proper repairs take time, thought, energy, and carefully directed skill, especially if we want “invisible mending.” It is time consuming and difficult to seek out those we have hurt, ask for forgiveness, and try to rebuild shattered friendships. Often we feel that we can’t be bothered, or that it will just “take too long”, and the threads of our relationships fray further. And then one day, what was once a web of friendships unravels after years of neglect, leaving us alone.

So, take some time between now and Yom Kippur to engage in relationship repair. You will not regret the investment.

Posted By The Stash

Parashat Nitzavim (either on its own or with Parashat VaYelech) is always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashana. Most commentaries suggest, based on the opening lines, that every Jew is “standing before G-d” both in the text and on Rosh Hashana as they wait for Judgment. This explanation makes all of us very passive: we stand before G-d to be judged for the errors committed in our relationship with the Divine. There is nothing to say, our deeds have spoken for us already. We merely must wait to see how they are justly and yet mercifully consequence.

Perhaps the text hints at another level of explanation. The first few verses are written in a very powerful present tense. Moses is addressing the Israelites while knowing his death is very imminent and every word is structured for maximum impact. Not only does he tell the people that “you are standing before G-d” but that “all future generations, even those not here, are with us this day.” These words, whatever the considerable legal difficulty they pose, ring with immediacy and future consequences. The Israelites are told that they must—immediately—realize the incredibly good fortune they have in standing in front of G-d throughout their desert experience. As Moses reminds them elsewhere, they were the recipients of numerous open and hidden miracles. And now they would pass into Israel, a land “where the eyes of G-d always look”. But if that were not enough—and it may not have been for they had been told this many times before— Moses inserted a novel theme. He stated that the actions of the generation of the desert legally bound the actions of all future ones.

And here is the message of Rosh Hashana. The calendar revolves in an endless cycle beyond our control. We cannot extend our technological sway over the movements of heavenly bodies but our calendars reflect their rhythyms. But we can control how we feel about our heritage. We must feel the same freshness and immediacy about self- improvement and renewal as we felt last year. We must realize that on Rosh Hashana we are active participants in a rite of checking our process of self-renewal and self improvement. And if we don’t take this for granted, then Rosh Hashana becomes far more meaningful. More than that: the connection between generations becomes more intelligible. If we are active and Intelligent Jews who take an interest in our heritage then the likelihood of Jewish continuity is greater. The way our generation can “command” the next is through exemplification rather than pressure. Our actions enhance the likelihood that the next will also “stand before G-d” as others did.

So when Rosh Hashana comes, open your heart and your machzor. Find prayers that speak to you. Buy a machzor that explains the prayers. Sing or hum even if you don’t know all the words. And think hard. Think about the relationships that form the core of our existence, and ultimately of this world’s existence and survival. Have we really taken time for ourselves to reflect? Do our actions show our loved ones we are there for them? Have we understood Judaism better? And what do we plan to improve on? And, last but very important, what have we done right that we want to continue? When we can answer these questions to our loved ones, our colleagues, our friends, and our Creator, we are once again ready to join the chain of generations standing before Sinai.

Posted By The Stash

Where does our generation fit in the chain of tradition? Our parasha strikingly argues that the Covenant of Sinai was made in such a manner that those who actually participated also bound all future generations to honour the Sinaitic covenant. Nechama Leibowitz observes that even the Jewish sages of Aragon, a Spanish kingdom, were shocked by this and argued that it was illegal for the generation of Sinai to bind all future generations to a covenant that none had a chance to agree to. Certainly many contemporary Jews would agree, arguing that Judaism is a voluntary association of sorts, not a religion and certainly not a way of life.

The answer of Don Isaac Abravanel to this issue is interesting, especially because it was written after he and thousands of Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. He argues that G-d’s redemption of the Israelites from slavery must be repaid by divine service. This is gleaned from the common root of the words for “slavery” and divine service. And this is why we mention “yetziat Mitzrayim”—the liberation from Egypt during our daily prayers.

That seems straightforward enough. But Abravanel has one more issue: the Torah notes that the Covenant binds “those who are with us that day [at Sinai] and those who were not with us that day.” In flight from his homeland, Abravanel wondered about these words which he now reinterpreted in light of the calamity of the Spanish Expulsion. The words took on new meaning; how could both Jews (“those who were with us this day”) and those who abandoned Judaism (“those who were not with us that day”) be bound by the Torah? Surely those who had converted were beyond Sinai’s reach?

Not so. Abravanel cited the prophet Ezekiel who wrote: “And what you have in mind shall never come to pass, when you say ‘We shall be like the nations, like the families of the land, worshipping wood and stone.’ As I live, declares the L-rd G-d, I will reign over you with a strong hand and an outstretched arm and overflowing fury.” (30:32-34) and wrote words that still resound today: “even if the Jews would do all in their power to assimilate they would not succeed. They would still be called Jews against their will and …. burnt at the stake for it.”

Horribly, the Shoah provided further historical substance to substantiate Abravanel’s claim, politically incorrect though it be. But the post-Holocaust years which saw widespread acceptance of Jews throughout society suggested that a new Golden Age of harmony had come. Alas, the rise of the New Anti-Semitism has proved that history’s skeletons can be conveniently pulled from the closet, and images of Jews as racists, as degenerates, and as disturbers of the world’s peace appear. Jews can’t disappear through assimilation because it is too convenient for our enemies to ensure that we continue to exist even if we don’t want to. The Jew is a very Useful Other.

This is all very sad—but only for those who wish to disappear. For those who care about being Jewish, there is still much to celebrate even amidst concerns that the world is darkening. Interest in exploring Judaism personally and academically has never been higher. More Jews are learning about Judaism in a sophisticated manner through a myriad of new texts and techniques. Indeed, rather than fleeing our identity—we embrace it and deepen our love for it. Let us focus on the positive reasons for being and remaining Jewish so we can keep the Sinaitic Covenant through love rather than fury, through commitment rather than apathy, and through seeking to learn more about our identity rather than fruitlessly running away from it.

Posted By The Stash

Take a moment to read the first aliya of today’s parasha carefully. You may find it shocking—many of our commentators did. In effect, it permits an Israelite warrior to marry a non-Israelite woman whom he finds attractive and whose husband has been killed in battle. The blunt sexuality of these verses makes the modern reader squirm: “How can this be written in a holy book?” is a question that certainly must come to a reader’s mind.

Maimonides believed that this was one of the parts of the Torah that applied only in the desert and in the Land of Israel during the time of the conquest, and until the First Temple was destroyed. His theory, very controversial at the time, was that the Israelites were still transitioning from living among idol-worshipping societies. They had acquired many idolatrous traits from these nations and had to be gradually weaned off them. Maimonides believed that the system of “Cities of Refuge” for the manslaughterer were also laws that fell in this category. Certainly this ingenious interpretation reflects Maimonides’ discomfort with the text.

But should we be so uncomfortable? What we see here is the Torah legislating life as it is lived, not some unreachable paradigm of virtue. Unfortunately, “war is hell”: soldiers always have raped, pillaged, robbed, and usurped the rights of those they conquered. Here the Torah attempts to mitigate behaviour and to set boundaries on behaviour that threatens societal stability. More than that, it acknowledges openly that human beings do horrible things and have desires that need to be channeled appropriately. The Torah’s realistic understanding of human behaviour is refreshing.

But the Torah does not merely command that we mitigate our baser instincts. And this is where its true holiness resides. Reading further in our parasha is equally illuminating. We are told that we may not deliberately ignore lost animals or generally turn a blind eye to hurtful behaviour. This is a very high expectation: how many times have all of us “turned a blind eye” when we know we shouldn’t have? But the Torah’s insistence on this, and on societal responsibility for evil done anonymously in its midst (as in the case of last parasha’s murder victim whose killer is unknown and the elders of the nearest city must swear they knew nothing.) These laws help create the societal norm of universal concern for fellow humans and a deep reservoir of trust—the key characteristic in building a safe and nurturing environment for civilization to flourish.

Our task is two fold. Knowing that the Torah wants us to control our baser desires such as lust, jealousy, and anger teaches us that we can move away from these behaviours gradually through self-reflection, practices we commonly associate with repentance. Once we have curbed our baser characteristics, we are ready to rise to a higher level: treating fellow humans honestly and proactively regardless of religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. In this way we can all rebuild ourselves under the umbrella of Torah during Elul.

Posted By The Stash

What is the nature of true justice? The Goddess Justicia, with her scales and blindfold, epitomizes what we believe is the correct answer: justice is impartial and the product of careful reasoning, scrutiny of the evidence, and methodical deliberation by people trained to know the law and honour it.

But Justicia’s pristine image fades under the harsh reality of our modern age. How many dictatorships have dispensed “justice” that fails to meet the characteristics the goddess exemplifies? How many “kangaroo courts” staffed by judges wrapped in the appropriate robes handed down penalties whose severity beggars description and mocks the facts of the cases over which they preside? No doubt those millions murdered by Peoples’ Tribunals would beg to differ with the “statement of facts” read before their mass executions or starvation. Hans Frank, who ruled Poland after the Nazi conquest and served as Hitler’s personal lawyer, was not ashamed to explain that “The judge's role is to safeguard the concrete order of the racial community, to eliminate dangerous elements, to prosecute all acts harmful to the community, and to arbitrate in disagreements between members of the community. The National Socialist ideology, especially as expressed in the Party programme and in the speeches of our Leader, is the basis for interpreting legal sources.”

Perhaps this is why the Torah does not find it sufficient to command us “you shall place magistrates and judges within all your gates”. Instead society is informed “ki ha-mishpat l’elokim hu.” – “Justice belongs to G-d.” Lest we think that the Torah simply means that whatever judges say is the “word of G-d”. The word “Elokim” itself means both “G-d” and “judges of a court” and is used in the latter context in the book of Shmot. In short, Judaism teaches when human judges properly judge cases their conduct is divine, or as Emmanuel Levinas would argue, they make the world more holy by focusing on proper enforcement of interpersonal relations. This reaffirms the vital Mussar (self-improvement) idea that following the letter of the law without its spirit is a violation of Torah. Only when judges truly act “G-dlike”, only when they enforce universal laws of conduct and do not endorse “legalized” acts that are clearly illegal can we be confident that law truly guards the rights of citizens.

History records that Hans Frank converted to Catholicism and journalists noted he was the sole Nuremberg defendant who went to his death smiling and saying his conversion “atoned for his crimes” against humanity and his profession. Cheap atonement indeed. Far better the Torah’s prescription: proper justice brings Heaven and Earth together and makes the world a better place. We must be just with each other to build this foundation. Hence the meaning of the month of Elul—a time for preparing to make a better world through self-renewal that will rekindle the Divine spark residing in each of us.




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