Friday, September 26, 2014

Prophetic Thoughts on Ha’azinu

This week’s Torah portion, Ha’azinu (Deut. 32:1-32) is a song of Moses.  The Israelites’ journey in the wilderness began with the Song of the Sea as they escaped the Egyptian chariots by a miracle of God.  Now, forty years later they stand in the wilderness, poised to enter the Promised Land without Moses, their leader, teacher and intermediary with God.
The haftarah usually matched to this portion is from Second Samuel, a song of gratitude that David sang to God.  But when this portion falls, as it often does, on Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we read instead a special haftarah for that day. It is made up of verses from the prophetic books of Hosea, Micah and Joel having to do with repentance and return. In the middle of the haftarah, in Micah 7:19, we read, “You will turn back to us, You will take us back in love/You will subdue our sins and cast them into the depths of the sea – v’tashlich bimtzulot yam kol chatotam.”

This verse has inspired a centuries-old Jewish custom, called “Tashlich’, “casting”.  On the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah, we go to a body of water, recite this verse, and throw breadcrumbs, representing our sins, into the water.

Of course we know that ridding ourselves of sin is not as easy as throwing a few pieces of stale challah into a lake.  But Tashlich is freeing; it is an unburdening.  Judaism is largely a religion of words, but this physical act allows us to symbolically separate ourselves from acts which we wish we hadn’t done and to leave them behind (usually to the delight of the ducks) as we begin our year.
May we all begin this year with a clean slate and an open heart.  Wishing everyone a new year of health, happiness and peace.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Just Do It

This week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim-Vayelech (Deuteronomy 29:9 - 31:30) is the only double portion this year, in order to make room for the holiday readings in the coming weeks. 

Moses retells how the children of Israel stood at Mt. Sinai and heard God’s commandments, which would govern their lives, and the lives of those who came after them.  And God said to them:
“Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.  It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’  Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’  No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” (Deut. 30:11-14)

God certainly understands the human heart.  We want to live good lives, be good to the others in our lives, to flourish along with our families and communities, but we get in our own way.  We think that there must be some magic formula, some far off and exotic answer which will bring us happiness, peace and prosperity, but what we really need to do is look inside ourselves.  Fortunately, we have a time to do that.  May the forthcoming Days of Awe bring us insights which will bring peace to our hearts, to our homes and to the troubled world in which we live.  So may it be God’s will, and so may it also be our will.

Friday, September 5, 2014

You Must Not Hide Yourself

 This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei (Deut. 21:10-25:19)is a compendium of various and sundry laws of how we are to behave within our families and our communities.  One passage (Deut. 22:1-3) deals with the mandate to return lost livestock to its owner.  “You shall not see your fellow’s animal go astray and hide yourself from it; you shall bring it back to your fellow.  And if your fellow is not near you, or if you don’t know him, then you shall bring it to your own house and it shall be with you till your fellow seeks it and you shall restore it to him again.  You shall do the same with his donkey, with his garment, and with any lost thing of your fellow’s which he has lost and you have found; you must not hide yourself.”  

The commentator Rashi explains the phrase: “You may not hide yourself” to mean that you may not “close your eyes tightly so that you will not see”.  Taking care of animals is a chore.  They need to be fed and watered and cared for.  It would be easier to pretend that you didn’t see the ox that was wandering past your property, and not worry about it.  But the Torah tells us that we have to concern ourselves with the lost property of others.  

Two whole chapters in the Talmud tractate Baba Metzia are devoted solely to the study of lost property.  In it, the Gemara examines the lengths to which a person must go in order to return a found object.  The general rule is that, unless finding the owner is exceedingly unlikely or the hardship in returning the item exceeds the item’s worth, you are always obliged to return what is lost.  The law applies not only to livestock, but to all found objects that could be traced to an owner.  “Finders, keepers” is not a tenet of Jewish law.

Of course, this law is based on doing the right thing.  Respect for the possessions of others is necessary to maintain orderly society.  But I think the most important part of the portion is the last part: you must not hide yourself.  The Reform Torah Commentary translates the phrase a little less literally, and renders it, “you must not remain indifferent”.  The thrust of the law is that we are commanded to become involved.  We may not remain indifferent to another’s loss.