Parashat Eikev: Cut away the foreskin of your hearts

Chaverim,

See, the heavens and the heaven’s heavens belong to Adonai your God, the earth and everything on it. Yet Adonai fell in love with your ancestors and God chose you, their descendants, from all peoples, just as today. So, cut away the foreskin of your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. (Parashat Eikev, Dtn 10:14-16)

The reference to cutting the „foreskin of your hearts“ is dramatic, maybe even wince inducing. It is an uncomfortable metaphor for us, and it is meant to be so. Tradition understands this Torah term generally as a call to fast, for example on Yom Kippur, but it is much more than that. There is a notion that we should feel uncomfortable about our reluctance to appreciate life’s gifts we have received, such as jobs, health, food, family and so much more.

With beautiful words, the Torah reminds us that we live in a universe that is wondrous beyond our ken. (What on earth are „the heaven’s heavens“? It can only mean something that is a mystery to our feeble understanding.) Yet, despite our seeming insignificance in this vast reality, we have been given gifts of immeasurable love—life and earth, thoughts and feelings. We should live in perpetual gratitude. So, why do we forget so easily? Why do we dull our minds to the miracles around us and within us?

Moses pleads with us to remember. He extols us to cut away the barrier that stifles our awareness. We are meant to be reminded, uncomfortable as it may be, of the fact that we are made of vulnerable flesh and blood … but we are so much more. We are feeble creatures that, yet, can be joined in covenant with God. We are temporary and transient, yet we can be in dialogue with eternity.

It is five weeks until we will welcome the New Year. May those five weeks be blessed with a deeper understanding of who we are and how lucky we are to have God in our lives.

Wishing you all a wonderful Shabbat.

– Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source: Jeff Goldwasser )

Parashat Va’etchanan: Listen O Yisrael

Chaverim,
Moses looks at the Promised Land by the banks of the river Jordan, and continues his final speech to the Israelites before he dies. He pleads with God to allow him to enter the Land of Israel, but he is refused. Once again Moses stresses to the Israelites the importance of keeping God’s commandments when they enter the land of Israel, repeating the “Ten Commandments” and uttering the Shema and Ve-ahavta. Finally, Moses informs the Israelites that they are God’s chosen and treasured people who will be loved by God if they remain loyal to God’s covenant.

The Shema may not be the most important prayer in our liturgy, but it is certainly one of the contenders, and for many people it is the prayer which they always remember. Taken from the Torah, the first paragraph (less the second line – baruch shem kevod malchuto leolam va’ed) appears as part of this week’s portion. While we often focus on the words and meaning of the Shema, it is interesting to look at it in its original context in our Torah and outside of the service.

There it appears in relation to the Promised Land, and “our” well-being in the land, after we have entered it. But on a symbolic level it represents a quest for a place of promise, aspiration and hope. In this way the Promised Land represents an idealised situation for which we strive rather than a specific geographic location, and in this regard the Shema may therefore be seen as a five-point blueprint for reaching the Promised Land.

The first requirement of the Shema is to love God, we need to be in a relationship with something greater than ourselves. This is then followed by the need for education, teaching the next generation, our children. And no opportunity for education should ever be missed; when we’re sitting in our homes, walking on the streets, lying down or rising up – all of these are opportunities. Then these values must be taken and made a part of our very being, bound to our heads as the place of thought and our arms as the place of action. Finally we need to make these values a part of the homes which we build, inscribing them on our doors and at our gates.

Seen in this light the Shema is not just a piece of Torah, not just a prayer in our liturgy. It is also an action plan for how we might achieve the Promised Land today.

Wishing you all a wonderful Shabbat, and to those attending Limmud a great weekend of learning.

– Rabbi Adrian M Schell (based on a text by Rabbi Danny Burkeman)

Devarim: A story is a powerful instrument for overcoming despair

Chaverim,

In the first portion of the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses begins a series of farewell addresses to the Israelites. The task before Moses is an enormous one; he wants to remind the Israelites of what came before—interpreted now through his perspective—and he wants to give them a vision for the future. He is entirely aware that the way he structures time in his presentation is extremely important in passing on the faith. He must help the Israelites place all they have experienced, all they expect to experience and all they will actually experience within the framework of a story—the story of God’s relationship with them.

Like a parent parting from his adult children, Moses knows that things will not always be easy for them. How can he forewarn them of the difficulties ahead without destroying their faith? The only tool Moses has at this moment is story, but story is a powerful instrument for overcoming despair, unifying a people and offering hope.

Just like Moses, we pass on the tale of our people— our story—to our children. And the generations before us have passed it along so that in every time and location—and at every trial—we have the story of our people and our relationship with God to help us make sense of what we must face and to give us the strength to do that.

When we try to enter into the full experience of D’varim , we think of the many forces that have shaped our own children and how we hope our values will be predominant. The frightening moment comes when we realise we have said all we can say. Now we must bless and release. We turn back to our portion and find that Moses is ahead of us showing us how: “Do not fear them, for it is the Eternal your God who will battle for you”. It is not up to us to complete the task, and so, with trust that we have made a good beginning, we and Moses bless and release.

– Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source: Dr. Carol Ochs)

Parashat Masei: The grass only looks greener from far away

Chaverim,

This week’s portion summarises the entire route followed by the Israelites from when they left Egypt until they were ready to enter Eretz Yisrael. The parsha begins, „Moshe wrote their going forth according to their journeys.“ At the end of that same verse this idea is repeated, but the words are reversed: „And these were their journeys according to their going forth.“ Why is the order switched?

The beginning of the verse expresses how God regarded their travels. Whenever God wanted them to go forth God wanted them to progress to the next step in the plan, to journey toward their destiny. Every stop was custom-made, tailored to help them towards their goal. Each place came with challenges developing the nation’s character. However, the second verse looks at the traveling from the nation’s point of view. The people saw things differently. It is human nature for one to think that he would be much happier and more productive if only he were somewhere else. They would journey simply to go forth, hoping it would be better in their next destination, hoping it would have more to offer, but not because they were thinking of reaching their purpose.

It is common to think, „If only I was in a different school, if only I lived someplace else, if only, if only, if only … I would be so much more productive.“ But, despite all its difficulties, the situation that you are in – right here and right now, is holy, and this is the time and place where you are able to grow. You don’t need to go anywhere else.

Furthermore, the grass only looks greener on the other side because you are looking at it from a distance. You don’t see any of the blotches and cracks since the grass is covering them. All you see is beautiful green grass. Therefore, let us embrace the place and the situation we are, and use them as a starting point to grow for our next step.

– Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source: Eli Scheller)

Parashat Matot: Thought and action should be unified.

If a man vows a vow to God, or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth. (Bamidbar 30:3)

Chaverim,

Speech is a defining human quality. The ability to articulate our thoughts into specific words is what sets us apart from the animals. Man is thus obligated by their words in a type of a social contract, a necessary institution for a cohesive society. In fact, the theme of the gravity and sanctity of human speech carries through the whole Torah — from the first “Hineni” – “here I am”, expressing Abraham’s willingness to follow God’s instructions to the words Moses is directing to the Israelites in the wilderness.

In our Torah portion, we are introduced to the topic of vows. A vow links words and action in a new way: It binds today’s speech with tomorrow’s action. This is explained concisely by R. Zvi Elimelech Shapira (1783-1841): A person does not feel tomorrow’s evil inclination today. Often, a person knows what they should do, or what they would like to do, and a vow helps them to overcome the human gap between thought and action. When one is unable to reach their intended goal today, they bind themselves to their ability in the future, which is as yet untainted by weakness or temptation. An everyday example is the person who knows he should start a diet; today, he is confounded by today’s yetzer hara, and declares, „Tomorrow I will begin.“ The vow helps defeat the yetzer hara of tomorrow before it rears its seductive head. By using words, which are themselves a Divine tool, man can bring God into the situation, make God an ally; hopefully, that will spiritually fortify the person and provide the strength needed to succeed. 

In other words: Thought and action should be unified. The purpose of a vow is to unite the inner thought, as expressed by words, with actions. When our thoughts become disconnected from our words, or words from actions, we are being dishonest. This dishonesty may or may not affect others in a particular instance, but it always impacts upon ourselves, upon our inner world. When we create consonance between our thoughts, words and actions, when we purposefully and steadfastly work to bring them closer together, we become more like God, whose words, thoughts and actions are one.

– Rabbi Adrian M Schell

(Source: Rabbi Ari Kahn)

Photo by Sean Hurt