Friday, September 22, 2017

Shabbat Shuvah: Ethical Wills

            Shabbat Shuvah Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Ha’Azinu, the second to last in our yearly reading. As I’ve mentioned the last several weeks, the whole book of Deuteronomy is basically Moses’s farewell address. The parasha is really the peak of that address. At its conclusion, Moses will go up onto the mountain where he will die, to get his one glimpse of the Promised Land, a land he will never enter. Then the last portion is just … well, we’ll get to that after Yom Kippur.
            Ha’Azinu is Moses’s legacy. It is written in a poetic way, sharing with the Israelites promises of their futures, and bequeathing to them all the learning and love that Moses inherited from God in his own lifetime. He offers up the example of his relationship with the Divine and his leadership styles to the people. In so many ways, this is his ethical will. Ethical wills have traditionally been core to Jewish continuity. Every parent has the chance, and some would say the obligation, to leave an ethical will to their child. This is a chance to leave your own Torah, your life story, your hopes for the future, for those who will carry it forward. It doesn’t have to be left to parents and children either. Those who choose not to raise a family of their own can still leave their ethical wills to their nieces, nephews, students, younger friends, proteges, sous chefs, an entire nation that looked to you for liberation whom you led through a desert for 40 years, etc., you know, the usual non-children legacies.
During my Master’s program via Gratz College, I took a class on Ethical Dilemmas, and the syllabus closed by focusing on Ethical Wills. We read the will of Judah ibn Tibbon, one of the most famous ethical wills in our history. I forget exactly what the assignment outline was to respond to it, but I wrote a response in the form of Judah’s late wife coming to proofread the will, and being dramatically critical of it. I reread that assignment as I was writing this d’var Torah, and aside from relying heavily on some stereotypes that wouldn’t have yet applied in 12 century Provence, I still found myself quite funny. Most of the complaints were how Judah basically wrote out his wife’s life in the will. He talks a lot about how he toiled in caring for their child, Samuel, and how hard it was to raise him as a baby. He doesn’t mention his wife’s efforts in the matter at all, despite likely being much greater. Many of the ethical wills Jewish scholars have uncovered from this era, when they became very much in vogue, are indeed by men who act as if raising their children was their job alone. True, so much of the teaching and instilling Jewish values into the children was the father’s job, and so it’s not unreasonable that that’s where the men focused, but the commandments tell us to honor father and mother, and yet the mothers’ voices are too often silenced in these documents.
            That’s why it is so significant that we do have one famous ethical will left by a woman, Gluckel of Hameln, whose Yartzheit is actually tonight. She lived in the 17th and 18th centuries, was twice-widowed, but managed to raise her 13 children by continuing on businesses left to her by her first husband. She had a strong aptitude for business that allowed her to flourish in spite of the difficulties of being a woman without a man at that time, and despite the limitations of so many men refusing to do business with a woman. Her second husband was terrible at business and destroyed her finances, but after his death, she was still able to continue and survive. Having the recordings of a woman who was not born to greatness, not a scholar or the wife or daughter of one, but just an ordinary woman who manages to live extraordinarily, and pass down the legacies of Jewish women, so often erased from history, is really not something to be overlooked. Tonight on her yartzheit, we remember her and her legacy and say, may her memory still be for blessing, centuries later.
            As we read Moses’s ethical will to the people of Israel tonight, on Shabbat Shuvah, and we reflect on other famous ethical wills in Jewish history, we take the time to pause and reflect on our lives. If we were to be sealed in the Book of Death this Yom Kippur, what is the legacy we are prepared to leave in 5778? If we are not prepared for such a fate, then it is time now to make something, create something, fix something, teach something. As part of the aforementioned graduate class, we also had to write our own ethical wills. I will admit it is an exercise I have not revisited, but it’s not a bad idea as part of the season of teshuva. Beyond the drama of the high holy day liturgy, it is unfortunately true that none of us can ever know when our time is up. At the turning of each year, we should ask, what is our legacy as we stand now? What do we wish was our legacy instead? What can we do, assuming we have the chance, in the coming year to make that wish a reality, or to at least come closer? May you each have long and meaningful lives, and may you leave behind a Torah of love, compassion, learning, and action, when the time comes. Amen, Shabbat Shalom, and Shana Tova.  

Monday, September 18, 2017

Rosh HaShanah 5778

            Shanah Tova! This morning, we have read the stories of our ancestors that the ancient rabbis decreed we should read on this day. We read some of the story of Isaac, and as I mentioned last night, we know his story is a difficult one. Sarah believed she couldn’t have children. She shows great faith in her husband’s relationship with God and does all she can to ensure his legacy and the Jewish people’s covenant. She is rewarded with her miracle baby Isaac. Though we know his life is a miracle and that he is the one prophesied to carry on the line of Abraham, we hear that God tells Abraham he must sacrifice Isaac and Abraham seems willing to do so. Thankfully, God interferes just in time, and we learn that the whole thing was a test. Abraham and Isaac show great faith that all will work out however it is meant to in the end. They all face adversity with strength and bravery, and are flexible as the situations shift.
            We read the story of Hannah, who, like Sarah, was a beloved but barren wife. Her husband also had children by a secondary wife, but Hannah desperately wanted to have a child of her own. She prays fervently at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, so emphatically that Eli the priest thinks she is drunk. When he sees that she is not and understands the depth of her prayer, he promises her that she too will have her miracle baby. Sure enough, she gives birth to Samuel. Samuel, like Isaac, must be given to God. Thankfully, unlike Isaac, it is not through near-sacrifice, but rather to serve God with life-long service. Again, though the challenges our heroes may not be experiences we’ve had, or their choices may not have been ours, we can see and learn from these stories, the way in which they were willing to pray and face difficulties with utmost faith in God.
            Another passage of our Tanakh that is traditionally read during Rosh HaShanah is from the book of the prophet Jeremiah. Though we won’t read it directly here at Ner Shalom, we can learn from that too. Jeremiah lived and wrote after the northern Israelite Kingdom of Samaria had been destroyed by the Assyrians and he saw that the Babylonians were coming to finish off the Israelites in the southern kingdom. He warned people that the Babylonians were coming because the Israelites had strayed from God, were worshipping idols, and were being unkind to one another. The Temple was being used to carry out business transactions among the wealthy and ruling classes while the poor, the orphan, and the widow, remained cold and hungry in the streets of the holy city. If the people continue to look away from God, Jeremiah warns, God will look away from the people.
Although this doesn’t come to pass in Jeremiah’s lifetime, he continues to prophesy beyond that and predicts what will come after the exile into Babylonia. He foresees that there will be those among the people of Israel who will stay strong and brave and survive the Babylonian attacks and oppression. These survivors will see the errors of their ways, will heed the warnings of Jeremiah. It will be too late for them to avoid the Babylonians or exile, but it is never, ever too late for Teshuvah. God will hear their prayers, their apologies, and God promises to lead the people back to the Holy Land. Jeremiah tells the people that God has appeared to him and reminded him of the “Everlasting Love,” Ahavat Olam, that God has for the people of Israel. He assures them that if they truly repent, even if it comes too late to avoid the destruction coming for them now, they will still be forgiven, and will surely one day replant the gardens of Samaria and the fields of the Judean hills.
God hears the cries of the oppressed, even if they themselves are not free of sin. God hears the weeping of those who know they’ve done wrong and want to make it right. God hears those who yearn to make the world a better place. A famous line comes from this haftarah which tugs at my heartstrings every time I read it. Jeremiah 31:14 says, “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children, because they are not.” Rachel is the matriarch of the exiles because she is the only one of the Matriachs and Patriarchs not buried with Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah at Machpelah. Rachel, like Sarah and Hannah, was the favored wife but had difficulty having children. After her own fervent praying, she gave birth to Joseph, whose story I’m sure you know. We are not told if there is more praying or how she gets pregnant the second time, but we are told she dies while trying to give birth to Benjamin. Jacob gives her a hasty burial at their encampment near Beer-Sheva and continues on his way. She is separated, left to haunt the roadway between the land of Israel and the East, crying for her children. Her weeping is silenced by God, through Jeremiah’s promise to the sinful people of Israel: your emotional labor will be rewarded. After true teshuvah, the children of Israel, Rachel’s lost babies, will be spared destruction and they will follow her callings home.
Jeremiah’s message is clear: there is always hope. There is no sin too great for God to forgive, it is never too late to turn back. In the wake of recent events, I’ve been hearing more and more about the former white supremacists who have seen the error of their ways and now make it their purpose in life to reach out to young white men at risk of being sucked into neo-Nazi groups. For some of these men (and they seem to all be men, since racist and sexist ideologies often go hand in hand), they found their ways out of the cult-like communities of white nationalists by finally meeting a Jewish person or person of color and seeing that people who seem different in some ways are really still just people, similar to themselves in so many other ways. To be the Jewish person or person of color (or someone is both) that takes on educating someone convinced to hate you requires an immense amount of emotional labor and could even be physically dangerous. I wholeheartedly commend those who have done that to start this wave of reformed white nationalists, but I also recognize the greater importance of the reformed white nationalists carrying on the work. They can reach the key demographic much more easily and safely and make the important connections that allow someone doing this sort of soul searching to meet us safely. In doing this kind of work, they are doing real teshuvah, and truly making amends for their pasts. No matter what hate they’ve spread already, in turning away from it now, I truly believe they can help undo some of that damage. In helping others undo it, they are showing us they are worthy of our forgiveness and our help, and I’m certain that God will inscribe them in the Book of Life this year.
Whatever guilt you carry in your heart now, let it go. Have hope in a brighter future. Know that there is no sin too great, no time too far past to apologize, repent, and turn toward goodness. This new year, have faith in your own strength to face the difficult situations that true teshuvah requires. Know that God wants you to be dedicated to righteousness, whatever it takes to get yourself there. Follow the callings of Rachel, believe in the promise of Jeremiah, and take to heart the resilience modeled for us by our ancestors. I’m certain you, too, will find your way home and be inscribed for blessing in the Book of Life.

Erev Rosh HaShanah: What does our Trope teach us?

            Shana Tova. As some of you may know, the Torah trope is different for reading the High Holy Day portions than it is for our regular weekday Torah reading. Even when we read these exact same words, as we will in a little over a month’s time, the sounds are different. What do the different intonations teach us?
            The terms trope, cantillations, or ta’amei hamikra all refer to the musical notes used to read Tanakh. There is a set of notes for weekly Torah reading and a different system for reading Torah on High Holy Days. Haftarah, the weekly readings from the books of prophets, has its own set, as does Megillat Esther, read on Purim. There’s another set of cantillations for reading the book of Lamentations on Tisha B’Av and another set for reading the scrolls of Ruth, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes for Shavuot, Passover, and Succot, respectively. All six systems of cantillations have the same symbols and names, but the musical notes that each symbol is meant to convey changes between each of the six versions. The written symbols were established in the early 10th century by rabbis who were largely responsible for physically writing and widely distributing the Tanakh and other important Jewish texts that had previously been orally passed down. The sounds predate the written symbols, though we don’t know for certain how early they were established and how much they have changed over the years. Each of the six systems have different sounds depending where in the world they are taught and Torah is learned, seemingly developed from the same source but evolved according to the sounds of the non-Jewish music of the communities Jews have lived alongside. The sounds were once taught using hand motions and were a means of helping words of Torah stick in memory, but they became so central to Torah study and public reading even after written Tanakhs became available, that Abraham ibn Ezra, a 12th century rabbi, declared that any Torah recited without the proper cantillations would be better off going unheard.
            Music can communicate so much. Not too long ago, Philip and I were arguing about the acting strengths of musical actors. I am a fervent lover of musicals and defender of the hard-working triple threats that people pay lots of money to see on Broadway. Philip would rather see non-musical dramas. But he did make a good point that I tried to argue against at the time, and the more I’ve thought about it, the more I think I have to concede his point. He suggested that actors who perform in musicals, especially my beloved Les Misérables or any of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock operas in which there is no unsung dialog, don’t have to work as hard to communicate the subtle human emotions of their characters because the music carries the intended sentiments. Sometimes the tune of a song can tell us a as much as the words themselves.
            In the case of these words of Torah that we will read in the morning, the meaning is the same now as it will be in six weeks, but the emotions we bring to them are slightly different, and the differences in Trope sounds carry that. While Sarah’s for her miracle baby may be relevant at any time for some, at this crossroad between years, we can all relate to a yearning for something meaningful and different to happen in the new year ahead. Hagar’s heartache and fear after being cast out of her home without the resources to care for her baby may or may not seem a common danger to many of us in our comfortable day-to-day lives, but as we reflect on our year past, we can more likely relate to her worries over how she ended up in such a place. I would certainly hope no one can directly connect with Isaac’s near-sacrifice, but perhaps your New Year’s resolution this Rosh HaShanah require a similar level of resolve and courage and faith. Whereas the weekly Torah reading trope has a kind of whimsical tone to it, the High Holy Day trope sounds the aching longing for the imminent miracles, the necessary life changes. It helps even those who don’t relate to the characters’ particular goals or struggles understand the underlying message: Anything can happen this year, if you will it so.
Each of these characters were willing to accept seemingly disastrous fates, had faith in the ultimate Divine plan, and made their attempts to make the best of the situations at hand. In reward, there situations were vastly improved: Sarah gave birth to Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael were able to find the resources necessary to survive the desert, and Isaac was spared by an angel and a ram. If they had sulked or turned their backs on God, who know how their stories would have turned out. But they each showed great resolve and trust, and they rolled with the punches, each resulting in meaningful change. I think even the flourished sound of the end of the aliyot intimate the triumphant results of the trials and tribulations, and can further inspire us to do like our ancestors did. I hope tomorrow you will listen carefully as I sing these stories, listen to the sounds you hear, to storytelling even if you can’t understand the words. Can you hear the heart-aching determination, can you feel the inspiration for faith and courage?
As you listen to these sounds tomorrow, as you hear the stories of our ancestors on our Days of Awe, I encourage you to ponder: in this year to come, what meaningful change are you looking for? What are you willing to sacrifice for it, how hard will you work at it, how long will you keep your belief in the end result in the face of adversity? May you find the music that speaks your truth, the notes that push you forward. May you be like Sarah, Hagar, and Isaac: resilient, faithful, and ultimately successful. May you have a good and sweet year. Amen, and Shana Tova.