HA AZINU – on poetry, on punishment, and on posterity

As we near the end of the Torah, in this last parshah of the weekly cycle (the last parshah is read on Simchat Torah to restart the cycle in the new year), we really see how the Torah blends history and literature. In an academic paper for my rabbinic training, I discuss the elements of Torah that combine fiction and fact, something akin to “memoir” or historical fiction. In this parshah, Moses is recounting his life and the story of the exodus, the making of the Jewish people, and the disappointments and triumphs. The section is written with clear knowledge of the later exile, and so history is being written backwards. This is one of many examples of biblical prophecy in retrospect. It is easy to know what will happen when you write the story after it already has. The content of this parshah is less interesting than the form and style. The structure is poetic – this is called the “Song of Moses,” and reminds us that the root of the word “history” is “story”. Here we have the narrative of our people. 
Moses begins by saying that his discourse is to come down as rain (32.2). The words of the song are flowing down to the people. Rain is necessary for growth and for the flourishing of life, but it can also drown us. This seems, to me, to be like Torah. Our traditions can strengthen or enslave us, and we learn them through words, devarim (the Hebrew name for the book of Deuteronomy). The text repeatedly references the peoples’ rebellions and how they do not deserve the God who has saved them. Moses notes that God might have even considered destroying the people but, knowing that this would embolden other peoples to doubt the strength of the Israelite God, he reluctantly spares them. In the Song of Moses there are many references to such other Gods, and even a sense that the writer(s) believed that the Israelite God was more of the chief God in a pantheon, than the one and only God. Some of the awkward editing makes it seem as though polytheistic references were edited out. Moreover, the images/names for God in this section – “the rock” and “El” come from the surrounding culture. Reading Torah is always most interesting when we can glean glimpses of what has been excised, what is the story behind the story, what is unsaid as well as what is said. 

The text also has merit for its form. There is something to be learned from the language here. The theism is bolstered by the powerful words and imagery the Song evokes. One example is the description of God taking the Israelite: 
He found him in a desert region, 

In an empty howling waste. 

He engirded him, watched over him, 

Guarded him as the pupil of is eye. 

Like an eagle who rouses his nestings,  

Gliding down to his young, 

So did He spread is wings and take him, 

Bear him along on His pinions (32.11) 

 This passage about God as protector is filled with literary devices such as metaphor and simile, and strong imagery. Many commentators have focused on the metaphor of God as eagle, because it is so striking. There are passages that focus on the protection God provides, and others that focus, in equally stunning poetry, on his vengeance: 

I will make my arrows drunk with blood- 

As My sword devours flesh- 

Blood of the slain and the captive 

From the long-haired enemy chiefs (32.42) 

Here the imagery is much more frightening. Both passages highlight the power of the God-figure, but here the power is less inspiring and more terrifying. These contrasting images of God make it clear that different ideas of what/who God was have been combined in the Song. Moses tells the people to love God, but his Song really suggests that it is less important to love, and more important to fear and obey. The God-figure of the Hebrew Bible is powerful, and powerful language is used to describe him, but he is the cause and reason for following the law. Torah, as we reach its conclusion, is always both law and story, each reinforcing the other.  

Moses’ song is his swan song. He knows he will die. It is interesting to consider that if we each knew exactly when we were to meet our end, and we knew we had a platform, what ideas and words would we find it most important to convey? What messages about our legacy, our hopes for the future, what we have learned while on earth? Moses is made very clearly mortal in order to show that he is not a god. We are to identify with his humanity. And so the text asks us to say goodbye to this this leader, teacher, this guide of ours, and to do carry on the peoplehood he helped to create and to free.

Va-Yelekh: on didacticism, on death, on dreams

We are in the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This is a time for apologies and forgiveness. A time to make amends. For traditional Jews, this was the time to worry about whether you’d be inscribed in the book of life. It is fitting, therefore, that the weekly parshah, Va-Yelekh, moves from last week’s theme of life into the theme of death. Moses is saying farewell to his people. Notably, the text narrates his own death (odd that he is still speaking – he tells the story of how he dies) and the Torah being formed as a written document (again, it is rare for a text to encode its own encoding). These are signs that the Torah was written for people, by people. So what are we to learn from Moses as a character? While he is not a historical person as far as history shows us, his figurative power – as a deliverer and a leader – have been hugely meaningful to Jews throughout the ages. Moses notes that he is 120 years old. He simply cannot go on (this is the maximum age, scholars suggest, that God can allow a human to live). Moses names Joshua his successor, and gives him a bit of a pep talk as to the qualities he has that make him deserving, and those he needs to lead. Moses is a good role model for leadership – he goes as far as he can and then creates a legacy. Moses, in this scene and throughout the biblical narrative, reminds us of the frailties and mistakes of humanity, but also that we can meet challenges, inspire others, fight for freedom, and blaze new trails. He is a Humanistic hero in many ways and, just as we experience sadness for the death of any literary character with whom we connect, his death saddens us as well. For Humanistic Jews, we do not believe there is a book that tells who shall live and who shall die. The hard truth is that no one knows how much time any of us has. For this reason, we are compelled to make maximum meaning out of the time we have. Moses inspires us to imagine what we can do for ourselves and others to better our circumstances. Whatever is our own “promised land,” our lives are about its pursuit. 

Rosh Hashanah commentary 5776

Shana tova! Rosh Hashanah and the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) are upon us once again. Of what are we in awe? Of our own capacity for teshuvah, or turning. We look back to see who we have been so we can look ahead to who we wish to be. We are in awe of our communities that make us stronger, that lend compassion and empathy, humour and happiness. We are in awe of our world which continues to be both beautiful and heart-wrenching every day.

This year at Rosh Hashanah services, we read from I Samuel, a traditional reading that describes Hannah’s struggle to conceive a child. She silently prays to have a child, and promises to dedicate his life to Temple service just after weaning. This is what happens. It’s a difficult part of Tanakh (Hebrew bible) to connect with. Here is how I tried to make some sense of it for us as we embark on the gratifying journey of self-exploration this year, 5776.
Hannah is a figure who elicits much compassion. She is earnest, she is kind, she is self-sacrificing. Religious communities include this reading from First Samuel in order to highlight the efficacy of prayer. Hannah committing her first son, Samuel, to live and serve the Priests at the Temple, provides a perfect role model that religious leadership, from Priests during the Temple period, to rabbis afterwards, would wish to uphold. One’s personal goals and dreams can be fulfilled with prayer and service to one’s religion. However, religion may also demand of you that you sacrifice your dreams and goals. It cuts both ways.

In case this is beginning to sound like the kind of sermon many of us may have dreaded in shule growing up, fear not. At Oraynu, we do not demand of you total sacrifice; we are not interested in raising your first born children (although we’d be happy to educate them at our children’s school!). For us, Judaism is actually the exact opposite of how it is portrayed here. It is a structure, culture, set of traditions and practices, by which our personal dreams and goals may be fulfilled, not compromised.

The tension in this passage between dreams realized and then sacrificed, for Hannah gets to have a child but then must give him up just after weaning, is a tension we all live with, we all can learn from. It is no accident that this is one of the Haftorah readings that are included in Rosh Hashanah, given that the holiday’s Torah readings centre around the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. Isaac was also born to an infertile woman, Sarah. In fact many of the foremothers in Jewish lore are infertile. Why? What does it signify? 

For many of these women, infertility was the test of their faith, and their faith was affirmed when their prayer of having a child was answered. In the story of Sarah, when she is told at the age of 90 that she is indeed pregnant, she bursts into laughter — she simply can’t believe it! Her child, Isaac, is named for that laughter. Just as Isaac is nearly sacrificed to prove Abraham’s faith, Samuel’s life must be sacrificed or at least devoted to the temple to prove Hannah’s. To be sure, the idea of faith is central. But the repeated metaphor of having children to make that theme come alive in the texts, is also crucial. What better metaphor to choose to illustrate total longing, total sacrifice, total devotion than children? Not everyone is a parent and not everyone wishes to be. But for those who are, for many of us we would have done anything to become parents. We relate to Hannah who will promise whatever she needs to. And once we become parents, we, too, are tested. Indeed, children represent the fulfillment of our greatest wishes and hopes, and simultaneously our greatest test, the demand for our greatest self-sacrificing. Not all of us are parents, but all were children. We know of the sacrifices our caregivers made for us. These relationships aren’t always perfect, but we know that we are all the products of the giving of others. 

What is the lesson in all of this? Surely not the efficacy of prayer. Surely at least not just that. I think the text demands us to consider that whatever it is we wish and hope for, will only be worthwhile if we are willing to work and even sacrifice for it. This is a very Jewish idea! For example, to become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah at Oraynu and across the Jewish world, one must engage in serious study, in community service, in thoughtful contemplation about our tradition and what it means to us today. One must get up in front of a crowd (not easy for any of us, particularly at that age), and prove our earnest wish to become the Bar or Bat Mitzvah. This adolescent must give up time spent on other commitments, from social outings, to sports, to school clubs, in order to make this a priority. It is the sacrifice that makes all that learning and doing meaningful. These youngsters say to our community: we choose this. This matters. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it. And it is worth it, because all of that learning, contributing to society, engaging with one’s culture, surely gives more than any of those single other events. I often tell parents that I understand that hockey, music lessons, chess club, they are all important. But, to me, nothing is as important as Jewish education because when our children are adults, it is unlikely they will all be world-class hockey players, or violinists (although, let’s hope some will!), but they will hopefully all still care about being Jewish.

As the Bar or Bat Mitzvah takes the brave step of standing in front of their community, they realize that they are loved, respected, and included in this group. They are someone who matters to all of these people. We come to watch the individual, to support them. But we get much out of it too. We get to see the future of our culture in blossom. We get to see ourselves reflected in our youth, just as they get to see themselves reflected in us. 

This is the story of Hannah and Samuel. She trusts her God, we could read that as her tradition, culture, community, to provide for her. And in response, she gives all that she has back. Again, fear not, this is not a clever plea for donations! But it is a suggestion that we all benefit from a community to which we contribute. We hear all the time from Oraynu’s most active members that the more they volunteer, serve, and participate, the more they get out of it. 

This is also the story of building a meaningful life through hard work. For parents, we know that children need us, of course, for their care and survival. But emotionally, we need them so much more! We provide for them, but the joy and fulfillment hey provide is so much more! This is not limited to having children. Any career, any relationship, any project that is deeply meaningful to us, must also be deeply demanding of us. 

We sit here today, at this most deeply meaningful time of year, in community. Like Hannah, we sacrifice for this privilege – it is our time, it is the cost of our membership or the tickets, it is the choice to be here and nowhere else. Like Hannah, we hope that what we provide in return is deeply significant, and in some way, helps everyone here meet their own goals. We are a group of very diverse individuals. Our individual selves and dreams matter. We are here to examine what we wish to accomplish, change, or experience this year. We are here to wonder about who we have been and who we wish to become. And our community matters. We are here, like the Bar or Bat Mitzvah, to be seen and to truly see others. By being here, every one of you matters. We could not be a community without you. And we hope this community matters to you as well. 

Rosh Hashanah is about renewal. Metaphors of children speak so naturally to this idea. Birth and rebirth, fecundity, hope for the future, and, yes, sacrifice to make our deepest desires come to fruition, all of this is symbolized by the birth of a child. There is also the child-like, not childish but child-like, being within each of us, yearning to see the world with the kind of wonder we all did at our beginnings. Let the metaphor speak to us about our own renewal. How can we, this year, focus on our own rebirth or re-creation? How can we look to our future with the same hopefulness and wonder as we see in children and they see in us and the world?

There is one more aspect of Hannah’s story that I find insightful. Hannah prays silently, she says, with her heart. It is not the words that matter, but her deepest intention. We are caught up in a world that is filled with signs, images, words, language. We are bombarded. And we participate. We text, we write, we talk. We live loud lives. In Humanistic Judaism, we do believe words matter. We pride ourselves on saying what we believe and believing what we say. But there is also something to the idea that something in us, something special and even sacred, is beyond language. Today is an opportunity to connect to the community beyond ourselves, and also to connect to that deepest part of ourselves. What is our deepest hope, desire, dream? What is it that I truly want to do, to achieve, to have, to experience? And, like Hannah, we can ask what is demanded of me to realize that dream? What must I sacrifice? And what, immeasurable, but much much greater than that sacrifice, is there to be gained? 

Nitsavim: on the heart/mouth dialectic, on Humanistic values, and on how we choose life

In Nitsavim, Moses tells the people that the Torah is for everyone – “it is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach” (30.11). Anyone and everyone should have access to the teachings of the Torah. This is one of the motivations for my commentaries on Torah; too many Jews feel Torah is the domain of the religious or the orthodox. But it is our cultural legacy too. And, besides, if we don’t know what it says, we can’t argue back when Torah/bible is used to justify things with which we disagree. This parshah says that the Torah is “not in the heavens” or the “seas,” “No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it” (30.12-14). The connection between the heart and the mouth is meaningful for Humanistic Jews, because we reject the idea that we should say words we do not believe. We hold value in speaking the truth of our hearts and minds. The line “not in the heavens” will be familiar to many readers from the “ovens of Achnai” story from the Talmud. Without rehearsing the entire story here, it is a story of how humans, particularly rabbis, were given the power to make decisions on earth. The problems of our times are our own to solve. This is an idea that served early rabbis, but continues to serve Humanistic Jews as well. We know that the solutions we seek are “not in the heavens,” and while the Torah may not provide all of the truths and solutions we seek, it does provide us with a narrative body that asks some of our key questions.
One interesting aspect of Moses’ warning in this parshah, particularly given that we read it immediately preceding Rosh Hashanah, is that, if someone turns away from God “The Lord will never forgive him; rather will the Lord’s anger and passion rage against that man, till every sanction recorded in this book comes down upon him, and the Lord blots out his name from under heaven” (29.19). Last week we saw the first mentioning of the writing comprising the Torah as a “book,” reminding us not only of its narrativity (and I discuss its literary value), but also of its later writing and attribution to an earlier time. We spoke also of the influence of surrounding cultures on what became Jewish culture. No more is this evident than here. Many of us are familiar with the traditional idea that during the high holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, God is keeping names in a “Book of life.” Those who have sinned and not repented are blotted out of that book. The idea comes from a Mesopotamian idea that there is a book containing the divine decree for each individual. One of the ideas that most Jews take seriously at (for many) the one time of year that they fully participate in Jewish life, is taken from another culture. Humanistic Jews are less worried about the way in which the book of life idea may be borrowed, and more concerned with the way in which it encourages people to renounce control over their own lives. There is no book. There is no plan. None of us knows how long we will live, and, for this reason, it is necessary to do the work of asking for forgiveness, and forgiving ourselves. This is the meaning we draw from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  
In this parshah, Moses tells the people to “choose life.” By that he means, believe in and obey God so that one secures their place in the book of life. I believe that to be a Humanistic Jew is to choose life. We do not look forward to a “world to come,” and we do not defer entirely to “tradition” and the past. We are in the present. We are committed to building our own futures through rational decision making and a commitment to follow our hearts. We take responsibility for ourselves and our world. That is to choose life. How we choose life is an individual expression of the concept. For me, I hope that I engage and grapple with the people, issues, and challenges of my community. I hope that I maximize my participation in the things which bring me joy and sustenance. I hope that I find moments to laugh and play, as well as to work hard. I hope that I make my family and friends feel loved, and that I appreciate the love they offer me. I hope that I spend time in nature, with books, with company, and alone. I hope that I devote equal energy to my intellectual pursuits and my emotional ones. I hope that I care for my body, enjoying the rush of endorphins that come with exercise, but also knowing the value of rest. I hope above all that I let passion guide my choices and that my life becomes fuller and fuller as a result. Let’s all think of how we can better “choose life” for ourselves. 

Ki Tavo – on gifts, on guilt, and on great writing

This parshah begins by outlining how one must bring a basket of first fruits to the Priest to give thanks for the work of God in freeing the people. Connected to the holiday of Shavuot, a thanksgiving festival at harvest time, the idea of giving thanks makes sense as a preface to this section which is all about the rewards for obeying God and the punishments for failing to do so. A lovely tradition on Shavuot is to give a fruit basket to a neighbour or friend. This is in thanksgiving not only for the fruits of the season and the farmers/growers who cultivate them, but also for the gifts of friendship. Gratitude is good for us – it not only humbles us but can enrich our lives. Sometimes we have days when it is hard to see what is positive in our lives. If we force ourselves to pay attention to that for which we’re grateful, we remind ourselves to put our challenges or problems (even when significant) in context.

This parshah gives blessings – if the people follow the law and believe in God then they will be blessed with fertility, abundance, and dominion over themselves and the land. If not, however, terrible things will happen. We find curses that come in various forms. It is important to put such curses in a historical frame. This section of Deuteronomy was clearly written after the experience of exile and the influence of Babylonian/Assyrian rulers and cultures. But, of course, the piece is being written as though prior to the Israelites even entering the land. The curses that describe a future possibility (this will happen if…), are actually describing the past and present. Many of the curses, such as living under foreign rulers whose languages the Israelites do not speak (28.47-57), are much like some of the prophetic literature we find in the book of Jeremiah, for example, that blames exile and defeat on the people’s immorality and lack of belief. Note morality here really is defined as obedience – if the people do as their told good things will happen, and if they don’t then they bring bad things upon themselves. If only our actions existed in a cause/effect schema that was this simple! We know that people are afflicted with hunger, disease, infertility, and other problems outlined in the curses of this parshah, independent of how ethical and good-hearted they are. In fact, one of the reasons so many Humanistic Jews turn away from the idea of God is that we see how good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people, and we let go of the idea that we live according to any kind of divine plan or divine justice. Luckily, we are much more interested in morality than obedience; we do not define “goodness” as doing what one is told, but rather trying to effect positive change according to the way we rationally understand the world. The blessings and curses of this section neither excite nor terrify us, but this does not mean that they are useless either. 
We typically read the bible as a literary document, but acknowledge that it can teach us about history as well. We do not take literally the idea that Moses delivered this speech to the people. But we do understand something about history from the text. Firstly, this portion resembles Assyrian vassal treaties which similarly outlines punishments for disobedience. Scholars find that our text was highly influenced by such treaties, and thus we have a record of how our ancestors dealt with and incorporated ideas and texts of their surrounding culture. Another interesting historical piece comes from a slippage in the text. We are to believe that Moses has delivered everything orally, with the exception of the tablets he brought down at Sinai. But there is a moment here where his character says, “if you fail to observe faithfully all the terms of this teaching that are written in this book….” (28.58). At this point in the narrative, Moses has written nothing down and there has been no mention of a “book” of laws. This type of anachronistic detail reveals that later writers attributed their writing to earlier times, which gives us a fascinating look at why they wanted to write this text, these stories and laws, for the people of their own time, but not the time of the supposed events. Looking at the Torah as history is dubious – it gives us clues to our history but, as we see above, rarely offers a straight and factual historical record. What it does offer is powerful storytelling. Few commentaries spend enough time and attention on the language of this parshah. While some find the curses to be a warning, and other a sign of a vengeful God, I simply admire the strength and force of the writing itself. Here are some examples of curses that are incredibly well-written: “the stranger in your midst shall rise above you higher and higher, while you sink lower and lower: he shall be your creditor, but you shall not be his; he shall be the head and you the tail” (28.43-44). What metaphor! What parallelism! Another example describes the desperation and hunger that will come under this foreign domination: “And she who is most tender and dainty among you, so tender and dainty that she would never venture to set a foot on the ground, shall begrudge the husband of her bosom, and her son and her daughter, the afterbirth that issues from between her legs and the babies she bears, she shall eat them secretly, because of utter want, in the desperate traits to which your enemy shall reduce you in your towns” (28.56-57). Here we see that the natural order of things is reversed. The imagery is so powerful in its macabre and disturbing conjurations. This is meant to inspire awe (and fear), and it does. Too many commentators, worried about the theological implications of a God who curses his supposedly “chosen people,” and blames their misfortunes on them when he is supposed to be all-powerful, ignore the language and its beauty. Humanistic Jews, not reliant on the idea of an all-powerful God, can dispense with the theological somersaults and enjoy the literary value of this and other parashot. This section of Deuteronomy, screams for literary analysis. It’s such a shame when Jews overlook the literary value of our central texts. Who needs gothic literature when you have parashat Ki Tavo?