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Parshat Devarim- 5774

posted Dec 22, 2014, 8:25 PM by Tiferet Israel Austin

A name means so much more than the letters that comprise it. In fact, names are so significant, that according to the great Chassidic master the Ba'al Shem Tov, 

כמו שתפיסת הגוף הוא בגשמי שאוחז בגופו, 

Just as something physical can be grasped by holding on to it.

כך תפיסת הנשמה הוא על ידי קריאת שמו.

So too can one grasp a soul by calling its name. To know the name of another, the Ba'al Shem Tov teaches, is to gain insight into their true nature, into their essence. But perhaps, knowing a name doesn't just give us a window into the essence of another being. Perhaps, knowing a name also gives us a window into the essence of a day. And our tradition demonstrates this idea by bestowing unique names to certain Shabbatot throughout the year, and each one of these unique names gives us an insight into the character, into the nature, into the essence of that particular Shabbat. For instance, the Shabbat we observe right after Tisha b'Av is called Shabbat Nachamu, because the essence of that day is nechama, comfort. The essence of Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat we observe between Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur, is as its name indicates, all about teshuva, repentance. Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat we celebrate just before Pesach is essentially a Shabbat that focuses on Gadlut, on the great miracles God wrought for our ancestors in Egypt, and on the great challenge the holiday presents us with regarding its intricate laws and intense preparations. 

And so we see that when our tradition ascribes a name to a day, that name describes its essence. But if that's really true, if knowing the name of a day can teach us about its essence, then why is today, a day known as Shabbat Chazon, the most inegmatic Shabbat in the Jewish year? Well, perhaps, its mystery lies in the fact that unlike the other Shabbatot we've mentioned, Nachamu, Shuva, Gadol, the word "Chazon," is not descriptive at all. Instead, the word "Chazon" comes from the opening line of today's haftorah,

חֲזוֹן יְשַׁעְיָהוּ בֶן־אָמוֹץ אֲשֶׁר חָזָה עַל־יְהוּדָה וִירוּשָׁלִָם.

The vision of Isaiah son of Amotz concerning Judah and Jerusalem...

The word Chazon means "vision," today is the Shabbat of Vision, but a vision of what? In his sefer Kedushat Levi, Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berdetchev explains that the vision we are meant to see today, on this last Shabbat before Tisha b'Av, the most tragic day in the Jewish year, is a "Vision of the Third Temple, and even though we can only see it from afar," the Kedushat Levi writes, "every single Jew is granted access to that vision." In other words, the essence of Shabbat Chazon, the essence of today's vision, is that every Jew is granted the strength and the ability to uncover and see for him or herself a distant flicker of hope from within the depths of despair. 

Seeing a distant vision of hope from a place of darkness is an idea that's also powerfully expressed in our parsha. Parshat Devarim, which is always read on Shabbat Chazon, not only begins a new book in the Chumash, it also begins a new chapter in the national and spiritual life of Bnei Yisrael. Just imagine. After forty years of wandering through the Midbar. After forty years of hardship, of fighting wars, suffering plagues and witnessing miracles on an unprecedented scale, Bnei Yisrael are at long last standing on the other side of the Yardein, gazing at Eretz Yisrael with their own eyes for the very first time. But before they enter the Land, before they can realize a dream that's been forty years in the making, Moshe gathers the people around him for the last time, and delivers the longest, most moving farewell speech ever recorded. And Moshe begins his soulful address by recounting the story of Bnei Yisrael's remarkable journey, describing the places they've been, the sights they've seen, praising them for the things they got right, rebuking them for things they got wrong. And at one point in his address, Moshe relates the  following insight to the people, 

כִּי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בֵּרַכְךָ, בְּכֹל מַעֲשֵׂה יָדֶךָ

For the Lord your God has blessed you in all your efforts.

יָדַע לֶכְתְּךָ, אֶת-הַמִּדְבָּר הַגָּדֹל הַזֶּה:

And He knew your way in this great wilderness. 

זֶה אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ עִמָּךְ--לֹא חָסַרְתָּ, דָּבָר.

For these forty years, the Lord your God was with you, you did not lack anything. 

In his work the Netivot Shalom, the Slonimer Rebbe explains this pasuk to mean, 

שגם בזמנים החשוכים ביותר,

That even in Bnei Yisrael's darkest hour, even when they felt the heavy burden of traveling through that great and terrible wilderness weighing them down, pushing them to the brink,

הקב''ה נמצא עם ישראל...

Bnei Yisrael knew that God was with them,

והם הלכו בכח שה' אלקיך עמך.

And that knowledge, that koach, that powerful sense of inner peace -knowing that God was with them every step of the way, no matter how bleak the situation, no matter how long the road, no matter how daunting the task, was the source of Bnei Yisrael's ability to believe, to hope for a vision of the Promised Land, of an Eretz Zavat Chalav u'Devash, of a Land flowing with Milk and Honey, albeit from the remote, wind-swept dunes of that dangerous Midbar. And the Slonimer Rebbe continues, 

ואז יש גם בימים הללו,

And so too it is with us, during these days we find ourselves in. 

ימי חשכות של בין המצרים...

During these dark days of wandering through the Bein HaMetzarim, of wandering through the Narrow Straits, of navigating our way through these Three challenging Weeks leading up to Tisha b'Av, a time when our tradition asks us to immerse ourselves in a world of darkness, in a world of mourning in which we experience and connect with the most tragic, most painful aspects of Jewish history, of Jewish suffering and Jewish loss-During these three weeks of distress when we can at times feel removed from the Divine Presence, when can feel as though we're journeying through a great and terrible wilderness...We, like Bnei Yisrael who sensed the presence of God during their trying journey, we can also feel that God is present with us in ours. And not just during the Three Weeks leading up to Tisha b'Av, but, 

בכל מצביו. 

In any situation. 

גם כשהוא בחשכות גדולה אם בגשמיות ואם ברוחניות, 

And even when we feel as though we're sorrounded by a great darkness, whether it be a material darkness or a spiritual darkness, if we cling to the knowledge that God is with us, that God hears us, that God cares about us, then, the Slonimer Rebbe teaches, then that Koach, then that power, that inner-strength will give us the will and the courage to have a vision of hope, to have a vision of a brighter future, and inspire us to feel a sense of wholeness, as if we lack nothing in a world which is presently broken, and lacking in many things. 

But how do we do it? How do we feel the presence of the Divine when we live in a woefully imperfect world, a world in which war, poverty, hunger and abuse of every kind occur at staggering rates? A world in which three innocent Jewish boys are kidnapped and murdered in cold blood. Where people wrongfully take the law into their own hands and execute their own brand of revenge in the most cruel, inhumane and inexcusable way imaginable. A world in which news from Israel has recently left us feeling overwhelmed and distraught. A world in which synagogues are being attacked and burned in Paris, where Jews are being beaten on the streets of Europe, where the chilling chants of "Jude, Jude, Feiges Schwein," "Jew, Jew, cowardly Pig," are heard once again, loud and clear in the streets of Berlin. We live in a world where feeling God's presence, feeling His encouraging strength sometimes seems impossible. So, how do we do it? How can we do it?

I'd like to suggest three small ways, three small steps we can all take to try to feel the power, the security, the inner peace of feeling God's guiding presence in our lives as we journey through our own vast wildernesses, our own trying times. 

First, tomorrow morning, instead of getting up according to our usual routines, rushing through the Modei Ani, wishing we were back in our beds, let's take a real moment of pause and just say these simple words, "Thank You." Just say "Thank You," thank you to God for giving us a new day, a new chance, a new opportunity for renewl, and see how saying those two simple words  impact our visions of ourselves, of others, of God. Next, instead of bypassing the multitude of faces we encounter everyday- downtown, at our work, on the street, in the store, let's take a sincere moment to connect, to ask someone how they're doing, to gain insight into the life of another, to look at the face of another, and by looking into that face, by acknowledging the fact that they were created b'Tzelem Elokim, that they were created with a Divine vision, we in turn can connect to a vision of the Divine. And lastly, let's try to reinvision our responses to darkness. When tragedy strikes, God forbid, instead of asking "Why," what if we asked, "What now?" "How can we respond?" "What can we do to show our support?" And it's on that note that I encourage all of us to attend our Tisha b'Av youth program this Tuesday afteroon at 4:45, where we'll be writing letters to the soldiers of the IDF, showing our support, demonstrating our solidarity with them. Letting them know that they are not alone, and that we as a congregation, as a community, as fellow Jews, are thinking of them and praying for for safety. By asking, "What now," instead of "Why," by turning responses of passivity into responses of support and empowerment, we can discover a sense of renewal, we can discover that inspirational force calling us to hope for a brighter future, to dare to see a new vision of our tomorrow, even though we may only be able to see its silhouette from afar.

This is the essence of Shabbat Chazon- seeing a vision of hope from place of hopelessness, looking out for an image of perfection, of healing, though we stand in the midst of imperfection and brokeness. This is the Shabbat, this is the day, when we all have the ability to dream, to see a vision of the ideal for ourselves, despite the vast wilderness each one us marches through, not just during the Three Weeks leading up to Tisha b'Av, but every day-  Grappling with all its hazards and pitfalls. This is what Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbat of Vision is all about. And so my bracha, my blessing for all of us here today, is that as we move ever closer to Tisha b'Av, as we move ever closer towards sitting in the den despair itself, that we heed the words of Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, and look for a vision of hope no matter how far off it may seem, and may that inspiring vision of hope that we all strive for today, inspire us to strengthen our resolve to create a better, brighter tomorrow, for us, for Klal Yisrael, and for Kol Yoshvei Tevel. 

Parshat Chayei Sarah 5775

posted Nov 16, 2014, 5:46 PM by Tiferet Israel Austin   [ updated Dec 22, 2014, 8:16 PM ]

For the past two weeks, we have been engrossed in the remarkable story of Avraham and Sarah- that extraordinary couple who sparked a revolution in God-consciousness, forever changing the way humanity would understand its relationship with the Divine. For the past two weeks, we've all journeyed right along side Avraham and Sarah, rejoicing with them in their triumphs. Struggling with them in thier challenges, hoping with them when hope was all they had. 

But with every step we've taken together with the first Av and Am of the Jewish people, we've also noticed that looming the background of every movement and prayer, every promise and hope, is the idea of offspring. Zerya, children, are the lynch-pin, the central component of everything God promised Avraham. After all, the land he was promised could only be meanigful and eternal if Avraham had an heir to give it to, as it says, 

לְזַרְעֲךָ אֶתֵּן אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת.

To your offspring will I give this Land. 

The birth of a son always seemed to be the most elusive, but most essential aspect of the covenant God forged with Avraham. And so when Avraham and Sarah were finally blessed with a son, Yitzchak, it makes sense to now view Avraham and Sarah's journey as complete, as fulfilled. And yet, our parsha indicates the opposite. Think about it. Parshat Chayei Sarah is, at the end of the day, all about transitions. At the very begining of our parsha, Sarah dies, and at the end, Avraham joins her. It is in our parsha that we see the sun set on the first generation of ethical monotheists, of the very first Jews, and so we might expect that now Yitzchak, the long-awaited next in line, the face of a new generation, would take center-stage. That now we would come to learn about and bond with Yitzchak and his unique journey and mission as we did with Avraham and his. And yet, our parsha gives us almost no insight into who this man, who this second leader, this second Partiarch of the Jewish People actually is. In fact, based solely on a literal understanding of the events in our parsha, Yitzchak seems to have no personality to speak of. In other words, Yitzchak is seemingly absent from his own story. Consider the following. When Sarah dies, the Torah tells us that it was Avraham who withdrew in order,

לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה וְלִבְכֹּתָה.

ּTo mourn Sarah and to weep for her. Where was Yitzchak? And then, when trying to purchase a location to lay Sarah to rest, it was Avraham who approached the Bnei Chet, it was Avraham who negotiated with them, it was Avraham whom the Amei HaAretz, whom the townspeople recognized as the sole voice of Hebrew authority. Where was Yitzchak? And then, when the time came to find a wife for himself, Yitzchak had literally no part in the decision making at all. Instead, Avraham and his servant arranged everything. They speak about Yitzchak, but never with Yitzchak. It's as if Yitzchak isn't involved in his own life. 

Now, many mefarshim, many Torah commentators have attempted to explain and understand Yitzchak's apparent but strange absense of personality and inaction during these crucial moments. While the sixteenth century rabbi and kabbalist, the Alshich HaKadosh explains that Yitzchak became withdrawn, never communicating with his father on any matter, because of the psychological and physical trauma he endured during the Akeida, during his near death experience at Har haMoriah at his father's hand, other midrashim explain that following the Akeidah, Yitzchak couldn't communicate with Avraham and his family because he was actually on a more elevated spiritual plain. However, I think that there may be another reason why Yitzchak, at first glance, seems to be absent from his own life story- silent in his own narrative. 

The Talmud in Masechet Brachot explains that each one of the Patriarchs established a different tefillah, a different time for prayer: 

אברהם תקן תפלת שחרית

Avraham established Shacharit, the morning prayer. 

יצחק תקן תפלת מנחה

Yitzchak established Mincha, the afternoon prayer, 

יעקב תקן תפלת ערבית

And Yaakov established Maariv, the evening prayer. And the Zohar goes a step further than the Tamlud and notes that Avraham afixed the morning prayer, because Avraham, like the dawn boldly bursts forth, radically changing our ability to see, bringing light into the darkness. Avraham, like the morning sun, wakes us up from our slumber and calls us to action. Yaakov, like the evening, brings darkness and fear. Yaakov lived in fear all his life, first from his brother Esav, then from his father-in-law Lavan, and finally, from loss of his beloved son Yosef and the dissolution of his family life. It is with Yaakov that the Jewish people are plunged into the darkness of the Egyptian exile for over two centuries. Yaakov then, represents the nighttime, and the faith we need in order to survive it. 

But Yitzchak represents the afternoon because, and this is very important, because the afternoon is the longest, steadiest, least changing part of the day. The afternoon is that part of the day when we can actually feel most disconnected from ourselves, from our personalities, from our own emotional and spiritual pulses, because we're so busy, we're so proccupied with life- with talking on the phone, with writing and returning emails and texts, with rushing from meeting to meeting from dead-line to dead-line. It's funny in a way, the time of day which is the most stable, which is the most secure, is also the time of day when we're most likely to take ourselves for granted and simply detach. Unlike the morning when we're acutely aware of our physical bodies, and unlike the evening when we allow ourselves to get back in touch with who we are by processing our days, our emotions and experiences with friends, family, or just with ourselves, our afternoons can sometimes feel like we are being acted upon, like time just happens to us, like our bodies, our mouths and our minds are in motion, but our spirits, our souls, our personalities are just along for the ride, like we know what to do, but we're not all that present in what we're doing. But with that said, the afternoon is also the most crucial part of the day, because it is during the afternoon that we accomplish the most, and this is very important in understanding who Yitzchak really is. 

Unlike his father Avraham or his son Yaakov, Yitzchak never saw himself as a revolutionary, as an innovator or as an iconoclast. Instead, Yitzchak saw himself as a stabalizer, as that necessary link, that binding force, holding three distinct generations together through establishing a routine, and by establishing a routine, he established a sense of stability and in so doing, a sense of real continuity. Think about it. Unlike his father or son, Yitzchak never once leaves Eretz Yisrael. Yitzchak never produces his own products- instead, he redigs the wells his father dug, literally walking in his footsteps, retracing his movements so that they would not be lost. Yitzchak knew very well who he was, seeing himself as maintaining his father's claim to the Land, so that future generations of his family would have a Land to reclaim. 

Yes, at first glance, it seems like Yitzchak is absent from the story of his own life. But we should not mistake his silence for inactivity, passivity or stupidity. On the contrary,  Yitzchak accomplished something we should all strive for. And that is to be fully present, aware and connected to our purposes during the afternoons of our lives. 

Unlike Avraham and Yaakov, Yitzchak accomplished his work in silence, but his silence is not the silence of detachment, it is the silence of a man busy at his work. And so, this coming week, let's learn from the apparent absense of Yitzchak, and ask ourselves, "Are we fully present in the story of our own lives? When the afternoon rolls around, do we find ourselves falling out of touch with who we are?" And if we do, let's, like Yitzchak, take a moment to reconnect with ourselves, to plug our personalities back into our routines, so that we, like Yitzchak, can boldly express ourselves through the silent work of our every day lives.

Parshat Noach 5775

posted Nov 16, 2014, 5:44 PM by Tiferet Israel Austin   [ updated Dec 22, 2014, 8:14 PM ]

In Shakespeare's Hamlet, the troubled prince of Denmark decides to reveal both his anger and his knowledge about his uncle's dark secret, by staging a play for his whole family to watch. And so Hamlet calls for a company of actors to perform the script he's prepared, the story he wants them to tell, the vision he wants his family, especially his uncle, to see and understand through their performance. But just prior to the show, Hamlet takes the lead actor aside and gives him some direction, some advice, as to how to play the part so well that it's message will be made clear to its intended target- his uncle. Saying, 

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you...but let your own discretion be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the word to the action. 

Hamlet, as the director of his own play, is saying something very important about how to bring a scripted role to life. Now, it's true, Hamlet, as the director, has certain guidlines, certain words and actions he wants his players to perform. But at the same time, Hamlet has a vision, and that vision can only be realized if the actor playing the part allows himself to use, in Hamlet's words, his own discretion, his own emotions, his own personality, to tutor him, to guide him, to help him identify so deeply with his role that he can unearth the deeper meaning concealed behind and within the scritpted words, imbuing the character he's playing with a living, breathing spirit, whose vision is the same as the director's.

As I thought about Shakespeare's words and their signifance, I couldn't help but place them within the context of our parsha. Parshat Noach opens with God, as the Director of the Universe, sensing that "Something is rotten in the state of the world." In fact, God is angered, saddened and frustrated by the low level his creations have sunk to, habitually committing the three cardinal sins of Avodah Zara, Giuli Arayot and Shfichut Damim, Idolatry, Sexual Immorality and Murder. God is so distraught over humanity's conduct, that the Torah tells us,

וַיִּנָּחֶם יְהוָה, כִּי-עָשָׂה אֶת-הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ; 

That God regretting ever having made people on earth.

וַיִּתְעַצֵּב, אֶל-לִבּוֹ.

And God was pained in His heart.

And so God, as the Director, wanted to get a message out to the world, for all to hear- the message of repentance - to do teshuva, to abandon evil ways, and return to God, living lives of righteousness filled with spiritual meaning. And so, in order to communicate that message, what does God do? Well, He discovers an actor, the best person for the part, Noach, an 

אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה, בְּדֹרֹתָיו

A righteous man, perfect in his generation. 

אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים, הִתְהַלֶּךְ-נֹחַ.

A man who walked with God. A man whom God thought could share in His own vision for a better world. A man whom God thought could not only play the part well, but also, convince a large, and yes, hostile audience.

And so God decided to stage a performance, the public building of a Tayva, the public building of an Ark, and God gives Noach the script.

עֲשֵׂה לְךָ תֵּבַת עֲצֵי-גֹפֶר, קִנִּים תַּעֲשֶׂה אֶת-הַתֵּבָה;

Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood; make the ark with compartments.

 וְכָפַרְתָּ אֹתָהּ מִבַּיִת וּמִחוּץ, בַּכֹּפֶר. 

And tar it inside and outside with pitch.

 וְזֶה, אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשֶׂה אֹתָהּ:

And this is how you should make it.

And God, as the director, goes on to explain to Noach the exact dimensions of the Ark, its measurements, its contours and even its interior design. And,

וַיַּעַשׂ, נֹחַ:   כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה אֹתוֹ, אֱלֹהִים--כֵּן עָשָׂה.

Noach did everything according to the way God commanded him, so he did. 

But if Noach, this Tzadik, this righteous man, this man whom God chose for this challenging role began to act out the script God provided - building the Ark just as God commanded, why did the people of that generation not get the message? Why did the people not do teshuva?

Well, to help answer this question, we should turn to the words of the Midrash, which teaches us that Noach was busy building his Ark for 120 years. And during those many decades, the people would gather around him as he was building, as he was performing, and they would ask him,

ארזים אלו למה

This ceder wood, what is it for?

אמר להן, 

Noach would say to them,

הקדוש ברוך הוא מבקש להביא מבול לעולם

The Holy One, blessed is He, wishes to bring a flood to the world,

 ואמר לי לעשות תיבה כדי שאמלט בה אני וביתי,

And He told me to build an Ark so that I and my family will be saved.

והיו משחקין ממנו ומלעיגין בדבריו.

And the people mocked and ridiculed his words. 

Based on this Midrash, it seems that while Noach did everything God asked according to the script, he was yet unable to access God's ultimate vision, and the real point of this whole production - to get the Dor HaMabul, the Generation of the Flood to repent and be saved. 

The trouble with Noach, was that he always viewed himself as simply playing a role, never fully identifying with the character God wanted, God needed him to portray. Noach would only "say the lines on the page," as it were, but could never, as Hamlet said, "suit the action to the word, the word to the action." In many ways, Noach, the Ish, Noach the man, was detached from Noach the Tzadik, from the Noach God casted, and as a result, he could not see or understand the broader message of what building the Ark was all about. And so we see that by the time the flood waters rise and the curtain falls, Noach could not convince the people, because he himself was not convinced of his own part. As Rashi explains, Noach himself hesitated in boarding the Ark when the flood waters emerged, because, 

אף נח מקטני אמנה היה,

Because Noach too, was of little faith, not believing that that Flood would ever actually come. 

Because Noach could not plumb the depths of the greatest role God had called anyone to perform, Noach was unable to realize the greater vision of God's plan for the world, and thus, was unable to reach the people who desparatly needed to see that vision, to hear and internalize that message more than anything.

In many ways, we all grapple with the same issue Noach did. We, like Noach, are all called to play a part, in our personal lives, in our professional lives, and yes, in our religious lives. And sometimes it's hard for us to see the bigger picture, to define and communicate who we are and what we're all about to others, and maybe, even to ourselves, because we become so fixated on just saying the words right, on just sticking to the script as it's been presented to us. But unlike Noach, who never once stopped to think about what his motivations should be, what his purpose and role were really all about, and as a result, was never able to realize his potential and God's vision, we all do have the opportunity and the ability to yell, "CUT!"  To look up to God as the Director of our lives and ask, "Why did you add this line in my life?" "What should I be feeling when I encounter this person, or this situation?" "Help me better understand how I am supposed to be played?" But we can only ask those questions, we can only gain that sort of self-clarification, we can only be effective Klei Kodesh, effective sacred vessels used for not only containing but communicating our sacred truths, if we wholly invest ourselves into the parts we were called to play in our lives. Then, and only then, can we live the vision God has for us, then and only then can we serve as sources of inspiration not only for ourselves, but for all those who truly need to be inspired by our messages, our missions, and by our visions. 

Parshat Ki Tavo 5774

posted Nov 16, 2014, 5:41 PM by Tiferet Israel Austin   [ updated Dec 22, 2014, 8:18 PM ]

I have always been fascinated by a mitzvah found at the beginning of our parsha- the mitzvah of bringing the Bikkurim, of bringing the first fruits of the Seven Spieces of Eretz Yisrael from the farmer's fields to the Beit HaMikdash, to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Now, the truth is our parsha offers a rather terse description of how this mitzvah takes place.

וְלָקַחְתָּ מֵרֵאשִׁית כָּל-פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה 

You shall take of the first of every fruit of the ground that you bring from your land that the Lord, your God gives you.

וְשַׂמְתָּ בַטֶּנֶא.

And you shall place it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord, your God will choose, to make His name dwell there.

The Mishna, on the other hand, goes into great detail in describing how this mitzvah actually occurs. This Mishna in Bikkurim tells us that the bringing of the first ripe fruits was an extraordinarily lavish affair, not revolving around individual farmers bringing their own individual produce, but involving the entire community. The Mishna states that whole communities would assemble according to their disttricts and travel together. They would sleep outdoors, and at daybreak, the leaders of their districts would loudly proclaim,

קומו, נעלה ציון אל בית אלוקינו!

Arise! Let us go up to Zion, to the House of our God!

Before them went an ox, its horns gilded and its head crowned with a wreath of olive leaves. The flute was played before them until they reached the outskirts of Jerusalem. As they approached, they sent word to the city to announce their arrival, and then, they set to work decorating their baskets of Bikkurim, their baskets which held their first fruits. The head of the Temple, his assistants and administrators went out to greet the farmers, and all of the artisans of Jerusalem stopped their work, even if they were hard-pressed to complete a task, and welcomed the vistitors with the words, 

אחינו אנשי מקום פלוני, באתם בשלום!

Brothers and sisters from such and such a place, peace be unto you!

What a powerful picture, what a remarkable image of bringing together not one, but two distinct communities, two different worlds- the farmers and the city-dwellers, the local district leaders, and the national and spiritual leaders of the entire Jewish people. Even the King, the Mishna tells us, 

נוטל את הסל על כתפו ונכנס.

Even the King took his basket on his shoulders just like everyone else, and entered the Temple Mount. 

But the truth is, the glitz and glamor of this procession is ultimatly not what the mitzvah of Bikkurim is all about. In order to unearth the true meaning of this powerful mitzvah, we should shift our focus away from all of the fan-fare the Mishna presents us with, and instead concentrate on the softer, quieter, more intimate encounter which takes place within the heart of the Temple, between a lone farmer, a Kohen, a basket and some words.

Our parsha tells us that once the farmer reaches Jerusalem,

וּבָאתָ, אֶל-הַכֹּהֵן, אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה, בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם.

He shall go to the priest who will be in those days.

וְאָמַרְתָּ אֵלָיו,

And the farmer shall say to the priest, saying.

 הִגַּדְתִּי הַיּוֹם לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, 

I delcare today to the Lord your God

כִּי-בָאתִי אֶל-הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע יְהוָה לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ לָתֶת לָנוּ.

That I have come to the Land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give to us. 

The great Chassidic Master, the Izbitzer Rebbe, explains in his sefer the Mei HaShiloach, that when the farmer says to the Kohen,  הִגַּדְתִּי הַיּוֹם, "I declare today," what he means is that he feels free and able to say "Devarim Kashim," to say "Hard things," "Painful things" to the kohen. Telling him, reminding him that,

אף כי הכהן עובד בבית המיקדש,

Even though the kohen serves in the Temple, living in ivory tower of theology, in the lofty world of intricate ritual and spiritual power.

והוא עובד בשדה,

And he merely works in the fields as a laborer, tied to physicality, to the crudness of the soil,

עם כל זה, 


כאשר יגיע הנפש מישראל למקום המקדש ומביא בכורים,

Once any Jewish soul arrives at this holy site, and brings their first fruits, their ripest fruits, the best fruits, demonstrating their sincere commitment, thanks and love for the gifts and blessings God has given them in life, 

אז מברר כי בכל מקום היה בקדושה כמו הכהן העובד.

Then it will become clear that this farmer, that this person who lives his or her life with sweat and toil- that this pilgrim, who may not be educated, who may not be refined or invested with any powers beyond their own physical strength, is in fact, invested with sanctity and carries that sanctity with them no matter where he or she goes- just like the Kohen who serves God in the Temple. 

Based on this interpretation, once the Kohen is told by the farmer that he or she is just as holy as the priest who serves in the Holy of Holies, the Kohen can step down from his ivory tower and understand that even when laboring in the fields, the farmer is serving God on the same level as the kohen, and it is with this new awareness that the Torah tells us, 

וְלָקַח הַכֹּהֵן הַטֶּנֶא מִיָּדֶךָ; וְהִנִּיחוֹ--לִפְנֵי מִזְבַּח יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ.

The Kohen shall take the basket from your hand, and lay it before the Altar of the Lord your God.

And Rashi, quoting the gemara, explains that when the Kohen takes the basket from the hand of the farmer,

כהן מניח ידו תחת יד הבעלים, ומניף.

The Kohen places his hand underneath the hand of the farmer, and together, the two of them- the farmer and the priest, lift the basket and wave it.

It seems that only after the kohen has come to realize the inherent kedusha, the inherent sanctity of the farmer, only after he has seen the image of God reflected in the face, in the hands and in the struggle of this honest person, only after a spiritual and emotional link has been created between them, can he reach out and make a physical connection with the farmer, physically linking two worlds, a link which is then strengthened and sealed with those immortal words uttered by the farmer,

אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי,

An Amramean tried to destroy my father. These words recall the whole story of the Jewish people, not only one sect of it, not only one event, not only one narrative, but the whole history, the whole taperstry of the Jewish experience. Only after the barriers of class, of education, of material and spiritual privileges and assumptions have been torn down, can the whole story of the Jewish people be told, a story which is just as relevant to the Kohen Gadol as it is to the simpliest Jew. 

Now, what does all of this have to do with that spectacular procession the mishna described at the beginning? The answer is this: Coming together, seeing each other, being exposed to every facet and feature of our community is an essential element of what is means to be a community, of what is means to be a people, and we should always find ways of celebrating that togetherness. However, it can't stop there. Just as everyone in Jerusalem came out to celebrate each other's presence, each other's first fruits, each other's contributions and gifts, we too should do the same. But the only way to translate that excitment into real happiness, the only way to translate mere sympathy into real empathy, the only way love our fellow as ourselves, is if we first identify with the other Ba'asher Hu Sham, as they are, where they are, and to see ourselves reflected in their experiences, in their struggles, in their joys and in their sorrows. Then, and only then, can we truly be one community, one people, with one heart and one mind. Then and only then, can we truly rejoice in the fruits of each others labors, 

אַתָּה, וְהַלֵּוִי, וְהַגֵּר, אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבֶּךָ.

You, and the Leivi and the stranger, all of us, together, as we are, in each other's midsts. 

Parshat Ki Teitzei 5774

posted Nov 16, 2014, 5:39 PM by Tiferet Israel Austin   [ updated Dec 22, 2014, 8:22 PM ]

In an article entitled, "Why You Think You're Great at Everything," author Thorin Klosowski discusses the idea that as human beings, we all have a tendancy to amplify our positive qualities, and overlook or even ignore the more inconvenient truths about ourselves. According to Klosowski, "Most of us think we're awesome, and more often than not, we judge ourselves as better than average in most traits. We do this in all kinds of ways," he says. "We might believe we're a better driver than we really are. After all, everyone else on the road doesn't know what they're doing, right? But we must be above average. Or we might think we're a lot nicer than we are. Other people are insensitive and rude. We might even see ourselves as smarter than we are. Everyone else just doesn't get it! And numerous psychological studies and reports have noted that this attitude, this eschewed sense of self is so pervasive, that it has been given its own name, "Illusory Superiority," or the "Above Average Effect," which simply means that we all have a cognitive bias that causes us to overestimate our positive qualities and underestimate our negative qualities, our failures and our flaws.

Now, I know what you're thinking. What's the big deal? Is it so bad to feel confident? Is it so wrong to think highly of ourselves in certain areas of life? No it isn't. In fact, when confidence is coupled with competance it can be the healthiest and surest recipe for success and happiness in our personal and professional lives, for making positive, lasting impacts and contributions to our careers and our communities.

But if we solely focus on our good traits, if we look exclusively at the good we've done, if we really believe that everything we touch turns to gold, then the danger we face is that when we are confronted by a mistake we've made, by a poor judgement call, by a moral, professional or social misstep we may have taken, we may find ourselves unwilling or unable to understand the severity of that error, to learn the lessons of that blunder, because we're so busy thinking to ourselves, "Look at all the good I've done! The mistake I've made at work or at home pails in comparison to the rest of my accomplishments. Why should my family, my community or my co-workers find fault with me in this one area? Why can't they just see what a good person I really am!"

This illusion of superiority, relying on our laurels, on our past achievements, on our reputations to help us navigate through an unwise or unsavory decision we may have made, is the stuff of scandals. It's the stuff of a politician's fall from grace, a celebrity's stumbling block on the rise to stardom or plumet from popularity. And we can all think of numerous such examples. But one example of the danger of Illusory Superiority actually occurs in our parsha.

Parshat Ki Teitzei contains no less than seventy-one mitzvot, and within that count everything from forbidden plant and animal mixtures to the laws of marriage and divorce are discussed. But there is one statement made in our parsha which has generated much debate among the Rishonim, among the early Rabbis, because it is unclear whether or not this statement is in fact a mitzvah, or just eitza tova, or just good advice. And the statement I'm referring to is as follows,

זָכוֹר אֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְמִרְיָם בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם. 

Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam on the way, when you were leaving Egypt.

And what we are meant to specifically remember is the terrible skin disease called Tzara'at, Miriam was afflcited with after having spoken disparagingly about Moshe behind his back to her brother Aharon.

Now, according to Maimonides and the Behag, an early halakhic work commonly attributed to Rabbi Yehudai Gaon, the declaration to remember what God did to Miriam is not counted as one of the six hundred and thirteen mizvot. And in his commentary on our parsha, Rashi makes it explicitly clear that remembering what happened to Miriam is not a mitzvah, but rather an admonishment, warning us,

אם באת להיזהר שלא תלקה בצרעת, אל תספר לשון הרע. 

If you wish to be careful to avoid being afflicted with tzara'at, do not speak Lashon Hara, do not speak Evil Speech. Good advice, but not a commandment.

The great thirteenth century Spanish Torah commentator and mystic, Nachmonides, however, does not agree with Rashi's view, and cannot believe that the this important injunction against speaking Lashon haRah is not counted among the six hundred and thirteen mitzvot! For Nachmonides,

זָכוֹר אֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְמִרְיָם 

Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam is absolutely a mitzvat aseh, a positive mitzvah, not just helpful advice, comparable to "Rember the Sabbath Day," and "Remember what Amalek did to you."

But why should remembering what God did to Miriam be a mitzvah? Don't we already know about the dangers of Lashon haRah? Haven't we already been commanded elsewhere,

לֹא-תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ 

Do not go about as a talebearer among your people?

Don't we already know from numerous drashot and ma'mrei Chazal, from the words of our Sages in the Talmud and the Midrash that we must avoid speaking ill about each other at all costs? So what, then, is it about this particular statement that Nachmonides sees as so important that it deserves to be counted as a mitzvah befnei atzma, as its own mitzvah? Well, if we examine Nachmonides' explanation, the unique nature of "Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam" may become clearer.

Nachmonides tells us that the the commandment to remember what happened to Miriam is really about remembering העונש הגדול

The great punishment,

שעשה ה' לצדקת הנביאה, 

That God meted out for the righteous prophetess, Miriam, who had spoken improperly about her brother, whom she loved like her own self.

ולא דברה בפניו שיבוש, 

And what's more, she did not speak in Moshe's presence in order to avoid embarrassing him.

ולא בפני רבים, 

Nor did she speak in public.

רק בינה לבין אחיה הקדוש בצנעה, 

Rather, Miriam only spoke in private, between her and her righteous brother, Ahraon.

It seems that in her righteousness, Miriam did whatever she could in order to safegaurd the dignity of Moshe. She spoke about him in private, to her trusted brother. But as a good person, as a holy woman, surely, she knew the heavy price to be paid for speaking Lashon HaRah. So why did she even attempt to do it in the first place?

Well, perhaps, she did it because she believed herself to be just a little bit better, a little bit more righteous than those around her, and so maybe she could get away with speaking Lashon HaRah just this one time. After all, Miriam was a tzadeket and a Neviah, a prophetess- so maybe this one little error in judgement could be overlooked. But this was her mistake. According to Nachmonides,

כל מעשיה הטובים לא הועילוה, 

All of her good deeds, or all her righteousness, all of her heroic and positive achievments and contributions, the picking up of the timbrel and singing after the parting of Yam Suf, the Sea of Reeds, the miraculous Well which accompanied the people during their forty-year sojourn in the Wilderness because of her merit, were of no avail to her in avoiding the unfortunate consequences of her actions.

And because we are commanded to remember not the good Miriam did throughout her life, but this one unfortunate moment, Nachmonides is telling us that on the score-board of life, it's not enough to have mostly positive points, to rely on our positive accomplishments, because we can never predict how one negative deed can end up defining our legacies. And so we learn from Miriam that the whole concept of Illusory Superiority, that overemphasizing our good traits while ignoring our less favorable ones can have dire consequences. This, in the words of Nachmonides, is the unique nature of the mitzvah to remember what God did to Miriam.

However, there is a more positive message to this mitzvah. And that is that when we do make mistakes, when we do take that ocassional wrong turn off life's highway, we view those moments as opportunities for growth, opportunties to learn new truths about ourselves, opportunties for honest self-evaluation, to help us achieve our fullest visions of our ideal-selves.

And so my bracha, my blessing for all of us, is that as we continue on our journeys of self-discovery and self-refinement in Chodesh Elul, the month leading up to the Yamim Noraim, a time designated for us to reflect on our deeds, our words and our thoughts, that we really make the most of all our actions, viewing everything we do, for better or worse, as golden opportunities to come closer to God, to each other, and to ourselves.

Parshat Eikev 5774

posted Nov 16, 2014, 5:36 PM by Tiferet Israel Austin   [ updated Dec 22, 2014, 8:11 PM ]

This week, the world lost one of its most brilliant comedic icons. Robin Williams was not only a face, a voice, a laugh I was familiar with, he was a personality I grew up with. As a child of the 90's, I grew up with Aladdin, with Hook, with Mrs. Doubtfire and The Dead Poet's Society. Whenever I would see that expressive face, that active body in motion, I knew I was in good hands- that I would laugh, that I would be impressed. And it seemed that Robin Willaims never failed to deliver a smile or a tear. But the man who boldly proclaimed, "Good morning Vietnam," bringing laughter into one of the darkest chapters in American histroy, also boldy opened up about a darker side of himself, telling Mirror magazine in a 2010 interview, “I thought I was fooling people. But it’s the old thing of ‘they say vodka doesn’t smell’... And you just lie and lie and you think ‘I can deal with this’. And then you finally go, ‘No you can’t’. And then you give up.” 

As humorous and as whimsical as he was, Robin Williams carried a heavy burden with him for most of his life- a burden of addiction, of depression and anxiety. A burden which lead him down the path of self-destruction and recovery. But in the end, his burden proved too heavy for him to bear, and it broke him. And the question the media, mental health-care professionals, teachers and all of us are left to ask ourselves is, "What do we do with those broken pieces?" 

Well, one response to the death of Robin Williams, one attempt to handle the broken shards of his legacy, has been to raise more awareness about the dangers of substance abuse and the reality of depression- to persist in communal and national effort to remove the labels, the senseless stigmas from these issues, to bring them to light, so that people who are suffering from their crippling effects can feel less ostracized, more supported, and hopefully, receive the treatment they need and deserve. 

And so with the announcement of William's suicide last Monday, an outpouring of mental health-care support groups have ramped up their efforts to end the silence on mental illness, on suffering behind closed doors, utilizing every outlet of social media imaginable, providing seminars, lectures and workshops to help better educate the public and  give a voice to those who have never openly spoken about their struggles. 

In a tragic and deeply complicated way, the untimely death of the "Man with a Thousand Characters," has opened the eyes and the door, for millions of people who are grappling with mental illness and addiction to come forward, to be heard, to feel accepted and respected, and hopefully seek and find respite.

But the truth is, this week's heartbreaking loss is not the first time exposing the dark realities of addiction and depression enabled others to learn from their potentially tragic ends. In fact, we see this very issue discussed in our parsha, Parshat Eikev. Among the various episodes in the Wilderness Moshe recounts, the one which stands out most painfully, is the Chayit HaEgel HaZahav- the Error of the Golden Calf. And as Moshe tells the story of Bnei Yisrael's unthinkable spiritual betrayal against God, from his perspective, he provides some new insights into this occurence which can help us better understand what was really at the root of the people's error, and why Moshe took the actions he did.

Our parsha tells us, 

וַיְהִי, מִקֵּץ אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם וְאַרְבָּעִים לָיְלָה

It was at the end of forty days and forty nights,

נָתַן יְהוָה אֵלַי אֶת-שְׁנֵי לֻחֹת הָאֲבָנִים--לֻחוֹת הַבְּרִית.   

The Lord gave me the two stone Tablets, the Tablets of the Covenant. 

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֵלַי, קוּם רֵד מַהֵר מִזֶּה--כִּי שִׁחֵת עַמְּךָ, אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתָ מִמִּצְרָיִם: 

And the Lord said to me, "Arise! Descend quickly from here, for the people that you took out of Egypt has become corrupt. 

And Moshe goes on to tell Bnei Yisrael how God wanted to destroy them and create a new nation, how he pleaded with God to relent from His anger, and finally, how, when Moshe saw with his own eyes what the people were doing, worshipping a molten Calf, he tells them,

וָאֶתְפֹּשׂ בִּשְׁנֵי הַלֻּחֹת, וָאַשְׁלִכֵם מֵעַל שְׁתֵּי יָדָי;

I grasped the two Tablets and threw them from my two hands,

 וָאֲשַׁבְּרֵם לְעֵינֵיכֶם.

And I shattered them before your own eyes.

Now two questions we have to ask are: Why did Moshe decide to break the Luchot, the two Tablets in the first place? Why not just put them aside and wait for a more suitable time to be revealed? Why was shattering them the answer? And the second question we have to ask is, Why did Moshe have to break them לְעֵינֵיכֶם, for all the people to see?

To help answer these questions, we turn to the words of the great Lithuanian Torah and Talmud scholar Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, who explains in his book the Meshech Chochma, that the reason why Moshe needed to break the luchot in front of everyone was because he understood that,

אם הביא הלוחות,

If he brought Bnei Yisrael the two Tablets at this stage in their development, in the midst of their idolatry,

היו כמחליפים עגל בלוח, ולא סרו מטעותם. 

Then they would simply exhange worshipping the Golden Calf for worshipping the Stone Tablets, and they would not learn, they would not move away from their error. 

In other words, when Moshe saw the people worshipping the molten image, he realized that the cause, the root of their need to construct it in the first place was that they were addicted, and their drug of choice was idolatry. Let me explain. Bnei Yisrael felt that God, that spirituality could only be accessed through phsyical means, through creating images, idols to worship. And this makes sense, because after all, Bnei Yisrael grew up in Egypt, a land in which idolatry permeated every aspect of life. So of course they felt like they needed icons and objects in order to relate to and access the Divine. 

Even though they knew intellectually, "Adonai Hu HaElohim," even though they knew that the Lord is God- witnessing the Ten plagues in Egypt, the  miraculous parting of the Sea of Reeds, the sublime mannah falling from heaven, they still felt they needed a closer, manageable, physical object to hold onto in order to feel spiritually connected. Just like an addict who intellectually knows that their drug of choice is not good for them, yet the instant gratification they receive from its effects outweighs its self-destructive, long-term negative consequences, Bnei Yisrael too, clung to the notion that false gods could save them, could help them, could give them comfort and security. 

And so by breaking the luchot in front of everyone's eyes, Moshe demonstrated to Bnei Yisrael that even the Aseret HaDibrot, even the Ten Commandments, even those ten Divine words inscribed the Finger of God, were, at the end of the day, mere stone and nothing more. And by showing them this, by breaking those stones, by shattering  this crutch, this false concept that a created image has inherent kedusha,

ראו איך המה לא הגיעו אל מטרת האמונה ב"ה ותורתו הטהורה.

The people's eyes were opened, and they could see for themselves the destructive nature of their own addiction, they could see for themselves that clinging to idols could not help them achieve their national and spiritual aspirations- accessing God and keeping His Torah. By exposing Bnei Yisrael's addiction to idolatry in front of everyone, they were able to come to the greater realization that the only entity in this universe which has inherent kedusha, which has inherent sanctity, which can save, which can comfort, is God and God alone. 

And this dramatic moment of raising this kind of awareness amongst the people was so monumental, that when Moshe broke the luchot, when he broke those stones, when he exposed Bnei Yisrael's addiction for what is was to them, the midrash tells us that God spoke to Moshe, saying, יישר כחך ששברת, "You are to be congragulated for breaking those tablets," for by breaking stone, by shattering false perceptions, by exposing the darker side of Bnei Yisrael's spiritual life, you saved the people. 

But there's just one problem. What do we do with those broken Tablets? If the shattered stones represent the pitfalls of Bnei Yisrael's latent desire to serve other gods, perhaps they should have been discarded, incinerated, blotted out so that Bnei Yisrael would never have to be reminded of them again, so that they could move on and start over. Well, interestingly enough, Moshe doesn't do that at all. Instead, the Torah tells us that after God relented from His anger, after the people repented, God told Moshe to carve for himself new tablets, just like the first ones, but,

וְעָשִׂיתָ לְּךָ, אֲרוֹן עֵץ.

Moshe needed to make a wooden Ark, and inside of that Ark, Moshe was told to place the broken fragments of the tablets he had shattered. 

And the Talmud Yirshalmi tells us that in fact, "Two Arks journeyed with Israel in the Wilderness from that day forward- one in which the new Tablets were placed, and another in which the Tablets broken by Moshe were placed. The one in which the new Tablets were placed was kept in the Ohel Moed, in the Tent of Meeting, while the other, containing the broken tablets, stayed close to the people, and came and went with them wherever they traveled." 

It seems that, in a way, the broken tablets were even more treasured by the people than the perfect, new, whole ones, because they took those shattered pieces of stone with them wherever they went, they looked at them as a reminder, they saw a great value in their brokeness. As we know, there is no such thing as a cured addict, there are only recovering addicts. And so the brokeness of those tablets which they bore with them throughout the rest of thier journey enabled them to remember their struggles, to point to the destructive consequences of their addiction, to keep them on the right path. Unlike the perfect Tablets which were used for show, kept in the Ohel Moed, pristine and pure, these broken Tablets were used as a constant source of strength and inspiration to motivate the people to keep moving forward in their quest for an authentic relationship with God, clean and sober from the ills of idolatry.

By bringing dark, silent struggles to light, by revealing that which pains us out from behind closed doors and into the public sphere, by acknowledging the brokeness we carry with us, whether that brokeness be bouts with addiction, depression, anxiety or other mental illnesses, we as a community can gain greater awareness and respect for those who grapple with these issues by having those open conversations, and in so doing, we as a community can become more sensitive to very real and painful issues which not only affect millions world-wide, but people in our very own community. Yes, unfortunately, sometimes the loss of a remarkably talented person like Robin Williams creates the urgency, the spark for us to realize that there needs to be greater awareness about mental illness and addiction. And so as the converastions about these complex issues broadens, as more and more people speak up, we, by showing our support, our love, and our understanding, we as a community can help to remove the stigma, and give strength to one another in order to help each other reclaim our whole-selves while at the same time acknowledging and handling the brokeness we bear, so that we can create a healthier world, a stronger world, a more sensitive world- a world in which all of us can feel,

קָרוֹב יְהוָה, לְנִשְׁבְּרֵי-לֵב,

That the Lord is close to the broken-hearted, and that the brokeness all of us carry, can also, please God, serve as the source of our wholeness and our healing as well. 

Parshat Re'eh 5774

posted Nov 16, 2014, 5:30 PM by Tiferet Israel Austin   [ updated Dec 22, 2014, 8:20 PM ]

Last week, I had an eye-opening expereince. I bought my very first car. And when I think back on what that whole day was like, the excitment and the boredom, the fast turn-arounds and the long, drawn out waiting times, the one instance which stands out the most to me was right at the very end of the day when the salesperson started offering me all these extra insurance options. As as the numbers began to increase, as the sceniors intensified, I strangely began to feel overly confident in myself and my driving skills. "I don't need all these options," I thought to myself. "Nothing bad will ever happen to this car." "I'm a great driver."

When confronted by the cost of safety, when given the opportunity to do the responsible, smart thing, however expensive it may have been, I suddenly became the safest person in the world, seeing these extras as unnecessary- important for some people perhaps, but not for me. And as I was driving home that day, I started asking myself, why was it that when I was presented with the reality that accidents do happen, I suddenly felt emboldened, overly confident, immune? As we all know, car crashes happen all the time, I've been in a few. So why did I feel like this reality was true for everyone except me?

The truth is, when we're confronted by two paths, one appearing more challenging than the other, we tend to choose the path of least resistance. When given the opportunity to take short-cuts here and there, to make life a little easier, we usually don't turn it down. We'll do whatever it takes to make it work. But sometimes, our desire to make difficult things easy, to turn complex situations into simplistic ones, our willingness to delibertaly delude ourselves into thinking "easy means better," may ultimately be more dangerous than we might initially thought, and our parsha masterfully illustrates this point.

Parshat Re'eh is one of the most diverse parshiyot in the Chumash. In it, Moshe reiterates a vast array of mitzvot, from kashrut and the various prohibitions against avodah zara, to ma'aser. But of all the significant issues Moshe discusses with Bnei Yisrael, the most profound comes at the very begining of our parsha. Moshe tells the people, See! I am setting before you today blessing and curse. The blessing, that you will listen to the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you today. And the curse, that you will not listen to the commandments of the Lord, your God.

Now the question we have to ask ourselves is what does it mean to have a bracha, to have a blessing, and a klalah, a curse presented before us to choose from? After all, could there be any hesitation as to which to select? Of course we'd pick the bracha! Of course we'd pick the blessing! Who in their right mind would want a curse? So why have this seemingly trivial presentation, this seemingly trite decision, at all?

In his commentary on the Torah, Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch says something very interesting about the two words, Bracha, blessing, and Klalah, curse, which might help us gain insight into why Bnei Yisrael was asked to make this kind of decision in the first place.

Rav Hirsch writes that the word bracha comes from the word, beit, reish, chaf, which forms the word, "Berekh," which means, the "Knee joint." The knee joint is that part of our body which connects our upper leg with our lower leg, enabling us to move, enabling us to transport ourselves from one place to another. And so the word bracha demonstrates that just as the knee joint connects our upper-self to our lower-self, allowing us to move, so too brachot, blessings, are the spiritual joints through which the upper-world and the lower-world connect, and through that connection, our spiritual bodies, our spiritual-selves are able to move. However, Rav Hirsch notes, the word bracha and berech is also related to the word FARECH, which means "hard labor," and the word FERECH which means "to break." Being spiritually mobile is not easy, it takes a lot of work. Just like a runner who gets faster and builds up more stamina and endurence each day, but whose knees suffer because of the strain he or she places on them, so too it is with our spiritual lives. The more invested we become in building a relationship with God, in connecting with Judaism, with halakha and spirituality, the spiritually faster we get, the more spiritual endurance we develop, but also, the more wear and tear we place on our neshamot. Because as we become more spiritual through prayer, through learning and acts of chesed, the more we want to cling to the Divine. And when that deveikut, when that clinging does not happen in the way or at the place we want it to, it can cause us great pain.

It can become so painful in fact, that we may want to just avoid it altogether, we may just simply want to live our lives in a way that does not ask or requiere us to engage God, Judaism or spirituality.

This, says Rav Hirsch, is where the klalah, is where the curse comes in. The word Klalah comes from the letter Kuf Lamed, Kal, which means light or easy, and according to Rav Hirsch's interpretation, it also means devoid of substance. Klalot, curses often appear as the short-cut, as the easy way out, as the option which will ask the least of us. The klalah, the curse says "pick me, I'm easy." And as is so often the case in our lives, quick-fixes, fast answers and little effort always appears more attractive than hard work, obsticles and potential pain. And so in the end, when Moshe tells Bnei Yisrael, See! I am setting before you today blessing and curse, the choice isn't so obvious.

But today, on Shabbat Mevarchim, on the Shabbat on which we announce the new Hebrew month of Elul, the month preceeding Rosh HaShannah, the month which is set aside by our tradition to be a sacred time for self-reflection, introspection, self-study and repentance, a time when we focus on our relationships with God and each other in a uniquely intense way, let's consider the choices we've made this past year, let's consider those eternal words, See! I am setting before you today bracha and klalah, and committ ourselves to making this month, a month of choosing brachot, of uniting the upper world with the lower one, of enjoying and struggling with our spiritual mobility, of accepting the challenge of taking the long way, the more difficult way, of seeing how this challenge, how this choice is presented to us everyday, and everyday, we have the opportunity to choose blessings.

Tisha b'Av 5774 - Drasha

posted Sep 16, 2014, 6:53 PM by Tiferet Israel Austin   [ updated Dec 22, 2014, 8:19 PM ]

Chazal, our Sages of blessed memory, teach us,
מיום שחרב בית המקדש ננעלו שערי תפילה
On the day the Temple was destroyed, the Gates of Prayer were locked.
ואף על פי ששערי תפילה ננעלו, שערי דמעה לא ננעלו
But even though the Gates of Prayer were locked, the Sha'arei Dimah, the Gates of Tears remain open. 

In many ways, Tisha b'Av, as a Yom Aveilut, as a day of mourning, is not a time for tefilah, it is not a time for prayer or for words, because, like a mourner who suffers a loss, the loss we suffered today, on both a national and spiritual level, is beyond words. How can we communicate to God our feelings of remorse, our feelings of desperation and fear? How can we express to God our desire for reconciliation and for redemption? Our words will fail us, our words cannot possibly capture our despair. But are tears, our tears will not fail us. As the Midrash says, when the Jewish People were plunged into exile, they approached God, and cried out, "Master of the Universe! Now that our Temple has been destroyed, how can we atone for our sins? We are poor, and can no longer bring sacrifices!" God replied, "Bring Me your words!" But the Jewish people cried out again, "Master of the Universe! We do not have any words!" And so God replied, "Then bring Me your tears, bring Me your tears and I shall accept them. When your ancestors were enslaved in Egypt, it was not because of the words of their prayers that I redeemed them, it was because of their tears." And so tonight, as we begin our Yom Aveilut, as we allow ourselves to feel the full weight of what it means to be in exile, to be without a Temple, to be distant from God, let's also allow ourselves the feel the full power of our tears, and to know that God feels the power of our tears as well.

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