Friday, August 28, 2015

Ki Teitzei: A Jewel of Forgiveness

Right now, we are in the Hebrew month of Elul. Not only is it the month that precedes Rosh Hashanah, it also affords us an annual opportunity for introspection and reflection. Elul is a full month of 
preparation for the Days of Awe to come. At morning minyan, each day of the month, we blow the shofar, and we also add psalm 27, known as "the Psalm for the Season of Repentance." It is in the spirit of Elul that I would like to share with you an interesting debate that took place this week on my Facebook page, mainly dealing with the Holocaust and how we interact with it in our lives today.

It began with an interview. The actress Natalie Portman was quoted as saying that the Jewish community focuses too much on the Holocaust. I shared her comments, and I invited people to discuss their reactions. And boy, did they! Interestingly, I think our Torah portion this week engages us in almost the EXACT same conversation. 
Do we remember too much, or can we truly never allow ourselves to forget? In our parashah, Ki Teitzei, we read: "Remember what Amalek did to you along the way when you came out from Egypt; how he [the tribe] met you along the way and attacked among you all the stragglers at your rear when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God.… Therefore it shall come about when Adonai, your God, has given you rest from all your surrounding enemies, in the land which Adonai, your God, gives you as an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!" (Deut. 25:17-19) Elsewhere in the Bible, this charge is reiterated: NEVER forget! Amalek is an enemy of God and the Jewish people for ALL time! Period. End of story.

Rabbi Shai Held, in a wonderful Torah commentary on our portion, asks: "Why Amalek?" It's not like they were our only enemy. They were despicable, sure, but how about the Egyptians, who enslaved us for centuries? Or the Canaanites, Edomites, Ammonites, or Moabites? 
Why is Amalek singled out for such unrelenting hatred, and why are we asked to perpetuate that hatred for all generations, even if (and perhaps especially when) we don't personally feel that anger and vengefulness today? This, of course, brings me back to my original point about Natalie Portman's statements. Can we, who live in the third and fourth  (and will eventually be in the fifth, sixth, and twelfth) generations after the Holocaust, be expected to hate as much as our ancestors did? Should we be comparing any and all signs of potential anti-Semitism to Berlin in 1939, in order to win arguments? Should we boycott Germany, Italy, and Japan, and all their products, as a lasting punishment for their roles in the Holocaust, and refuse to move beyond? I want to urge us all to think long and hard about this, because to me, the question at the core of this issue is: When will the hatred begin to consume us?

Every year, in this month of Elul, I receive daily e-mails called "Jewels of Elul," that contain reflections from a wide range of authors, all revolving around a central holiday-related theme. Earlier this week, Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Toronto-based professor whose children were killed by Israeli rockets, wrote an incredible "jewel" about forgiveness. 
One point she made, that was SO powerful for me, was about how forgiveness is for ourselves, not the one we're (supposedly) forgiving. "When you forgive someone, you forgive and value yourself," she writes. "Indeed, forgiveness opens the door to a future that will not repeat the old tragedies." I'm not suggesting we forgive Nazis. Not by any means. To me, Amalek represents the force of evil that DOES still exist in the world, and the Torah is reminding us - demanding of us - that we remain vigilant against evil. Let's not be naive. BUT, we have to walk the fine line between vigilance and hate. The ancient Amalekites are long gone... but we are still here. We must find room for forgiveness in our hearts, because otherwise we will be destroyed by it. Utterly destroyed.

It's confusing, I know. Who are we supposed to forgive? How can we honor the memories of our ancestors if we also need to let go of something? The forgiveness doesn't even need to have a recipient. It's not for THEM. It's for me. And it's for you. Because hatred consumes and poisons. In this month of Elul, focus on forgiveness; focus on letting go and allowing yourself to forgive. It will open new doors and allow for greater healing. I think it's time to find your way into the season.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Chadica on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image of Poussin's "The Victory of Joshua over the Amalekites" courtesy of Jan Arkesteijn on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image of Natalie Portman courtesy of Georges Biard on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Grant Barclay on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, August 21, 2015

Shoftim: Treat Yourself in Elul

I apologize for having disappeared from the blog for a couple of weeks. I was in Israel with a group of congregants, and only just got back on Sunday. During our ten-day trip, we were in fact writing a collective blog about our experiences, and I kept meaning to post HERE about that other blog. But the time got away from me, and instead I posted nothing. I'm sorry. If you would like to read about our adventure, you can find our blog here:

It was a wonderful trip (a food tour, no less!), and I was very glad that we went. But it's also very, very nice to be home. As you'll see below, this week's blog post is heavily influenced by our trip to Israel (not to mention that all the photos come from the trip...). Thanks for sticking with my blog, despite my absence. 

I want to take a little liberty with the Hebrew text of this week's Torah portion, Shoftim. I hope you will indulge me. I want to offer an
inaccurate translation of the first verse of our reading, simply because it helps me make a point. But hey, at least I'm being honest and upfront about it, right? The verse begins, "Appoint judges and officials for yourselves, from each of your tribes, in all the towns which Adonai your God is giving you" (Deuteronomy 16:18). My rereading is based on a peculiar phrasing in this verse. It says "Ti-tein lecha," meaning "give to yourself [judges and officials]." In light of our recent synagogue trip to Israel and everything we experienced there - and with the help of this strange, reflexive formulation - I want to interpret this verse in a new way.

Rather than "appoint judges and officials for yourselves," I would like to read this verse as saying "Judge for yourself." The verse goes on to talk about the city gates, the tribes, and the entire people of Israel.
It is incumbent upon all of us to see, with our very own eyes, the cities, communities, and indeed the entire State of Israel, and to form our own opinions. Every time I go there, I am struck by how fundamentally different things are on the ground from what's being reported in any and all news outlets. I could try to explain to you what I mean, but that would really defeat the purpose. You would still be getting it through a third party! Our Torah portion is telling us to see it for ourselves: ti-tein LECHA - give YOURSELF this opportunity. And it's not even phrased in the plural (yourselves), but it's the obligation of each and every individual.

How can I fully describe to you what we felt, walking along the boardwalk in Tel Aviv, seeing Arab families next to ultra-Orthodox families next to secular teenagers, each group barbecuing in the grass, but living side-by-side in (relative) harmony? Or leaving a Jerusalem
restaurant after dinner, to find a spontaneous dance party in the streets with secular Jews, Orthodox Jews, and everyone in between dancing together seemingly unbothered by the threat of terrorism that we thought was supposed to be pervasive and oppressive in Israel? I saw so many scenes on this trip, just as I do every time I go, that defy what we are told is the ubiquitous narrative throughout Israel. But you probably don't believe it. OR you are trying to reconcile my images with those you read or hear or see elsewhere. And then again, we are back to our original problem. You can't take my word for it or really ANYONE else's; you simply have to "ti-tein lecha," give yourself the chance to experience Israel and see it through your own eyes. And if you went once, ten years ago, I'm afraid your narrative has a layer of dust on it and your filters need cleaning.

Our wonderful synagogue group spent last Shabbat, just one week ago, praying with a modern Israeli service looking out at the sunset over the Mediterranean, and then with a Conservative/Masorti synagogue in the trendy Tel Aviv neighborhood of Neve Tzedek. And there we began the Hebrew month of Elul, which will lead us into Rosh Hashanah.
Elul is a month of introspection and self-examination. A chance, perhaps, for some dusting and filter cleaning. It is a reminder to us all to look at our lives with a fresh perspective. I just spent four paragraphs talking about Israel, but that's just because I returned four days ago and I'm still jetlagged! A new perspective is often needed in MANY areas of our lives, not just our relationship with Israel. What is your relationship like with prayer, community, and Shabbat? Or, perhaps to hit a bit closer to home, your relationship with family, partner, work, and self-care? Elul is the perfect time to "ti-tein lecha," to "treat yourself," to work on taking a little bit better care of yourself and to making some much-needed improvements. But I can't tell you what to do, can I? Ultimately, there's only one judge and one official who decides what you do - you. So is it time for some change? You be the judge.

Photos in this blog post:
1. The Haifa skyline from our first day in Israel.
2. Our group celebrating Shabbat on the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee)
3. Exploring the Davidson Archaeological Center, along the Southern Wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. (Right around the corner from the Kotel, the Western Wall)
4. Joining Beit Tefilah Yisraeli, a modern Friday night service on the Tel Aviv boardwalk. It's hard to describe what it felt like to sing Shabbat songs as the sun set over the Mediterranean.