Friday, September 21, 2012

Shabbat Shuvah 5773: Kick It Up A Notch

This is always a nail-biter of a week.  Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of return, falls in the middle of the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance, bracketed by Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  We have spent two days acclaiming God’s kingship and judgment, and every day in our tefillot we remind ourselves of “Sefer HaHayyim,” the Book of Life, and where our names may be inscribed and sealed.  We are supposed to be thinking about selihah, forgiveness, and teshuvah, repentance, and the whole range of human emotions surrounding those activities.  

And I hope that at least some of us are thinking about what will make this coming year, 5773, different from 5772.  If these Ten Days come and go without any deep consideration, then why go through the High Holy Day motions?  Why pray or fast or listen to the shofar?

Amidst all of this, we read this week Parashat Vayelekh, which rarely stands on its own, because it is usually coupled with Parashat Nitzavim.  It is not a particularly substantive chapter, being relatively short, but it does include this curious verse:

Deut. 31:19

וְעַתָּ֗ה כִּתְב֤וּ לָכֶם֙ אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את וְלַמְּדָ֥הּ אֶת־בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל שִׂימָ֣הּ בְּפִיהֶ֑ם לְמַ֨עַן תִּֽהְיֶה־לִּ֜י הַשִּׁירָ֥ה הַזֹּ֛את לְעֵ֖ד בִּבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
Therefore, write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this poem may be My witness against the people of Israel.

Here in the Torah, God’s command is delivered in the plural imperative (“kitvu” = “you (pl.) shall write”).  It seems to be addressed to Moses and Joshua, who have been called into an executive session with God.  Some commentators understand this to refer to the “poem” that we read next Shabbat in Parashat Haazinu, following immediately in the Torah after what we read today.  But the verse is interpreted in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 21b) by the 4th century sage Rabbah as the mitzvah / commandment that we must each individually write our own personal copy of a sefer Torah.  Elsewhere in the Talmud (Nedarim 38a) the reason given that the whole Torah is required rather than just the Haazinu poem is that the latter is not a sufficient “witness against the people Israel,” as the verse suggests.  Only the entire Torah can fulfill that role.

Of course, the vast majority of us are unable to write our own sifrei Torah because of the intense training that it requires, so many of us fulfill this mitzvah through various other means, like contributing funds to help purchase a sefer Torah, or by filling in a letter in a new scroll with the help of a sofer / scribe.


What I love about this particular mitzvah, regardless of how we may fulfill it, is the implication that we should not be Jewish by proxy.  Judaism is a do-it-yourself tradition, or perhaps more accurately "do-it-yourself-in-the-context-of-your-community."  We build our own sukkot (actually, I’m building mine on Sunday; yes, I know it’s a little early, but we should never hesitate to fulfill a mitzvah), we lead our own Pesah sedarim, we atone for our own sins.

Ever seen those ads in Jewish newspapers about saying qaddish?  All you have to do is send a few bucks to some yeshivah in Israel or maybe Brooklyn, and a reliable, trustworthy, and frum yeshiva-bokhur will recite qaddish for your loved one on your behalf.

This practice is condoned by the Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 376:4, but really only as a last resort.  Rabbi Isaac Klein, in his standard Conservative compendium of halakhah / Jewish law, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, suggests that this should be “discouraged unless there is no alternative.”  The Conservative movement’s brand-new authoritative work on halakhah, The Observant Life (which all of you should own), recommends against this practice as follows:
In the end, saying Kaddish serves a deeply therapeutic function for the mourner.  Knowing that a good friend, either of the mourner or of the decedent, is saying Kaddish can serve that function only slightly.  Paying a stranger to say Kaddish for a parent cannot serve that function at all.
As much as is possible, ours is a tradition of personal action.  While there are some cases where it is customary or even mandatory for somebody else to fulfill a mitzvah on your behalf, the vast majority of mitzvot are meant to be performed by the obligated party.

My very first student pulpit, when I was in cantorial school, was at a smaller synagogue in Old Bridge, New Jersey.  Once a month I would stay with Rabbi Jonathan Lubliner and lead Shabbat services.  It was about a mile’s walk from his house to the synagogue, and I remember walking with him several times on Shabbat morning when we would be greeted by congregants who were driving to shul.  Occasionally, they would even drive slowly alongside us and chat.  Rabbi Lubliner pointed out to me, “They don’t feel the the need to walk to synagogue, but they think it’s very important that their rabbi does so.”

Now, I understand that not everybody can live the way the rabbi does, and our community does not expect that.  But I suppose that we could raise ourselves up as a community, that we could be an inspiration to one another and to other congregations like this one, if we were to aim higher.  Why not “kick it up a notch”?  Select a mitzvah that particularly speaks to you but that you have never taken on.  Can’t think of a mitzvah to tackle?  Come talk to me and we’ll find one that will inspire you.

Here is a suggestion for a New Year’s resolution.  Make your relationship with Judaism (and God) more active.  Here are some do-it-yourself ideas:
  • Build your own sukkah (it's not too late!)
  • Have some friends to Shabbat dinner
  • Pick one day a week to come to morning minyan (we need people!  Wednesday we had to call three)
  • Join us on Midnight Run as we go into the city to distribute food and clothing to needy people
  • Learn to read Torah or lead a service
  • Come to one of the new adult learning offerings to expand your Jewish horizons
  • Make it a point to discuss a piece of Jewish text at your Shabbat table.  If you need material, you can use the weekly thought that Rabbi Stecker or I send out in the Thursday afternoon email from Temple Israel (Have you never opened that email? You should.)
  • Go visit Israel (again, if you've already been)
But wait! You’ve all heard me say things like this before.  Here is something new:

Write your own Torah.  And by this I do not necessarily mean a sefer Torah.  I mean, metaphorically inscribe a piece of Torah on your soul.

The medieval halakhic authority known as the Rosh, Rabbeinu Asher ben Yehiel, a German halakhist of the 13th and early 14th centuries, actually interpreted the mitzvah of writing a sefer Torah differently from most other commentators.  He understood the verse quoted above not as referring to the scrolls that we use for reading, but the books that we use for study: the humash (printed Pentateuch) that you all followed along with this morning as we read the Torah, or the volumes of Mishnah or Talmud or all the other works of rabbinic literature.  The point, argues the Rosh, is that if the purpose of this mitzvah is to make sure that we learn the words of Torah, then producing a scroll that is used only for chanting in the synagogue will not fulfill that role.  But purchasing books that have been produced for study will fulfill the mitzvah.

And I’m going to take the Rosh’s suggestion a bit further.  Call it a New Year’s resolution if you will, but I would like to suggest the following:

1.  Spend a few moments over the remainder of the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah (or, failing that, let’s say you have until Hoshanah Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot, which is traditionally thought of as the last day to seek repentance for the past year) finding a Jewish text that resonates with you.  Going with the Rosh, t doesn't need to be from Torah itself.  (If you want suggestions, give me a call or send me an email.  I will gladly suggest something appropriate.)

2.  Write it down on a piece of paper (or if you’re good with computers, print it out) in Hebrew, English, or the language of your choosing.

3.  Stick it on the fridge, or tape it to your computer monitor at work, or put it on a sticky note and attach it to your favorite credit card, or take a picture of it with your smartphone and make it your background screen.  Then, whenever you see it, you will reinforce the text.

4.  Commit it to memory, and make it part of you.  Imprint it on your soul.

I’ve picked my text already.  It’s from the Prophet Micah, one of the season’s favorites, and is enshrined on a lovely print just to the left of the water fountain downstairs.  We read it in the haftarah for Parashat Balaq:

הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב וּמָֽה־יְהוָ֞ה דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗ כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ׃
[God] has told you, O man, what is good
And what the Lord requires of you:
Only to do justice
And to love goodness
And to walk modestly with your God.

I think this is a sublime encapsulation of how we as Jews should go about life, and I would love to be able to refer back to it whenever I can.  So I’m going to make this verse a part of me for the coming year, in (partial) fulfillment of the Rosh’s understanding of the mitzvah from Parashat Vayelekh.

What’s your soul-text?  Find one.  Let me know if you need help.  Shabbat shalom, and gemar hatimah tovah.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, Sept. 22, 2012.)

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