This is a d'var Torah, or sermon, which I gave 8/15/2009, at my synagogue, Congregation Netivot Shalom, Berkeley, California.
Shabbat Shalom. So I know it's unbelievable, but the High Holidays are coming up in just over a month. We bless the new month of Elul today because Rosh Chodesh Elul is this week. It's the time of year for us to be thinking about the state of our relationships, to be doing a cheshbon nefesh, an accounting of the state of our souls, reflecting again about where we are in our lives, where we are headed, where we've been.
We are beginning the yearly journey of getting ready for the chagim, thinking about the choices we are constantly making and the way our choices have worked out for us in the past year.
The opening lines of this week's parsha, parshat Re'eh, are about
choice. Moshe says to us, the people,
"Re'eh, anochi noten lifneichem hayom bracha u'klalla."
See, I am giving you or setting before you today a blessing and a curse.
"Et habracha asher tishm'u el-mitzvot hashem elokeichem asher anochi m'tzaveh etchem hayom."
The blessing, if you obey or listen to the mitzvot of your G-d which I'm commanding you today.
"V'ha klallah im-lo tishm'u el-mitzvot hashem elokeichem, (v'gomer)"
And the curse if you don't obey or listen -- I'm snipping it short there, but it goes on to talk about our turning away from G-d and the mitzvot, and further enjoins us when we go into our land to read this blessing and this curse on top of two different mountains there.
The Torah commentator Nechama Liebowitz pointed me to the insight that
in these lines,
it's not really the case that there are two parallel "if"s, blessing IF you listen, curse IF you do not." (Though most translations hide that fact.)
There are actually two different words: it reads "et habracha ASHER tishm'u", "v'haklalla IM-lo tishm'u".
The blessing, *because* you listen, and the curse, IF you do not.
In a footnote on Rashi in Torat Chaim it summarizes this point as "K'tiv haklallah b'lashon tnai, v'habracha b'lashon vedai," which I think I'm translating correctly as "the curse is written in the conditional, and the blessing in the declarative." The blessing is definite and the curse is only a possibility.
Torah commentator Nechama Liebowitz makes of this several things:
- we are being assumed to be good and our obedience is politely
- we get a line of credit and we can borrow blessing on the speculation that we will do mitzvahs. I go on the assumption that this borrowing will cause no sub-prime blessing economic crisis in the higher market -- although Nechama Liebowitz is silent on this point.
- and finally, the reward of a mitzvah is itself a mitzvah -- the blessing is that we have the mitzvahs to do, and once we've done them we are already blessed.
I have another idea for why the difference between asher and im, the definite and the conditional. I'm going to try another reading of this in order to connect these lines to the coming of Elul and the accounting of ourselves we are going to undertake. What if we read this as,
"I'm setting before you a blessing and a curse,
a blessing because you are with me today listening to the mitzvot of Hashem your G-d that I am sharing with you,
the curse if you don't continue to be linked in community with me and with each other
and instead turn off to a path that leads to your not knowing what is holy in your life,
possibly not even knowing what is happening."
The "asher tishm'u" becomes "because you are already currently
listening together with your community." This is a free and somewhat daring
translation and I may be pushing the text too far, but I can get some
support from the fact that the Maharam, a 13th-century German commentator,
points to a connection between these lines and Psalm 133,
"Ki sham tziva Hashem et habracha, chaim ad-ha-olam."
Because there, there being in the mountains of Zion, Hashem ordained blessing, life everlasting.
The Maharam's interest seems to be in the way that we are supposed to pronounce blessing and curse on two different mountains, but I also look at the beginning of the Psalm, which is the one that begins "Hineh ma tov v'ha'naim shevet achim gam yachad."
See how good and lovely it is for family to be all together.
Given that beginning of psalm 133, I stretch my reading of that ending line of the psalm,
"Ki sham tziva Hashem et habracha"
to mean when kin and community come together, when shevet achim gam-yachad, sham, there in that coming together, is when Hashem participates in the gift of blessings to us as the sharing of mitzvot together *is* the bracha, the blessing. And that blessing of being together in community is life at its fullest.
So perhaps we already get blessing by just doing the work as a community to be ready for the chagim. By coming together to prepare for and celebrate the High Holidays, to remember that we are fearful and anxious and downcast together, that we all long to be blessed and inscribed together in the book of life, and that we are each vulnerable and each flawed, that is receiving the blessing of life, that is in itself a blessing that we definitely can have just for the asking. Being together in community is being inscribed fully in the book of our own lives.
Going back to the opening lines of parshat Re'eh, they contain instructions to read the blessing and the curse, the bracha and klallah, from the Torah to the people as we are taking possession of our land. These instructions are fulfilled in Yehoshua 8:34. At that point, after having been in the land for an extremely short time, we've already been defying the positive prediction that we will be compliant and do mitzvahs. As soon as we get into the Land, we immediately disobey G-d's instructions about how to handle the property of our enemies and we run away from a battle that G-d told us to fight. Already by the time the blessing and curse are read out to us, we've made G-d so angry that G-d says in Yehoshua 7:4 "Chata Yisrael v'gam avru et briti" -- Israel has sinned and transgressed my covenant. The opening lines of Re'eh express confidence that we will do the right thing, and yet at the very first opportunity to fulfill them, we fail pretty miserably. And yet Hashem wants us to think of ourselves as having the very strong and definite potential to do the right thing.
So you can read the lines about the bracha and the klallah as both giving us permission to be positive with ourselves, and as an example of Hashem being wildly optimistic about us and our natures.
In Chapter 15 of Re'eh, there's another example of how Hashem is forgiving with us and our fallibility. It's opposite in a way to my reading of the opening lines because it contains an assumption that we *will* make mistakes, not that we won't, but I think we can connect it to the theme of taking stock and how Hashem is lenient with us. Lines 15:4-5 talk about how the evyon, the needy, will disappear from the land if we behave ourselves properly: I quote in part: "Efes ki lo yihyeh b'cha evyon... rak im shamoa tishma b'kol hashem elokecha." There will not be any needy among you if you will listen and obey Hashem your G-d, and I hear an echo of the opening lines and their implicit idea that listening and doing the right thing equate to our being together in community. Then if we look at chapter 15 line 7, it begins "Ki yihyeh v'cha evyon m'echad achecha..." If there is one of your brothers among you who is needy... and the verse goes on to talk about how you should be open-handed and treat the needy person well. So already we've heard, if you do the right thing, there won't be anyone needy. But if there *is* a needy person, because you *did* happen to behave imperfectly... And finally this passage winds up with verse 11, which begins "Ki lo yechdal evyon mikerev haaretz..." Because there actually will never stop being needy among you in your land. The message as I read it is, there is a possibility that we as human beings can make life utopian, especially if we come together in community. We actually could live as if moshiach had come and treat each other so fairly that nobody would be in need, wouldn't that be incredible? And, Hashem sees that we are little schleppers who have areas of confusion, and that we are probably not going to achieve that utopia yet, so we need to know how to handle it that we *are* going to mess up, and Hashem is actually aware that we've been created imperfect. Otherwise why would there be an assumption that there will always be needy among us, even though we could prevent that by behaving correctly?
So what does all of this give us to take into Elul?
I want to read all of this as signals that through Moshe, Hashem wants to tell us that when we think about our lives, we need to be gentle with ourselves as well as rigorous.
When we look to the future, we want to have high expectations of
And when we look to the past, we want to be honest about our mistakes and our failings and the things we need to apologize for.
And we also need to think about how much harsher we may be as our own soul-accountants than Hashem is with us. Hashem knows that we are not always getting it right, especially when we stumble away from being in community and wander off by ourselves.
The idea of gentleness and forgiveness that I am reading in here is not to say that we should let ourselves off the hook. We may expect from ourselves that we will be moral, hopeful, kind, that we will take good care of ourselves and each other in the ways that we know how, that we will learn more about the ways we don't know how, that we will think unselfishly about other people's wellbeing both in our community and outside our community, that we will not be afraid to take good risks and genuinely try to let out all the initiative and courage we carry around, that we will make the most of this gift of being alive and feel our gratitude and live uprightly together, doing our best to heal and not to hurt other people and creatures.
And we can expect ourselves to look honestly at the places we got stuck in the last year, fell off the path, went around in circles, were too shy to let people know what we were struggling with so that we could get a hand. Ways that we hurt each other, for which we should be apologizing to each other between now and Yom Kippur.
And in that honest scrutiny I suggest that we have a much kinder friend than we can often be to ourselves, and that is G-d, (whatever I might really mean by that word, since I certainly don't know,) but Whose affection for us is so practical that the Torah contains some messages of forgiveness in advance for the fact that we will screw up.
Psalm 27, which is is traditional to say every day during Elul, ends
with the lines,
Kaveh el hashem,
chazek vayametz libecha
v'kaveh el hashem.
Wait for G-d,
strengthen and encourage your heart,
and wait for G-d.
In this context I'm going to suggest that we can read these lines as
suggesting a method for self-inventory -- that we first lean on the idea of
divine forgiveness to help us remember that our mistakes are probably not
as bad in the sight of G-d as they are in our own,
and from that we can take courage and dive into doing fearless introspection and honest examination and cheshbon hanefesh,
and then when that introspection starts to tip over into being harsh with ourselves, that we relax again and remember that we can have mercy on ourselves in the middle of our judgment, and so on -- keeping a balance between rigor and gentleness. Surely we can achieve more honesty and more genuine blessing with that balance in place. I do think we can glean from all of these sources the idea that we collectively are dear enough to Hashem that we can expect to be forgiven.
During the High Holidays we will pray,
Zachreinu l'chaim, melech chafetz b'chaim, v'chatveinu (at Neilah chatmeinu) b'sefer hachaim, l'man'cha elokim chaim.
Remember us for life, power who desires life, and write us or seal us in the Book of Life, for your sake, our G-d of life.
Just as the opening lines of Re'eh seem to be describing two possible
directions, one of blessing and one of curse, but they contain a hint that
the blessing side is intended to win out and the deck is stacked in our
there is a little wink in the way we pray in these lines -- we're saying, It's up to You whether You inscribe us in the book of life, but we know You want to, because we know about You that You *desire* life, melech *chafetz* b'chaim. You will want to treat us kindly because You can't help it because You long for things to go well for us and You are so optimistic about us. You are weighing us, and You are putting Your thumb on the scale in our favor.
May Elul bring you satisfying self-reflection and repair of your
relationships, may you find forgiveness for anything that troubles you, and
may we all choose blessing and life together as a community.
--Shifra Pride Raffel
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