Archive for the '5.03 Eikev' Category

Worthy Reward: The Trading of Mitzvot

At the start of Parshat Eikev, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the benefits of keeping the commandments. There we read:

וְהָיָ֣ה עֵ֣קֶב-And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the Lord your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that God made on oath with your fathers (Deuteronomy 7:12)

The simple reading of this is that obedience will be rewarded by God. But, what is the reward?

On this passage from our Torah portion Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev comments:

It is an accepted principle that the “so-‎called” reward that God grants us for performing the ‎commandments of the Torah is the least of all the pleasures that ‎we will experience. The major pleasure is the satisfaction we ‎derive from having been able to give the Creator a feeling of ‎satisfaction that God created mankind, and that at least part of ‎mankind, Israel, has seen fit to acknowledge this. This is what the ‎‎Mishna in Avot 4:2 meant when the author states that ‎שֶׁשְּׂכַר מִצְוָה, מִצְוָה the true reward for performing the commandments is the ‎commandment itself. When we reflect on the significance of the ‎performance of the commandment we will realize that having ‎performed it was an unparalleled pleasure. Even the reward that ‎God has “saved up” for us in the hereafter pales into insignificance ‎when compared to the satisfaction of having been able to provide ‎‎God with pleasure.‎ This is what Moshe had in mind when he described the ‎‎mitzvah performance with the word ‎עקב‎ in our verse above. ‎This word, meaning “heel,” when used elsewhere in Scripture, is ‎used by Moshe to describe the minute part of the pleasure that ‎God’s “reward” provides for us when we compare it with the ‎pleasure we provided for ourselves by having been the ‎instrument to please the Creator.‎ (Kedushat Levi, Deuteronomy, Eikev 1)

In this sense the Kedushat Levi  is saying that the reward for our obedience is that God gets the reward . He also offers this idea that the essence of this “heel” of עקב is that the true reward for performing the commandments is the ‎commandment itself. Neither seems to be accessible rewards to me.

These words שֶׁשְּׂכַר מִצְוָה, מִצְוָה are featured in this amazing music video by Mordechai Shapiro:

Besides being a crazy catchy song and having the video be filmed at camp ( Morasha), I love this video because it takes the notion of שֶׁשְּׂכַר מִצְוָה, מִצְוָה in a little different direction. It is not just that your doing a mitzvah is its own reward, or as the Mishna in Avot says, Mitzah Goreret Mitzvah, that it will lead to your doing more mitzvot. Rather, the video explores a paying-it-forward notion. In this sense the reward of your doing a mitzvah is that it will lead to someone else’s doing a mitzvah.

I was thinking about this idea of Mitzah Goreret Mitzvah being a notion of paying-it-forward recently when talking with my colleague Jonah Wagan. He showed up to work complaining about Chabad Shaliach asking him again to put on Tfilin. I asked him if he objected to this practice. Jonah replied that he did not mind it, it was just that the interaction felt yucky. In conversation we explored the idea of what might change if he could enter into the interaction as an equal. So the next time he was asked to do this mitzvah with a Chabad Shaliach he resolved to offer the Shaliach the opportunity to do a Mitvah that was meaningful to him with him. Now Jonah is thrilled to do this mitzvah of putting on Tfilin as he does the mitzvah of raising money from the Shaliach for EschelMitzah Goreret Mitzvah; they trade mitvot. In so doing they enjoin each other to do more for the world.

I would encourage each of us to explore putting on Tfilin, supporting the holy work of  Eschel, or what ever might be your signature mitzvah. And then I think we should think about trading them with each other. If you join me in doing my mitzvah I will gladly join you in doing your mitzvah. In this trading mitzvot framework the “heel” of עקב  it the first step in a collaborative journey of equals to create a common path ( read here the literal meaning of the word Halachah) and fix the world. Now that seems like is a worthy reward.

 

Positive Narrative: The Shift in Tablets and Positive Psychology

At the start of the summer I had the pleasure of going to the International Positive Education Network (IPEN) conference in Fort Worth Texas. IPEN aims to bring together teachers, students, parents, higher education, charities, companies and governments to promote Positive Education. The objective of Positive Education is not only to improve students’ well-being but also their academic performance. Positive Education is the programmatic/educational cousin of Positive Psychology. Positive Psychology is a branch of psychology that complements the traditional focus on pathology with the study of human strengths and virtues and the factors that contribute to a full and meaningful life. There at the conference I got to hear Dr.Martin Seligman , the father of Positive Psychology, explain the history of how the shift from focusing on pathology to building on strengths and how that opened up an whole scientific study of human flourishing.

At the conference I learned about a ton of compelling research proving the success of this work and many interesting strategies that people are employing to support their students’ flourishing. Hearing Seligman, I was moved thinking about how much of the shift from a pathology to strength based approach is actually determined by your fundamental understanding of the human condition. Our primary myth of who we are as people might itself set limits to our imagination and capacity to flourish and be successful. Since that time I have been giving a lot of thought to the stories we decide to tell that might help us flourish.

I was thinking about this shift this week when reading Eikev, this week’s Torah portion. There Moshe reviews all of the bad things that the Israelites did in the wilderness. Moshe rebukes them for their failings recalling their worship of the Golden Calf, the rebellion of Korach, the sin of the spies, and their angering of God. He admonishes them for being rebellious against God.  But than Moshe shifts the conversation and speaks of God’s forgiveness of their sins, and the Second Tablets following their repentance. There we read:

1 At that time the Lord said unto me: ‘Hew for yourself two tables of stone like unto the first, and come up unto Me into the mount; and make for yourself an ark of wood. 2 And I will write on the tables the words that were on the first tables which you did break, and you shall put them in the ark.’ 3 So I made an ark of acacia-wood, and hewed two tables of stone like unto the first, and went up into the mount, having the two tables in my hand. 4 And God wrote on the tables according to the first writing, the ten words, which the Lord spoke to you in the mount out of the midst of the fire in the day of the assembly; and the Lord gave them unto me. (Deuteronomy 10:1–4)

There is a lot to say about the how we could shift from the first Tablets to the second, but now I am intrigued about the implications of this shift in narrative. Moshe starts by telling the story of the Israelites as rebellious sinners who need God’s forgiveness. Here Moshe transitions to rewriting the narrative with these second set of Tablets. As a people we have a lot of pathologies that we are trying to correct by keeping these set of rules. It is clear that system was not that successful. In writing the second set of Tablets Moshe is literally and figuratively rewriting his personal and our national narrative. Moshe has tremendous strength to partner with God to write the rules that will help us flourish. This story of Moshe writing divine rules in partnership with God is a profound story for all of us about the human condition. We all have strength upon which we can build in order to flourish.

As we learn from Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi:

Every day a heavenly voice goes forth from Mount Horev and makes proclamation . . . And it says, “And the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tablets” (Exodus 32:16). Read not harut (graven) but herut (freedom). For there is no free man but one that occupies himself with the study of the Torah. (Avot 6:2)

When we are operating from a place of pathology our future is engraved and fixed in stone. Everything changes when we can partner in writing the rules. Not only can we own the process, but we can change our understanding of what it means to be a person. When Moshe engraves the second set of Tablets he is modeling what takes to operate from a place of strength. We can all build on our strengths and in so doing become truly free. The learning of Torah is not the act of just following rules and fixing what is wrong with us. The very act of learning Torah is curating a positive narrative of the human condition .

– There is do doubt I will be writing a lot more on Positive Psychology in the weeks to come. I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic. Be in touch.

Packing for Mitzvah

I spend all of my time thinking about sending Jewish children to Jewish summer camp. It is funny when I pause to realize that two of my own children are actually away at summer camp right now. I love that they love it. I am happy for them and I can admit that it is validating to me and my work.

Just a few weeks ago we were packing the boys up for camp. I can admit that it was difficult. There were moments that we were not our best selves. How could we figure out what to pack and what not to pack? It was really helpful to have a list; I would have been lost without it. I was thinking about that list and our packing when reading Parshat Eikev, this week’s Torah portion.

In the Third Aliyah Mosche tells the Israelites that they will inherit the Land of Israel not due to their own merits and righteousness, but because of the promise God made to the Patriarchs. In fact, Mosche reminds them of the many times they angered God while in the desert, placing special emphasis on the sin of the Golden Calf, when God would have annihilated the Israelites if not for Mosche’s successful intercession on their behalf. He also makes brief reference to the other times when the Israelites rebelled against God. And then in the Fourth Aliyah Mosche recounts how after the Golden Calf debacle, God commanded him to carve two new tablets to engrave the Ten Commandments, to replace the first set of tablets which Moses had shattered.

And there we read:

At that time the Lord said to me: ‘Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first, and come up unto Me into the mount; and make thee an ark of wood. And I will write on the tables the words that were on the first tables which thou didst break, and thou shalt put them in the ark.’ (Deuteronomy 10:1-2)

What can we learn from the fact that both the broken tablets and the new Tablets go into the Ark?

As a parent I know I make mistakes. I am not perfect and I thank God every day for bringing my children into my life if for nothing else so you can remind me of this fact.

Can I come to peace with the old Tablets and the New Tablets? Can I come to grips with the life I want for my kids and the lives they write for themselves.  Thank God for the packing list. They both get placed/packed in the ark. I know that my children will forge their own path and I will always be there for them. I am very excited to see where this journey leads them. I am sure when they come back from camp we will get a glimpse of what their lives will look like in the future.  Both are holy and will be packed for life. 

Faith Minus Vulnerability

In Eikev, this week’s Torah portion we read:

The graven images of their gods shall you burn with fire; you shall not covet the silver or the gold that is on them, nor take it unto yourself, lest you be snared therein; for it is an abomination to the Lord your God.And you shalt not bring an abomination into your house, and be accursed like unto it; you shalt utterly detest it, and you shall utterly abhor it; for it is a devoted thing. (Deuteronomy 7:25-26)

What do we make of the use of the word”abomination” in the context of idolatry?  In the Talmud Rabbi Yohanan in the name of Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai noted the word “abomination” in common in both our portion and in Proverbs which says:

Every one that is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord; my hand upon it! he shall not be unpunished(Proverbs 16:5)

They deduced from the common use of the same word “abomination” that people who are haughty of spirit are as though they worshiped idols (Sotah 4b).

I was thinking about this in the context of the work of Brené Brown. In her brilliant discussion of vulnerability she writes:

Faith minus vulnerability and mystery equals extremism. If you’ve got all the answers, then don’t call what you do ‘faith.’
Rabbi Yohanan and Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai are on to something – there is a certain abomination of being too haughty and close minded to be vulnerable. The secret of whole-hearted living is to break the idols in our lives and be open to the mystery of the unknown, the Unknowable, and even yet to be known self. These are only revealed through the hard work and practice of humility.

Idolatrous Context: Eikev and Confederate Flag

In Eikev, this week’s Torah portion, we revisit the Golden Calf incident.  Moshe is up on the Mountain getting the Ten Commandments  from God and when he comes down with the two Tablets he sees that the Israelites had created an idolatrous Golden Calf to worship. First he breaks the Tablets and then he grinds up the Golden Calf. What was so bad about creating this idol? No one got hurt. Also it is noteworthy that Moshe destroys both the Tablets a gift from God and the Golden Calf, but why?

I was thinking about this since Palestinian infant Ali Dawabshe was burned alive when his West Bank home was set on fire by Jewish Israelis, and  since 16-year old Israeli Shira Banki — who was stabbed at the Jerusalem Pride Parade — died of her wounds. Both serve as a painful awakening to two forces of idolatry in our community: one of brazen commitment to the West Bank and the other of homophobia. While people want to explain away both killings as crazy acts of deranged  people, we as a community need to recognize our role. Rav Benny Lau said it well in his speech at the rally in Kikar Zion, on the Motzei Shabbat following the stabbings at the Jerusalem Pride Parade:

A Jew does not stab another person! Period. All those who prayed today in synagogues across the country.All those who prayed, just today heard with their own ears the Ten Commandments. They stood and heard the commandment “Thou shall not kill”

We create a context in which these destructive and insane acts make sense. We need to take responsibility for our role as accomplices.

Earlier this summer on the evening of June 17, 2015, a mass shooting took place at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. During a prayer service, nine people were killed by a gunman. The morning after the attack, police arrested Dylann Roof who later confessed to committing the shooting in hopes of igniting a race war. Like the killers of Ali Dawabshe and Shira Banki, Roof was deranged. History was made later in the summer when South Carolina removed the Confederate flag from its post on the state Capitol grounds in Columbia.

PHOTO: The confederate flag is removed in Charleston, South Carolina, July 10, 2015. The larger group needed to take responsibility for the racist context of hate they had created with that symbol. They too felt like accomplices.

In creating the Golden Calf the Israelites proved that they might do anything as a group. Their group-think created a context where many bad things could happen. It would just take one bad egg to act on the spirit of the group and anything was possible. Moshe broke the God-given Tablets to awaken the people of the logical ends of their idolatry. They could soon be accomplices in breaking “Thou shall not kill”. What will awaken us to the idolatry in our community? What flags do we need to be taking down?

Muscular Judaism

In the Gemara Brachot we learn of a disagreement between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi) which seems to be based on Eikev, this week’s Torah portion (Berachot 35b). In this we find the second passage of the Sh’ma. There we read:

And it shall come to pass, if you shall hearken diligently to My commandments which I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, and to serve God with all your heart and with all your soul, that I will give the rain of your land in its season, the former rain and the latter rain, that you may gather in your corn, and your wine, and your oil. And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you shall eat and be satisfied. ( Deuteronomy 11:13-15)

Rashbi says a person should learn Torah the entire day and somehow that person will find a way to support himself and his family. Rabbi Yishmael disagrees and maintains that a person should combine Torah with derech eretz- the way of the world. In this context that means balancing learning and working to earn a living.

In another place in the Gemara we learn the story of when the Rashbi spoke out against the Roman government and their brazen devotion to their own physical needs (Shabbat 33 ). Out of fear of being killed by the Romans he and his son went to hide in the Bet Midrash, but they feared being caught so they escaped to a cave. There they lived on water and the fruit from a miraculous carob tree. By day they covered themselves in dirt and learned. When it came time to pray they would get out and put on their clothing. If you came in the middle of the day you would see two people learning submerged up to their heads. Or rather you would see the realization of the Rashbi’s ideal. He and his son had escaped to be living their disembodied existence learning Torah. In juxtaposition, Rabbi Yishmael claims that we need to balance our lives between our heads, hearts, and hands.

This disagreement between Rabbi Yishmael and Rashbi seems still to be unresolved today. It is not just manifest in the division between the Haredi Kollel society and the rest of the Jewish community. This disagreement can be seen in the very nature of Rabbinic Judaism itself. How much of what we call authentic Jewish living is itself lived with our bodies? For most Jews today even prayer, which was the one thing that the Rashbi needed to put his clothing on for, has become a disembodied gender-less experience. The Zionist had a clear response to this disembodied rabbinic Jewish life, but moving to Israel is clearly not the answer of Jewish continuity for all Jews or even for all Israelis for that matter. So what would Rabbi Yishmael’s response be in the 21st Century?

This past week I had the pleasure of visiting 6 Points Sports Academy in Greensboro North Carolina. There I had the pleasure of seeing Rabbis and Jewish educators training and playing with the campers. In these moments I saw Judaism take the field and become relevant in their lives. I have no doubt that this will have a long-term impact on the campers, but I am also curious to see if it has long-term impact on Judaism itself. Besides being a great sports camp serving the Reform Jewish community, 6 Points is emerging as a laboratory exploring the deeper meaning of muscular Judaism. In a profound way they are the students of Rabbi Yishmael.

Goodbye to Childhood

In Eikev ,this week’s Torah portion, Moses reflects on the years the Israelites spent in the Desert. There we read:

You should know in your heart that just as a father will chastise his son, so the Lord your God , will chastise you.(Deuteronomy 8:5)

This parental vision of God’s relationship with the Israelites brings up a number of questions for us as people living in the modern world. While the unbridled love of a parent for his/her child might seem appealing, what happens when that relationship goes sour? Do we want to be in a relationship with a God that will abuse us?  For those of us who have made that model work, that is wonderful. I can admit that I am a bit jealous. But, for the rest of us, what are we left with if we find this model to be too simplistic, childish, or abusive?

While there are many answers, as someone who used to be a Hillel Rabbi I want to share my reflections on the class of 2016 who are being dropped off at college in a couple of weeks. You are going away to college. This means that you will have to rethink and to renegotiate your relationships with your parents. Given the current state of the economy, this is not limited to the entering class, but it also includes the ones who just graduated and now have to return home. I hope that all parties involved are open to discuss what is involved in these changes. While it is difficult for parents to let their children grow up, we should have confidence that in the end they do not want their children to remain as dependent as they were as children. That is not to say that the children will ever really be independent of their parents’ love and support, but hopefully with our maturing we evolve past needing to be chastised. We can aspire for other ways of communicating. I hope to think that over the past 4000 years God might be open to renegotiating the terms of the relationship. There are pleasures and pains of growing up. Regarding our parents, this shift is predicated by our taking responsibility for ourselves and acting like adults. Regarding God, this means developing our own relationship with our heritage, people, and spirituality beyond what our parents and teachers have offered us.


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