Friday, September 11, 2009

A Renewal of Vows – Parshiyot Nitzavim-Vayelekh
I surf. I’m not particularly good at it, but that doesn’t stop me. A rabbi of mine once told me to always have a hobby you’re bad at – it keeps a person humble. So mostly I go for the rush and the exercise, and for the unique beauty of sitting on the water, staring at nothing but the sea.
            I was out again a few days ago. Towards the end of my session the swell calmed, and I was alone with my thoughts. I had the realization that the sea doesn’t change. Sure, the conditions are different from day to day, but the jetty at Venice beach is in the same place every time; the waves break and curl in from the right; the feeling of being rushed forward as my board takes off and I drop in is the same feeling. To quote Kohelet (,
“All the rivers enter the sea, but the sea is never full; to the place where the rivers flow, there they return.”  (Kohelet 1:7)
            I realized that the sea never changes, but that I come back a different person. I remembered that last year, at almost exactly the same time, I was in the same place, doing the same thing. But last year, I was at the cusp of my career, looking towards my first High Holidays as a rabbi, full of tense excitement as the thought of the first year of my profession. This year, I come back changed.
            This week is a double parsha, Nitzavim and Vayelekh: they’ll be separated during Jewish leap years. The beginning of Nitzavim is powerful, but very odd:
Today you stand before Hashem your God – your leaders, your tribal chiefs, your elders, your law enforcers, every Israelite man, your children, your women, and the strangers in your camp – even your woodcutters and water drawers.
You are thus being brought into the covenant of Hashem your God, and accepting the oath that God is making with you today.” (Deuteronomy 29:9-11)
            This Torah is odd because we’ve been here before. This isn’t the first time that God has brought us into the covenant. There was Sinai, with all that thunder, lightning, God speaking, and some tablets.
            The message, it seems, is that the moment of covenant – a holy contract – is an eternal moment. It is a moment that God and the Jewish people can return to again and again. Perhaps like a relationship, covenant requires renewal to survive.
            The moment of covenant is eternal; it does not change. It is the parties to the covenant that change. We change, for better and for worse; and I have been taught that God changes as well. And our encounter with the unchangeable throws into relief the people that we have become.
            Such an eternal moment is a week away. Rosh HaShanah is, for us, Yom Harat HaOlam, the day that the world was created. I hope for the blessing of sight, to see clearly who we have become, how our world has changed, to be blessed to accept, once again, an old relationship that has become new.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Ki Tavo - The Dignity of Gifts

Parshat Ki Tavo
The Dignity of Gifts

Please share your thoughts, comments, arguments, and questions!

           This week, Torat Moshe is figuring to cover gifts, human dignity, Pesach, God, and the High Holidays all in one short email. Feel free to let us know how we do.
            The beginning of the parshah is unusual - it’s one of the few places in the Torah where a formula for what we’re supposed to say is commanded - Torah has much about what it asks us to do, but rarely a ritualized speech. To summarize briefly, when you get into the land of Israel, in the springtime, take the first of your fruits, put them in a basket, take them to the Temple as an offering, and then recite the story of our people (see the text below).
            This speech, starting in Hebrew as arami oved avi - my ancestor was a homeless Aramaean - is a famous piece of Torah. It is the backbone of the Passover Haggadah, though you may not recognize it because the Haggadah version is broken into pieces and interspersed with Rabbinic commentary. But because of the text’s straightforward, powerful telling of our story in a way that builds into gratitude, the Rabbis made it the heart of the telling of the Passover story.
            What’s intriguing is the question of what this basket of first fruit is: what, exactly is the message of this ritual? A verse from the Prophet Hoshea sheds some light. Hoshea, in the midst of a society whose very fabric is coming apart, describes this as one of the consequences of not being able to recover a moral social structure:

They will not make wine offerings to the God, nor will those offerings be pleasing. Their sacrifices will be like the bread of mourners  - all that eat of them will become unclean, for all their food will be for themselves; none of it will come into the House of God. (Hoshea 9:4)

           The point is this: the ability to bring gifts, to God in this case, is a sign of sufficiency.  It is the perfect ritual for Passover because gift giving is an expression of personal and economic dignity – the statement that I have enough to give to others, that I am grateful for my surfeit. This is precisely what was denied to us in Egypt, where nothing was our own. The inability to give gifts is a sign of degradation and hardship.
             The end of a year that has rocked our sense of stability is right around the corner, together with the beginning of the year to come. But the gift of having our lives shaken up is that much of the nonsense that is a piece of all of us falls away as well. As a blessing and a challenge, let us find the ways in which are sufficient, in which we have more than enough, even in the midst of economic hardship, and give of them as much as we are able.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Scott Perlo

When you come to the land that God your Lord is giving you as a heritage, occupying and settling it, you shall take the first of every fruit of the ground produced by the land that God your Lord is giving you. You must place it in a basket, and go to the site that God will choose as the place associated with His name. There you shall go to the priest officiating at the time, and say to him, 'Today I am affirming to God your Lord that I have come to the land that God swore to our fathers to give us.' The priest shall then take the basket from your hand and place it before the altar of God your Lord. You shall then make the following declaration before God your Lord:
'My ancestor was a homeless Aramaean. He went to Egypt with a small number of men and lived there as an immigrant, but it was there that he became a great, powerful, and populous nation. The Egyptians were cruel to us, making us suffer and imposing harsh slavery on us.
We cried out to God, Lord of our ancestors, and God heard our voice, seeing our suffering, our harsh labor, and our distress. God then brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm with great visions and with signs and miracles. He brought us to this area, giving us this land flowing with milk and honey. I am now bringing the first fruit of the land that God has given me.'
Deuteronomy 26