The Power of Forgiveness
August 31, 2018
We are in the last days before the High Holy Days begin. The dominant themes of this holy period are teshuva, literally “return”, achieved through asking for and granting forgiveness; tzedakah, literally “righteousness” but during this holy period it is used as the righteous act of making charitable donations; and t’filah, prayer. During Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur our focus will turn to prayer and in these pre-holiday weeks, our attention is on forgiveness and tzedakah.
Forgiveness is the most difficult, both to ask for it and to grant it. As I wrote last week, it must be accompanied by genuine remorse and a commitment to never repeat the act for which one is asking for forgiveness.
In recent days, we have learned many lessons about forgiveness as we heard stories about the life of Senator John McCain, may his soul rest in peace. Like Ted Kennedy, Senator McCain was that rare politician who could argue by day with his adversaries in the Senate and socialize with the same opponents when not in session. As Senator Jeff Flake, his fellow Arizona Republican, commented on the Sunday morning news shows, said, “Senator John McCain’s greatest lesson was to forgive and to see the good in his opponents.” We know this is true because of the wide range of comments of praise, many beginning with, “I didn’t agree with his politics but…”
Further evidence of his ability to forgive is that he asked two of those opponents to deliver his eulogies, former Presidents George W. Bush and Barak Obama.
Over the years I have often taught you about the relationship between Talmudic sages Hillel and Shammai. They were opponents in their interpretations of Jewish law. Yet they serve for the ages as the models for machloket l’shem shamayim, disagreements for the sake of heaven (though a time did come when their disagreements escalated into a conflict). Nonetheless, we use them to teach us to question our motivations and to argue not for personal gain but for the greater good and wellbeing of one another, and to admit when we are wrong.
These models should inspire us during these days as we struggle with our own interpersonal relationships and what we can do to improve them.
May you have a week of blessings and a Shabbat of peace
Preparing for the Season of Change
August 23, 2018
Look in the sky each night; the moon serves as our High Holiday ticking clock. As we watch the moon grow in size, and then decrease, we have our countdown until the start of Rosh Hashanah.
One of the central themes of the holy season is t’shuvah, repentance. The partner of repentance is forgiveness. Jewish tradition tells us to reach out to people we might have harmed, through speech or deed, during the past year and ask for forgiveness. And to be forgiving to those who reach out to us.
But there are behaviors that shouldn’t be forgiven. Rabbi Bradley Artson describes them this way: “…our tradition teaches that God does not respect every action. And God’s love does not cover for acts of disrespect, for acts of brutality, for acts of exclusion. Our tradition teaches us…those who love the Lord must hate evil. It is sometimes a mitzvah to hate. There are behaviors done, so atrocious, that the only way to not hate them is to kill your moral sensibility, to make yourself ethically dead. And to do that is, to the contrary, not an act of religious piety; it is an abandonment of religion. If God commands justice, if God liberates slaves from Pharaoh, then our job is to love those who deserve to be loved: the weak, the powerless, those who are outcasts. But those who behave in ways that are cruel and crushing, they do not deserve our love; they deserve our resistance…(But) If you are presented with someone who shows sincere remorse, is committed to never repeating the behavior again, demonstrates that by making good as good as possible, then by all means you have an obligation from the Torah to forgive…” (Times of Israel blog, October 2016)
These are our guidelines for receiving forgiveness and for forgiving others – the order is important – the first two must come before the third: the abandonment of sin; the feeling of remorse; asking for forgiveness; and providing the assurance never to repeat the sin.” (Rabbi Yohanan Yahon, 9th Century)
May your preparations for the season of change go well and may you have a week of blessings and a Shabbat of peace.
August 17, 2018
The word Shoftim means “judges”, the first word in this week’s parasha (selected reading) and its underlying theme. We are told at the beginning of the parasha to create a just judicial system and a righteous society.
This week, we learned that the next Supreme Court candidate would come before Senate hearings on September 4th. During the selection hearings, the candidate will be grilled about his ability to weigh judgments without prejudice and to not allow his personal biases to influence his decisions. These are the same questions put before any Supreme Court nominee. It is the same criteria emphasized in this week’s Torah reading, stressing that judges must possess the ability to “govern with due justice.” The Torah is specific: do not judge unfairly, show no partiality, take no bribes. The instructions end with one of Torah’s most famous quotations: Justice, justice shall you pursue! (Deut. 16:20)
Notice the word Torah uses in this instruction, pursue. This is the second time in Torah we are told “to pursue”; the other time it is used is “to pursue peace.” Pursuit conveys a sense of urgency and eagerness. Don’t just wait for the opportunity to behave justly – pursue justice!
The command doesn’t just refer to those who are employed in the legal system. It refers to all of us, to society at large. Each of us must judge one another fairly, and we must be sure that the most vulnerable, the neediest, among us are cared for. It is a responsibility that rests on all of us. Justice is one of the primary religious categories of Judaism, the very foundation of what it means to be a Jew.
On another note, the Hebrew month of Elul began Sunday. The countdown to Rosh Hashanah has begun. I hope during this time you will warm up your prayer muscles by attending services. You are also welcome to drop into the sanctuary for some private meditative time. Please check with me (firstname.lastname@example.org) to make sure the holy space is not being used.
May you have a week of blessings and a month of spiritual repair.
Look and Listen
August 10, 2018
“Re’eh – see – I am placing before you this day a blessing and a curse….” (Deuteronomy 11:26)
While studying this week’s parasha (chapter), I couldn’t move beyond the first word, “re’eh”. Last week’s Torah parasha focused on the word shema, listen. This week the dominate theme is look, see.
Why did Moses begin with the imperative, see? What is it that they should see?
Moses is speaking to the second generation of Israelites just before they enter the Promise Land. The first generation wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. This generation did not have the first-hand experience of slavery. But they also missed the experience of seeing God’s miracles in Egypt, of seeing the sea split so they could pass, of witnessing the giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai.
We have all been told that “seeing is believing.” Moses is speaking to the next generation who didn’t see the plagues or the splitting of the Red Sea but they heard about it from their parents or from Moses’ discourse in Deuteronomy. Moses is telling them now: don’t just listen to the stories. Soon you have the opportunity to see God’s miracles for yourself! You will enter the land and you will see what happens when you follow God’s commandments! You will be blessed.
May you have a week of blessings and a Shabbat of peace.
August 3, 2018
I have returned from my vacation. During the month, you were never far from my thoughts, and I return to you with gratitude for our relationship, for your trust in me to be your spiritual leader, for the opportunity to continue to serve you and the Holy One of blessings.
How appropriate that this Shabbat of my return is the Shabbat of gratitude. In this week’s Torah reading, Moses is offering his final speech before his death (it’s a long speech and will continue for the next 7 weeks of Torah readings). He cautions the Israelites that they will have prosperity and good health if they follow the commandments. He reminds them that just as God provided for them in the wilderness, God will provide for them when they reach the Promised Land.
And Moses reminds them to be grateful for these gifts from the Holy One. When they are farming the land, would they give themselves all the credit or would they remember to thank the ultimate Source of their blessing? In this chapter, we read the words that became the Birkat HaMazon, the blessing after the meal: When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to Adonai your God for the good land which God has given you (Deuteronomy 8:10). We say a blessing at the beginning of the meal, ha-motzi, thanking God for “the bread of the earth.” Then, we express our gratefulness when we complete our meal, when we have “eaten our fill,” with the Birkat Ha-Mazon.
It only takes a moment to chant Birkat HaMazon, but expressing one’s gratitude will elevate your mealtimes and bring a sense of sanctity to your kitchen table. Here is a very abbreviated version in English that I encourage you to use if you are not comfortable reciting the Hebrew or the entire text:
Blessed is our God, Sovereign of the universe, who provides food for all. We thank our God with praise, as it is written: When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to your God for the good land which God has given you. Blessed is God for the land and its produce.
May God who continually shows us kindness continue offering goodness to us and continue to bless us with grace, loving kindness, compassion, deliverance, prosperity, redemption, consolation, sustenance, and mercy; a life of peace and all goodness. May God never withhold goodness from us. Amen.