Friday, September 25, 2015

Haazinu 5776, September 2015; Gentleness and Strength

Moshe directed Heaven and Earth to be his witnesses as they are permanent and unchanging in their essence. Yes, clouds can pass across the sky, earthquakes can even alter the landscape, but the real nature of Heaven and Earth remain just as a person's inner essence does not change no matter whether his mood is good or not, and whether or not he does teshuvah for his sins he himself is still that one person (though he can be as if reborn if he does teshuvah). In the times of the Torah, the heavens were seen as a male influence on the world, and the very earth the female essence of creation. Together, mediated by G-d, they create our entire natural experience.
The rain in its time and the dew in its time and we will have
crops, arbah minim, schach, and all we need. And the little
children grow with the influence of their parents and other
male and female adults in their lives.
Moreover, Moshe went on to state that his words would be "like a  torrential rain which uproots…and causes great harm. Tzror Hamor reminds us that storms help crops grow stronger. Rain itself likewise was considered essentially male; it could benefit but it could destroy subsistence falling at the wrong strength or the wrong time.  Mostly though it was life giving, just as is the Torah. Both are essential for the world, both come from Heaven, both cleanse and purify, both develop seeds (the Torah metaphorically developing the seeds of spirituality within one's heart) (Rashi).

Yet Moshe then went on to say, "My saying shall trickle like dew."  Dew seems almost to spring from the ground and is historically thought of as feminine, gentle. Dew is never a negative agriculturally for the crops of Eretz Yisroel. It never interferes, it is never dangerous to man. In the same way that everyone in Eretz Yisroel rejoiced uniformly at dew, so Torah is always a cause for rejoicing (Sifrei).
This photo doesn't begin to show how steep
the path truly was, somehow it shows it more
leveled out than in reality. It would have been
terribly dangerous to descend in heavy rain.

I was recently hiking and was on very steep trails. I feared the coming rain greatly, for there would have been no safe way to get down the path at all. It would have been a complete flood immediately if real rain began to fall. Such is the power of rain on our minds, to control our actions. But we must change our actions to follow the Torah, and sometimes a strong reminder is necessary. Keeping this metaphor fresh in our minds can help.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Parshas Vayeilech -- All Together Now 9/18/15

Parshsas Vayeilech
Dt. 31:1-30

This week’s parsha is closely related to last week’s Parshas Nitzavim and they are read either together on or during Rosh Hashanah. In the Chayenu publication there is an insightful thought concerning the two parshios, they note that “parshat Nitzavim focuses on G-d’s side of the covenant, while parshat Vayeilech focuses on the Jewish people’s side of the covenant.”  Let’s begin this week’s d’var Torah by revisiting the opening line from Parshas Nitzavim:

“You, all [together], are standing today before the Eternal, your God:”

What I like about this line is that it reminds us that we are all in this together! So with that in mind let’s move into this week’s parsha.

“Moshe then went and spoke these words to all Yisrael. He said to them,’” Today I am one hundred and twenty years old. I may no longer go out or enter, [for] the Eternal has said to me, ‘You will not cross over this Yarden.’”  

I cannot imagine what hearing those words must have felt like to B’nai Yisroeal, who as fledgling nation are about to cross over into the Promised Land, but now they hear that they will do so without their beloved leader, Moshe Rabbeinu. Yet Hashem, who has never left any generation, bereft of a Shepherd, has the entire nation as witnesses to the installation of Yehoshua. What follows next is the first of three repetitions of strong encouragement that gets right at what any of us might have felt in that moment.

First to the people and then twice to Yehoshua, Moshe says, “Be strong and be firm”, some translations say courageous instead of firm, but the message then and now is we must, as a united people, stand strong and with courage, and might I also suggest pride in our Yiddishikeit. All we have to do is look around our world to see just how important it is that this reality has a home in our heart and mind. But if and when we falter, we have the very next verse to comfort and strengthen us,

“But it is the Eternal who is leading before; He will be with, [and] will not let you slip [from His grasp] nor forsake you.” v.8

When we place our eyes on the Creator King of the universe going before us into all matters of life, it truly helps during our times of distress to know who has the lead that we can safely follow. Once this part of the message has been established, the parsha turns to a small but powerful act. Moshe writes down the Torah on 13 scrolls and places them in the Ark of the Covenant, which also contains the Tablets. There are many places you can go to deepen your own spiritual understanding of this segment including, but as I have pondered verse 9 in relation to my theme for this blog, I cannot help but think of the Tablets as the Divine Holy Writ that is Hashem’s part of the covenant and the scrolls, which are written by a human hand with ink, are our part. The thing about ink is that it can fade and I feel as if it’s up to us, “we together who are standing here today”, to strive to make sure that this never happens through ahavas Hashem and ahavas Yisroel. And again our beautiful, holy G-d makes what can seem like a daunting task easier, by placing them both in the Holy of Holies where they meet eternally. I can think of no mightier safe.

Parshas Vayeilech is rich, deep and broad and a blog cannot contain all its riches, so it is my responsibility to pick what to write about and what to leave out. But how can we not talk about the Hakhel year that follows the Shemittah, when we are now in one?
 Our parsha continues with an explanation of this seventh year commandment to come together as one nation before our king and hear him read aloud portions of Devarim/Deuteronomy. But we don’t have a king and we aren’t exactly in our “promised land” are we…? So how might we apply this to our lives today? In his book entitled, Daily Wisdom, The Lubavitcher Rebbe, OBM writes, “The objective of this assembly [Hakhel] was to strengthen the foundations of Jewish education and observance.” So get together with friends and family, in small gatherings or large, even on FB and encourage one and other with Torah values, ahavas Yisroel and the activity of Mitzvot. We can and must do this for one and other. Sukkot is coming, the parsha tells us that this was the time during the Hakhel to hear the king; Sukkot is coming and we have a wonderful time to share our King’s will and wisdom with each other.

There are so many more gems in Parshas Vayeilech and I really wish we could explore how a song, the earth and the heavens are witnesses to the covenant between Hashem and His people; perhaps another time. For now, as we move through the Days of Awe, and come to Yom Kippur, where we will once again stand together and with one voice confess the Al Chet for Am Echad, I hope that your fast is meaningful and light.
Kol Tov
Robin Z

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Friday, September 11, 2015

Nitzavim, September 11, 2015 - Where do we find the mitzvot?

*Author's Note - I am not very skilled at condensing research into my own words.  Instead I try to use readings and study by our Sages to inform my opinions, outlook, and perceptions.  In this post I am merely sharing my interpretations and opinions of this week's Parshah.  So, just keep in mind, this is my opinion only.  :)
A big thank you to Elise for allowing me to share my thoughts (and be a bit vulnerable) with all of you!!

In this week’s Parshah, Nitzavim, we see both a warning and a promise from Hashem.  Hashem both warns us of the dire consequences of turning our hearts away from him, but also promises us long lasting abundance if we do not do so.  We have a great opportunity to provide joy for Hashem.  

Specifically meaningful to me this week is when Hashem explains to us that despite him asking the seemingly impossible, it’s not at all impossible.  The mitzvot and the opportunity for joy is not in heaven, and it is not beyond the sea.  “It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it.”

To explain why this portion has special meaning to me, let me tell you a little bit about myself.  I am a 29 year old mother of two small children.  I love my children with all of my heart, but they are exhausting me.  It’s not just me, family has been lovingly chiming in about how much of a handful they really are.  I recently moved from a very rural area to a very big city.  I transferred Universities and I am now in a much more difficult Accounting program than previous, and the sheer amount of homework I have is drowning me.  These are just some of the details about my life, but I tell you them to convey: I’m stressed.  I find myself having to work harder and harder in my prayers and the mitzvot I perform are becoming increasingly more difficult to maintain.

So for me, this reminder couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.  The mitzvot are practical, and Hashem placed them within our reach.  Who knows me and my capabilities better than the Lord our 
G-d?  Who am I to question my abilities in this stressful time?  So if you will allow me, I would like to delve further into this specific part of the Parshah.  

To start with, Devarim 30:11 states “For this commandment which I command you this day, it is not concealed from you, nor is it far away.  It continues on with verse 12 “It is not in heaven, that you should say, "Who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?” and 13 “Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?"  All of this is to say, Hashem has not given us anything impossible or unattainable.

We don’t need special abilities to reach to heaven or beyond the sea, and we don’t need x-ray vision to figure out exactly what the covenant means to our relationship with Hashem.  We don’t need special assistance to know or understand the mitzvot and it doesn’t take some great feat to have them in our lives.  But if these are all of the things that the Torah and the mitzvot are not, then where are they?

When I read the next line “it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it”  I actually read it in my mind incorrectly.  It’s probably because I’m not a slow, careful enough reader, but I tend to read it as “in your heart and in your mouth.”  But why do I do this automatic flip?  Is it because it seems more natural to do so?  Is it more human to do so?  I think yes.  We all like to believe that what is in our hearts determines what comes out of our mouths.  However, the “fake it till you make it” philosophy tells us otherwise.  We’ve all heard the mantra that if you do it enough times, you will believe it.

Here it is right in the Torah.  The mitzvot are first and foremost in our mouth.  We say and do the things we are required to do.  Then we are able to find them in our heart.  We haven’t been commanded to perform mitzvot solely for G-d’s pleasure, it’s because he has designed the world in such a way that the performance brings us joy as well.  

So now we know where the key lies, within us.  It’s what we say and do and it’s what we hold in our hearts.  That’s how we perform mitzvot, that’s how we connect to G-d, and that’s how someone like me who is going through a rough patch continues to have faith and persevere.  In Nitzavim G-d promises wonderful and amazing things for all those that choose to follow in His path.  No matter how many times we choose the wrong path, the right path is always open to us and we can always cleave to Hashem.  It’s important to note here that the contract given to the people of Israel was for all past generations and all future generations.  It was given to us as a whole and to each of us individually.

When you understand Hashem gave us the very pieces and the very strength we needed right in our own mouths and our own hearts, we find peace with G-d.  

Friday, September 4, 2015

Ki Tavo 5775, September 2015, Using our Gifts

This week's parsha is best known for the blessings and curses section, yet before that we learn about the mitzvah of bringing bikkurim, first fruits, to the Beis Hamikdash. What is so special that we should learn this so prominently, and what is the point of bringing single items in groups to Jerusalem with such ceremony?

The mitzvah itself is to mark the first growth of any of the special species of the land of Israel on land we own each year (those being barley, wheat, grapes, dates,  pomegranates, figs, and olives); and then to to bring those specific grown products in a basket to the holy Temple together with the rest of one's settlement area all traveling together in procession. Important people of the city of Jerusalem would come greet them as they approached, and then all the residents whom they passed would stand as they approached them personally.

It says in Mishlei, "Honor G-d from your wealth and from the first of all your harvest; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your winepresses will burst with wine." It is our trust in G-d which allows us to receive what we do. Not that one receives in this world directly in proportion to his honoring of G-d, but only through honoring G-d at all does the entire world receive any portion.

One must not think that by giving, his own possessions are diminished, for it is G-d and not we ourselves who determine our own portion. Again in Mishlei it states, "There is he who scatters, and yet increases more."

Only in mitzvahs of giving is one allowed to test G-d, in fact, not in mitzvahs of accumulating or receiving. For it says in Malachi, "Test Me with this. Give tithes and charity and see if I will make you wealthy."
Perhaps your gift is juggling? No, really, my beloved husband
has many gifts and is blessed to have the wisdom to use them
in the name and honor of Ha Kodesh Baruch H-
As B'nai Yisroel are called "the first of G-d's harvest," in Yirmeyahu; and Toldos Yitchak writes that so we are commanded and taught to bring our first fruits in both literal and figurative senses. This means that the mitzvah is valid even today. The chachamim explain this means that anything one has as a gift in character or ability is his gift from G-d and should be treated as bikkurim. This can be material wealth, in which case one has the responsibility to do good to others as the physical representation of G-d's works on Earth in this era without a Beis Hamikdash. One who has no real material wealth though may have other gifts--a beautiful voice, a wise mind, an ability to write coherently, an knack for teaching others, artistic skills, anything. One is thus commanded to use these skills not for personal aggrandizement, but for the honor of G-d, to make one's fear and love of G-d known and publicly shown. This is a mitzvah every single person can do, for we all have gifts even if the gift is not so obvious like a loving heart which makes others feel drawn in; or a quiet nature which allows others to notice the holiness about them in the world. It's important we each keep in mind consciously what our gifts are, that they are G-d given, that they are part of us, and that we can use them in G-d's honor to perform a mitzvah otherwise inaccessible.