‘In your heart…’ – Shabbat Nitzavim 5779 (2019)

My teacher Rabbi Harold Kushner once shared a challenge that he and a fellow rabbinical student extended to one another to write full sermons based on window signs that they had seen in the neighborhood near the Jewish Theological Seminary. The sign that I remember hearing about from Rabbi Kushner read “Help Wanted Inquire Within.” 

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Punctuation matters. Those words can be read in more than one way. ‘Help Wanted. Inquire Within.’ means one thing, while ‘Help Wanted? Inquire Within.’ conveys an entirely different message. Let’s stay with version two. Where might I find help? Habitually, and perhaps logically, we tend to look outside of ourselves for help of various kinds. Counter-intuitively, says our sign, ‘inquire within.’ It’s a beautiful message for this last week of Elul and this final Shabbat of 5779. 

My teacher, Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appel understands our parasha, Nitzavim, as an extended word of encouragement to have (or find) the confidence that “what we need is what we already have.” The guidance and wisdom we seek is not “beyond reach” – neither “in the heavens” nor “beyond the sea” in the Torah’s words. “No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14) In Rabbi Bendat-Appel’s lovely formulation, “it’s all there in my lived experience.” Help wanted? Inquire within!

“In your heart.” Vaclav Havel, playwright and political leader extraordinaire, makes a powerful claim. “…the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and in human responsibility. Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better…” Salvation comes from within, says Havel. That’s the heart of the matter. The Torah agrees and invites each of us to inquire within in search of wisdom, comfort, hope, and wholeness. 

Lo ba-shamayim hi – It is not in the heavens.” Rather it is “in your mouth and in your heart.” Inquire within. Search on!

 

Shabbat Shalom & Shanah Tovah. 

Starting Over – Shabbat Ki Tavo 5779 (2019)

Here’s a radical idea. “With each and every breath we receive renewed vital force (from God)…with each breath we are made a new creation.” That’s Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev’s answer to his own question – “How can we experience each day as if it were new?”

It’s a perfect query for the middle of Elul, just a few weeks from the end of the current year and the beginning of a new one. Behind Levi Yitzhak’s question is the thought that renewal isn’t just an annual exercise. It isn’t even just a daily exercise. Renewal happens constantly, breath by breath, or at the very least it can. Why? Because every inhalation delivers hayyut – Divine life force – directly to each one of us. And with that infusion of vitality, we can begin again.

Levi Yitzhak’s concept of constant and continual renewal reminds me of a line from one of Solomon Schechter’s ‘Seminary Addresses’ which speaks of “a present which forms a link between two eternities, representing an answer of Amen to the past and an Opening Prayer to the future…”

 

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That’s the moment we occupy now. That’s the moment we eternally occupy. It is always now and it can always be new if we allow it.

My teacher, Rabbi Jonathan Slater, sees in this insight the inner logic and wisdom of teshuvah. “Over and over we are offered another moment in which we can transform our hearts, our intentions, our lives. What are the conditions under which we will be able to awaken to God’s presence in the world? How will we attain a balanced, meaningful life?…When we step back from our habitual responses, we give ourselves the space to see an alternativeway of behaving. We experience the possibility of becoming someone new.”

Or, as my teacher, Rabbi John Lennon, famously put it, “It’ll be just like starting over.” Amen to the past, Opening Prayer to the future. That’s where we stand right here, right now. So, take another breath and draw in the Divine life force. It’s happening today, everyday, always.

Shabbat Shalom

Boundaries & Borders – Shabbat Shoftim 5779 (2019)

lo tasig g’vul rei’ekha – Don’t move (or move back) your fellow’s landmark.

So begins the Torah’s statement regarding the inviolability of boundary markers. Here’s the full verse: You shall not move your countryman’s landmarks, set up by previous generations, in the property that will be allotted to you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess.” [Deuteronomy 19:14]

Maimonides summarizes the Talmudic understanding of this norm: “If a man removed his neighbor’s landmark and included some of his area into his own, even as much as a finger’s length, he is deemed a robber if he did it forcibly, and a thief if he removed it secretly. If he removed a landmark in Eretz Yisrael, he has broken two prohibitions: robbery or theft, and: ‘You shall not move your countryman’s landmarks’ (Deuteronomy 19:14). This last prohibition is applicable only in Eretz Yisrael, since it is written in the same verse: ‘In the inheritance which you will hold in the land…'” [Laws of Theft 7:11]

 

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[Border stone from 1763 between Norway and Sweden, located in the Arctic]

 

Our tradition, as is its wont, also reads this command in metaphorical terms. Bible scholar Jeffrey Tigay explains that “in halakhic literature this admonition against encroachment was widely expanded to encompass other types of misappropriation, such as wrong attributions of rabbinic dicta, and eventually to copyright violations.” [JPS Torah Commentary, Deuteronomy, p. 183]

I’m inclined to follow that impulse to read figuratively, and to recognize in the Torah’s command a very suggestive piece of guidance and direction. There are many ‘types of misappropriation’ to ponder from the political to the personal and beyond. National borders and their significance certainly come to mind. Personal boundaries, their protection and their all too frequent violation, come to mind as well.

Respect for appropriate limits is part of the foundation of rabbinic thinking and Jewish ethics. Honoring one another’s boundaries is the starting point of ethical living; knowing one’s own limits is the starting point of healthy living. Hasagat g’vul – litererally ‘the moving of landmarks’  – is the rabbinic phrase for boundary violation writ large. One short verse in the Torah; one very large ethical concern that touches our lives on every level, every day.

Shabbat Shalom!