Monthly Archives: August 2012

D’var Torah – Parshat Eikev 5772

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(This d’var Torah was given on August 11, 2012 at Beth Shalom, Seattle)

 

The last two summers, while in Jerusalem, I frequently went to Kabbalat Shabbat services at Mayanot – a warm and welcoming little shul in Sha’arei Hesed. At first I wasn’t sure I really wanted to go as it has a mechitzah and is Orthodox, but I was assured that the davening was well worth being out of my comfort zone. Truer words have never been spoken. The davening at Mayanot is amazing. It has taken me a few visits and a lot of reflection to figure out what makes it so amazing – coming from Beth Shalom I am used to good davening.  So, what was it that set this place apart – even from other kehillot in Jerusalem where great davening was also happening? Was it the tunes – beautiful Carlebach tunes – nope, heard them other places as well. Was it the fact that the congregation was knowledgeable and could participate? Nope, people elsewhere, people here, know the davening and participate.  There certainly weren’t instruments – unless you count the tables being enthusiastically pounded, the feet stomping and the hands clapping. There was nothing concrete or tangible that was different here than other places – particularly those also in Jerusalem in the same neighborhood. So, what was the difference?  Let’s find out…

This week’s parsha – Eikev – begins with the words “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: God will favor you and bless you and multiply you…” המשפסים האלה – “these rules”. Moses and God have given a lot of rules by this point – 613 even. So, which rules are being referred to by this comment? All of them?  I will admit I wasn’t sure what I was going to say about this parsha and had even written most of a d’var on a very different subject than the one that you are hearing about today. Then, on Tuesday I received my weekly recording of R. Shlomo Katz giving over R. Shlomo Carlebach on the parsha. What follows is hugely indebted to both Shlomos – both Carlebach’s original d’var and Katz’s beautiful and insightful giving over of it.

Carlebach points out that Rashi comments that the mitzvoth being referred to by this phrase –  המשפסים האלה – are not the ones that have been carefully spelled out by God and Moses up to this point in the Torah, but rather those that have not been explicitly commanded but rather only implicitly. Carlebach points out that if God had to tell us these mitzvot specifically, it would lessen our real and close connection with God. If we are really connected to God and to Judaism and what true Yiddishkeit demands of us, according to Carlebach, we would know what this “extra” is that is being commanded here and would be doing it. But, sadly, too often we don’t know what this extra is and only focus on the explicit commands of Judaism and the careful observance of what we have been instructed that we are supposed to do.  But, as a result of just doing what is spelled out in the Torah, the Shulchan Aruch or other halachic guides, we end up with something missing in us and in our Judaism.  Katz says “If you do everything right and holy, you should be walking around with a smile on your face – but most of us aren’t because something is missing and we don’t even know what it is.”

Carlebach uses an example that reminds me of a lesson I used to teach in my fifth grade ethics class. Here is my example – Two men are approached by a homeless man who asks them for $100.00. One of the men makes a face, pulls out his wallet, takes out the requested amount, crumples it up into a ball, throws it at the man and says “Get a job, bum!” The second man smiles, takes out his wallet, only has $20.00 but hands it to the homeless man and says “Sorry. This is all I have today, but please feel free to ask me again.”  So, who has done the bigger mitzvah? The one who gave him the full amount might seem like the right answer and, judging only by the halacha of giving to the poor according to your means, he is in the right. But the second man, who gave b’simcha – with joy and a smile and in a humane and respectful manner, has gone beyond what is commanded to what isn’t commanded. Carlebach and Katz hold that it is this extra – being Jewish b’simcha – and I would add with ahava – love, hesed – lovingkindness and rachamim – compassion –that is really the core and soul of Judaism.  Looking at what a true understanding of all of Torah- what remains with us after we have experienced it – not just the 613 mitzvot – commands of us will bring us to this missing “extra” that Carlebach refers to in his d’var. He makes as strong statement “Friends, I want you to know that all of Yiddishkeit is basically things you don’t have to do. You can get away with everything.”  Or as Katz elaborates “It is what you don’t have to do that makes Torah beautiful.” It is when you know that you have to smile when you give charity that you really get Torah and are living as a Jew in the way God really wants. It’s when you celebrate Shabbat and the haggim b’simcha that you are adding that extra.

Carlebach gives a beautiful example of Jews doing what they understand to be right and being led into great sin as a result. When the spies return from Canaan they are told to tell the truth about what they saw and encountered in the land. They do. They tell the good – big fruit, milk and honey flowing – but they also tell the bad – big people, we felt like insects. They did not lie. Their sin is not lying. Their sin is not trusting that God would take care of the bad and just reporting the good. As Carlebach says “How could you, how could you?” Katz urges us to be machmeer – careful – in what we don’t have to do rather than so much in what we do have to do. We don’t have to tell the whole truth if it will be hurtful or damaging. Carlebach goes on to use examples of how we would talk about our children or spouses – do we really need to let others know their faults? What does love compel us to do?

Rabbi David Hartman addresses this issue was well in his book – “The God who Hates Lies”. He speaks of the intellectualization of halacha and the break from the experiential and communal nature that is essential for Judaism to be a living religion and culture. He states “One of the most important terms in the halachic lexicon describes a person’s status upon performing an obligatory act. Upon doing so, a person has yatza yeday chovatah: fulfilled = literally “exited from” – his or her duty. One effect of this reassuring and oft-repeated declaration is to affirm that, in performing a particular set of halachic requirements, we have done what is required of us. Halachic practice thus becomes to be seen as an end in itself, the fulfillment of a finite set of duties, without being contextualized within a deepening of the relationship with God. This mindset would not seem likely to nurture the kind of religious personality who strives for ever-increasing awareness of the Divine presence…When the relational feature of God-consciousness is present, how can a person ever truly feel that he or she has fulfilled his or her duty? When the currency animating the relationship is love, how can one ever have done enough?” 

Hartman goes on to quote Maimonides who holds up Abraham as an exemplar. “It is the level of Abraham, whom God called, “My lover,” because he worshipped only out of love. And it is the level that God commanded us through Moses, as it says:  “and you must love the Lord your God” And in the moment that a person will love God with the appropriate love – immediately he will perform all of the mitzvoth out of love.  For many modern Jews, it is difficult to connect to halacha based on s traditional Orthodox approach. Hartman, quoting Heschel, addresses this early on in his book – “His (the modern Jew) primary difficulty is not in his inability to comprehend the divine origin of the law; his essential difficulty is in his ability to sense the presence of the divine meaning in the fulfillment of the law.”  We are indifferent to halacha because it does not fit into our moral or ethical mindset. It offends our sense of what is right. It is missing something. It is missing the something extra that Carlebach alludes to and that Hartman states is “putting God consciousness back into our Jewish practice”.

Rabbi Hartman spends much of his book urging Orthodox and other observant Jews to “retool” their communities to this ideal – the performance of mitzvoth out of love not obligation.  He provides a tool for making this change by presenting the question “Which God are we worshipping?” I have used this idea quite a bit since reading his book and feel that it fits in well with the message of Carlebach. What is the true nature of God and what is it that God wants from us as a result of that nature?  If you believe that God is a God of love and that Judaism is founded on a few simple principles – rather than 613 things to do or not do – then getting to what it is that has been missing is easy.  Hartman gives this example “…what would it mean to take seriously the theological implications of this verse encapsulating the ethos of the God of Creation – “The Lord is good to all, and God’s mercy is upon all God’s works” (Ps. 145:9)…” He is discussing it related to the laws of marriage and divorce in an attempt to solve the problem of agunot – women who are “chained” to a husband who will not give them a get and therefore they cannot remarry.  Hartman goes on to say that if we believe God is good to all then we cannot allow gender based imbalances and, I would add, sexual identity or ability based imbalances. Carlebach states he would rather sit in Gehenom with those who break Torah than in Gan Eden with those who spank their children because the Shulchan Aruch says they can. He gets that God wants us to show love and treat others with hesed and rachamim – even when not doing this would be within the bounds of Torah. Hartman tells us to adjust our halacha to fit our moral understanding of what God really wants from us.  I would point out that this is not a new idea – our sages over two thousand years ago created a very high bar for considering a son to be a rebellious or a glutton and a drunkard. Why? Because they could not bring themselves to believe that a God of love really wanted parents to request that their children be stoned. Just because the Torah allows it, doesn’t mean we should do it.

Carlebach goes on to point out that only the first four books of Torah are Torah sh’bichtav – written Torah. Oral Torah begins with Sefer D’varim because it is Moses retelling what is in the previous four books. Moses does not give a faithful retelling – look at the Eseret Hadebrot – the Ten Commandments in Yitro versus Etchanan – they aren’t identical and some of the changes are huge – shamor versus zachor, as I outlined in a different d’var, for example. Carlebach states that D’varim is what was left in Moses after his experience of God and that it is this idea of what is left when you are by yourself or yontif is over that is really important. According to the Ishbitzer Rebbe “When G-d talks to me, the questions isn’t what I feel when God is talking to me, the question is what do I feel when it’s over? What do you feel when you are left by yourself?…what do you do when Yom Kippur is over…when Shabbos is over?”  We all clop our chests and repent on Yom Kippur because that is what we are supposed to do. Do we also do it the other days of the year when we don’t have to do it? We love Shabbat between candle lighting and havdalah. Do we miss it when it is gone? Do we long for it all week? Are we in touch with what God wants and with what we feel Judaism means AFTER our encounter with prayer or learning?  As Carlebach puts it “God wants to see do you know the letters of the Torah or do you know the inside of the Torah?…What is left inside you after you learn Torah?”

And this brings me back to Mayanot and their amazing davening.  The last Friday I was in Israel this summer, I turned to Yiscah during Mizmor l’David and said “How the hell am I supposed to go home after this?” The davening at Mayanot is so beautiful – it elevates my soul and makes me cry. Why? Because the members of this holy kehilla LOVE Shabbat. They are in true ecstasy at welcoming Shabbat. They are celebrating with their voices, their hands and their feet. Men, and women, dance and sing and stomp with pure unadulterated love of Shabbat. They love Shabbat, they love being Jewish and they are connected in a strong and meaningful way to God. They welcome strangers to their homes for meals and their love of Shabbat and Judaism shines there as well. Shabbat morning is equally spirited. They drag out the end of Shabbat with spirited seudat shlishi gatherings that linger through havdalah and into the new week. They aren’t there because they have to be there – because there are required bits of davening to be done in addition to Kabbalat Shabbat. They are there for that extra – for a true love and joy at being Jewish.  They aren’t concerned with the checklist of what needs to be done, but rather with the spiritually fulfilling task of what isn’t commanded but is really at the soul of Yiddishkeit.

Of course, how I come home is that here I have my husband, my friends, my communities at Beth Shalom and JDS and a job that I love. I see this idea of the power of this extra piece – what happens when we serve out of love rather than duty – most clearly in my work as a teacher. Despite the long, uncompensated, hours rewriting curriculum, dealing with hormonal teenagers and having to grade all that work I foolishly assign, I love my job. It is this love that makes all of the other – potentially negative – parts unimportant. When one loves what one is doing, it isn’t work. It is a calling. When one loves being Jewish and living Jewishly then that will reflect in how they live and what their Judaism looks like. They will walk around with a smile and will perform the required mitzvoth with joy. They will also not perform things that are technically allowed but not in keeping with the ideas of ahavah, hesed and rachamim. It will be the doing of what is not required that will set them apart.  May we all be moved to do what isn’t required and doing it b’simcha – with joy.