The service that concludes Yom Kippur is known as ne’ilah, roughly meaning “the hour of
the closing of the gates”—a reference to the last opening afforded to us for
repentance and renewal as the Days of Awe draw to an end.
As this sacred season ends, so it commences. This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, is always read at the beginning
of Elul, the month of self-reflection and preparation that precedes the fall
holy days. It opens: “Judges and
officers you shall appoint for yourselves in all your gates.” On a surface level, this injunction calls us
to establish a legal system, but most commentators delve deeper into the
imagery of gates. The Hasidic teacher Mei Shiloach (Rabbi Mordechai Yosef
Leiner of Izbica) reads the passage as a spiritual imperative, identifying the
gates with the seven physical openings through which we take in the world: two
eyes, two ears, two nostrils, and a mouth.
What does this metaphor teach us? If we understand the “gates” in the passage
to be the instruments of our sensory perception, what would it mean for us to
appoint “judges” over each of them? Mei HaShiloach implies that we must
carefully govern both the information we seek to acquire and the ways in which
we use that information. Our challenge
is to make every effort to view the world through positive attributes such as
justice, kindness, compassion, and honesty.
If this was true for Mei
HaShiloach almost two centuries ago, all the more does it apply to us, for
we live in an age of information overload.
Our senses are bombarded daily with images and ideas—many of which are
far from positive. What we choose to
take in goes a long way toward determining what we, in turn, put back out into
the world. Now, more than ever, we must
be vigilant guardians of our “gates.”
In his wonderful book on our fall holy days, This is Real and You are Completely
Unprepared, Rabbi Alan Lew reminds us: “Judges shall you put in all your
gates. This is how Teshuvah begins. When Elul comes around again, watch the
window. Keep a mindful eye on the gates
of the soul.” As Elul begins, this
Tuesday, and through the days that will bring us to Rosh Hashanah, try paying
closer attention to all that enters your “gates” and how it affects your
emotions and actions.
With this piece, I mark my twentieth anniversary as a
Statesman columnist. When I joined the paper’s rotation of clergy writers,
shortly after moving to Boise in 1994, I could not have envisioned that I’d
still be doing it two decades later. I’m
deeply grateful for this opportunity, and to all of my editors, who have been,
without exception, wise and very patient.
It has been a great pleasure to work with them all. Through this experience, I have gained
enormous respect for all of the professional op-ed writers, national and local,
who somehow manage to publish two or three articles every week—my bi-monthly
deadline is more than difficult enough for me!
I am taking this milestone as an occasion to look back at my
collected columns and try to discern some running themes. Although a lot has changed since I started writing
in an age before internet and email, I do find some common leitmotifs.
I’ve dabbled a bit in
the expected religious topics: debates over doctrine and practice, biblical
interpretation, Jewish theology and tradition, God and prayer. I’ve shared personal stories about growing up
as a rabbi’s kid and raising my own family, confessed my ambivalent
relationship with Facebook and social media, and offered tributes to some of my
personal heroes: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, paleontologist Stephen Jay
Gould, musicians Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, and my father, Rabbi Arnold
Fink. I’ve written dispatches from
distant places while on sabbatical, from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Ronda, Spain,
and even sent one in from a month-long trek in Nepal. And, of course, I’ve done numerous stories
from Israel, our Jewish homeland, where I have lived and worked on several
occasions. Many of those focus on the
normalcy of daily life, which is rarely portrayed in the media, but I’ve also
addressed the critical issues of war and peace from my perspective as a proud
progressive Zionist. This can be tough
going; as I re-read my 2009 column on war in Gaza, I was struck by how little
emendation it would need to speak to the situation now, five long years
later. That breaks my heart.
But the vast majority of my columns over the past twenty
years deal with issues at the intersection of faith and politics: stewardship
of God’s creation, separation of church and state, hunger and homelessness,
religion and reproductive rights, economic justice, gun control, health care as
a human right, feminism, education reform, and the battle for full equality for
the LGBT community.
Above all, I see that I have returned, again and again, to
the question of how our culture cares (or fails to care) for its most
vulnerable members: racial and religious minorities, the poor, immigrants, the
elderly and the sick and handicapped, lesbians and gay men. These matters cross the boundaries between
religion and journalism because they are, in fact, the fundamental concerns of
all human beings living in community. It
has been a privilege to be able to wrestle with—and write about—all of them,
and to share my thoughts with you, my readers. I look forward to continuing the discussion
for many years to come.
“See, I set before you
today a blessing and a curse.”
11: 26, opening of portion Re’eh
“The past is a source
of knowledge and the future is a source of hope. Love of the past implies faith
in the future.”
The entire book of Deuteronomy is, essentially, Moses’
farewell speech to the people he has led for the past four decades. Now 120 years old, he will soon die, and
Joshua will lead a new generation of Israelites, born into freedom in the
wilderness, into the Promised Land. As
he speaks, Moses recalls the past, again and again, as a source of guidance for
the future. He is afraid that as they
establish themselves in Canaan, the people will forget from whence they came
and grow ungrateful, taking their manifold blessings for granted. And so he urges them to remember their
history and learn from it. He teaches
us that by reflecting on the choices that we have made—for both good and bad,
blessing and curse—we can learn and grow and choose more wisely on the road ahead.
This is critical for us, both collectively and as
individuals. Looking at current events, I
often see signs of a deeply disturbing national forgetfulness. Just consider some of the vituperative
rhetoric (and policy) on the subject of immigration. How have we so quickly forgotten that all of
our forebears, save for those of the Native American population among us, came
to these shores as immigrants? When we
remember our own history, we should realize how callous it is to deny others
the same opportunities that have proven so advantageous for us.
And as individuals, we Jews have a special obligation to
reflect on the past in this sacred season.
The Hebrew month of Elul begins in just a little over a week, on August
26. That marks the commencement of our
traditional period of preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—the Days of
Awe. Our tradition urges us to use this
time for a spiritual accounting (cheshbon
nefesh) of our actions of the past year.
We consider our choices, our blessings and curses, and use our insights
to help us improve our deeds in the year to come.
Financial advisors always caution: “Past performance is not
a guarantee of future returns.” To
which, in the spiritual realm, I’d say: “Thank God.” Knowing the past, we can change the
future. Now that’s a miracle for which I’m
very grateful, indeed.