Sunday, September 15, 2019

Ki Tavo (Modeh Ani/Bright Morning Stars)

“When you enter the land that the Eternal your God is giving you as a heritage. . . you shall take some of the first fruits of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Eternal your God is giving you, put it in a basket, and got to the place where the Eternal your God will choose to establish the divine name.”

Gratitude—in Hebrew ha-karat ha-tov, literally recognizing the good—is a critical and sometimes difficult virtue to practice.  This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo bears this out.  The parshah opens with a ceremony of thanksgiving in which, each year, the Israelites offer the first fruits of their harvest to the priests in the Temple.  In this ritual drama, they recall their history of difficult challenges, celebrate God’s liberating power, and express their gratitude for their blessings. 

Commenting on this ritual, Maimonides focuses on the dangers of prosperity, which, if we are not mindful, can leave us spoiled and ungrateful.  He notes: “Offering the first fruits is a way people accustom themselves to being generous and a means of limiting the human appetite for more consumption, no only of food but of property…For people who amass fortunes and live in comfort often fall victim to self-centered excesses and arrogance.  They tend to abandon ethical considerations out of increasingly selfish concerns.  Bringing a basket of first fruits and reciting the prayer promotes humility.”

All too often, as Maimonides notes, we fail to recognize the blessings in our lives until they are threatened.  As Joni Mitchell famously put it, “You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone.”  Our challenge is to put the lie to this teaching, to be thankful for what we’ve got before it’s gone.

Psychologist Robert Emmons echoes Maimonides’ concerns in his book, Thanks: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier.   Reflecting on what he calls “the poverty of affluence”, he reminds us that our wealthy, consumerist culture fuels ingratitude with its obsession with what we do not yet have.  We are constantly bombarded by messages to buy things we do not need, under the false premise that they will somehow make us happy.  But the true path to happiness lies not in acquisition but in gratitude—in wanting what we’ve got.

As we approach the Days of Awe, try to focus just a little more on enjoying what you have and counting your blessings rather than lamenting what you lack.   You might begin by keeping a gratitude journal, briefly noting, each day, a blessing or two for which you are thankful.  Or just spend ten seconds every morning by starting the day with the traditional prayer in which we give thanks for the greatest blessing of all: being alive. 

Modeh/Modah ani l’fanecha melech chai v’kayam sh’hechezarta bi nishmati b’chemlah rabbah emunatechah

I thank you, Eternal Sovereign, for restoring my soul to life—great is your mercy.

And for a great musical rendition of this blessing, done in a medley with the beautiful Appalachian folk song “Bright Morning Stars” see this live performance by Nefesh Mountain:

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Ki Tetze (Wolves)

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetze contains more mitzvot/commandments than any other.  While they cover a wide array of subjects, most are concerned with the creation of holy and equitable community, laying out the details of our individual obligations and responsibilities toward this end.

One of these commandments lies at the heart of all the rest; it is the most cited in the Torah, occurring at least thirty-six times, including here, in Deuteronomy 24: You shall not deprive a resident stranger or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Holy One redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.

Nelson Mandela understood this when he taught: “A Nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”  This is why the Torah—and the entire prophetic tradition that follows—is so adamant about the treatment of our most vulnerable community members, as exemplified in biblical times by widows, orphans and strangers. 
Alas, 2019 America badly flunks this test.  The gap between rich and poor has become an abyss, racism and misogyny are given a governmental seal of approval, and immigrant children are separated from their parents and kept in cages along our southern border.  Those who care about justice, as Torah demands, have an enormous amount of work to do.
My favorite Americana band, Mandolin Orange, speak to this challenge in the song “Wolves”, from their 2019 album Tides of a Teardrop.  It begins with a vision of what our nation should be:
At my gate I'll always greet you
At my door you're welcome in
There can be no transgression
As a means to an end

This contrasts with our current reality:
On the wind the wolves are howling
Open arms are closed in fear
Helping hands are clenched in anger
Broken hearts beyond repair

The chorus offers a bitter, sarcastic take on “Make America Great Again”:
Everything's so great can't get better, makes me wanna cry

The final two verses portray the Statue of Liberty—the embodiment of America at its best—watching in shame as the dream is devoured by the wolves of hatred that currently wield the power:
There she stands, so tall and mighty
With her keen and watchful eye
And the heart of a mother
Holding out her guiding light
It's a hard road to travel
Solid rock from end to end
The sun, it rises on her brow
And sets upon the great expanse

There she stands, so tall and mighty
Her gaze facing the east
At her back our doors are closing
As we grin and bare our teeth
On the wind the wolves are howling
She cries to draw near
Turn around, turn around my darling
Oh, the wolves are here

We end, like the wolves, howling at the moon. 

Yeah, I’ll go out howling at the moon tonight.

It seems futile.  But howl we must, and if we howl long and loud enough, together, the national nightmare will eventually end and we might, again, make some strides toward the vision that Torah holds out for us.

To hear Mandolin Orange performing “Wolves”:

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Shoftim (People Have the Power)

Toward the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Moses exhorts: Justice, justice you shall pursue!

By this point in the Torah, halfway through the fifth and final book of Deuteronomy, our tradition’s steadfast emphasis on justice—tzedek/tzedakah—is well-established.  So why is the word repeated twice in just this one verse?  I’d like to offer two explanations from our tradition which very much speak to our contemporary situation.

Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman—better known as the Ramban—suggests that the first appearance of the word addresses judges, for whom the portion, Shoftim, is named.  The repetition comes to remind us that justice is not merely the domain of legal professionals; it is the responsibility of each ordinary citizen to “pursue every avenue to ensure that public affairs are run on a basis of righteousness.”  We cannot sit back and blame our public officials for the injustice that pervades our culture; the obligation to ameliorate it lies with each and every one of us.

The nineteenth-century Hasidic sage Reb Yaakov Yitzchak of P’shischa offers another interpretation.  For him, the first mention of justice speaks to ends, while the second refers to means.  In other words: “The pursuit of justice must also be done justly, unblemished by invalid means, with lies and surreptitiousness as some permit themselves under the flag of a worthy cause.” 

As Martin Luther King famously noted: “In the final analysis, means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means and, ultimately, destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.”

Patti Smith speaks to both of these truths in “People Have the Power” from her 1988 album Dream of Life.  Co-written with her husband Fred “Sonic” Smith, the song opens with the poet dreaming of a better world:

I was dreaming in my dreaming 
Of an aspect bright and fair 
And my sleeping it was broken 
But my dream it lingered near 
In the form of shining valleys 
Where the pure air recognized 
And my senses newly opened 
I awakened to the cry 
That the people have the power 

The second and third verses speak to the significance of just means, explicitly rejecting “vengeful aspects” for a better vision, in which shepherds and soldiers (and later, leopards and lambs) like together, fulfilling Isaiah’s prophetic vision:  

Vengeful aspects became suspect 
And bending low as if to hear 
And the armies ceased advancing 
Because the people had their ear 
And the shepherds and the soldiers 
Lay beneath the stars 
Exchanging visions. . .  

Then, in the relentless and triumphant chorus, Smith echoes Ramban’s insistence that the ultimate power to bring justice lies with we, the people:

The people have the power
The people have the power
The people have the power
The people have the power

The power to dream, to rule 
To wrestle the world from fools 
I believe everything we dream 
Can come to pass through our union 
We can turn the world around 
We can turn the earth' s revolution 
We have the power 
People have the power


This week we begin the month of Elul, our season of preparation for the Days of Awe.  In a nation awash in injustice, starting at the top, may we recommit ourselves to just means toward the just end of a kinder, more compassionate, and better society for all. 

We have the power to wrestle the world from fools.

To turn the world around.

In the forthcoming new year, 5780, may we make it so.

For the video of Patti Smith’s People Have the Power see: