An Elul Reflection

Ladies and gentlemen, we have hit the jackpot.  Whichever political party you love or hate – life here in the US is pretty amazing. There is economic bounty, political freedom and only four years until you get to vote your least favorite politician out of office. It is hard to think of the time and place we would rather be than 21st Century America.

Looking Backward

The problem is that Judaism is backwards looking. Every week, we utter the wish that G-d will bring us back “Y’mey Kedem” – the days of old. On a daily basis, we pray for the sprouting of Davidic rule when we will return to a theocratic monarchy. Hmmnnn, let’s try selling that idea in the 2020 election.

Do we really want to go back to Davidic rule and monarchy?  Plenty of evil came about in the world as a result of hereditary monarchy. How can we Daven for a return to the days of old?

Is Truth Self-Evident?

We are used to the idea that things change and progress, and that the change is a good thing. Yet, change is not always so great. There are plenty of problems in our wonderful free democracy, whether widespread loneliness or the proliferation of mass murder.

When Thomas Jefferson first wrote the Declaration of Independence, he wrote, “we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable that all men are created equal.” Sound a little strange?

Well, Benjamin Franklin suggested a fateful edit of that phrase: instead of “sacred and undeniable”, he suggested, “we hold these truths to be self-evident.”  While Jefferson’s original language was of a religious bent, Benjamin Franklin took a rational approach. In this edit, Franklin suggested that the foundational concepts of the US were based on human reason, not sacred belief.

Still, perhaps Jefferson was on to something with his first draft.  How much is really self-evident? When we look at American culture, we find that matters of moral bedrock can be washed away in a generation or less. What was self-evident in American society a decade or two ago, is morally reprehensible today.

There are so many eternal truths in the Torah. But these truths may be more “sacred” than “self-evident.” There are plenty of times that sophisticated societies reject important moral postulates. Democracy is a very good system, but any intelligent person can see an array of societal ills that may arise within a Democracy.

What do we Jews say? What is our solution to society’s ills? Get rid of Democracy and have a hereditary monarchy? Can we honestly relate to a desire to go back the day of old?

The Jewish King

The Torah presents the Mitzvah to appoint the king in a rather odd way. The Torah remarks that when we go to the land of Israel, we will say, “let us appoint a King like all of the nations that surround us.” This doesn’t sound like an overwhelming positively way to put that Mitzvah.

By the time we get to Sefer Shmuel, we see even more explicitly that kingship was not desired by G-d but rather tolerated. HaShem says that when the people asked Shmuel for a king, it was an implicit rejection of G-d. People are supposed to be subservient to the true sovereign of the universe, not overly powerful humans.

Yet, the Torah adapts to monarchy. We are given a version of kingship that aligns it with Torah values. There are checks and balances within the Jewish monarchal system. Perhaps the most important one is the prophet. The prophet and king are two different figures who work in tandem. The Rambam points out the king in Israel derives his power from the prophet. David was anointed by Shmuel, and so on.

Prophets and Kings

The prophet is the person who keeps the King in balance. This was true for all kings, tzaddikim or otherwise. When King David sinned with Batsheva, Natan chastised David. And Natan didn’t even get his head chopped off. Even Achav – the classic evil king – was chastised by Eliyahu. The King was only part of a total system and was not all powerful.

What’s more, the king was commanded to make his own internal balance.  He was required to have a Sefer Torah written so that “he will read from it all his days in order that he will learn to fear HaShem his G-d” and his heart will not become haughty above his brethren. Notice: it does not say that he shouldn’t become haughty over the masses, but over his brethren. The Jewish Melech is a first amongst equals.

The Rambam adds to this equation. When it came time to bring the Melech’s son into the kingship, the son must be the equal of his father in wisdom and fear of Heaven. If the son is lacking in wisdom, we teach him more wisdom. If he is lacking in fear of G-d, he doesn’t get to be the king.

Unlike the kings of Europe, a king of Israel was not justified by his family alone. His rulership was justified by the degree to which his kingship pointed to G-d, the sovereign of the universe. King David was the ultimate example of using his life to reflect the fact that G-d is the true king.

What Are We Praying For?

The prayer for “the sprouting of David” is not a desire for any non-Jewish system. Rather, it is a hope to return to a uniquely Jewish paradigm. We pray for a return to a system where G-d is recognized as the sovereign of the universe.

There are so many problems that we can see in the world. For example, in American society today, there is widespread anxiety amongst college students, which leads to an array of mental health issues including greater instance of suicide. We have spent so much time convincing kids that their self-worth comes from academic achievements, with catastrophic results.

Given the value that we place on prestige and academic achievement, it is little wonder that we find privileged people cheating the system to get their kids into a prestigious college. The “Varsity Blues” is but one indication of a systemic problem.

Where does this problem come from? It comes from the fact that G-d’s kingship is not fully realized. In a world where G-d’s kingship reigns, people will be able to see that their self-value is based not on academic achievement but on their growing connection to G-d, the sovereign of the universe.

Every day, we daven for a time when we our days will be renewed. During Elul, we prepare for Rosh Hashana, when we will coronate G-d as our king. We are not looking to a discarded past, but to a renewed future. A Jewish future that is utterly unique.

The Torah’s vision of HaShem as the Melech of the world is the greatest vision that can make our world a better place. Torah has the vision that our world needs. We bring about that vision by aligning our lives Judaism.

An Elul Reflection

But much like the Jewish king, each one of us needs to find an equilibrium. First, we need a prophet. We need someone outside of ourselves that we can talk with honestly about who we are and how we can improve. It could be a spouse, a close friend or a rabbi; we need an outside perspective to help us reach our potential.

Second, we need to write a Sefer Torah that we read from all of our days. Elul is a time that we get aligned with the Jewish vision. The only way that we can do that is through deep and consistent Torah study.

This Elul make sure that you take the time to get closer to someone that can help you in your Jewish journey. And make sure that you write your own Sefer Torah by making regular, daily Torah study times so you can meditate on what G-d wants from you in your life.

And as we Daven for the sprouting of David, remember the Torah’s vision of G-d as the sovereign of the universe. Our unique Jewish vision – expressed in our own lives – is the vision that the world needs to overcome every great challenge.

The Place G-d Will Show You – Re’eh

Ever feel that you don’t know where your destiny lies? You’re not alone. Ever since Avraham, the Jewish people have been on a vulnerable journey to a destination that’s often unknown.

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This past April, four days before Pesach, I arrived in Israel. I went to the supermarket, jetlagged, to shop for Pesach. Suddenly, I was surrounded by a young and bustling people. There are so many more baby strollers in Osher Ad than at Fred Meyer!

After two weeks in the country, late at night, I took a Sherut rushing down Kevish Echad from the Jerusalem hills into the coastal plains by Ben Gurion. As we make that mere hour-long drive, I was reminded about how tiny our Jewish country truly is.

What’s more, unlike Israelis, I am going home to the US. Israelis are a people whose home is Israel – a country made up of Jewish refugees from the most far flung places from Poland to Syria. Most of world Jewry sits in this tiny strip of land surrounded by a sea of enemies. When you look at Israel from that perspective, you realize one basic fact: Israel is not America.

Center of the World

The Midrash says that Israel is the center of the world. It has certainly been the heart of Jewish identity for our entire history. In fact, the land of Israel is at the center of the human quest for meaning. How many people look to Israel to understand who we are? The land of Israel is one of the most fraught and dangerous of political situations on the planet. Given how complex life is there, it’s amazing how quickly people jump into the fray with opinions and criticism.

I look around this country of refugees who have been chased from every corner of the world.  I wonder how it can be that “respectable people” can advance a hateful agenda like BDS, whose goal is to make Israel an economic outcast. Sadly, we live in a time when hatred of Israel is socially acceptable in nearly every aspect of our society.

As quick people are to pass judgement, the vast majority of the world are profoundly removed from the reality of Israel. Within the Torah lies a hidden perspective about the coveted land. I want to share that perspective with you. It will change the way that you think about the land of Israel and about ourselves.

The Place G-d Will Choose

Jerusalem is referenced many times in our Parsha. That historic site of the Akeida is referenced as the future place of the Temple. And yet, Jerusalem is not mentioned by name even once in the entire Chumash.

Sefer Devarim references it over and over – 21 times – as “the place that G-d will cause his name to dwell.”  The city is referenced as “Shalem” in Genesis. But its full name is not given. No geographical coordinates or site markers are noted. It is only referred to as the place where G-d will cause his name to dwell.

At the time Moshe spoke in the plains of Moav, the city was already predestined. Why not mention its name? It’s so much easier to say “Jerusalem” than “the place that G-d will cause his name to dwell there.” 

The Rambam asked this question in his Guide for the Perplexed. Jerusalem, he points out, is the city that unites the Jewish people.  If its name was openly revealed in the Torah, there could be a sense of rivalry as the tribes ascended into the land.  They might fight over which tribe gets to settle in the area with that city. To avoid that, the identity is concealed, only to be revealed later in the book of Samuel.

By the Rain of Heaven

But there is another dimension to this. This is not the first time that Israel is left unnamed. The first mention of the land of Israel is found in Lech Lecha, where G-d tells Avram that he should go “to the land that I will show you.” Later, at the Akeida, G-d tells Avraham to go to the land of Moriah to “one of the mountains that I will show you.” The land and the mountain that G-d “will show” are Israel and Jerusalem.

From the days of Avraham to the moment the Jews crossed the Jordan, Israel and Jerusalem are the places that will be revealed.  As long as we have existed, we have been on a journey. The destination in that journey is at times unknown. In that journey, Israel and Jerusalem are the unrealized promise of the future, a place that will be revealed.

In ancient terms, Israel was situated between two major seats of power in Egypt and Assyria. The Torah describes Israel in terms of difference.

It is not like Egypt where you irrigate your fields. It is a land of hills and valleys that drinks by the rain of heaven. It is a land that G-d’s eyes are upon, that seeks it out from the year’s beginning to the year’s end.

In Israel, as opposed to Egypt, we drink by the rain of heavens. It is the place where we look to the heavens in prayer for rain. There are many lands that are accustomed to certainty. Egypt was a place of certain and readily available irrigation, not so different from Oregon’s lush Williamite Valley.

We think of the good land as the place with irrigation, the known reliable destination. The robust and obvious economy. The Torah turns these assumptions on their head. The good land is where we don’t know what’s coming down the pike. It is the place where we pray for rain.

Israel & Vulnerability

From the time that Avram travelled from Charan to Canaan, Israel has been that strip of land where nothing is guaranteed. Even if you make it to the land, it will cost you.

Our rabbis teach us that three things are acquired through suffering: Olam HaBah, the land of Israel and the Torah. These three things cost physical comfort and ease to get there. One of the first things that Avraham encountered in the land of Israel was a famine.

It is hard to think of a people more deeply rooted in a land than the Jewish people and the land of Israel. That is why the detractors of the Jewish people make it their highest priority to say that Israel is not the legitimate home of the Jews.

Israel is a small vulnerable piece of land where millions of Jews have created a thriving economy. Israel is not Egypt, and it is not America. Sitting in a café in Tel Aviv is not the same as sitting in Multnomah Village. When you are in Israel, the precarious and delicate nature of life is in the air.

The Land He Will Show You

That very vulnerability teaches us about who we are. We are all like Avraham, traveling to the land or the mountain that G-d will show us. When you are travelling to an unknown land, you, like the land, are vulnerable. The land teaches us that to reach the greatest heights, we need to be open to a journey where the destination is not clear.

The Jewish people have so much to teach the world. Our teachings come from the fact that we are vulnerable, that our future is in question. It is the connection that we have with G-d and the possibility that we will thrive and grow in unknown ways.

As a people on that quest, we teach the world an invaluable lesson. Even when we are vulnerable, our future is secure because of our connection to G-d. There are times in life that we feel vulnerable, like we don’t know where our destination lies. When you wake up with that feeling, think back to Avraham on his journey.

Take strength in knowing that G-d is bringing you to the place that He will show you.

Not By Bread

Meaning of Time

Recently, my wife was diagnosed with an intracranial tumor. Though benign, this large tumor exerted pressure on her optic nerve, and she experienced significant loss of vision over a period of several months. For a long time, we were in the dark as to the cause of her problem.

As it turns out, even a benign tumor can be a challenging problem that forces us to reflect on the uncertain nature of life.

Time is the precious resource that makes up our lives. Some people say, “time is money”.  That implies that our driving goal is money and the limited resource that we are given to acquire money, is time.

Sefer Devarim offers a startling notion about life.  Throughout Devarim, the Torah exhorts us to keep G-d’s commands. The message that reverberates throughout the Sefer is that we do so for our own good.  In Nitzavim, the Torah states that G-d places blessing and curse before us and that we should “choose life in order that we should live” and we should hearken to G-d’s voice and cling to Him.

The blessings come through Mitzvot, our connection to the Creator of life.  Through Mitzvot, we fulfill this aspiration of clinging to G-d. Likewise, in our Parsha the Torah asks: What does G-d ask of you other than to fear Him and keep all of His Mitzvot for your good?

Not by Bread Alone

The goodness of the Mitzvoth is placed in the context of bread. The Torah teaches us that we should always recall the path that G-d led us on in the wilderness.

G-d afflicted you and made you hungry and fed you the Manna that your fathers did not know, in order to teach you that man does not live by bread alone but rather by all that emanates from the mouth of G-d does man live.

(Devarim 8, 3)

How does the Manna teach us that we live by “all that emanates from the mouth of G-d”? One way of looking at it is that Manna comes directly from G-d. Human hands toil to produce bread.  Not so the Manna.  The Manna falls from the heavens, and when we eat it, we are living by what “emanates from the mouth of G-d”.

But that interpretation doesn’t completely explain the verse. After all, even bread comes from G-d.  What is so unique about Manna that it alone teaches us that we live by the mouth of G-d?

The Da’as Zekeyenim (13th C Torah commentary) offers a different interpretation.  He writes that man does not live by bread alone, but rather by all that emanates from the mouth of G-d – that is, the Mitzvot.  Eating Manna imbues within us with this sense that we live through Mitzvot.

Why is that so?  Whether we eat bread or Manna, there are always Mitzvoth involved such as Birkat HaMazon? If we turn back to Shemot 16, we find a discussion of the Manna.  The Torah states that G-d caused this bread to rain from the heavens “in order to test whether they will walk in my Torah or not”.

Rashi adds, “to see if we will walk in the Mitzvot of the Manna such as not leaving it over for the next day or collecting on Shabbat”. The idea is that, more than regular bread, Manna is connected to the Mitzvot. In light of this, when we ate Manna, we integrated the sense that we live not by bread alone, but by the Mitzvoth that emanate from G-d.

The Bread of Life

The term “bread” denotes basic substance. Bread is a symbol of livelihood and it is something that man spends much of his time pursuing.  In this light, the Torah is pointing to a foundational idea.  Our instinct is to believe that we live by bread.  Whether we call it bread or money, we feel that our efforts and their results are “the bread of life”.

But the Torah says, not by bread alone.  We do not live on that material stability.  Rather, by all that emanates from the mouth of G-d.  Both bread and Manna come from the Creator.  But Manna is in its essence a Mitzvah object that emanates from the mouth of G-d. Contrary to our innate thinking process, man lives by the Mitzvot.

The true substance of our life is not the toil of production but rather the Mitzvot that connect us to G-d. Bread is not the true substance of life.  That status is given only to the Manna, which we ate in faith as we pursued knowledge of the Torah.

Mitzvot – a Lasting Connection

Mitzvot are the stuff that cannot be taken away from us. Mitzvot are actions, but their impact is everlasting.  Think back to something that you feel truly good about within yourself.  It might very well be a Mitzvah…

This past fall, I was sitting in Starbucks with a friend of mine who suggested that I should try to view myself “as a resource” for people.  The idea stuck with me. Soon after, I happened to connect with an acquaintance who needed a specialized type of attorney to help them with a problem.

It so happened that I knew someone who knew someone who eventually helped this person in a major way. I was able to make a connection – to be a resource. When I looked back on this months later, I had a good feeling. And I realized that the good feeling came from doing something which is a Mitzvah, something good in its essence which cannot be taken away.

When Time Moves

I recalled this episode after my wife got her diagnosis. We were trying to figure out how to quickly get her the right medical care. I called a friend who was highly connected in the local medical community and thanks to his connections, within three days of our diagnosis, we were sitting with a top neurosurgeon in his office after hours.

Throughout the summer months, as Aviel struggled with her sight, time moved slowly. Then, we got that appointment and I felt things begin to change. I had a premonition that she would be in surgery by the coming Monday morning.

Sure enough, that Monday morning, she was wheeled off at 7:30 am into the OR for a lengthy and complex procedure. I was awed by the fact that time, which had been so stubborn, finally moved so quickly.

***

Hours in a surgery waiting room are a time of reflection.

A time to consider what we have and what can be taken away.

***

Following the operation, I was sitting in the ICU, next to my wife.  I looked out the window at the parking lot and thought about the August plans we missed. Suddenly, it dawned on me that here, sitting next to my wife, I was fulfilling a Mitzvah of Bikkur Cholim (visiting the ill).

A Mitzvah is something we can feel good about. It is something that time will never take away. A Mitzvah is a connection to life that will not be severed.

“Guard my Mitzvot and Live…”

The Mitzvot are the stuff that is really ours.  Whether it is learning a deeper insight in the Torah, or helping out a friend in need, life is filled with small Mitzvot.

King Solomon wrote in Proverbs 7, Guard my commands and live.  (Proverbs, 7, 2).  (Notice he doesn’t write “guard your money and live!”)

What is the substance of life?  Where is its essence?

Bread can be taken away.

In fact, we will not take a morsel of bread with us to the grave. The Mitzvot are actions that we do, but their results are not short lived.

As it says, not by bread alone does a man live but by all that emanates from the mouth of G-d does a person live.