Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Parashat Shoftim: On Being Complete

Tamim tehiyeh im Hashem Elokekha (Deut 18: 13). “You shall be tamim with the Lord your God.” What does tamim mean?

One interpretation of tamim is shalem --complete or whole. When you worship God, you should use your complete self: your heart, your mind, your soul, and your physical body. The Hizkuni reads it this way and quotes the following Proverbs verse as an illustration: Bekhol drakhekha da’ehu. “Know Him in all your ways “(Prov 3:6). Use all the tools available to you to try to reach Him, to know Him and worship Him. Don’t just stick your head in a book. Don’t just pray and sing. Don’t just do acts of loving-kindness. Be well-rounded in your worship of God. As the author of Hovot HaLevavot puts it, we should make sure that our insides match our outsides, that our heart, our tongue and our limbs are all in agreement in their worship of God. Having one part of you do one thing and another do another makes a person dishonest and untrustrworthy. Our whole integrated self is what God wants of us.

This reading may explain the connection to the tamim of sacrificial animals. Such animals must be tamim, physically perfect and whole, without blemish, without any part missing. So, too, we aspire to be complete in our worship of God, to not leave out any side of ourselves.

Tamim also implies a single-mindedness of devotion, a clarity of vision which sees that there are no other gods, there are no other priorities, no competing values to rival our commitment to Torah. Tamim. Be whole-hearted. Do not let any other interests compete with God, siphoning off some part of you and causing you to feel conflicted and confused.

But we are conflicted and confused, unable to be tamim, as whole and blemishless as a sheep. We are humans, by our nature incomplete and restless, restless with worry about the present and the future, restless about our place in the universe, and not so entirely sure about which is the right way to live.

Yes, says the Sefat Emet. All of that is true. And so the verse is careful to say, not simply, tamim tehiyeh, that you will be perfect and whole on your own, but tamim tehiyeh im Hashem Elokekha, that you will be able to reach this kind of shleimut, this kind of wholeness, only by being with God, the sole possessor of shleimut, wholeness, as well as shalom, the peace that comes from such wholeness. It is only in God that we find rest for our restlessness, completion for our incompleteness. Read in this way, the verse does not just prescribe the appropriate attitude toward God, but also describes an opportunity for us to resolve a basic human need.

This tamim verse appears in the midst of a prohibition against the use of witchcraft in the attempt to know the future. People pursue such knowledge precisely because they sense their incompleteness, says the Sefat Emet. The search for the future is an expression of human anxiety and insecurity. But witchcraft does not ultimately alleviate this anxiety, says the Sefat Emet; on the contrary, sorcery aggravates it by setting up the false expectation that humans can know and control their futures.

Ironically, the avenue to wholeness is to give up our solo pursuit after wholeness and instead allow ourselves to be completed through God’s wholeness. On Shabbat, when we cease our restless running, we achieve this wholeness and peace; we receive an extra neshama (soul) from above to complete us. The moment we stop trying to complete ourselves, there is room for us to feel the completeness of the divine presence.

Such a feeling is a kind of prophecy. That is why, says the Sefat Emet, the verse exhorting us to be tamim is followed immediately by the promise of continued prophecy. “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet from among your own people (Deut 18:15).” Instead of restlessly seeking a knowledge of the future, if we stand still –like a prophet -- and feel God’s presence, feel ourselves being completed by God’s completeness, we will have achieved the future, achieved a kind of eternal peace.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Parashat Re'eh: Understanding the Choices

“See I set before you blessing and curse,” says Moshe at the beginning of this week’s parsha. Moshe is not just referring here to a one-time choice of following God’s covenant, but to the many daily moral choices that confront us each day. Hayom, he says. “Today.” Every day is a day of choices. And the key to making these choices is the name of the parsha -- Re’eh, “see” – being able to see, to understand the options before us.

How does one see properly, how does one know how to, each day, choose the path of blessings rather than curses?

The language of blessing and curse makes it seem that the choices are obvious, but the details that follow complicate the picture. There will be false prophets that attempt to lead one astray—they will predict signs that come true; they will speak in the convincing language of proofs. But the God they will speak of is one “whom you have not known.” You must learn to see, to perceive what is foreign and unfamiliar, what is too new to be trusted, what does not belong in the tradition. The distinctions are subtle and require deep sight and insight.

And then there are the times that you are drawn to be like others. You say to yourself, says Moshe, matay e’eseh ken gam ani? “When can I do that, too?” The wrong choices are often made by an attempt to be like someone else, to choose a path that is not one’s own, out of an inability to properly see and accept oneself and one’s own natural path. As my sister-in-law Sharon Anisfeld says in a song, “You can’t be who you are not.”

Not everything is black and white, a yes or no question. Eating meat outside of the parameters of the Temple, a good thing or a bad? On the one hand, one can only offer a sacrifice at this central location. On the other hand, the Torah says, if you have a desire for meat and you live far away, make a non-sacred meal of it and enjoy. It’s okay. But hazak, be strong in reference to one thing – You still may not eat the blood. There is room for flexibility – the path can be widened here -- but only up to a point. At some point, the point of blood, the path becomes narrow once more and one must no longer give in to desire but must practice strength, self-control and discipline. Perceiving where the path can be wide and where it must remain narrow is part of the process of learning to “see,” re’eh.

What is the reward for seeing and understanding and choosing the right path in all these situations? HaBrachah asher tishme'u. The blessing is that you will hear. The Sefat Emet says that the blessing is understanding itself, a new kind of hearing or perception. The more one practices the ability to see and make such choices, the more one can see and hear, the wiser one becomes, the closer to a deep divine understanding of the world, and that perception is the ultimate blessing.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Parashat Eikev: On Repetition

The book of Deuteronomy, which we began to read a few weeks ago, is a retelling by Moshe of earlier parts of the Torah. The name Deuteronomy, like the rabbinic name for the book, Mishneh Torah, means “the second law.” Why do we need a “second” Torah? My oldest son said to me the other day: “The book of Devarim doesn’t have anything new in it.” That’s true, in a way. So why do we have it?

Its very existence tells us something about the Torah’s attitude toward life and learning -- that repetition is essential. Human beings don’t generally understand things the first time they hear them. We are slow learners. Hence in the first paragraph of the Shma, read in last week’s parsha, we say, Veshinantam levanekha – “you should repeat them [these words] to your children.”

We were slow learners back in the days of the desert, too, Moshe tells us, or as he says, am keshei oref, a people with a hard neck, a stubborn people who need to be shown and taught multiple times the same lesson.

Even the giving of the Torah happened twice. The first time, we were too busy with other things, too busy worshipping our gold idol to really listen, so Moshe went back up for another 40 days and brought back down a second set of tablets. Sometimes people can’t do things right the first time round. God doesn’t give up on us but merely tries again.

The same thing happens when it comes to entering the land of Israel. The first time we screw it up. We are scared and unbelieving. We need to practice our faith skills so that the second time, this time, we can really enter.

Getting the Torah and entering the land are two of the most important things that happen to us as a nation. And they both happen twice. The message is that these things are not really one-time events at all, but works in progress. We are strivers, learners, always receiving the Torah and always on the cusp of entering the land.

In this week’s parsha, we read the second paragraph of the Shma, another instance of doubling, as is the command to recite the Shma “when one goes to sleep and when one awakes,” twice a day. The second paragraph of the Shma begins with its own linguistic doubling, Vehaya im shamo’a tishme’u, “If, then, you surely hear [or obey].” Rashi comments that the first shamo’a refers to old Torah, and the second tishme’u to new Torah. “If you listen to the old, you will be able to hear the new.” If on the other hand, you forget part of the Torah, says Rashi, interpreting another doubled verb, then you will end up forgetting the entire Torah. Each repeated action reinforces itself and creates a path for the future.

The Torah is continually unfolding, says the Sefat Emet about Rashi’s comment here. That is part of what it means to have a “second Torah.” The implication is that we are never finished receiving, never finished learning the Torah. We are to take the stance toward Torah which the book of Deuteronomy takes, a stance of shamo’a tishme’u, of repetition and novelty, understanding that we are part of the process of continued revelation through our repetition or retelling of the Torah.