Thursday, September 1, 2016

Parashat Re'eh and Rosh Hodesh Elul

            Shabbat Shalom. In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Re’eh, Moses continues his long speech to the Israel people recapping all that has transpired and reiterating all the messages he has already delivered from God. There are some changes from where they are written in the earlier parts of the Torah, when they were happening in real time, but much of Deuteronomy continues to be reinforcing language. In Parashat Re’eh, Moses tells the people that they have choices in life. They can choose to follow the commandments, or they can choose to not follow the commandments. They are about to enter the Holy Land, and the entire generation of slaves that left Egypt has died in the wilderness, Moses being the last one. So they will not be forced to do anything they do not want to do anymore. God, via Moses as mouthpiece, simply wants to make sure the Israelites understand that if they don’t follow the commandments, they will be cursed, and if they do follow them, they will be blessed. Moses then goes on to reiterate what some of those commandments are, regarding Kosher laws, proper sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem, particularly at the three main festivals of Sukkot, Shavuot, and Passover. He also includes in this parasha the commandment to look out for those who need help in society; that all landed Israelites are commanded to give shelter and food to their Levite brothers when needed, since the Levites were not given a land inheritance in the Holy Land, and to give to charity so that the orphan, the widow, and the stranger in your midst may eat and be sheltered in safety and with dignity.
            This weekend we will have Rosh Hodesh Elul, the beginning of the month preceding the High Holy Days. Elul is often a time for reflection and preparing for the Days of Awe to come. During this Hebrew month we will have S’lichot, the last Shabbat and Havdallah of Elul, and the first step in the High Holy days (it is often the last Shabbat before Rosh HaShana, but it must fall a full week before the New Year, and since Rosh HaShana begins on a Sunday evening this year, it isn’t quite true to say that this year). During Elul, we might start to make a list of those we must apologize to and that which we must make amends for before we can honestly toss away those sins of last year at Tashlich or make Teshuvah on Yom Kippur. During Elul, we might start to think about why we made the choices we made in the past year that led us to sin and hurt those we care about. We might start to think about what choices we can make in the coming year instead to bring more goodness into our lives and the world.
            The great Medieval scholar Maimonides commented on the beginning of this parasha by saying, “Freedom of choice has been granted to every man: if he desires to turn toward a good path and be righteous, the ability to do so is in his hands; and if he desires to turn toward an evil path and be wicked, the ability to do so is in his hands. This concept is a fundamental principle and a pillar of the Torah and its commandments. As it is written [Deuteronomy 11:26]: See, I set before you today [a blessing and a curse]. For were G‑d to decree that a person be righteous or wicked, or if there were to exist something in the very essence of a person’s nature which would compel him toward a specific path, a specific conviction, a specific character trait or a specific deed, how could G‑d command us through the prophets, “Do this” and “do not do this”? What place would the entire Torah have? And by what measure of justice would G‑d punish the wicked and reward the righteous?” Thus, RaMBaM reminds us as we read this portion and enter into Elul, we must think about our choices, our free will as humans, and choose holiness. We must actively work toward righteousness and to uphold Torah in our lives.
When we get to the High Holy Days, we will say, “On Rosh HaShana it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who will live and who will die. But Teshuvah, Tefillah, and Tzedakah annul the severe decree.” Though I used the word charity earlier, translating tzedakah as charity isn’t quite right. Charity is something you give out of the kindness of your heart, and maybe even out of pity for the one to whom you are giving charity. But tzedakah is commanded to us, as we see in this parasha. The word tzedek means justice and a tzadik is a just and righteous person. Tzedekah may mean donating money, but it’s deeper than charity. It’s an act of righteousness, and a required one at that if we are to choose righteousness and holiness, to use our free will to uphold Torah, to hope to stave off Divine curses. Maimonides also comments on this, “Never, ever have we seen or heard about a Jewish community that does not have a tzedakah fund.”
As we enter into the month of Elul, let us begin to turn our minds to the season of teshuvah around the corner. Let us think about what it means to truly make teshuvah, which is not only a word we use for making amends with neighbors and God, but is a word that literally means “return.” To what do we need to return? What wrong turns have we made this year, and what choices can we make now to fix them? How can we better choose to uphold Torah, to follow mitzvot and walk in ways of holiness this year? Where, how, when, and why, can we give tzedakah so that it truly embodies righteousness and is not mere “charity?” May we continue to ponder these and related questions this month, that we may begin the New Year with honest and forward thinking goals for better practices of teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah in our everyday lives. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

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