Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, September 4th, 2015 /20 Elul 5775
Our Back to Shul BBQ this past Sunday was jam packed as friends old and new got reacquainted. We had the opportunity to listen to some remarks by our president, Rich Meyer and Rabbi Posen. We also were moved by Cantor B’s stirring rendition of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s Return Again. The start of this very short formal part of the program was signaled through the clear, piercing shofar blasts of Glen Coblan. As I listened, a host of images came flooding back to me. Such is the power of the shofar’s symbolism. [I should add that for this year, we will continue CNS’s more recent practice of allowing shofar “echoes.”]
One of the most profound ways that humans communicate is through symbols.
Symbols are powerful precisely because they compactly store complex stories and memories. The brilliance of a diamond engagement ring lies not just in how carefully the facets of the stone were cut, but in the love that it represents. How long did it take us to find a partner with whom to share life’s fullness? Was that ring worn by a grandmother or great grandmother before being passed down to the next generation? What sort of hopes are embedded in its setting? Who do we imagine passing that same ring on to in years to come?
Religions are expert in the use of symbolic language. It might even be fair to say that it is one of the primary ways by which religions communicate essential lessons. Indeed, feeling comfortable within the Jewish tradition requires that we learn its symbols, and then, like that engagement ring, add our own private meaning and recollections to the more public narrative. Religious symbols carry both exoteric and esoteric tales that we can learn to read.
I personally find the shofar, which we have begun to sound in our daily morning prayer services, truly powerful in this regard. Most of us are anticipating hearing its stirring blasts during our upcoming high holiday services. It is also a symbol that touches a multitude of our senses. We see the shofar, we hear it; those of us who stand close to it or have the honor of blowing it on behalf of the community touch it and know its quite real olfactory characteristics. It also has a visceral impact on us, able to bring chills to our spines and to reach inside our very “kishkes” and waken our souls.
The commandment to hear the shofar is found in the book of Numbers, chapter 29, where we read:
ספר במדבר פרק כט
(א) וּבַחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ מִקְרָא קֹדֶשׁ יִהְיֶה לָכֶם
כָּל מְלֶאכֶת עֲבֹדָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ יוֹם תְּרוּעָה יִהְיֶה לָכֶם:
On the first day of the seventh month shall be a holy happening for you; you shall not engage in proscribed activities, for it shall be a day of blasts for you.
From what we now know about symbols, we shouldn’t be surprised that many more meanings have been added over the generations for why we sound the shofar. Next week, I’ll share ten of those far-reaching insights with you.
For now, let’s note that our ancestors correctly understood that we are responsible for our Jewish identity. One way we build a rich and satisfying Jewish life is by joining personal celebration to the communal. As our Days of Awe draw near, I invite you to reflect on what the shofar has meant to you.
What is your first memory of the shofar?
With whom did you hear it?
Who do you wish could still be with you this Rosh Hashanah?
And if you are new to the shofar or to Jewish living, pay attention. For today’s tekia gedolah, today’s great and long blast is tomorrow’s enriching memory.
Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah,
Some Reflections on the Weekly Parashah
From Torah Sparks, a publication of the Conservative Movement
USCJ’S TORAH SPARK
Parashat Ki Tavo
September 5, 2015 – 21 Elul 5775
Annual (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8): Etz Hayim p. 1140; Hertz p. 859
Triennial (Deuteronomy 26:12-28:6): Etz Hayim p. 1142; Hertz p. 860
Haftarah (Isaiah 60:1-22): Etz Hayim p. 1161; Hertz p. 874
Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Israelites in the Promised Land will be required to bring some of their first fruits to the priests and to declare their gratitude to God for the blessings bestowed throughout history. They must also declare that they have tithed appropriately.
The Israelites must literally put the commandments into stone.
A ceremony is described in which the people must gather between two mountains and hear of sins that take place in private, many of them sexual in nature.
If God’s commandments are fulfilled, Israel will be blessed in many ways. If they are not, Israel will be punished in dozens of ways, leading to their return to slavery in Egypt.
Moses reminds the people of the many miracles God performed during the years of wandering in the wilderness, including the defeat of several peoples.
Theme #1: Peaks and Valleys
After you have crossed the Jordan, the following shall stand on Mount Gerizim when the blessing for the people is spoken: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph and Benjamin. And for the curse, the following shall stand on Mount Ebal: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali. (Deuteronomy 27:12-13)
The text sets the stage for a grand pronouncement of specific curses, an event that is to take place inside the Promised Land.
[These curses apply to] those who say that it is not necessary to observe the commandments of the Lord in practice, claiming that the important thing is that one should understand their meaning and that one should be good “in one’s heart,” and nothing more. — Ketav Sofer
There are no corresponding proclamations of “Blessed” [in the section of curses between the mountains], nor, according to common sense, would it be reasonable to contrast these verses with blessings, save for the last one; for just because a person does not, for example, lie with his mother-in-law does not mean he is blessed. — Menahem Ben-Yashar, “The Covenant at Shechem”, from A Divinely Given Torah in Our Day and Age, Volume I
Even if they had accepted only the seven Noahide laws they would not have been driven out. — Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch
Questions for Discussion:
Ketav Sofer makes an argument for the need to follow Halakhah, stressing that Judaism (and religion in general) is about far more than “just being a good person.” How do we respond to those who say that Jewish law, other than its ethical maxims, is largely unnecessary? How does following Jewish law enable us to act ethically? Are there times when we might act unethically in the pursuit of following Jewish law?
Ben-Yashar notes that the proclamations on the mountain are weighted toward the negative because avoiding many of the curses is not necessarily a great accomplishment. In a sense, the structure of the curses discourages us from setting our personal standards too low. What are the potential pitfalls of expecting too little of ourselves? How do we know what “too little” is? Are we better off setting our standards too high or too low?
Rabbi Hirsch claims that even though Halakhah sets many standards for our behavior and actions, our lives will be sufficient if we follow some minimal requirements expected of all people. Are these rules — set forth by God to Noah in the aftermath of the flood — enough? Does Rabbi Hirsch’s claim negate the need for Halakhah? Or does it remind us that our pursuit of Halakhic ideals enable us to live in an acceptable way, even if we don’t reach those ideals?
Theme #2: Gesundheit!
Now, if you obey the Lord your God, to observe faithfully all His commandments which I enjoin upon you this day, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. All these blessings shall come upon you and take effect, if you will but heed the word of the Lord your God: Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the country. (Deuteronomy 28:1-3)
The exhaustive list of curses in this portion is preceded by a briefer, but no less significant, list of blessings.
Some people observe their Judaism and perform its commandments within the walls of their own homes, but are ashamed of their religion when they go out among people, fearing that they might be called “fanatical,” “old-fashioned” and such. Therefore Scripture says: “Only if you will not be ashamed to observe the commandments even in the city, when you are among others, will you receive the blessings.” In the same vein we read in the opening paragraph of the Shulhan Arukh: “And he shall not be ashamed in the presence of those who deride him.” — Divrei Shaarei Hayyim
Do not imagine that if you devote yourself wholly to the service of God, doing only the minimum for your own domestic needs, that you will endanger your own security from the designs of the surrounding nations. For they will be harbouring evil against you and you will be ignorant of it. The text therefore reassures us that “there shall come upon thee all these blessings when you hearken to the Lord.” Even while you are engaged the whole time in hearkening to the Lord doing His service, the blessings will protect you. — Malbim
The promise of blessings is followed by the caution “if you heed”. We are bidden to heed God despite the blessings. — Itture Torah
Questions for Discussion:
Divrei Shaarei Hayyim reminds us that, for some of our ancestors, observing Judaism publicly was somehow embarrassing or a barrier to social advancement (and not just because of real or perceived threats of anti-Semitism). Are there circumstances today when we might still feel this way? What aspects of Judaism might be considered “embarrassing” in some circles? Is embarrassment a reasonable excuse to hide our Jewish practice in today’s diverse society?
Malbim echoes the passage from the Passover Haggadah which states that every generation contains people who wish to destroy us, and he advises us to continue on a righteous path regardless of these amorphous dangers. Why is it sometimes difficult for us to ignore our real or perceived critics? Why do we focus on what they think of us, even if we have no idea what they think? Do we ever need to adjust our understanding of Jewish law based on the possibility of external threats?
Itture Torah understands that it may have been easy for our ancestors to rest on their laurels once God blessed them. Often, once we’ve reached a level of personal success, we stop challenging ourselves and become a lesser version of ourselves. Why is it important for us to keep setting new goals to strive for? How do we do this while also taking moments to appreciate and enjoy our successes? Is this a difficult balance for most people?