D'var Torah on Parashat Re'eh for Rosh Chodesh Elul


picture of opened torah

Credit: Flickr / Lawrie Cate

Today (August 15th) is the New Moon ushering in the month of Elul. According to the Maharal of Prague, “All the month of Elul, before eating and sleeping, a person should look into one’s soul and search one’s deeds, that one may make confession.” [1]

There are numerous practices and customs for the month of Elul, all of which are intended to promote the seeking and granting of forgiveness and the powerful process of teshuvah, (“repentance”). These practices all recognize that none of us have utilized our full potentials, acted from our full sense of decency and responsibility, kept our hearts open to our full capacity for compassion. In other words, we’ve missed the mark. It’s no coincidence that cheit, the Hebrew word for sin, and hamartia, the Greek word referring to the character flaw leading to tragedy, both originated as terms in archery for “missing the mark.” Looking into our own souls, what we find isn’t evil; it’s more like sleeping on the job or losing control or letting our emotions get in the way of our conscience and common sense for one regrettable split second.

And if this is true on an individual level, the cumulative effects of missing the mark are far greater for society as a whole. According to the passage from Isaiah that we read at Yom Kippur, it’s our responsibility for the well-being of society that ideally would shape our spiritual work of repentance and forgiveness: “This is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke. To let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to let the wretched poor into your home. When you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.” [2] In other words, the best form of teshuvah for societal neglect of injustice is to start doing something about it.
Our Torah portion addresses this issue of injustice with a paradox. Deuteronomy 15:4 states, “There shall be no needy among you.” But just a few verses later, Deuteronomy 15:11 says, “There will never cease to be needy ones in your land.” These two contradictory statements represent two ways of looking at https://grademiners.com/personal-statement at the world. “There will never cease to be needy ones” is the realistic perspective. People are hungry and so we are obligated to give to offer dissertation help, food, or money to the needy. This sort of giving, based in realistic thinking and ethical values, is encouraged or obligated in all religious traditions. But for Jews, this is only half the story.
The other passage, “There shall be no needy among you,” reflects a characteristically Jewish way to expand our visions and broaden our goals. Judaism recognizes that what is possible is not limited to what is realistic. That is because realism is a construct based on a consensus of how a certain group people interpret the past. If a ship crosses the ocean in search of new lands and never returns, then people living in the port of departure believe that it is unrealistic to search for nonexistent lands across the sea, and that a realistic explorer would not go beyond the known world and risk falling off the edge of the earth. After the American colonies fought off British rule, the realistic solution would have been to establish a new kingdom under a North American king. No one had ever established a democratic republic with elected leaders, so clearly such a notion was unrealistic. Similar examples could be given for the abolition of slavery, voting rights for women, the establishment of the State of Israel, racial desegregation, and same-sex marriage.
None of these outcomes was realistic; the long struggle to achieve them required courage and hope. This hope has been inscribed in the Jewish people’s DNA through 40 years of wandering in the desert, 2000 years in exile, and the divine promise of redemption, however long it takes. As Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, recently wrote in a Washington Post op-ed piece: “Judaism demands hope; our tradition teaches that we have the power to make the world better than it is today.” [3]
One of the least realistic ideas in Judaism is teshuvah, the notion that we can be forgiven, even for serious misdeeds (zero tolerance is not a Jewish value!), that we can look those we hurt in the eye without shame or dread, perhaps even in mutual friendship and caring, and that even our worst moral setbacks can spur us on to growth as a full and compassionate human being.
It goes without saying that teshuvah, which combines the despair of bottoming out, recognition of our errors, grief, confession, apology, and some degree of restorative justice, is neither simple nor pain-free. It’s tough to weed out our darkest thoughts, our biggest anxieties, and our deepest regrets. In some ways, it is actually easier, and no less transformative, to embrace and promote “unrealistic” goals. All this asks of us is to let go of a little of our skepticism, our cynicism, our so-called realism, our complicity in upholding the prevailing myths about what we can or cannot accomplish, and our sense of shame when we think about the ridicule we might face when we go public with our vision.
This summer, I joined with several members of our congregation in a training program for term paper writer with Rabbi Michael Lerner and Cat J. Zavis from the Network of Spiritual Progressives and Tikkun Magazine called “The Passionate Citizen: Marrying Spirituality and Activism to Build a World Based on a New Bottom Line.” The program had one overriding goal: to embrace a vision of how we want the world to be, rather than accepting the “realistic” view of how the world is, and to discuss this vision with those around us, who are more than likely to dismiss our ideas as lovely but unrealistic dreams.
Very briefly, I’d like to mention three of the visionary proposals introduced in the program. The first is the New Bottom Line, a society-wide cultural shift that places ultimate value not on profitability, but rather on the level of caring, the degree to which people’s needs are met, and the resulting well-being for the planet. The second proposal is an Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. constitution, a detailed and far-reaching instrument for assuring that a corporation’s activities do not threaten the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants. Finally, there’s the Global Marshall Plan, in which 1-2% of GNP is devoted to improving the quality of life around the world, especially for those currently living in poverty. This plan would bring the visionary words from our Torah reading to fruition: “There shall be no needy among you.”
So in the coming month of Elul, I urge members of our congregation (and readers of Tikkun online) to seek out people who have participated in this program and ask us about the new bottom line, the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment, or the Global Marshall Plan. Challenge us, express your concerns, and at the same time please listen with an open mind and an open heart. If we can start to restore hope in this broken world, and if we can help to spread this hope to those in our lives, then we are supporting the process of atonement and increasing the likelihood that billions will be inscribed in the book of life, the book of sustenance, and the book of hope for this and many years to come.

[1] Reuben Hammer, Entering the High Holidays (Jewish Publication Society, 2005), retrieved at http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-month-of-elul/)
[2] Isaiah 58:6-7 (new JPS translation)
[3] Jill Jacobs, “Should rabbis really be wading into the debate over the Iran deal?” Washington Post, July 24, 2015, retrieved at https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/07/24/yes-rabbis-can-join-political-debates-but-we-should-exercise-care-before-giving-policy-advice/.

Michael Zimmerman is the Rabbi of Congregation Kehillat Israel (Reconstructionist) in Lansing, Michigan. He has recently been invited to join Tikkun Magazine’s Editorial Advisory Board, and also serves on the Mayor’s Interfaith Advisory Panel on Diversity in Lansing.

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