Friday, September 12, 2014

Thoughts Going into Shabbat in Jerusalem

The Mitzvah of Rejoicing in all that is Good
Through Heartbreak and Hopelessness

When contemplating the weekly parasha, sometimes it takes an acrobatic intellectual leap to craft a connection between the wisdom of the Torah and current events while other times, the weekly reading seems handpicked for a particular moment in time.

The latter is true of this week’s reading from the book of Deuteronomy – Ki Tavo.

Familiar to many readers as containing the “Aramean” section of the Passover Hagaddah, Ki Tavo begins with Moses relaying God’s instruction to the Children of Israel, saying, "When you dwell in the promised land, take a selection of the first fruits and bring them to the place God chooses for God's Name."

The text goes on to explain that an offering shall be brought with the mindfulness that the supplicants were once slaves in Egypt and God brought them to freedom "with a strong hand and outstretched arm, with signs and miracles." The commandment to express gratitude for this act of redemption is self-explanatory and then the text takes a turn, telling us something puzzling.

"You shall cast yourself down before the Presence of God and you shall rejoice in all the good that God has given you and your household."

In Hebrew, the verse is: "v'samachta b'kol hatov."

What is the purpose of a commandment that mandates celebration? Naturally we rejoice when things are going well! Why must we be commanded to be happy? Doesn’t that seem unnecessary? It is, after all, when life is not going well that we must remember to praise the Creator of Life.

Prior to this previous summer, a midrash on this verse was that “v’samachta b’kol ha tov” is not just commandment but an insight into the nature of life and our need for perspective. “V’samachta b’kol ha tov” is a reminder that we constantly live at the nexus of joy and sadness and we must celebrate joy…so we don’t take the goodness of life for granted

This commandment, which is more properly a teaching, is also a vital ingredient for resiliency. Shore up your appreciation for all that is good so that when the dark days come, you believe in the ultimate goodness of life and God’s love for humankind and have the strength to endure and transcend.

Yet, as I prepare for Shabbat on this, the fourth mission of Conservative Jews to Israel within four months, I have a brand-new insight into this verse in Ki Tavo; indeed, I feel as if the Torah is speaking directly to me, to the people of Israel and to the global fellowship of Klal Yisrael at this very complicated moment in our history.

This past summer witnessed the toughest and most sustained war Israel has endured since her inception. Scores of families have lost loved ones; Israel is still reeling from the trauma that she suffered at home and globally as the tide of world opinion went from tov to ra – from favorable to negative – with anti-Zionism becoming the newest, most fashionable ideology worldwide, alongside its twin tendency, anti-Semitism.

With the discovery of the horror of the network of Hamas’s terror tunnels and the plot against Israeli civilians that has been brewing, quite literally below the radar screen, with the incessant sirens and dashes to shelters, with interrupted weddings and summer plans, with the funerals and fear, we as a people need to hold fast to the ultimate truth stated in Ki Tavo – that God took us from the slavery of a stateless existence, a world where there was no safe haven for Jews in the Diaspora – and brought us to this land.

And then, a sad insight: the first fruits we are commanded to bring as a sacrifice are our indeed our finest for they are our sons and daughters.

This is the price of the blessing.

And throughout this sacrifice, we must still rejoice in all that is good. The families who have sacrificed their finest fruits must still strive, after this difficult summer and through all the previous hard times and those yet to come, to believe in that truth which seems a cruel lie for their hearts have been broken and their dreams shattered.

On my previous visit to Israel, just three weeks ago, the war was in full force. Among the many Israelis I met with, a father named Nir stands out. He told us about trying to comfort his kids and provide them with safety and normalcy and how the resources at the local Masorti synagogue helped them to do that. In the midst of the chaos, he was able to celebrate the good. And he was hardly alone. Everywhere we went, the warmth and gratitude for our presence was expressed over and over.
This celebration of the good humbled me, an American Jew. This gratitude for the resources of a local synagogue made me realize how often we take our own blessings for granted.

But the sense of celebration was not limited to my previous visit. Just this past Tuesday I was back with a delegation of the leadership of United Synagogue, dedicating a sefer Torah in Ashkelon.  Together with the local kehilla we danced with the sefer Torah I had brought with me from the United States.  Together, we celebrated.  In the course of our visit, we learned of the journey of this unique community to Masorti Judaism and how they found resiliency therein, how the relationships of meaning that were formed through their affiliation with their Beit Knesset enabled their ability to see the ultimate good, even after such a difficult summer.

As Shabbat nears on this, my final trip to Israel during this summer of supreme sacrifice, I know that Ki Tavo was written for this very moment in Jewish history.

Ki tavo el ha-aretz: when you come to the land.

We have come. Israel is both eretz zavat chalav u’dvash -- a land of milk and honey – and eretz ochelet yoshveha – a land that consumes its inhabitants, as Ada Hos-Peles, the grieving mother of Roy Peles, noted, following his death in Gaza.

Poised between the honey and the heartbreak we dwell with God’s blessing. Our task is to give praise for all that is good so that we may have strength and resilience.

May God spread the canopy of peace over Israel and the entire world.

Shabbat Shalom.

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