KI TEITZEI

FRIDAY, August 24th

his week we read about the prohibition on ever intermarrying with the Ammonites and Moabites “because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey after you left Egypt, and because they hired Balaam, son of Beor, from Pethor of Aram-naharaim, to curse you.” (Devarim 23:5) While the Egyptians, who actually enslaved us for centuries and oppressed us violently are allowed to convert to Judaism and marry into the Jewish people eventually, and are even singled out for a special prohibition  against “abhorring” them (ibid, verse 8), the Moabites and Ammonites are permanently excluded when it seems their only crimes were a lack of hospitality and a failed attempt to curse us.  Rashi explains that the reason the Egyptians are not to be abhorred, while the Moabites and Ammonites are, is because unlike the Moabites and Ammonites, who refused to give us food and water, the Egyptians took us in and provided for us when we were hungry.  However badly they may have treated us subsequently, their initial kindness is not to be forgotten.

It seems from this that the failure to share food and water is a crime greater even than violent oppression, or that, conversely, hospitality is so great a virtue, that it can overshadow the most heinous crimes.  We know that one of the salient characteristics of the city of Sodom, for which it was punished with fire from heaven was selfishness and an antipathy to hospitality.  The ethos of Sodom, according to Pirkei Avot was “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.”  A society without kindness cannot survive, any more than a society without justice.  Tellingly, Lot and his daughters, the ancestors of the inhospitable Ammonites and Moabites, were refugees from the city of Sodom, spared from the fate of their neighbors by the merit of Lot’s hospitality (and his kinship to the famously hospitable Avraham and Sarah).

During the fast-approaching holiday season, let us ensure that our own celebrations reflect the values of our ancestors Avraham and Sarah, and not (God forbid) those of the Ammonites and Moabites.  I strongly encourage everyone who is planning a holiday meal to make sure the guest lists include not only family and close friends, but newcomers and outsiders, especially those who might not otherwise have a holiday meal to go to.  To facilitate this, if you have extra space at your Yom Tov table, or if you are seeking hospitality yourself, I encourage you to let me know, and we will try and match people appropriately.

SHOFTIM

FRIDAY, August 17th

Some weeks ago, I joined with several dozen other Orthodox rabbis in the US and in Israel to sign a letter denouncing recent instances of dangerous and hateful speech used against some of the most vulnerable members of the Jewish community–LGBT Jews. Because of the very real danger that derogatory and hateful speech poses to the life and well-being of LGBT people, the Torah commandment of “lo taamod al dam reiekha (do not stand idly by your fellow’s blood),” compelled my colleagues and me to speak out.

In the wake of that letter, while I have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from many members of this community, I have also been made the target of abuse and insults from a few individuals, who responded to our call for treating all human beings with respect by doing exactly the opposite.

I relate this experience not to garner sympathy for myself; on the contrary—it is a sign of how privileged I am that I have not been subject to that kind of insulting language before. I imagine that for many people, especially in the LGBT community, that kind of abuse is a regular experience. Thus, a few people’s hostile reactions to my joining the call to treat LGBT folks with dignity and respect served to confirm for me how necessary that statement was.

In light of this, I invite you to join me in recommitting to making our community one that welcomes and embraces all Jews, regardless of their level of observance or Jewish education, regardless of their political or religious affiliation, and regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. As the only Modern Orthodox synagogue in the region, we have a tremendous opportunity to help Jews of all backgrounds grow in Torah and mitzvot. We are best able to do that when all Jews are able to feel welcome and accepted in our community.

Therefore, I propose to organize a series of learning events focused on openness and inclusivity. If you are interested in taking a leadership role in that initiative and helping to shape what it will look like, please reach out to me at rabbi@kitcsacramento.org.

PARSHAT RE’EH

FRIDAY, August 10th

This weekend, on Shabbat and Sunday, we welcome the Hebrew month of Elul. Please join us for Rosh Chodesh davening, complete with hallel this Shabbat and Sunday. On Sunday we will also begin one month of sounding the shofar.

Elul is a very special time, when we say “the King is in the field,” meaning that it is easier to talk to God at this time than at other times of year. This has to do with the name of the month spelled א-ל-ו-ל, which is understood as an acronym for אני לדודי ודודי לי (I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine) a phrase from Shir Hashirim(6:3) that speak of tremendous intimacy between the Jewish people and God. The verse continues הרועה בשושנים “He pastures among the lilies,” which can be seen as another reference to God’s accessibility—He is, in a sense out in the fields, where anyone can speak to Him.

Rosh Chodesh Elul is also the day when Moshe ascended mount Sinai to fast and pray for forty days and forty nights, culminating in the reconciliation between God and the Israelites after the sin of the golden calf, and the receiving of the second set of tablets on the tenth day of Tishrei (aka Yom Kippur). Thus, Rosh Chodesh Elul marks the beginning of a forty-day season of teshuvah and atonement which will reach its climax on Yom Kippur. Though we are not able to climb Mount Sinai or fast for forty days, as Moshe did, God makes this a little easier on us by making Himself accessible to any ordinary Jew who wishes to do teshuvah.

I know personally, when Rosh Chodesh Elul rolls around, I start getting anxious about getting ready for the holidays—all the meals I have to cook, the sermons I have to write, the events and services I need to plan. However, I try to take a little of that nervous energy and channel it into the real work of this season, which is teshuvah.

The more we do our homework during Elul—engaging in serious reflection and cheshbon hanefesh (personal accounting), the more effective and meaningful our prayers on the Yamim Nora’im will be. I encourage each of us to decide right now on some simple way that we are going to use the month of Elul to do that work. Perhaps that means setting aside twenty minutes each night with a pen and paper to write down things we are struggling with or that we need to do teshuvah for. Perhaps that means taking one long walk by ourselves each week for the next four weeks and pouring our heart out to God. Perhaps that could mean taking a moment each time we say the Shemoneh Eshrei, taking time during the blessing of Teshuvah, to reflect on what we need to do teshuvah for. Perhaps it means simply committing to reading one book about teshuvah this month (I recommend Changing the World from the Inside Out by Rabbi David Jaffe). Whatever we choose to do, it should be something realistic and doable, but also something that has the potential to really change our thinking and behavior. The daily blast of the shofar during Elul can serve as a little reminder to stay engaged in that work, so that Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgement, does not catch us off guard.

EIKEV

FRIDAY, August 3rd

Moshe is a master of rhetoric. Take this passage from his words to the Israelites, which we will read this Shabbat (Devarim 8:11-14)

השמר לך פן־תשכח את־ה׳ א-להיך לבלתי שמר מצותיו ומשפטיו וחקתיו אשר אנכי מצוך היום

“Guard yourself, lest you forget Hashem, your God, and do not keep His commandments, his laws and his statutes, which I command you today.”

So far the passage is what one might have expected, but then the verse takes a surprising turn

פן־תאכל ושבעת ובתים טובים תבנה וישבת ובקרך וצאנך ירבין וכסף וזהב ירבה־לך וכל אשר־לך ירבה

“Lest you eat and are satisfied and build good houses and live in them and your herds and flocks multiply and you have plenty of silver and gold, and everything you own will multiply…”

At this point it sounds like Moshe is saying if we aren’t careful, heaven forbid, we might become very prosperous. What’s wrong with being prosperous? Having aroused our curiosity with this seemingly counterintuitive sentiment, Moshe continues in the next verse “ורם לבבך ושכחת את־ה׳ א-להיך המוציאך מארץ מצרים מבית עבדים”

and your heart becomes haughty and you forget Hashem your God, wh took you out of Egypt, from the house of slaves.

With this statement, the statement begins to make more sense—the concern is not that we will become prosperous per se, but that in spite of, or perhaps because of, an abundance of material success, we will forget God’s role in giving them to us. Prosperity is actually a double-edged sword—of course, we want to be safe, and well-fed and comfortable, but the more comfortable we are, the greater the danger of complacency, the greater the danger we will forget that all our blessings actually come from God. When we become prosperous and successful, Moshe warns that we are at risk of deluding ourselves into thinking that we are the authors of our own success, and will say to ourselves, כחי ועצם ידי עשה לי את־החיל הזה

“My own power and the might of my own hand have made this wealth for me.” (Ibid v. 17)

It’s easy to remember God when we feel we need something from Him. But when our basic physical needs are taken care of, it’s all too easy to forget God. This is why the Torah commands us to bless God after we eat “When you eat and are satisfied, bless Hashem your God…” to remind us in our moments of satisfaction to cultivate gratitude, which is the opposite of haughtiness and pride.

This week and throughout the year, let us notice and appreciate when our needs or wants have been met, or when we have managed some personal or professional success, and express our thanks to God in those moments. For everything, we achieve or do is only possible with the help of God.