This week's Torah portion, Shoftim, gives instructions to judges about how to "pursue justice." In particular, the Torah advises judges to avoid partiality to any side. They are not to favor the poor out of sympathy or the rich out of fear, and they are not to take bribes that might affect their judgment.
As August draws to a close, and September approaches on the horizon, I want to offer as a kavannah (intention) a poem by Zelda, translated from the Hebrew by Marcia Falk.
If we look at the stories of the matriarchs and patriarchs of the Torah, we see again and again that they face enormous challenges as they seek to follow a path toward God. The ancient rabbis taught that this is no accident. Facing difficult challenges is an important part of the journey of the Jewish people, shaping our character and destiny. Without them, we would never be able to reach the highest parts of ourselves.
In the coming week, on August 9th, we will mark the second anniversary of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, an event that unleashed a firestorm of protest over the unequal treatment of black people by police in particular and racial inequality in the U.S. in general. We are still hearing the echoes of Ferguson in the continuing discourse about racial justice taking place in our country today.
We are hosting an unusual program this Saturday night for erev Shavuot, a multi-faith exploration of revelation with the participation of clergy and teachers from Christian and Muslim communities who are our neighbors in Northwest Philadelphia. Although this program may be surprising and even challenging to us, there are two main reasons that I thought it important to hold such a program on Shavuot this year:
This Shabbat, we will complete the Book of Vayikra. At the moment in our service when we conclude one of the five books of Torah, we have a custom of reciting, "Hazak, Hazak, v'Nithazek - Be strong, be strong, and may we strengthen one another." While this custom has taken many forms in Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities over the generations, there is a shared understanding of Torah as a source of strength.
The Young Dead Soldiers, by Archibald MacLeish
The young dead soldiers do not speak.
Nevertheless they are heard in the still houses.
(Who has not heard them?)
They have a silence that speaks for them at night
And when the clock counts
We were young. We have died. Remember us.
We have done what we could.
[Rabbi Akiva taught:] Everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is granted. And the world is judged favorably, yet all depends on the preponderance of good deeds (Pirkei Avot 3:19).
As our daughter finds language, mornings we hear her in her crib reciting lists of names:
"Hannah. Kliel. Emma. . . " she says,
calling out the names of her classmates at ECP. "Bubbie. Zaydie. Mommy. Abba. Nana . . ." Sometimes, when she is unsettled,
she reaches for her names.
Practicing the shapes of the sounds.
Stringing together vowels and consonants.
According to the Zohar, when the Israelites were in Egypt, things were so tough within us and around us that we fell to the forty-ninth level of impurity. We hit our rock bottom and just before the point of no return, the Holy One took us out of Egypt, out of subservience to all of the negative powers that had laid us low, and led us to the forty-ninth level of wisdom so that we could receive Torah.
Refraining from eating kitniyot (legumes) on Pesah has always been an Ashkenazi minhag - that's minhag (custom), not halachah (law). As you may know, Sefardi Jews (and most Israelis) never adopted this custom and have always eaten peas, beans, and their derivatives on Pesah, and no one would say that they are not following Jewish law. They simply have a different custom.