Friday, October 4, 2013

Noah's Silence: A Jewish Take on the Government's Shut Down

(My sermon from this Friday night)

I think it’s fair to say it’s been a difficult week.

Unbelievable, yet real events have led up to and continue through our Government’s shut down, leaving so many throughout our country and even beyond in a state of increasing peril.  Whatever your view of politics, we can likely all agree that the current state of affairs in our country is not a good one, as our land these days seems flooded, so to speak, by elected leaders and power players whose interests are so focused on their own side’s voice and needs that they are willing to drown out the voices and needs of everybody else, if they deem that such behavior is what it takes to “survive.”  There is no interest like self-interest after all.

It’s an eerie coincidence, seeing that our Torah portion this week details the famous story of Noah and the Ark.   10 generations after God created the world, the Torah tells us that “lawlessness” filled the earth, as corruption overtook the actions of mankind.  Fed up, God decided to flood the whole thing and essentially start over.   But God saved one man, Noah, along with his family, and 2 of every animal.  Why Noah?  Because as the text says, "In his generation, Noah was a righteous man, and he was blameless.” 

Do you see anything odd in that phrasing?

Whereas at first, we assume that Noah was an all-around fabulous, outstanding human being, when we look more closely, we see that he may have been a good guy, but only relative to the other people -‘in his generation” – who as we know, were not of the highest repute. Midrashim – ancient stories that help to answer questions otherwise unanswered in the Torah text itself - go to great lengths to emphasize just how bad the people of Noah’s generation were.  One particularly disturbing midrash teaches that the people of the generation were so corrupt that they expressed compassion through means of cruelty.  To quote it: “When God raised the depths of the waters over them, and they saw that the fountains of the deep threatened to submerge them, what did they do? They took their own children and placed them into the depths, pressing them down mercilessly.”[i] Essentially, in order to assure their own safety, one generation was willing to sacrifice the needs, no really the lives, of the next.  Pretty awful stuff.  You can imagine that winning the competition for “all round good human being” in Noah’s generation was not so challenging.  

So what was it about Noah that diminished his status from a righteous man in every generation to a righteous man only in his generation?  Let’s think back to the story.  God sees a world so overcome with evil that a decision is made to end to it, and then to start over with Noah and his family.   God informs Noah of the plan, and Noah dutifully and faithfully constructs the ark.  Noah is nothing if not obedient.

Do you know that throughout the entire story, from the time God asks Noah to build the ark- to the actual deluge itself – to God making a rainbow, promising never to wipe out all existence again – Noah never says a single word?!  He is literally the most silent main character in the Torah.  Sure, he follows directions well.  He’s dedicated too.  One story even suggests that Noah never slept for the year the ark was afloat because he was too busy tending to the needs of his family and the animals with him on the ark.[ii] But regarding the suffering of those around him, Noah is surprisingly unconcerned.  According to the brilliant Aviva Zornberg, Noah’s indifference becomes clear right from the start“…in a process that begins with planting cedars that are to provide wood for the ark, so that they may become a topic of general conversation and lead to the rebuke and repentance of his contemporaries.”[iii] So instead of seeing his guaranteed safety as insurance enough to try to reach out and help the others around him to avoid suffering, Noah keeps his head down, focussed on what he perceives as the task at hand.  He accepts the status quo, and does what he’s told, nothing more and nothing less.  One Chasidic scholar[iv] teaches that the reason the Torah says that “God shut Noah in the ark” instead of Noah walking in the ark and closing the door behind him is to stress that, although Noah was saved by the ark, it also represented a punishment for Noah’s self-concern –with God serving as the guard that shuts the door behind a prisoner in jail. 

There is a strong lesson for all of us in this.   We learn that righteousness is diminished when we are not open to the suffering of those around us, as was the case in Noah's generation.  It follows that if we are not aware of the world around us and the needs of others in our midst, we too risk being shut out.   We may not be directly or personally impacted in the immediate wake of any danger, but the conditions of the world in which we survive will undoubtedly affect us all at the end of the day.

If we merely accept the situation in the world around us, its corruption, its dangers, its suffering, and spend all of our time building our own proverbial arks to shield us from the inevitable impacts of these problems on us, that doesn't make us bad people – but it also doesn't make us righteous or holy.  And since the whole purpose of Jewish living, not just living, but Jewish living is to bring righteousness and holiness into the world, well, then our obligation to others around us is clear.  We Jews don’t ever have luxury of silence, of not speaking out against suffering and injustice. 

But I want to be clear about one more thing. On a universal level, Abraham Joshua Heschel couldn't have said it better when he declared, “Some may be guilty, but all are responsible.”   Let’s be clear: If, in order to achieve our own well-being, we somehow cause added suffering to another, we fail not just as Jews, but also as human beings.

It’s interesting to know that next week’s Torah portion raises up another character that is called righteous.  And in some ways, places him in an eerily similar situation to Noah’s.  This time, it’s not the entire world that that God wants to destroy – just the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah, since the behaviors of the inhabitants of the towns have deteriorated to a Divinely intolerable rate.  When God tells Abraham of the plan, Abraham responds differently than his Octo-great grandfather Noah.  In the face of God's willingness to wipe out an entire population, Abraham does not just accept God's decision.   Abraham stands up and argues, questioning the justice of God’s judgment.  In complete opposition to Noah’s self-interest and apathy toward the other, Abraham puts his own life on the line by engaging in a disagreement with God, concerned completely in upholding justice and mercy for the other.  This is one of the reasons that Abraham is righteous unconditionally, not just relative to his generation.  

There is something else that Abraham and Noah have in common.  Both are described as walking in relation to God.   The Torah tells us that Noah walks with God, but Abraham, Torah teaches, walks before God.

What is the difference between walking with God and walking before God?   Walking with insinuates keeping pace with.  Walking before, on the other hand, means going beyond that, standing up for what we know to be right, and making our best attempt to see that justice in a given situation is upheld before it is too late.  

If we follow Abraham's model, walking before God, speaking out and acting on behalf of what is right is not something we do only with a guarantee of success.   We are commanded to seek out justice, to bring righteousness and holiness into our world, regardless of the outcome.  There is no fine print disclaimer stating that the offer is only valid if we feel our actions will really make a difference.  The expectation is that we do the right thing, go above and beyond, regardless of how daunting a situation is, simply because this is what Jews do.  We don’t have the right to say, "The situation is so horribly beyond repair that anything I do will make no difference, so I will instead do nothing."   From a Jewish lens, the end result is not nearly as critical as the means by which we walk in the process.  Noah may have been the progenitor of humanity after the flood, but Abraham is called the first Jew. From a biblical perspective, there is a fundamental difference between what it means to be human versus what it means to live Jewishly.  And the fact that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all root themselves not to Noah, but to Abraham, well, that should be a source of great hope for us all.

Shabbat Shalom.

[i] Tanhuma, Noah 7 as described in Aviva Zornberg’s The Beginning of Desire, p.57
[ii] Zornberg, Aviva.  The Beginning of Desire. P. 60.
[iii] Ibid. p. 58.
[iv] Aharon Shmuel Tamaret

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Yom Kippur 5774: Independence and Interdependence

I’d like to begin today with an exciting announcement. Mark your calendars right now because in just 2 1/2 months, Jews all over our country will, for the first time in their lives, celebrate :  Thanksgivukah  - the once every 18000 year confluence of Thanksgiving and the first day of Chanukah.  United as Americans and Jews for this once in an eon opportunity, we will of course dine on deep-fried turkey, but also latkes with cranberry sauce, and pumpkin sufganiot; our menorahs will instead be called menurkeys[i], with red, orange and yellow candles emerging from ceramic turkey-tail feather candle-holders – don’t believe me?  Check out Thanksgivukah’sFacebook page: as of yesterday, there were nearly 3000 likes and the number is growing.  There doesn’t seem to be a Jew (or a retailer) that isn’t excited about Chanukah’s early appearance this year.

So, why does Chanukah fall so early on the civil calendar this year?  Well, unlike the Gregorian calendar’s solar orientation, "the Jewish calendar is based on not 1, not 2, but 3 astronomical phenomena: the rotation of the Earth around its axis (a day); the revolution of the moon around the Earth (a month); and the revolution of the Earth around the sun (a year)." The Jewish calendar actually connects them all, creating a cycle that aligns and diverges, eventually realigning with the secular calendar.  But the really amazing thing about the Jewish calendar isn’t just the complicated algorithm that makes it work.  It’s that the calendar itself is actually a profound Jewish teaching: that nothing in the universe is isolated or independent. Rather, everything is inextricably woven together in the encircling spiral of existence.  

This interdependence stands in opposition to the forces controlling the orbit of secular society. Last May, New York Times culture commentator David Books wrote a really interesting article demonstrating just how much so.[ii] His piece described Google’s new database of 5.2 million books published between the years 1500 and 2008.  The database includes a search function enabling anyone to type in a word and find out how frequently or infrequently that word has been used throughout the ages. Brooks’ article revealed two notable cultural phenomena of the last 50 or so years. First: it showed an increase in modern society’s emphasis on the individual over community.  As it turns out, over the last half century, words and phrases like “self,” “unique,” and “I can do it myself” were used more frequently than relational words like “community,” “tribe,” and “common good.”[iii]  But along with an increase in individualization, came the second result: a decrease in the prioritizing of morality.  Terms like “virtue” “decency,” and “conscience” were used less frequently.  Gratitude words like “thankfulness,” humility words like “modesty” and compassion words like “kindness” decreased by nearly 50% while productivity words like “result” and “deadline” skyrocketed.[iv] We live in a culture intoxicated by the myth of radical individualism. 

In his flagship book “Bowling Alone[v],”  Robert Putnam offered expansive data confirming America’s changing behaviors: our disconnects from one another along with our disintegrating social structures – such as religious organizations, political parties, and even bowling leagues.  We are literally bowling alone.  But you don’t need to be a culture commentator or social scientist to notice this.  When it’s commonplace that family out-to-dinner nights entail parents and children sitting around a table together, but each staring at the screen of a personal device; or when the first, and sometimes only question we ask in response to a problem is “How does it impact me?” we know that somehow, knowingly or not, we’ve prioritized the Sovereign Self over the community. The first person singular “I” is the new world. After all, friends, there’s a reason Apple doesn’t call them we-pods, we-phones, and we-pads.

I’m not claiming any lack of culpability either.  And here’s the problem for all of us:  this notion that there is nothing more important than my independence and my “self” is perhaps the biggest, most dangerous lie.

The lie, however, is not a new one, and we’re not the first people to be drawn into its pull.  Let’s talk about Jonah - the last biblical story we read on Yom Kippur.  When the story opens, God tells Jonah to warn the people of Nineveh that if they don’t repent, God will destroy them.  Jonah, though, is not particularly interested in helping out Nineveh.  You see, Nineveh was an enemy of the Jewish people at the time – think Iran, North Korea, or perhaps even Syria for an appropriate contemporary equivalent.  “Why should I help them repent?  It would be better for me if God zaps them – destroys them all.  Why should I care what happens to them?”  Jonah thinks. So, he runs away.  He finds a boat, hops on.  You know this part.  Big storm.  While everyone else on the boat is terrified that the boat will split apart, Jonah sleeps soundly, oblivious to the world around him.  The crew members decide to toss Jonah overboard to appease God.  Something that proves quite a wakeup call, since Jonah almost immediately is swallowed by a giant fish.  For three days and three nights, Jonah languishes inside the fish's belly. It’s enough time for him to learn his lesson: Choose to shut your eyes, to believe that you are just one, isolated, independent person, choose to believe that you are NOT a part of something bigger, and that you don’t have to be accountable to the world, and here’s what you get:  Live alone.  In darkness.  (Where it doesn’t smell so great either.) Away from the world of which you claim you are not a part.  Jonah promises to change his behavior. The creature then spits Jonah out, and Jonah delivers God’s message to Nineveh. They repent, and God forgives them.  The story goes on, but you get the point. 

The very last Biblical message we get on Yom Kippur wakes us up to the fact that although everyone and everything may look like independent, disparate entities floating around the universe at random, the spirit knows, the soul knows, (and by the way so does science), that every last one of us is connected to everyone else.  We are just like giant redwood trees, each seemingly a powerful, independent miracle of nature, but dig a little deeper, and you will see that they all share the same root system, not only intertwining and using each other’s roots to create a wide base enabling them to grow to their abounding heights, but often in fact, fusing their roots together, so that they cannot survive without each other.  You will never see a towering red wood tree standing solitary in a field.  John Miur, the environmentalist for whom the famous and beautiful Miur woods was named, illuminated this deep Jewish truth when he famously said: “When you tug at a single thing in the universe, you find it is attached to everything else.”  

I was reminded of this lesson first hand this summer during my participation in a rabbinic delegation with the American Jewish World Service.  Inspired by the Jewish commitment to justice, AJWS works to realize human rights and end poverty in the developing world.[vi]  This summer, AJWS flew me and 16 other rabbis from across the country and the denominational spectrum 7,643 miles around the planet to Lucknow, a city in North Eastern India and the small rural village of Bhakaripurwa. Each morning, our group would do construction work in the village to help improve its school, its students’ water access, as well as provide a sanitary food-preparation area.  Each afternoon, we met with AJWS grantees and social justice activists from across India, and each evening we would study the Jewish sources rooting our engagement. 

I had so many incredible experiences while in India, and I look forward to sharing more of the trip with you over the coming year.  But today, I want to share the story of just one person I met.  Her name was Renu.  For as long as she could remember, Renu was different from the rest of her siblings.  A daughter in a traditional family from the highest caste, her role as a female was clear and also notably limited.  Her mother died when she was a child, and her father died when she was only 19, and still unmarried.  Although women are not permitted to perform funeral rights, she insisted on carrying her father to his funeral pyre literally on her back, along with the other males in her family.  When her siblings tried to force her into an arranged marriage, Renu refused. They disowned her. Left with nothing, Renu swore to herself she would never marry or bring children into such a cruel and unfair world.  And then, somehow, despite the terribly complicated and corrupt system, Renu continued her education, eventually going to law school and becoming a lawyer.  And along the way, she met and fell in love with her now husband.  When they had children, Renu and her husband chose to make up an entirely new, non-caste-defining last name for their children, so they would never be subject to the narrowness and oppressive nature of the caste system. We would expect that the next part of her story would be that because of her experiences of rejection and oppression, Renu and her family then moved to London or to the US, where they now live a life of freedom, worlds away from the pain of their former community.  But instead, her story goes like this: because of her experiences of rejection and oppression, Renu, in that very same oppressive community, founded and dedicates her life and work to a legal advocacy group[vii] that addresses women’s issues from within a human rights mandate, with particular attention to violence against women and the right to choice in sexual relationships. Renu is a person who, by rights, would be completely justified in separating herself from her community and the system. But instead, she chooses to dedicate her life to that very system, to its improvement, for the betterment not just of women, but of everyone. And when people like you and me support AJWS, AJWS is able to help fund organizations like Renu’s throughout the global south, so they can change their communities from the ground up.  You and I, AJWS, Renu, and communities a world away, seemingly independent entities orbiting each in their own universe, and yet, Judaism comes to say that all of it, just like the sun, the moon, and the Earth, are in fact connected and interdependent. 

About my trip this summer, people often ask me, “Did you visit the Jewish community in India? Or Synagogues there?” and I say “No.” And then they say, “So, it was a service trip, but not a Jewish trip, right?” And I say, “No, it was a service trip, but it was also a totally Jewish trip.” And then I get this puzzled look. 

I think that we Jews, living in the 21st century, have become confused about what being Jewish and doing Jewish means in our world. Yes, being Jewish means having a special relationship with the Jewish people, both here, and everywhere else.  It means understanding that as Jews, we value each other, our communities and synagogues.  It means we are responsible to and for each other and our communal institutions.  No one else will do it for us.  And by the way, educating our children about their Jewish identity, nourishing our own spiritual selves alongside others in community, supporting our synagogue and this community that we call our spiritual home, these are not burdens; they are privileges.  Being Jewish also means that we, as Jews, will always have a deep relationship with Israel.  Whatever your opinion about land and peace and religious practice, we, the Jewish people, don’t have the right to dust away Israel from our hands.  To deny any of this is to deny a unique gift that is particular to the heart of what it means to be Jewish. But being Jewish also comes with a unique demand to see beyond our own sovereign selves and our own sovereign communities.   

On December 7, 1972, Apollo 17 captured a photograph of Earth as it traveled toward the moon.  It showed for the first time a color view of the entire planet, with its swirling brown and green land and cobalt seas and white clouds.   The magnificent blue marble whose circumference spans 24,901 miles filled the entire frame, and in that one image, it expanded for all humanity our understanding of the larger planet of which we are all a part. 

Long before that photograph, our tradition taught us that our Jewish obligation extends as wide as our world.   It is our particular identity as Jews that calls us to a responsibility to the other in the circles extending out from our center. To all of them. We can’t say it applies to one and not the other.
We’ve heard a lot about this these High Holy Days. Rabbi Greene reminded us of our connection to the fate of Judaism in the State of Israel. Rabbi Mason charged us to consider gun violence and immigration issues.  And he reminded us that even if we have no perceived invested interest in Syria, we still aren’t permitted to look the other way.  

There is an interesting teaching in the Talmud[viii], where someone asks what the best way for a person to cultivate holiness is.   One rabbi says to study Torah.  Another says to make sure to say blessings whenever you have a chance.  The third, and the winner, offers an odd response.  He says that to be holy, we must practice and uphold laws of civil torts – the laws of damages.  Why?  Because guess what is at the heart of civil litigation?  One person in relation to another.  When you don’t uphold the laws of damages, you negate the critical notion that each person is responsible for and accountable to the other.  The great 19th century rabbi, Israel Salantar taught that we should see our responsibilities in the world as follows:  first a person should put his house together, then his town, then the world – in expanding circles of obligation that may begin at the center, the perceived point closest to us, but those responsibilities do not end until the wide expanse of the world is encircled in our embrace.

Jewish tradition is clear that we are accountable to and responsible for the communities from which we consume because we are, whether we recognize it or not, in relationship with each other.  We live in a world about which we know more than we ever have before.  Our market place is no longer the corner shop.  It is the globe.  Don’t believe me? When you get home today, take a look at the tags on the clothes in your closet.  Some will say made in America. Some may even say made in Israel.  But still others will say India, and Bangladesh, and China, and, so on. 

This tallis I’m wearing today serves as a powerful reminder for me.  I bought this fabric in India – fabric traditionally hand woven and painted by women in a rural village in Bengal, and sold to me through an organization that provides those women in that village education opportunities, job training, legal advocacy, and fair commission so that they can empower themselves and improve their own lives.  I knew when I saw it that I would turn it into a tallis, so it could serve as a physical reminder to me, and perhaps now to you, of our unique obligation as Jews in bringing people from the outside in.[ix]  Of knowing the heart of those we would call the stranger.  Of our accountability to the world around us, in everything we do.  Because our own sovereign self, and our own sovereign community, and our own sovereign world are all connected by the very same roots.   “When you tug at a single thing in the universe, you find it is attached to everything else.”   

Two days before I left for India, NASA’s robotic probe, the Cassini Orbiter, while travelling on the far side of Saturn, captured an incredible image of that planet’s majestic rings along with a tiny pale blue dot  - a planet called Earth nearly 900 million miles away.[x]  No surface features are visible since Earth takes up only a scant few pixels – however its unique blueness, caused by sunlight reflecting off our planet’s oceans, clearly shines through.

One of the early Jewish mystics, Moses Cordovero, wrote of the theological impact that this picture leaves, 500 years before it was taken.  He said: “…If you are enlightened, you know God’s Oneness; Then you wonder, astonished: “Who am I?  I am a but a tiny speck* in the middle of the sphere of the moon, which itself is a speck within the next sphere.  So it is with that sphere and all it contains in relation to the next sphere.  So it is with all spheres – one inside the other – and all of them are a speck within the further expanses.”[xi]  From which we might expect Cordovero to conclude that we are therefore nothing, that our lives are small and insignificant and meaningless in the grandeur of the cosmos.  But instead, he says this.  “Your Awe is invigorated, the love in your soul expands.”

The sun, and the moon, and the Earth, and you and I, and so much more, are all part of one infinite, eternally unfolding and interdependent cosmos, of which we are nothing more than the tiniest speck of dust, but nothing less than the guarantors of its harmonious grandeur.  “When you tug at a single thing in the universe, you find it is attached to everything else.”   

[ii] Brooks, David. “What Our Words Tell Us.”  New York Times.  May 20, 2013
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Putnam, Robert.  Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster. 2000.
[vii] AALI – The Association for Advocacy and Legal Initiatives.
[viii] Bava Kama 30a
[ix] As informed by Exodus 23:9 in particular. See too Levinas’ teaching “The trauma I experienced as a slave in the land of Egypt constitutes my humanity itself. This immediately brings me closer to all the problems of the damned on the Earth, of all those who are persecuted” in Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures p. 142. 
As well, BT Gitin 61a, Dt 21:1-9 and Mishnah Sotah 9:6. Dt 22:8, as well as recent halachic responsa around Pikuach Nefesh that expand the limits of “lifanecha” in “choleh lifanecha.”
[xi] As translated by Danny Matt – note my choice to change Matt’s translation “mustard seed” to “tiny speck” given the readers’ lack of awareness of the context/connotative value of “mustard seed” in biblical/theological hermeneutics.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Soul-Seeing in Elul

(This sermon was delivered on Friday, August 9th, 2013 - Shabbat Shoftim)

Late one night in the city of Chelm, known to be populated by fools, Shmuel happened upon his friend Avrum.  Avrum was down on his hands and knees, underneath a streetlight, searching for something.  Shmuel inquired as to what Avrum was doing. “I’ve lost my keys,” he replied.  “Perhaps you’ll help me search.” Shmuel joined him.  After half an hour, they still had no success.  “Avrum, where exactly did you lose those keys?” Maybe we can concentrate our efforts.”  Avrum replied, “I lost them in that alley over there.”  Shmuel was dumbfounded.  “So why are we looking here!?!?!?” Avrum looked over at his friend: “Why are we looking here?  Because the light is better here-  that’s why!”[1]

The story seems a little silly, yet we know it hits on a real truth – one that likely resonates deeply with many of us: that too often we choose to look where the light is best, where it is easiest to see, even if that which we are seeking is located someplace entirely different.  When navigating our own lives and making our own choices, we generally take familiar, well-lit paths - those routes we’ve traveled many times, ground we’ve traversed before.  It’s more predictable, more comfortable that way.  It’s also why we tend to fall into the same patterns of thinking and behavior over and over and over again, despite our “best attempts” at a different outcome.

That’s why the period of time in which we find ourselves calls to us to try something different.  This Shabbat marks the first Shabbat in the month of Elul, the 30 day period that serves both to close out the past year and to prime us for the year ahead.  Each day of Elul beckons us to step out of our comfort zones, to search our lives, our thoughts, and our actions in ways that aren’t always easy, to acknowledge both the enlightened parts of ourselves, but also to confront the darker parts of our souls, all with hope that such a search might positively impact our own process of teshuvah – that call for repentance and return that is the essential demand of the High Holy Days – now less than a month away.

There are, in fact, many long-standing traditions associated with the month of Elul to help this process along.

Traditionally, the shofar is blown every day during Elul (except Shabbat), sort of like a repentance alarm clock, to remind us of what is coming. And in case you don’t have a shofar, and want to get in on the daily shofar call, there’s an app for that!

Some recommend that in anticipation of the High Holy Days, the every person should focus on repentance, prayer, and tzedakah in advance for at least one hour every day.  An hour a day – not so bad.

Others advise compiling a cheshbon hanefesh – literally an inventory of the soul – in which one documents their successes and failures over the past year generally in light of their relationship with God, other people, and themselves, as sort of a preparatory document and teshuvah business plan as it were. 

But before any of these recommended steps can happen, I believe there is a critical pre-step which might be the most important thing any of us can do if we seek to engage in this challenging seasonal work of teshuvah.

Many of you have heard me sing the praises of Rabbi Alan Lew of Blessed Memory and his incredible master-work titled, “This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared.”  It is, in my opinion, the best book out there about the High Holy Days and what they can mean.  If you are considering acquiring any book at all about the High Holy Days, this is the one you should have.  Much of this pre-step is inspired by his book as well as the following story that he shares in it:

While hiking on Martha’s Vineyard with his son, a storm came up and they had to take shelter in a little shack with a big picture window.  Rabbi Lew sat looking out the window in the rain at the birds and other nature, none of which he found very captivating after about 5 minutes.  His son, on the other hand, was having a much more interesting time.  He was not looking out through the window at what was outside, but rather at the window itself.  The window, he pointed out to his father, was a very active world in and of itself, a nature preserve for insect life.  It was clear that the window wasn’t just something through which to view the world; it was a world in and of itself, a place with a life of its own. 

The shifting of our gaze from the big broad world out there and how we engage in it, to the window through which we see the world – our own lens of experience and consciousness -  that is where the work of Elul and the High Holy Days begins.  Because that screen of our perspective mechanisms is, according to Rabbi Lew: “not just a blank transparent medium.  Rather, it is a world unto itself, a world teeming with life, and that life affects everything else we see.” [2]

If the main work of the teshuvah process in Elul is to travel back over the past year and essentially sight-see the course of our lives and relationships, determining high lights and low points along the way, then the pre-step to that process, this deeply inward focusing, might be understood as soul-seeing, where we move our search light away from the outside world and point it in a different direction, illuminating the activity taking place in the window through which we view that world.  The concept sounds complicated, but it’s really not.  Think about the expression of what it means to look at or see the world through rose colored glasses, and you’ll have a great example of what this means.

This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, offers us deeper insight into the type of soul-seeing we need to do before embarking on the interactive work of teshuvah.  Usually interpreted as a portion focused on the establishment of an ancient judicial system, the Torah reads: “Judges and officers you shall appoint for yourselves in all your gates.”  What gates are we talking about? According to Hasidic tradition, those gates mentioned in the text are more than the big city gates.  As Rabbi Lew also points out: we learn that there are 7 gates - or better windows to the soul of every human being.  2 eyes, 2 nostrils, 2 ears, and the mouth.  Everything that passes into our consciousness must enter through one of these gates. And appointing judges for those gates comes to mean that we seek to acquire discernment over that which influences our consciousness, that which passes through our gates.  So, the passage from the portion really beckons us to look deeply into our own systems of discernment and opinion and even belief, to understand that all of it is a lens that colors our impression of the world and our relationships.  [2]

As many of you know, I spent the last 2 weeks of July in India as a part of American Jewish World Service’s 2013 Rabbinic Delegation. Inspired by the Jewish commitment to justice, American Jewish World Service works to realize human rights and end poverty in the developing world.  One of the most difficult parts of the trip was coming to understand that how I see the world and the characterizations I understand as defining concepts like failure, success, liberation, and oppression are not universal, but are in fact specific to the western cultural lens to which I am conditioned.  At one point, the women in our rabbinic group had the opportunity to meet with the women of the rural village in which we were working.  We asked the village women to tell us about their system of marriage and family.  They shared that in India, marriage is not about individuals, but rather it is about families. When a couple is married, they do not live separately in their own house but rather move in to the groom’s parent’s house (in which sometimes grandparents still live), where they will continue to live.  Boy did we have a hard time with this, and our immediate evaluation of their system was really negative.  What a system of oppression – where were the rights of the individuals to choose whether or not to partner with another,  and where were the opportunities for them, if they even did choose each other, to start their own life together without the burden of their entire family, I wondered?  But then the village women asked us to tell them about our system of marriage and family life here in America.  And when we explained first that marriage in and of itself wasn’t mandatory, but for those who chose it, marriage was really about the individual choices of 2 people to share their lives – nothing more and nothing less, the village women stirred a bit.  “But where do you live?” they asked.  And when we said that often newlyweds share their own apartment or home together, without other members of the family living with them, they became even more uncomfortable.  “But how do you take care of your parents and grandparents when they get older and need you?”  And let me tell you – any negative judgment that I was feeling about their ways was shared equally in the negative judgments they were feeling about our ways.   And so, when the conversation moved to the topic of poverty eradication and human rights, we had to understand that the things we assumed were base-line, shared systems were actually completely different.  That’s not to say that the village women didn’t yearn for empowerment opportunities for themselves, nor did it mean that they didn’t want to improve the living conditions in their village no less their country – in turns out we shared the same values and desires, but the way they envisioned what that might look like proved entirely different than any Western ideal I know of.  It wasn’t until we were able to acknowledge our own lens of assumptions that we were able to find common ground.

The same is true for our own selves and souls.  Before we can do anything that begins to address the world outside of ourselves, we have to develop a keen awareness of the driving personal forces behind the thoughts we think, the choices we make, and the actions we take.  And there is no real way to account for, and certainly not to atone for our choices and actions, until we can be aware of that window in each of us, which refracts every one of our assumptions and thoughts, no less behaviors in the world.

Because we can’t begin to look outwards and assess our engagement with the rest of the world until we attempt to search out those places where the light doesn’t always shine so brightly.

So this start of Elul, take some time, maybe it’s a few minutes, maybe it’s an hour a day, and take a good look at your own window.  Spend some time there and study closely what you find.  You just may discover something that you didn’t even know you’d lost, but once found, will lead you on a path of return, assuring that your life and the lives your life touches will be all the better for it.

[1] Joel Ziff, Mirrors in Time, A PsychoSpiritual Journey through the Jewish Year
2 Lew, Rabbi Alan.  This is Read and You Are Completely Unprepared.