Deuteronomy 16:18 –21:9
Today is Rosh Chodesh Elul, the first day of the new month in the Jewish calendar. Elul is the month immediately before the High Holy Days, our time to prepare ourselves through Chesbon HaNefesh, by reviewing the choices we have made over the past year to reinforce the good we have done and determine where we have faltered and need to improve.
Our parasha opens with: “Judges and magistrates shall you place at your gates.” (Deut. 16:18) Rabbi Steven Wernick, leader of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, looks to a beautiful Hasidic commentary which asks, ‘what are the gates?’ The answer could not be more perfectly written for these times: Our eyes, ears and mouth. “In other words,” Wernick writes, “how we understand and react to each other is how we establish a just society.”
Our nation is more divided, more polarized than ever – making it ever easier for words of hate and anger to dominate, to become a new ‘normal.’ How we respond, however, is up to us. Now is the time to look back on the year that has past, and forward to what we pray and hope will be a better year to come. Let us examine honestly how we have used our eyes, ears and mouths and weigh the choices we have made, and may we be inspired to use them in the future in the service of compassion, truth and justice – just as our Torah teaches.
Deuteronomy 7:12 –11:25
In Eikev, Moses continues the covenantal theme of the previous two portions: he reminds us of all the good that will come when we follow God’s laws, and of the trouble we caused when we did not. However, this week Moses drills into the psychology of what motivates our behavior.
With just a handful of verses Moses highlights the fragility of human nature that leads us to arrogance; and he warns us about the necessity of humility when we enter the Land, “lest you eat and be sated and build goodly houses and dwell in them. And your cattle and sheep multiply, and silver and gold multiply for you, and all that you have multiply. And your heart become haughty and you forget the Lord your God …” [Deut. 8:12-14]
The danger of arrogance is that when we become full of ourselves there is no room for anyone else. Arrogance may be self-satisfying in the short term, but in the long run it weakens and destroys our relationships with each other, and with God. Just as in last week’s parasha we explored how love is the antidote to hate, this week Moses teaches us to adopt humility as a counter to arrogance.
Yet what does it mean to be truly humble? Many of us assume that humility is the opposite of arrogance. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The opposite of arrogance is the denial of one’s self-worth. Self-debasement is not humility. The Mussar tradition teaches that arrogance and self-debasement define the edges of a range of human behavior, with humility operating as the healthy balance point in the middle. Here is one way of describing some different points along the scale:
To be humble does not mean to have no sense of self-worth, but rather to have a healthy sense of one’s place and value in the world. To be humble means to recognize that our gifts are just that – gifts. Rabbi Leib Chasman (1867-1931) taught: “One who denies one’s strengths is not humble, but a fool. Rather, a humble person is one who understands that all of his strengths and accomplishments are a gift from heaven. The more a person recognizes this, the more humble he is.”
Recognizing our gifts can inspire us to make the most of them, while staying grounded and avoiding the trap of arrogance. This is a difficult lesson to learn, and we have failed many times throughout our history. In Eikev, Moses makes sure that we understand what is at stake. When we become filled with arrogance we put ourselves in God’s place, often by creating and serving our own gods – the work of our hands. In the end, this path always leads to disaster. Humility, it turns out, is the secret ingredient to long term success for us as individuals and as a community, and ultimately, to the full realization of our sacred covenant with God.
In every generation, this is a lesson we should take to heart.
Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11
Last week, on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, we learned about the toxicity of hatred, and how the hatred in our hearts led us to the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem. This week, we begin the Sabbaths of comfort with Shabbat Nachamu, which as it turns out means, “the Sabbath of comfort.”
What do we need following the destructive force of hatred?
We need to receive love, but we also need to find and express our own love. Perhaps that is why VaEtchanan contains the Shema and V’ahavta. This parasha commands us to love. Love is the antidote to hate. Love and hate cannot exist simultaneously in the human heart. Yet, how can we be commanded to feel?
The short answer may be that we are to “fake it until we make it.” If we cannot feel the love, then we must go through the motions until we do. The V’ahavta paragraph of the Shema starts with the commandment for us to love God will everything that we have: our hearts, our strength, our very souls.
Yet, what does that mean? How can we love God with everything all of the time? How could we possibly maintain that kind of intensity? When could we find space in our lives to love anyone else?
I would like to suggest that if we love God with everything that we have, then we must also love each other with everything we have. If we are to devote ourselves to God and to Torah, then we must also devote ourselves to each other and to Creation.
The challenge of Shabbat Nechamu is not to respond to violence and loss with hatred, but rather with love. Love is meant to be shared, and the more love we bring into the world, the less room there will be for hate.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras