To love is to see potential. Thoughts on Parashat Nitzavim

 To love is to see potential. Thoughts on Parashat Nitzavim.

Menachem Mirski

 Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.  See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity (Deut. 30:11-15.)

The people of Israel had its priests, but, contrary to the priests in Egyptian or Greek temples, their knowledge regarding Divine law was not something exclusive. While admittedly due to their knowledge and position (and this applies also to the Rabbis, their direct inheritors) their decisions were of greater significance, still the leaders of Jewish communities were always dealing with the law and the tradition available to everyone.

According to the Mishna (tractate Yoma, chapter 8) if someone has eaten and drank on Yom Kippur (thus breaking two of the prohibitions which had to be observed on this day), but has done it inadvertently (for example they did not know about the existence of such prohibitions or did not realize that it was already Yom Kippur), they had to bring only one sin-offering to the Temple. Whereas, if they had done it on purpose, they had to bring two offerings, one for each sin. And since there are no objective determinants which would allow us to find out whether a given person has done something on purpose or not, therefore each person had to make such a call in their own conscience.

This moral autonomy ascribed to each individual is a key element of our religion. Judaism is not and has never been an esoteric teaching, available only to a selected few, who wished to wield power over people’s consciences. And although God’s nature remains hidden from us, the Torah, in which He is present, has been revealed to us and can be shared and become a common property of all the people who have accepted it as their life path (Deut. 29:28.)

Let us remind here who has been actually chosen by God: a people de facto weak, oppressed and traumatized as a result of 400 years of slavery. Why did He choose them? Our tradition abounds in answers to this question. One of them, expressed directly in the Bible, states: Because of the promise He had made to its righteous ancestors. Another answer states that He did it out of His enormous love for Israel and for humankind in general. Yet another answer, which I’d like to propose here, states: God chose the Israelites because He saw a potential in them.   

Everything that I’ve mentioned above serves as proof of the great trust that God has put in men. He sees in each of us a potential to be realized and He wants us to also notice that potential and to strive to fulfill it.

Ibn Ezra in his commentary on the verse from Deuteronomy 30:16 emphasizes: It is of key importance to love that Being (i.e. God). However, to love God also means to see a potential for change in the world, for a change which He – and with His help also ourselves – can bring about together and which we are bringing about. Religions as such can be viewed as specific projects for the world, projects outlining plans for its transformation. They put forward visions for the future, visions of a better world – along with rules, norms of behavior and detailed instructions as to how we can bring about that new world order.

Seeing potential in another person is something we often forget to do, as we tend to focus on their specific actions and the results of these actions instead. The world we live in is organized in a way that essentially forces us to adopt such a stance towards others. It forces us to think predominantly in practical terms, about the here-and-now (this is to a large extent a legitimate approach and there is nothing wrong with it, as long as we don’t reduce everything to exactly such a stance). In most areas of our life the only thing that counts (or rather that has been made to seem like the only important thing) is what a given person can do at this given moment. This way our lives have turned into an endless skill- and beauty-contest – i.e. a contest evaluating everything that exists in the present and that has been already achieved or can be achieved any minute now. We yield to this “instantaneous-moment” diktat and to this endless competition, and we adjust our dreams accordingly. Only a handful of people are capable of breaking free from this pattern. Some of them are able to do this effectively and successively, and it is exactly those people who often introduce truly significant changes in the world. However, unfortunately for various reasons some of them end up at the sidelines of human life and their inherent potential is squandered.

To love another human being entails among others seeing their inner good and the potential for a future good which is yet to be achieved as a result of their actions. In fact, this act of noticing someone’s potential constitutes the essence of parental love. When we don’t recognize the innate talents and potential of our children or if we do notice it, but we ignore it and try to shape these human beings and their lives according to our own whims, we are causing them harm. Whether the harm we’ve caused will go on to destroy their lives – that depends on many other factors, but as a general rule by acting this way we are greatly increasing the likelihood of that.

Of course, loving someone in a mature way entails seeing the flaws, the shortcomings and the obvious weaknesses of the people we love, but if we truly love them, these traits will not overshadow their virtues and everything that is good in them – it is those positive traits that we notice in them in the first place. And this was exactly the principle on which God’s love towards Israel was (and still is) based, although the vast amount of Biblical narratives describing His wrath can sometimes make us take this notion for granted. God had certainly expected the failings of His people and although He vented His anger on this people on numerous occasions, He has never forsaken them and He has never broken their Covenant, since who we are is the result of the successes and failures of our ancestors.

The upcoming High Holidays season is not only a time for reflecting on our moral/religious transgressions (commonly called “sins”) which we’ve committed in the passing year. It is also a time to take stock of our life-achievements and to reflect on them, since these achievements are inextricably linked to our actions: to our sins and our mistakes. But at the same time it gives us a chance to reflect on the potential that lies within us, both the one which we have already fulfilled as well as the one which we have squandered. In this New Year 5779 I’d like to wish everyone that besides fulfilling their various not yet fulfilled potentials they will also keep on deepening their insight into other persons, regardless of whether they are someone close to us or not. I also wish you a constant  development of the ability to see the entire potential for good in other people, even when – or especially when – the ability to notice it has been distorted by our, not necessarily positive, experiences with those people.

Shabbat Shalom!

Menachem Mirski

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

Time to be grateful [Ki Tavo]

Time to be grateful

When I was a little boy, my family had an allotment garden. All my relatives visited it from time to time, but it was clear to everybody that it was the kingdom of my great-aunt Irena, my grandma’s older sister. Aunt Irenka spent hours and hours on end there tending to the plants. She occasionally asked other family members to help her when some of the tasks went beyond her physical ability. However, most of the time Auntie Irenka (as we used to call her) worked on our allotment garden alone. She came back home from there exhausted but she did not seem to pay any attention to it. Instead, Auntie often spoke about the future when we would be able to eat our own, home-grown fruit and vegetables. Similarly,  Auntie Irenka was never discouraged when draught or excessive rains limited the amount of her harvest. Conversely, she  was always proud of her produce, even when it was scarce. Moreover, whenever she brought a first batch of her crops home, she showed extreme gratitude for them, always saying:

Thank God for these amazing (plums/pears/carrots/parsnips), aren’t they delicious?! And so healthy! We will make amazing salads and preserves out of them.

I remembered my great aunt’s words when I read this week’s parasha, Ki Tavo. In its opening verses  we find the following instruction:

When you have entered the land the Eternal your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the first fruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the Eternal your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place the Eternal your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name and say to the priest in office at the time, “I declare today to the Eternal your God that I have come to the land the Eternal swore to our ancestors to give us.” …. and now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, Eternal, have given me.” Place the basket before the Eternal your God and bow down before him. Then you and the Levites and the foreigners residing among you shall rejoice in all the good things the Eternal your God has given to you and your household. (Deuteronomy 26:1-3,11.)

This paragraph describes the so called mitzvat bikurim, the commandment to bring first fruits to the Tabernacle (later replaced by the Temple in Jerusalem). These first fruits were supposed to be given to the Eternal in an elaborate ceremony which started with a confirmation of this given individual’s arrival to the Land of Israel. Subsequently, the Israelites were expected to recall all the hardships that they endured as slaves in and refugees from Egypt. Finally, they were expected to place their offered fruits in the place designated as holy (literally, before God’s presence) and bow, thus ending the first fruits ceremony. However, the Israelites were expected not only to complete this ritual, but also to rejoice in all the good things that the Eternal bestowed upon them.

We, modern Progressive Jews, do not believe in sacrifices. What’s more, even if we did, we don’t have a Temple where we could offer our first fruits. Nevertheless, our daily efforts still bear fruit – sometimes larger, sometimes smaller, but fruit nonetheless. This week’s Torah portion got me thinking about our relationship with the fruit of our labour. Are we proud of them, viewing them as a consequence of our hard-work and God-given talents? Or do we play down their importance, telling ourselves that our achievements are nothing special, a 'fluke’, something that everyone could do?

I hope that you see most of your accomplishments in the former way. Still, I suspect there are days in your life when you do not feel like you have made much progress crossing off items on your to-do list. On such days, we can feel overwhelmed and dissatisfied with ourselves. If that sounds familiar, I encourage you to view the tasks you managed to complete through the prism of the first fruits ritual. Initially, you could consider the things  you have achieved so far and tell yourselves: I have already made a lot of progress. This way, you will mirror the behaviour of the biblical Israelites who acknowledged the first fruit of their labour in the Promised Land even though their conquest of Canaan was far from over. Later, you can look at all the obstacles that you had to overcome in order to get to your current position, just like the Israelites recalled their journey through the wilderness. This step could help you cherish your resilience and appreciate the skills and resources you put to use to find your way to where you are now. Finally, just like the Israelites,  who rejoiced and expressed gratitude for their first fruits, you could try to show thankfulness to the Eternal by appreciating your results and giving yourself credit for them.

Feeling gratitude for what we have achieved in life feels like a daunting task, particularly to us, modern Westerners. These days, we are socialized to believe that one should always strive to achieve more. It motivates us  to push ourselves but leaves us unable to enjoy the first fruits of our efforts. Whenever I feel that I need to escape from this never-ending treadmill of anxious thinking about the next task, I think about my Aunt Irenka. Born and socialized in a small village in Kujawy, she always acknowledged that it wasn’t easy for her to move to a big city and get educated. Moreover, she knew that it is important to patiently wait for the results of your work and she took pride in even the smallest of them. I am not quite sure whether she was familiar with the first fruits ceremony described in our parasha, but she definitely embodied its spirit, full of gratitude and appreciation for life.

This Elul, our month of reflection, I encourage you to think about your achievements in the year 5778 and show gratitude for all you were able to accomplish. When you do so, you might feel like the ancient Israelites and my aunt Irenka, who were able to pause, appreciate the first fruits (or vegetables) and feel Divine Providence even in mundane tasks. I hope that such 'gratitude breaks’ will help you prepare for the High Holydays and will become a part of your routine in the New Year 5779.

Shabbat Shalom!

Mati Kirschenbaum

Elul – the Month of Judgment

Elul – the Month of Judgment

Mati Kirschenbaum

Time passes by inexorably; it seems as though the year 5778 has begun only yesterday, and already since last week we’ve been in the month of Elul, the month preceding the festival of Rosh Hashanah. Jewish tradition tells us that in the month of Elul we should reflect on the past year and take stock of our good deeds and of our transgressions. Sephardi Jews hold Slichot services in synagogues already starting from the beginning of this month. Their aim is to make Jews realize what a challenging task it is to improve our conduct, which is an essential part of the process of spiritual preparations for Rosh Hashanah – the Day of Judgment. This challenge seems to exceed our capabilities. Humbled by our smallness, throughout the month of Elul we call upon the Eternal, asking Him to be a just and benevolent judge. We could ask ourselves whether this plea is truly well-thought-out. After all, we don’t know what kind of criteria the Eternal will use to judge us. We can only hope that they resemble the Eternal’s commandments regarding the role of a judge, which can be found in this week’s Torah portion, in parashat Shoftim (Judges). In its opening verse we find the following words:

“You shall appoint [judges] and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the [Eternal] your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.   Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the [Eternal] your God is giving you.”
(Deuteronomy 16:18-20.)


The above mentioned quote teaches us that a fair judge of the people of Israel should treat everyone in the same way. Rashi, a medieval Torah commentator, teaches us that these words refer to the trial proceedings, during which the judge should listen to both sides of the trial with equal interest and be equally sympathetic towards both of them. In addition, Rashi claims that if during a trial the judge shows special favor to one side, it could influence the actions of the other side of the trial, since, according to Rashi, that other side, convinced that it is being treated unfairly, could give up and stop fighting for justice for itself. Rashi also claims that a judge cannot take bribes even if he intends to issue a just ruling, since bribes make it impossible to judge a case in a fully objective way. Interestingly, Rashi interprets the verse, “Justice, justice shall you pursue” as a phrase encouraging the Israelites to choose a trustworthy (literally: a beautiful) court from among the various institutions of the justice system which are available to us. How could we apply Rashi’s words to the description of the Eternal’s role as a judge, a role which we invoke so often in the month of Elul?

First of all, we can assume that the Eternal is interested in a complete assessment of our merits and transgressions. As an impartial judge He listens not only to our internal “prosecutor”, but also to our internal “defense attorney”. Secondly, while the Eternal is aware of our transgressions, He does not act as a prosecutor in our case, since that would make it impossible for us to be granted a just verdict in our trial. Thirdly, the Eternal’s judgment can be considered trustworthy according to the definition provided by the Rabbinical interpretation of Jewish law, which means that His rulings are just and not overly cruel. 

The above mentioned Rashi’s commentaries to our Parasha seem to suggest to us that we should not be overly frightened of Rosh Hashana, the Day of Judgment, since the Eternal is aware of both our strengths and of our weaknesses. In spite of that many of us feel anxious in the month of Elul. We are often not sure whether our merits will outweigh our transgressions and we blame ourselves for our moments of weakness. Such a self-critical stance makes it difficult for us to appreciate our good deeds. In addition, if we are overly critical of ourselves, we do not appreciate our inherent potential to change our old ways. By acting this way, we judge our behavior in an unfair and excessively harsh way.


Parashat Shoftim teaches us that such an approach is at odds with the spirit of our tradition, which emphasizes the significance of a comprehensive, well-balanced judgment of all human imperfections. In this year’s month of Elul I encourage you to reflect on your weaknesses and strengths without judging yourself too harshly.   I deeply believe that leaving a critical judgment of your actions to the Eternal will allow you to prepare to the High Holidays in a better way. I wish you all a good Shabbat rest and a month of Elul full of motivating reflection rather than self-criticism. Shabbat Shalom!  

Mati Kirschenbaum
Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

Good fortune and justice. Thoughts on Parashat Ree.

Menachem Mirski –

Good fortune and justice. Thoughts on Parashat  Ree.

 

“Every seventh year you shall practice remission of debts. This shall be the nature of the remission: every creditor shall remit the due that he claims from his fellow; he shall not dun his fellow or kinsman, for the remission proclaimed is of the [Eternal]. You may dun the foreigner; but you must remit whatever is due you from your kinsmen. There shall be no needy among you—since the [Eternal] your God will bless you in the land that the [Eternal] your God is giving you as a hereditary portion – if only you heed the [Eternal] your God and take care to keep all this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day; For the [Eternal] your God will bless you as He has promised you: you will extend loans to many nations, but require none yourself; you will dominate many nations, but they will not dominate you!” (Deuteronomy 15:1-6.)

 

If we take the last of the above verses out of context, we can interpret it in many different ways. Jewish chauvinists (they can be found in every ethnic or religious group) can view it as an expression of “Jewish superiority”,  legitimized by the supreme, Divine mandate. Anti-Semites will see in it a similar proclamation, adding to it also several other ideas, such as a theory about a Jewish conspiracy aimed at bringing this vision to life. However, this verse appears in the context of various laws regarding social justice. Happiness, prosperity, and – as a consequence – also the strength of a society are a result of the relations between individuals and groups in a given society and they depend on how just these relations are. If the notion of justice is commonly respected and is the subject of an in-depth reflection carried  out  by the ones in power (and thus is not viewed in a primitive way, such as a view claiming in a nutshell that  those who have not been successful in their lives have only themselves to blame for it etc.), then the right conditions exist for a just division of goods and for an efficient, societal cooperation in every aspect of life. This (among others) establishes the fundaments of a strong society and of a state which has a chance to dominate (after fulfilling several other conditions) over other states and societies which are at odds with justice and which have not established just rules for their common, social life.

Of course, there are countries and societies which are being ruled unjustly and which in spite of that are strong and dominate over others in various ways – militarily, with regards to their numerousness and so on.  However, we shall not take such systems into account, since in general a notion of a state ruled by a dictatorship and by means of violence is an anti-thesis of a Biblical vision of a state and of societal relations.

The topic of justice is extremely vast, so today we shall focus on only one of its aspects: on luck and its role in achieving success, since the above mentioned verses discuss the need to help those who have not achieved material success in their lives. This is necessary for the sake of maintaining order in a given society. Here I’d like to pose  the  following question: Is success the result of (exclusively) one’s own work and skills, such as intelligence or cleverness, or perhaps is it simply luck that plays a key role in achieving success? Several psychological studies conducted on this topic in the past two decades have shown that men and women perceive the role of luck in achieving success differently and that they tend to give different answers to these questions. Men have a strong tendency to ascribe their success to their own skills, whereas women – to luck. And when it comes to failures, the opposite is the  case – women  generally tend to blame their own shortcomings – their lack of skills, knowledge etc. – for their failures, whereas men usually explain their failures by putting the blame on outside factors, such as bad luck.   

And what does our tradition have to say about this? We know that essentially it distances itself (and forbids) various fortune-telling practices aimed at summoning good fortune. However, the theme of luck appears in Biblical, Rabbinical as well as Kabbalistic sources. We read about it for the first time in the context of the birth of Gad, Jacob’s son:

“Leah said, ‘What luck!’ So she named him Gad.’ (Genesis 30:11.)

Rashi in his first explanation of this verse explains the meaning of the name “Gad” as mazal tov, which indeed literally means a stroke of luck, good fortune  (in common use mazal tov of course means: “Congratulations”). But in fact the notion of luck and of believing in it in our tradition is not so obvious at all. In the Talmud (Shabbat 156a) in the context of a discussion concerning astrology we can find a statement “ein mazal le’Israel,” which literally means, “There is no good fortune for Israel”, but its appropriate translation is, “There is no constellation  (of stars) for Israel”. In other words, the success or failure of Israel is not “written in the stars”. And therefore Jews should not believe in horoscopes. Maimonides links this mazal to “the laws of natural history,” and in his opinion the  history of Israel is not subjected to them.

And this means that there is also no predestination. Even if something is “written in the stars” or in history, Jews do not have to follow it and ultimately are not  subjected to it, since they have the power to transform their fate, even if it happens to be “unfortunate”. This being said, does this mean that in Judaism the typical “male” answer to the question of luck and its role in life is prevalent?

Not at all. In a different place the Talmud (tractate Moed Katan 28a) states that “the length of life, children, and sustenance all depend not upon one’s merit, but upon fate”). And therefore – upon good fortune. Whereas the Kabbalistic interpretation of ein mazal le’Israel states that this good fortune comes from a place which is beyond time and space, beyond nature and its cause-and-effect relations, beyond all possible levels of human spirituality; it stems from a place called ein sof (“without end”), i.e. from the highest spiritual reality of God, which is above all His manifestations  and de facto above His will, intentions and actions. We could even say that our good fortune stems from a “Divine subconsciousness”.

To conclude, our sages’ answer to the question of good fortune is neither typically “male” nor typically “female” – it encompasses both of these components within itself. Our well-being and success in life depend both on factors which lie within ourselves and over which we do have control, such as our efforts, work and skills, as well as on factors over which we have no control, i.e. on that which people call good fortune. That good fortune which drips on us (the noun mazal has the same root as the verb linzol, which actually means to drip) has its source in ein sof, and thus in the deepest dimension of Divine reality – in “Divine subconsciosness”. In a way God by giving us laws aimed at introducing justice in the human world is correcting the decrees of his „subconsciousness”, so that happiness can be experienced by everyone who has invited God to be part of their life.   Shabbat  Shalom!

Menachem Mirski

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka