"The Warm Breezes of August and the Chilling Realities of our World"
For many of us, these first weeks of August have been one of the most beautiful stretches of weather that we have seen this summer. The quiet and peaceful days of warmth and sunshine help to quell the news items that bombard us as soon as come inside and turn our electronic devices, TVs and radios again. Threats that we are on the brink of war – or more likely something far worse than war – with North Korea, continuing questions about the many special investigations that are underway in Washington, confusion over what some believe to be a series of unusual “acoustic attacks” perpetrated by the Cubans and/or Russians at the United States Embassy in Havana, smugglers off the coast of Yemen, fearing arrest, forcing hundreds of Somali and Ethiopian migrants to either struggle to swim to land or to drown. These events stand in direct opposition to these lazy days of summer. And some of us here are vacation and enjoying the dry weather and gentle breezes, to the south of us, in New Orleans, are besieged by torrential rainstorms, by fires, and a water pumping crisis that has left much of the city flooded and in ruins.
Perhaps it is not coincidental is it that in this week’s Torah portion Ekev the Children of Israel likewise experience a period of difficulty and suffering. This week, in the Book of Deuteronomy, it seems that the promise of the Land – like the return of dry land to those in New Orleans --is remote, and that the wilderness experience – not unlike the suffering of migrants desperately seeking some semblance of home -- might never end. The storyline is all too familiar – then and now. People struggle and grow tired, they argue among themselves; they complain to their leaders as well as to their God; they demand to be reminded again and again of the good fortune that was once theirs and that is promised to them again in the future. There is not much comfort to be found in the mindset of “this too shall pass” when people suffer. In this week’s Torah portion, our commentators point to only one measure of comfort for the people. That is, the single Hebrew word eretz – meaning “land” appears not once, but seven times in this Torah portion as a repeated reminder to the people not to give up and to press on toward the promise. In this context, the Rabbis suggest that eretz, land, is synonymous with shalom, or peace.
The question is the same in our own time as it was for our Biblical ancestors. How do we live amid our suffering? Through our suffering? Despite our suffering? How do we live today to draw ourselves nearer to the promise of goodness and peace; of bounty and plenty? Our tradition reminds us in this week’s portion that even when we suffer – even when hope seems lost – we must continue to live out our religion…to listen to God’s commandments, to keep them and do them; to never lose faith in the kindnesses of others or in the possibility of hope.
The question is: How do we translate that faith in our daily lives? And how are we to respond -- we who live far away from Yemen and largely unaffected by the drownings of tens of innocent people; or miles from New Orleans and the continuing devastation there? We know that as Jews and as human beings, we cannot turn our backs on others or wish these human tragedies away. The answer is simple, but not simplistic. We do so by coming together as we do right now – to join our community in prayer and in song. To come to the synagogue – to the place where Jewish learning, worship and gathering have taken place for more than 2000 years. We do so by being knowledgeable about events in the world – Jewish and otherwise. By paying attention to the events that take place in the Jewish homeland and other incidents that affect Jews and Judaism around the world. We translate God’s instructions by bringing Judaism into our homes and hearts; by celebrating the Jewish calendar and life-cycle and by taking pride in our Jewish culture and heritage. We do so by continuing to celebrate the union of brides and grooms in our communities, marking special milestones – birthdays and anniversaries – in the context of our synagogues. By embracing one another when we reach special times in our lives as well as remembering – always remembering – those who died and now grace our presence with memory. We translate God’s instructions into our own lives when we console the bereaved and provide comfort at the bedsides of the sick and dying. We do so when we reach out to others – when we share food with new friends and keep touch with old friends.
We lend assistance to one another by being allergic to apathy and helplessness. We need to believe that Jewish life and Jewish living must transcend such momentary frustrations – just as we have seen our ancestors transcend the arid life of the wilderness; our forefathers and mothers who met with great opposition as they conquered the land; our grandparents as they faced the devastation of the Nazi war machine in Europe. To continue to live and to live Jewishly – this is the greatest antidote against despair and hopelessness; to not become our own enemy is the greatest challenge when times become difficult.
And so, none of us can offer the solution for the civil wars of Yemen or Syria that are killing civilians as well as soldiers; we only have a modicum of control over weather patterns and limited technological savvy to pump water out of New Orleans faster than the rain brings water. None of us can even venture a guess as to how these wars will end and when soldiers will come home to their families, alive, once and for all; when our Israeli cousins will be able to live and work in peace together with their Arab neighbors; when there will be cures for the diseases of the mind and body that bring suffering to young and old alike. All we can do is continue to hope and pray, to sing and live. To do so as Jews and to do so proudly with the echoes of our age-old traditions and our modern-day innovations. And in the words of this week’s Torah portion, “ram levavecha” – to lift our hearts – to never lose hope for a better, more peaceful tomorrow.
Among the disciples of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi was a learned and wealthy man. An accomplished Torah scholar and chassidic (deeply spiritual) thinker, he served God and his people, and gave generously to tzedakah (good causes).
But then it came to pass that this chassid lost his entire fortune. This not only affected him, but also brought suffering to several of his family members who depended on him to provide weddings for their daughters and b’nai mitzvah for their sons. The dates of these B’nai Mitzvah ceremonies and marriages were now approaching, and he saw no way to make good on his promises. He couldn’t even afford to provide weddings for his own daughters.
He came to see his teacher, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, and cried in sorrow. If God has chosen to afflict me with poverty, he said, I accept that judgment. But how can I go on knowing that I cannot repay my debts to others? I had made promises to family members in need when I had the means, and so, according to the Torah, I was justified in making these pledges. But if I fail to keep my word, I will be viewed as evil. I beg you, Rebbe, please do something on my behalf; I need to fulfill my obligations so I’m not branded a transgressor for the rest of my life.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman sat with his head in his arms in a deep state of meditative focus. The Rebbe listened to the chassid’s tearful pleas. After a long while, Rabbi Schneur Zalman lifted his head and said with great feeling: “You speak of all that you need. But you say nothing of what you are needed for . . .”
Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s words pierced the innermost corners of the chassid’s heart. From that moment on, he fell silent and stopped asking for what he thought he needed. He simply applied himself to work, study, and prayer with renewed life, and with such joy and diligence that he forgot about everything else.
Later, thinking about thechassid, the Rebbe spoke about responsibilities as human beings and as Jews in the world: The purpose of life, said Rabbi Schneur Zalman, is to serve God through one’s involvement in the world. Even when the world is at its darkest, and appears to be abandoned by the gentle hands of God and humanity working together to bring light. The chassid began to understand that his own needs were secondary to what he was needed for to make the world better, warmer, and brighter.
Seeing that the chassid had internalized this important lesson, Rabbi Schneur Zalman called for him and offered him a special blessing of renewed success. The Rebbe told him to return to his home and his work. In time, the chassid regained his wealth, fufilled his debts and promises, married off his daughters, and always began each day by making the decision as to where he was needed at that moment and how he could help. The chassid discovered that living with this heightened awareness -- by asking himself what was needed of him -- also satisfied the chassid’s own needs. He learned that helping those who are in need is its own reward for the giver as well as the receiver.
Ken Yehi Ratzon...Be this God's will.
Rabbi Lisa Eiduson