Friday, August 19, 2011

Good as new - Shabbat Ekev -August 19, 2011

In one of my many trips to a nearby Rockport shoe outlet, I was speaking with the sales person about the amount of time a pair of their brand of shoes should last. “One year if you wear them regularly” came the answer. Experience tells me that he was about right, but I did wonder why they couldn’t make an $80 pair of shoes last longer than a year.
Then there were Haggar slacks – I didn’t go to an outlet store to buy them, but I would hear “50 washes” as a common measure of their longevity.
Of course, nothing lasts forever, but the Torah reading for this week, Ekev, makes an incredible claim about the Israelites and their wardrobe: “The clothes upon you did not wear out, nor did your feet swell these forty years.” The implication was that their clothing not only remained in excellent condition, but even expanded as Israelite children grew into their adult years. And after all that walking, they weren’t tired at all. They had enough strength to continue on, albeit with a small dose of kvetching. The instances of their complaints as reported in the Torah, compared to the sum total of their years of wandering, were rather few when put into proper perspective.
Unlike the Rockport shoes and Haggar slacks, there was a sense of timelessness connected to the Israelites along their journey. How did they – and their feet and clothing – last for so many years? The rabbis explained, as does the Torah, that it was God who saw to their needs without the need for a shopping spree at the occasional oasis. And what of their ability to remain strong and to rejuvenate themselves?
That is where Shabbat comes in. Ahad Haam, the founder of cultural Zionism, once said, “More than Israel has kept Shabbat has Shabbat kept Israel.” Taking a day, once a week, to rest and renew ourselves does wonders for our fortitude, our patience, and our view of our significant place in the world. A day of rest has the potential to take us back to where we were the week before, and the week before that, in terms of our level of energy and our ability to give the best of our abilities and wisdom. Shabbat can help us make ourselves “good as new,” rather than a little more worn than the week before like those slacks and shoes that have a limited life. The rejuvenation of Shabbat has its greatest effect on our spirit and our emotions, enabling us to feel, in our minds and hearts, that we can transcend time and continue along a path to reach our potential. Jewish thinker Martin Buber once said, “Every person born into this world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique and every man or woman's foremost task is the actualization of his or her unique and unprecedented…possibilities.” No matter where we are along the life cycle, we have new opportunities, every week, to try to make those personal possibilities real. Such an approach to weekly or daily living can keep us young or, at least, ageless, where what matters is not how long we have been on the journey but that we believe that every step of the journey offers us a chance to further discover who we are, and what we can give to the world.
So yes, the shoes change, perhaps the feet swell, and the clothes on the outside may need replacing every so often. Yet, we have the power to preserve what we wear on the inside in “good as new” condition – our hopes, our determination, our commitment, our self-assurance, and our desire to reach for others in friendship and love. Our well maintained internal emotional and spiritual clothing can enable us to keep moving forward with a youthful enthusiasm and exuberance along the way to our own promised land. Shabbat Shalom!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Sign on our Hand - D'var Torah - August 12, 2011

Uk’shartam l’ot al yadecha
Bind them for a sign upon your hand
The words are familiar to us
We know them like “the back of our hand”
Because we recite them
Not only from the Torah as we read this week’s portion
But in every evening and morning service.
In Jewish tradition, the sign on our hand came to be a physical symbol
The T’filin shel yad, with its leather strap wrapped
Around the arm 7 times
And with the strap on the hand forming the letter Shin (for Ashkenazim), the first letter of the word SHADDAI, the name of God that means “almighty.”
One who has finished putting on tefillin recites this passage
From the prophetic book of Hosea:
I will betroth you to Me forever.
I will betroth you to Me with righteousness,
with justice, with kindness, and with compassion.
I will betroth you to Me with faithfulness,
and you shall know God.
These words from Hosea – words of love and commitment
bring us back to the beginning of the paragraph that we know so well
V’ahavta eit adonai elohecha – You shall love the Eternal your God.
It is spoken not in plural, but in singular, because
each of us, through what the Torah calls the work of our hands, can show our love for God.
Some commentators have wondered if
“Bind them for a sign upon your hand”
Meant to create a physical symbol
Or if it was a metaphor
Attempting to point our behaviors towards God and godly paths.
The book of Proverbs, in several places, suggests that we can bind God’s teachings to our neck, our heart, and our fingers,
Meaning that we should keep God’s instruction close to us – or, as we might say
Close at hand.
As One who wears tefillin during prayer sees a visible reminder of God on his or her hand,
we are called upon to remember that there is always an invisible and potent sign on our hands to use them to bring goodness and holiness into our lives and into the world.
With our hands…
We give gifts to others
We bring donations to people in need
We extend our hand to welcome others
We offer a hand in friendship or a touch meant to provide comfort and support
We reach across a divide of disagreement
To restore a sense of unity
We write words the reflect and teach companionship, righteousness and hope
We fix what is broken.
We create meals or delicacies to share with our families, neighbors, friends, our congregation, or with people in need.
We play musical instruments for enjoyment and perhaps as part of worship
We open a book to drink of its wisdom
We turn the pages of prayerbook to join our community as one voice
Or we turn in the siddur to read other words and thoughts on our own to renew our spirit.
These sentiments about how the work of our hands can enrich our lives are echoed in the following passage from a once-popular work…
And what is it to work with love?
It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.
It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.
It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit.
What is bound as a sign on our hand is not only what we do but also who we are
We are a part of creation
And some would say that the OT – the sign – that is bound on our hand is the stamp of the divine upon and inside each of us.
Some would claim, even further, that we are God’s hands – that God acts through us in the world – and that when we acknowledge that a sign of God is upon our hands,
We will remember to act with a greater sense of
And justice.
And so - may these words, these teachings, and the best of the value of our heritage
be bound as a sign upon our hand so that our work,
every day,
will be touched by God.
So may it be – let us say amen.