Friday, August 30, 2013

Why Say Selichot?

This Saturday night, the start of the week of Rosh Hashanah, Selichot services are held.  These are special prayers said during the High Holy Day period.  The importance of saying these prayers is described in the Midrash (Tanna D'bei Eliyahu): 

"King David knew that in the future the Temple would be destroyed and the offerings would cease because of the sins of the Jewish People.  King David was troubled because he didn't know how the Jews would gain atonement for their sins.  

"The Holy One said to King David, 'At the time that troubles come to the Jewish People because of their sins, let them say before Me the order of the Selichot Prayer (the 13 Attributes of God's Mercy) and I will answer them."

The Selichot prayers are the warm-up for the entire Teshuvah (repentance) process.  Since we have fallen far short of our potential in the past year, we need to ask God to overlook our prior shortcomings as we rededicate ourselves to putting forth a maximum effort to do better in the coming year.

The Sages designed Selichot to bring us into the right frame of mind for asking forgiveness and doing Teshuvah.  

Selichot Services are at 11:30pm at the North Shore Jewish Center this year.  

Best wishes for a Happy and Health New Year,

Shanah Tovah,

Rabbi Benson

Friday, August 23, 2013

Parshat Ki Tavo: Complaining You Want to Hear

Having kids, there is a fair bit of complaining that you have to endure.  "I want to stay up later," "I want to have more cookies," I suspect you get the picture.  But every now and then, you get a complaint that let's you know that maybe just maybe you aren't the worst parent out there.

This happened with my five year-old with regards to a homeless man we saw.  "I don't want there to have to be any grandpas that have to live on the street."  Even after giving the man some money and talking to him, my son was still bothered about it.  But that's the type of complaining about the world that you are proud to hear your kid do.

Moses has such a moment with the Jewish People this week.  The first of many "good complaints" the Jews have been known to make over the years.  After having endured years of complaining about having to eat mannah and the journey being too hard and countless other things, we are told of a different complaint.

In Deuteronomy 29:3 we are told that the Jews come to Moses to complain that he has presented the Levite tribe with the Torah (Rashi refers to Deuteronomy 31:9 being where that happens - we'll leave aside for now the fact that passage is after this one) when they too, all the Jews, had accepted it at Mt. Sinai.

As a response we get the words of this verse which in English says, "God did not give you a heart with which to know or eyes with which to see or ears with which to hear until today."  It wasn't until this point, Moses is saying, that I knew you really cared about the Torah in your hearts and for yourselves, but with this complaint, I see that you finally "get" it.  The Jews had shown Moses that maybe they'd be okay even after he was gone.  They had learned to complain about the right things.

We Jews have a long history about being there to complain about things when they are wrong and deserve to be fixed.  The Torah as a whole is such a complaint against a life lived without reverence for the world around us and the people in it.  

Let us be proud of our well-deserved reputation for complaining, just so long as we complain about the right stuff.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Benson

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Parshat Ki Teitzei: Learning Humanity from Animals

Would you help someone who had wronged you? Someone who you didn't like? An "enemy" of yours? Why or why not? What is it that sets us up to become "enemies" with another person in our lives? What is it that makes us dislike another person so that we can't stand them, can't be around them? 

The portion this week, from Deuteronomy, includes one of the Torah's more famous lessons, "If you see your fellow's ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow. If your fellow does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him. You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent." Deuteronomy 23:1-3 

Not unlike this is a passage in the book of Exodus, (23:4-5) where the only difference is that it is your "enemy's" animal, not that of you "fellow" that you must help.

The Talmud of course imagines the obvious problem - what do you do if you see both the animal of your fellow and the animal of your enemy both lost at the same time? Who do you help first? You may have guessed it, you help your enemy first. And why is that? We are taught, "in assisting your enemy you remember your common humanity and forget your animosity."

That is a great lesson about not only how to banish hatred and strife from a relationship, but also why such things enter into a relationship in the first - we forget our common humanity. We forget all the fears and worries and self-doubts and other faults human beings have that can make others so irritating, so disrespectful, so distasteful to us -- all those same issues we just naturally assume everyone else will accept in us when they meet us.

By doing something that reminds you of that, you jar yourself out of what is ultimately selfish thinking, "this person lives their life solely to annoy me" and replace it with a broader mindset, "maybe there is more to this person than I ever considered before."

We so often ascribe to our pets and other animals anthropomorphic traits. Here, the Torah finds in animals a way in which to draw out the best about who we can be as human beings.  Not a bad lesson for this time of reflection and repentance before the New Year either.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Benson

Friday, August 9, 2013

Parshat Shofetim - My Horse for a Kingdom?

The other day I heard a program about the charismatic general Abdel Fatah el-Sisi who most believe is the one in charge in Egypt since that country's recent change in government. The program spoke about how popular a figure he is and the celebrity status he enjoys, at least for now. In our portion this week, Shoftim, we read the passage concerning the possibilities of a mortal king being set up to rule the Jewish People. Deuteronomy 17:14-20 detail the conditions for choosing a king and how he should rule. One gets the impression that the Torah wants to limit the power of the king; he can't have too many horses for example (either for military campaigns or else as a sign of his status). The Sefer ha-Chinuch, a book that lists all 613 mitzvot in the order in which they appear finds this to be Positive Commandment #173. However, there are others who argue that it is not a commandment at all, but rather an option God gives out of consideration for human nature - the Jews may one day wish to have a king like other people do and so they may provided these rules are followed. The idea behind this view is to teach that our leaders must always be of the sort who remember their responsibilities and do not let their position go to their heads. It is all to easy to be acclaimed by the masses, as is the case for the Egyptian general, but it can also be all to easy to make mistakes when that happens as well. Remembering one's duty to the people one leads, and to the mission and values that unite that people are important in the long run. Important lessons for kings of old, new Egyptian dictators, and all of us who seek to take on roles of responsibility. We must remember that leading is ultimately about serving - a lesson the Torah makes clear: the king remains a servant of God. So must we. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Benson