Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Summer of Bad News / Parshat Ki Tavo 2014

The news is causing us stress. Accordingly to a survey conducted jointly by the Harvard School of Public Health, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and NPR, 25% of Americans surveyed who reported experiencing considerable amounts of stress in the past month attributed much of it to the news they consume. If that is the case, this past summer must be a researchers bonanza: In addition to Malaysian Airlines jets seemingly dropping out of the sky, the Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision that puts religious liberty and womens reproductive health and freedom at risk, and the death of Michael Brown and subsequent protests and rioting in Ferguson, Missouri, we also watched as the jihadi terrorists of ISIS cut a bloody swath across Iraq and Syria and beheaded two Americans, Hamas rockets flew into Israel and war erupted in Gaza, and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa affecting five countries claimed hundreds of lives and threatened many more.

It is all riveting. And according to Prof. Mary McNaughton-Cassill (UT-San Antonio), who studies the nexus of media and stress, were in for far more stress as news becomes a 24/7 aspect of our lives, reaching us through conventional print and broadcast media, cable, and social media. Many of us even receive real-time alerts on our cell phones, which serve to ring alarm bells day and night. Life appears darker and more foreboding, the world increasingly dangerous and threatening, in the shadow of a non-stop newsfeed that itself feeds on calamity and catastrophe. New media outlets compete fiercely for our attention, favoring sensationalistic, emotionally-wrenching, violence-soaked images and stories to keep us transfixed. Not a day goes by that I dont hear or read the words the world is imploding or the world is going to hell in a hand-basket or things are getting worse and worse multiple times.

This weeks Torah portion, Ki Tavo, could lead us to the same sense of doom and gloom, but the Sfat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger, 18471905) finds hope and inspiration in just two words in parshat Ki Tavo. Moses discourse to the Israelites promises the Israelites fame and fortune if they obey Gods covenant. On Mt. Ebal, Moses erects an altar and stone monuments coated with plaster and inscribed with words of Torah to reinforce his point. Then Moses directs that after the people cross the Jordan River, they are to assemble on the slopes of Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal to hear the curses that will befall those who violate the covenant, and the blessings that will come to those who obey it. And if thats not enough, this is followed by the Tokhechah (lit. rebuke), a long list of cursesthreats, reallyfar longer than the list of blessings and promises: drought and famine, plague and pestilence, insanity, servitude, war and decimation.  So abysmally negative and frightening are the images invoked by the words that the Tokhechah is unnerving to read or hear. Therefore it is traditionally read in synagogue in a hasty undertone. The Tokhechah sounds this summers news. Where in this can we find hope and inspiration?

Moses opens the discourse:

 הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מְצַוְּךָ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת-הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה--וְאֶת-הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים; וְשָׁמַרְתָּ וְעָשִׂיתָ אוֹתָם, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשֶׁךָ.

The Lord your God commands you this day to observe these laws and rules; observe them faithfully with all your heart and soul.

The Sfat Emet focuses on Moses emphasis on this day. He reminds us that both midrash and Rashi explain Torah to be teaching us that, Each day these [words of Torah] should be like new in your eyes. But why is the sense of newness conditioned by like? Why should Torah be like new, the Sfat Emet wonders?

Is something out there trying to fool the person giving him something that isnt really new, but is like new? God forbid! It is really within human power to renew each thing. The renewal is there within everything since God renews each day, constantly, the work of Creation. Constantly means in each moment. Nothing exists without the divine life-force, and the point in each thing that comes from God never grows old, since Gods words are constantly alive and flowing.

It is precisely because everything comes from God (the divine life-force), which is continuously alive and flowing, that newness (that, is, possibility) inheres in every moment and every situationtoday and every day. That which is, is a given, but it does not define
what will always be. The Sfat Emet is talking about hope and optimism, which many people find so difficult to hold onto lately.

 The world of the Sfat Emet was as fraught as ours, and he well understood the difficulty of maintaining a high level of optimism in the face of overwhelming reality. This he readily acknowledges but hastens to remind us that nonetheless, behind, beneath, and beyond everything is God, the life-force, and therefore the possibility for change is always present. Here is how he expressed it:

However, darkness covers the earth (Isaiah 60:2). The outward shell hides that flowing point. Thus Scripture says: There is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). That is the natural world that hides the renewal.

This is a beautiful religious metaphysical ideal. Yet at the same time we cannot fail to recognize that much of the violence perpetrated around the globe is connected with religion or a direct outcome of religious beliefs and claims. Voltaire (16941778) said, Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. Harvard professor of psychology Steven Pinker would agree. Raised in a Jewish family, Pinker converted to atheism as an adolescent. He is highly critical of religion and scripture, and argues that religion is not a force for peace. In his recent treatise, Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, he writes:

The scriptures present a God who delights in genocide, rape, slavery, and the execution of nonconformists, and for millennia those writings were used to rationalize the massacre of infidels, the ownership of women, the beating of children, dominion over animals, and the persecution of heretics and homosexuals. Humanitarian reforms such as the elimination of cruel punishment, the dissemination of empathy-inducing novels, and the abolition of slavery were met with fierce opposition in their time by ecclesiastical authorities and their apologists. The elevation of parochial values to the realm of the sacred is a license to dismiss other peoples interests, and an imperative to reject the possibility of compromise.

Pinker argues for optimism and hope. He tells us that our era is less cruel and violent, and endowed with great peace and cooperationon the scale of families, neighborhoods, tribes, and nationsthan in any period in human history. Drawing on academic research from the arenas of cognitive science, psychology, history, economics, sociology, and archaeology, Pinker painstakingly argues that our lives are safer and better than any previous generation, and the trend is continuing thanks to state monopolies on force, international commercial trade, the expansion of human rights (include the empowerment of women), and the cultural proliferation of scientific reasonbut not thanks to religion. His optimism renews a sense of hope for a better future, but his seemingly categorical castigation of religion is troubling.

The Sfat Emet shows us that Pinker is not necessarily correct. His commentary on this day continues:

But it is within the power of a person to light up that point within the darkness; The Lord your God commands you this day God commands you to find this day the revelation of light, the shining speculum, within the very deed that hides the point. You do this by means of the mitzvot, since the commandment is a candle. The mitzvah exists within the corporeal world of deeds, but it also contains the divine life-force in the command to do it. Thus it gives the person power to become attached, by means of it, to the hidden light. This is the meaning of this day these laws and rules By means of the mitzvot, God gives you the power to find this day also in the deed

While the Sfat Emet doesnt point it out, Torah confirms his view that it is in mitzvot that find the power to transform possibility into reality, also from this weeks parashah.

הַסְכֵּת וּשְׁמַע, יִשְׂרָאֵל, הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה נִהְיֵיתָ לְעָם, לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ.  י וְשָׁמַעְתָּ, בְּקוֹל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ; וְעָשִׂיתָ אֶת-מִצְוֹתָו וְאֶת-חֻקָּיו, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם.

Silence! Hear, O Israel! This day (i.e., today) you have become the people of the Lord your God: Heed the Lord your God and observe Gods mitzvot and laws, which I enjoy upon you today. (Deuteronomy 27:9-10)

But it is not enough for the potential to exist. We must grasp hold of it. We must seize the possibility to set a new direction and transform the possible into reality. By aligning ourselves with God, the life-force, by engaging in the life-affirming and life-giving activities of mitzvot, we remain positively engaged with the world through thought and deed, and do not succumb to the darkness that so often seems to envelop the world, especially when we turn on the news. The mitzvot encompass far more than ritual (though even rituals point to elevating morals); on a more fundamental level, the mitzvot entail an ethical system for living based on a foundation of empathy, compassion, and justice. This summer we saw more examples of religion at its worst; the Sfat Emet offers us religion at its best: a spiritual, religious way to keep hope alive and fan the flames of optimism, to fuel our endeavors to transform potential good into solid reality.

We are in the month of Elul, a time when we recite Psalm 27, the psalm of repentance, daily through Hoshana Rabbah. Psalm 27 closes with these words:
Yet I have faith that I shall surely see
Adonai’s goodness in the land of the living.
Hope in Adonai.
Be strong, take courage, and hope in Adonai.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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