Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Week 5 - Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech - Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30

L’shana tovah everybody! We had a double shot of Torah from last week coming to you straight up. It’s been a rough week and the coming weeks looks to be even busier, so I need the extra boost before the High Holidays begin. And the first line was so happy right? I had to start off being overly excited, but I want to talk about feeling alone.

I am going to make this a bit personal, so indulge me if you will: I feel alone. Everyday I wake up when no one is up in my apartment and ride the bus to school alone. I run from class to class to work to class to whatever else I have going on and then ride the bus back alone. Even now I write this entry in an empty room alone, miles away from my family who are celebrating together. Total bummer, but I will come back to it.

In this past week’s Torah portion, the Jewish people are about to feel alone. Moses is about to leave them in this week’s parshah and they will be for once, in a very long time, without guidance. Lost in the wilderness, if you will (cue Children of Eden song).

This sentiment though is not foreign, especially not around this time of the year. Many of us feel alone now: kids just starting school or college graduates just entering the work force. With the way the world spins and changes every day, it is easy to feel lost in the desert.

The Jewish people though are never alone because we have each other. This all sounds very “Hands Across America”-y, but think about the past couple of readings I have done. The point of Deuteronomy isn’t the stoning of adulterers and the wrath bits, but the care for the poor, the widowed, the orphan, and just each other in general. It’s a guide to never being alone. This week’s parshah really makes that sentiment concrete: unity of people.

And how could we ever feel alone? We are heirs to one of the oldest traditions known to humanity. Someone, somewhere along the line over thousands of years, has felt like you, has been like you… and they made it. If they didn’t, you wouldn’t be here as you are now. They were still standing, after wandering the desert, traversing the wilderness, overcome with the feeling of being in exile, despite being surrounded by all of God’s blessings, they stand. This past week’s reading begins:

“You stand today, all of you, before the Lord your God: your heads, your tribes, your elders, your officers, and every Israelite man; your young ones, your wives, the stranger in your gate; from your wood-hewer to your water-drawer.”

You stand.

And it’s everyone, from the biggest to the smallest, from the ones who join things together, to the ones who split things apart, the stranger and the tribe all stand together. Moses’ last physical act in the Bible is to give the Jewish people something so that they are never alone and never without guidance: the Torah. And he knows about being alone.

Moses himself feels like he will be alone and without guidance at first, to quote this wonderful Davar Torah from the Academy of Jewish religion where I would like to possibly study (hint hint wink wink – please read this and offer me financial aid).

“At one time Moses protested that he was not a man of words, that for him speech was difficult and his lips were not fluent. But forty years later he preached the words of Deuteronomy. Throughout a full day he held forth, concluding by saying that the thing, the commandment, was not too far away or too difficult, “rather it is in your mouth and in your heart to do it.” What happened to him?”

(The rest of the article can be found here:

What did happen to him? I don’t know. I am not a rabbi; maybe I will be one day if I go to AJR. But perhaps the Haftorah has an answer… You know me. I love me some good Haftorah. Here is a brief summary, from

“The prophet begins on a high note, describing the great joy that we will experience with the Final Redemption, comparing it to the joy of a newly married couple.

Isaiah than declares his refusal to passively await the Redemption: "For Zion's sake I will not remain silent, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not be still, until her righteousness emerges like shining light..." He implores the stones of Jerusalem not to be silent, day or night, until G‑d restores Jerusalem and establishes it in glory.”

It’s interesting the juxtaposition between Torah Reading’s first word, nitzvahim meaning “you stand” and the Haftorah, where Isaiah refuses to just stand there. Maybe that is what happened to Moses. The struggle between standing firm in your faith in God and the urge to go out and bring the righteousness out. Maybe it is the fight to become who he is meant to be that made him who he is. Circular logic, but God’s funny like that. And it would fit our namesake well; the Hebrew word, Yisrael, means “Struggled with God.” The inherent nature of Jewish is struggle with God, to wrestle with the issues in your life in a God-ly way.

And this would fit well with the theme of the new year. The Lubavitcher Rebbe wrote:
Thus, the Hebrew word for “year,” shanah, means both “change” and “repetition.” For the year is an embodiment of the entire range of transformations that constitute the human experience. Each year of our lives only repeats this cycle, though on the higher level to which a year’s worth of maturity and achievement have elevated us. In other words, one can say that we all live for one year, and then relive our lives for as many times as we are enabled, each time on a more elevated level, like a spiral which repeats the same path with each revolution, but on a higher plane.

You can read more of that here:

But I could be wrong! Again, I am not a Rabbi (nor a rock star). But there still might be something in the Haftorah. It is the idea that God is out there, suffering with his people and he will redeem them. Isaiah 63:9 says "In all [Israel's] afflictions, He, too, is afflicted, and the angel of His presence redeemed them..." 

So maybe it was the struggle, maybe it was knowing that God was always with Moses. Both are good lessons to take away though. Remember my long busy days from the beginning of this long blog post? No. Well go back and read it. I will wait.

Still waiting.

Alright. So, I try and see these things that bring me down as blessings in my life and the more I try it, the more it works. Every bus ride, I seem to meet someone new and interesting. So it turns out I am not alone. Last night it was a Rastafarian and an Orthodox Jew! In the past it has been Spanish professors at Harvard, pharmaceutical-related IT consultants, or just interesting people from the neighborhood who I now ride the bus with every day. True, my family is far away, but I have an over abundance of opportunities for services here. A better buffet of Judaism than I could have at home with great people who are slowly becoming members of my Harvard family.

The fact is that I am never alone, even when I feel down. I have God, opportunity, and a network of friends, family, and Jews everywhere I go. Everything is a blessing, you just need to look for it. Perhaps this is overly optimistic (especially given the serious injustices going on in my hometown of NYC right now, #occupywallst), but I have been trying to live my life this way since I have gotten here, and not a moment goes by when I am not overjoyed. Plus, how can I feel alone when badass Jews like this are out there:

Rosh Hashanah Rock Anthem  - Party Rock Anthem Parody by Aish

“It’s Time to Come Back Baby To Hear Kol Nidrei” – Lady Gaga Rosh Hashanah Remix

“The Book of Life” – “It’s a Good Life” Parody by Yeshiva University’s Maccabeats (Like GLEE, but Jewish)

Shana Tova Umetukah! Ketiva ve-chatima tovah! Tizku leshanim rabbot!

Rockstar Rabbi, out!

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