Word for the Herd: Torah from your favorite teacher
Football Hall-of-Famer and Television celebrity Michael Strahan did a play-by-play of sorts of a recent bar mitzvah he attended in the New York City area — one of my tutoring family’s celebrations. In between humorous banter on Live with Kelly and Michael (ABC) on Monday, Feb. 22, Strahan likened my bar/bat mitzvah tutoring role to coaching, and pronounced, “So she works with the kids,… she works with the parents … She was up there with [the bar mitzvah boy]. … It ‘takes a village’ to make this happen. It really does.”
Embedded in Strahan’s shout-out is an acknowledgement of the detailed and multi-faceted nature of bar/bat mitzvah preparation, ritual and celebration. My role as an informal Jewish educator starts years before the milestone event and encompasses Hebrew language, Bible, Jewish history, custom, and philosophy. More importantly, I join with the family: I become everyone’s big-sister or best-friend, making it “cool” to study and learn about tradition and religion. Lessons become personalized, enjoyable and creative with art projects, cooking and trips to the park or exhibits. More than providing a 1-hour lesson, I go to my students’ dance and school performances. I serve as a lay-cantor at their mitzvah ceremonies when many create “Do It Yourself” services. Far from trying to avoid Jewish communal affiliation with these alternative services, my families are actually seeking more involvement and ownership in creating meaningful ritual. I accompany families to Israel as they hold worship services by the egalitarian prayer area at the Davidson Center/Robinson’s Arch or the Israel Museum.
And so Michael Strahan, a friend of the family, got to see first-hand the detailed learning and training a committed family’s son undergoes. And he was witness to a lavish blow-out-celebration. Now spectators might be tempted to cynically judge a celebrity-filled extravaganza, but outward appearances do not tell the whole story. Behind the extraordinary venue — the Barclays Center in Brooklyn — the stylized, formal Black and White attire, the renowned Max Weinberg and his band, and Popstar “Pitbull” — is a family’s deep commitment to charitable giving, their strong Jewish faith, and their dedication in commissioning the writing of a Torah to honor the memory of family members who had passed away. This family enjoys sharing their blessings — access to the Barclays Center and the disposable income to shower their children and friends with a super night.
For years I had taught their middle child, Brandon, lessons consisting of Jewish holidays, Hebrew prayers and now a Torah portion. He worked incredibly hard to prepare everything. The parents learned, as well: Along with the head of my tutoring company, Joel Cohen, we all sat with a scribe as he explained the requirements for writing the family's sacred Torah. Future bar/bat mitzvah families working our tutoring firm, will be able to use this same Torah, upon making a donation to a charitable fund.
And before the glitz of the Barclays celebration, this same family journeyed to Israel to do a service in Jerusalem and bring home their completed, commissioned Torah.
In the days leading up to his Brooklyn service, I realized how colossal this party and service was becoming: The family had stylists and shopping trips. Deliveries of clothes and religious artifacts they would use for the service. The boy had secret rehearsals at the Barclays for his party entrance (flying in from the rafters of the stadium on a wire with pyrotechnics and fog shooting up on either side of him).
For the service, we rehearsed several times in sound studios with a band of more than 20 talented musicians, two cantors, and recorded tracks of our songs to prepare Max Weinberg of the E-Street Band/Tonight Show Band. Max would be drumming in the service. I had never been part of such a HUGE production for a coming of age ceremony.
Still, we remained mindful of maintaining the Jewish values behind a Bar Mitzvah — studying and stepping up to become responsible in the eyes of the community and G-d. I kept reminding the party planner, I needed to be next to the boy at all times during the service to keep him focused and calm and to be there in case he needed me.
When I internally questioned the hype, I’d look at his loving parents and think of all the discussions we had together about Jewish life and the importance of our traditions. I would think about conversations I had with both sets of doting grandparents about their family histories and of real loss and challenges. To raise such sweet children against this backdrop of immense means is true accomplishment.
For this enormous celebration, the Calvin Klein VIP entrance of the Barclays Center was beautifully transformed into a worship space with a platform, podium, and holy ark. First, a film was shown explaining the process of creating a Torah. A spiritual atmosphere enveloped the room, as two shofar blowers filled the hall with stirring sound of the ancient ram’s horn’s call to worship. Max Weinberg, with a strap-on snare drum, set a beat and marched down the center aisle. Max joined his large band to play rock-and-roll hora. The family (grandparents, parents, siblings, cousins) marched down the center aisle. And the bar mitzvah boy, under a chuppah canopy supported by his grandparents, was holding his Torah like a precious baby. The group danced at the front of the stage with the Torah, and pure joy and love enveloped the room. Every family member had a part in the service, infused with beautiful music sung by a Cantor. When Brandon chanted solo, I would unobtrusively give cues, sometimes with a look, a whisper in his ear, or a pointer on the page. The bar mitzvah boy’s mother gave a stirring speech. Brandon did a great job on every part. When it came time for me to give Brandon a speech and a blessing, I hugged him and cried, and told him how sweet and thoughtful he is as a person, what a tremendous family he comes from and what an honor it is to be his teacher.
The party was an epic occasion beyond description. Michael Strahan glossed over the gorgeously lit stadium that had been transformed into a carnival with two huge roller coasters, games and enormous video screens. The R&B legend Aaron Neville sang the mother-son dance, “First Time I Saw your Face.” And then “Mr. Worldwide- Pitbull” with 8 dancers, came out and performed his most popular songs.
Yet, even with all of this fanfare, Strahan chose to emphasize the bar mitzvah boy and his tutoring. No one understands the role of the coach more than an athlete. This process of becoming a Jewish adult is hard and rigorous; my role is true coaching, character-building, man or woman-making, religious training. This is what Michael Strahan acknowledged on national television— the teaching and the training that goes into such a magnificent rite of passage.
What an amazing parallel the Jewish world has for this week's Torah Portion and historical events. This week, we read BeShalach from the Torah, the part of the Exodus story when we were delivered out of Egypt and HaShem via Moshe split the Red Sea. What a joyous and iconic miracle--- that with an out-stretched arm Moshe could part the sea for long enough to allow the Jewish People to the other side and then close it back on the evil Egyptians chasing after us. In fact, part of our daily prayers include recounting this story when we sing "Shirat HaYam," The Song of the Sea. Nearly everyone on earth knows that Jews were once slaves in Egypt and delivered to freedom by Moses.
History repeats itself.
The Jewish people became numerous and prosperous in Europe in the 1900s and were persecuted and eventually enslaved and murdered during WWII/The Holocaust. This week, on January 27, the world marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the deadliest concentration camp, Aushwitz-Birkenau. You can read more about the atrocities committed against Jews, Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, Homosexuals and more on THIS wikipedia page. This time there was no great parting of the Red Sea, but I am certain after reading many accounts provided by the Shoah Foundation, that the survivors of Aushwitz felt as if they were experiencing a joyous miracle of freedom when the allies (British and Soviets) freed them from slavery and their impending death.
There are many lessons to be learned, but we must as modern Jews and Human beings strive to never let history repeat itself against our people or others. Jews are obligated to have daily reminders of freedom. We remember HaShems miracles by hanging a mezuzah on our doors. We remember our liberation by reading Parashat BeShalach, honoring the various anniversaries of the Holocaust, but continuing to improve the world and protect ourselves so that we may never again be enslaved. And never give up hope--- because we learn time and time again: When the Jewish people fall under hard times, HaShem always sends help and we will survive.
What happened in Paris this past week is pretty shocking on a lot of levels. As long as you aren't living under a rock, you know about the terror attack at the Parisian Magazine Charlie Hebdo that killed 12 people--- You probably heard about the hostage taking at a Kosher grocery store and killing of Jewish People. You heard about the murder of a police person too. You may have even heard that synagogues were closed for the first time since the Holocaust.
WHY is the world going crazy? What does this mean for Jews? What can we do to protect ourselves? Is there any good that can come out of such evil?
The world is going mad, because of extremism. The best way I've learned to define extremism is like extreme Doritos... the spiciest version of something good turned too spicy. No matter what, regardless of the situation, we must always remember there is no such thing as black and white (other than a panda....). No one is all good. No one is 100% right. And we should never hurt or kill people for their opinions. In this day and age, Extremism is what kills. It is intolerance of the other. But unfortunately a very small but dangerous part of the worlds population is extreme. And until they disappear we are all at risk.
What did this attack mean for Jews? Well for the first time in a long time the Jewish people under attack is trending: #Je Suis Juif (French for 'I am a Jew') has been posted by people of all religions around the world, feeling the pain and suffering of our people. The unity march of 3.7 million people vowing to work together to end terror and respect freedom of religion and freedom of speech and press is a magical thing. For the first time MAYBE EVER in history, a terror attack that had a lot to do with Jews was also NOT JUST about Jews. It was about everyone. And It's really cool that the world has this moment to all come together with a common goal of peace. Its pretty great the in this moment Jews aren't mourning alone. And they aren't fighting alone either. The world can be unified . The fact that Palestinian President Abbas is a few spots away from Israel's PM Netanyahu shows how much potential for peace there is in the world. We can only hope it wasn't just for show.
The fact is, we are all French Jews. Jews in NYC. Jews in Tel Aviv. Jews in Australia. South America. We are all from the same forefathers. We share the same homeland and many geneticists believe that the world's Jewry is all related to each other like 4th cousins. As it says in Vayikrah Chapter 19: "You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall not take revenge or feel resentment against the children of your people, you shall love your companion [reyacha] as yourself." All of our neighbors are our brothers and sisters in the world. But we must remember to stay true and compassionate towards our brothers and sisters. When they hurt it is as if we hurt. When they are under attack we are under attack. There is no difference.
What can we do to protect ourselves? Unite with those in fear and those mourning. Unite with prayer and good energy. Unite with love of each other and do our best to end extremism in every corner of the world that it exists. We must do our part to love our neighbors as our selves and good will come.
This week I was honored by the Head of School for 2014 as an alumni with continuing values of my High School, The Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. This was the speech I gave accepting the honor.
When I was in my first year at NYU-Tisch school of the arts studying drama and producing, I was encouraged to get my first set of headshots. And printed on the front of every headshot is an artist's name. For many actors they just use their given name but for me the process has proven complicated. In fact the first part of any audition is stating your name for your auditioner and sometimes camera. Perhaps you know, the late Joan rivers, whom I had the pleasure of meeting twice and even speaking a bisl Yiddish with, was originally named Joan Alexandra Molinsky. And last year I was asked by my Pulitzer Prize winning production company to deliver a special message to three time tony nominee Tovah Feldshuh but only in Yiddish. When I got her on the phone She replied: "I can't understand you, I don't speak Yiddish I just perform in it, my real name is Terry Sue." I laughed and somewhere in the back of my mind was inspired by how she Jew-I-fied her name to make it, while at many times I had been encouraged by my industry to do the opposite.
My parents enrolled me at JDS in first grade as Rebecca Eisenstadt but nearly everyone called me Becky and I know by 6th grade I was on record as such. My hebrew name is Keren and I didn't even know it until my bat mitzvah when I started to explore my true identity. Still, I signed my papers in Hebrew class Rivke Alef as there was another Rebecca in my class. So there I was, by 7th grade, Reecca-Becky-Rivke-Keren Eisenstadt. Yet in college I was encouraged to be less identifiably Jewish, and play up my exotic features to be a more marketable artist. It was better to seam like I was an Israeli than just another Jewish girl in New York. So By end of college I was just Rebecca Keren. I had taken long tris to Israel and would even speak Hebrew with an Israeli accent.
There are several people in New York who only know me as Rebecca Keren. And if you asked if they knew Becky Eisenstadt or even Rebecca Eisenstadt they'd say no. As a teacher I go by Becky Keren, and many families on the upper east side of manhattan lovingly talk about being one of Becky's students. I generally keep 30 private students at a time. When I tell them my real full name they giggle that it sounds so European and ask me why I changed it. Yes, by day I work in Broadway and every night and weekends I teach children Hebrew and bnei mitzvah studies.
My identity crisis or metamorphosis can be attributed to a lot of factors. But the core I am who I am is because of JDS. I was in my first performances in these buildings. It is no coincidence one of my favorite english teachers, Mrs. Rosenthal was also a music teacher and singer in her own right. I prided myself on being great at Hebrew and Bible studies. My teachers like Rachel Lerner and Gveret Kedem gave us exciting assignments and I would always write a song or do an accompanying art project with them. I remember where I sat in every class. At the beginning of every school year I'd try to finish our Hebrew language workbooks "yisadot halashon" within a few days. I took pride in being great at Hebrew vocabulary, I volunteered every year multiple times for parashat hashavua and generally was a kiss up when it came to my Judaic studies. I did fine in other subjects but was turned on by all things Jewish, Hebrew and Israel.
Later in Upper-School I had the good fortune of having teachers like Mar Barnoy and Mrs. Ravin multiple times. Rabbi Sales (Z'L), my first rabbinics teacher, left a lasting impression on my understanding of Halacha. But my love of language truly blossomed being able to perform musicals in Hebrew like Joseph and Kazablan. I was also a Hebrew and Bnai mitzvah tutor at my shul, Beth-El. Falling in love, every week, with passing Torah on dot l'dor and consuming my life with a Jewish soundtrack. Besides being an educator, I always volunteered for opportunities to lead our grades zimriah, sing or dance at ceremonies and assemblies, assistant direct the middle school musicals in Hebrew....the list goes on and on.
When I moved to NYU, the school with the largest jewish population, I was actually in culture shock. I was with kids who identified as Jewish yet did not observe traditions. I had class every Friday night and could not take an active role at the campus Hillel. Perhaps it was the competitive and all consuming nature of my arts program, but not one other Jewish student found it troubling that missing school for High Holidays counted as an unexcused absense. We were only allowed two and then would fail a class. Coming from JDS when we had all holidays off to being penalized for observance seemed impossible to me. And much like how I was allowed an encouraged at JDS to organize drama clubs and concerts, I decided to start a women's theater organization at NYU that was sensitive to all religious holidays and would not require students to sacrifice their activities for religion and vice versa. I was offered many opportunities to script my own work and when I did I found myself drawn to Jewish subject matter and areas of study. Using my JDS copy of Elie Wiesel's NIGHT and my JEW IN THE MODERN WORLD, I crafted a one woman show about the rise of prejudice in the 1930s and the Holocaust. I became a member of the student senate and help to make high holidays approved absences for Jewish students. My involvement and leadership allowed me many privileges and opportunities including a breakfast with Oscar winner Meryl Streep on a Good Morning America. When a main production at NYU was announced as a a modern version of The Yiddish classic The Dybbuk, I can realistically say I was the obvious choice to play the lead. And I got It. My work in the start of NYU to hide my Jewishness was not only futile, it was counterproductive. Everything that I was inspired to create had Jewishness at its core.
The National Yiddish theater called NYU looking for actors who spoke Yiddish, and without hesitations sent over my numbers. They said, "We don't know what she speaks ...but this girl is really Jewish." While I had no prior Yiddish under my belt, they felt being near fluent in Hebrew was promising and gave me a scholarship to study to be an actress in their company.
Some of my proudest professional moments have been performing with the National Yiddish Theater Off-Broadway, at Lincoln Center or beyond. I also began writing musicals with Jewish content with five-time Tony Award nominee ELIZABETH SWADOS and have managed grants from individuals and major Jewish organizations for many of her projects with Jewish content. I even had the opportunity to be a part of New York's centennial event honoring the victims of the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory fire, by of course performing in Yiddish, representing the Jewish immigrants who died in the fire.
I now work for one of the foremost Broadway production companies in NYC, holding 36 Tony Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes and countless other awards. While my company is run by four Jewish men, I am still the only person who takes off for Yom Kippur. I am, however a part of all conversations when considering new plays or musicals with Jewish subject matter. I am put in charge of out reach to Jewish groups or Jewish performers. My producers, who produced THE PRODUCERS, affectionately indulge me in stories of the children whose Bar-mitzvahs I lead or trips I guide to Israel. There I am Rebecca Keren Eisenstadt. They all know I'm very Jewish.
What I've noticed more than anything is that my strength in teaching is a combination of all my prior teachers at JDS. Becoming a students friend like Mar Barnoy and Yonina Blech-Harmony. Giving them a piece of jewelry to solidify your connection like Jane Rosenthal. Supporting them in extra curricular activities like performances or sports--- like all my teachers would go to my shows and congratulate me. But more than anything, finding what excites each child about being Jewish and learning Hebrew and playing only to their strengths... the way I found so many of my language teachers did for me.
And as Shakespeare has Juliet say of Romeo: "What's in a name. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Or in. The Yiddish version in which I played Juliet: .אה, ראמיא ראמיא, פארוואס ביזטו ראמיא. ס'איז נאר די נאמען וואס איז מיין פיינט, דו ביזט דאך דו אליין און נישט קיין מאנטיגו, וואס ליגט אין א א נאמען, די זאך וואס אונז רופן רויז, ביי סיי וועלכע נאמען וועט שמעקן די זעלבע זיס,
I think that's what I'm getting at here.
In an attempt to change my name to fit some mold of a perfect Broadway starlet, which is what I thought I wanted, I realize no matter where I go I am more than just generic. I cannot hide my Jewish identity the way I was foolishly advised. And that identity gives me a competitive edge in business, a deep and compassionate way to view to world and create art, and perhaps to my life's greatest calling... allows me to continue passing on a love for the language and customs of Jewish people through teaching. Hebrew and Jewishness is without a doubt the soundtrack of my life and I credit JDS with teaching me how to make the music.
If you are reading this, you probably heard my hand is broken after my horrible car accident a few weeks ago... and it has been hard for me to write much of anything... texts, emails, reports, letters... So I'll be short and sweet as I reflect on what I hope for the coming year.
This is my prayer for the New Year, 5775. Dear Hashem: Please grant my family and friends, fellow Jews and citizens of the world, a peaceful, happy and healthy year. Please Hashem, fill our minds and hearts with meaning. Please Hashem, remember to be kind and gentle to those of us who are hurting. Please mend broken hearts and spirits within my community. Please guard and strengthen the state of Israel.
5774 was full of emotion, great and heavy. Oh, HaShem, please help me live the life that I truly want. Please help me to cry only tears of joy. Please protect those who are dear to me; RLE, EBE, MME, DME, SD, JD, JR, MR, GRM, FM, BM, LM, SM, ZG, AG, SL, NY, OB, LBT, HT, DBL, ML, PH, LC, JD, CHF, JF, CH, HT, MM, IM, DM, JM, GM, DF, JEC, NHI, NRR, MR, JR, BR, JJR, AS, LM, EI, LR, MR, AR, NR, BV, MV, AV, DV, QV, SB, JB, BB, LB, DB, MB, CL, AL, GL, AG, JS, LS, JAT, RF, MS, PB, HB, SW, JW, RW, JH, LH, SH, CH, RK, MK, NK, TK, CL, RL, AL, SH, AHS, SS, BM, LM, GM, JM, AEB, LS, LT, LS, ALG, RG. May it be your will to inscribe us in the book of life for a sweet year to come.
I am a little late writing about this parsha due to a car accident and broken hand. I was on 495 almost back in Manhattan where the lanes are tight and there is barely any shoulder. An 18 wheeler truck lost control, probably due to texting or falling asleep and slammed me between him and the median and dragged me along for about 300 ft. All my windows smashed. My windshield shattered. The car accordioned and lost two wheels. It was a mess and baruch hashem, all that I suffered is a broken hand, some cuts, bruises, and serious whiplash. The truck driver sped away from the accident. A few people stopped and helped me and gave statements to the police... but no one got his full license plate number. It was a hit and run. The police told me the accident wasn't my fualt at all, and this guy was a criminal. Shoftim is all about Moshe putting in place the ways to settle crimes and disputes between the Israelites. If there are two or more witnesses who testify the same thing, then a person can be convicted of a crime. We should always look for finding the truth of the situation and then using judgement to sentence or punish the person responsible. We, as Jews, need to hear proof and testimony. It is not enough to suspect someone of a crime. We have been exercising this kind of good judgment for over 3,000 years.
I was struck (seriously no pun intended), while in the trauma unit in North Shore Jewish Long Island Hospital, by the Parsha's most famous quote. I knew i wanted to write about "Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue" already--- but mostly because the word for justice is also righteousness. What is justice? Why is justice so important to God and to humanity? Is this a just world?
That the driver who hit me and then ran instantly became a criminal. I had more than two witnesses give testimony against him. He could have killed me, but he will maybe get away with his crime of driving recklessly, endangering others with a commercial vehicle and Hashem knows what-else. G-d forbid, he do it again, and the next person not be as lucky as I was.
While all of these people stopped to give testimony to the police, they were pursing justice. They had nothing to gain personally, but were helping the world be a better place. They were helping an innocent, hurt, scared young woman in a mangled car wreck. Their act of giving justice for justice's sake was a mitzvah, a real good deed, and an act of righteousness.
One of the men who stayed with me the whole time, Lazaro, came right to my smashed car and window. He called 911, tried keeping me calm while I was stuck, bleeding & crying, in my smoking car. He held my hand for a bit. He promised that I'd be ok, that none of this was my fault and that he'd be a witness to the police. I thanked him 100 times. By pursuing justice, he found righteousness. He helped me in a desperate time of need. True Gemilut Chassadim.
In fact many people gave of themselves during this time. My brother, Eli, leaving work, David-- one of the parents of my students came to the hospital in LI, Jordan taking an UBER to the hospital in LI, my parents taking the train up to NY from Washington DC, my brother-in-law and sister making shabbat dinner for the family, all the notes and flowers from friends and family..... In a time of injustice, I really feel like the world---and my community--- is full of righteousness. And it makes me trust in HaShem even more than I did before.
This week's Parsha is Eikev. In it Moshe is continuing his reminders to the C-O-I to keep the mitzvot and lists the blessings they will inherit from Cnaan as long as they stick with G-d (The word for stick has the same root as glue --- Dalet, Vet, Kof).
In Eikev we find the second paragraph of the Ve'ahavta prayer, something most Conservative and Orthodox shuls recite silently during prayer or Tefilah. It outlines the specific agricultural blessings and curses that go along with following commandments.
Every Day when I was a kid both at Synagogue and at Minyan in Jewish Day School my friends and I would compete for who could get through that silent paragraph the fastest. I ended up memorizing it by 5th grade. Yah, no wonder I'm a Hebrew Teacher. But I have to admit, as a child the meaning of the passage was largely lost on me until my adulthood.
If the ultimate set of punishments and rewards relate to rain, livestock and produce how are everyday modern people supposed to relate to keeping the mitzvot? I'm not a farmer. And yes, if there is a draught then eventually food will cost more so I guess it all effects me, but won't I blame those issues on the weather and mother-nature and not on my behavior?
It's not so simple to say "OH! I can skim over this paragraph because it has nothing to do with me." This is what G-d promised in Torah-Times. These were the things that would make the C-O-I feel blessed; plentiful food and a healthy land to live in. Now adays, times are more complicated, more technological, and I'm nearly certain HaShem would have added in WiFi and Charging Stations and a world without the risk of chemical warfare had he been catering for our generation. But if we understand reason why HaShem would have made our ability to reside in the world comfortably as a blessing and in total distress as a punishment then we can understand the passage's importance.
No matter what we should continue to love HaShem with all of our hearts, souls and mights, and od what we can to pass the love forward from generation to generation.
WHY is the PARSHA named Eikev though? This we haven't yet discovered.
Eikev, like Yaakov (Or Jacob), means HEEL!? It is a weird word to name a parsha, and most Rabbi's translate the word Eikev to mean "Because," loosely related to the actual word.
So why did Moshe & HaShem use the word Eikev here. And not one of the many other words in Hebrew that mean "because."
Rabbi Jacob Ben Asher was a great sage of the 1300s. He also was known as Baal HaTurim. I like his explanation. He brings up the idea of Jewish Math: GEMATRIA. See that chart up above? Each letter in Hebrew stands for a number. Alef = 1. Yud = 10. Yud + Alef = 11. "The word eikev is used because it has a numerical value of 172 -- the number of words in the Ten Commandments. "
The word Eikev, is symbolically linked to all of the commandments that we are supposed to keep throughout this and the other portions of the Torah. G-d wants to remind us to keep mitzvot not only through traditional ways of rewards and curses but with symbolic and subconscious reminders. He starts out the parsha to connect our eyes, minds, and souls to the idea of the 10 commandments. Pretty cool technique right?
You might think the Torah just spews rule after rule at us... but really, there are some interesting and mystical that can keep us connected and learning for a long time.
Tomorrow is also called Shabbat Nachamu because the first words of the Haftarah from Isaiah are Nachamu Nachamu. If i close my eyes I can still hear my sister chanting it. The "comforting Shabbat" is the first shabbat since Tisha B'Av, the holiday when we remember the destructions of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the Holocaust and many other times of Jewish suffering. Tisha B'Av is a fast day, that many Jews take to heart like Yom Kippur. Interestingly, coupled with this shabbat of comfort is Moshe's desperate plea to be allowed into the Holy Land. And while this Shabbat is supposed to give us a break from heartache and suffering, we get a glimpse into Moshe's pain, as his bakasha (request) is left unfulfilled.
We've all been there, Moshe. We've all felt what it's like to work for something so hard, to want something so badly, and to still not get it. I remember what it was like on some auditions that I spent weeks preparing for, and still, I was not cast in the show. I think of some of the boys i've dated, no matter how good I was, I still faced a rejection. Va'etchanan starts this way. Moshe is begging and pleading the great Hashem to let him go to Israel and cross the Jordan. And Hashem not only denies his heartfelt request, he has him anoint Joshua to take over.
That could seem way harsh of G-d to just deny Moshe, an old, loyal man. And how does this fit into the idea of comfort?
Its not news that Moshe is not allowed to enter Israel. What is news here is that he's broken up about it. Maybe Moshe included this section in his retelling of receiving the Torah to have a release. Prayer afterall can feel good. It can feel good to voice your deepest desires and put them on record---regardless if you get them met.
Or maybe Moshe was finding a way to tell future generations, including Joshua, that one can still be a great leader and ultimately die with no comfort. We are not required to be leaders without feelings and strife. In fact, if our greatest prophet, Moshe, couldn't swing it, I bet anyone will ever be able to just lead without emotion. Part of being a leader is being emotionally invested. And we all will get our hearts broken, we all will suffer enormous consequences for our actions, The comfort is that if MOSHE couldn't be perfect then you don't have to either.
And perhaps an even deeper understanding of this portion is that we get the 10 commandments for a second time. Regardless of what Hashem gives us, we are required to go along with his plan. Who told you life would be comfortable? Life is full of disappointments and rules. Who told you you would get everything you wanted? Many times the key to survival is not getting what we want and knowing how to dust yourself off and try again and again.
Try again. Fail better.
We've started the last book of the Torah this week, Devarim or Deuteronomy. Devarim דְּבָרִים means spoken things. Deuteronomy means the second law, and it's because in this book Moshe repeats the 10 Commandments to the C-O-I. But this book of spoken things starts off with a very dark cloud hanging. The C-O-I aren't rejoicing after being freed from slavery. Oh no. A lot of time has passed.
Moshe is is old and dying. Moshe knows he has to step down from being the leader and will never enter the promised holy land. Beyond that, he's been dealing with whinny complaining disobedient people. THE C-O-I have already faced fighting and are about to embark on several battles with their neighbors. Their trials of the desert and wilderness are just evolving, but not disappearing. And Moshe knows that these people are still barely a united front.
There's a lot to focus on here. Why are we going to have a repeat of the same laws? What will get the C-O-I thru this hard transition? How will they make it without Moshe?
Earlier in the portion Moshe calls up to his people and says:
12. How can I bear your trouble, your burden, and your strife all by myself? יב. אֵיכָה אֶשָּׂא לְבַדִּי טָרְחֲכֶם וּמַשַּׂאֲכֶם וְרִיבְכֶם:
It is heart breaking to hear that Moshe feels so troubled and burdened by the C-O-I. They are so disobedient, so hard on him as a leader and perhaps have caused him to miss out on ever getting into Canaan. We see that Moshe feels alone. And if Moshe, the leader and confidant to G-d himself isn't feeling taken care of, how can we expect the Israelites to feel good and comfortable. It sounds like Moshe isn't only frustrated, he's scared and alone. He has to go on to continue to describe all the battles that they will encounter and his feeling of being LEVAD, alone is palpable.
The text I put at the top of this entry is really the point of what we have to keep in mind as a mantra. When the going gets tough we have to remind ourselves we are in it together. And beyond that, we are protected from above. Essentially the message is "Do not be afraid because God is fighting for us, along side us."
The way we approach our fears when we move on to a new chapter in life (Middle School/HighSchool/College/Work)..... the way we open a chapter of a book... they are all related. We all have to go through hard times as Jewish People; as a nation that constantly faces persecution or hardships, knowing the hardships will only continue to come can get overwhelming. It is hard not to have anxiety about the unknown, the changes that lie ahead, and ultimately the threats in the world. For the C-O-I it was battle, and for Israelis not much has changed. There is a brutal war going on with soldiers dying every day. What is the cure for fear? Knowing that G-d is by your side.
But for us Jews in America, our fears and worries are about ourselves. I think we are weaker than Israelis--- we don't know how to fight our enemies... .The fear to fight... The fear to start.... And the fear to fail. We all have fear. May Hashem guide us on the battle fields, wherever we find them.