Victimhood

I thank Chazzan Steve Klaper, one of the founders of Song and Spirit, for the wonderful commentary below. His inspiration drew upon the last verses in Deuteronomy (Dvarim in Hebrew) that were read in synagogue over Simchat Torah a week or so ago. It speaks to me deeply. Especially the next to the last paragraph. What kernel stays with you?

In Ha’azinu Moses prepares to take leave of this world. He wants his final words never to be forgotten, so he sings them…The theme of Moses’ libretto is essentially, Don’t blame God when things go wrong.God is not there to serve us. We are here to serve God. God is not there to relieve us of responsibility. God calls us to responsibility.

This whole drama began with the Adam and Eve legend in the Garden of Eden. They sinned, the man blamed the woman, the woman blamed the serpent, the serpent blamed God for making him a serpent. The great cry of human history is, “it’s not our fault — we’re the victims.” It wasn’t us. It’s the politicians. Or the media. Or the corporations. Or our genes. Or our parents. Or the system. Even the Nazis were convinced it wasn’t them. They were “only obeying orders.” And when all else fails, blame God. And if you don’t believe in God, blame the people who do. We forever seek to escape from responsibility.

Moses is saying, When things go wrong, don’t blame God. The final commandment might as well be: thou shalt not see thyself as a victim. We have power, we have agency, we’re the one life form on this planet capable of shaping its own destiny, in the image of the Divine, free, creative, and therefore responsible. The Greeks had it wrong; we’re not playthings of the gods; our fate is not already sealed before we’re born. The view of modern science, which often insists that we’re merely a collection of chemicals driven by electrical impulses in the brain, is likewise wrong. Our consciousness, our personality, our chi, our life force energy — these are all far larger than what’s in our skulls.

It is not what God does for us that transforms us; it is what we do for God. If you’re not sold on the idea of God the Creator, think of it this way: We are not defined by what happens to us but rather by how we respond to what happens to us. If we change the way we think, then we change the way we feel and the way we act. We become masters of our actions, instead of prisoners of our reactions.

This doesn’t just happen. Yes, it takes work, sometimes years of work. But, as we reach the end of Torah, we’re reminded that fate is never final. There is always hope. 

photo courtesy of Debra Darvick

 

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Wake Up!

This Hebrew month of  Elul is the final stretch before Rosh HaShanah. Jewish mystics gave us the metaphor of the Divine coming down from the heights of the heavens to walk among us, ready to meet up should we reach out.  No simple endeavor this. The sound of the shofar, which is heard at each morning service during Elul, exhorts us to WAKE UP!  Prepare yourself.  Release your grudges. Mend your relationships. Inspect your deeds this year; resolve to do better. Reach deeply within and as far out as you can and reconnect with the Source of All Creation.

The shofar’s call is a shout out to God to remember God’s promise to our ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. On their merit we pray to be written and sealed  into the Book of Life for the coming year.  It is layered with a lifetime of memories. It is a profound sound, eerie, potent, fillng me with equal parts hope and apprehension. Though my life hangs in the in the balance, the shofar’s sounds ground me. My life may not be in my hands, but my conduct is. My spirtual work can temper whatever might be decreed for me this year.

 

Here are two examples of the shofar being blown.

The first, from Jerusalem.  I hope I succeeded in excising the rude commercial preceding it. The second, from PJ Library, is more explanatory and each sound and then puts it all together.  What do the shofar’s sounds evoke in you?

 

Illustration at left, courtesy of Debra Darvick

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Pennies from Heaven

The kid in me was thrilled to see a scattering of pennies at the base of a parking meter. The driver obviously had no use for them. But as I moved to retrieve them, I relived a high school scene. I’d seen a penny in the hall and bent down to pick it up. It had been glued to the floor. As I rose, mortified that I’d fallen for the trick, I heard the boys’ laughter and words about Jews always stopping to pick up a penny.

Banishing the memory, I picked up the pennies, all 19 of them, and put them in my pocket.  Martin and I went on to have a lovely dinner and when I got home I put the copper Lincolns in our tzedekah box. It is nearly full. Soon I’ll empty it and donate the contents to a shelter or food pantry. I hope those boys grew up and grew wise. You don’t have to be a Jew to know that even small change can make a difference.

 

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A Prayer for the World — Harold Kushner

Let the rain come and
wash away
the ancient grudges,
the bitter hatreds
held and nurtured over
generations.
Let the rain wash away
the memory
of the hurt, the neglect.
Then let the sun come
out and
fill the sky with rainbows.
Let the warmth of the sun
heal us
wherever we are broken.
Let it burn away the fog
so that
we an see each other
clearly.
Let the warmth and
brightness
of the sun melt our
selfishness.
So that we can share the
joys and
feel the sorrows of our
neighbors.
And let the light of the sun
be so strong that we will
see all
people as our neighbors.
Let the earth, nourished
by rain,
bring forth flowers
to surround us with
beauty.
And let the mountains
teach our hearts
to reach upward to
heaven.    Amen

One Shabbat, I read this poem by Rabbi Harold Kushner in our synagogue’s prayerbook, Siddur Lev Shalem. It is as timeless as it is beautiful.

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