Sunday evening, our lush, colorful, joy-to-the-senses festival of Sukkot begins. We will gather in our Torat Yisrael Sukkah (erected last Sunday by a great group of three generations of TY members; to be decorated this Sunday morning by our Yeladon and Cohen School students!). With Jews all over the world, we'll recite blessings thanking God for this season of joy and for the natural world that sustains us.
While we are literally counting our blessings on Sukkot, a growing number of Rhode Islanders are struggling to do with less and less. This morning, I attended a meeting of the steering committee of The Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty. We were greeted with sobering statistics recently released by the U.S. Census Bureau.
My friends, this is a reality on our doorstep, our tradition, our God, expects us to act on behalf of our neighbors who are barely (or falling short of) providing food, shelter and health car for themselves and their families:
More than 1 in 5 (47,127 / 21.9%) of Rhode Island's children was living in poverty in 2011.
In 2008, 34,816 children in Rhode Island (15.5%) were living in poverty.
In 2010, Rhode Island's child poverty rate of 19.0% was ranked 6th in New England and 22nd nationally.
In 2011, Rhode Island ranked 6th in New England and 27th in the country for child poverty (where 1st is best).
The Providence Journal reported on Friday, September 21st that in August 2012, 175,590 Rhode Islanders used the federally financed plan, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. That's a nearly 6% increase from August 2011.
This is a season for compassion.
This is a season for action.
I ask you to join me in organizing ourselves as a community to explore how me might bring some small relief and modicum of hope to our struggling neighbors:
1. Please bring non-perishable foods of all types when you come to our Sunday morning Cornerstone Dedication Ceremony.
2. Please bring non-perishable foods of all types when you come to Pizza in the Hut on Tuesday evening.
3. Please contact me directly if you are interested in being part of a TY team to explore further what kind of projects we might want to pursue in the realms of food, shelter or other types of basic needs or in education and training pathways out of poverty.
On Yom Kippur morning, we read the following passage from Isaiah as part of the haftarah:
"Share you bread with the hungry, and take the wretched poor into your home;
when you see the naked, clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh.
Then shall your light burst through the dawn
and your healing spring up quickly.
Then, when you call, God will answer; when you cry out, God will say: 'Here I am.'
If you banish the yoke from your midst; the menacing hand, and evil speech,
and you offer compassion to the hungry and satisfy the famished creature--
then shall your light shine in the darkness, and your gloom shall be like noonday."
I was in the Emergency Room at South County Hospital while my congregation was observing Rosh Hashanah up in East Greenwich. Without me.
It was down to the wire, but I was all set. Sermons done. I'd practiced davening Shacharit and blowing shofar.... We had our first service Sunday evening, the first evening of Rosh Hashanah, in the beautiful sanctuary of the East Greenwich United Methodist Church . . . and then I fell ill that night and wound up in the ER within hours.
While I was hooked up to a saline drip, the president of my congregation was teaching herself how to blow shofar; our Cohen School second grade teacher was reminding himself of how to daven Rosh Hashanah Shacharit . . . while leading Rosh Hashanah Shacharit; our guest cantorial leader for musaf was stepping in conducting and managing the service and davenning at the same time; the sermon I had worked on for so long, crafted so carefully, was read (beautifully, I hear) by my now shofar-proficient president. The team running the honors kept everything moving smoothly. Our kids services were so large the pastor of the church had to move them into a larger room.
And I'm in the ER . . .
So what did I learn on Rosh Hashanah?
These are very good lessons to learn. It would have been nice to have learned them an easier way, but I am grateful to have learned them at all. I am grateful that my son and daughter-in-law could be with me through all this: wouldn't you know they'd wind up in the States exactly the year I'd need them? I am grateful to the Torat Yisrael member who is a physician and, at 7 am, gently drilled some sense into me: "You know, Rabbi, in your heart of hearts, that you're not leading service today, right?"; I'm grateful to the Torat Yisrael member who dropped everything at 7 am to drive me to the urgent care facility and the next Torat Yisrael member who dropped everything a few hours later to pick me up from the urgent care facility and drive me to the hospital; and to my president who, learning that she now had a crisis on her hands with no rabbi and a service starting in an hour and a half only cared about my health and welfare; and to all the members of our community who have since written e-mails and called expressing concern for me.
Not only have I learned some good lessons, I've also been granted some wonderful blessings. What a wonderful way to start a year!
אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם לִפְנֵי ה' אֱלֹהֵיכֶם
"You are [nitzavim] today, all of you, before Adonay your God"
[D'varim / Deuteronomy 29:9]
This phrase is the beginning of the first verse of this week's parashah/Torah portion. Moses is addressing the people one last time: they are about to enter the Land with Joshua as their leader, Moses knows he will die before that happens. These words introduce a renewal of the covenant originally made at Sinai (about 39 years before this moment) and Moses is setting the stage, emphasizing the significance of the presence of the people before God.
The verb is a telling one . . . for it has consequences for us today: נִצָּבִים / nitzavim. A simple translation would be "standing." You are standing today, all of you, before Adonay your God." That would work. But a lot would be lost in this translation. Moses could have easily said: you are עוֹמדִים / omdim, you are standing.
Nitzavim implies steadfastness, not-going-anywhere-ness, stability . . . Moses telling the Israelites that they are "nitzavim" is a statement that implies eternity, "nitzavim" means that we, two thousand years later, are just as "nitzavim", just as steadfast in relation to God as were our ancestors so long ago.
Our participation in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services during these Days of Awe constitutes our confirmation that yes, we are indeed, nitzavim. We are as eternally a part of the covenant as is God. Two thousand years later, we are no less a source of frustration and joy and disappointment and delight than were the generations of our ancestors in the wilderness who stood at Sinai, who rebelled, who gathered declared "we will do, we will obey," and who complained, who drank from Miriam's well and who built the Golden Calf.
The same Hebrew root that forms the basis of the word נִצָּבִים / nitzavim also forms the basis of the word מָצֵבָה / matzeivah. A matzeivah is a monument, the term used in modern Hebrew for a cemetery monument. The connection is clear, of course: the cemetery monument is as permanent an object as we can create. Through stone and engraving we attempt to make a steadfast, unmoving statement of love and loss and respect.
Our very presence, as we are נִצָּבִים / nitzavim is our statement as a living monument: unlike the cold stone, we are constantly renewing, bringing life and joy to our meetings with God . . . challenges as well. A stone monument can't pose too many challenges, either.
We are nitzavim before Adonay our God and our participation in services during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur make it clear that we are committed in our "not-going-anywhere-ness." Indeed, we ourselves can declare God:
אנחנו נצבים היום כולנו לפניך . . . . anachnu nitzavim hayom kulanu l'faneicha . . . we are all steadfast, not going anywhere, today, all of us, before You . . .
Passages of this week's parashah/Torah reading are so graphic and brutal, that a tradition has arisen that instructs the Torah reader to race through these passages of curses in a half-whispered undertone because contemplating them is more than we can stand.
Biblical scholarship identifies the structure of the book of D'varim/Deuteronomy with the structure of ancient near eastern covenants or treaties between [human] lords and vassals. These treaties would begin with a history of the relationship between the two entities in question, would then lay out the responsibilities of each of the parties involved and would continue to outlining the blessings the vassal will receive if he lives up to these responsibilities and the curses that the lord [again human] will rain down upon him should the vassal not live up to his responsibilities.
Understanding this ancient tradition helps us to approach the horrific set of curses threatened in Ki Tavo with some equanimity . . . but it is still a hard text to read and a harder text to ponder.
Rabbi Jessica Marshall, a Hillel rabbi, focusses our understanding of these blessings and curses on the nature of the covenant forged at Sinai (www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Bible/Weekly_Torah_Portion/kitavo_ajws.shtml). She writes:
"Within the narrative of blessings and curses in Parashat Ki Tavo, God sets out expectations for how we should behave, making it clear that this is not a covenant of faith, but one of deeds."
Rabbi Marshall cites Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in this context: "It is in the deeds that human beings become aware of what life really is, of their power to harm and to hurt, to wreck and to ruin; of their ability to derive joy and bestow it upon others…The deed is the test, the trial, and the risk. What we perform may seem slight, but the aftermath is immense." (God in Search of Man)
There is something empowering about Rabbi Heschel's teaching. It is true . . . many of us have experienced the pain of random illness, tragic death, destructive natural phenomena . . . that we humans are too often at the mercy of forces that seem to follow no rules, are subject to no moral valence.
But Rabbi Heschel comes to teach us that there are situations in which our deeds, the large and small decisions we make regarding our actions, that can often determine whether we bestow, or experience curse, or whether we bestow, or experience, blessing.
Rabbi Heschel's teaching also instructs us on a kind of self-awareness that is often difficult for us to internalize: that our words and actions matter, have affect, carry consequence.
I had a conversation today that intensely brought home to me, not just Rabbi Heschel's "What we perform may be slight, but the aftermath is immense" . . . but also what we fail to perform may be slight and the aftermath of the omission may be immense . . . for ourselves or for others.
A first reading of the curses of Ki Tavo may drive us into a corner of helplessness and a victim mentality . . . but the deeper reading of this passages drives us back into the world, inspired and determined to turn ourselves into sources of blessing rather than sources of curse.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.