Despite the High Holidays arriving late this year, many Jews are still scrambling to prepare. The practical and spiritual work is demanding: cooking, traveling, repenting, forgiving -- it all takes time and energy.
In anticipation of the Day of Judgment, Jews judge themselves this month, conducting a cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul). Some people resist this not just because it is daunting, but because the process seems negative. They don't want to be mired in self-criticism.
But accounting means looking at both sides of the ledger -- deposits and withdrawals, mitzvot and sins. One way to balance the ledger is to reduce withdrawals; the other is to increase deposits. The latter method may be even more effective, because our assets (good deeds) can be leveraged to eliminate bad debt (sins that seem so enticing at the time, for which we pay later).
This week's Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, offers many laws that can increase rachamim (compassion, mercy). Rachamim is a particularly valuable asset, because it offsets anger and augments patience. We can deliberately grow midat harachamim in ourselves. The goal is to make compassion greater and more important than being right. Thus, we imitate God, who is said to pray: "May My mercy overcome My anger" (Berachot 7a).
This week's Torah portion begins with, and is named after, the key word chukat. Chukat means "the law of" and specifically refers to the ritual law of the red heifer. What distinguishes a chok from other kinds of laws is its mystery.
Most Torah commandments have a basis in reason and logic. Chukim cannot be justified by rational arguments. There is no plausible explanation for why the ashes of an unblemished red cow are particularly powerful against ritual impurity. Nor can intellectual arguments justify why those ashes should have the paradoxical effect of purifying an impure Israelite, but rendering a priest who handles them impure. The chok of the red heifer, like the chok not to wear a blend of wool and flax, doesn't claim to be reasonable. It claims to be holy and to foster holiness.
Often people will tell me that what they love about Judaism is the freedom to question, to challenge and to demand answers.
Imagine yourself forgotten, without anyone to protect you. Ruling powers are oppressing you and killing your children. The purported
"reason" is economic, but a deep hatred based on mere difference underlies this attempted genocide. Helpless, you cry out. Who, in heaven and on earth, will hear your cries and move to save you? Awaiting relief, what do you do?
Now, imagine that you are privileged -- a son or daughter of the ruling class. Your life is comfortable, even luxurious. You witness the sharp contrast between your situation and the suffering of the underclass. They are slated to die, and your cooperation, whether tacit or overt, will help make it happen. What do you do?
This week ushers in Elul, the month when Jews traditionally prepare for the High Holidays. In anticipation of the Day of Judgment, we judge ourselves, conducting a full cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul). The Torah portion Re'eh can serve as a checklist for forgiveness, repentance and renewing our lives. Its various laws and themes each suggest avenues for real and lasting change:
Blessing and Curse
In "Happiness Is a Choice" (Fawcett, 1991), Barry Neil Kaufman, founder of the Option Institute, tells an amazing story about a young patient named Katie, whose parents brought her to him in a last-ditch effort to give her a "decent future." She had severe disabilities and came to the institute with a medical file several inches thick, after years of testing and treatment. Instead of discussing the history or showing the file to his staff, Kaufman asked them to work with Katie for a day and make their own assessment and recommendations, based on her spirit and preferences, as well as traditional diagnostic tools. At the end of the day, one staff member named Annie described to the parents how she had held a favorite puppet of Katie's at arm's length, and playfully encouraged the child to come and get it.
Imagine the Jewish calendar as three concentric circles: the Torah reading cycle, the holiday cycle and your personal life cycle.
This week's Torah portion presents the blessings and curses that follow from observance or defiance of the law. Some people understand this as a rigid system of reward and punishment. Keep the covenant, and all will be well; violate it, and you will suffer.
Last week's Torah portion ended with a dramatic cliffhanger. A plague was in progress, punishing the Israelites for worshipping the false gods. Despite earlier prohibitions and the snare of idolatry, an Israelite man openly brought a Midianite woman into the camp. (Commentators infer that the two had sex.) While others wept, Pinchas pierced the couple with a spear, and the plague was suddenly halted. Pinchas risked both his life and the priesthood. The families could have sought revenge, and priests who kill are normally ineligible for service.
It is wonderful to volunteer more, do more, commit more. But our tradition, with love and practicality, offers this caution: Check first that your basic obligations are met.
Who is greater: a person who is obligated to perform a certain act and does, or a person who is not obligated to perform the act but does it anyway? According to modern sensibilities, the second person is a hero, whereas the first may just be a drone. According to the Talmud, however, the first person is the hero. It is often easy and fun to volunteer. Whatever you do is appreciated, and when you get bored, you can stop. It is difficult and rare, however, to fulfill one's own obligations constantly.