Teshuvah for Turning Community Into Increased Community: September 20, 2008

This Devar Torah was delivered at the Columbia/Barnard Hillel on September 20, 2008, at Se’udah Shelishit. Although the link up above works better, I have also reposted the davar (unformatted) below:

Shabbat Shalom,
I realize that it’s unusual for people at Se`udah Shelishit to deliver a Devar Torah while reading from a piece of paper; however, I want to show off that I am really good at reading words.1
As you might have noticed, this Shabbat is a very special Shabbat for our community, and we are in a time of transition for a few reasons.
First off, we’re in a time of transition, as at our Minhah services this afternoon—as is the case for nearly all Minhah services on Shabbat—we already welcomed in a new week by beginning to read next week’s Torah portion, Parashat Nitzavim.
Second, Motza’ey Shabbat, tonight, we’re going to begin reciting formal Selihot, prayers of repentance, and we’ll be reciting Selihot all the way through Yom Kippur.
Third, we have tons of prospective students joining us this weekend for what I hope will be the first of many Shabbatot together. It’s been a pleasure to enjoy this Shabbat together with them, so berukhim habba’im—welcome—to them all.
And fourthly, yesterday many of us observed something so minor it does not even appear on most Jewish calendars: Talk Like A Pirate Day. Yesterday was a rare occasion when Shabbat and Talk Like A Pirate Day do coincide, and as our Shabbat comes to a close, so does our incorporation of Talk Like A Pirate Day into Shabbat go down to feed the fish, me hearties.
Truthfully, the actual number of transitions happening this Shabbat are nearly endless. And tonight, as we begin Selihot, we might feel the onslaught of a major transition as we spend the next few weeks considering our past and praying for Selihot, forgiveness, and hoping for better futures in controlling our own actions through Teshuvah, by turning over new leaves for ourselves. However, we must not forget that we, as living and growing individuals, cannot limit these reflections to the few weeks we have between now and Yom Kippur. In fact, Rabbi Eli’ezer, somewhere around the first century C.E., articulated this very clearly.
In the second chapter of Pirkey Avot, from the early third century C.E., Rabbi Eli’ezer is quoted as teaching:
יהי כבוד חברך חביב עליך כשלך
Your respect for your peer should always be as dear to you as your respect for yourself.
ואל תהי נוח לכעוס,
And don’t get provoked and become angry so easily.
ושוב יום אחד לפני מיתתך.
And repent one day before your death.
In Avot Derabbi Natan, written some point in the latter half of the first millennium C.E., we read that Rabbi Eli’ezer’s students needed a clarification as soon as they heard him say, “ושוב יום אחד לפני מיתתך”—“And repent one day before your death.”
We read:
שאלו תלמידיו את רבי אליעזר:
Rabbi Eli’ezer’s students asked him:
וכי אדם יודע באיזה יום ימות שיעשה תשובה?
Does a person really know which day they’re going to die—such that they can plan one day beforehand to repent then?
אמר להם
He said to them:
כל שכן שיעשה תשובה היום
All the more so, every person should repent today
שמא ימות למחר!
Lest that person dies tomorrow!
ישוב למחר שמא ימות למחרתו!
And that person should repent tomorrow lest that person dies the day after tomorrow!
ונמצאו כל ימיו בתשובה!
In fact, every day of one’s life should be part of a period of Teshuvah!
Truly though, when Jews speak of Teshuvah or repenting, the topic at hand really is change. The word teshuvah literally means turning or returning, as if we are turning our old habits into better ones or we are returning to walking in God’s ways. Real Teshuvah is about improving ourselves; it is about much more than just saying sorry.
In fact, the great Spanish twelfth and early thirteenth century rationalist Maimonides, Rabbi Moshe ben Maymon, wrote his own definition of Teshuvah Gemurah, complete repentance, in the second law of the second chapter of his Hilkhot Teshuvah, regarding the laws of Teshuvah:
ומה היא תשובה
And what is Teshuvah?
הוא שיעזוב החוטא חטאו
When the sinner leaves the sin behind,
ויסירו ממחשבתו
And removes his thought process,
ויגמור בלבו שלא יעשהו עוד
And finalizes in his heartfelt consciousness that he will not do that sin anymore.
Just as it says—in Isaiah Chapter 55, verse 7:
יַֽעֲזֹ֤ב רָשָׁע֙ דַּרְכּ֔וֹ וְאִ֥ישׁ אָ֖וֶן מַחְשְׁבֹתָ֑יו וְיָשֹׁ֤ב אֶל־ה֙‘ וִירַֽחֲמֵ֔הוּ וְאֶל־אֱ-לֹהֵ֖ינוּ כִּֽי־יַרְבֶּ֥ה לִסְלֽוֹחַ:
The wicked person will abandon his path, and the worthless one his thoughts, and each will return to God, and God will have mercy upon him.
וכן יתנחם על שעבר,
And so too, one should calm down and come to terms with the sin of the past.
For it says in Jeremiah 31:18:
כִּֽי־אַֽחֲרֵ֤י שׁוּבִי֙ נִחַ֔מְתִּי וְאַֽחֲרֵי֙ הִוָּ֣דְעִ֔י סָפַ֖קְתִּי עַל־יָרֵ֑ךְ בֹּ֚שְׁתִּי וְגַם־נִכְלַ֔מְתִּי כִּ֥י נָשָׂ֖אתִי חֶרְפַּ֥ת נְעוּרָֽי:
For after my return, I repented; and after I was informed, I slapped my thigh; I was ashamed and even humiliated for I bore the reproach of my youth.
ויעיד עליו יודע תעלוּמות שלא ישוב לזה החטא לעולם,
And the sinner must also testify to the Omnipotent One that he will not repeat this sin ever,
For it says in Hosea 14:4:
אַשּׁ֣וּר ׀ לֹ֣א יֽוֹשִׁיעֵ֗נוּ עַל־סוּס֙ לֹ֣א נִרְכָּ֔ב וְלֹֽא־נֹ֥אמַר ע֛וֹד אֱ-לֹהֵ֖ינוּ לְמַֽעֲשֵׂ֣ה יָדֵ֑ינוּ אֲשֶׁר־בְּךָ֖ יְרֻחַ֥ם יָתֽוֹם:
And we won’t say anymore to the deeds of our own hands “You are our Judges.”
וצריך להתְודוֹת בשפתיו ולומר עניינות אלו שגמר בלבו.
And the sinner must confess in his lips and say these matters, so that it is finalized in the sinner’s heart.
Rambam, a.k.a. Maimonides, in short says: we must come to no longer justify a mistake of ours, choose never to repeat the mistake, be calm and cool about it, and then testify to God. Rambam was a doctor, and a pretty excellent one too, and what he gives us here is a prescription for more than just Teshuvah; this also is a prescription for Tikkun Olam, for repairing the world, and repairing its people. Perhaps this is because Tikkun Olam and Teshuvah, like all Mitzvot Aseh, all commandments which we are commanded to perform, take time; and all of our deeds and all that we process in time is Transition. Rambam hasn’t given us a prescription for Teshuvah alone, but rather he has given us a prescription for Transition.
A few winters ago, Seth, one of my friends from a town right near mine in Long Island, where there’s a big Jewish community, was walking with his family to schul on a pretty windy Shabbat morning. Suddenly, the wind blew away the yarmulkah that was on Seth’s brother’s head, and the wind was blowing it way too fast for Seth or anyone in his family to catch it, so Seth’s father said,2 “I know there’s gonna be extra yarmulkahs at schul, but until we get there, Seth, can you just keep your hand on Jacob’s head so if anyone passes by us on the way to schul, they won’t notice your brother doesn’t have a yarmulkah?” Seth’s a pretty nice guy, but for some reason or another he actually got a little annoyed about the prospect of keeping his hand on his brother’s head, and he turned to his dad and asked, “Why should I? Am I my brother’s kippah?”
As you might be aware, responsibility towards each other is currently one of the most important issues being discussed in the Columbia/Barnard Hillel community. The simplest reason for its importance right now is that communal programming here is in a positive state of transition. This August, it was announced that an Interdenominational Committee at Hillel would be formed to help find common grounds for each of us with our own varying personal or Movemental streams of Judaism. And although I am not and never have been on any Hillel committees, I do enjoy feeling like I can contribute to our Hillel’s sub-communities and programs by being a present member.
The past two years, I was always hesitant to step up to be a leader in the Hillel community because I felt that I had too many obligations to other communities. The biggest commitment I have felt that I’ve had to another community has been to the Jewish Theological Seminary. As a Jew who feels obligated to daven three times every day in services preferably where women and men can both perform the same exact ritual tasks, I have found myself often feeling more committed to JTS, where something resembling my ideal frequency of my ideal minyan does exist. If Koach3 were in fact to meet more often than Shabbat, holidays, and Rosh Hodesh (the new month), I would feel less of a need to feel committed to JTS, and I would feel more fit to be a leader in Koach.
Normally petty criticisms of Koach or any Hillel sub-community do not fit in Se`udah Shelishit. However, as interdenominational dialogue increases at Hillel, it may be somewhat appropriate to address concerns for individual sub-communities that could perhaps be solved community-wide.
At the end of the second chapter of Pirkey Avot, Rabbi Tarfon, from somewhere around the turn of the first into the second century C.E., is quoted as saying:
לא עליך המלאכה לגמור
It is neither incumbent upon you to complete this task,
ולא אתה בן חורין לבטל ממנה
Nor are you free to ignore it altogether.
In addition, not only did Rabbi Tarfon say it’s okay if we can’t finish up the task 100%, Devarim Rabbah from circa 900 C.E., in discussing Parashat Nitzavim which we read this afternoon, offers a solution to our own inability to fulfill our visions. In Chapter 30, Verse 11, the rabbis were confused by the term “hammitzvah hazzot” (“this command”), which appears where God is quoted as referring to in:
הַמִּצְוָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָֽנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם
This command that I command you today.
Quite honestly, there’s a lot of commands in the Torah, so the rabbis wanted to know what the purpose of saying “hammitzvah hazzot” (“this command”) is, if it’s not to refer to a clearly specific commandment. Despite the confusion about the word “hazzot” (“this”), the rest of the sentence fragment is very familiar to the rabbis; in fact, they had just read it in the first verse… except 22 chapters ago:
כׇּל־הַמִּצְוָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָֽנֹכִ֧י מְצַוְּךָ֛ הַיּ֖וֹם
All of the command that I command you today.
The mitzvah being discussed in both of these places seem to be the same mitzvah. Not only did the Israelites dwell in the desert for 40 years, but they also dwelled on the same mitzvah for over 20 chapters apparently. But, Devarim Rabbah is not totally satisfied, and it goes on to ask tangentially:
מהו כל המצוה?
What is meant by “all of the command?”
The question is difficult to answer definitely, but it provokes some responses, the darkest of which comes from Rabbi Hiyyah Bar Abba, who says:
כל שמתחיל במצוה ואינו גומרה
Anyone who begins a mitzvah and does not complete it
גורם שיקבר אשתו ובניו
Ends up having to bury his wife and kids.
Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba then tells us to look at Judah as an example, because, when Judah stood up against 10 other brothers and said not to kill Joseph, he began a mitzvah. He was respecting כְּבוֹד הַבְּרִיּוֹת (“human dignity”), he was creatingשְלוֹם בָּֽיִת (“peace in the house”), and—of course—he prevented a murder; however, Judah then lets the brothers sell Joseph off! And then we read later that Judah’s wife Bat Shua and his sons Er and Onan die, seemingly in Judah’s own lifetime. But maybe Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba does not have the full story, because then Rabbi Levi, speaking in the name of Rabbi Hama bar Hanina says:
כל מי שמתחיל במצוה ואינו גורמה
If someone begins a mitzvah and does not complete it,
ובא אחר וגומרה
But somebody else comes along and completes it,
נקראת על שמו שגמרה
The credit is given to the person who completes it.
This means that credit is given as long as somebody completes the mitzvah. You are not free to ignore the task; however, you have to make sure that the task gets done.
I don’t believe that Koach, in order to be a sub-community to which I personally can feel more committed needs to begin meeting for minyan 3 times a day starting tomorrow. However, I do believe that Koach, in order to be a sub-community to which I would more willingly commit myself, would need to begin meeting for minyan at least once a week aside from Shabbat by the time I’ve graduated from here.
I sense though that I am not the only member of a particular sub-community that wishes we met more often. I am willing to bet members of Lalekhet4 wish that Lalekhet could meet for minyan at least every Shabbat. And, as members of the Reform Movement come to embrace more traditional elements of Judaism, I am even willing to bet some members of Kesher5 wish that Kesher would meet more often for services than only Friday night.
I may be alone—although I hope I am not—but I do believe that these wishes for more time with our own sub- communities may be common grounds for us Jews from all over the spectrum of the Hillel community. I do not mention this thought of mine because I wish to complain. In fact, I hate complaining. I mention this thought only because I believe that it is possible for us to use this year as the most progressive year of Transition that this Hillel community has experienced yet: a Transition through time whereby we may allow ourselves more time with each other.
לא עליך המלאכה לגמור
It is neither incumbent upon you to complete this task,
ולא אתה בן חורין לבטל ממנה
Nor are you free to ignore it altogether.
ובא אחר וגומרה
But, when somebody else comes along and completes it,
נקראת על שמו שגמרה
The credit is given to the person who completes it.
I believe that many of us here wish to begin, if not the same, then a very similar task. We need not complete it or ever earn the credit, but we may not ignore it. In this season of Teshuvah and Transition, we have to realize that we have the potential to make a fantastic community an even better one.
Avast, mateys. Shabbat shalom. And an early shanah tovah umtukah.


About jonahrank

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