The Fifth Book Of Moses

In Moses’ fifth book, known as the Book of Deuteronomy or the “second telling” Moses, reviews and revisits his own story and his journey with the  Children of Israel, reviewing their forty years in the desert since their redemption from slavery in Egypt. This journey is significant for the generation of the desert and for all time.

Moses includes his reflections and sorrows just before he is about to join his Creator. He shares how he beseeched his G-d over and over, to be able to enter the promised land, but was denied. The book of Deuteronomy has been described as Moses’ “last will and testament”, reviewing his experience and sharing his regrets and instructions for future generations. It is recommended for each of us to do this near the end of life, to examine our successes and failures in order to leave a legacy for future generations and it is our yearly task during the month of Elul, a period of personal introspection as we approach the Day of Judgement, Yom Kippur. 

Sunset on Mt Moses

Rosh Chodesh Elul always occurs forty days before Yom Hakippurim.

This period echoes the experience of the people of Israel when Moses tarried coming down from the mountain and they decided to create a Golden Calf to replace Moses. G-d was appalled and threatened to wipe out the whole tribe. 

“I have seen these people,” the LORD said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.(Exodus Ch 32: v9-10,)

But Moses challenged God, sayimg 

“why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’?

 

And Moses urged G-d to forgive them adding (Exodus 32:32 New International Version

But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.”

Moses onfronted the disaster with the people and with G-d and then he went back up the mountain.

Forty days later,  Moses came down with the second set of tablets, uttering G-ds message, the fateful words “Salachti k’idvarecha/I have forgiven as you, (Moses), requested.” This is the day we continue to celebrate every year as Yom Hakippurim,/Yom Kippur/The Day of Judgement.

Here the Divine One demonstrates for us, for all time, justice with mercy – din v’chesed not demanding perfection, but only that we improve our ways: The Supreme Judge reviews all behaviour and often offers second chances if we would only improve just a little bit. G-d is our Final Judge. For Jews, there is no other.

Jewish Man in Tallit Blowing Shofar Outdoors. Rosh Hashanah Celebration

 

On Yom Hakippurim, our communal prayers catalogue every possible sin, but you alone can give an account of your sins. Have you treated your fellow man with respect? Have you cheated anyone of his wages? Only you know what you have done or neglected to do. Our confession through our prayers is private and silently uttered between man and G-d alone. And we know that the ultimate judgement is up to G-d. On Yom Hakippurim, we say the fateful prayer, popularized by Leonard Cohen’s song, which enumerates how each of us may reach his ultimate fate, the only true punishment in the coming year.  “Who by Fire… Who by Water…

Legend reports that Moses died at the age of one hundred and twenty years and the traditional Jewish blessing for longevity is “ad meah v esrim,” which means “May you live to one hundred and twenty!”

Moshe Rabbeinu gives us the blueprint for leadership in the example of his life, a life of service to others.

In this Book fo Deuteronomy, Moses also repeats many of the biblical commandments already received. He gives us a blueprint for creating a just community, a challenge for all time.

As a sample, I quote here some of the commandments reviewed in this week’s Parsha/Torah Reading – Ki Tetze/When you go out (to war). It will give you an idea of Moses’ instructions. The Parsha begins with the case of the Eshet Y’fat To’ar, the beautiful non-Jewish woman who is taken captive in war. The Torah outlines the procedure to be followed if a Jewish soldier wishes to marry a beautiful woman captured during war. 

Other topics among the 41 Mitzvot included in this week’s parsha are:

How to deal with the rebellious son;

the command to shoo away the mother bird before taking her young (“shiluach haken”);

the prohibition (“sha’atnez”) of mixing wool & linen together,

adultery, & kidnapping;

the permissibility of divorce when a marriage fails;

the need to pay one’s workers (especially day labourers) in a timely fashion.

And in this chapter again, Moshe warns us to show extra care for the widow & orphan, due to their increased vulnerability;

Andthe mandate to be honest in all our business dealings (this is one of 3 Mitzvot that promise long life).

We are bidden to recall on a daily basis the Exodus from Egypt, (This is frequently mentioned throughout our daily prayers/tefilot and in the Kiddush/the brief prayer/blessing of sanctification of the Sabbath and holidays/Shabbat & Chag, performed over wine at our tables before every holiday meal.)

Our Parsha closes with the admonition to utterly wipe out Amalek & their progeny – (the nation that attacked the nation of israel while they journeyed in the desset, falling even on the weary and the women and children, for no evident cause) until no memory remains of them or their hateful, barbaric behaviour.

For a more nuanced understanding of these laws, click on Rabbi Stewart Weiss’ Youtube Parsha discussion on  Ki Tetze here:

 

These values and living principles are essential to “always keep top-of-mind” and are worth reviewing regularly, just as one may repeat one’s marriage vows.

The Haftora/the reading from the prophets assigned for this week – Rani Akara – Isaiah 54/Yeshayahu 54 – continues the five “Haftorot of Consolation for Churban Yerushalayim/the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.” – a second chance for the people of Israel promised by this prophecy of Isaiah (ch.54).

The prophet speaks of a future time when Jerusalem will expand its borders & welcome new residents who will fill the streets with joy and celebration, a prophecy that some believe has now been fulfilled, after two thousand years of exile by the current return of Jews to their promised land. 

 

Rabbi Lew: Comparing Buddhism and Judaism

In January 2012, I attended the naming ceremony of my niece, Shefa Rachel, at the Stanford Hillel House in Palo Alto, California. I noticed that Rabbi Lew was to give a talk during the coming week. I’m familiar with his books, which were profound meditations of Jewish practice from a Zen point of view.

I extended my stay to hear him speak and film his talk, a part of which appears below. He did not disappoint. His lecture was a comparison of Judaism and Zen Buddhism and how each tradition deals with suffering.
The Fourth Noble truths expound the Buddhist philosophy of existence and the attainment of nirvana, which overcomes everyday suffering. In the first two Noble Truths, the Buddha diagnoses the problem – universal suffering is the natural state of affairs – and he also identifies its cause – craving or wanting what you do not have. The other two Noble Truths are the prescriptions for the cure of suffering, mostly finding ways to let go of cravings.

Rabbi Lew mentions that when he shares the First Noble Truth – that everybody suffers – with Jewish audiences, he always hears a big sigh of relief “You mean it’s not just us!”

 

He then refers to the Jewish discussion about suffering, which occurs very early in the first Massechet of the Talmud Berachot 5B. As is typical of the Talmud, the subject is discussed extensively from many different angles. Is there value in suffering? Is it good to suffer? Is it better to suffer than not to suffer? Is there a reward in suffering? As is typical of Talmudic discourse, the Gemara continues to discuss the issue of suffering and affliction for pages without reaching any conclusion and then ends with the following story:

Rabbi Yoḥanan’s student, Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba, fell ill. Rabbi Yoḥanan entered to visit him and said to him: Is your suffering dear to you? Do you desire to be ill and afflicted? Rabbi Ḥiyya said to him: I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward, as one who welcomes this suffering with love is rewarded. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Give me your hand. Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yoḥanan stood him up and restored him to health.

Similarly, Rabbi Yoḥanan fell ill. Rabbi Ḥanina entered to visit him and said to him: Is your suffering dear to you? Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward. Rabbi Ḥanina said to him: Give me your hand. He gave him his hand, and Rabbi Ḥanina stood him up and restored him to health.

The Gemara asks: Why did Rabbi Yoḥanan wait for Rabbi Ḥanina to restore him to health? If he was able to heal his student, let Rabbi Yoḥanan stand himself up.

The Gemara answers, they say: A prisoner cannot generally free himself from prison, but depends on others to release him from his shackles.

After the class ended and we were sharing food and conversation, Rabbi Lew revealed that he had been a carefree and happy Zen Buddhist priest in San Francisco until he met his wife and fell in love. It was this experience that prompted him to move from becoming a carefree Buddhist to becoming a husband, father, and practicing Jew.

So what is the essential difference between Judaism and Buddhism? If you look at the third and fourth Noble Truths, you get to the 8-fold path to amend suffering which consists of eight practices: right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samadhi (meditative absorption or union). It seems to enlist the person on a moral path that will amend suffering: and this is the aim of Buddhism to amend suffering.

Rabbi Lew states in the above clip, “it is not the program of Judaism to amend suffering, Judaism is not indifferent to suffering”. He adds, “if I were to stand on one foot and say what the program of Judaism is, it is to realize the sacred in every moment.” And how do you realize the sacred in every moment? Judaism would answer by following the prescriptions regarding ‘How to live at every moment – how to eat how to relate to your wife and children, to your fellow man – this prescription is called the “halacha” – the way – the 613 mitzvot/directives for living the good life – deduced from the Torah – the first five books of the Bible – and enunciated in the oral Torah – the Mishna and Talmud.

So in the end, “right living” in Judaism is “bringing the holy to every moment” and it also happens to be the Jewish way to alleviating suffering.

So ultimately although the narrative is very different, the underlying them is the same – “right living” is the key to alleviating suffering in this world.

I was to meet Rabbi Lew one more time, at his home, before he passed away, rather suddenly, of a heart attack in 2009. zichrono l’ivracha – May his memory be a blessing.

I hope I have done justice to Rabbi Lew’s message.

Rabbi Lew’s books include:

  • One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi:
  • This Is Real, and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation
  • Be Still and Get Going: A Jewish Meditation Practice for Real Life

 

Addendum:  Recently while going through my books I discovered and read Rabbi Lew’s book One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi. It is a wonderfully straightforward and honest biography of a man and his struggles with his family of origin, his wives and children, his navigation of the spiritual paths available to him in California of the sixties, and how he then found his way to Judaism and to becoming a hospice worker, and later an ordained rabbi with a growing congregation in San Francisco.

 

 

 

 

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz was the spiritual leader of Congregation Congrégation Tifereth Beth David Jérusalem (TBDJ), a synagogue in Montreal (1996 to 2016). In January 2016, Rabbi Steinmetz left Montreal to assume the pulpit of a prominent New York synagogue, Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun (KJ) on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

During his time in Montreal, I often volunteered to film short five-minute sermons. I also share nine of Rabbi Steinmetz’s sermons found on the Kehilat Jeshurun (KJ) website. I found each one exceptional.

In Cases of Difficulty

The Yachad Revolution

What if Goliath Had Won?

When a Fossil Comes to Life

Yizkor and Yom HaShoah: Between Past and Present – Pesach 2016

The Jerusalem of the Simple Jew 2016

Never Underestimate Hatred

Between Purim And Passover: Survival and Tolerance

And, here are the 6 minute talks by Rabbi Steinmetz. that I video-recorded over the years

Rosh hashanah and pesach: Can you find the parallels?

A Joke That Has Legs

Are You Addicted to Being Right?

How to Keep Failure from Becoming a Defeat, Rosh Hashanah 2011

Steve Jobs, Noah, and Living Outside the Box

One of the lucky ones – Rabbi Steinmetz Rosh Hashanah

The Power of Questions: Rabbi Steinmetz

Being Selfless – Rabbi Steinmetz

Life has no Easy Button – Rabbi Steinmetz

Teenage Moot Court in Montreal

CHILDREN’S Guilt: Who and Why?

Rabbi Steinmetz: Jewish community being libelled: Ad matai!!!

Prepare Your Heart Before You Prepare your Plans: The Lesson of Bamidbar, The Book of Numbers

Tradition Why?

The High Holidays: The Power of Now: Part Three: RISING TO THE OCCASION

The Power of Now:

Part one: The challenge of Rosh Hashanah

Part Two:The Pull of the Past

Part Three: RISING TO THE OCCASION

Does One Need a Sanctuary

Hamming with the Rabbi

What the Bible says about blaming the Victim