As a child, I learned many things from my parents and my teachers. One lesson, however, sticks with me, maybe more than most. Every couple of months, my father would take me to get a haircut. And, after waiting in the chairs for a while, I would finally be called and a barber would take me to her chair and I would get my haircut. I would dread the next part. After it was over, my dad would pay the cashier. Then, he would give me some cash and tell me to walk over to the barber, thank her, and give her the tip. I found it so awkward. I did not know this person and talking to people I do not know has never been a strength of mine.
This was a ritual that I had to get used to because it happened fairly regularly. And when I look back on it, it was one of the most important lessons that I learned in life. In this week’s Parsha, Ekev, we are given a verse that is traditionally said in the blessing after meals. The verse states, “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you/וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָ֑עְתָּ וּבֵֽרַכְתָּ֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ עַל־הָאָ֥רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָֽתַן־לָֽךְ׃” This verse is the Scriptual reason for the required saying of the blessing after meals/birkat ha’mazon.
While it is a mitzvah with relative clarity, it has often been difficult for me. It is easier to ask for things and say nice things when we are in need. But when we feel satisfied, it seems much harder. I think this is at the heart of the mitzvah. It challenges us precisely because it is harder. The Talmud Yerushalmi mentions that this is one of few mitzvot that once done, one cannot do again to help others. For example, I could read the Megillah for various groups of people on Purim even after I read for myself. Maybe somebody else says the blessing, but I can still read for everyone. However, if I say the blessings after I ate something, and then somebody else needs me to do it for them, I cannot.
This may sound overly technical, but there is deep wisdom in this principle. When you have been given a gift or received something helpful, you have to say “thank you”. Nobody can help you and nobody can say it for you. I often say this to campers at the end of the summer. I tell them to thank their counselors, because nobody can do that for them. And that is what my father was trying to teach me many years ago. He could not say thank you for me. I had to learn to say it for myself.
This is a constant challenge in a day and age where we do so much for ourselves with the click of a button. But nothing beats looking another person in the eyes and thanking them for helping you. I encourage us this week to think of people who have been helpful to us lately. Try to find a time to see them face to face, look them in the eyes and say “thank you”. Nobody will do it for you.
It is a very interesting exercise to try and express one’s personal narrative. When thinking of my own narrative, I often speak of critical junctions in my childhood and my young professional life to tell you who I am. I usually talk about my parents and where I was born and what kind of family I was born into. And if you ask my parents to talk about their narrative of me they will likely talk about my birth and critical junctions in my life from their perspective as parents. There may be differences, but I think much would be similar.
During the retelling of the Ten Commandments, which occurs in this week's Parsha, Va’Ethanan, our narrative is invoked by Moshe as he acts as intermediary for God’s message. “I am the LORD thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage/אָֽנֹכִי֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֧ר הוֹצֵאתִ֛יךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֣֥ית עֲבָדִֽ֑ים׃”.
The Sfas Emes raises an interesting question on this first of the famous commandments. He asks, why does it not say , “The God who created you”? Why does the Torah emphasize the exodus from Egypt? He answers by saying that God wanted us to know and feel the true essence of divinity in our souls. And the grace of God is fully understood when remembering the darkness of Egypt that we were brought out of in favor of the light of God, Torah and the Land of Israel. This is the narrative we should know and repeat. And it is mentioned in this version of the commandments as the reason for Shabbat as well.
That is why Shabbat is often called “A Testimony/״סהדותא. When we observe and rest on Shabbat, we give testimony to the true narrative of our God and us as a people. God’s true essence was revealed in our being brought out of Egypt. And our mission is to bring that essential light into this world.
As we enter Shabbat Nahamu, the first Shabbat of comfort and consolation after Tisha B’Av, let us find comfort in thinking of the essential qualities of those we love. If we cherish not just their presence, but what makes them unique, we will better understand how to appreciate the gifts they have to offer. And we can give testimony to their beauty and holiness as God’s children.
We live in a world that is obsessed with things that are fair and just. People expect their environments to act in a way that is fair. In my experience, kids tend to be fair extremists. I allowed one group of kids to bend the rules once, and for years after, it was unfair of me to not bend them for others.
But what really bothers me, what makes me upset is when I'm not being seen for the person I am now. One of the beautiful things about growing up in a community is that people get to see you grow up and develop as a person. This is an amazing thing to witness. However, in my experience, it can also be very frustrating. When that person who watched me grow up looks at me, are they seeing me as a twelve year old? Or as a nineteen year old? Or as a professional? I have had the same issues as an educator myself. It is hard to see the person in front of you for who they are today and not a person with history.
Again, having an inclination towards trying to see the whole person and not just a sliver is a good inclination to have. But is also misleading. In this week’s Parsha, Devarim, Moshe tells us “You shall not respect persons in judgment; you shall hear the small and the great alike; you shall not be afraid of the face of any man; for the judgment is God's; and the cause that is too hard for you, you shall bring unto me, and I will hear it/לֹֽא־תַכִּ֨ירוּ פָנִ֜ים בַּמִּשְׁפָּ֗ט כַּקָּטֹ֤ן כַּגָּדֹל֙ תִּשְׁמָע֔וּן לֹ֤א תָג֙וּרוּ֙ מִפְּנֵי־אִ֔ישׁ כִּ֥י הַמִּשְׁפָּ֖ט לֵאלֹהִ֣ים ה֑וּא וְהַדָּבָר֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִקְשֶׁ֣ה מִכֶּ֔ם תַּקְרִב֥וּן אֵלַ֖י וּשְׁמַעְתִּֽיו.” We are instructed in matters of justice to treat all matters of equal importance. The Talmud teaches us that “the small and great alike” means that a case worth a small settlement is as important as a million dollar case. And yet, I think we often, even with good intentions, take big things seriously and smaller things less seriously.
In addition, as humans, we will make the wrong decisions sometimes. Intentionally or unintentionally, we will end up wronging people in our community. What happens when we act unfairly and wrong somebody? Sometimes, we ignore it and hope that it will just go away and work itself out. But the Talmud teaches us differently. In reference to our verse when it says “for the judgement is God’s,” Rabbi Hama says in the name of Rabbi Hanina, that “God says ‘is it not enough that the wicked take money and give it unjustly to others illegally? But they also bother me so that I must return the money to its rightful owner!’”
When there is an injustice, it does not just work itself out. The Ben Ish Chai (19th Century, Baghdad) teaches that God has to actually act in this world and change the natural order of things in order to right that which we have wronged.
After Shabbat ends, we will observe the fast of Tisha B’Av. Our tradition teaches that our fast is intended to inspire us to repent and do teshuva. This is a wonderful opportunity to do our part. We can fix much of the world without relying on miracles from God. May we take some time this weekend to think about how we can tilt the scales around us towards justice and make the world around us more fair.
Shabbat Shalom and Tzom Kal,
As an educator I have done a lot of work with youngsters. Often I am the lead educator and I am teaching students. But I also spend a lot of time working with college aged young adults as they try to learn how to work with teens themselves. At camp, for example, the college aged counselors are living in the bunks with the campers. And I work with the counselors and train them to be more loving, caring, nurturing and effective in their responsibilities.
I do not know exactly how many times this has happened, but the following happens very often. A counselor comes to me complaining about a camper’s behavior and wants me to enforce a consequence that he or she has promised was coming. Sometimes this has been a long process and we have talked it through with the camper and something like losing some free time for the night is appropriate for them. But sometimes, when the counselor is tired or frustrated, they just snap and deliver the consequence without coordinating with me or talking it through. So, I have a counselor who wants me to back them up and a camper who has been told there is a consequence coming. The counselor swore that the kid would get in trouble and now their word is on the line. The counselor spoke too soon and now his or her words have built a scenario that they cannot get themselves out of. I imagine that many of us could remember a scenario where we spoke too quickly and then felt the need to stand behind our words regardless of what we might actually think or feel.
In this week’s Parsha, a double portion of Matot and Ma’Sei, we begin with the formative laws of oaths, “If a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips/ אִישׁ כִּי-יִדֹּר נֶדֶר לַיהוָה, אוֹ-הִשָּׁבַע שְׁבֻעָה לֶאְסֹר אִסָּר עַל-נַפְשׁוֹ--לֹא יַחֵל, דְּבָרוֹ: כְּכָל-הַיֹּצֵא מִפִּיו, יַעֲשֶׂה.” The Rabbis teach us something very valuable here. In the Talmud, we learn the meaning of the verse, “‘He shall not break his word,’ [means that] He cannot break it, but others can break it for him.” The Sfas Emes teaches us that we as human beings are called “Speakers.” It is what distinguishes us from other animals. But our speech is powerful. It leads us and pulls us after it.
We build worlds and holy spaces with our speech. Yet sometimes we get caught by our words and are pulled by them in the wrong direction. That is when it is helpful to have others around us that can offer us help from a different vantage point. In the case of the camper and counselor, I can soften what was said by them when I talk to the counselor. I as an authority figure have the position to discuss the situation, and that is often enough of a consequence to motivate a change in behavior. In doing so, I have also released the counselor from his or her “oath” that there would be trouble for this kid.
As we embrace the new month of Av, I hope we can all be careful with our words. On the 9th of Av, we mourn the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. The next nine days are traditionally ones of sadness as we prepare for this difficult day in our calendar. The Temples were destroyed because we tore the walls down with words of hate. May we build everlasting spaces for love and holiness with our words. And may those words come speedily from our lips.
Rabbi Ezra Balser has been the rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom since July 1, 2016. He received his “smicha” (ordination) in June 2017 from Hebrew College while also earning a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies. He has also received the iCenter's Certification in Israel Education.