I consider myself to be a passionate person. I care deeply about many things. While this is a blessing in many ways, it also makes certain interactions and relationships difficult. Because I care so much, I am potentially more likely to oscillate between the extreme ends of my emotional spectrum. When things are going my way, it makes me very happy. But the slightest move in the wrong direction might make me scowl, not to mention how I feel if things are really going wrong.
A few years ago I was sitting in a lecture and my teacher began to pontificate about Israeli politics, which had nothing to do with our course as far as I was concerned. After a few minutes, my teacher began to draw connections from our lesson to a particular political point of view, one that I did not and still do not agree with. My teacher continued to make point after point and I just kept getting redder and redder in the face. Nobody around me was saying anything, but I felt too flustered to speak. So I did not. Several hours later I wrote an email to my teacher explaining what I thought was problematic about that particular lecture and why I disagreed with that particular perspective. It led to a constructive conversation and our relationship continues to be fruitful despite our many disagreements.
I told a few classmates of mine about how I felt and how I decided to deal with this problem. They asked, “why didn’t you say anything during class?” I responded, “because I was angry.” They pushed further, “if you were upset, then you should have said something.” And I answered by telling them that my father always told me, “when you get mad, you lose.” This may not be the winning strategy for everyone, but for me, it is key, and I am grateful to have been told this countless times growing up, so that it is a more instinctive part of me now.
In this week’s Parsha, Parshat Ki Tavo, we are told of the blessings we will receive if we do as God intends (and the curses should we wander astray). One familiar blessing, especially as we approach the new year, reads “And the LORD will make thee the head, and not the tail; and thou shalt be above only, and thou shalt not be beneath; if thou shalt hearken unto the commandments of the LORD thy God, which I command thee this day, to observe and to do them/ וּנְתָנְךָ יְהוָה לְרֹאשׁ, וְלֹא לְזָנָב, וְהָיִיתָ רַק לְמַעְלָה, וְלֹא תִהְיֶה לְמָטָּה: כִּי-תִשְׁמַע אֶל-מִצְוֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם--לִשְׁמֹר וְלַעֲשׂוֹת.” The Ben Ish Hai (Rabbi Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad, 19th Century) connects this blessing to a teaching from the Talmud, “R. Jacob said: ‘The goat that goes forth leads the herd.’ So too a certain Galilean in one of his discourses before R. Hisda [said] that when the shepherd becomes angry with his flock he appoints for a leader one which is blind.” The Ben Ish Hai is drawing from the old teaching from Ecclesiates, “The wise man, his eyes are in his head/הֶחָכָם עֵינָיו בְּרֹאשׁוֹ.”
If we act from our gut, our place of emotions, there is a good possibility of us moving in the wrong direction. We may end up disappointing ourselves and potentially hurting others. We should try and do our best not to lose our heads. As we continue to march towards a New Year together, let us try and think, then breathe, then think again before we act. In these attempts we will ask God to make this year one that is only full of highs.
This week’s Parsha, Ki Teitzei, begins by talking about war. “When thou goest forth to battle against thine enemies/כִּי-תֵצֵא לַמִּלְחָמָה, עַל-אֹיְבֶיךָ.” The Yalkut Shimoni teaches that, “the Torah is only referring to the war against the yetzer hara (the evil inclination)/לא דברה תורה אלא כנגד יצר הרע.” Much of our tradition has taught that the everlasting battle that this week’s Parsha talks about is an internal one. We must constantly fight against our inclination to be self serving.
A couple of summers ago, I was the football coach at camp. Don’t worry, it was flag football, and the likelihood of injury was low. I had played some football in high school and this seemed like a fun opportunity to work in a different capacity at camp and get to know a lot of different kids. What was truly amazing to me, is how much the younger campers wanted to play a real game, pretend to be professionals (“I am Peyton Manning!”), yet, barely knew the rules or had enough skills to actually play a game. I would run drills with them, and they would complain. They wanted to play now. They wanted to play immediately, despite the likelihood of their not being able to play, and that often leads to injury. We are living in a world where discipline is lacking, and we often seek out what we want immediately, even if it might be harmful for us down the road. As long as it works right now, at this very moment, I will do it.
It is precisely this societal trend that the Torah is trying to preach against. Later on in our Parsha, we are told, “When thou comest into thy neighbour's vineyard, then thou mayest eat grapes until thou have enough at thine own pleasure; but thou shalt not put any in thy vessel/כִּי תָבֹא בְּכֶרֶם רֵעֶךָ, וְאָכַלְתָּ עֲנָבִים כְּנַפְשְׁךָ שָׂבְעֶךָ; וְאֶל-כֶּלְיְךָ, לֹא תִתֵּן.” Rachi Kadosh teaches that “it seems as though the spirit of humanity has not changed in the last twenty-five hundred years. Then, also, it was necessary to warn passersby to not pluck more than their stomachs can hold...The Lawmaker had hoped, apparently, at least some passersby, those who want to do the right and moral good, remember the Scripture and listen to it, and not the sound of greed and instant gratification.”
I have heard a number of respectable and intelligent rabbis tell me that we do not need the Torah or our tradition to tell us how to be good. Most of us would be good, they say, without it. The Torah offers us a framework for figuring out the scope of our responsibility so we are not paralyzed by the overwhelming needs of the world around us. While there is some truth in this, I have tended to disagree with this position. The divine call to slow down and not bite off more than we can chew is necessary. We tend to not be very good at limiting ourselves. And there is no reason to think we would value discipline without the Torah’s command.
As we continue to examine our lives and actions in this month of Elul before Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, let us look inwards and struggle with that part of us that wants more and more. We do not need to limit our ambitions, but it is a good time of year to listen to the voice of the Torah that tells us take what we need, not what we want.
When I was a child, I was a bit of a handful to deal with. I often got in trouble at school. In fact, my parents joked that there was a seat saved in the principal’s office just for me, since I was there so regularly. In my Sophomore year of high school, I was placed in the regular Hebrew class. I wanted to be in the honors class, but the school did not let me move up. So it is fair to say that I had a negative attitude in general in the class. But, my grades were excellent and I was trying to prove that I should be moved up. At the same time, my teacher, Mrs. Mizrahi (not her real name) and I were often at odds with each other. I felt she was disrespectful to me and picked on me and singled me out for misbehaving, and she thought that I was misbehaving and was rude and disrespectful.
One day, I was joking around with a friend, when Mrs. Mizrahi called me out for talking in class. At this point in the year, I had had enough and I lost it. I started yelling at her about how much she picked on me and that it was not fair. After my tirade, she just pointed her finger towards the door, where I was to exit. On the way out, she tried saying something and I cut her off with one last rude remark. Of course this was unacceptable behavior for me, regardless of my claims, and I was punished by the school and I was removed from the class. I moved away after that year so it would be some time before we saw each other again.
Nine years later, I was attending a faculty meeting at a synagogue where I was just starting as the Youth Director. I sat at the conference table, and I immediately recognized Mrs. Mizrahi sitting across the table from me. Suddenly, I was a kid again, and I was feeling a lot of those things I felt when she was my teacher. I had been holding a grudge for nine years. And I finally had a chance to confront her. After the meeting, she turned to me and asked, “Where you a student of mine?” I replied, “Yes.” She then smiled, winked, and said, “You gave me some trouble, right?” And I was totally diffused. We quickly developed a very nice relationship and two years later she was a guest at my wedding.
Our Parsha, Shoftim, talks about war and peace. The Sfas Emes teaches that all of our wars should be in pursuit of peace. So we should approach and strive for peace. The Torah begins to explain, “When thou drawest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it/כִּי-תִקְרַב אֶל-עִיר, לְהִלָּחֵם עָלֶיהָ--וְקָרָאתָ אֵלֶיהָ, לְשָׁלוֹם.” The Midrash picks up on this thread that the Sfas Emes explicitly pulled out by discussing the great power of, and desire for, peace. The Midrash in Deuteronomy Rabbah states “A human, if he does evil to his fellow, it doesn’t ever move from his heart. But, The Holy Blessed One is not like this, rather, it was that the Israelites were in Egypt and the Egyptians subjegated them with mortar and bricks, and after all of that evil that they did to Israel, the Torah worries for them and says [in next week’s parsha], ‘thou shalt not abhor an Egyptian, because thou wast a stranger in his land.’ Rather, you should chase after peace, as it says [Ps. 34:15] ‘Seek peace and chase after it/בַּקֵּשׁ שָׁלוֹם וְרָדְפֵהוּ.”
My teacher had every right to be angry with me for what I had done. Yet, she did what I could not do in that moment; what is so hard for many of us to do: She decided to take the path of peace. In this month of Elul, let us try to be more like my teacher and as God is described in our midrash. Think of those relationships that could flourish if that was the path we decided to take. Of course this is hard, and it may be human nature to hold the grudge. But let us try to be better. Let us chase after peace. And may we see that peace come in our days.
In 1967, the Beatles released the Magical Mystery Tour album. On it, is a very famous track that contain the following lyrics, “There's nothing you can know that isn't known. Nothing you can see that isn't shown. There's nowhere you can be that isn't where you're meant to be. It's easy. All you need is love, all you need is love.” There is a limit to knowledge and sense, according to this hit song. Love is all you need.
While studying this week’s Parsha, Re’eh, I kept coming back to this one set of verses, and one verse in particular. We are warned, “If there arise in the midst of thee a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams--and he give thee a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spoke unto thee--saying: 'Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them'; thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or unto that dreamer of dreams; for the LORD your God putteth you to proof, to know whether ye do love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul/כִּי-יָקוּם בְּקִרְבְּךָ נָבִיא, אוֹ חֹלֵם חֲלוֹם; וְנָתַן אֵלֶיךָ אוֹת, אוֹ מוֹפֵת. וּבָא הָאוֹת וְהַמּוֹפֵת, אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר אֵלֶיךָ לֵאמֹר: נֵלְכָה אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יְדַעְתָּם--וְנָעָבְדֵם. לֹא תִשְׁמַע, אֶל-דִּבְרֵי הַנָּבִיא הַהוּא, אוֹ אֶל-חוֹלֵם הַחֲלוֹם, הַהוּא: כִּי מְנַסֶּה יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, אֶתְכֶם, לָדַעַת הֲיִשְׁכֶם אֹהֲבִים אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, בְּכָל-לְבַבְכֶם וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁכֶם.” It really struck me that we were being tested by God. We had to prove whether or not we truly loved God.
Yara Inbar writes, “the root of faith is in the being swept away towards the irrational, just like falling in love. A person believes. Period. His soul is connected to divine roots, and he lives his life with the feeling of His presence. Not because this was explained to him, but because he feels and he knows.” At the heart of many of our relationships were beginning moments of emotion. They cannot be explained. I feel the way that I feel.
But what happens when my foundations have been shaken? When I am pulled in other directions? Inbar teaches that it is precisely at these moments that we need the logical, the rational to help pull us back and protect what we hold dear, the irrational. This is an old Jewish idea that constantly attempts to unite the body and spirit. If we live in a world of pure logic, we will miss out on wonderful opportunities. If we are completely governed by emotion, then we could be carried away in the wrong direction.
This is how God is testing us. Can we love God with all of our hearts (considered to be the mind), the place of logic, and all of our souls, the place of emotion. I am sure that many of us maintain our commitment to the traditions and beliefs of our community because at one point, there was a deep feeling of connection. And yet we do not always feel that way. I remember feeling connected to God on a Shabbat when I was fourteen. And yet I do not always feel that way. That is when I need to use my rational side to help maintain and guard that which was forged in the irrational emotions of a beautiful moment.
May this week help us to see and remember those beautiful moments in our lives. Moments that might not make sense, but that are central to us. And may this week also help us find the reasons for our connections, even when we don’t feel them as deeply as we once might have. Then we will know that we love.
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.