Think Positive

August 11, 2017

Torah Thought

For congregational rabbis, this is a season of anxiety, but also of hope. The arrival of the seven Haftarot of Consolation after Tisha b’Av reminds us that we have less than two months to get our sermons written and services planned for the High Holy Days. (Had I not been rabbinically formed in seminary, I would want to punch the colleagues on Facebook who report brightly in July, “Drashot done, service outlines ready to print. Off to the beach house!”) But we also look forward to the blessings the holidays may bring. A once-a-year congregant might be inspired by a service or sermon and want to start learning and participating again. New faces may bring new life to the congregation. At the very least, the holidays are infused with a sense of new beginnings. We anticipate what good things might happen in the new year and determine to do our part in making them happen.

This mix of anxiety and hope is present in the Bible readings we hear in synagogue during the seven Shabbatot before Rosh Hashanah. Most of the anxiety, sometimes bordering on dread, appears in the Torah readings, which are part of God’s instructions (recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy) to the Israelites as they prepare to enter the Promised Land. They relay, several times, the mandate not only to avoid being lured to idol worship by the tribes who inhabit the Land, but to destroy those tribes, displace them completely, killing inhabitants as necessary. We find an example of these instructions in Parshat Ekev, coming up this Shabbat:
You shall destroy all the peoples that Hashem your God delivers to you, showing them no pity.…Hashem your God will deliver them up to you, throwing them into utter panic until they are wiped out. He will deliver their kings into your hand, and you shall obliterate their name from under the heavens; no man shall stand up to you, until you have wiped them out. (Deut. 7:16, 23-24)

The order to destroy indigenous tribes in order to remove the temptation of their cultural and religious practices is understandable. The Israelites, since leaving Egypt 40 years earlier, have shown themselves to be all too susceptible to idol worship and the seductions of other tribes. But this mandate, given at least three times, is harsh and ugly. It says nothing about the possibility of teaching the people already living in the Land about the doctrines and values God has laid out for Am Yisrael. Moreover, these passages have been used as proof texts supporting the current and longtime level of strife in the contemporary Jewish state, strife that not only pits Jew against Arab, but Jew against Jew.

How much more positive and life-affirming are the selections from the Book of Isaiah that we read as haftarot during these weeks! Produced in exile and looking forward to a Jewish return to Zion after the destruction of the First Temple, these haftarot express not only a hope, but a confident prediction that Israel will return and rebuild, without a drumbeat of violence in the background. Zion is portrayed as an abandoned, barren wife whom God will take back in embracing love, bedeck with gems, and endow with children; Israel will be a place of light, joy, peace, and prosperity. The prophet exhorts the exiled Hebrews to take strength from their origins:
Listen to me, you who pursue justice, You who seek the Lord: Look to the rock you were hewn from, To the quarry you were dug from. Look back to Abraham your father And to Sarah who brought you forth. For he was only one when I called him, But I blessed him and made him many. (Isaiah 51:1-2)

This is the ruach Elohim, the spirit of God, that draws me to serve God, the Jewish people, and all who dwell on Earth: not the call to destruction sparked by fear of retribution for weak faith, but the confidence that we can live up to those parts of Torah that tell us what it is to be good human beings.

May the New Year bring you the comfort and hope that the prophet anticipated for us as a people.

—Rabbi Ellen Jaffe-Gill, Tidewater Chavurah

Letter to the Editor