Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah -D’varim

48 years ago, I ascended the pulpit to celebrate my Bar Mitzvah. Candidly, I was not a very good student, and but for the tenacity, patience, and love of Dr. Graziani (my tutor), the day would have been a disaster. I learned the bare minimum to cover the required prayers and texts for the day – to this day, unsure as to the accuracy of any of my recitations. I gave the obligatory “thank you for everyone celebrating with us today” speech. I had what was probably my first truly celebratory religious experience the very moment the service ended. The following day, as I showed up for religious school, the Rabbi told me never to come back. I gladly experienced my second authentic religious experience as I left the building. I came back for youth group (AZA), but for nothing else.

Perhaps it is fitting that the anniversary of my bar mitzvah (Actually on August 4), but this week’s Torah portion shares history with the creation of champagne (1693) and the creation of the US Coast Guard (1790).

This week begins Moses’ final farewell address (the Book of Deuteronomy). He recounts the “history” of Israel’s journey through the wilderness to the point they were prepared to cross the River Jordan into the “Promised Land.” Some of the facts change, but we can debate why that might be another time.

The Rabbis partner pieces from the prophetic texts (Haftarah) as a companion scripture for every weekly Torah portion. The Haftarah’s purpose is to operate as a first-level commentary on some aspect of the Torah text. For this week, the sages selected the first chapter of the Book of Isaiah. The prophet rails against the people for perverting justice, reminding them that salvation comes through a justice that includes the well-being of all people – not just the people holding power. In fact, one can easily argue that the allure and addictive nature of holding power over others is the root cause of all discrimination and diminution of others.

The prophet said, “16 Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. 17 Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the orphan; plead the case of the widow.”
Any behavior short of this commitment to each other’s well-being brings only destruction to the community. Restoration happens not through a display of power but rather compassion and love for folks in need. “26 [Then] I will restore your leaders as in days of old, your rulers as at the beginning. Afterward, you will be called the City of Righteousness, the Faithful City. 27 Zion will be delivered with justice, her penitent ones with righteousness.”

Jerusalem is not just a city halfway around the world. It is every place where we create peace through justice and compassion. At our seder tables, we end the service saying, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Jerusalem means “The vision of peace.” Our sages remind us that this is not a call to geographic travel. Rather, we are to make our dining tables the pulpit for freedom for others. In that same sense, the prophet gives us the formula for the messianic age. So, the creation of the Coast Guard reminds us that we have to be vigilant in caring for and defending our people and our nation. My rebellion and subsequent return remind me that it is never too late to find faith and commit to the world’s healing. That Dom Perignon invented champagne on my anniversary clarifies that the tools for celebration have been available long before I ever was – I just have to seek them.

While I credit my children’s births for my return to religion; the prophet’s words never left me, even as I left the synagogue. The relationships with which I have been blessed, the justice work that I participated in and before much of my legal career preceded my rabbinate but kept me grounded. Healing the world is not the work for some of us, not just for religious people; it is for everyone to benefit everyone. It is and will be the source of our greatest celebrations to come.

Shabbat Shalom.