Ten Commandments for Our Day
A D’var Torah for Parsha Yitro
January 18, 2014 | By Willa Bruckner
The older I get, the more I am troubled by the G-d we experience in this part of the Bible — a G-d predisposed to shows of power and might that challenge and instill fear in people. We’ve talked before in our minyan about this G-d, but I’m reminded again of this G-d’s character as we listen to the Ten Commandments — with the lightning, the sounds of the shofar, and the spectacle that accompanied the giving of the Commandments. Even the words of the Commandments put us in our place, as G-d the master tells us from on high what to do and what not to do.
People are made in the image of G-d, yet I stay far away from people who exhibit the qualities we see in this G-d. Of course, we can look at the story of the Ten Commandments in a historical perspective, or attribute the character of this G-d to the scribe for this portion of the Bible, or think that this G-d might have been what the Hebrews needed at the time, having just come out of slavery in Egypt. But I’m not so much of a history buff, and I want the Bible to have meaning and relevance for my life today, particularly something as fundamental as the Ten Commandments. So I started imagining how the Ten Commandments might have been written if they had come from a side of G-d that was gentler and (dare I say) more mature, if G-d had tried to touch us from the inside instead of lording over us from the outside, and if G-d had empowered us to connect with G-d and with each other spiritually and to experience what we say every day in the Shma: ad-nai echad, G-d is one. Imagine along with me as we listen to the Ten Commandments a second time this morning.
- Look deep within yourself, to your core, beyond the self-criticism, the self-doubts and the expectations, and find the spark of G-d that lies within you. From that place, you have the ability to free yourself from all that enslaves you.
- Money, possessions and position don’t free you. They may provide temporary havens and make you feel good for a while, but they cannot replace a deep inner connection to G-d.
- Be honest with yourself. You have no reason to fear your true nature; it holds a power that is good and pure.
- Take time to quiet the noise, the external demands and the internal battles, so you can remind yourself of what is at your center and revitalize your spirit, on a weekly and a daily basis.
- Your relationships with friends, co-workers, family, and parents, and all your experiences in the past — they don’t define you. Rather, they are a mirror in which you can catch a glimpse of your true nature. Respect them and keep them in that proper place, so you can live fully in the present.
- Help others see the spark of G-d within themselves, so they may live fully in the present, with joy.
- Especially do so for those with whom you are closest. Once your souls have touched, you can choose, every single day, to keep that connection sacred, even in the midst of the drudgery and disappointments that accompany the day-to-day business of living.
- Be a giver, not a taker. If the spark of G-d within you can touch the spark of G-d within another, then both will experience the one-ness of G-d and the world’s possibilities will be limitless.
- Just as you should be honest with yourself about your true nature, so you must be honest with and about others so you can help them to see the wonder of their being.
- Cherish and appreciate what you have — it can be gone in a moment. How much sweeter it is to enjoy it while you have it than to yearn for it after it’s gone. If you live fully in the present with what you have now, you can help others to do the same and your connection with G-d and with others will be seamless.
I can no longer see the Ten Commandments as ten distinct commandments. Instead, I see them as ten entry points into a holistic code for living. For me, this is a work in progress, one which I look forward to exploring in the next part of my spiritual journey. May our individual spiritual journeys allow us to come together, and may we be blessed to experience G-d as one – ad-nai echad.
Yom Kippur Divrei Torah– 5774/ 2013 Introduction to the Confessional-revised
by Treasure Cohen: email@example.com
Once a year–on Yom Kippur– we get an opportunity to look into a virtual mirror and examine our imperfections (and if we need help identifying them, the Vidui or confessional gives us both a short and long list of suggestions.) We confess our sins, ask God for forgiveness, and resolve to change.
This year I got a head start. This summer, with a gift certificate provided by our children to the local Pilates exercise studio, I went for a full body assessment. I had to look in the mirror, and was then given an analysis of my imperfections–many of which I was not even aware of: I do not stand up straight, my spine is crooked, and I have weak core muscles–and that just for starters. I was told that if I didn’t make changes, things would only get worse– but if I did, I could start to turn things around–or in the words of our tradition–do teshuva/ return.
Indeed, I resolved that I did not want to be a bent-over old lady, but hard as I tried, I could not seem to overcome what years of gravity and bad habits had wrought– the perpetual slouch. Every week I would go to the trainer and with more excuses than resolve, I would complain how hard it was, and she would assure me that change is gradual so I shouldn’t give up. It took several weeks before I actually had an understanding of what it even felt like to stand up straight. And only with that awareness could I begin to move forward.
Now, I know that on Yom Kippur we are not talking about posture or imperfections of body, but rather imperfections of behavior–yet I discovered that they employ the same vocabulary. Our tradition describes an exemplary person as “Yashar” or upright. The word for sin avone— literally means “bent or crooked.” And we refer to people who have stumbled or fallen–ethically as well as physically– as noflim. And to those of us in the middle– neither the yesharim nor the noflim, we are the k’foofim— the bent over, the slouchers– those who tend to resist change.
But this is a holiday about change. So for the past few months I have been looking for inspiration and motivation to help me make changes, both physical and spiritual, in my life. One came from a friend at a women’s study group. Every session started with an ice-breaker and this one was “advice from your mother;” Finish the sentence: “My mother always said . . .”: As we went around the circle, women responded: “Study hard,” “Be respectful,” “Mind your manners,” (“Wear clean underwear”) and when we got to Ellen, she said, “My mother always said stand up straight” and we laughed! But it wasn’t until now that I understand that her advice had a double meaning. Standing up straight is not only about good posture, good health, facing the world with confidence, it is also about aiming to be upright– yashar–adhering to strong moral principles, being righteous.
We try to aim high, but inevitably, at least sometime during the year, we will deviate from the straight and upright, to the bent and crooked, the avone–making mistakes– the theme of this confessional. Sometimes we are noflim–we fall, but–this I learned from hearing a dancer interviewed on NPR– what makes for success in dance, and in life, is the ability to fall and get up again. From experience, we know that stumbling often provides the most long-lasting lessons. And therefore our mistakes can be our best teachers, helping us to change and grow. And as our tradition says, God is there to help us: Every day we say in our prayers, God supports the fallen (somafe noflim) and raises up the bowed down, the slouchers (zokafe k’foofim).
But how do we bring about more long-lasting change? This is what I learned from my Pilates classes : You need to strengthen your core. In Pilates language, that means doing all sorts of exercises–pulls and stretches–to strengthen the muscles that help us to stand up straight. But in the language of Jewish tradition, it means improving our inner core–our hearts, souls, and minds– by adopting new behaviors and mitzvot that stretch us, strengthen us, and inform our actions. And every year on the High Holidays, we are given a prescription for enduring change: Teshuvah— return, Tefilah— prayer, and Tzedakah— deeds of lovingkindness and righteousness.
Paradoxically, I just learned that my Pilates Studio is closing its doors today–Yom Kippur, so I cannot be sure how well I will improve my posture this year. But I do know that my experience trying to improve myself over the past few months has given me insight into the process of teshuva/return, which I share with you today:
Strive to be upright, and try not to slouch;
Pick yourself up when you fall;
Learn from your stumbles;
and most important, Strengthen your core.
May we all be sealed for a good year– G’mar hatimah tovah, Shana Tova, and Shabbat Shalom!
“Let Them Eat Cake.” What does this bring to mind? Is it the words of Marie Antoinette, strolling as Bo Peep, in the Gardens of Versailles, immune to the starvation of her people. Or in “The Butler,” the scene where the protagonist, suffering from hunger, frantically thrusts his arm through a glass bakery window, slathers his face with whip cream from cakes, risking his life from the wounds to his arm and wrist. Or Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, stealing a loaf of bread (not cake) to stave his hunger. only to spend years incarcerated in France for his crime.
What does this have to do with Yom Kippur? Today’s Haftorah from Isaiah reminds us that G-d will only forgive us and reward us with a good life if we engage in Tsedakah , including feeding the poor. Isaiah tells us that it is not enough to have ashes on our foreheads or wear sack cloth or tear our clothes (today, whites and sneakers). Or to pray and fast . Forgiveness and blessing will only be rewarded to those who care for the poor; who give them shelter; who provide them with Food.
But today, especially in the last few years, the plight of the poor has gotten worse. The New York Times recently disclosed that at least 1 out of 6 Americans are “food insecure,” many living on one meal a day. We need not look to Appalachia, the focus of Michael Harrington’s The Other America. Today, poverty is everywhere. In New Jersey, at least 800,000 are on food stamps. Many others starve without this paltry, safety net. Nationwide, at least 48 million Americans get food stamps.
As a Legal Services lawyer, I have seen the lines for food stamps, food pantries, and soup kitchens grow larger and larger while the amount each person actually receives dwindles. . Government surplus staples in the past, such as cheese, are rarely available. Clients ask us for food. Scrawny babies and toddlers scream from hunger, their parents unable to divert their attention. Lack of food has devastating effects on American health. We are the 4th after Turkey, Mexico and Slovakia in the numbers of death per 1000 under the age of 1. Maternal mortality is also the highest among advanced nations, according to the Times. Life expectancy- at birth and at age 60- is also among the lowest.
I recall being told as a child that contributions to charities were not necessary since the Government would take care of the poor. If this were ever true, certainly, it is not today. We need to take up the burden of the charities since the Government does not do very much.
In the last month or so, Congress has severed food stamps from the Farm Bill, reducing the leverage of advocates significantly. Congress will soon be voting on reducing the amount of dollars for food stamps by $40 billion in the next 10 years. Even without this happening, this November 2013, because of sequester, the amount spent on food stamps will be significantly reduced.
And are food stamps such a panacea anyway? A recent article in the Times found that food stamps on average last only 2 weeks a month. What do people eat the rest of the time? Can everyone survive on venison as an article in The Times described? Will Essex County residents soon be desperately shooting deer in the South Mountain Reservation? It takes at least a month for 70 per cent of the applicants in New Jersey to apply and get their food stamps, New Jersey being one of the slowest states, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. I have personally seen any clients waiting 3 or 4 months; by then, the Agency has determined that they manage on their own so why should they get them anyway.
As we sit here on Yom Kippur, feeling our own pangs of hunger, thinking about the cake we will ingest at Break Fast, let us adhere to G-d’s wishes and pledge to provide FOOD for the less fortunate. Let us respond to the dwindling Government safety net by donating more food to the soup kitchens, cooking for the poor, providing food to both the kosher and not kosher food pantries and to Mazon. Let us in our own small way seek to make things a little better for the less fortunate and thus gain G-d’s redemption and blessings.