The Last of Deuteronomy
You shall not act thus toward the Lord your God, for they perform for their gods every abhorrent act that the Lord detests; they even offer up their sons and daughters in fire to their gods. Deuteronomy 12:31
What is the thing that is so horrendous that you would never forgive yourself if you did it?
It happens that this column is being distributed just before Yom Kippur, the end of the annual six-week period during which Jews inventory their shortcomings and sins, repent of them, and seek forgiveness, both human and divine. For those who take this time period solemnly, the question is not academic.
Inherent in the need to repent is the inevitability of transgression. Inherent in the process of repentance is the authenticity of forgiveness. But is there something for which, no matter how deeply you feel and express regret and penitence, no reconciliation with yourself would be possible?
At least in the instance above, the crime beyond all crimes is child sacrifice – the decision to offer up sons and daughters in fire to false gods. The act itself is so profoundly repugnant to me that it pushes me beyond my general avoidance of anthropomorphism: I imagine God’s head shaking in disbelief. Even without cosmic condemnation, the inhumanity of allowing innocent life to be purposely taken is almost beyond belief.
How in the world could a parent convince himself or herself to allow, let alone participate in, such an act?
I have a friend who spent most of his adult life arguing vociferously that the act of terminating a pregnancy – abortion – is a crime of this magnitude. I understand that even putting those words into print will infuriate some of you as you read this, but I offer you the challenge to address the ferocity of your reaction before you reach a conclusion. There is a difference between a fetus and a child, but even someone like me who supports reproductive choice without hesitation must acknowledge that a fetus is alive, and that a decision to end a pregnancy is the decision to end a life.
My friend has reconsidered his unambivalent stance, and he regrets what he had condoned in service of that conviction. (Whether he receives your forgiveness or his own is not mine to determine.) Much of what has moved him from absolutism is the anguish he has heard from women who have made an agonizing decision to seek an abortion. It has helped to mitigate his uncompromising position because he listened to different perspectives.
Mostly, I think, we dismiss the advocacy of opponents to abortion because we believe (in my opinion) they take a simplistic stand that is without nuance. We hear them purport to speak for “the unborn” and we accuse them of caring more about creatures-in-formation who are without consciousness than their mothers-in-formation who struggle with the moral questions of carrying to term. We contrast their position – often by imposing our own suppositions – with their lack of equal advocacy on behalf of children living in poverty, children with physical or mental challenges, or children brought to the United States in search of a better life. And I must add that the tactics of some professional abortion opponents have placed the dignity and even lives of good and decent people as worthy of assassination.
But I contend that it is too convenient to paint opponents of abortion with the broad brush of hypocrisy. The exercise of listening to people who have internalized the sacred nature of nascent life is an important one. It demands considered reflection on the part of those who work, as I do, to make abortion safe and legal. The questions that are raised by those who object to abortion are as important to me as are the questions I seek to raise with them.
The first of those questions is whether our sons and daughters are being offered up to false gods. The advancements of science and its understanding of human life are not the same as the spiritual and moral questions with which we struggle. Just because we are able to act does not mean we should. If spiritual answers do not substitute for scientific knowledge, then certainly the opposite is also true.
And not far behind is how we support each other in our pain. Not a one of us has been commanded to make a sacrificial offering of a child, thank God. But innocent lives are lost to poverty, to neglect, to family separation. My heart breaks for them, especially when it seems I can do little or nothing to prevent it. I feel unforgiven for my impotence. Those whose perspective on the nature of life within the womb is different from mine feel that pain as well. It should not be dismissed.
It is nearly impossible to consider these matters without inflaming emotions. Everyone who does not have a story of heartbreak at least knows a story of heartbreak. Reflection is often cut short by both sides, each accusing the other of insensitivity or faithlessness.
We need compassion for each other. And for ourselves. And we need to listen.
The Last of Deuteronomy
Take care to observe all the laws and rules that I have set before you this day. Deuteronomy 11:32
(No discussion is included below of the “observer effect” in physics, which I do not understand and, unless you have studied physics, neither do you. Really.)
The specialized vocabulary that is part of Jewish life has its analogs in other faith traditions. Except for those that developed in American English-speaking denominations (American evangelicalism, Latter Day Saints and Scientology, for example), those vocabularies as we use them in the United States are translations. And, as the Italians say, traduttore, traditore. That is, to translate is to betray. (It doesn’t work as well in English.)
I know that there are some words that have found their way into the American idiom from Hebrew and Yiddish. Those are the words that convey something in their original form that can’t be as well communicated in the necessary – schlep, chutzpah, shtick, for example, as well as a variety of epithets and the universal exclamation of distress, oy (which is Biblical, by the way). Similarly, Hebrew speakers find themselves at a loss to find equivalents to some of the native idioms that they find so useful – mah pit’om, chaval (al haz’man), tit’chadesh. I won’t even try to betray them.
Maybe the most difficult concept to translate for Jews committed to the ritual and ethical practice of Judaism is represented by the word “observe.” The most common use of the word in English is as a synonym of “watch.” It is an action conducted primarily by the eyes directed at a person or object outside of one’s self. When you observe something, you set yourself at come distance and take note of what you see, ideally without interfering with whom or what you observe.
But when a Jew says they “observe” Shabbat or “observe” the dietary requirement of kashrut, they mean anything but detached examination. The person who sits back and watches the Sabbath will never have a day off of work, and the one who simply keeps an eye on how kosher food is produced will probably go hungry. Observing Jewish traditions means getting involved in the very messiness of interfering with them in their pristine forms. That’s because, in the end, even the most compulsively stringent observers have their own spin on how they do so. And as for those not quite so stringent…well, the other meaning of the Hebrew term for “observe” makes things more complicated.
The same word translated as “observe” when it comes to ritual practice also means “guard” or “protect” when something of value is at stake. The soldier at the gate, the chaperone at the children’s overnight, even God bear the title/descriptor that is the same as observer. In this context, observe and preserve seem to be synonymous.
I have written and spoken with some frequency about the essential role of change in any living entity. It is true biologically and it is true figuratively. No living creature remains unchanged, even if the rate of change is almost imperceptible. And no object that does not change is alive – it may be abiotic (that is, without life to begin with) or it may be dead (that is, formerly alive). So, while it may seem a contradiction in terms, both senses of the word “observe” are at play when we “take care to observe all the laws and rules.” In order to keep the instruction alive, we facilitate change. In order to keep the instruction from changing, we preserve it in its abiotic ideal.
Perhaps it is a little inside baseball to suggest that this framework can explain the manifold ways Jewish life expresses itself throughout history but at no time more so than the present. Some expressions of Jewish life put more emphasis on engagement and others on preservation, but adherents of each believe they are taking care to observe.
What is true of Judaism is true of every system of belief and culture. Observance, in the practical sense, is sometimes patriotism, politics, arts or sciences. Observance, in the preservative sense, is sometimes, well, patriotism, politics, arts or sciences. Mostly, it is understood from the inside.
So, what irony there is in acknowledging that the plain meaning of the English word “observe” is virtually irrelevant in its usage as translation. I guess, as the Italians say, traduttore, traditore.
STARS IN THE SKY
The Last of Deuteronomy
Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons in all; and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars of heaven. Deuteronomy 10:22
Among the casualties of modern times are analogies to nature. I think “grains of sand on the shore” is still a pretty big number in the minds of most, even when beach erosion and oceanfront construction has made that an objectively smaller comparison. But “cedars of Lebanon,” “the moon to rule the night” and certainly “the mighty Jordan River” (yeah…no) are figures of speech and not the experience of most readers. We have cut down the trees, turned on the lights and diverted the headwaters.
But worst of all is “as numerous as the stars of heaven.” Most of the population of North America live in or near a city of some size. Between the particle contaminants in the atmosphere and the light pollution from homes, office buildings and streetlamps, the abundance of stars we witness is really a fraction of what can be seen in more isolated locations. I was, well, starstruck the first time I looked up at dark in rural Wisconsin and saw the canvas on which the ancients imagined the constellations. And that was nothing compared to looking up from my sleeping bag in the Sinai desert on a moonless night and recognizing both my insignificance and my privilege in viewing that tableau.
More than a dozen years ago, at a synagogue event, my three kids offered their interpretations of my favorite verse from the Bible, Psalm 147:3-4, “the healer of broken hearts and binder of their wounds counts the number of stars and calls each one by name.” They rightly identified all the reasons it so appealed to me, and correctly noted that in another life I would have loved to have been an astronaut. Wow, to be a bit of protoplasm built of stardust, returning to the endless void that birthed us all! And still, floating untethered by any visible means to anything else, I might give off my own faintest of light that would, after billions of years, reach some distant destination to take my place among the uncountable stars and other objects beheld by others aspiring to the heavens!
Yeah, pretty over the top. But on a clear night at sea, on a mountaintop or in an isolated wilderness, you, too, would know what I mean.
A small number of people get to live some version of that dream. They spend a period of time in the International Space Station, orbiting the planet and performing the research that has already expanded the breadth and depth of human knowledge immeasurably. I imagine that the cramped quarters and isolation from human contact other than the few gets old pretty quickly. (Actually, there is less to imagine than there used to be before covid-19!) But would I do it, even today? In a heartbeat.
Fortunately, the flight of my imagination is easier to visualize despite light pollution and hazy skies. I installed an app on my phone that tracks the space station and tells me where to look in the night sky when it passes overhead. A point of light – neither twinkling like a little star nor blinking like a big old jet airliner – travels among the points of light making an arc from horizon to horizon. (You can find it for your device at https://www.issdetector.com/). On those nights that it passes over my house, I look up and watch it sail across the sky. Do I wave? Of course.
When the phrase “as numerous as the stars of heaven” was coined, nothing was known about them beyond the conjecture of a pre-scientific culture. When the assertion was made that God could count their number and name each one, you can be assured those names did not include Alpha-Centauri or Betelgeuse. The night-time sky was a welcome mystery, an analogue for the slightly less mysterious process of being fruitful and multiplying.
Today I cannot fathom how the letters I type on a keyboard wind up on a screen and then, at the push of a button, are whisked around the world. Someone has figured out the number of 1s and 0s and given each a name, creating constellations of information greater than the population to which we aspire. But as impressed as I am by that process, it pales next to awe I feel looking out on a moonless night hoping for a glimpse of the source of the stardust that bears my name.
The Last of Deuteronomy
Yet they are Your very own people, who You freed with Your great might and Your outstretched arm. Deuteronomy 9:29
Back in 1993, there was a wonderful little movie called “Indian Summer.” The plot was predictable, the cast was remarkable and one moment has stuck out for me for all these years. The camp director (Alan Arkin) was renowned for knowing the name of every camper. How did he keep all those kids straight? He would put his hand on the back of the neck of anyone he was talking to and gently peek at the name stamped inside their tee-shirt.
Who knows whether that is or was a camp director trick? But the notion that someone in charge knows your name is exceptionally affirming.
Rabbi Yaakov Rosenberg, of blessed memory, was a man larger than life – quite literally. “Yonk,” as we all knew him, was a big bear of a man. When he was driving, his car of choice was the Checker, those oversized cars with room in the back for four on the bench and two jump seats. Just as there was room in a Checker cab for six or more passengers, there seemed to be room in Yonk’s head and heart for an infinite number of acquaintances. If he met you once, he knew your name. If you ever told him your birthday, you would get a call or a card every year. If you shared the name of your beloved aunt in Poughkeepsie, Yonk would ask you about her whenever he saw you.
I once saw him stand in the middle of the ballroom of the Concord Hotel in the Catskills surrounded by 400 rabbis, ranging in age from 25 to 80. In order to raise some money for a project in Israel, he called out each rabbi’s name to find out their pledge. It was the most remarkable display of recall I had ever seen. He didn’t even have to check the inside of their shirts.
There was a time when my mind was more agile that I had a version of that superpower. I spent a year working part-time running weekend programs at a Jewish camp for families. At the first gathering, I would ask each family to introduce its members, and those names were mine all weekend. Unlike Yonk, I did (what would today be called) a data-dump every Sunday to make room for the next week’s visitors. And I knew better than to try to peek inside anybody’s tee-shirt.
Most of us are not blessed with Rabbi Rosenberg’s remarkable recall and the camp director’s trick would probably have us calling each other Nordstrom or Eileen Fisher. Yet, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of trying to remember peoples’ names. The power of naming is one of the first gifts to humanity noted in the story of creation, an acknowledgment not merely of identity, nor even of importance, but also of place in the world.
Anyone who has spent any time in the public eye knows the challenge of such recall. In my case, my years as a rabbi in a synagogue and an occasional itinerant speaker brought me into contact with tens of thousands of people, the vast majority of them guests at some life-cycle event or audience members at a lecture or panel discussion. If I had the good fortune to have said something that touched them (or the poor fortune to insult them!) they may have sought me out afterward for a conversation. That interaction was unique for them, a chance to have a singular personal encounter. For me, it might have been one of a dozen or more such interactions in less than an hour’s time.
I have been on the other side of those interactions myself. I have stood on rope lines and met public figures, or been invited to conversations with thought leaders, or taken a class with scholars of renown. The power of the handshake, the exchange or the in-class question that earned praise and response is lasting for me. There is always hope, but never expectation, that the momentary encounter will take up residence in the other person’s front-line memory.
It is painful on both sides when I have to ask someone to remind me who they are. Inevitably, they are embarrassed that they placed more importance on our previous encounter that I did. Inevitably, I make some kind of apology about my own shortcomings in not remembering. At that moment I always remember Yonk and the gift he had to affirm every acquaintance.
This little verse teaches that lesson as Moses recounts his pleading for the backsliding people to an angry God. They aren’t merely ingrates; they believe themselves important, individually and collectively, because God did for them what God does. God just needed to be reminded of who they are.