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Re’eh 5783        August 12, 2023

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

For the past couple of weeks, I have tried to put some of the political news into a Judaic framework to help us understand how our religion deals with the issues of our day. But at this time of year, as the days count down to the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, the real work that we need to concentrate on is not the work of the talking heads on television and cable news, but it is the work inside our own heads, the work that we need to do to make the changes we promised to make last Yom Kippur.

Parshat Re’eh contains most of the rules of Kashrut. In this parsha we learn that an animal has to be slaughtered properly so that we are not in danger of ingesting blood. Eating blood is entirely forbidden for Jews. We can have a transfusion to save a life, but we can’t eat meat if the blood of the animal is still in it. Also, the list of kosher and non-kosher animals is listed in this week’s parsha. It defines what is permitted and what is forbidden to eat. No explanation is given about why some animals are allowed and not others. God just said so and we, who love God, listen, and follow God’s mitzvot. Rabbis have tried for centuries to come up with reasons for the laws of kashrut, but in the end, there are no reasons that can satisfy the many different restrictions.

Many people, thinking that it is a matter of health or the ignorance of the Torah of modern methods of meat processing that fuel these mitzvot, many people ignore kashrut as outdated and unnecessary. But I always say that if someone does not want to do something, one excuse is just as good as another. Keeping kosher is not easy. There certainly are many rules and regulations. It doesn't help that modern rabbis keep coming up with more restrictions as our food gets more complicated. No matter how kosher we may want to be, there will always be someone who claims that they follow a stricter kashrut than we do. In the end, if we find the balance of kashrut that works for us, we can safely ignore those who try to impress others with how strict they are in their observance.

The point here is this question: does God really care about what we put in our mouths? Of all the things that God has to be concerned with in our lives, does God really care about whether or not we are separating meat products from those that are dairy?

The answer is that yes; God does care about what we eat, not because of some details in Jewish Law. What is critically important is the underlying religious symbolism and meaning that is the foundation of kashrut and all the other mitzvot. God knows we are human, and God knows we are not always as careful as we should be with the mitzvot. That is the purpose of the Yamim Noraim, to seek forgiveness for the times we get confused and mess up our observance. As we read in last week’s parsha, “What does Adonai your God ask of you? Only that you be in awe of Y-H-W-H your God, walking in all God’s ways, loving God, serving Y-H-W-H your God with your entire heart and soul (10:12).” Everything that we do, from the moment we wake up in the morning until we lie down to sleep, must help us to live with awe and love of God. Eating, praying, working, or resting; everything we do must show our respect and love of God.

In the Haftara for today, the third haftara of consolation, we find a strange metaphor in the passage from Isaiah, “It is I who created the smith to fan the charcoal fire and produce the tools for his work;” It is an odd image of consolation, that of a blacksmith. Rabbi Ilana Floss, from the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, explains how the midrash understands the metaphor of the blacksmith. She writes, we have these three images (of a blacksmith)  1. That of Betzalel as creator, or more accurately as a repairer of sin and a creator, 2. God as creator of the blacksmith and then, 3. of us, people as the raw materials. As we depart from the sadness of the destruction of the temple and move, in these seven weeks from destruction, to the newness of creation of the world and redemption through being recorded in the Book of Life, I invite you to consider where you are on this spectrum of creation?

Are you a creator like Betzalel, aiding creativity and the power of building? Are you the malleable raw materials, an idea that not only suggests giving yourself over to the power of God as creator but also a willingness to make yourself small, of surrendering to that which is stronger and more powerful than us.”

Are we forging our own lives to create a life in keeping with God and God’s Torah, or are we twisting ourselves into worthless shapes that have no purpose or meaning? Are we letting God forge us into the kind of human being that God wants us to be or are we going our own way and remaining just a lump of ferric oxide, a lump of rusted iron ore?

This is the time of year we ask the most existential questions we can ask. Who are we? What is the meaning of our life? Why do we exist? In the grand expanse of the universe, who am I that God should care about me and what I do? Am I just dust and ashes or am I created just a little bit lower than the angels? Yes, these are hard questions, perhaps the hardest questions we can ask ourselves. At this time of year, it is time for us to ask the hard questions so we can get to work on the equally hard answers. How can we know what God expects from us if we don’t have a clear understanding of how we define God? Are we still stuck in our childhood conception of an old man, sitting on a throne in heaven watching us to see if we are good or bad? Do we have an understanding of God like a teenager, who knows what is right and wrong but knowing that God is compassionate, we act with the knowledge that it is easier to get forgiveness than permission?

The idea of growing in our faith and in our understanding of Judaism, is to know that God is what connects us all. It is the force that holds a community together in good times and bad. It is what connects us to all life on this planet so we will not destroy the world that God created. This is  a God who is our parent, able to enforce the rules when needed but also compassionate and ready to forgive when we are fully contrite and ready to turn our lives around with the teshuva that God designed for us.

Instead of asking why I should keep kosher, we need to ask what is kashrut trying to teach us about ourselves, about what is important in our life, and what is our relationship with God? We show our love for our parents by listening to their advice, considering their love for us as the reason they teach us life lessons, and we honor them by taking that advice and making it a part of our life. The mitzvot are similar. God as our Creator is our cosmic parent. How will we honor God? By paying attention to the words of Torah as words that teach us God’s advice on how to live our lives, advice given with love and understanding of who we are as the children of God.

Rabbi Art Green of Boston writes, “Here is the classic Jewish definition of the life of service. It requires a joining together of yir’ah, “awe,” and ahavah, “love.” Neither is whole without the other. We are filled with awe and wonder as we stand in the presence of the One. “How many billion years old did you say this planet is? How many galaxies are out there? How did we evolve from such primitive forms of life?” We are overwhelmed and dwarfed by our sense of astonishment. That is a sense of awe at the majesty of existence. But then we add the assertion that this underlying One of the cosmos called Y-H-W-H knows you, loves you, calls out to you, specifically, in a unique way. Otherwise, why were you brought into existence? The One desires to be manifest in each of its creatures. Yismaḥ Y-H-W-H be-ma‘asav. Divinity rejoices in each form of existence that it brings forth (Ps. 104:31). To this we can only respond by opening our hearts to receive that love and to respond to it. Now we are ready to serve.”  

As the New Year approaches, it is time that we stop and consider where we stand in relationship to God and to God’s world. Are we making excuses for why we can hear the words of Torah and not engrave them on our hearts? This is not easy. Maybe, for a small child, change can come quickly but our lives can’t be suddenly stopped and sent off in a new direction. So, we have these weeks, the seven weeks between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashana. We have the four weeks of Elul, the last month of the year, as we blow the shofar every day to remind us that our time for change is short. We have ten extra days, between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to remember the moments where we missed the mark and use that time to “improve our aim” and leave the mistakes that are our sins, behind.

Each and every day we have the power to ask God to help us do better in this moment. What sins may be in our past are past. What the future holds, we are not sure. But we do have this moment and we can use this one moment to find and make brighter the God that is within us. Each moment we are given a choice; will it be keeping our meat and milk separate or will it be a cheeseburger? Will we rest and refresh at home on Shabbat or will we spend the day scrolling through Facebook or shopping on Amazon? Each moment is a choice. Will we choose life, or will we choose a meaningless death? What is, in this moment, the meaning of our life?

None of us are wholly evil and no one is perfectly good. Sometimes we choose better than at other times. Good choices help us grow. Bad choices leave us lessons to learn. It is with awe in God and love of God that guides us every day. This is what we need to consider in this season at the end of the year.

It is time to open our hearts and be ready to serve God with love.

May God help us find our way to a better life and a better year as we say… 

 Amen and Shabbat Shalom                                                 

Mon, April 15 2024 7 Nisan 5784