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Preparing for the New Year and the 613 Commandments

Shabbat Shuvah
Candy Sidner

This week's parsha is the double portion of Nitzavim and Veyelech. The convenant has been given and now it is time to remind people to observe it, to live it and to deal with the consequences of not doing so. The famous lines about the Torah not beingtoo mysterious or too remote so as to be not understandable occur here. The Jewish people will fail to observe the teachings we are told and will be banished, reflect and return that is, perform tsuvah, and listen to the teachings again. The choice is ours, and the choice is between life and death, blessings and curses. This seems to be a perfect parsha for the month of Elul, especially as in less than a week enter into Yamin Noraim, the days of Awe.

Vahelekh on theother hand is mostly about preparation for Moses' departure. Joshua is given the leadership, and more than once Moses tells him to be strong and brave. He is also told that G-d will lead him and and G-d directly tells Joshua this as well. We also have the preparation for HaAzinu, Moses' song that is to be taught to the people.

In thinking about this parsha, about tshuvah, and about the teachings, I got curious. So I went and looked up (via Google) exactly what the 613 commandments are. I am going to pass out two versions of the 613, one from Mainmonides, and one from a modern Jew, Tracey Rich, (see who has organized the commandments into categories. We cannot look at all 613 commandments because the two compilations each run 15 to 18 pages. But the categories are instructive in themselves.

What these categories reflect are the ways in which we are taught to live in the world as Jews.

I must note that the commandments are only the original formulations. Our tradition has 2000 years of documents that interpret the commandments, and these we aren't looking at here. I think we as a congregation often don't look at the talmudic interpretations enough when we discuss this text.

For some categories, I have put numbers of commandments next to the category. We see that some have to do with managing the religion at the time of the temple and priesthood (about 160 of them). These seem less relevant to us because our religion has changed since the time of the writing of the Torah. Likewise that can be said of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, Kingship, Lepers. But the remaining categories can speak to us. And our tradition has used these to constantly offer us lessons on how to live our lives.

Some examples of commandments in the categories? (Ask for ones for dietary laws, injuries and damages and seasons.) I note:

  • 24. To recite grace after meals (Deut. 8:10);
  • 85. To bless the Almighty after eating (Deut. 8:10)
  • 51. Not to refrain from maintaining a poor man and giving him what he needs (Deut. 15:7)
  • 251. Not to withhold charity from the poor (Deut. 15:7)
  • 27. Not to stand by idly when a human life is in danger (Lev. 19:16)
  • 489. Not to stand idly by if someone's life is in danger (Lev. 9:16)

What are we to make of these commandments, being modern Jews and Reconstructionists? Reconstructionism says the past has a vote but not a veto. However, seems to me that these teachings, which have been part of our whole lives, have shaped our mind set before we even get to the details. So what do they say to us as we prepare for the High Holidays?

My own preparation has always involved looking back on what I have done, and thinking about my overall general directions. For the most part, I am a decent person--I don't commit murder, profane G-d, take revenge, bear grudges, etc. But for me the commandments are a challenge. They challenge me to look beyond my general goals to see what I am not doing. I want to use our discussion time for each of you to reflect and discuss what challenges there are for you. First I"ll say a bit about my own perspective.

My general goals involve caring for my family (and my friends), doing my work (and all its associated scientific community efforts) in part to earn a living and in part to contribute to society, participating and contributing to our community and the Jewish community beyond us, and learning and growing as a craft artist. But there is more that I might do, I think.

Ellen Fisher did all of us on the schmooze list a favor in the past two weeks by making us aware of the plight of Tony Davis, a man convicted of murdering a police officer some 18 years ago for which there were NINE witnesses. He was sentenced to death by the state of Georgia. Seven of the nine witnesses have recanted their testimony, and one of the remaining witnesses is a suspect in the murder. Surely this is reason to reconsider not putting this man to death, but sadly he was executed on Thursday of this past week. Ellen made me aware that there is more Ican do besides send money to Amnesty International (which I do) because our voices matter. And it's a matter of Torah. Commandment 27/489 tells us not to stand by idly when a human life is in danger.

I am challenged by commandment 51/251 too. While Chuck [my husband] and I have long had a tzedakah fund, it doesn't approach a tithe amount (though it comes close sometimes). If you count the portion of my taxes that fund health and human services (14% of the US tax dollar in 2010 went to non-health aid to individuals and families in hardhip), one could argue that we pretty much pay up with our tax dollars on commandment 51/251. Except surely we don't, when we have lives of such plenty. That's a challenge for me every year.

Finally I am challenged by the simple commandment to say grace after meals. I don't, except on those rare occasions when we do so as a havurah. That commandment represents for me that acknowledgement of the part of our tradition that is about our inner selves and the connection to the divine. For those of our havurah who are atheists, I imagine this is even a greater challenge than for me, one of the rare theists in this group. But the challenge is there nonetheless, because my connection to that which is beyond my small self is as undeniable as my every day life is. Jewish tradition offers ways to connect to that, and using that is the challenge.

I'd like to use the remaining time to talk about the challenges that the tradition brings you in touch with as you prepare during this season of the Yamin Noraim.