Sunday, July 30, 2023

Shabbat Nachamu - A Positive Viduii (by Avi Weiss) - Betsy Teutsch D'rash

Parshat V'etchanan/Shabbat Nachamu -July 29, 2023 - Shabbat Shalom.

I want to dedicate this D’rash to two of our minyan teachers whose Torah has stuck with me, Rabbi Avruhm Addison and Christina Ager and informed my davar.

As we read Parshat Vaetchanan, we are in the first Shabbat of the seven known as the Shabbatot of Consolation, named for today’s Haftarah’s words, Nachamu - Comfort. After the tragic destruction commemorated on Tisha B’Av, and for many the events in Israel this week, we reach a liturgical nadir. 

Now we look ahead seven weeks to the High Holidays. This is the beginning of the reverse 49 Omer, if you will, to complete our Chesbon HaNefesh, the accounting of our soul, and then we will confess our bad deeds on Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur.

In this parshah God is the source and enforcer of a code of behavior, in a manifestly hierarchical system. God has all the power. We should not disobey God’s laws. There’s no justification or explanation for the Torah’s laws; it’s because God Said So. You want proof? Look at creation. Who else could have done this?

And if you don’t obey, you will be punished big time.

If you stick with the program, you and your progeny will thrive.

 “For your God יהוה am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me,

וְעֹ֥֤שֶׂה חֶ֖֙סֶד֙ לַֽאֲלָפִ֑֔ים לְאֹהֲבַ֖י וּלְשֹׁמְרֵ֥י (מצותו) [מִצְוֺתָֽי]׃ {ס}    

but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments.

This world view and theology is obviously not how we moderns think. It reflects a period of competitive local Gods, with tribal clan structure. YHVH is an all powerful, non-local, God. This was a new concept. As is the idea of God’s abstract nature. Hence the Ten Commandments, in today’s parshah, emphasize worshiping one God, and no others. No idols, like the other peoples!

Deuteronomy reviews all that God did for our people, and our indebtedness. Fidelity is required; infractions will be punished. 

This is why the middle paragraph of the Kol Haneshamah Shma has a different choice - it’s not about reward and punishment. We think in terms of  behavior and consequences.

We must find a balance between the God of Judgment, so present in this Parsha, and the God of Compassion and Mercy, whom we continually seek, especially as we approach the High Holidays.

Din is the strict and severe aspect of God judging us and doling out punishment for what we did wrong and reward for what we did right. And Rachamim (which comes from the word “womb” or “rechem”) is the soft aspect of God’s love and caring for us, no matter what, just because we are God’s children. - Rabbi Rachel Goldenberg

In our world we emphasize examining our behavior, not worrying much about our ritual infractions. Average people cut corners more than they sin big! We don’t typically worry about God keeping score.

A corner cutting example: our great nephew Zeke included an early grade school song in his Bar Mitzvah davar, “Do The Right Thing Because It’s RIght, even if no one’s watching!” He got us all to sing it.

Later that week David and I debated about how to handle our VRBO. We had paid for two adults for a week, but for a few days our kids and grandkids were with us. There wasn’t any method to reserve for a partial week of added guests on the website. Our host wasn’t watching, but we weren’t following the rules.

As we wrapped up our rental, I texted our host the facts: 2 adults and 2 kids had joined us for 3 nights. His reply was, “Don’t worry about it!” It felt right to have been truthful, though we well might have owed more.

The opening of the season of seven weeks of pre-High Holiday preparation, focusing on self-reflection to accomplish tshuvah, returning ourselves to the right path, goes about things in ways that I find personally ineffective. 

Today I want to help us get started by using what we know from behavioral science - I am not alone in resisting negative assessment: People need positive reinforcement. In a d’rash many years ago, Christina Ager, a professor of education, taught us that to help students improve their behavior, they need 5 times as much positive feedback as negative. Our hand is a handy digital counter.

Beating up on ourselves is not very effective.

We need to recognize what we have done correctly to motivate us to keep on doing it, and doing it even more. We of course shouldn’t highlight positives while failing to hold ourselves accountable for bad deeds, but flipping the balance of positive to negative can be more efficacious.

Cultivating and emulating God’s compassion to God’s creatures, and extending it to  ourselves, is important. We need to extend it to others, as well, moving when we can from judginess to generous love, tempering our judgements by dan bcaf z’chut, withholding judgment and ascribing good intentions to the actions of others.

“According to midrash Pesikta Rabbati 40, “Initially, God intended to create the world with the attribute of Justice. But then God saw that the world cannot exist [with only Justice], so God gave priority to the attribute of Mercy, and joined it with the attribute of Justice.” 

When I shared my frustration with the negative tone of our liturgy with Rabbi Avruhm Addison, he shared a Positive Vidui written in 2016 by Rabbi Avi Weiss [it's at the beginning of this post. ]I keep it in my machzor. For today, I reformatted it so you can more clearly how beautifully the Hebrew and English connect.

We’re going to experiment today with sharing positive messages about: OURSELVES. That is something we are socially conditioned to avoid, as it might be perceived as bragging. 

In small groups, please share:

  1. A positive change you have been successful in making, and stuck with. It could be big, or it can be as small. “I always have dollar bills to share with people on the street”, or “I compost”. You might say, “I go to morning minyan every Thursday.” 

  2. Or, something you have stopped doing, and managed to stick with. You may   have managed to refrain from something for decades - give yourself credit.

No judgments, but you need to take turns saying things you have managed to do (or not do) consistently, through making an effort.