D'vrei Torah by Rabbi Ellie Shemtov
The first step in overcoming mistakes is to admit them.
We all make mistakes. While no one likes being wrong, some people find it easy to admit their mistakes, while others push back against the facts rather than acknowledge they did anything wrong. When that happens, we often try to justify the mistake or cover it up. But in the words of pilot Bruce Rhoades, admitting and correcting a mistake doesn’t make you look weak; it actually makes you look stronger.
This week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, outlines the five basic types of sacrifices the Israelites offered to God -- burnt offerings, grain offerings, sacrifices of well-being, sin offerings, and guilt offerings. In other words, sacrifices were brought to God for a variety of reasons: as a gift, as a way to express thanks for things like a good harvest, or as a way to be forgiven for sins.
In Step 5 of the 12 steps we admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. This is perhaps the hardest of the steps because it asks that we admit our mistakes in front of God or Higher Power, and another human being.
Similarly, when one brought a sin offering which was designed to remove the guilt carried by the offender or function as a penalty fee, the offering itself became a public admission of guilt. Rabbi Shefa Gold notes that carrying the burden of our past mistakes can cause shame and shame cuts us off from God’s love. The sin offering helped purify and release one from the effects of that shame.
Whether we connect more to Step 5, a sacrificial sin offering, or a basic need to confront our lapses in judgment, the first step in overcoming our mistakes is to admit them.
Anger is but one letter away from danger.
Anger like happiness and sadness, is a basic human emotion. The Oxford Dictionary defines anger as a strong feeling of annoyance, displeasure, or hostility. All of us experience these feelings from time to time, but how we express our annoyance, displeasure, or hostility, can vary widely from individual to individual. While anger can boost our psychological well-being by offering a way to express negative feelings or motivating us to find solutions to problems, excessive anger can be harmful. Too much of it can undermine relationships, make it difficult to think straight and harm our physical and mental health.
In this week’s Torah portion Ki Tissa, Moses has been with God on Mt. Sinai for a period of time and the Israelites are becoming impatient as they wait for his return. While Israelite impatience is not anything new, what is new is how they act on that impatience. Without a visible Moses to help them negotiate an invisible God, the Israelites are at a loss. So, at their request Aaron builds a very visible Golden Calf. When the calf is finished the people exclaim: אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר הֶֽעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם, This is your God O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt (Ex. 32:4). Aaron then builds an altar on which the people offer sacrifices.
God of course notices what the Israelites are doing and in anger expresses a desire to destroy them. While Moses is able to calm God down, once he himself descends the mountain and sees with his own eyes the extent of the Israelites’ shenanigans, Moses becomes enraged. He smashes the tablets, burns the calf to the ground, grinds it into a powder, then mixes the powder with water and forces the Israelites to drink it. With the people out of control he then commands the Levites to slaughter three thousand of their brothers, neighbors, and relatives (Ex. 32:27). The next day, when his anger has finally subsided, Moses pleads with God to forgive the people. Wow!!
We all get angry, but when our anger leads to uncontrollable rage it can be harmful not only to our own health, but as in the example of Moses, to the health of those around us. To assist in overcoming these feelings perhaps we should always keep in mind how anger is but one letter away from danger.
You can only keep what you have by giving it away
The expression “pay it forward,” is believed to have been coined by author Lily Hardy Hammond in her 1916 novel, In the Garden of Delight when she wrote: “You don’t pay love back; you pay it forward.” When someone pays it forward it means they respond to one act of kindness by performing another act of kindness for someone else rather than repay the original good deed. That single act of kindness has the power to create a cascade of charitable deeds and positively impact how we interact with each other. In the words of Winston Churchill, “we make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.”
In this week’s Torah portion Terumah, God directs the Israelites through Moses to build a Mishkan, a portable tabernacle where God can dwell among them and where they can offer sacrifices to God. To help fund the building of the Mishkan, God instructs the people to give of themselves-- to pay it forward by offering gifts given to them by the Egyptians as they the Israelites, left Egypt. These possessions include: זָהָב וָכֶסֶף וּנְחֹֽשֶׁת וּתְכֵלֶת וְאַרְגָּמָן וְתוֹלַעַת שָׁנִי וְשֵׁשׁ וְעִזִּֽים – gold, silver, and copper, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, and goats’ hair. (Ex. 25:3-4)
After living their lives as slaves the Israelites are now being shown a path that will move them closer to God. In order to navigate that path, they will need to give of themselves and their possessions. In so doing the Israelites will not only create a space for God to dwell among them, but they will come to appreciate how You can only keep what you have by giving it away.
You are not required to like it you’re only required to DO IT
Step three of the 12 Steps says: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God. In other words, it is God’s will that guides us toward our highest purpose. The opposite of God’s will would be self-will, where we rebel against God’s will and focus not on a Higher Power but on ourselves and the pursuit of pleasure and/or what feels good in the moment.
In this week’s Torah portion Mishpatim, the Israelites having just received the Aseret haDibrot, the Ten Commandments, are presented with a series of additional commandments-- laws that will facilitate the creation of a just society. Topics include rules concerning indentured servants, the mistreatment of foreigners, the prohibition against cooking meat with milk, and as in the example below, legal redress of damages:
רֵעֵהוּ וְנִשְׁבַּר אוֹ־מֵת בְּעָלָיו אֵין־עִמּוֹ שַׁלֵּם יְשַׁלֵּֽם וְכִֽי־יִשְׁאַל אִישׁ מֵעִם
When a man borrows [an animal] from his neighbor and it dies or is injured, its owner not being with it [the animal], he must make restitution (Ex. 22:13).
Following these laws isn’t necessarily easy for any of us, especially when we are guided by self-will. In accepting the covenant at Sinai the Israelites responded with נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע . One way of translating this phrase is: We will do and we will understand (Ex. 24:7). As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: There are certain things we only understand by doing. We only understand leadership by leading… we only understand music by listening….So it is with faith. We only truly understand Judaism by living in accordance with its commands.
Doing leads to understanding. Or to put it another way: We are not required to like it, we are only required to do it.
Learn to listen and listen to learn
It isn’t easy being an active listener in our fast-paced 21st century world. Besieged by all kinds of noise and distractions, it’s difficult for many of us to empty our minds and really hear what someone is trying to communicate. It is often hard to listen because we may be focused on our response or because we are preoccupied with our own unrelated concerns that include an endless catalog of daily obligations. However, when we really listen to another person, empty our minds and hear what someone is saying, we are better able to process information being conveyed to us; increase others’ trust in us; reduce conflict; and better understand how to inspire others.
In the opening of this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, Moses is reunited with his family. Traveling from their home in Midian, his wife Tzipporah, sons Gershom and Eliezer, and father-in-law Jethro (Yitro), arrive at the Israelites’ camp in the wilderness. According to the Midrash all of the other nations heard about the splitting of the Red Sea and the Israelite victory over Amalek, but only one man-- Jethro, really listened to these reports and grasped their meaning. As Moses recounts the story of how God delivered the Israelites from the Egyptians, Jethro offers a blessing: בָּרוּךְ ה אֲשֶׁר הִצִּיל אֶתְכֶם מִיַּד מִצְרַיִם וּמִיַּד פַּרְעה , Blessed be God who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh. Jethro then offers a sacrifice to God.
Having settled in to life in the wilderness, Jethro now turns his attention to a typical day in the life of Moses and the Israelites. He notices how his son-in-law meets with the people all day long, listening and responding to their questions and concerns. Observing the great pressure Moses is under, and perhaps understanding how hard it is for Moses as the sole adjudicator of the people to really listen for so long a time, Jethro is concerned about the negative impact this could have on Moses and the entire community. He approaches his son-in-law and says: שְׁמַע בְּקֹלִי --listen to me – if you continue to take on this undertaking by yourself, you will burn out. Find capable men among the people who can help you in your task.
Following his father-in-law’s advice, Moses appoints a group of men to help him settle the concerns of each Israelite, ensuring that all in need of help will be given an opportunity to really be heard. In so doing, Moses the greatest prophet in Israel, not only learned how to listen but how to listen in order to learn.