These Are The Deeds

I want to share a teaching from our daily minyan, one of the cornerstones of our community, a place where our community is strengthened every day.

In the fall and winter, when it is too dark to recite the Minhah – the afternoon service, we read a passage of Torah instead and recite the Kaddish D’rabbanan – the special version of the Kaddish that is recited after study.

This affords the community an experience of learning in lieu of Minhah and also helps those who are mourning the opportunity to recite an additional Kaddish.

It also does something else – it provides us with a reminder of our clearest values – what does the Jewish community maintain as our highest priorities?

Our weekday siddur contains many options of texts that deal with justice, truth and peace; and I love and cherish these classic passages which bring out our rabbis’ wisdom and insights about these values, while quoting from the Tanakh – the Hebrew Bible.

But my favorite text to use for this moment is a bit longer and contains one passage from the Tanakh, one from the Mishnah – the classic rabbinic text compiled around the year 220 of the Common Era and one from the Gemara – the commentary on the Mishnah edited around the year 550 CE.

Having those three types of texts is like enjoying a three course meal with an inviting appetizer, a sumptuous main course and a dessert which lingers on the tongue long after it has been consumed.

Now that I think about it, maybe this was not the best metaphor for Yom Kippur, but I will proceed.

The text is also found in your Mahzor on page 36 let’s read it aloud so we can all participate and appreciate these core values of our tradition, the essence of Judaism.

Tanakh – Torah:

“You shall be holy for I, ADONAI your God, am holy.  You shall not insult the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind.  You shall not render an unjust decision: do not be partial to the poor nor show deference to the rich.  Judge your neighbor fairly. Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. You shall not hate your brother in your heart.  Love your neighbor as yourself; I am ADONAI.” (Leviticus 19:2, 14-18)

Mishnah:

“These are the deeds for which there is no prescribed measure: leaving crops at the corner of the field for the poor, offering first fruits as a gift to the Temple, bringing special offerings to the Temple on the three Festivals, doing deeds of lovingkindness, and studying Torah.” (Mishnah Peah 1:1)

Gemara:

“These are the deeds that yield immediate fruit and continue to yield fruit in time to come: honoring parents; doing deeds of lovingkindness; attending the house of study punctually, morning and evening; providing hospitality; visiting the sick; helping the needy bride; attending to the dead; probing the meaning of prayer; making peace between one person and another, and between husband and wife.  And the study of Torah is the most basic of them all.” (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 39b)

* * *

It’s a powerful combination.

In Leviticus 19, the first selection, tells us that we are to be holy, and then defines  what it means to be holy.

And what does it mean to be holy?

It is to live a life defined by compassion for others, grounded in ethical behavior.  To be holy is not to see ourselves as better than any other people, but that we, as Jews, must hold ourselves to the highest ethical standards in both thought and deed.

And our Torah provides a road map for achieving holiness, with specific examples to serve as our guide.

When we witness injustice, we must speak out – we must protect those who are most vulnerable in our society.  We do not make fun of people with disabilities. We do not trip people – literally or metaphorically.

We should go out of our way to help others based on need and circumstances, not prioritizing people based on our biases. The Torah instructs us to do something really challenging: to love others as we love ourselves – a demand for radical empathy and caring, to make the concerns of others our own.

Chromatile tzedakah box

And then the Mishnah helps us concretize this by providing examples: helping the poor, our community and all people – “Eilu HaDevarim – these are the deeds.”  These are the deeds for which there is no prescribed measure, meaning that you cannot wake up and say, “I have given enough for the poor, to the Temple to sustain the community, or I have completed enough deeds of loving kindness.  I’m done.”

Our work is never done.  We cannot allow ourselves to become numb or overwhelmed.  The Jewish tradition does not allow for hopelessness or complacency.  As trauma therapists teach (and I may happen to know one), the way to counter paralysis is by taking action.  We are taught to act first, to engage in ethical behavior, and then the positive emotions, or faith, or energy, will follow.

The Gemara expands on this list of “Eilu HeDevarim – these are the deeds” – by giving us even more examples of practical actions to take – having us care for ourselves through prayer, spirituality and learning; for our family, by honoring our parents; and our community, by caring for the dead, supporting those in need, especially the needy bride, making peace between people.

* * *

Together, these texts present a powerful message of what it meant to be a Jew in the distant past and what it means to be a Jew right now. Let’s bring these deeds into our world today.

We live in a stressful time – for many of us, there are personal stressors – health, individual and family concerns.

And many of you have told me how much stress you feel from current events in the world – words of hate, racial tension, conflicts and violence, we live in a challenging and complicated time.

So how do we move forward?  How do we cope? How do we take our texts and ideas that have been passed down to us for millennia and prioritize them for this very moment?

How do we utilize “Eilu HaDevarim – these are the deeds?”

Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (Wikimedia Commons)

Rav Kook, the former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine from 1921-1935, wrote a gorgeous poem entitled Shir Meruba’ – A Four-fold Song that describes the circles around us.

First, we begin with the self – Shirat Hanefesh, the song of the soul.  So, we are invited to work on ourselves.  Unless we feel grounded and centered, we will not have the ability to tend to others. So let’s begin right now.

Take a deep breath – breathe in deeply through your nose and out through your mouth.

Feel the release.

Breathe.

We can do that in many moments – alone, at home, in nature or join us for a meditation experience or in minyan.

Pause before you react to someone’s words.

Breathe and pray.

Eilu HaDevarim – these are the deeds.”

Second, we turn to the Shirat Ha’Am, the song of the nation – that is our community and the Jewish people.  We must first engage in deeds of loving kindness right here at home.

Tonight, I encourage each and every one of you to choose one act of kindness that you will do for an Emunah community member this coming year.

There are so many ways to care for others – support our Hineni Committee by providing a meal for people or driving someone to a doctor’s appointment.  Connect with the Bereavement Committee to be there for someone during a time of loss. Reach out to someone and invite them to a Shabbat or holiday meal.

There are many other ways to get involved in our shul – from greeting new members and inviting them to sit with you at an event or service, volunteering in the kitchen, visiting the sick, supporting our Israel Committee, and being active in building our social networks.

Perhaps you see a need in the community that is not being met, or an Emunah member who needs assistance.  Please be in contact with synagogue staff who can help you connect with others who have similar interests and concerns, and who will be sure to reach out to individuals in need.

Let this be a year of strengthening the bonds of connection between people in our Emunah community by truly being there for each other through both compassionate words and acts of kindness.

Eilu HaDevarim – these are the deeds.”

Then there is the song of humanity – what Rav Kook calls the Shirat haAdam.  Here is where it seems that we have the most urgent work to do at this moment in time.

The Jewish community has chosen to stand up against the terrible injustices being committed toward immigrants to this country.  The separation of children from their parents is a catastrophic, moral stain on our country and, like you, I am appalled by it. “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  We must protest and act and, as I mentioned on Rosh Hashanah, we will devote the Shabbat of October 20 to this issue.

Now, some might say – why is this our responsibility?

Well, 36 times the Torah reminds us to treat the stranger well “ki gerim hiyitem b’eretz mitzrayim – because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

It is built into our tradition, into our very spiritual and moral DNA, that we MUST help those in need, those on the fringes of society, those who are immigrants, those who are strangers, those who are most vulnerable.

It’s not a choice.

It is not a political position.

It is a moral stance – what we as Jews are commanded to do.

Jewish refugees aboard the St. Louis (Wikimedia Commons)

The Jewish people have been strangers and immigrants – we know first hand what it is like and what it is like when the doors to refuge were closed – the Shoah was only 73 years ago….

We are also facing a ballot initiative in our state to take away rights and protections from people who are transgender.  While our state already passed legislation in this area, fear-mongering and confusion based on erroneous information threaten this law.  We must educate ourselves and others.

I invite you to publicize the #YesOn3 campaign so that Temple Emunah, along with the larger Jewish community, stands in solidarity.  There is an information table in the Upper Lobby and many opportunities to help.

Eilu HaDevarim – these are the deeds.”

And then Rav Kook invites us to pay attention to nature, to the environment, as we are invited to listen to the song of the world – Shirat haOlam.

Today, we wonder about the kind of world we are bequeathing to future generations.  It is clear that the way that we are able to have the greatest impact on our world is to vote, and to encourage others to vote.  In our Jewish tradition, each and every life is of infinite value, and each and every vote is an act of faith and hope that one person can make a difference in our world.

Walden Pond (Concord, MA)

Eilu HaDevarim – these are the deeds.”

And once you have touched on these four aspects, these deeds for yourself, our community, humanity and the world, we can appreciate the close of Rav Kook’s poem:

“And there are some whose souls rise even higher until they unite with all existence, with all creatures, and with all worlds.  And with all of them, they sing the song of the soul, the song of the community, the song of humanity, the song of the world—they all mix together with this person at every moment and at all times.”

Rav Kook poetically illuminates Eilu HaDevarim – when we live a life that touches on these aspects, a life filled with gemilut hasadim – deeds of kindness, of love, grounded in justice and morality, then we live a life of holiness and become a holy people, transforming ourselves, our Emunah community, and the world.

May our actions help create a year of blessing for ourselves, our family and friends, our Temple Emunah community, the Jewish people and Israel, all humanity and the entire planet and let us all say: Amen.

The Fourfold Song – Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook

There are those who sing the song of their souls.  They find everything, complete spiritual satisfaction, within their souls.

Others sing the song of the nation.  They step out of their private souls because they find them too narrow. They cling with a sensitive love to the entirety of the Jewish nation and sings its song.  They share in its pains and are joyful in its hopes.

There are people whose soul is so broad that it expands beyond the border of Israel.  It sings the song of humanity, yearns for humanity’s general enlightenment its ideals and visions.

And there are some whose souls rise even higher until they unite with all existence, with all creatures, and with all worlds.  And with all of them, they sing the song of the soul, the song of the nation, the song of humanity, the song of the world—they all mix together with this person at every moment and at all times.

(Orot Hakodesh II, p. 444)

About the Author
Spiritual leader of Temple Emunah, Lexington, Mass. since 2004, David Lerner also serves as the immediate past president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis. He is one of the founders of Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston and ClergyAgainstBullets.org. After his ordination at Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Lerner served at NSS Beth El in Highland Park, IL.
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