Rabbi Elizabeth Hersh: Creating a moral community is our choice

RABBI ELIZABETH HERSH

Elizabeth Hersh is Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanuel.

From “Stories for Public Speakers,” compiled and edited by Morris Mandel: “A man was marooned on an island for years. One day, he saw a ship in the distance and signaled to it. A boat was sent out to him. As the boat approached the shore of the island, a sailor threw him a pack of newspapers and called out to him, ‘Read them!’ Tomorrow I will return and see if you still want to return to civilization.’ ”

This week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, is a reminder that we can live a life of blessings or a life of curses. We can follow the correct path, or we can deviate from our responsibilities toward God, ourselves and one another. If we follow the path of mitzvot, we bring blessings to our lives and our community.

The choice is ours alone to make. Do we want to cross the Jordan, settle the land and live as a community? Or do we wish to remain alone, an island unto ourselves?

The Torah states: “You shall not act at all as we now act here, every man as he pleases.” And: “You are children of the Eternal your God. … You are consecrated to the Eternal your God.”

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We are called God’s treasured people. We are reminded to open our hands to the needy. Give readily and without regret. This is a formula for a vibrant and healthy community. It we choose.

God has given us a framework by which to live. It is based upon mitzvot. Some are between humans, others between the individual and God. The Torah portion is about setting boundaries for a community that can live and thrive. It is a choice. And a choice that we must continually make.

By being present to God’s calls, by saying heneni, we will feel the blessings and beauty of our world. When we treat each other as Divine Beings created in the Divine Image, we strengthen the bond not only between one another but with God as well. When we attend to one another, we serve God. Our entire approach to life, work and family is Divine, if we choose.

As we read this portion we recognize the directions, the roadmap, on how to live a spiritually enriched life filled with meaning, purpose and joy. It teaches us how to belong and function as a community. It demands loyalty to one God. Moses encourages us not to settle but to strive for greatness. Reject idolatry in all forms and embrace God. Celebrate the festivals. Treat each other with dignity.

Re’eh is in the singular form, but the rest of the passage is in the plural. We learn our strength as a people, as a community, when we are unified in serving God. Another thought is that each individual has within him or her the ability to affect the world, either for its benefit or destruction. To save one life is to save the entire world.

Orthodox Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a former member of the British House of Lords, wrote:

“As I put it in my book ‘Morality,’ a free society is a moral achievement. The paradoxical truth is that a society is strong when it cares for the weak, rich when it cares for the poor, and invulnerable when it takes care of the vulnerable.

“I believe Moses was right when he taught us … that the great choice is between the blessing and the curse, between following the voice of God or the seductive call of instinct and desire. Freedom is sustained only when a nation becomes a moral community. And any moral community achieves a greatness far beyond its numbers, as we lift others, and they lift us.”

The month of Elul begins in a few days. This is the time to begin anew. This is the time to return to civilization. This is the opportunity to cross the Jordan and rebuild and restore your soul, your community, your faith.

It is your choice.

Rabbi Elizabeth Hersh serves Temple Emanuel and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.

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