There used to be four seasons a year; spring, summer, fall and winter. But these days we have created many more seasons for ourselves. There is constructions season from April to Nov, Pumpkin Spice Latte season, which had an early start this year, showing up on August 27, and will likely run through mid-December. There is holiday shopping season which now starts a week before Black Friday and goes until the sales are over in mid-January. BBQ season goes from late May to early September. Tornado season in the Southern US is March through May, and then the baton is handed to the Northern US which has its tornado season from June to August. But perhaps the season that gets the most national attention is hurricane season.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the official hurricane season for the Atlantic Basin (Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and Gulf of Mexico) is from June 1 to November 30. But the peak season is mid-August to late October, and it’s during those months that almost all big hurricanes show up. Every year during peak season, at least one big hurricane starts twisting around the Caribbean, picking up speed and heading toward Florida and the southern Atlantic seaboard (and Alabama!- DJT), and suddenly the whole nation shifts its attention from the political bile that normally controls the news cycle to on-air meteorologists. Some are dressed in suits or dresses and stand in front of green screens, pointing to beautiful graphics of Doppler radars, storm gradients, category numbers and directional flows, and with concerned faces tell us what the worst case scenarios are. Some reporters are wearing raincoats and standing in front of palm trees bent in the wind, yelling into the camera about the storm surges and wind speeds.
State governments order mandatory evacuations, prompting much TV coverage of highways clogged in one direction. Restoration companies have thousands of trucks waiting just out of the storms way, to swoop in as soon as the storm is gone and sign up customers. The people living in the storm’s path buy everything they can from Home Depot and Walmart, often getting into fistfights over the last pallet of plywood or water, which of course makes even more great TV coverage. It’s a great show for all of us living out of the storm’s way. We watch the reports, we listen to the predictions, and then murmur something like, “well, I hope they’re stocked up down there, cuz that Hurricane is gonna leave a bruise!” We then go and order a Pumpkin Spice Latte. Of course, we know even less than the meteorologists, and often instead of leaving a bruise, the hurricane twists back to the Atlantic and slowly loses power. This is what we call hurricane season in the US.
This year, Dorian grabbed all the headlines. It tore up the Grand Bahama Islands, but went easy on Florida. It will soon shuffle off and become a distant memory to everyone but those who lived in its Caribbean pathway when it was still a hopping mad Category 5 storm. But next year, there will be more. They will having calming names like Nadine, Michael, Sally, Wilfred, Martin or Paula (all real names that will be given to storms in 2020 and 2021), some will do some real damage, and some will just grab our attention. But for the people in Florida, the Caribbean, and the southern Atlantic seaboard, they will be events that can mean poverty or riches, life-as-usual or months spent rebuilding, and even possibly life or death.
It is interesting that peak hurricane season almost always coincides with the High Holidays. Most people think of the High Holidays as a ten day period from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, but to the spiritually sensitive, they actually start with the month of Elul, 30 days before Rosh Hashana. So depending on the year, the High Holidays go from mid-August to early-October. Peak hurricane season has a lot to teach us about the High Holidays, so let’s dive right in.
The first rule of hurricanes is that if it hits and you haven’t prepared, you’re in serious trouble. Nature don’t mess around. When there is something capable of sustaining 160 MPH hours winds heading your way, and you know about it a few days in advance, you really want to get moving. The first rule of the High Holidays is that you don’t wan the Day of Judgment hitting and you haven’t prepared yourself. Rosh Hashana is a day where G-d decided what our next year will look like, poverty or riches? Life-as-usual or chaos? Life or death? We don’t want to come into that unprepared. Fortunately, we have a month called Elul that has been set aside for preparation, and if we mobilize properly, we can go into Rosh Hashana with the confidence that we’ve done what we can. So what do we do? Let’s go back to hurricane prep.
Rule Number Two of hurricane prep is to batten down the hatches. When winds outside get comfortably into the triple digits, stuff starts flying around as if gravity isn’t a thing. You don’t need a palm branch sailing through your living room windows like a missile, and you don’t need your dining room chairs ending up two towns over. You want to board up the windows, and bring all the loose items from your patio and backyard indoors. Spiritually, battening up the hatches means less looking at what others are doing and a little more self-reflection. The more we busy ourselves with noticing what others are doing wrong, the more G-d will notice what we do wrong. Better to have those windows boarded up for a little bit, giving us time to take stock of our moral inventory. Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, AOC, and our neighbor from down the block really don’t matter in this process. We matter in this process, and shutting off the outside the world a bit helps us focus on what we need to fix.
Rule Number Three is to make sure you stock up on all the essential items. Water, non-perishable food, batteries, flashlights, first aid kits, toys for children, cash, toiletries, and gas are some of the things you want to make sure you have plenty of. Elul, the month where we prepare for the peak High Holidays is a time when the Sages teach us we should be increasing our merits. More Torah study, more charity given, more compliments to other people, more smiles, more words of encouragement and appreciation to others. We want to make sure that we are well stocked when the Day of Judgment hits.
Rule Number Four, when the storm hits, stay where the structure is the strongest, where there are few windows. No one wants to ride out a storm in tool shed. Spiritually, we believe that we are the strongest when we are united and together. We spend an enormous part of the High Holidays in communal prayer because we recognize that we are strongest when we band together and show G-d a united front. A recent news article about the wild horses of the Outer Banks in the Carolinas ride out the storm by clumbing into tight circles, faces in the middle, backs to the storm. We too do our best by getting more involved in community affairs, spending more time with other people, in shul, at classes, and having meals with lots of guests.
Every season has its rhythm and flow. The High Holiday season is one that is best approached with care and even a bit of trepidation. The High Holidays don’t mess around. But the good news is that if we properly prepare for the High Holidays, they become very much not like hurricanes. Hurricanes either do significant damage or minimal damage. The High Holidays have a very positive pole that can be reached as well. When we prepare for them properly, when we have the right amount of introspection, when we add more good deeds to our store, when we become more close knit with our communities, we actually come out of the High Holidays as better people. May G-d give us the wisdom and courage to use this time to properly prepare ourselves for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and may we all come out of this High Holiday season greater versions of our current selves!
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s portion Moshe commands the people to set up a meticulous judicial system in the homeland the Jews are about to inherit, including courts in every city.
“Judges and officers shall you place for yourself, in all of your gates which HaShem your G-d gives you…” [16:18]
The commentators all discuss the fact that the Torah says that the judges and officers should be “for yourself,” in the singular. This means that besides the general command that the people set up a judicial system for the nation, we are also being told to set up some sort of judicial system for ourselves. Moshe was hinting to the Jewish people that before they take care of judging other people they should be judge themselves.
That being the case, what exactly are the judges and officers that we should set up for ourselves? I would understand the idea of judging ourselves, or judging the actions that we are about to engage in to make sure they are in line, but what exactly would be the role of the officers which we should be setting up for ourselves?
We can perhaps understand this using an insight from Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (a.k.a. the Ramchal, 1707-1746, Italy-Amsterdam-Israel) in his magnum opus, the Messilat Yesharim. In the third chapter, when discussing the different aspects of the character trait called watchfulness, the Ramchal says that there are two times when a person needs to contemplate his actions to ensure that nothing he does is negative or harmful. The first is at a time when he is not involved in anything. At some point during the day, a person should set aside time to meditatively look through all his actions and judge them. However, a person also needs to pay careful attention to what he is doing while it occurs, because often a person can get caught up in the emotion and charge of the moment and forget or disregard what he previously thought about.
An example of this would be someone thinking over his day’s actions, and noticing that he got angry and lost control that day. He then thinks about how negative that experience was, and comes up with strategies to avoid losing control the next day. However, the next day, when one of his children spills hot chocolate over his freshly pressed pants, he will need to once again stop and think about what he is about to do. Is he going to yell at the child? How loudly? Is he going to say things that attack the child as a person, as opposed to what they did? In this way he thinks about his actions twice, once away from the situation when his emotion is not charged, and once in the heat of the moment.
Those two thought processes are the judges and officers that Moshe was telling us to set up for ourselves. The judge is the time we spend removed from all other activity, thinking about what we have done or will do, and judging those actions. The officer’s job is to enforce those judgments during the moment of action, when we need to regulate ourselves a little more carefully due to the strong emotions that are at play.
With our judges and officers in place, we will be able to properly reach the places we want to go, and lead the lives we want to lead!
The Jewish People stand on the brink of putting down roots in a land in which they hope to live peacefully forever. Moshe dictates to them a number of commandments that will allow for a stable society. The first commandment is to set up courts in all the cities. Additionally, Moshe warns the people to appoint honest people as the judges, ones who won’t accept bribery or favors. Juxtaposed to this is the prohibition against planting asheira trees, trees which served as idols. The juxtaposition underscores the idea that a corrupt judge is similar to an asheira tree. Just as the tree looks beautiful and productive from the outside, yet is really a vehicle to entice people to serve foreign gods, so too, a corrupt leader appears righteous and upstanding, yet he really lures the people into lawlessness and chaos. This is followed by the prohibition against offering sacrifices that have blemishes.
The Torah then discusses the capital punishment of idol-worshippers. We learn many of the laws that apply to capital cases from this portion of Torah. Circumstantial evidence, or testimony by a single witness, is considered invalid, and there is a very thorough cross-examination required before condemning anyone.
Next we are told that when we are not sure of the law, we must bring it to the judges, “who will be in those days.” This indicates that even if we feel that the judges and leaders of our times are not as great as those of previous generations, we must nonetheless follow them just as the previous generations followed their leaders.
The Torah inserts a verse reminding us to listen to the Rabbis, as is stated (Deut. 17:11), “In accord with the Torah that they instruct you, and upon the law that they state to you, are you to act; do not deviate from the word they tell you, neither right or left.” This verse could not have been telling us to simply listen to the Rabbis telling us to keep the clear Biblical prohibitions, as the Torah itself constantly tells us that. Rather, this verse is the source of the mandate the Rabbis have to make a fence around the Torah, that is, to pass laws that will keep us from violating Biblical commandments. (An example of this is the Rabbinic prohibition against playing a musical instrument on Shabbos. This prohibition was set to prevent someone from fixing a broken instrument, such as by replacing a broken guitar string, which would be a Biblical violation of Shabbos.)
The Torah then lays down the rules for picking a king. The king must be righteous and of Jewish origin, he must not have too many wives lest they distract him from his duties, he may not have too many horses lest he initiate a return to Egypt (where the best horses came from at the time), and he may not have too much money lest it lead to corruption and excessive taxation (I always thought the Torah was Republican). The king must have two sifrei Torah written for him, one that he keeps at home and one that he brings with him everywhere to constantly remind him Who is the King of all kings
Next, the Torah reminds the Jews of the gifts they are required to give the Kohen (he gets no portion of the land since he is supposed to live among the people and provide them with spiritual support. In return, they support him with all kinds of gifts). These include a portion of all grain, oil, wine, and wool sheerings produced by Jewish farmers, and select parts of some slaughtered animals. The Kohen can bring sacrifices to the Temple at any time, and perform the services associated with his sacrifice. However, regarding communal offerings, there was a system in which the various Kohen families would take turns performing all Temple services, one each week.
Here the Torah commands us not to seek out the future through various supernatural forces such as sorcery, divination using bones or omens, witchcraft, or astrology. G-d tells us (Deut. 18:13), “You shall be wholehearted with Ha-shem, your G-d,” meaning that you should have faith that G-d will take care of you, without having to look to other sources to discover your future. (Sorry, you are going to have to stop calling those psychic hotlines!) G-d tells us that He will send us prophets when He feels we need to know what lays in store for us. If a prophet predicts something and it doesn’t happen, we can know that he is a fraud.
The Torah then discusses the laws of the city of refuge, a place to which someone who murders someone unintentionally (but in a way which could have been prevented if more caution was exercised) must exile himself. Next is a warning not to move a boundary marker so as to steal land that rightfully belongs to a neighbor.
This is followed by the laws of the conspiring witnesses. Two people come to court and give testimony, e.g. “On Sunday, March13th, we saw Mike break Sam’s window in Detroit, and now he must pay Sam $400 to fix it.” Then, a second group of witnesses comes and says to the first group, “How can you say you saw that, you were with us on the 13th of March in Acapulco?” The Torah tells us that whatever verdict the conspiring witnesses were trying to attain against the defendant is now given to them, so, in this case, the witnesses would actually have to pay Mike the $400 they were trying to make him pay.
An exact procedure for war follows. A special Kohen, anointed specifically to lead the people to battle, would address the people and tell them that anyone who was faint of heart due to his sins, who betrothed a woman but did not marry her, built a house but did not settle in it, or planted a vineyard but did not harvest the fruits, should go back from the front lines. Then, before attacking a city, the Jews had to offer the other party a peaceful resolution. Only after being refused were they allowed to attack. While lying siege on a city, the Torah forbids cutting down fruit trees to build siege implements such as battering rams or siege towers.
The Torah concludes the Parsha with the laws pertaining to an unsolved murder found in the open, but I have already written way too much, so I encourage you to take out a Chumash, and see what the Torah commands us to do when we have an unsolved murder (and no, we do not post reward for anyone who calls a tip line with information that leads to the arrest of the killer- there were no phones back then!).
Quote of the Week: The really happy person is one who can enjoy the scenery on a detour. ~ A. Gombiner
Random Fact of the Week: A Boy Scout must earn 21 badges before he is eligible to become an Eagle Scout.
Funny Line of the Week: Men are from Earth, women are from Earth. Deal with it!
Have a Splendiferous Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham