November 15, 2018

Turn my Oy to Joy – A Poem for Haftarah Nitzavim by Rick Lupert

Oh, consolation
I’ve got seven weeks of you.
Oh, holy hug

Oh speak up those
watching over me
Oh Right Hand

You so strong
You smite the enemy
You clear the stones

You un-desolate
the Holy home
Oh, Jerusalem

We’re coming for you
Oh, Jerusalem
I can hear your watchmen

Look how our enemies hunger
Look how our red clothes turn white
Look how our children’s children

til the soil, bloom the desert
sing when they land
kiss the ground.

Oh, consolation, Oh, holy hug
You turn our oy to joy
You make me want

to read this text again.
I am standing.
I am ready.


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 22 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Beautiful Mistakes” (Rothco Press, May 2018) and edited the anthologies “A Poet’s Siddur: Shabbat Evening“,  “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

7 haiku for Parsha Nitzavim (in which the Jewish people have a dance party with God) by Rick Lupert

I
A deal is brokered
between God and those standing
here – and those long gone

II
Choose wisely – this deal
applies not only to you
but to your children

III
God is a party
dancing above – a joy our
parents remember

IV
If we sin and have
to leave, don’t pack everything
God says, we’ll be back

V
The Torah refers
to itself, in itself – is
still being written

VI
Moses – last day on
Earth – takes to writing a song
puts it in our mouths

VII
On the day of his death
Moses predicts we’ll rebel
Reminds us – choose life!


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Here on Earth: Parashat Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20)

“The Torah that I am prescribing to you today is not too mysterious or remote from you. It is not in heaven … it is something that is very close to you” (Deuteronomy 30:11-13).

A great illustration of this passage is contained in the Yiddish story by I.L. Peretz titled “If Not Higher.” In this story, a skeptical Jew of Lithuanian descent is determined to disprove the holiness of the Rebbe of Nemirov as part of his plan to defeat the Chasidic movement, and prove that these “holy men” are nothing but frauds. He chooses the Rebbe of Nemirov because his followers have the most outlandish belief about their rebbe. They believe that during the Ten Days of Repentance, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, the rebbe ascends to heaven to plead with God on their behalf.

A skeptic follows the rebbe before dawn and watches as he dons peasant clothes, chops a tree into firewood and carries the load on his back to a broken-down shack. An elderly, homebound woman opens the door and the rebbe proceeds to make a fire in the woman’s wood stove. As he stacks the wood, the rebbe whispers the High Holy Day prayer.

The rebbe’s act of charity and compassion persuades the skeptic to become one of his greatest disciples. Later, when the former skeptic is asked if his rebbe really goes to heaven during the Ten Days of Repentance, the skeptic replies, “If not higher!”

So often we believe that by following prescription, we can achieve the greatest spiritual heights. We convince ourselves that the way to piety, spiritual growth and amazing heights of inspiration is “ascending to heaven,” meditation, absorption in prayer and spiritual devotion. While all these are blessed and beautiful paths, sometimes the most spiritual path is the one that is not about us at all.

The Rebbe of Nemirov ascended to the highest spiritual heights by demonstrating the spiritual essence of the Holy Days: Torah is not in heaven, Torah is here on earth. And what is the essence of Torah? As Rabbi Akiba famously stated, “Love thy fellow as thyself. This is the totality of Torah.”

Our dedication to this principle is one of the ways that we are judged during the Days of Awe. Did we live a year looking out for ourselves? Or did we live a year dedicated to helping one another? Did we aspire only to our own spiritual and material benefit or did we also seek the betterment of others?

The Torah is lofty in vision and idealism, but also grounded here on earth. The Torah is not in heaven, it is here, in the messy, imperfect world that God placed us here to fix.


Rabbi Yonah Bookstein is the director of JConnect and Jewlicious as well as the author of the forthcoming book “Prayers for Israel.” He also appears in “On Sacred Ground: Jewish and Christian Clergy Reflect on Transformative Passages From the Five Books of Moses” (Blackbird Books, 2012).

Life at a Standstill

The recent tragic hurricanes in the South have been difficult to watch. One of the more difficult chapters of this saga was when the mayor of New Orleans, in his zeal to rebuild the city as quickly as possible, called upon the residents to return to certain sections of the city. But then Hurricane Rita came, and all the plans to rebuild were put on hold. With the new storm, all the dreams for a brighter future were quickly dashed and deflated, and the good citizens of New Orleans were only demoralized further.

This is a metaphor for life. Sometimes, especially after a major setback, we so desperately want to pick up the pieces and go on to the next episode, we fail to properly repair all the levees that broke and caused the tragedy in the first place. Unless we properly fortify and repair the breaches that caused failure, we are only setting ourselves up for further failure and disaster.

The parsha we read on the last Shabbat of the year is Nitzavim. It means “standing still.” It describes how Moses addressed the standing and attentive crowd of Jews who came to hear him and enter into a new covenant with God before entering the land of Israel.

By contrast, the very next parsha, the one we will read on the first Shabbat of the new Jewish year, is called Vayelech, which means “moving.” It describes how Moses took it upon himself to travel to all the Israelite camps, so that he could address them one more time before his death.

Life is filled with “standing still” and “moving.” The key is to know when to apply each one.

If we study the respective themes of Nitzavim and Vayelech, we find they are completely different. The main theme of Nitzavim is teshuvah, repentance: “And it shall be, that when all these things — the blessing and curse — befall you, then you will turn into your heart … and you will return to God and listen to His voice….”

By contrast, the theme of Vayelech is Moses giving charge to Joshua and the rest of Israel to “Hazak Ve’Ematz!” — “Be strong and courageous!” Go out and conquer Eretz Israel, carry the Torah scroll with you wherever you go. Write it and spread the word of Torah throughout Israel.

If we were to categorize these themes, we could say that Nitzavim is all about rectifying the bad, and that Vayelech is all about doing good in the world. Before we can be strong and courageous and conquer the brave new world, we must first rectify the flaws within ourselves through teshuvah. The only way to succeed in moving forward is to first make sure that the breaches have been repaired.

Man’s normal mode of operation is to get caught up in the daily routines of life. Most of us don’t leave ourselves any time in the day to make a heshbon hanefesh — a serious and honest reckoning of who we are and what we need to do in life to become more Godly. That’s why Moses said to the Jews, “Stand still!” — stop whatever you’re doing and think for a minute about the real purpose of life. This pause for reflection is a necessary component of teshuvah.

Only after we’ve properly stood still — Nitzavim — can we pick up and start

really moving — Vayelech — toward a productive end of being strong and courageous like Moses and conquering the world at our feet.

Before we rush into the New Year and the High Holidays, it’s a good idea to pause and take spiritual inventory of this past year. Let’s remember all that has befallen us, all the decisions we’ve made and the differences between where we were a year ago and where we are today. It’s hard work, because an honest assessment of our lives can be painful — the picture isn’t always pretty. But only after careful contemplation, will we be ready to move forward and tackle the new year and all its challenges.

Daniel Korobkin is rabbi of Kehillat Yavneh in Hancock Park, and is director of synagogue services for the West Coast Orthodox Union.