Sunday, September 2, 2012

#BlogElul: Deja Vu, All Over Again

Really, according to the #BlogElul schedule, I should have posted this on Wednesday--as I suppose it most closely corresponds to the idea of change. But, this is the drash I gave last night--mostly on second chances, with a little wayward son thrown in there. It's also a little long for blogging, so, apologies.

Shavua tov.


It’s déjà vu, all over again.

Yogi Berra made this particular quip, he explains, when he witnessed Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris repeatedly hit back-to-back home runs in the Yankees' seasons in the early 1960s.

It began to play out, not as a quip but as a terrifying reality, to citizens of the Gulf Coast as they watched Isaac turn from a tropical storm to a hurricane, and turn from the Eastern Seaboard towards their homes. The nation, or—most of us at least—held our breath. Would the levees hold? Or would it be, in the most tragic of ways, déjà vu all over again—same day, same city….same results.

It was, of course, a combination of factors—environmental as well as reactional—that made this story different. The storm was weaker, yes, but the levees were stronger. The winds were lighter, but the preparations were heavier. The rain lasted longer, but the cleanup will be easier. The people of New Orleans, the government of Louisiana, and the President of the United States were determined that the story of Isaac would not be the story of Katrina. Instead, it was a second chance—a chance to learn from past mistakes and do better.

Seems like a good story for this time of year, this reflective season. As Rosh HaShanah draws ever closer, we come ever nearer to the end of the Book of Deuteronomy. And what is Deuteronomy if not, in its very name, a second telling? Scholars love to parse the differences between the laws as given in Exodus and Leviticus and those given in Deuteronomy, hanging theories on a single word. Differences in the recitation of the 10 Commandments have given rise to ritual practice; it is the reason we light two Shabbat candles on Friday nights—in Exodus we are told to remember Shabbat, in Deuteronomy to observe it; the two shining lights remind us of both.

And this week, as we read the litany of laws in Ki Tetzei—laws about wartime morality, sexual boundaries, and forbidden relationships, we find laws aimed at balancing the scales between the haves and the have-nots, laws designed to protect the most vulnerable, laws designed to create an ideal Israelite society. As we read them—well, déjà vu all over again. We heard many of them—in Exodus maybe, certainly in Leviticus. Heck, we heard some of them just last week in Parashat Shoftim. So, what makes this parasha different from all other parshiot?

First, the focus. Scholar Adele Berlin, in her introduction to Ki Tetzei in Torah: A Women’s Commentary, notes that:

Whereas Parashat Shoftim concentrates on public officials, most of the laws in Ki Tetzei are directed at ordinary individuals. What may once have been considered family matters—such as the rights of a lesser-loved wife, the punishment of wayward children, the finding of lost objects—here are matters of concern to the society at large.

And for a second reason that Ki Tetzei is different, is not just a repetition, I want to look for a moment at the wayward son, the ben sorer u’moreh, the text that parents read sometimes wishfully…but mostly in horror.

If a householder has a wayward and defiant son—ben sorer u’moreh—who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of his town, ‘This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Thereupon his town’s council shall stone him to death. (Deut. 21:18-21)

Anyone who has parented—or been—a toddler OR a teenager knows that it’s sort of in the job description. Testing limits, psychologists call it today. Defining boundaries. And so what do we do with this text?

The rabbis of the Mishnah take the text and put all sorts of conditions on it. If he ate meat, but did not drink wine—he is not declared a stubborn and rebellious son. If he drank wine and did not eat meat, he is not declared a stubborn and rebellious son. If he ate meat and drank wine, but at a particular time or a particular reason, he is not declared a stubborn and rebellious son. If he stole something from his father but not his mother, he is not declared a stubborn and rebellious son. If he stole something from his mother but not his father, he is not declared a stubborn and rebellious son. If his parents cannot agree on his punishment, he is not declared a stubborn and rebellious son. And so on, and so forth.

And then, even if all of the conditions are met—first they must try to punish him at home. Then, before a Beit Din—a court of three judges. Then, before the High Court—a court of 23. And then, if they want to bring him before the village and have him stoned—the first court has to be present too. Are you following all this?

The Talmud cuts to the chase, however. Ben sorer u’moreh lo haya, v’lot atid l’hiyot. There never has been such a stubborn and rebellious son, and there never will be.

The obvious question is then asked—lamah nichtav? Why was this law written? That you may study it…

I think that this teaching—this terrible, unimaginable teaching—comes to teach us about second chances. And third chances. And fourth chances. It is there precisely to challenge us, to make us ask: what are the unmovable boundaries. What transgressions are too much? And up until then, what will we do to rebuke, to critique—and to offer another chance.

It is not a coincidence, then, that we read Deuteronomy as we lead up to the High Holy Days, days which are dedicated to the notion that we have a second, third, fiftieth chance to do better, to be better. The message of Elul, of Rosh HaShanah, of Yom Kippur, is the same message we hear each and every Shabbat, it is the message of Deuteronomy, of the prophets: Return us to You,O God, then shall we return. It is the message of God meeting us halfway, of God forgiving the stiffnecked people….and we, the stiffnecked people, managing to turn--even infinitesimally-- back to God, and back to our better selves.

So I return to the floods, for a moment. Our prayers this Shabbat go out to those in Mississippi and Lousiana who are still without power, who are still battling rising waters, who are still reeling from a storm 7 years ago. And so, in their honor and with hope, I offer this teaching that I learned from Rabbi Avi Weiss.

As the days and nights of the flood come to an end, our text tells us that:

And it came to pass in the six hundredth and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried up from off the earth; and Noah removed the covering of the ark and saw, and behold, the face of the ground was dried up. (Gen. 8:13-14)

Since there are several "firsts" in the Biblical calendar, Rashi fairly asks—when was this? And he says—ba-rishon, According to Rabbi Eliezer, this would be Tishrei. Just as Rosh HaShanah celebrates the creation of the world, perhaps even more so does it celebrate a second chance, the end of the flood, the beginning of a new life on earth. It’s déjà vu, all over again. 

And if God gets second chances, shouldn’t we?


  1. I came across you on twitter, so glad I did. Loved your blog post, I've got two sons and when I read the story of the wayward son I was shocked. Then I read all the safe guards and the quote 'their never was such a wayward son' it made me smile. Think I've got that right! 2nd 3rd chances. Wonderful post!