“He for they, you for I, we without me, all for one and one for all:” Shabbat Ki Tetze 5778 – August 24, 2018


Some people think i’m a grammar nerd just because i have advanced degrees in English.  In fact, i’m not even very good at grammar. And contrary to other people’s assumptions, I appreciate changes in language use, for example: using “they” to refer to an individual person who prefers not to be labeled with a gender, for example. Btw, do you know the origin of using He as a generic pronoun?

Origin of “He” as a Generic Pronoun

“‘He’ started to be used as a generic pronoun by grammarians who were trying to change a long-established tradition of using ‘they’ as a singular pronoun. In 1850 an Act of Parliament [in England] gave official sanction to the recently invented concept of the generic ‘he.’ . . . [T]he new law said, ‘words importing the masculine gender shall be deemed and taken to include females.'”

(R. Barker and C. Moorcroft, Grammar First. Nelson Thornes, 2003)

And let me digress a bit more (how can I digress when i just started and you don’t even know what i’m going to talk about?).  I like such changes to language for much the same reasons I appreciate reframing Jewish ritual and prayer [a quick example would be our shabbat blessing for family, which we offered a little while ago. “For all the ways it comes into our lives, we give thanks for the blessing of family” we say, inviting us to take in a much broader understanding of what makes a family than the more traditional shabbat blessings offered by a Jewish husband to his Jewish wife, and a Jewish father to his son and/or daughter.  These changes in language and re-shapings of tradition invite us to delve deeper into what we’re experiencing as a community and as individuals.

But it can get tricky, reformatting, reshaping our understanding, figuring out how to speak to and about and in our lives.

Just as it can get tricky to figure out how to live our lives.  What it means to live in community.

When every time we open up the Torah we see as many commandments we reject as ones we embrace, how do we come to any agreement?

What rules do we agree to live by? What values do we share?  Not just at BCC of course — we have only to take any of the news on any given day these days to know we’re living in times of dissent and disagreement, rather than in pursuit of compromise and agreement. We’re living in an era of puzzling animosity in our country, and appalling human cruelty in many parts of the world, including our own.

I’m asking these questions tonight in part because of the time of year. We’re midway through this Jewish month of Elul, with its annual invitation for self-reflection and self-correction, its encouragement to seek forgiveness and to give forgiveness to one another and to ourselves, its reminder that seeking and giving forgiveness is not always useful unless accompanied by resolve to change, and careful plans that lead to change.  Although Judaism does seem to agree with psychologists who tell us that we can’t change other people, Jewish tradition does insist — and hopefully we’ve all experienced it — that we can help others change if they want to change, and more certainly and perhaps more importantly, we can change ourselves, if we really want to do so.

But how, but how, but how? That’s always the leading question this time of year.  Ancient scholars, Maimonides (12th c.) prominently among them, laid out steps for us to make tshuvah — “to turn,” turn from paths that lead us in wrong directions, and to step onto truer paths that lead us toward the lives and relationships we prefer. Here’s Maimonides GPS directions to turn us onto the right paths:

First, identify where you have gone wrong, says Maimonides.

Next, admit those wrongs to yourself and then to the people you’ve wronged.

Then, ask forgiveness of yourself and of the others you’ve wronged.

Then, correct the damages as best you can (not all damage is repairable, but some is).

Then resolve not to make those missteps again (there is never any assumption that we will not make some new missteps — we are human, after all).

Then take action — take the steps that will turn you in a new direction.

Oh (this one not from Maimonides) don’t forget to Use your turn signals when doing tshuvah — if people aren’t expecting a right turn from you, they might miss it, or worse, they might sideswipe or blindside or otherwise collide with you right in the middle of your turn.

My friend Bob says, “world peace begins with turn signals” [in fact, he had a bumper sticker that said so].

Sounds simple enough, right?

We all know it’s not.  But those are good guidelines.

And the Torah portions we read this time of year, always from the Book of Deuteronomy, made up of Moses’ long long speech to the Israelites poised on the banks of the Jordan about to say goodbye to Moses and walk through another parting sea into the Promised land, contribute to our ability to do tshuvah by instructing us which ways to go..

It’s no coincidence, say our ancient sages, that we read at this time of year the long reminders Moses sets forth in these chapters telling us how to be better people.  Not perfect people by any means, just better than we might currently be.

And among the long lists of how to be better,

there are a few that call for us to really think about how to live with others, to cooperate, to empathize, to consider not just each person’s physical needs, but their feelings.  Among them [all paraphrases]:

Don’t hide yourself, says Moses, lo tokhal l’hitalem. Don’t hide yourself when someone needs help.  Help them.

BUT don’t do it all for them, do it together with them. 22:1-4

Don’t harvest all of your field, leave some for the poor, the widow, the orphan.  Don’t harvest and give it to them, but let them harvest some themselves and eat what they harvest.

Don’t charge interest if you give someone a loan — let that person repay you what was borrowed but not more.

If you’re selling something to someone by weight, don’t put your thumbs on the scale .

If you hire someone who depends for their livelihood on the wages you pay them, pay them each evening after work — do not leave them for a long night without food or shelter or clothing. [all from Parashat Ki Tetze]

I love the way these instructions remind us that individuals lead very different lives from one another.  We might have basic needs — food shelter clothing dignity — but our circumstances and our desires may vary widely.

Moses does NOT say, everybody feels this way or thinks that way or acts the same way.  Moses implies (and remember he’s remembering what God told him long ago) that people are different from one another, but despite those differences, we’re better off living in community.

It’s such good advice to remember right now, during our annual 40 days of trying to become better people, in the midst of this unbelievably challenging, frightening, anxiety inducing time in world history, in the midst of transition and change here at BCC, it’s such good advice to remember and not to forget (zakhor…lo tishkhakh, Deut. 25:17,19)

that despite all the many differences among us, we will live better lives if we don’t hide ourselves either from ourselves or from one another, if we take note of one another, acknowledging and appreciating our differences, noticing and remembering and never forgetting that each of us is deserving of respect and dignity, allowed our own integrity – our own wholeness — AND that we can offer that to one another if only we strive — each one of us on our own and all of us together — to land on the side of empathy, understanding, appreciation, goodwill.  For the Promised Land is not a physical place in the world, it’s the place we arrive at when each of us recognizes and remembers that God created us to live and grow and to be “the person we were put on this earth to be.”[BCC siddur, blessing for family, p.25]

May this month of Elul give us the time we need to find our way to a year of change and growth, wholeness and peace. Shabbat shalom —

Juval sings Noa song, “We”

We’re born

We’re crying

We fall

We’re trying

We’re little

We’re laughing

We’re lonely sometimes


We grow

We’re open

We’re lost

We’re hoping

We’re careful

We’re calling

We’re leaving behind


You say we need to work together

With love and care for everyone

Without the fighting and the anger

You say the world could be as one


But every time that you say we

Do you think about me?

’cause every time that you say we

I hope you think about me


We’re strong

We’re chosen

We’re scared

We’re frozen

We’re hardened

We’re hopeful

We’re holding at bay


We take

We’re giving

We shake

We’re living

We’re lovers

We’re sinners

We’re running away


And if we fail to make a difference

And if our hope is almost gone

Despite the fighting and the anger

You say the world could be as one


But every time that you say we

Do you think about me?

’cause every time that you say we

I hope you think about me


And every time that you say we

Do you think about me?

’cause every time that you say we

I hope you think about me