Time to Refelct - August 21, 2020

Last Saturday morning I was woken by a text from a colleague noting there was a fire at the Chabad Center on SW Vermont Street (near the Mittleman Jewish Community Center). I raced to the building. I could smell the smoke from the fire, but other than two broken windows I could not see any damage on the outside of the building. The fire had been contained on the upper floor.
Then, Wednesday morning I received a text from Rabbi Motti Wilhelm sharing that there was a fire once again at the Chabad Center. I raced to the building, and sadly, this time one could see extensive damage and destruction.
Fortunately, no one was injured, and the Torah scrolls had been removed several months ago.
The fire is currently under investigation and we will share details as they become available. Our hearts are with the Chabad leadership and community.
Today we begin the Hebrew month of Elul. The month is a time to prepare for the High Holy Days. During Elul we are encouraged to study and take time for personal reflection around our actions of the past year and to seek forgiveness from those we have wronged or with whom we otherwise have “missed the mark” in our interactions and behaviors. As the Maharal of Prague said, “All the month of Elul, before eating and sleeping, a person should look into his soul and search his deeds, that he may make confession.”
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat wrote, “We’re approaching the Days of Awe, that season dedicated by Jewish tradition to the work of teshuvah, repentance or return. During the high holidays, we’re called to be conscious that every day we write the book of our lives with our choices, our actions, and our inactions. Could we ourselves stand the judging eye we often cast on others? Do we aspire to discern right from wrong in a way that places love and empathy at the center? The obligations of discernment and empathy fall on all of us. We must pursue them in order to truly live.”
As we reflect during this month, the Jewish Federation has created a video series, Renew Through Elul, with uplifting and inspiring one-minute videos from a variety of Jewish community leaders. We will be posting one video a day (except on Shabbat) on our various social media platforms, or you can watch them here (we will add one new video each day).
This week’s Torah portion is Shoftim, which contains the most famous justice-related verses in Torah:
“צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף, / tzedek tzedek tirdof” — “Justice, justice shall you pursue!”
While many focus on this statement, I want to discuss the ceremony of eglah arufah, an ancient ritual where you break the neck of a female cow, that is mentioned in the Torah portion. Interestingly, it is to be performed when the corpse of a murder victim is discovered, and the murderer is unknown. The rite includes the elders of the nearest village breaking a heifer’s neck and declaring that “our hands did not shed this blood nor did our eyes see it done” (Deut. 21:1-9).
What is the meaning of this strange ritual and verse? Are there lessons in it that apply to our daily living in the 21st Century or is this simply a ritual of the past that will remain in the past?
There are many interpretations, but let me expand on two of them.
First, we encourage murder when we deny any responsibility for the crime taking place in our midst. It may be someone else who is committing the crime, but we are implicated if we stand by and do nothing.
Second, even before any murder takes place, if we manifest indifference or disdain toward an individual or a group, we imply that their worth is less than ours. In doing so, we are planting the seeds of exploitation, theft, and murder.
Read in this light, the slaughter of the heifer, which can be understood as a symbolic reenactment of the murder, is perhaps meant to challenge our apathy and disdain. When no perpetrator has been apprehended and no trial has taken place, it is easy to turn away and pretend that nothing has happened. The rabbis teach us that the broken-necked heifer confronts us with the tragedy of what has transpired and forces us to acknowledge that a human life has been tragically and unjustly extinguished. It calls upon us to consider the possibility of our own complicity.
The law underscores the responsibility of the community and its leaders not only for what they do, but also for what they might have prevented from being done. We are responsible not just for our own lives, but also those around us.
Important things to think about in our current environment and as we enter the month of Elul.
As you are aware, the Jewish community has done a great deal of outreach and work to support the Black community in Portland. We will be hosting the showing of the film, Shared Legacies: The African American-Jewish Civil Rights Alliance on September 13 and 14 followed by a virtual discussion of the film on September 16. The discussion will include the filmmaker, Dr. Shari Rogers, Rev. E.D. Mondainé, president of the Portland Chapter of the NAACP, and Rabbi Michael Cahana, senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel.
This two-part program is sponsored by United in Spirit, a collaboration between the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, the Portland Chapter of NAACP, the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, and Dialogues Unlimited.
Shabbat shalom and let’s make the most of this time for reflection.
Marc N. Blattner
President and CEO


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