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Elul Lessons from Animals About Mitzvoth, Memory and Responsibility©

Last Shabbat, Cantor Hadash, in honor of Rosh Chodesh Elul, led us in a new song he created just for this holy month.

To summarize the song, Rosh Chodesh Elul is called Rosh Hashanah L’Beheimot - the New Year for the animals. There was practical importance to this demarcation as it dealt with the issue of when one should bring their tithe of animals to be sacrificed, but I wanted to dig a little deeper into this idea of the new year of the animals.

So I wanted to share some lessons I learned from animals, and even animals in our parashah, that can help us this month.

First - What are we, are humans animals, or are we something different?

Even though the Psalmist says we are a little less than angels, our tradition doesn’t shy away from comparing us to animals. The imagery used over the high holidays is that we are sheep who pass by God as we are judged. So, I thought, what are the endearing qualities that animals possess? One of them is they do not seem to have a memory for events. Those who are dog owners know that every time you walk in from being away from home, dogs jump on us as if this is the first time we’ve ever come into the house.

There is a certain beauty in this idea of relishing old experiences as if they had just happened. Alas, for better or for worse, humans have the ability to remember, so the effect of a repeated experience is diminished on us. How do we get that feeling of having a new experience in Judaism? There are two ways, one is pretty obvious, the other one less so.

The first way: try something new like taking on a new mitzvah and approach with the excitement of that dog waiting for its master to come home.

This past week, two of our congregants performed a new mitzvah, although I imagine that for one of them, it was a repeat mitzvah that hasn’t happened in a long time. One of our congregants said he wanted to start putting on Tefillin, but didn’t know where to start. I said, “the first step is pretty easy, buying them, it’s the next one that is harder though, putting them on for the second time.” He purchased the tefillin and put them on for the first time at our Rosh Chodesh Elul minyan this past Sunday morning. You could see the joy on his face in this picture! The harder thing to do though will be to put them on a second time, a third time, and so on. I’m happy to report that he took those difficult steps! The second mitzvah was performed by one of our teens when he gave blood for the first time at our blood drive at our Sunday open house. Pikuach Nefesh, saving a life is one of the most important mitzvoth.

Before I gave, I asked the nurse who was present if there was a blood shortage, and she answered, “there always is, unless there’s a mass casualty event.”

That struck me as an odd answer - why would there be a shortage when there is a great need? The answer she gave was quite telling: “it’s because when there isn’t a mass casualty event, people forget that there are people who need blood every day. No one here’s about them because these are things that happen every day, but they still need blood.”

And this leads me to the second lesson I learned from animals, but this one is found in this week’s parashah, Shoftim.

At the end of the parashah, we read about a specific situation. An unidentified dead body is found between two towns. Remember, this is the days before the Israeli version of CSI; there’s no forensics team coming to the rescue to solve the murder.

“If, in the land that the LORD your God is assigning you to possess, someone slain is found lying in the open, the identity of the slayer not being known, your elders and magistrates shall go out and measure the distances from the corpse to the nearby towns.
The elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall then take a heifer which has never been worked, which has never pulled in a yoke; and the elders of that town shall bring the heifer down to an everflowing wadi, which is not tilled or sown. There, in the wadi, they shall break the heifer’s neck.
The priests, sons of Levi, shall come forward; for the LORD your God has chosen them to minister to Him and to pronounce blessing in the name of the LORD, and every lawsuit and case of assault is subject to their ruling. Then all the elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi.
And they shall make this declaration: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. Absolve, O LORD, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel.” And they will be absolved of bloodguilt.
Thus you will remove from your midst guilt for the blood of the innocent, for you will be doing what is right in the sight of the LORD.”

The main concern isn’t finding the person who committed this crime and having them serve justice because it is nearly impossible. What does this strange ritual come to teach us?

I could not help but see this story in the context of another story that made the rounds this week on Jewish Twitter and Facebook. Here’s the headline and selection from the story.

“A group of Jews massacred over 800 years ago reveal a secret about Jewish genetics”

"For nearly a millennium, 17 Jewish children and adults were lost to history at the bottom of a well-kept secret about the genetic markers that distinguish Ashkenazi Jews.

In 1190, in Norwich, a riverside city perched near England’s eastern coast, crusaders on their way to the Holy Land massacred 17 Jews and threw them down a well. The town was already a locus for antisemitic fervor: In 1144, its people originated the first known blood libel, blaming Jews for the ritual murder of a child.

In 2004, construction workers in the town, one of the most perfectly preserved medieval cities in the world, famous for its gardens and cobblestone streets, were clearing ground for a shopping center when they discovered the remains of the 17 children and adults. In 2011, initial DNA testing showed the skeletons were Jewish, and in 2013 they all received a Jewish burial.”

It is interesting to point out that the BBC actually created a program in 2011 on a show called Cold Case to try and identify these victims which is how they found the genetic link, but also, that they did not die from disease, but they were murdered.

What I found interesting was that many found this story interesting because of the DNA aspect of the story. The point is: Jews have a genetic link to other Jews, past and present.

But I think we miss the important point of the article: thousands of years later, they received a Jewish burial, but these victims were not only buried by Jews. The following story is told in an article, “Reconciliation as Norwich Well Victims Buried”"

“In a moving interfaith service in Hebrew and English, Bishop David Gillett said: “We meet to honour them as well as mourn for them. I offer words of sorrow, repentance and apology for the suffering meted out to the Jewish community by my community in this city all those centuries ago.” Although we do not know personal identities of those lives who “were so brutally ended”, he reminded listeners that each victim was nevertheless “known to God.”
Clive Roffe, the Norwich representative of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and vice-president of the Norwich Hebrew Congregation, who worked tirelessly with others to see the burial of the remains in consecrated ground, described the service as an emotional and historic event. Leading the open air service, Alex Bennett, minister of the Norwich Synagogue, welcomed Jewish, Christian and community leaders and said the event was “an act of reconciliation – and it is wonderful that there is a turnout from both Christians and Jews here.” Welcoming today’s friendships “across the boundaries of faith,” Mr Bennett quoted the words of Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who once said: “Today we take interfaith activity for granted . . . but for the better part of 2,000 years the relationship between the church and the Jews had been marked by hostility that added a whole series of words to the vocabulary of human suffering: disputation, forced conversion, inquisition, auto de fe, ghetto, expulsion and pogrom.”

I can teach an entire class on all the commentaries related to this ritual of the Eglah Arufah, but I want to teach just one commentary from Shadal (Samuel David Luzzatto, Italy; 1800-1865) who suggests that there is one reason for this law is:

לחזק האמונה המפורסמת באומה שכל ישראל ערבים זה לזה

It strengthens the belief in the Jewish nation that all Jews are responsible for each other…

I want to draw a connection to the first part of my dvar torah, which spoke about the idea of Elul as being a time of taking on different mitzvoth for the first time, to this story here. I think we can see all of our mitzvoth in the context of not just doing them for ourselves and for God, but for each other.

One of the acronyms of the month of Elul comes from the book of Esther 9:22





“Each person to their friend and gifts to the poor”

There are times when the perpetrators of the crimes we are victims of will never be brought to justice. Therefore, it is our responsibility to ensure a sense of justice, and we do this with acts of loving kindness, including Tzedakah which, as we learn at the beginning of the parashah, is justice.

Elul teaches us that we have to memories, unlike animals; we have to remember who we are connected to, not just here in our times, but in the past. Elul and the Eglah Arufah teaches us that justice may never be fully served, but we have a responsibility through the mitzvoth we perform, to even out the scale and bring justice to those who are suffering.You may never know how the blood you donate will help someone in their greatest time of need; or how just showing up for minyan can help alleviate the pain of someone who just lost a relative and is saying Kaddish for them. You never know when the mitzvah you perform, even at a time when it seems unnecessary, can have an effect on healing the world.

My blessing for you is that you try a new mitzvah on, not just once, but a second, third, and fourth time, and that your act, will help bring solace and justice to the seen and unseen.

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