Blessed in Your Comings and Goings

Rabbi Bradley Artson
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Rabbi Bradley Artson
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson

Abner & Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Vice President, American Jewish University

Rabbi Dr Bradley Shavit Artson (www.bradartson.com) has long been a passionate advocate for social justice, human dignity, diversity and inclusion. He wrote a book on Jewish teachings on war, peace and nuclear annihilation in the late 80s, became a leading voice advocating for GLBT marriage and ordination in the 90s, and has published and spoken widely on environmental ethics, special needs inclusion, racial and economic justice, cultural and religious dialogue and cooperation, and working for a just and secure peace for Israel and the Middle East. He is particularly interested in theology, ethics, and the integration of science and religion. He supervises the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program and mentors Camp Ramah in California in Ojai and Ramah of Northern California in the Bay Area. He is also dean of the Zacharias Frankel College in Potsdam, Germany, ordaining Conservative rabbis for Europe. A frequent contributor for the Huffington Post and for the Times of Israel, and a public figure Facebook page with over 60,000 likes, he is the author of 12 books and over 250 articles, most recently Renewing the Process of Creation: A Jewish Integration of Science and Spirit. Married to Elana Artson, they are the proud parents of twins, Jacob and Shira.  Learn more infomation about Rabbi Artson.

posted on September 21, 2015
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

Why do people turn to Judaism?  Certainly we have lived through enough to know that being religious doesn't mean that we can avoid the spills and disappointments that festoon the road of life.  A Jewish commitment doesn't automatically liberate a person from fear or anxiety or guilt, nor can it guarantee happiness or success.  If Judaism can't provide those lofty goals, then what good is it?  Why bother?

Today's Torah portion speaks to the kind of blessings one expects from a life lived within the context of a religious heritage.  In listing a series of curses for those who flout God's will as embodied in the Torah, and a series of blessings for those who struggle to make that will their own, the Torah records one of its most famous blessings: "Blessed shall you be in your comings and blessed shall you be in your goings."

What, precisely, is the Torah speaking about?  And why does it use the peculiar plural form for comings and goings when the singular would seem to work just fine?

The ancient Midrash Devarim Rabbah explores that question, arriving at several worthy answers:

The first possibility understands comings and goings  as referring to drawing others close to Judaism: "Rabbi Judah ben Shimon said, 'This verse refers to Moses...when he came into the world he brought nearer to God those who were far away...and when he departed from this world, he brought nearer those who were estranged."  Rabbi Judah draws our attention to one of Moses' most remarkable gifts--his ability to bring out goodness in others.  As a baby, he is able to draw out the kindness of the Egyptian princess, and toward the end of his life, he does the same with Reuben.

A second, anonymous, explanation sees our verse as referring to business practices.  In other words, "you shall be blessed in your merchandise."  Is this viewpoint reminding us that without a minimal financial security, there is little emotional or physical energy to devote to matters of the spirit and of the mind?    Or, perhaps, this interpretation asserts that we will prosper, recognizing that material wellbeing is itself a great blessing--not something to be vilified out of hand.

Significant as those interpretations are, the most intriguing one, to my mind, is the first:

"Blessed shall you be in your comings," in your first coming into the world, "And blessed shall you be in your goings," in your departure from this world.  In other words, the odd use of the plural is a clue that the Torah is here referring to the ultimate entrance and exit: birth and death. 

Rabbi Berekiah heard this interpretation and felt the need to clarify it.  After all, he argued, we already know that a person must be born and must die?  So telling us that isn't adding anything new or significant?  Instead, he clarifies that this verse teaches "Happy are they whose time of death is like the time of their birth.  Just as at the time of their birth they are free from sin, so too at the time of their death they are free from sin."

Rabbi Berekiah points out a basic truth about life: all babies are born lovable and innocent.  They begin outside of moral parameters, neither good nor bad, they simply are--a blank slate, free of corruption or hurt.  As we proceed through our lives, however, we lose that innocence and that freshness.  With each new experience, with every single encounter, our own responses and deeds write a legacy--either one of integrity, self-control, goodness, and holiness, or one of selfishness, laziness, and indifference. 

How we are characterized at birth is fashioned by others. How we are characterized at death is in our own hands.  As the Talmud says, one who is as free of sin at the time of death as at their birth has accomplished something noble and lasting indeed.

Blessed are you in your comings and blessed shall you be in your goings--by living a life of concern, of fidelity to the mitzvot and to acts of lovingkindness, we leave the world better than we found it, and we leave this life with the greatest of all possessions, a good name.

Shabbat shalom.