Shabbat Shuvah 5776

How long does it take for a Jew to write the first sin of 5776 in the Book of Life? Sometimes, only as long as it takes to get from davening to tashlikh. We are meant to take the whole ten Days of Awe to work our way toward a sense of forgiveness toward others and atonement for ourselves. But there is another feeling – that of falling backwards even as we try to take a step forward. The hasidic masters call it the difference between katnut, feeling small and useless, and gadlut, feeling expansive and capable. 

This Shabbat is Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of Return, between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. This Shabbat, as this season, is all about believing in our ability to turn toward the Oneness which is possible by making changes for the better in ourselves, and in the world. And all it takes to start feeling helpless about that ability is to realize how ingrained in us are our habits of speech and action – and a brief look at the daily news will finish the job. 

Lately the sense of katnut is hard to shake off. Several times in the past few weeks I’ve been reminded of a famous line from Yeats:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

The parashah this week comes to encourage us – perhaps that’s one more reason why the Rabbis of the Talmud, in their wisdom, timed the Torah readings in such a way that we always read this parashat hashavua while we are struggling with the challenge of these High Holy Days.

VaYelekh is a Hebrew verb that refers to movement; it means to go forward. We read it directly after a parashah called Nitzavim, which refers to standing still.  This moment of contradiction is so human – and it is reminiscent of the moment when the People of Israel first began our journey forward, toward the Promise of home and wholeness that we still see before us (still, it seems, so far away!). That earlier moment happened when we stood at the shore of the Sea, stood still, terrified at the seemingly endless abyss of sea before us. Moshe prayed, and G-d responded, “Why are you praying? get going!” 

It was only when we got going that within the abyss we discovered a passage; muddy, difficult, but possible.

In these days of abysmal despair in so much of the world, we must remember that there is a time for prayer, but after that, we must get going.

The key is in going forward together. Judaism, after all, is a team sport. Together we will help each other out of the enervation of katnut and toward the joy of knowing that we’re doing something – it may be muddy and difficult, but it is possible to get going.

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