During these ten Days of Awe in which we now find ourselves, we are challenged to really try to change from the ingrained habits that define us. It is easy in the first moments after Rosh HaShanah to experience a setback. In that moment, according to Jewish tradition, the yetzer hara’ will appear to you as a sense of despair, or, at least, resignation: you can’t possibly really change in that way. This is, after all, who you are. It’s who and what your life experience has made you.
Watch out for it. The yetzer hara’, the “evil impulse”, works within us with great subtlety; in this Age of Reason, often it masquerades as the reasonable voice within us. Have you heard it already? “Things will never change. Well, maybe a little, but not really.” That’s your yetzer talking.
It’s tempting to go with the reasonable voice, if only because real change creates wilderness, and no one really wants to wander in a wilderness without a clear sense of direction or a visible goal. And that’s what it takes to change: a willingness to lose the illusion of visible goals, not to mention the illusion of control over our direction.
Our parashat hashavua this week is called Ha’azinu, which means “listen!” in the imperative plural. Moshe is imploring us to hear his last song. And what a song it is, full of ancient Hebrew words and soaring poetry – and glimpses of an early stage of Israelite belief as well. Most of all, the Song of Moshe describes an overview of Israelite history as we rehearsed it to ourselves at the time. Interestingly enough, it all comes down to wilderness:
G-d found us in a desert land, in the waste, the howling wilderness (Devarim 32.10)
During the High Holy Days it is easy to go with the flow of holiday celebration – greeting old friends, making new ones, enjoying the chance to get reconnected to our congregational family. In the rush of holiday organization and busyness, the parashah reminds us to listen for the song humming along, just below the level of distracted errands and mitzvot.
Listen, the song says. It is in the wilderness itself that life is lived most fully. If we are able to leave behind your current certainty, and enter that wilderness of unclear direction and unknown paths, of leaving behind the old certainty in search of a truer one, the song of Moshe holds out this amazing idea: there, where you cannot find yourself, there, G-d will find you.
Close to the end, Moshe is urgent to get the message through to us: this is not a rehearsal. No one has as much time as we think we do. Don’t sacrifice another minute to that false god, your internal yetzer hara’, as reasonable as it sounds.
Go ahead, Moshe urges us from a perspective only he has, staring at the road ahead that he will be unable to take: do the scary thing. Make that change. Say the words you’ve been unable to utter. Do the thing you’ve been afraid of. Get help for that issue. What if, after all, it goes well?
shabbat shalom and חתימה טובה – May you be sealed for good in the coming year
This week’s parashah begins with a rare example of actual prayer formula in ancient Israel. Most of the time, “prayer”, that is, seeking to communicate with G-d, was expressed in a non-verbal form, that of sacrifice. A close look at the book VaYikra (Leviticus) will demonstrate the truth my former teacher taught in his book The Sanctuary of Silence: the kohanim did not recite words when they brought the prescribed sacrifices, and neither did the Israelites who brought them.
This is different, and it’s worth considering why. Here’s how the parashat hashavua starts:
It shall be that when you come into the land which G-d is giving you as an inheritance, and you possess it and dwell there, you shall take the first of all your fruit of the earth that you have been given by G-d, and you shall put it in a basket. Bring it to the place that G-d chooses as a dwelling place for the Name. Go in unto the priest and recite: I proclaim this day unto ה your G-d that I am come into the land which G-d promised our ancestors to give us. – Devarim (Deuteronomy) 26.1-3
This is the model for the fall harvest later called Sukkot, which became the most significant holy day in the ritual calendar of ancient Israel. But let’s stay with the ancient words themselves. The great jurist and commentator Maimonides suggests the reason for this ritual is to reinforce Jewish ethics:
The first of everything is to be devoted to G-d, and by so doing we accustom ourselves to being generous and to limit our appetite for eating and our desire for property…it promotes humility as well. For the one who brings the first fruits takes the basket upon his shoulders and proclaims the kindness and goodness of G-d. This ceremony teaches us that it is essential in the service of G-d to recall previous experiences of suffering and distress in days of comfort. (Guide for the Perplexed, 3.39)
This parashah and Maimonides both call out to us every bit as clearly as the sound of the Shofar, the voice we hear calling us to account every day during the month of Elul. We must realize:
1. one cannot come before G-d without being ready to answer for that which one has inherited.
2. one does not come empty handed. One’s acts speak for themselves.
3. one must come in humility and awareness of suffering for one’s offering to be accepted.
As we prepare to stand before G-d ourselves soon, during the High Holy Days and then immediately afterward with our own observance of the harvest festival of Sukkot, we are naturally inclined to take a good look at ourselves and what we bring. Consider yourself as the inheritor of that ancient Israelite farmer: what are the fruits of your labor? what is in your hands, figuratively speaking, when you come to the place where the Name is found for you? What does it mean for your offering to be accepted? Who are you when you stand before G-d?
I offer you the powerful poem attached as you consider, on this Shabbat which is more than halfway through the month of Elul, who it is standing there when you come before G-d on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, and all the days to come of 5775.
We are now entered into a ten-day period of what are meant to be Days of Awe. Awe is a difficult concept for us – the vibrant, incessant creativity of the English language has turned “awesome” into an appreciative adjective for almost anything. For our ancestors, awe – in Hebrew, yir’ah – meant the emotions that go along with a state of awareness in which one became aware of the incredible vastness of the Universe, and one’s own smallness within it. What emotions? nothing easy, really: slack-jawed amazement; heart-opening transcendence; the kind of humility that led a poet to write “O G-d, thy sea is so vast, and my ship so small”….and, also, fear.
If we are lucky, we will each have that experience at some point in our lives. For Jews, one way of understanding it is as the “Sinai moment”. The philosopher Rudolph Otto describes the experience in his classic book The Idea of the Holy. Of all things, Otto visited a shul on Yom Kippur and wrote of having a sense of a mysterium tremendum during the prayers – an overwhelming, mysterious sense of something vast, and it filled him with an unsettling awe.
That awe, yir’ah in Hebrew, connotes the wow of standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or of – for a privileged few – seeing the Earth from space, or even of contemplating a good photograph taken by the Hubble telescope. But it also includes an edge of fear: the fear of one so small in all that vastness, that one becomes aware of one’s terrifying vulnerability to loneliness, to accident, and to meaninglessness. What is it, to be a speck in the cosmos? And to be assured that, nevertheless, you, yourself, are worth it all?
And how might one react to this awareness? If you have the experience on a mountaintop, all well and good – but when you bring it to shul, you are given the gift of a chance to explore it, to talk about it, or just to react to it, within a community that will support you in those moments, and even, possibly, say, “yeah – I know what you mean.”
The prayers we recite during the High Holy Days are meant to help you find the awe in your life – whether you are feeling very small, even helpless, or very blessed, and grateful. Either situation can leave one without words. But no situation need leave you without companions.
Teshuvah, “turning” is a movement toward the self, toward others, and toward G-d – all at the same time. On this Shabbat Shuvah, may you find yourself willing to turn, even toward that which is the most awesome and frightening mystery of all – your ability to change.