Shabbat Shuvah: How Will You Go On the Last Day?

At the beginning of our parashat hashavua it is written: Vayelekh Moshe; vay’dabeyr et kol had’varim ha’eyleh el kol Yisrael, “Moshe went; he spoke all these things to all Israel” (Devarim 31.1)

Although this form of speech may seem familiar to some of us (i.e. “he went and spoke”, or “he’s gone and done it now”) a strict grammarian, or a Torah commentator such as the ancient Sages of Israel, sees here a question. Based on the Rabbinical rules for interpreting Torah, which take as a given that there are no superfluous words in the sacred text, we can ask the simple question: where did Moshe go? The Torah does not specify where he went. It is an even more interesting point when we note that this is Moshe’s last day on earth.

Where was he going, on this last day of his?

Commentaries abound to fill in the ambiguity, and give us several possibilities for interpretation:

1. Even at the end of his long and distinguished career, Moshe was still a humble person. Rather than call all Israel together to hear him, he chose to go to each family tent. He chose to spend his last day of life with his people, meeting intimately with those with whom he had shared so many years of struggle and hope.

2. More disturbingly, it is suggested that the people of Israel were not willing to gather to listen to him. At the end of his life, they dismissed him and his words as no longer meaningful or relevant.

3. The mystics suggest a third possibility from his words: “I can no longer come and go.” They remind us that Moshe had been accustomed to going “up” to commune with G*d, and then coming back “down” to be with the rest of the Israelites. Now, nearing his death, he had risen toward G*d and was unable to meet us on our level.

From these insights we see that the question is not where he went, but how. Did he go in humility as a great leader? did he go as a scorned old man that no one wanted to listen to any more? Did he go somewhere that no one could follow?

On this Shabbat Shuvah, our Shabbat of Returning between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we consider not where we are going but how we are going. Each day of our lives we draw nearer to the last day. How are you going?

On this Shabbat Shuvah, may you feel supported in your search for your best way to go forward, toward the rest of your life, and toward your last day. That is why we create spiritual community: to talk about this, to encourage and support each other, and to be there, on this Shabbat and every day.

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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.

Shabbat Shuvah: Yir’ah and Trembling

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.