Shabbat Shuvah: Remember Who You Are

Every year we observe Shabbat Shuvah between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. It is not the same parashah every year, though; this year, our Torah text is parashat VaYelekh, “he went.” It refers to Moshe, called in our tradition Moshe Rabbenu, “our Rabbi” – our teacher, our guide, our spiritual support.
וַיֵּלֶךְ, מֹשֶׁה; וַיְדַבֵּר אֶת-הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, אֶל-כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל.

Moses went and spoke these words to all Israel;

וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, בֶּן-מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה אָנֹכִי הַיּוֹם–לֹא-אוּכַל עוֹד, לָצֵאת וְלָבוֹא; ה’ אָמַר אֵלַי, לֹא תַעֲבֹר אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּה.

he said unto them: ‘I am a hundred and twenty years old today; I no longer can go out and come in; and HaShem has told me that I am not going with you across the Jordan river.

ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ.

HaShem your G*d will go with you (Deuteronomy 31.1-2)

Moshe, our leader, spends most of the Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) speaking final words to us. Our commentaries, ancient and modern, see something implied by the double verb: went and spoke. While in the southern dialect of American English in which I was raised this is merely a helper verb, our ancestors were looking at the Hebrew text. Reading carefully, they asked: what might vayelekh, “he went” mean?
After Moshe finished establishing the covenant with the Israelites [who were about to cross the Jordan] everyone went home. After that, Moshe wanted to take his leave of them for he knew he was to die. In his great love for them, in order to do them honor, he went from tent to tent, from tribe to tribe of the people of Israel, to let them know that he was to die, and to part from them.  This is why it is written “he went and spoke these things to all Israel.”
                                         – Isaac Abarbanel, Torah Commentary, Deuteronomy 31.1
One commentator asked, why didn’t he just call an assembly? Because as old and as honored as he was, Moshe was still humble, and instead of calling the Israelites to attend to him, he went to each of their homes to say a personal goodbye. This great leader didn’t forget his human needs, nor anyone else’s.
Shabbat Shuvah invites us to remember who we are, and what we need – and that everyone else is only human, and has needs too. The Days of Awe encourage us to get lost in ourselves as we try to see who we have become and consider whether that’s who we want to be, and we can forget that none of us exists separate from others. We are all connected with so many invisible lines – of love, of expectation, of anger, of dependence, of all the other ways we influence each other in a community. What may be obvious to you may not be to me, and of course, then there’s assumptions, grudges, and all the other baggage we carry, most of it unnecessary, all of it awkward and difficult.
Learning from Moshe Rabbenu, may we never be too proud or too awkward to seek each other out, rather than getting wrapped up in ourselves and our own worries, watching them grow all out of proportion while we wait for others to come to us. How will I know that you need me to come to you, how will you know when to come to me? and yet my well being depends upon yours, and yours upon mine.
גמר חתימה טובה
May you be sealed for a good year
Advertisements

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.

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 Nitzavim-VaYelekh: Where Do You Stand?

Where do you stand as a Jew? On this Shabbat we are called upon to focus upon this question. Nitzavim means “to stand firm” and in these days, as we count down the final hours until Rosh HaShanah, this Shabbat is a moment of welcome quiet. Even as the students among us have just begun their new Academic Year, Rosh HaShanah is the beginning of our Spiritual Year, and it’s time to consider where you stand – not where you find yourself, but where you stand, firmly and clear-eyed, aware of what your stance means in the world.

The most well-known text within this week’s parashah is probably Devarim 30.10 and following:

י  כִּי תִשְׁמַע, בְּקוֹל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לִשְׁמֹר מִצְו‍ֹתָיו וְחֻקֹּתָיו, הַכְּתוּבָה בְּסֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֶּה:  כִּי תָשׁוּב אֶל-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשֶׁךָ.  {ס}

10 if You will listen to the voice of G-d, to keep G-d’s commandments and statutes which are written in this book of the law; if you turn to G-d with all your heart, and with all thy soul.

יא  כִּי הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם–לֹא-נִפְלֵאת הִוא מִמְּךָ, וְלֹא רְחֹקָה הִוא.

11 For this commandment which I command you this day, it is not too hard for you, neither is it far off.

יב  לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם, הִוא:  לֵאמֹר, מִי יַעֲלֶה-לָּנוּ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ, וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ, וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה.

12 It is not in heaven, that you should say: ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’

יג  וְלֹא-מֵעֵבֶר לַיָּם, הִוא:  לֵאמֹר, מִי יַעֲבָר-לָנוּ אֶל-עֵבֶר הַיָּם וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ, וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ, וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה.

13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say: ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’

יד  כִּי-קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר, מְאֹד:  בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ, לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ.  {ס}

14 But the word is very close to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it.

טו  רְאֵה נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַיּוֹם, אֶת-הַחַיִּים וְאֶת-הַטּוֹב, וְאֶת-הַמָּוֶת, וְאֶת-הָרָע.

15 See, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil… http://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0530.htm

These words spoken by Moshe in his parting speech to the people of Israel are often used to justify rabbinic authority to interpret laws without any sense of Divine sanction. However they are also seen as encouraging: (1) Torah and mitzvot may seem overwhelming, but it’s not, really – once you get into it, there’s a rhythm and a sense to the structure of Jewish life that carries you quite supportively. (2) Verse 14 has been interpreted as indicating verbal teshuvah, atonement – the words are right there in your mouth and in your heart, just let them out. And (3) these words are spoken to us as we stand, all together, on the other side of the Jordan River, looking across at the destination we’ve dreamed of together for so long.

The second of the double parashah that we read this week is called VaYelekh, which translates as “going”. The two names teach a deep truth: you cannot begin to move purposely toward your goal until you know where you are starting from, where you stand – and your going is dependent upon the strength of the place from which you come.

This Motza’ey Shabbat (the end of Shabbat) Jews all over the world will gather for a special evening time of Selikhot study and prayer, to help us focus upon just these essential questions. And then, soon after, we will be together, welcoming the start of a spiritual New Year, considering ourselves and our lives. With the help of your Torah study, may you see more clearly than ever where you stand, and may you stand more firmly than ever when you consider where you are going.

כתיבה וחתימה טובה – May you be written and sealed for good in the coming year

Shabbat Nitzavim-VaYelekh: Standing Firm And Walking It Forward

We are reading a double parashah this week. The first of the two readings is called standing firm in place, and the second is walking, going forward, toward something. One teaching we can derive from the fact that these two parashot are often read together is that we are to be doing both of these apparently utterly contradictory things at the same time. It is something we do all the time in Judaism, and it is vital.

 

What does it look like to stand firm and to walk at the same time? It’s a way of separating out that which is really important from that which is simply familiar and comfortable. It’s something we strive to do in our congregational family in many ways:

 

Shabbat and Holy Day prayer

With all Jews, we stand firm with the tradition that Shabbat starts on Friday night and goes through Saturday.

We walk it forward in exploring different ways to observe Shabbat (kirtan-style Kley Kodesh services, Kabbalat Shabbat dinner instead of services, etc)…not to mention declaring that Shabbat starts when we can be together to make it, not necessarily at sundown.

 

With all other Jews, we stand firm with our holy day dates, even though they’re inconvenient.

We walk it forward by figuring out ways to bring the holy day to us – on this Rosh HaShanah, if you can’t come to morning services to hear the Shofar being blown, hopefully you can at least make it to Tashlikh at the river, where we’ll blow the biggest blast we can for you.

 

Wherever our congregation expresses our sense of what it means here and now to be Jewish, we negotiate this balancing act, between tradition and thoughtful inheritance. 

We stand firm in our belief that there is a value in the tradition we’ve inherited, because we belong to the people that has created it and passed it on in every generation. 

We walk it forward, because we are now the generation that receives it and figures out how to keep it alive and vibrant so that it can help us figure out our purpose in life – and, hopefully, those who will come after us.

 

In the Torah, the first word, Nitzavim, is in the plural: we are all standing firm together, each of us helping each other to receive the tradition, to understand it and do it. And the second word, VaYelekh, is in the singular, indicating that each one of us has the privilege and the responsibility of carrying it onward. Each of us makes all of us, and only when we are all voices are welcomed in the congregation do we lift up our voices in our shir tikvah, our “song of hope”. 

 

On this Shabbat, may you feel more honestly your own voice in the myriad harmonies of the Voice of Torah that strengthens us to stand firm, and inspires us to go forward, together.