Shabbos dinner with young university students is an adventure. Charles and I warm them up with a few glasses of kiddush wine and we learn a lot about their inner lives — and a lot about their generation’s culture.
Sometimes we host our son Eli and his friend Mia. A typical real conversation goes like this.
Eli, a biology major, says, “I’ve been thinking about sponges. The kind that live in the ocean, not the kind that live in the kitchen. What if sponges were food? Would you eat them?”
Mia, an environmental studies major, says, “How would we farm them? Because, if we harvested them, we would deplete them pretty quickly.”
Sometimes we host our daughter Hillary and her friend Alex. Their typical real conversation — edited a bit for clarity — goes like this.
Hillary, a philosophy major, asks, “Do you believe we bring something into being when we name it? Do we give it objective reality?”
Alex, a sociology major, says, “Do you think there really is an objective reality? If there were, would it be socially constructed? By our language? What about weird contradictory cultural statements like, ‘I’m an atheist but I believe in a higher power’?”
“Or,” Hillary adds, “‘I feel an energy flowing through the universe but I’m not religious’?”
Then Hillary and Alex giggle. Because they’ve both got enough religion to know that “higher power” and “energy of the universe” are two very old names for God.
But their less traditional friends don’t know this. They use the names to say, “I accept a personal spirituality, but I reject the old cultural forms that have been used to shape it, contain it, and sometimes exploit it.” And even though their beliefs are subjectively very real to them, their language places them in relationship with the same old objective spiritual reality – the higher power, energy of the universe known to religious people.
Today’s Torah reading (Parshat Nitzavim) is all about Jewish cultural forms of spirituality – at least at first glance. Moshe talks about the forever brit (covenant, agreement) between the Israelite people and God. Moshe emphasizes the human side of the equation.
We owe our lives to God, who took us out of Egypt. Without God, our future generations would not exist. Out of gratitude, we commit our lives and the lives of all our future offspring to God. We will follow God’s laws and we will serve as faithful assistants in God’s project of making creation as good as it can be. God’s laws are not arbitrary – they reflect the physical and moral structure of the created universe. So, if we follow them, blessing flows. And if we don’t, our society implodes. There’s an emphasis on the we. Because morality and justice work best when everyone participates. So we have to support and monitor one another. At the first warning signs that someone is turning away from God, we must intervene.
But right in the middle of the parsha we find quite an odd statement. The hidden things are for HaShem our God, and the revealed things are for us and our children forever to do all the words of this teaching. (Deut. 29:28)
What does this passage have to do with the covenant? What are “the hidden things?” What are “the revealed things?” And what sort of “doing” are we supposed to “do”?
Maybe the passage is about the limits of our responsibility to monitor one another. We can see “revealed things” — actions people take in public. When we see harmful deeds, we should rebuke or redirect the doers. But we should not be “thought police.” People’s “hidden” moral struggles are their direct conversations with God. As is much of their inner lives, whether it looks “Jewishly right” to others or not.
This might worry some parents and teachers. We don’t want to stand idly by as future generations gradually let go of our religious tradition. In response, this section of Torah says, “Just don’t worry!” We know only what has been “revealed”: the way has God manifested in the past. We know the old cultural forms of Judaism. We do not know how God will appear to the next generation. Future forms of Jewish spirituality may be hidden from us, but the Divine will not disappear from the scene.
Right in the middle of a lecture about communal spirituality, Moshe says: Official cultural forms of religion don’t tell the whole story. Personal encounter with God is also central.
What an important message to hear at Rosh Hashanah! We say the New Year is a good time for teshuva. Literally, teshuva means “return.” But we understand it more broadly as a process: reflection, repentance, and return to God. Personally, I find some of the traditional liturgy so weird, I can’t help but reflect! Did I really do exactly 22 kinds of sin, one for each letter of the alphabet? Did God really write the list down in a big book? Did Aharon really cleanse the sanctuary by wiping it down with blood? Can I really change my future and the community’s future by reciting an Aramaic formula? I don’t think so!
Sometimes, the machzor drives me away from cultural forms. It pushes me into confidential moral reflection on my own terms, and into my unique spiritual language. In exactly this way, it urges me to return directly to God. This is part of teshuvah, return. No less an authority than Moshe himself teaches that we can’t have religion without this privacy and this creativity.
When it comes to high holiday services, I’m not a sponge, and you probably aren’t either. We don’t absorb everything we read, hear, sing and say. Instead, we see a table of spiritual food placed before us, and we decide what to cultivate.
Have a nourishing year, and keep learning from the future.
Offered as a dvar Torah (sermon) at Or Shalom Synagogue on Oct 1, 2016, Shabbat Parshat Nitzavim, one day before the New Year.