Weekly Torah: Nitzavim-Vayelech

book-flying-words-copy-2-blogAs Poetry is My Witness (5777/2016)

“This poem will be my witness,” says God to Moshe (Deut. 31:19). Here, God refers to a poem predicting future events: Israelites stray from God, find devastation, and return to a nurturing God.

In what sense can a poem be a witness?

Clearly, not in the way a person who experiences an event can be a witness. A poem is not a person, and not the subject of an experience.

And clearly not in the way that a ceremony or document is confirmation of an event. This poem offers a vision of the future, not a report on the past.

The great medieval Torah commentator Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508, Portugal) described three facets of the power of a poem.

ONE: Poems are easy to memorize. A poem that employs a traditional metric style is easily set to music. Words received on the wings of melody become part of the visceral experience of recalling a tune.

TWO: A poem can alter its readers’ way of thinking. Poems often speak in metaphor. (For example: As an eagle hovers over its young, so did God lead Israel (Deut, 32:11)). Like an analogy, a metaphor may invite us to see commonalities between unrelated things. Once we receive the metaphor, we will never see either thing in quite the same way again.

THREE: Poetry reaches beyond rational thinking, involving many levels of a listener’s psyche. Poetic metaphors often use figurative language, words obviously not meant to be taken literally. Non-literal language stimulates the imagination.

A poem embeds itself in the human psyche like a catchy jingle. It sings a gradually evolving message. It’s a witness to the openness of the future, the growth of knowledge, the spirituality of imagination. A witness to the promise that, as we turn and re-turn our attention, God׳s presence will manifest in ever-evolving ways.

Do you have a favourite poem that has been a trusty witness? One that has helped you to return?


platos-caveJudaism’s Hidden Continuity (5776/2016)

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 are “the hidden things?” What are “the revealed things?” And what sort of “doing” of Torah are we supposed to “do” here?

Maybe there are limits to our responsibility to police one another’s moral behaviour. We can see “revealed actions” – things people do in public. When we see something wrong, we should rebuke and redirect each other. But we can’t always see what people think and feel – those private things are hidden. It’s not our job to aggressively seek out each other’s spiritual dreams, doubts, or fantasies.

Maybe we think we should search out each other’s doubts, especially if we’re worried that our children won’t find our Judaism interesting. But we shouldn’t. We know only what has been revealed: the way God manifested in the past. We do not know how God will manifest in the coming generations. Future forms of Jewish spirituality are hidden from us. But we should not worry; the Divine will not disappear from the scene.

It may be that Judaism can only continue if we acknowledge that it works on many levels: On the revealed level of cultural forms and on the hidden level of intensely personal feelings, encounters, and intuitions. We humans can teach the cultural forms. But only God can communicate at the deepest levels. And don’t worry – God will.


Highest or Deepest? (5773/2013)

Vayelech – Moshe went. But where did he go?

To the mountaintop, says Torah: Climb the Avarim Mountain…Die on the mountain that you are climbing, and be gathered up to your people… (Deut. 32:48-50).

And to the gorge, says Torah: It was there in the land of Moab that God’s servant Moshe died at God’s word. Buried him in the gorge…. No one knows the place that he was buried, even to this day.  (Deut. 34: 5-6).

Was it mountain or gorge? What should we make of this inconsistency – knowing that Torah has no contradictions, only paradoxes that point us to deeper reflection?

Perhaps there is no inconsistency, as a natural geographic feature can incorporate mountains and gorges. So says Ibn Ezra: Mount Nebo is a star-shaped system of mountains that includes gorges and other highland geographic features.

Perhaps the inconsistency reminds us that the Israelite path from slavery to self-government is built on miracles. Impossible things happened every step of the way. So says Rashi: Moshe’s grave is one of the miraculous, one-of-a-kind, exception-to-the-natural-order things created on the evening of the sixth day, just before the first Shabbat.

Perhaps the inconsistency reminds us to read Torah a little less literally. So say some Hassidic teachers: Moshe went to both the highest place and to the deepest place. He went into the minds and hearts of his people.

We read about Moshe’s simultaneous ascent and descent just before Rosh Hashanah. I’ll take it as a suggestion for the inner journey. I’ll risk visiting some deep, dark places of inner hurt, anger and confusion…for the sake of ascending to resolution and insight.


Speech from the Heart (2012/5772)

“It is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to enact it.” – Devarim 30:14

How do you enact Torah with your mouth? One way is through the practice of shmirat halashon: Observing your speech. Guarding it. Holding it precious.

The Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, defines lashon hara, evil talk, as sharing information that is derogatory or potentially harmful to another individual. The definition is not simple. Lashon hara is either derogatory or potentially harmful. Thus, a derogatory statement is lashon hara even if it isn’t harmful. A positive statement can also be lashon hara if it is potentially harmful.

The definition calls us to awareness. Before each of us speaks, we should think. Think about the person you are addressing. How will they respond? Think about the person you are discussing. What is their situation? Think about yourself. What is your motive? Is it beneficial?  How else might you achieve it?

The Chofetz Chaim writes: “By performing a given mitzvah through a given organ, a spiritual light comes to rest upon the corresponding component of the soul; it is from this light that this component draws eternal vitality.”

The heart is a part of our soul that corresponds to the speaking mouth. We express our emotions through speech. We speak badly when our emotions overcome our speech. When we must express negative emotions, we feel badly if we do it less than thoughtfully and productively.

Speech is a tangible manifestation of our thoughts and feelings. If we speak more kindly, we may learn to think more kindly. If we express ourselves with more clarity, we may learn to feel with more clarity.

May we be blessed this year with kindness and clarity.


Marketing the Spirit (5770/2010)

Nick Wagner writes:

“In Atlanta, is what I can only describe as a shrine to Coca Cola. The devotion that my fellow tourists showed toward the soft drink was overwhelming and a bit unnerving. The site welcomes, on average, about 2,700 visitors a day. The room that most bewildered me was a place where visitors could write letters about their experiences with Coke. One couple had written about how they realized that they not only love Coke – they also loved each other. They presumably had gotten engaged in the very room in which I was standing. Another person had written of his experience in battle, when the only thing that gave him courage to get through each day’s firefight was knowing that a bottle of Coke was waiting for him back at the base. The letters went on like that — hundreds of them. Somehow the Coca Cola marketing team has been able to connect with the spiritual, interior lives of millions of people all over the world.”

As the Torah’s marketing team has been doing for generations, beginning with Moshe! In Parshat Nitzavim, all the people – men, women, children, leaders, police officers, lumberjacks – stand together to make a spiritual commitment to God and their community. Together they agree that they will not pursue wealth or materialism, but will dedicate themselves to something deeper.

One week before Rosh Hashanah, Parshat Nitzavim invites us all to reflect on our experiences of spiritual commitment. What makes us aware of love? What goals and relationships give us courage to get through the day? The answers will form the basis of the commitments we make to live even more deeply in the coming year.

Image:Palouse River Gorge, Washington State. kgov.com

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