Saturday, July 25, 2009

Words to the Wise

So, I had another turn as lay leader of Friday night Sabbath services at Congregation Adas Emuno last night. This time I did it together with fellow Board of Trustees member and friend Virginia Gitter, who took care of the cantorial responsibilities, which was a big relief. Since there weren't many people in attendance when I led services by myself a few weeks ago, the day before the Fourth of July, I decided to recycle two poems that I used that night, opening with Muriel Rukeyser's "To Be A Jew In The Twentieth Century," and reciting Emma Lazarus's translation entitled "Hymn," written by the medieval poet, Solomon ben Judah Gabirol, before the Mourners' Kaddish. You can find the text to both of these works on the entry I posted about that service: Independence Sabbath.

This week, I also began by mentioning that this is Shabbat Chazon, the Sabbath of Vision, a point I returned to later.

So, at the appropriate time, Virginia said I was going to talk about the Torah portion, and I proceed to explain that such commentary is called Devar Torah, meaning a Word of Torah, and that this week's Torah portion is called Devarim, which means Words. It is the first portion from the Book of Deuteronomy, whose real name is Devarim as well, the Book of Words. In ancient times, books were not given titles, but were just referred to by their first words or first significant phrase. In this case, Deuteronomy begins by saying that these are the words that Moses spoke, hence the title, the Book of Words. And the portion is called Words as well for the same reason, so it is Parshah Devarim (parshah meaning portion or section), and it consists of Deuteronomy (1:1-3:22)—the chapters and verse numbers, as well as the Greek names, all were Christian inventions, I should add.

So, Devarim, the Book of Words, is the fifth and final book of the Torah, and much of it is a summation of the first four books (historians believe Deuteronomy was written much later than the rest of the Torah, first introduced following the return from Babylonian captivity by Ezra and Nehemiah).

Anyway, I mentioned how wonderfully appropriate it is to have this Book of Words, because we are a people of words, a people who love to talk, discuss, debate, and argue. Our God is a God of words, creation begins with God's words, Let there be light, and He talks the world into existence. Our God is invisible, known only through His words, as He speaks to Adam and Eve, to Noah, to Abraham, and to Moses. And at Mount Sinai He gives us the Torah, the written word to go with spoken word. And the Torah is full of polemics against the worship of idols and the making of graven images; our God wants us to have no images because they are distractions from the word.

Devarim relates the words of Moses, his final address to the Israelites, beginning on the 1st day of the month of Shevat, and thirty-seven days before his death.Moses recalls how God freed us from slavery in Egypt, and I think it's worth noting that, unlike all the other peoples of the ancient world who claimed to be the descendants of Gods and heroes, we recall that we come from the humblest of origins. And Moses does not praise, but rather rebukes us for always complaining, and backsliding, and for our immorality and sin. We are far from perfect, constantly making mistakes and suffering for them. But we recall this because we are constantly striving to be better, to live up to a higher standard, as the saying goes.

At this point, I mentioned the Haftarah reading (reading from other books of the Bible meant to supplement the Torah reading) for this week had a similar theme, on account of this being the Sabbath prior to Tisha B'Av (meaning the 9th Day of the Month of Av), traditionally a day of mourning and fasting that commemorates the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem, by the Babylonians, and the destruction of the second Temple that was rebuilt after the return from Babylonian captivity, by the Romans. And while in Reform Judaism, we have mixed feelings about Tisha B'Av, since we are not longing for the Temple to be rebuilt and to return to that form of worship, this Haftarah reading, which consists of the first 27 verses of the Book of Isaiah, speaks very much to the core of the Reform movement. I also mentioned how my old rabbi when I was young used to correct people who said, "I'm a Reformed Jew," saying "it's Reform, not Reformed, we didn't do anything wrong." The point being that we are Reformers, and that is a tradition in Judaism that goes all the way back to the prophets.

The selection begins by explaining that this is the "vision of Isaiah," and it is for this reason that this Sabbath is known as Shabbat Chazon, the Sabbath of Vision. And then I read the section from Isaiah:

1 The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem, in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
2 Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth, for the LORD hath spoken: Children I have reared, and brought up, and they have rebelled against Me.
3 The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib; but Israel doth not know, My people doth not consider.
4 Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evil-doers, children that deal corruptly; they have forsaken the LORD, they have contemned the Holy One of Israel, they are turned away backward.
5 On what part will ye yet be stricken, seeing ye stray away more and more? The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint;
6 From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and festering sores: they have not been pressed, neither bound up, neither mollified with oil.
7 Your country is desolate; your cities are burned with fire; your land, strangers devour it in your presence, and it is desolate, as overthrown by floods.
8 And the daughter of Zion is left as a booth in a vineyard, as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city.
9 Except the LORD of hosts had left unto us a very small remnant, we should have been as Sodom, we should have been like unto Gomorrah.
10 Hear the word of the LORD, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah.
11 To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? saith the LORD; I am full of the burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats.
12 When ye come to appear before Me, who hath required this at your hand, to trample My courts?
13 Bring no more vain oblations; it is an offering of abomination unto Me; new moon and sabbath, the holding of convocations--I cannot endure iniquity along with the solemn assembly.
14 Your new moons and your appointed seasons My soul hateth; they are a burden unto Me; I am weary to bear them.
15 And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide Mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood.
16 Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before Mine eyes, cease to do evil;
17 Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.
18 Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.
19 If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land;
20 But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword; for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken.
21 How is the faithful city become a harlot! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers.
22 Thy silver is become dross, thy wine mixed with water.
23 Thy princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves; every one loveth bribes, and followeth after rewards; they judge not the fatherless, neither doth the cause of the widow come unto them.
24 Therefore saith the Lord, the LORD of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: Ah, I will ease Me of Mine adversaries, and avenge Me of Mine enemies;
25 And I will turn My hand upon thee, and purge away thy dross as with lye, and will take away all thine alloy;
26 And I will restore thy judges as at the first, and thy counselors as at the beginning; afterward thou shalt be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city.
27 Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and they that return of her with righteousness.

At this point I also explained that this came after the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians (which led to the legend of the ten lost tribes), and Isaiah was addressing the southern kingdom of Judah, saying, you better clean up your act or you will meet the same fate, which in the end they did at the hands of the Babylonians. A prophet, it has been said (by Marshall McLuhan, among others), is not someone who predicts the future, it's someone who tells you what's going on right now, because everyone is fixated on the past, not the present.

Returning to the Torah portion, Moses recalls how God led us to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, and the events that followed. Significantly, when Moses sent spies to scout out the Promised Land, they returned telling tales that they encountered "A people greater and taller than we; cities great and fortified up to the heavens, and we have even seen the sons of giants there" (1:28). So we were afraid to enter, despite the assurances that Moses gave that God would protect us. So God becomes angry, and says that this generation shall not enter the Promised Land, which is why we had to wander the dessert for forty years. The Jewish people that entered Israel was not the fearful generation born into slavery, but a new generation of free men and women.

But another way of looking at the story is that it wasn't fear, but rather we simply did not want to leave the desert, and Mount Sinai, God's mountain. We wanted, naturally enough, to remain near to the presence of God. There is a sense of spiritual purity in the desert, away from distractions of everyday life, away from seductions of civilization, close to the divine. We were originally a desert people. Abraham runs away from Ur, the greatest city of its time in Mesopotamia, to become a desert nomad, followed by his son Isaac, and his grandson Jacob. The city, on the other hand, is the site of evil, famously in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah. And when we went down to Egypt, we were enslaved so that we would build cities for the Pharaoh. Also, Moses gives instructions to Joshua in this parsha, and Joshua will lead us to the fortress city of Jericho, where we will bring down its walls with sound. (Some of this understaning I credit to Jacques Ellu, who has written about the meaning of the city in the Bible, writing in regard to Christian theology.)

So, we didn't want to leave the sacred space of the desert. The Kabbalah speaks of the dangers of mysticism, that one might enter a higher realm and get lost and never return. In the tradition of Jewish mysticism, the whole point of having a spiritual experience is not to transcend and lose touch with the profane world, but to bring the sacred back into our everyday lives, to use that gift to make things better in the here and now, to repair and heal the world, and fulfill our role in God's plan, which is to complete the task of creation.

So we would have been very happy hanging out at Mount Sinai, almost as if it were the Garden of Eden, with God close by, feeding us with manna from heaven--it was as close to paradise as anyone could get. But God said to us, "You have dwelt long enough at this mountain. Turn away and take your journey…" (1:6-7). The commentary on this from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, is worth relating:

The mountain we're talking about is Mount Sinai, scene of the most monumental event in human history: G-d's revelation of His wisdom and will to man. Still G-d says: "You've been hanging around this mountain long enough. Move on!"

In our lives, we also have moments, days or years of revelation, times when we learn and grow and are enriched. But the purpose most always be to move on, move away, and carry the enlightenment and enrichment to someplace else -- some corner of creation that awaits redemption. (taken from right hand column on this web page: <> thanks to Chabad for making this available)

One of the hardest things to accept for us is the passage of time. Time moves on, whether we also move on or choose to live in the past. In Devarim, time moves on for Moses, his life and his amazing journey from slave to prince, from shepherd to prophet, from redeemer to lawgiver, is coming to an end, and he prepares his people to move on without him by giving his final address, his last words. Time moves on for our people, as we must leave the desert, the time of escape and exile when we were separated from the rest of the world, and take our place as a nation. Time moves on because we were the first people to truly live in history, in an unfolding time that moved from Abraham to Moses to the time of judges and then kings, to the destruction of the first Temple, and later the second, both of which we commemorate on Tisha B'Av next week, to the centuries of exile culminating in the long night of the Holocaust, followed by the return of Israel reborn.

And in our own lives, we need to be mindful that, no matter how pleasant the situation, no matter how magical the moment, sooner or later it will be time to move on. We live in a world that is dynamic and changing, growing and evolving, and we were not meant to remain in one place, frozen and unchanging. We are travelers, nomads in this world, in this life. We all can experience moments when time seems to stand still, when everything seems to fall into place, when we are in the zone, at one with the universe, times of peak experiences, moments of revelation, moments of communion, moments of rapture. We can find eternity in a moment. But we still live in time, not outside of it, and the time must come when we must turn away from the mountain, and continue on with our journey. As we journey together on this Shabbat, may our travels be filled with God's grace and blessings, for ourselves and for all of creation. Shabbat shalom.

Here endeth the sermon, as they used to say. And those are all the words I have to share with you on this blog entry. Peace be with you.

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