August 22, 2014
Look, Listen, Return…and then Choose
This upcoming Tuesday night, we enter the holiest period of the Jewish year; the month of Elul. Elul, the Hebrew month that precedes the high holy days is the last month of the Jewish year and is a time of intense reflection, introspection and reconciliation, a period of time in which our orientation changes; we turn our gaze inward, and pay attention to the things that, the other eleven months of the year, we neglect. So perhaps it’s no coincidence that our Torah portion this Shabbat begins with a single word: Re’eh – Look. Look, says the verse, today I am giving you blessing and curse. Look, I give you a life of possibility, of choice. Pay attention to them. They matter. Every single one of them, no matter how seemingly inconsequential, can be a blessing or a curse. This is illustrated, dramatically, by the topography of the Torah portion this week . Because after God makes the offer of blessing or curse, and the Israelites enter the land, God instructs them to split themselves into two groups: one group will stand on the slopes of Mount Gerizim blessings and one will stand on Mount Ebal. Then they’ll write God’s commandments (about blessings and curses) on 12 stones, and place them on the two mountains and the Levites, standing in the valley, will face Mt. Gezirim and say a series of blessings, and the Israelites will say Amen,( which, roughly translated, means ‘Let it be so’). Then, the Levites will turn to Mt. Ebal, say another series of blessings, and all the people will again say Amen, or, Let it be so, again. (JPS Deut. commentary, p. 254-55) And you thought your morning workout was intense.
Really though, the message is clear: Every day we live in this same valley of possibilities (though we can’t always see it). Every day, we make countless moral choices, ethical choices, spiritual choices: we recycle that bottle, cut someone off in traffic, yell at our kids or ignore the homeless person we walk by. Every day, we, at minimum, give our Amens to the choices of others by what we consume, what we ignore, what we assent to. According to Rabbi Alan Lew, the month of Elul is “when it is made equally clear to us that everything depends upon [these] choices.” That everything depends on which way we turn, what mountain we look at, what we say Amen to.
But it’s not just our looking that matters during Elul, it’s also our listening. Traditionally the shofar is blown daily every single day of Elul, at every morning’s prayers, as a kind of spiritual alarm clock. The bleat of the shofar is intended to wake us from our apathy, from our usual modes of being, to warn us that the year is ending, the gates are closing and in a few weeks we’re going to be looking into the cracked mirror that is Yom Kippur and asked to account for our choices; our blessings and curses, all those we have given and those we have brought upon ourselves and others. But, right now, for the next four weeks, we still have time to evaluate, look closely, and choose blessing.
So there’s one more custom that begins this first week of Elul. Traditionally, each day of Elul, the synagogue warden would stand by the door of the congregation and greet congregants (or passing Jews) with this sentence: “Return, wayward son.” Well, that’s one way to try to increase membership, but I’m not sure it’s the most effective. Because despite the yearly stampede for high holiday tickets, the directive to return isn’t actually about returning to synagogue. It’s about teshuva, returning to ourselves, returning to Holiness, to Godliness. This is related, in part, to the Kabbalistic notion that there are sparks of holiness caught in every aspect of creation, and that, as human beings, our mission is to reunite them with their original source, with God.
That is, Elul reminds us that the possibility of change is everpresent. That we can always look at our lives, listen to what they are telling us, and turn them into blessing. Maimonides wrote in Hilchot Teshuva, his famous tractate on repentance: “A person should not entertain the thesis that at the time of our creation, God decrees whether we will be righteous or wicked. This is untrue. Every person is fit to be righteous like Moses, our teacher, or wicked like Jeroboam. Similarly, she may be wise or foolish, merciful or cruel, miserly or generous or accrue any other character traits. There is no one who compels her, sentences her, or leads her toward either of these two paths. Rather, she, on her own initiative and decision, tends to the path she chooses…for if [from the beginning of man’s creation] it would be decreed upon him [his nature] he could not depart from it. Then what place would there be for the entire torah? We,” closes Maimonides “Are responsible for our own deeds.” (Rambam Hilchot Teshuva, 5:2-3)
Because the Torah gets us only partway there. As Jews, and especially as Reform Jews, this season presents us with the greatest of spiritual challenges: not merely to look at our lives, not merely to hear the cry of the Shofar, but to go out on our own, and, informed by the tradition. choose what we wish to make of them. If we want to say ‘Let it be so’ to the curses, or the blessings, we have the ability and opportunity to start now, to start again, in Elul.
I want to close tonight with a story from theTalmud (Niddah 16b). It states: “The angel who governs pregnancy takes the seed that will become each child before God and asks: “Master of the World, what will be the fate of this drop? Will the [child] be strong? Will she be weak? Will she be wise or foolish, rich or poor? However, the angel does not ask: “Will this child be righteous or wicked…a blessing or a curse…for everything is in the hands of Heaven except the awe of it.”
This Shabbat and this Elul, may we begin the process of choosing blessings, and becoming blessings so that, a month from now, we will be able to take an honest account of our blessings and curses — and know we have chosen well. Let it be so. And let us say, Amen.