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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Commentary on Parshat Nitzavim-Va'yelekh

This week's Torah portion is Nitzavim-Vayelekh (Devarim/Deuteronomy
29:9 - 31:30). It is one of seven parashiot/portions that is read as a
double portion in a non-leap year order to assure that the entire
Torah is read in the course of a single year. The parashah/portion is
near the end of Moses' speeches to the people before he is to die.
Nitzavim begins with Moses telling the people that he is addressing
his remarks to all those who "stand this day, before the Eternal your
God. To enter into the covenant God swore to your ancestors. I make
this covenant, both with those who are standing here with us this day
and with those who are not with us here this day."

In the beginning of Vayelekh, Moses warns them that God has revealed
to him that, after his death, "the people will go astray and worship
alien gods. They will break the covenant that God had made with them.
Many evils will then befall them, at which point they will say to
themselves, "`surely it is because God is not in our midst that this
evil has befallen us."

The juxtaposition of these two opening phrases seems at first to be a
contradiction, and yet I believe instead that they present us with a
necessary tension that is an essential part of life. My teacher and friend,
Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg teaches that life
is a series of events that can be encapsulated in the phrase "fall
down get up." I have intentionally not place any punctuation in this
phrase in order to emphasize R. Weinberg's point that this is a
continual process and not two distinct activities. For, in the reality
of the moment, when we fall, we instinctively begin the process of
returning to where we were before we fell. Yes, it is true
that certain physical falls may make it impossible for us to rise, but
our instinct is to do so as quickly as possible.

However, in our spiritual lives we often fall and then get stuck in
the prone position unable to lift ourselves up again. We begin to wallow in
the muck that we believe to be our lives. We fill ourselves with
negative messages that we are incompetent, ineffective, incapable of
doing things differently, or simply bad people. In short, we see ourselves as powerless and unable to change.

In the beginning of Nitzavim, Moses is speaking to both "with those
who are standing here with us this day and with those who are not with
us here this day." Moses is speaking to all of us and we are
standing upright. As a spiritual metaphor, when we are
"standing" upright before God we are fully present and aware of
our connection to the Divine. We know that God is a part of us and that we
are a part of God. We sense our connection to humanity and the world,
which are also a part of God. This sense of connection then calls to
us to take the next "step" on our journey. This is a journey of
holiness, the goal of which is the betterment of God's world and
strengthening the connection of all to God, self, and others.

With God as our source of strength, we embark on this journey. At
this time of year, we also embark on this journey with a sense that we
are returning to our "true" spiritual selves through the work of
teshuvah, the act of turning and repentance. However, somewhere along
the way we are each destined to experience moments that are reflected
in the opening lines of Vayalekh: "[in the future] the people will go
astray and worship alien gods. They will break the covenant that God
had made with them. Many evils will then befall them, at which point
they will say to themselves, 'surely it is because God is not in our
midst that this evil has befallen us.' "

What this text is telling us is that somewhere along the journey we will fall down.
At some point we willstray from the path upon which we have been walking, as we are
distracted by "alien gods," or those things that appeal to our passions
and desires, but which ultimately are destructive forces in our world
and our lives. These forces separate us from the godliness within
and around us. This sense of separation and alone-ness are
antithetical to the sense of connection and at-one-ness that are at
the heart of a spiritual life. They leave us vulnerable, depressed,
dejected and certain that the future holds nothing but despair. It is
at these moments that we say to ourselves "surely …God is not our
midst."

Yet, we forget that God is always in our midst. God is
always within each of our souls. Rather, it is we who are no longer
in God's midst, as if that were possible. By focusing on the forces that
draw us away from God, it feels as if we are no longer standing in God's
presence, even though God is always there within us. We have experienced the
"fall down," but we are unable to continue with "get up." We are
alone. We are forlorn. We are powerless.

We are … and we are not. For, in truth, we are never alone. However,
it is true we are powerless.

Yet, the feeling of powerlessness is actually not a negative
experience, though our ingrained habits and beliefs lead us to label
it as such. For in reality, it the experience and acceptance of our
powerlessness that then allows us to realize that there is a power
within us that can lift us up after all. However, that power does not
come from us, but rather it flows through us and has its source in the
Divine. As we read in the first of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics
Anonymous, we must "admit that we are powerless" and then turn to God as
our true source of power before we can move on.

When we are spiritually in balance and we fall down, we can
get up with relative ease. One might call this our `autonomic spiritual
system' at work. For just as our autonomic nervous system tells our
body to breathe without any thought on our part, so "fall down"
causes us to instinctively "get up" spiritually when we are in balance. However,
when we are in the spiritual state described above, when we fall down
we then find it difficult, if not impossible, to get up.

At these moments we must not struggle to lift ourselves or "pull
ourselves up by our bootstraps," as the classic American ethos might
tell us to do. Rather, we must simply lie where we are. We must pay
attention to what is happening within and around us. We should not
judge our situation or ourselves in a negative light (or any light, for that matter).
Rather, we must simply experience the moment as it is, without judgment or commentary.

Spiritually lying there we can see ourselves as we are at that moment and we can experience
our powerlessness, as frightening as that might feel. Then, slowly,
moment by moment, we can begin to notice that there is something else
present within us and around us. That something is the Divine flow of
energy that we first simply pay attention to, then eventually turn to,
in order to give us strength to face the challenge of the moment and
eventually get up.

As we prepare to enter the Ten Days of Teshuvah/Return next week, let us
remember that life is a series of these various types of moments. Some
are "fall down get up" moments and others are "fall down, stay down,
be present, and let God lift us up" moments. Both are part of life.
Neither is better or worse. Both simply are what they are.
In reviewing the series of moments that make up the year that is about
to end, let us not judge ourselves for what has occurred. We each
make choices that we might label as "mistakes" and choices that we
might label as "good." But let us now simply see what has been, make
amends for choices we have made and things we have done that have
harmed self or others, and remember that in the end that we are all
human, but that our ultimate strength comes from the Divine within.

If we do this, then we are prepared to take the first step of the new
year and continue on our path of falling down, getting up, and
everything else that we call the blessing of life.

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah,

Steven

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