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Friday, September 24, 2010

Shabbat and Sukkot

This is a reworking of a commentary posted last year. I apologize for not providing a new commentary, but such is my life these days.  May you all have a joyous Shabbat and Sukkot.
Though this evening is Shabbat, it also the middle of the festival of Sukkot. As one of the three pilgrimage festivals (along with Pesakh/Passover and Shavuot) it is one of the three times per year when our ancestors would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. This pilgrimage was to give thanks to God for the fall harvest and to pray that the coming months would bring adequate rain for next year’s crops. The day after Sukkot ends, on the festival of Shemini Atzeret (which some view as the last day of Sukkot) the Jewish people around the world begin to insert the prayer for rain in our daily liturgy.

On the Shabbat of Sukkot, it is also customary to read from the biblical book of Kohelet/Ecclesiastes during Sukkot. This biblical book begins with the well known “Futility, futility, all is futility…” The author (traditionally believed to be King Solomon, though it was written long after he died) paints a somewhat pessimistic and even cynical portrait of a life where nothing can be certain and nothing is permanent. The author questions the meaning of life and existence, constantly claiming that “there is nothing new under the sun.” Everything that happens has already happened, no matter what we do it ultimately makes no difference. The world simply continues on as it always has and we are only here for a fleeting moment. However, the text also reminds us that, indeed, there is a “time to every purpose under heaven.” Each moment does ultimately have a meaning and a purpose – even if we do not know just then, what it is.

The sukkah, or temporary dwelling place, which we are commanded in the Torah to build and dwell in for this festival, represents the impermanence of existence and the need to rejoice in what exists in this moment. In many ways the Book of Kohelet/Ecclesiastes puts into words  the deep meaning of the sukkah.

Sukkot is traditionally called zman simchateinu/the time of our rejoicing. It was considered the holiday par excellence by our ancestors. On Sukkot the people would make their pilgrimage to Jerusalem and rejoice in all that God had given them, for they realized the uncertainty of the future. So they praised God in the moment, renewing the Covenant unconditionally and then waiting to see what the next moment would bring, in part depending upon what the upcoming rainy season would bring to this desert land.

The torah/teaching that I would like to share with you Sukkot is a poem based on these concepts of Sukkot, combined with other images of Moses and the covenant with God. Let us remember the importance of this festival, which often plays ‘second fiddle’ to its immediate predecessors. Let us remember to celebrate what we have, give thanks to God for all that is and embrace the moment.

The Meaning of the Moment – a meditation for the Shabbat of Sukkot


I stand here
      in the sukkah
     four walls
    that are not walls a roof
      Through which raindrops falls
      that is unreal
no security is truly
    beyond shadow  of a doubt
it is merely
illusional delusion
for nothing is definite

The sukkah
Is here
To teach


  stood there
    on the mountain
   longing to know Go
to have security
he could not
seeing only  God’s back
     God’s goodness
Moses knew what was
             in that moment
he could not know
            what would be

Moses could only see


  needed to wait
    to see what they would bring
like us
waiting to see    to know
hoping for clairvoyance
     settling for clarity
of the present moment
good enough
for Moses
not for us
do we desire
where none exists
         when less was enough
        for Moses


Kohelet understood
    everything is nothing
nothing is all we have
          what is now
    not before            not after
                  only now
              then no more
      why bother
      why be born
      why live

why not
not because of certainty
not because of knowledge
not because of our own importance
but simply
we are here 
God’s presence on earthfinite representation of the infinite
each moment
    each person
       has a purpose
we each want to know
     we cannot know
     until it becomes
the  present
seeking to know more
we strive after wind
after unknowable knowledge
true futility
the essence of our struggle
causing pain and suffering
seeking to know what we cannot

if Kohelet knew that why can’t we

do not strive
to know
to cling to what is no more
  carve your own tablets
    create covenant in this moment
the old covenant is smashed
and then renewed
as we move
from moment to moment
writing a new covenant

our soul is our tablet
the search for justice our pen
the divinehuman flow of compassion our ink 
love of humanity and the world our muse
write a covenant
between us and God
us and the world
unity of existence
 it will not lasst
more than any   thing    does
so we write it
overandoverandover again
as each moment passes into the past
and to celebrate
each new writing
each new fulfillment
each new commitment
to God
to community
to unity

nothing is certain
but the power of compassion
nothing is sure
but that the flow of mercy and love
nothing is before us
but the present
the One

in this moment
standing in the sukkah
resting in Shabbat
being where we are
we can simply
know   experience   celebrate
the moment that is
not what it is not
this is the moment
of our rejoicing
do not let it pass 

Friday, September 10, 2010

Torah Commentary for Ha'azinu and Shabbat Shuva

It seems that every year Ha'azinu (Devarim/Deuteronomy 32:1-52)is a parashah that I have skipped over in my Torah commentaries. I find this fascinating, as it is such a rich portion. However, this year, as with most years, it falls on Shabbat Shuvah (the Sabbath of Return), which falls between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

So here I sit, in the midst of teshuvah/repentance, as well as leading a number of services,  trying to think about what this parashah means. I am trying my best to be mindful and in the moment, yet I find myself drawn into the future ...a week from now ... when Yom Kippur begins.  Such is life in this moment.

So I will make a brief commentary, which actually makes for a nice change of pace!

The parashah consists of Moses's final speech to the people before he is to die. It is written as a poem, and begins:

1 Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;
Let the earth hear the words I utter!
2 May my discourse come down as the rain,
My speech distill as the dew,
Like showers on young growth,
Like droplets on the grass.
3 For the name of the Lord I proclaim;
Give glory to our God!

Moses is asking the entire universe to be his witness as he is about to proclaim God's greatness and prepare the people for life after he is gone. He is facing his death and yet he asks everyone and everything to hear him proclaim why God, who is forbidding him to enter the land, is goodness itself. He further asks that his words of praise nurture the people and the earth, just as dew and rain nurture the earth. What an eloquent way to prepare to end a remarkable life!

Moses is standing in a liminal place between life and death when he begins his speech. We too are standing in such a place. We are told that the Days of Awe and our teshuvah will determine "who shall live and who shall die" in the coming year. Though this is metaphor, it is true that our actions of prayer, repentance and righteousness during this time will affect how we will live the coming year. On Yom Kippur we face our mortality. Traditionally, we wear a white garment called a kittel, as worn traditionally in death. Our lives and our souls are on the line.

Moses has an advantage over us. He knows when he is going to die, and he knows that this is all part of God's plan for him. We do not have the knowledge of when we will die, or what our life will be like until we do. However, we must also believe that whatever is, is part of God's plan for us. Not that things are predestined, but that if we live each moment to the fullest, then we are assuring that we are living as God wishes. If we have not been doing so, and there are times when we all fit into that category, then we know all we have to do is return ourselves to God and the moment and we will find that somehow we know what to do.

This is the Shabbat of Returning, it is also the Shabbat of Listening (from the opening phrase of Ha'azinu above). Let us remember to listen, to pay attention in each moment. Let us remember that in each moment we are standing between Life and Death. We must choose life. We must look at who and where we are and do teshuvah, make a simple turn, if necessary to assure that we are with God as we walk life's path.

May we allow the words of Moses, the words of God, and the words of one another, water and nourish each of us along our journey. All we must do is pay attention, be mindful, connect, love, be compassionate and just and choose life. It's easier than it may seem. Just try ... it one moment at a time.

Shabbat Shalom, Shanah tovah (a good year) and g'mar hatimah tovah (may you be 'sealed' for goodness) in the coming year.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelekh: Mindful Teshuvah

This week's Torah parashah/portion, Nitzavim-Vayelekh (Devarim/Deuteronomy 29:9 -31:30), is one of seven double portions that are read it is not a leap year so that all 54 portions of the Torah will be read in the course of a year. This double portion is found near the end of Moses' discourses to the people that he delivered prior to his death. He begins this oration by 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."

One classical interpretation of this is that Moses is speaking not merely to those that have died, but of all the souls yet to be born. Therefore each of us is just as present at this mythic moment as were our Israelite ancestors.

Later in the parashah Moses says to the people, "This mitzvah/commandment that I place before you is not too difficult for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens that you should say, 'Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and teach it to us, that we may observe it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us that we may observe it?' No, the torah/teaching is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to observe it."

In these remarks to the people Moses uses different forms of the verb shuv/turn seven times. This verb is also the root of the word Teshuvah. Usually translated as repentance, return or turning, Teshuvah is what we are commanded to do during this time of year. It is the mitzvah that is most pressing at this time when Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are fast approaching. It is the difficult work that we must do during Elul (the month preceding Rosh Hashanah).  It is the work that then continues during the Aseret Y'mai Teshuvah - Ten Days of Repentance that begin on Rosh Hashanah and end on Yom Kippur.

In his inspiring book This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared: the Days of Awe as a Time of Transformation Rabbi Alan Lew, may his memory be a blessing, writes that the repetition of the verb shuv in this parashah is meant to point us in the direction of teshuvah. He also interprets the verse stating that the teaching (torah) is "very close to you" as referring to teshuvah.  He reminds us that teshuvah is not "out there," but it is within our hearts and on our lips. Simply put, Lew states "Don't look out the window; look at the window itself. What is the pain that is pressing on your heart right this moment? That's what you need to make teshuvah about. What is occluding the deep connection between you and your fellow human beings? That is also right there over your heart, and that also needs to be looked at."

Often we think of teshuvah as such a daunting task that we never even begin to undertake it. However, if we realize that it is as ‘simple’ as looking within and attempting to find that which is disrupting the natural connection between our hearts and the hearts of others, then the work of teshuvah can begin. We must each take off the glasses with which we view the world and look at what is coloring them, clouding them and causing them to blur our vision. If we do this, then we can finally begin to honestly see what we need to change so that we can remove the dirt and whatever else may be obscuring our vision and causing us to look at the world around us through scratched, damaged, and distorted lenses.

Above I referred to this task as simple, and yet we know that it is actually a complex and daunting task. Yet, it is a task that we must begin – even if we are unsure of the chance for its completion. Tradition teaches that we are meant to take time each day during the month of Elul and during the Ten Days of teshuvah to look at ourselves and take stock of who we are. This act is called Heshbon ha'nefesh, an accounting of the soul.  This accounting is at the core of Teshuvah. It is what enables us to do what I describe above. Heshbon ha’nefesh is the tool with which we remove the barriers around our hearts and clean off the lenses through which we view the world. Heshbon ha’nefesh is what enables us to return to our true selves by looking at what is within us at this very moment with honesty, clarity and mindfulness.

As each of us hopefully begins, continues or simply contemplates beginning this difficult work I would like us to remember the verse cited above, which states that Moses was speaking to “those present today and those not present.” Though traditionally interpreted as referring to those who were alive at that moment and those who were not yet born, I believe it has another meaning. The words Moses is speaking in the parashah, as well as the words and the teachings in the Torah, throughout the centuries and up until these very words that you are reading now are all part of the chain of tradition. They are all part of the eternal teaching of what it means to seek God in our lives, to search our souls, to do teshuvah and to strive for oneness, holiness and wholeness. These essential teachings that are not merely “for those present today.” They are not merely for those who are listening, reading or paying attention in this moment. Rather, these words, these teachings, are also for those who are “not present.” These teachings are for those who are not ready or able to be truly listening or paying attention in this moment.

Even those who are not present or mindful in this moment can be helped and guided by these words and ideas. Perhaps something is penetrating their minds and hearts in spite of their lack of presence. Perhaps some other day they might come across the teachings and they may touch their hearts then.  Perhaps the words are already within them, but they are simply unable to hear them in this moment.  Whether moment when they can hear these words arrives tomorrow, next year or years in the does not matter. What matters is that these teachings, these essential truths of being that are found within so many traditions, are here for all of us at all times. They are here to guide each human being in the task of living and of doing teshuvah. For me, that is the essential meaning of this passage.

After Shabbat ends, Jews traditionally begin the final week prior to Rosh Hashanah selichot (service of forgiveness) on Saturday night. As we approach this time of repentance, forgiveness and renewal, let us commit ourselves to taking a few minutes out of each day to be alone and do the difficult, but ultimately liberating, work of Heshbon ha’nefesh. By doing this we can then make teshuvah with all our heart, all our soul and all our being and continue the work of becoming that which we are always becoming each moment; for that is the essential task of what it means to be human.

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