Like my page and make comments on Facebook! (and share with others)

Friday, September 2, 2011

Humility and Renewal: A Commentary on Parshat Shofetim and the Month of Elul

This week's parashah/portion,  Shofetim (D'varim/Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9) begins with the command to appoint judges and legal officials to carry out justice within the newly-formed Israelite society and continues with a warning against worshipping other gods. The parashah then discusses the lawas concerning witnessing a homicide, the setting up of a judicial system and the appointment of a king once the people enter and conquer the land of Canaan. In addition, it also contains specific laws against worshipping false gods, child sacrifice, sorcery and divination, as well as following "false prophets."

In writing this commentary I was also aware that this past Wednesday was Rosh Hodesh Elul
– the first day of the Jewish month of Elul. This is the month that immediately precedes Rosh Hashanah, the start of the new Jewish year. Therefore, it was designated by the ancient rabbis as the time when we are to begin the process of teshuvah/return and repentance associated with the holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Traditionally, each day during Elul, with the exception of Shabbat, the shofar/ram’s horn is sounded as a wake up call that we must engage in the work of return and repentance. In addition, the ancient rabbis also read the Hebrew letters of the word Elul (aleph-lamed-vav-lamed) as an acronym for the phrase from the Biblical book Shir ha'Shirim/ Song of Songs: "ani-l'dodi-v'dodi-li," commonly translated, as "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine."

Though in Song of Songs the phrase is spoken by a human being in reference to her beloved, the rabbis also read the entire book as an allegory of the love between God and the Jewish people. In this way, the phrase "ani l'dodi v'dodi li" can be read as "I am God's and God is mine." It is this relationship between God and humanity (or,in this case, the Jewish people), with love at its core, that enables us to turn to God and seek forgiveness.

Though in the past I liked this interpretation, this time there was something about it that disturbed me. I don't have a problem with the idea of a relationship between us and God, per se
(though the nature of that relationship is something with which I struggle constantly). Rather, what disturbs me is the possessive nature ofthe phrase "ani l'dodi …". For we are taught, in various Jewish and Eastern traditions, that nothing truly belongs to us, nor do we belong to anything else. When we believe that we really possess something or someone, we bring about our own suffering, and often the suffering of others. For once something belongs to us we often desire nothing more than retaining that which we think we possess. Yet, we many traditions teach that nothing truly belongs to us. One reason it cannot is that there really is no us and them, yours and mine.  All is part of the One, which Judaism and others choose to call God. So, if possessiveness is not beneficial for humanity, perhaps it is not good for the One in whose image we are created either?  Actually, if we are all part of God and God is part of us, the idea of either belonging to the other is just a fantasy.

In looking at the parashah
one can find examples of God's concerns for the Israelites (read: Jews) that are based on the idea of possession and exclusivity. All of the various laws, in this parashah and elsewhere, that forbid the worshipping of `other gods', the building of altars, visiting soothsayers, diviners and sorcerers,
and listening to "false prophets" are ways of saying to the people "we are God’s and we had better not cheat on God with anyone … or else." The "or else" according to the Torah, being death!

Of course, in a monotheistic system it is not surprising that deity should expect fidelity, or what I would call "spiritual monogamy." Yet the degree to which the
authors of the Torah focus on this, and on God's jealous nature, can lead one to believe that "the deity doth protest too much!"   It is as if God is almost irrationally concerned with the loyalty and fidelity of the people. And it is this concern and jealousy that leads God to behave in ways that might also be considered irrational were a human being to act that way.

Perhaps it is God questioning God's own commitment to the people that leads God to question the people’s commitment to God? But all of this can also be seen as the kind of  unreasonable and hyperbolic behavior that is brought about by the jealousy and suspicion that arises in people when one becomes possessive.

Both partners in a relationship do need to feel a sense of trust and security in the nature of their commitment to one another.  However, commitment is not the same as possession. In applying this to the Divine-human relationship (however one chooses to interpret it) it is difficult enough to to seek forgiveness from God, just as it is from a human being. But how much more difficult the task if we are unsure of the love, commitment of the relationship!

Conversely, as Abraham Joshua Heschel (may his memory be a blessing) might say, this is not only about our desire for God, but God also needs us in order to truly be God. Therefore, it might be that God needs assurance of our love and commitment in order to hear our our please for forgiveness and to help us find kapparah/atonement and taharah/purification when this process concludes asthe end of Yom Kippur draws to a close.  The relationship between God and humanity, and between humans, that is at the heart of forgiveness and return must be based on love, trust and commitment. But if it is based instead possessiveness, then it is doomed to failure.

However, the simple solution to this problem can be found through re-translating the "ani l'dodi v'dodi li
" True,  it can be translated as " I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine, " which implies possession.  Yet, it can also be translated as "I am for my beloved, as my beloved is for me," which implies a supportive, mutual relationship. This translation is much more in keeping with what I would view as the essence of relationship within Judaism, and within mindfulness practice across traditions. The relationships we have with other human beings and with the Divine are about caring and support, not about possession.  They are based on the oneness of all humanity and the universe, and not on the belief that we are separate, distinct entities.  Finally, They are constantly changing and shifting each moment due to the ever-changing nature of our essence, and not fixed and static in the way that those who seek possession and control of others might desire.

In this week’s parashah
, when the rules are being given concerning the future king, Moses instructs the people that the king must always study Torah throughout his lifetime in order to avoid arrogance and remain humble. The commandment to always study and connect with the teachings we have been handed down in order to avoid hubris is a commandment from which we can all benefit.  However, I believe this command also serves as a reminder that the king, and all people, are constantly and eternally in a relationship with God. This is what helps guide us on our journey through life.

The proscriptions against worshipping other gods, etc. and related offenses show us the jealous and possessive side of God (and therefore, of all human beings).  But this gentler prescription to study is more about reminding us that all of humanity, regardless of any “status”, has one primary relationship – the relationship with God.  That is, the connection with the part that within each of us which connects us to everyone and everything else.  This is something we must always keep at the front of our minds and hold within our hearts. We find this human-Divine relationship manifest in our interactions with others and the love we share with them.  We also become aware of it when we look within our own souls and see who we are and how all is indeed all connected. This is what allows us to face ourselves, others and God during this significant season of the year.

May we all have a Shabbat, an Elul, and a year, filled with love, support, introspection, growth and renewal.

Steven

No comments:

Follow by Email

Blog Archive

Blogs That I Try to Follow