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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelekh: What Falls Down, Must Get Up

Dear online Hevre (community):

I apologize for this arriving during Shabbat. I thought I had posted it yesterday and then realized that I did not. For those who are unable to read it until after Shabbat, I am sure you can still learn something from it.

Comments are always welcome.

Shabbat Shalom or Shavuah Tov (a good week), as the case may be.



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. At the start of Parshat Nitzavim Moses informs 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 Parshat Vayelekh
, Moses warns them that God has revealed to him that, following 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."

These two opening phrases seems at first to be contradictory. Yet, I believe instead that they present us with a 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 every time we fall, we instinctively begin the process of returning to where we were before we fell. Yes, it is true that after certain false, it may be difficult or seemingly impossible for us to rise, but our instinct is to attempt to do so as quickly as possible.

Yet, viewing this as a spiritual metaphor, we often get stuck in the prone position seemingly unable to lift ourselves up again. We start to wallow in the muck that we believe to be the true nature our lives. We fill ourselves with negative messages saying 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." He is speaking to all of humanity and we are all standing upright. As a spiritual metaphor, we are "standing" upright before God, we are fully present and we are 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 within that which we call 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 returning 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.' "

In other words, somewhere along the journey we will fall down. At some point we will stray from the path upon which we have been walking. We will be 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 in these moments that we say to ourselves "surely, God is not our midst."

For it is in these moments that 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. And we are not. For, in truth, we are never alone, even though indeed 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 it the experience and acceptance of the powerlessness or our “self” or “ego” 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 it states in the first of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, we must "admit that we are powerless" and then turn to our Higher Power (as we choose to understand or experience it) 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, even though it is still a painful experience. 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.

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,


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