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Friday, September 21, 2012

Parshat Vayelekh (and Shabbat Shuvah) - Returning to the Mountaintop

This week's parashah/portion is Vayelekh (Devarim/ Deuteronomy 31:1-30). As Moses prepares to die, he continues his oration to the people. In this parashah, he informs them that God has revealed to him that, after his death, the people will go astray, break the covenant that God has made with them and worship alien gods. As consequence, many evils will befall them. But God reveals to Moses that they will realize the error of their ways and proclaim, " 'surely it is because God is not in our midst that this evil has befallen us.' Yet I (God) will keep my countenance hidden on that day, because of all the evil they have done in turning to other gods." (Deut. 31:17-18).

Rabbi Isaac Meir Rothenburg Alter of Ger (1787-1866) commented on this passage, that if a person is aware that something is hidden from him, then the disaster is not so great, for he will follow his yearning, and break down every barrier that exists in order to discover what is hidden. However, tragedy occurs someone is unaware that there is something more concealed within that which is hidden, and therefore they have no desire to seek it out.

It would seem from the Torah text that the people will become aware of God's hiddeness. They will therefore seek God out in the time when they are to experience the greatest punishment and darkest despair. In many ways, this is the essence of teshuvah, return or repentance, which is the main focus of these ten days beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur.

This Shabbat, which falls in the midst of those ten days, is called Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of Return. On this day, we are meant not only to rest, as we do every Shabbat, but also to continue our focus teshuvah, returning to God and to our truest self as the main task at hand.

Keeping this in mind, I found myself having a different reaction to both the Torah text cited above and to the commentary. For in reading the text, I found its essence not merely to be the idea of God being hidden, which is certainly frightening on its own, but that the hiding was a consequence of the people's actions.

I don't see this hiding as a "punishment" from an external force, in the classical sense, but simply a result of the people going astray. The text seems to be saying that when we forsake the Divine, then it is as if we turn our backs on God. God is therefore hidden to us. Our actions are not merely the reason for the punishment, they actually are the punishment itself. For our actions will cause us believe that "everything bad is befalling us because God is no longer in our midst. " For in turning our backs on God we become unable to metaphorically see God's face (experience God's presence in our world). It is as if God is hidden from us, when reality it is that we have turned away from God. We become devoid of any sense or experience of divinity in the world. We believe that God has abandoned us and that we are utterly alone.

This sense of being alone can beget depression, despair, apathy, and a sense that our lives and existence is meaningless. If we remain in this state, we are bound to continue in the downward spiral and act in ways that are increasingly antithetical to what God wants of us. In this way we not only continue to turn our backs on God, but we move further and further away from Divinity. We do this by distancing ourselves from other people and our connection to the world.

When we do this we then fulfill the most dire of the prophecies in this parashah and find ourselves at the bottom of an extremely steep slope of despair and hopelessness. From that place, where it is almost impossible to feel the light and warmth of God's presence, let alone imagine that it even exists, we believe even more strongly that we are there because God has abandoned us. We are unable to realize that God is merely hidden from our view because we turned our back on God in the first place.

Yet, if we had simply turned around near the beginning of our downward journey, we would have been able to realize that God was there waiting all along. If we had realized that God was "hidden" from us because of our own action, or inaction, then we would have been able to use all of our effort to break down the barriers between us and God so that we could discover God's hidden face.

However, once we get to the bottom of the ravine, simply turning around will not help. Even our greatest efforts might not be able to break down the barriers or help us climb back up the slope. Mere teshuvah, in its simplest sense, will not be enough to pull us out. But, if this is so, then how do we rise again so that we can stand on the top of the mountain in the presence of the Divine together with all of humanity and all of creation?

The answer to this query is deceptively simple, yet it requires courage, faith and trust - three qualities that we often lack when in a state of such utter despair. For the answer lies in relationship and community. The answer lies in the willingness to allow others to reach down into the abyss and help pull us out. This process begins with simply allowing one to hear the voice of God in the voice of others. This requires silence and a kind of deep hearing with our soul. When in a place of despair, it requires paying attention to the negative
voices in our minds and then allowing them to fade. Then we can begin to hear the distant call of God in the voice of family, friends and loved ones.
 
Hearing these voices in our stillness, we slowly begin to allow them to penetrate us even just a little bit, until finally, we turn around and see a hand reaching for us, which has been there all along. We feel the darkness in which we have been living. We feel its coldness, we smell its bitterness, we taste its darkness and we realize that we are ready to make climb upward toward the light with the help of others.

Eventually we reach the top where we can feel the light of God and see the divine countenance in the faces of those who helped lift us up to this place. That is the beauty of the communal teshuvah that we perform together on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. That is why we are meant to do this difficult work in community, and not merely alone. Finding that community is not always easy, but when one does find it the change can be profound. It is also the beauty of being part of a community, as society and a world, where there exists a social compact to remind us that we are meant to be there to help one another.

On this Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it is time to look around us and see where we are. Are we at the top of the hill, the bottom of the pit, somewhere in between, or perhaps in both places simultaneously? If you are at the bottom of the pit, then allow yourself to know it, even though it may be painful. Honor the place where you are. Take the time to experience wherever you are at this moment before you turn to take the next step on your journey. Then from your silence and your stillness, listen to the voice of God and look for God's countenance - for it is never more than just a 180 degree turn away – in the faces and voices of those around us. Then you can continue your journey of Teshuvah.

If you are already at the top of the hill (or somewhere on the slope, as is usually the case), look down at those to whom we can reach out and help. And if different pieces of you seem to be located in different place, acknowledge the complexity of life and do all of the above! It's easier – and more difficult – than it may seem.

I wish you all g'mar hatimah tovah - may you be sealed for goodness in the Book of Life. And may we each work with everyone to see that this is true for us all.

Shabbat Shalom.

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