The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.
The Song of Moses is almost complete. With soaring praise to God and the heavens above, stinging rebuke and a promise of ultimate redemption to the people below, he prepares to make his final ascent to Mount Nebo. There, he will view the land of Canaan, and pass away into eternity without ever getting to set foot there.
On the precipice between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we not only “give ear” (the literal meaning of Ha’azinu, this week’s Torah portion) to Moses’ extraordinary poetry; we are also asked to give our hearts. In his penultimate moments with the Children of Israel, Moses begs them: “Place upon your heart all the words which I have testified before you this day. Enjoin them upon your children, to guard and to do all of the terms of this Torah. For it is not a trifling (empty) thing for you – it is your very life,” (Deuteronomy 32:47).
In this year like no other, as the news and challenges of each day frighten and exhaust me, threatening at times to pull me under, Moses’ words feel almost unbearably heavy. Yet I manage to surface, taking gulps of whatever fresh air I can find, clinging to these ancient prescriptions in this churning, raging sea of illness, fire, hurricanes and political upheaval, for our Torah has always been our life preserver.
In this time of deep and terrible reckoning for our country and our planet, I am grateful for the rhythms of the Jewish week, the beckoning and blessing of Shabbat and weekly Torah Study, for the communities that have given their ears and their hearts to maintaining spiritual together-ness in this time of ongoing apart-ness. It is indeed, our very life.
Moses begins his last walk, up and away from the people he has led to the banks of the Jordan River, the people who stand at the shores of history. We, too, are on the threshold during these Ten Days of Repentance, hungering for health and blessings, for a turning around of all that is so upside down.
While the echoes of Moses’ song still linger, later prophets enter to share their wisdom. The haftarah (prophetic readings) for this special Shabbat — Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of Return — combines the teachings of Hosea, Joel and Micah. Hosea begins with the emphatic call, “Shuvah! Return to the Eternal, your God!” (Hosea 14:2). And Joel proclaims, “Sound the shofar in Zion, sanctify a fast day, call a sacred assembly! Gather the people, sanctify the congregation, assemble the elders, gather the children and babes at the breast. Let the bridegroom come out of his chamber, the bride from her canopy!” (Joel 2:15-16).
Joel’s beautiful, forceful invitation to all of the people rings particularly poignant this year. We have come through a Rosh Hashanah when many sanctuaries were effectively empty. We now face Yom Kippur, our day of collective cleansing and confession, essentially alone. What we wouldn’t give to be able to meet, everyone together in a sacred assembly.
We long for the touch of one another’s hands and arms in greeting and welcome, for the communal meals over which we laugh and share stories, for the sound of spontaneous congregational harmonies and the low rumble of “silent” prayer. Maybe we’ve taken that for granted, figuring there was always a next time. Maybe that’s something for which we need desperately to atone.
But the evergreen offer of new dawn that Jewish tradition provides is undeniable and irrefutable. “Fear not, O soil… Fear not, O beasts of the field!” says Joel 2:21-22, soothing the natural world that was hurting so painfully, then as now. He urges, “O children of Zion, rejoice and be glad in the Eternal, your God!” (2:23) for as long as there is life, there is potential for change. Joel acknowledges that there have been years of loss and failure, of dreams and plans dashed, of collective mourning, defeat and despair — what a teaching for our time. But Judaism offers a path and a place (virtual now, but for which we must be grateful) to re-group, to re-align, to re-evaluate our priorities and cultivate the fruits of honor, decency and recognition of the Divinity in all creation.
Moses, Hosea, Micah and Joel were towering figures whose words often fell on deaf ears and closed hearts. They may do so still today. But for those who can give not just their ears but their hearts, who can learn to tread lightly upon the earth and live gently with one another, we may yet merit the promised shower of blessings raining down upon us and over all of our earth. Let us turn on this Shabbat Shuvah away from cynicism and indifference, and toward a path of light and faith. For to do so is our very life.
G’mar chatimah tovah – may we all be inscribed for health and shalom.