Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelech 5777: Striving towards redemption
One of the things that Rabbi Moshe Feierstein, Raya’s grandfather, taught me, is that as a Rabbi I can’t expect to feel that I finished what I have to do for the day or the week. I will always feel that I haven’t done enough and the secret is to make peace with the fact that I do the best that I can. This is related to this Shabbat, the last of the year. In a few days, we will celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of humankind, but also the Day of Judgment. We are expected in this period to do Teshuva, to reflect and repent. My problem is that the word Teshuva in Hebrew means also answer. Dear friends, there are people that expect from religion to give only answers, hence somebody that becomes more religious is seen as “coming back in Teshuva”. They feel that the religious experience should be a shelter against the chaos of life. Religion should be a worldview that helps understand the challenging moments in life. Therefore, a faith offers the believer the reassurance that life is as it should be, and our spiritual work, being a person of faith, is to learn to accept, to make peace with life. Life is okay, we are not okay if we don’t accept life as it is. I believe Judaism is completely against this idea. From Abraham and Sarah, Moshe Rabenu, Yeshayahu, Rabbi Akiva till Rabbi Abraham Yehoshua Heschel in the 20th Century, the faith of Israel was never to accept and find resignation. Maybe one of the central ideas in Judaism is that the way things are now it is not the way they should be. Our path in life and the World’s destiny are not a fixed, they are not predetermined. God, through the Commandments of the Torah and the teachings of the Prophets, created a vision for the World as it should be, and we are not even close. Not yet. It is true on the personal level and on the collective level. There is a version of ourselves, more advanced, better, that we are not yet it, but that our families and our communities need us to be. The Sages continued in the Talmudic Literature with the work of developing a vision of Justice and Mercy for the World and called this vision Geula, Redemption. The Sages didn’t mean that we ignore the real World so we can dream of the Redemption, but they demand from us to be present and active in this World, with all its defects, and at the same time to hold in our hands the vision of the World as it should be. Maybe that’s the main religious commitment of the Jew: To live in the consciousness of this tension between the reality of the World and our lives as they are, and what they should be. This idea appears in a Talmudic discussion where the Rabbis imagine which questions the Celestial Court will ask as at the time of our death. It is written in the Tractate of Shabbat: “Said Rabba: When they bring a man to Judgment they say to him: Did you manage your business ethically? Did you set time for Torah study? Did you have children? Did you expect the Redemption to come? Did you discuss wisely?”. I want to emphasize “did you expect the Redemption to come?”. What kind of question is that? How can that question help us to understand whether we lived a good life or not? What it means to expect the Redemption? One reading is that Rabbis thought that the act itself of expecting for the Redemption, to wish for the World to be as it should, is a religious act of such meaning that we have to be judged whether we did it or not in our daily life. Another reading is that the word expectation in Hebrew, tzipia, has the same root as the word meaning to look at. So maybe we can understand the question from the Talmud as “did we have a vision for the World better than it is right now?” Did we have the courage and the strength to imagine who can we be in this World? Can we deal with those characteristics of ours that stop us from making that vision a reality? Or did we lived lives that accept and ignore the reality of the World as it is now? These are very important questions that we will have to give answers to. This tension between the World as it, is and as it should be is important, because that bad feeling caused by it impulses us to create, to act, to change. Without it we won’t wake up in order to push the World towards Redemption. This gap has to inspire us. May we have a year of health, peace and challenging, but inspiring moments.