Parashat Vayelech- Shabbat Shuvah 5776
There were better times in the past when the congregation had to suffer listening to the Rabbi’s sermon only twice a year: Shabbat Hagadol, before Pesach, and Shabbah Shuvah, before Yom Kippur. Those times are gone, for better or worse, but still it is worthwhile to have a serious reflection on this Shabbat, Shabbat Shuvah.
As many of you know, Rabbi Milton Feierstein, my wife Raya’s grandfather, passed away a few months ago. As a young rabbi, there are a few pieces of advice I got from him after a lifetime of working in the rabbinate. Once we spoke about how sometimes… actually very often… I go back home after a day of work feeling that there are so many things that I didn’t have time to do, that my work is not done yet, not even what I planned for the day. Rabbi Milton, Saba, looked at me and said that I will never feel that I did enough and I have to learn to accept that fact, knowing that I must anyway to do the best I can to try to reach the end line, as a ship getting close to a lighthouse but never reaching it.
This relates to our Shabbat Shuvah. There are people that expect religion, Judaism or others, to give only answers, therefore we call the act of becoming religious or observant lachzor bitshuvah, to return “in answers”. The religious experience seems to these people like a shelter against the craziness, the balagan, of life. Like an understanding of the World that can help to explain the challenging moments in life. They see faith as offering to the believer the comfort that life is as it is supposed to be and our spiritual work is actually acceptance, reconciling that idea with the reality of life.
I believe Judaism is completely opposed to these ideas.
From Abraham and Sarah, Moshe, Yeshayahu the Prophet, Rabbi Akivah and to modern thinkers like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel or Rabbi Louis Jacobs in the 20th Century, Israel’s faith was never to accept and live with it. Maybe one of the most important ideas in Jewish faith is that the way things are now it is NOT the way things should be. Our path in life and the destiny of the World are realities we CAN change. G-d, through the Torah and the calls of the Prophets, created a vision of the World as it should be, not as it is. Not yet. That’s true on the personal level as well as a society and as humanity. Meaning, there is still a version of ourselves, better, more advanced, that we are not yet it. A version that our families and our community need us to be.
The Sages from the Talmud continued with the task of developing a vision of a World of justice and mercy, giving this vision a name: Geula, redemption. Still the Sages didn’t intend for us to ignore the real World to dream about redemption, they demanded from us to be present in the World with all its fractures and failures, and at the same time holding in our hands this vision of how does the World suppose to be.
Maybe this is the central religious commitment of the Jew: to live under awareness of this holy tension between the reality of the World and our lives and what they are supposed to be. Reality and vision.
This idea is developed in a Talmudic discussion where the rabbis imagine which questions we will be asked by the Heavenly Court after our death. Ravah said in the Tractate of Shabbat that these questions are: Were you honest in your business? Did you designate time to study Torah? Did you bring children to the World? Did you expect salvation? Did you discuss with wisdom?. I want to stop for a minute on “did you expect salvation?” What does this question mean? How does this question help to determine whether we lived a worthy life? Actually, what does it mean to expect salvation?
One reading is that the rabbis thought that the act itself of expect for redemption, wait for the World as it is supposed to be, is such a meaningful religious act that we must be judged whether we lived with that hope in our daily life or not.
Another understanding is that the word “to expect” means something more active that just a passive waiting and hoping. In Hebrew to expect, letzapot, has the same root of to observe, litzpot. If this is the case, we can understand the question of the Heavenly Court as whether we had a vision, a point of view, of the World as better that it is now. Did we have the courage and the strength to imagine who can we be in the World? Were we able to identify and deal with the characteristics of ours that are an obstacle to that vision? Or maybe we lived lives of detachment, accepting the World as it is now?
These are the important questions we will have to answer at the end of our lives. I called the tension between the vision and reality a holy tension. It is holy because the uncomfortable feeling created by it is supposed to be creative and not depressing or shocking. Without this tension we won’t wake up to push the World towards redemption. The dissonance that this tension creates is supposed to inspire us to identify and connect with the work necessary to bridge the gap between the vision and reality.
The rabbis asked in the Tosefta: Who is a tzofe, a pilgrim on his way to Jerusalem? The one who sees the city and doesn’t stop. Maybe this is a good metaphor for our spiritual lives. This pilgrim has to find out where he is in relationship to where he is supposed to be. We all have to be pilgrims, with the mission of finding out where we are and navigate to the place where we want to be. Judaism pushes us to develop an awareness of where are we on this long journey to Jerusalem, to our ideal, challenged to never stop looking at Jerusalem on our way there.
May we be blessed with a year of health, peace and challenging but meaningful moments. May we be able to experience the uncomfortable feeling of looking at the World as G-d wants it to be and in merit of this may we be able to do our part to make a better World a reality.
Shabbat Shalom, Shanah Tovah and Chatima Tovah!