You Shall Pursue

September 16, 2013

Ki Karov Elecha (Because it is Close to You: Yom Kippur D’var Torah 2013/ 5774)

Filed under: D'var Torah — Tags: , , , , — marleyweiner @ 7:02 pm

This summer, I worked at a Jewish sleep away camp in New Hampshire teaching Jewish rituals and values. And one week, I was teaching my twelve and thirteen-year-olds about, the stories that Jews tell about the Bible. As the opener to that lesson, I asked my campers how many of them found something from the Bible confusing. And, without fail, every hand in every bunk went up and the questions started pouring in. How could God allow Abraham to nearly sacrifice his son? Did the Exodus from Egypt really happen? How do we know that any of this is real, anyway?

I empathize with my campers, as I’m sure we all do. The Torah is confusing! There are stories that seem to contradict each other, and stories that simply seem to defy sense. The work is just so magical, and mystical, and tangled up, that it seems impossible to untangle at times.

So then how can Deuteronomy claim “Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.”

How could the dense and confounding instruction of Torah be as close as our hearts and our mouths?

In this passage, the first sentence is often translated as “Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you.” The word that we translate as “baffling,” “niflait,” comes from the Hebrew word “feleh,” which means a “wonder” or a “miracle.”

This is a word that you have all heard before, although you may not remember where. In the Shirat HaYam, the song in which the Israelites celebrate their redemption from Egypt, the song from which we get our prayer Mi Chamocha, the Israelites exclaim that God is “norah tehilot, oseh feleh,” or “awesome in splendor, doing wonders.”

So, the redemption from Egypt is a “wonder.” The splitting of the Sea is a “wonder.” The Torah is not. What on earth could THIS mean?

When God claims that the Torah is not a “wonder,” God does not mean that the text is not wondrous and holy. Rather, God means to contrast “wondrous” with “close.” Rather than being a miracle like the splitting of the Sea that only God could do, the Torah is close by to our hearts. It is a text meant to reflect the stuff of our everyday life, and inject a little bit of Divinity into our mundane existence.

One of the things that I love about the Torah is how profoundly human it is. It is a record very real, very flawed people trying mightily, and sometimes failing, to build an authentic relationship with God. Whether it is Isaac misinterpreting the moral characters of his sons, or the Children of Israel rebelling in the desert, our ancestors often struggle deeply to find their way. They show fear and pain and doubt.

And yet they continue with the struggle. They continue to reach out towards God, hoping to find a peace and security in the land and relationship that God promises to them as a birthright.

One of the key beliefs of the Reconstructionist movement, which is the movement through which I will be ordained, is that our way of life, Judaism, is an “evolving religious civilization.” This means that, for a Reconstructionist Jew, Judaism is holy precisely because it is constructed by human beings, and because it changes over time. When we examine our writings in their historical context, they spring to life and become so much more than the words on the page.

And as they fill with life, they become more fully our own. I love our sacred texts precisely because they serve as a multifaceted and changing record of where Judaism has come from; a record of my ancestors’ grappling with the Divine.

The poems and songs and legal arguments and petty family squabbles of the Torah are so powerful precisely because they are so contradictory. When I think of Torah in all of its magnificent complexity, I think of my own psyche, and the psyches of those whom I know and love.

I cannot count the number of times that I have found myself holding holding two contradictory reactions at one time, and needing a complicated response to complicated feelings. For example, I don’t always have an easy relationship with God. In trying moments, like the after effects of Sandy Hook, I mostly want to scream and swear at the heavens, to ask, “What on Earth is wrong with You, that You would let this happen?” In those moments I find solace in the Bible. Not because it suggests that there is a reason for everything, but because it shows our forefathers and foremothers swearing and screaming just as loudly as I want to, and then continuing on in relationship with God.

And if I can need the Bible to help soothe my religious and ethical crises, think of how many opinions and stories are necessary to sustain the faith of the Jewish people!

THIS is what the Torah gives us; the perfect mirror and summation of the human drama reflected back at us through the lens of the divine. From the questioning bordering on cynicism of Ecclesiastes (where we get the phrase “there is nothing new under the sun”) to the erotic joy of the Song of Songs, there is a piece of every human emotion and experience for us to find in its letters.

This is why we read the Torah over and over again every year. To paraphrase Rabbi Barbara Penzner, “by studying Torah, as well as practicing Jewish rituals and acquiring Jewish religious objects, we can find an opening into a practice that will lead to our own unique Jewish experience.” As we read the stories of our ancestors and feel their religious and ethical concerns, we are bolstered in our own struggles with faith, to take the journey forward.

This is especially important on this day, the day of Yom Kippur. On this day, we are required to come before God and to confess our sins. And that is very very hard. But when we arrive, we are not alone.

As we read earlier in Nitzavim, the contract to follow the path of Torah and the path of Judaism is not just with us. It is “both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.”

When we doubt in our ability to follow this path, we can turn to Aaron, stone-faced and silent after a tragic accident during preparations for Yom Kippur claimed the lives of two of his sons. Or we can turn to the rabbis of the Talmud, haggling over what exactly the Torah meant to “afflict oneself” during this holiday. We can turn to David in his many lament psalms, reaching out to God and begging for the overthrow of his enemies. Or we can turn to the haunting and deeply familiar strains of Kol Nidre.

Each of these Jews had a very different answer of what to do when God called them to make an accounting of their sins. And yet each of them serves as an ancient model of how we can respond to that same call.

In this time of year, a time when we often feel alone with our sins, let us remember that we are not alone. We are standing with millions of supporters, whose voices have been left behind to help us continue along the path of the Jewish people. May we rely on them, and may we grow in strength from their example.

And may we remember that the help and strength that we need is not too wondrous, but rather very close to us, in our hearts and in our mouths, that we may do it.

Shabbat Shalom, and G’mar Chatimah Tovah. May you be sealed for blessing this year, and every year.


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