I remember the first time that I learned about the idea of subliminal messages. It was back in the good old days when people watched TV at the time their show came on and during that show, there were commercial breaks. There were advertisements for food, cars, vacations, and toys. And for each of these, there were companies that were trying to sell you something. And many companies bought into the idea that—while it was unproven science—that it was possible to mess with the brains of those watching by including subliminal messaging in the commercial or in the product itself. Subliminal messages function below the threshold of consciousness and, supposedly, can get you to want or believe something. It’s why there is clearly written the word “mom” as part of the Wendy’s logo, why there is a forward arrow hidden in the Fed Ex logo, and why McDonald’s has been accused of flashing an image of its logo so quickly on the screen during an Iron Chef episode, that it was barely perceptible to the human mind. Suddenly, went the theory, viewers would have a hankering for a Big Mac. This can obviously be used in nefarious ways, though this week, I want to suggest that our Torah portion is using it in worthy ways, maybe even in critically important and holy ways.
We’re in parshat Matot Masei, a double portion at the very end of the book of Numbers. Our forty years of wandering concludes this week. We stand at the shore of the Jordan River, nearly ready to cross over into the land of milk and honey. So what’s so subliminal about that? Good question.
Woven throughout this parsha are hints about what time of year it is, where WE are on our journey, and what we might want to start paying attention to.
The Torah portion begins with this law: Ish ki yidor neder l’adonai . . . if a man makes a vow to God . . . he shall not break his pledge. He must carry out all that has crossed his lips.
Yidor neder. Neder—the word vow. Or it’s plural nedarim, or in a form perhaps more familiar—nidrei. As in . . . Kol Nidrei. This parsha begins with a long discussion about what it means when we take a vow, when we make a promise— who is obligated to keep that promise and what is at stake when we break our word. Nedarim, vows, of course is a primary theme of our High Holy Days—and the work that we have ahead of us to become the people that we want to be, to repair the hurt we’ve caused by breaking promises to those we care about. In dropping this subliminal hint as we stand on the shores of the Jordan, parshat Matot Masei comes to lead our brains to subconsciously note . . . oh dear, the High Holy Days are coming.
If this were the only hint in this Torah portion, I’d think maybe I was being paranoid, but then we read on.
Moses gets frustrated with a couple of the tribes who seem to be saying that they would rather stay on this side of the Jordan than enter the land with everyone else. In his anger, he calls them tarboot anashim chata’im—a breed of sinful men. His choice of accusation here is interesting for us, as we sleuth out the subliminal messages in this parsha. Anashim chata’im—chata’im, like the word chet, and chatanu. As in: Avinu Malkeinu chatanu l’faneicha. God, we have sinned before you. We have missed the mark. Not that long from now, we will hold a book in our hands and before an open ark, we will recount the ways we have fallen short, hurt others, or ourselves or were less than who we hoped we would be.
And in the very next verse in case you’re still skeptical about my theories, Moses warns them: ki t’shuvun mei’acharav . . . if you turn away from God . . . you will bring calamity on this people. T’shuvun . . . sounds like . . . ? T’shuvah. And indeed, it is the same root as the word t’shuvah, to repent, to return to God, return to those we love, and return to our best selves – our primary theme and oft used word of Yom Kippur, our day of repentance.
Now, you could say this is all coincidence and honestly . . . you would probably be right. This Torah text came long before we were talking about nederim, vows, chet, sin, and teshuvah, the hard work of repentance.
And yet, these words don’t get used a ton in Torah, and certainly not this close to one another, and so if we choose to see them as the very subliminal messages that we need . . . there is no harm here. In fact, if you were to claim they were here on purpose to awaken us, to shake us alert to our need to begin the work of cheshbon hanefesh, the accounting of our soul . . . you’d get no argument from me. At the very least, it’s existentially useful conjecture.
Why? Because we so often stumble upon the High Holy Days as a surprise. We happen upon them like we forgot they were coming. It’s so human to do this that many of us do it every year. We walk into Erev Rosh Hashanah services so unprepared for the magnitude of what is being asked of us that it’s shocking to our system. We look down at the page of the prayer book and we are surprised to find that we’ve been rancorous and selfish and xenophobic and we’ve shown zeal for bad causes. And we have only ten days to examine our souls, our deeds, our inaction, all the ways we have fallen short. Ten days to get right with God and each other and ourselves. Is it any wonder why we find our High Holy Days so daunting, even alienating. They’re meant to be sweet and full of possibility, but often we feel on the outside looking in.
So, thank you Matot-Masei, for the kick start we needed. That I needed. Ours is a tradition that affords us a long onramp to the holidays. Don’t miss it. It’s August. What if we begin now, the work of teshuvah? Of return and repentance. Unrushed, we have time to reflect:
When were we unkind this year? To whom?
When did we make a promise that we didn’t keep?
Did we withhold love from others? From ourselves?
Did we look away from suffering when we really wished we had done something?
Did we choose to spend time with family when we were able, or did we distract ourselves with our phones or our work or our fears of being vulnerable?
We are only human. We’ve made mistakes. We have time to make things right.
Parshat Matot Masei offers us one more gift. We’ve made it to the Jordan River, yes? We stand at the threshold of a new beginning. And what does Moses do? He reviews for the people every stop on our journey.
He names them all—recalling every city, every stopping point, every battle fought, lost, or won, every people that we met along the way. Each stop shaped us—we either fell short, or we thrived—we made choices, we made mistakes. We made God mad, we let each other down, we repented. Looking back, Moses knows, we will find ourselves more ready to step forward.
And so here we are . . . standing at the shore of our spiritual Jordan River. And perhaps, with ample time to do it, looking back, we, too, might find ourselves more ready to step forward. Shabbat shalom.