Our Torah portion describes a public ceremony that was to be carried out as soon as the Israelites crossed over the Jordan into the Promised Land. In the city of Shechem (the modern city of Nablus) there are two mountains that slope down into a crossroads. The ceremony was to take place on those two mountains. From Mount Gerizim, slightly to the north, six of the tribes were to pronounce a series of blessings. From Mount Ebal, slightly to the south, six were to pronounce a series of curses. The message of the blessings and curses was simple: follow God’s laws, and you will be blessed; transgress them, and you will be cursed. Long life, well-being, abundance, and peace were the blessings; drought, starvation, war and death were the curses. Pretty straight-forward, within the mindset of the ancient world.
It is fortuitous that these concluding chapters of the Torah fall within our yearly reading cycle just as we are preparing ourselves for the Days of Awe – the Season of Repentance. We understand that in large measure we are all vulnerable against the forces of nature. Nevertheless, again, and yet again, we are reminded that within the realm of our own behavior, we have a choice over the decisions and actions that are within our control. As we enter this holy season, we are charged with the responsibility to reassess our behavior during the past year, and focus ourselves on doing better in the next one.
This year in particular we are in the midst of extraordinarily consequential deliberations regarding the choices we will make in our upcoming national election. Yes, some of us may actually view one candidate or another as a blessing or a curse. But the blessing that we actually DO possess in the United States is at least the ability to make our voice heard, and that is in the voting booth. This is one area that IS within our control. It is not only a blessing of democracy, in my view, it is our sacred responsibility as Americans.
Please. . . If you are registered, please make sure to get out on Tuesday, November 8, and vote. If there is any question about registration, please read this and send it to everyone you know.
This is one blessing or curse that is squarely within our own control.
Our thoughts and prayers will be with the people of Italy on this Shabbat, as they continue the heartbreaking work of digging out the city of Amatrice after a 6.2 earthquake toppled the beautiful city and environs in central Italy earlier this week. We know that their mourning has only just begun, and the devastation that nature has wrought is horrible to behold.
In Jewish tradition, this Shabbat Eikev is the second in a series of seven Shabbatot that are intended for comfort, particularly through the Haftarah portions. The 9th of Av, Tishah B’Av is a day of remembrance and mourning for us, as we mark the Destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. These were devastating destructions both of beautiful buildings and communities of people. Yet these were perpetrated by other people; first the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., and then the Romans in 70 C.E. While the horror and devastation were just as real, they are, on a certain level, easier to understand. This was war, and the violence and destruction that comes with war.
The difference, of course, is that human perpetrators of violence and devastation have control over events. This earthquake, of course, and natural disasters like it, are beyond human control, and thus exacerbate the feelings of helplessness, disorientation, and grief that we experience. We are moving closer to the High Holy Days, and with them, the ultimate acknowledgement of our powerlessness in the face of natural disaster. Perhaps the ultimate expression in the Holy Day Liturgy is the Unetaneh Tokef: On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water, who by hunger and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague, etc. Ultimately the Unetaneh Tokef is a stark acknowledgment of our vulnerability against the forces of nature and the randomness of tragedy. But the Rabbinic tradition also reminds us of the final verse of this devastating litany, which, according to tradition, is supposed to be recited in a louder tone – even shouted – as if to rise above that which is out of our hands: But repentance, prayer and charity temper judgment’s severe decree! We cannot control the random cruelty of nature. What we can control is the attributes of human kindness and empathy; our ability to act to help other people, and allow them to help us – in pain and grief, and in trying to rebuild in the wake of tragedy.
In the end, the comfort that these weeks between Tishah B’Av and Rosh Hashanah are meant to give us comes from our own confidence in our ability to rise up out of tragedy; to help others, and accept help from others, so that we can put our lives back together again. During this particular week, this is what we pray for the souls of Amatrice and their compatriots. May God give them strength, and bring them healing, especially now in the immediate aftermath of tragedy.
On Rosh Hashanah we greet each other with “L’shanah Tovah” – “A good year.” The more formal expression is “L’shanah Tovah Tikateivu V’teichateimu” – “A good year, and may you be inscribed and sealed (for blessing in the Book of Life).” The traditional imagery of the High Holy Days is of the Almighty sitting up in the Heavenly Court, writing (from the root k-t-v) in a big book, the Book of Life. On Rosh Hashanah, our names are written in there, along with what lies in store for us in the year ahead. During the Ten Days of Repentance – these very days – we have a chance to alter an ominous decree with the sincerity and conscientiousness of our teshuvah – the amends we make, one with the other, and with God. Then on Yom Kippur, according to this imagery, God makes the final decision, and seals (from the root ch-t-m) our fate, and as the sun sets, the big book closes. Along with the big book goes the image of the Heavenly Gates, which also close as the sun sets. These are the Gates of Repentance – sha’arei teshuvah. The final service of Yom Kippur, Ne’ilah, features this image most prominently, using the term “lin’ol,” meaning “to lock.” (Sandals in Hebrew are “na’alayim” because they close by locking.)
Thus, given this imagery, the correct phrase with which we ought to greet each other on Yom Kippur is “G’mar Chatimah Tovah” – “May your seal ultimately be for good.” And, if we’re a bit weary from all the fasting, many of us shorten it with “G’mar Tov.”
Regardless of how literally or figuratively we look at this imagery, the principle is the same for all of us. Our responsibility during these Days of Awe is to seek rapprochement, one with the other, and return to our relationship with God and with our Jewish tradition. But we also learn that while this is the time set aside for this rapprochement, we should carry this with us throughout the year as well. Even given the imagery of the closing book and the closing gates, “The Gates of Repentance are always open” (Lamentations Rabba 3:43). So it is with this expression of hopefulness and optimism that I wish all of you not only a “Tzom Kal,” – “and easy fast” – but also “G’mar Chatimah Tovah.”
In these remaining days before Rosh Hashanah, I offer some thoughts from our new machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh (Sanctuary of the Soul). These thoughts are found in the Rosh Hashanah Morning Service, at the very end of the Amidah, during our moment of Silent Prayer. It is a section entitled “Prayer of the Heart.”
• • • • •
Hear the sound of the shofar!
You who are caught up in the daily routine,
losing sight of eternal truth;
you who waste your years in vain pursuits that neither profit nor save.
In what ways do my heart, mind, and soul need to be awakened by the shofar?
What truly matters to me? What makes me feel that my life is significant?
Am I too often wasting my most precious possession – the minutes, the hours,
the days of my life?
You are everything that we praise You for:
slow to anger, quick to forgive.
Have I been slow to anger? Quick to forgive? What would my loved ones say?
Does anger interfere with my relationships?
Am I impatient at home? Am I intolerant with colleagues and friends?
Avinu Malkeinu, may we taste anew the sweetness of each day.
Renew for us a year of goodness.
Where do I find moments of sweetness and beauty?
As a new year begins, where will I devote my best energies?
How can I bring more goodness to the lives of others?
• • • • •
In this Season of Teshuvah, it is my hope that all of us may turn inward with complete focus and attention, so that we may examine our behavior and motivations over this past year with honesty and courage. May we renew our strength to improve where we have fallen short. And then, may we, with full humility, seek to repair the fissures in our relationships with others, and clear up any misunderstandings. May we have the courage to seek forgiveness where it is appropriate, and grant forgiveness in turn. And may the coming year be for us, for our People, and for all who dwell on Earth, a year of peace.