It has become a tradition (well, for many of the last 14 years or so) to annually share with you this Random Musing for parashat Va’etchanan. As always, a few alterations added this year to keep it timely.
הַעִידֹתִי֩ בָכֶ֨ם הַיּ֜וֹם אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָ֗רֶץ כִּֽי־אָבֹ֣ד תֹּאבֵדוּן֮ מַהֵר֒ מֵעַ֣ל הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר אַתֶּ֜ם עֹבְרִ֧ים אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּ֛ן שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּ֑הּ לֹֽא־תַאֲרִיכֻ֤ן יָמִים֙ עָלֶ֔יהָ כִּ֥י הִשָּׁמֵ֖ד תִּשָּׁמֵדֽוּן׃
וְהֵפִ֧יץ יְהוָ֛ה אֶתְכֶ֖ם בָּעַמִּ֑ים וְנִשְׁאַרְתֶּם֙ מְתֵ֣י מִסְפָּ֔ר בַּגּוֹיִ֕ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְנַהֵ֧ג ה” אֶתְכֶ֖ם שָֽׁמָּה׃
וַעֲבַדְתֶּם־שָׁ֣ם אֱלֹהִ֔ים מַעֲשֵׂ֖ה יְדֵ֣י אָדָ֑ם עֵ֣ץ וָאֶ֔בֶן אֲשֶׁ֤ר לֹֽא־יִרְאוּן֙ וְלֹ֣א יִשְׁמְע֔וּן וְלֹ֥א יֹֽאכְל֖וּן וְלֹ֥א יְרִיחֻֽן׃
I call heaven and earth this day to witness against you that you shall soon perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess; you shall not long endure in it, but shall be utterly wiped out.
The Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and only a scant few of you shall be left among the nations to which the L”rd will drive you.
There you will serve man-made gods of wood and stone, that cannot see or hear or eat or smell. (D’varim 4:26-28)
The Promise. What a stunning prediction. If we don’t keep G”d’s commandments we shall be scattered among the nations, there to serve man-made gods of wood and stone. (Silica isn’t exactly stone, but I wonder if the computer gods we are serving kind of fit that description?)
And here we are. We didn’t keep the commandments very well, for the most part. Now we are scattered among the nations. And we serve man made G”ds of wood and stone (and of metals, paper, and bits in a computer.) Oh yes, we keep the ancient faith alive as best we can, but I sometimes wonder if even the most pious among us are meeting the ethical and moral standards set forth in G”d’s commandments? Almost daily we hear of pious people who seem unable to resist all sorts of temptations.(Don’t think the liberal Jewish community is exempt, and don’t assume that by pious I mean traditional or orthodox, for pious people can be found in every expression of Judaism. As can those whose piety is but a self-illusion.)
What a depressing scenario-what a depressing situation for us. But the answer is right there in the following verses:
וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּ֥ם מִשָּׁ֛ם אֶת־ה” אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ וּמָצָ֑אתָ כִּ֣י תִדְרְשֶׁ֔נּוּ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֖ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶֽׁךָ׃
בַּצַּ֣ר לְךָ֔ וּמְצָא֕וּךָ כֹּ֖ל הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֑לֶּה בְּאַחֲרִית֙ הַיָּמִ֔ים וְשַׁבְתָּ֙ עַד־ה” אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ וְשָׁמַעְתָּ֖ בְּקֹלֽוֹ׃
כִּ֣י אֵ֤ל רַחוּם֙ ה” אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ לֹ֥א יַרְפְּךָ֖ וְלֹ֣א יַשְׁחִיתֶ֑ךָ וְלֹ֤א יִשְׁכַּח֙ אֶת־בְּרִ֣ית אֲבֹתֶ֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֖ע לָהֶֽם׃
But if you search there for the L”rd your G”d, you will find G”d, if only you seek G”d with all your heart and soul — when you are in distress because all these things have befallen you and, in the end, return to the L”rd your G”d and obey G”d. For the L”rd your G”d is a compassionate G”d: G”d will not fail you nor will G”d let you perish; G”d will not forget the covenant which G”d made on oath with your ancestors. (D’varim(24: 9-31.)
Even if we search for G”d in the midst of our scattered lives, we can find G”d. For G”d will keep the promises, G”d is compassionate and will not fail us.
I don’t know about you, but when I look about the world today, and consider all the horrible mess we have created, keeping these verses in mind is almost a pre-requisite to being able to cope. Now, some will claim that G”d has abandoned us, that G”d no longer responds to our searching. To them I would remind them of the second half of v. 29, which tells us that G”d can be found even in the midst of our diaspora, but only if we seek with all our heart and soul.
I am reminded of a discussion I had with friends one night on Erev Tisha b’Av some years ago. The question was raised, as it often is, why we modern liberal Jews would mourn the loss of the Beit haMikdash when indeed it was that very event that precipitated the formation of portable Judaism, rabbinic Judaism, that has enabled us to survive all these years in galut. Before the Beit haMikdash was destroyed (both times) G”d sent us prophets to warn us that if we didn’t get our act together, we’d lose out. Both times we ignored the warning and suffered the consequences. And here we are, almost two millennia later, and we’re still not getting it. And so we rail that G”d has abandoned us, when it reality it may be we who have abandoned G”d. Despite all the tragic events, the persecutions, we’re still around. If we’re not finding G”d amidst all this, we’re just not looking hard enough.
We mourn the loss of the Beit haMikdash to remind ourselves of the folly of our still failing to heed the message. Ands to remind us to look for G”d, even among the ruins of what once was. This anamnetical connection with our history keeps the message ever fresh in our minds.
A rabbi friend of mine, Bruce Elder, just the other day, responded to a comment I made to him about my ambivalence at mourning the loss of the Temple by saying that he mourned the loss of (the sense of) community. I am presuming he meant the sense of community that must have existed in those times when the Temple stood simply because of how it drew people together in a common service, a common purpose, a common cause. (This despite the infighting, intrigue, and meaningless sacrifices.) (I apologize if I got the meaning wrong!)
I am also reminded of mass e-mail that was forwarded to me some years back, entitled “Letter of Intent,” a whimsical piece in which the Jews explain why they are not planning to renew the covenant with G”d. It goes into a whole litany of complaints. I wrote the following response to those who forwarded the piece on to me:
“You know what’s wrong with this whimsical piece? It completely ignores the fact that, despite our perceptions that G”d has not kept up one end of the bargain, that we have done far worse at keeping ours, and that despite that–we’re still here!!! If that’s not G”d watching over us, I don’t know what is, and renouncing our covenant is sheer folly, and certain to lead to the end of even the remnant that remains of the Jewish people. We didn’t listen to the prophets, and we’re still not listening. Yet, somehow, mir zenen doh. When, if ever, we actually try to do the things that G”d wants us to do, at least most of the time, and we’re still put upon, tortured, killed, etc., then maybe we have a right to complain. But I don’t think we’ve earned that quite yet.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that, in the intervening decade since I first wrote these words, I’ve become less and less enamored of the “we’re still here” argument. It has lost its power for me as a rationale for my continuing to life my life as a Jew. Survival is not enough. I am spending more and more of my time searching for new understandings of the “why be Jewish” question, up to and including completely new and radical approaches (while continuing to mine the more traditional rationales for useful components.) For the purposes of this musing, however, I’ll continue to stipulate that “we’re still here,” whether viable rationale or not, is reality, and should factor into our equations.
Coming back for a minute to the idea of community, I think we’d do well to keep in mind, much as we like to focus on individuals, that G”d’s promise really is to the community. G”d promises US to remember the covenant made with OUR ancestors.
Torah tells us that G”d is always there for us to find–if we search in the right way-with all our heart and soul. That’s not as easy to do as it sounds. Those moments when I feel I am truly searching with heart and soul together are rare. Much of the time I am searching with one or the other. Sometimes it is simply an intellectual pursuit. Sometimes it is a simple desire to acknowledge a power beyond my understanding. Sometimes it is a deep-seated need to be loved. Sometimes it is a deep-seated need to not feel so alone in the Universe. (Sometimes these needs are practical. Sometimes they are emotional. Sometimes they are psychological. Sometimes they seem to come from outside, sometimes from inside, and sometimes they even feel alien.)
Sometimes, it is just for fun or relaxation or stimulation. Sometimes it is just because. And sometimes, it just is.
I know I need to work on breaking through the divisions between my internal silos, so I can truly seek G”d with all my heart and soul. I pray for the ability to do so. I pray for the desire to do so.
Continuing on with the idea of community, it is all well and good to engage in these activities on my own, but consider how much more meaningful and powerful they could be if I engage in them as part of the community, in community, with a community. I must carve out a place for myself, in the rubric of community worship, to seek G”d. I must join in oprayer WITH my community as together we seek G”d with all our hearts and souls. What better kavanah (intent) to accompany the keva (fixed text?)
This Shabbat, seek with all your heart and soul. I’m pretty sure that G”d is there waiting to be found, because, every once-in-a-while, I’ve had a glimpse or an inkling. Even if you have already found G”d in your life, seek deeper. Who knows what deep wells you will tap? And what better time to attempt this than Shabbat, when we are already the recipients of a forshpeis (a little snack or taste) of the world to come? What better place than when joined with the community in worship? (Though I will not abandon nor undersell the importance of individual prayer and seeking of G”d.) Shabbat provides us with a little crack to peer through. What will you see? What will I see? What will we see?
©2007 by Adrian A. Durlester Portions ©1999 2001, 2002, 2012 & 2013 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha: