Deuteronomy 32:1 - 32:52
What is the purpose of Ha’azinu (“give ear”), the poem that marks Moses’ final words to Israel? A literary masterpiece of poetic imagery and power, Ha’azinu speaks to Israel as a free people, and holds our feet to the fire. “Do you thus pay back the Lord, O foolish people and unwise?” cries Moses (Deut. 32:6). When we begin our Kol Nidre service this evening, let’s consider a beautiful interpretation of this verse by the Hafetz Chayim. He asks if a person is foolish why then also say that he [sic] is unwise? His answer: “people are accustomed to say that a fool considers himself wise, and I say: every wise man considers himself to be foolish.” On this night, more than any other, let us check our arrogance at the door, and seek the wisdom that comes through teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah. I wish you all a gemar hatimah tovah, may we all be inscribed and sealed for a good year.
This week's Torah portion begins with the phrase VaYeilech Moshe ("Moses went forth"). Reading these words on Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, can be interpreted as a challenge to us all: be like Moses, go forth with our teshuvah, go forth into the world! These Ten Days of Awe are not just for sitting in synagogue, they are a call to action. Every Shabbat Shuvah, VaYeilech asks us if we are listening to the call. and it reminds us that even a few days before Yom Kippur that there is still time for us to answer.
Deuteronomy 29:9 - 30:20
To say that Netzavim is one of my favorite portions would be an understatement. I love this parasha, I love the way God empowers us with choice and trusts us with covenantal responsibility. I love how timely this portion is every year – coming just before the High Holy Days. Netzavim, for me, also stands out because it uses the verb shuv (as in teshuvah), to call us to return to God on three separate occasions. Not only that, but it also describes God returning us, or depending on how we read the Hebrew, returning to us. Rabbi Amy Scheinerman observes that these statements are repeated in an alternating pattern and wonders if teshuvah is “a spiritual dance of two partners who must both turn to face one another and come closer and closer until they meet in the middle.” It’s a fascinating question, and as Rabbi Scheinerman further notes, speaks volumes about our relationships with each other – and how to heal that which we have broken.
Deuteronomy 26:1 - 29:8
This week's parasha contains a commandment that we no longer observe: to bring the first fruits of all that grows as an offering to God. (Deut. 26:2) Yet, even if we no longer observe this mitzvah, we can still learn from it, especially as we prepare ourselves for the High Holy Days. Consider the following interpretation from a little known commentary called Akedah:
The whole idea of bringing your first fruits is to rid you of the idea that it is "your land," and to bring you to the realization that it is "the land that the Lord your God gives you."
As I understand it, this commandment is an exercise in humility. We are not to confuse the work of our own hands with the gifts we have received from God, and we must express our gratitude to the Source of our bounty.
Mussar, a Jewish ethical-spiritual practice, can help us to deepen our understanding of humility and gratitude. Here are two little quotes I have used in my own Mussar study. I offer them without further commentary for your consideration. Please allow yourself a little time to consider what they each are saying, for there is much more here than meets the eye. I hope you will find them challenging and meaningful as I did, and helpful as you continue your own soul-work in preparation for the High Holy Days.
“One who denies one’s strengths is not humble, but rather a fool. Rather, a humble person is one who understands that all his strengths and accomplishments are a gift from heaven. The more a person recognizes this, the more humble he is.” – Rabbi Leib Chasman (1867-1931)
Gratitude rejoices with her sister joy and is always ready to light a candle and have a party. Gratitude doesn’t much like the old cronies of boredom, despair and taking life for granted. - Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810)
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras