Shabbat Shuvah 2019

(D’var Torah given at Congregation Bet Shalom, Tucson, AZ, October 5, 2019)

A few years ago, I spoke on Rosh Hashanah about my struggles with the liturgy and the theology of these holy days. There is so much power and meaning in the processes of introspection and renewal that we take on during this time of the year, and especially during these ten days of teshuvah between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And, at the same time, there is so much that I find deeply problematic.

Today’s Torah reading is one example of this. The parshah begins with a peaceful transition of power from Moshe to Joshua, and God’s promise to the people that God will stay with them and protect them as they enter the new land and follow their new leader. God gives instructions for the writing down of the “teachings” – the Torah, and announces a regular, every 7th-year ritual that will gather the people and ensure that that they all continue to hear and know these teachings into the future, and will ensure that they remain a community and a people, knowing their common history and shared ethical values. Importantly, this ritual – and the community it forms –  fully includes men, women, children, and the strangers who live with them.

But then the mood shifts. God tells the people that they are stiff-necked and defiant, that they will grow complacent and forget God, that they will act wickedly and turn away from all that has been commanded. God makes it clear that this is a people who are destined to screw everything up.

This is not the compassionate God we refer to frequently during our holiday liturgy, (using the phrase taken from Exodus 34: 6-7)

אל רחום וחנון ארך אפים ורב חסד ואמת נוצר חסד לאלפים נשא עון ופשע וחטאה ונקה

God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation.

Nor is the God of the chapter that immediately precedes this one, in which God seems equally certain that the people will choose life, will follow these laws, and that God and the people will continue in a relationship that is based in mutual love and compassion.

God in this week’s parshah is more like an angry, vengeful parent who has given up on their hopeless children, and seems to want only to berate these children for being so ungrateful and so useless. This is the parent of the second part of that phrase from Exodus – that is not included in our liturgy:

לא ינקה פוקד עון אבות על בנים ועל בני בנים על שלושים ועל רבעים

God who does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generation.  

But our readings for today do not end there.

The Haftorah for today begins with Hosea’s words “Return, O Israel, to your God.”

שובה ישראל עד ה׳

It goes on to make clear that God has not remained angry forever, has actively turned away from anger, and is now focused on forgiveness, healing, love, and acceptance.

If God is a parent, this is a parent who is sending a very confusing, mixed message. Today we know that telling someone that they are inherently awful, and incapable of doing good, is not really the best way to get them to reflect on, and improve, their behavior. We might worry about the mental state of someone who talks this harshly to their family some days, and then comes back with words of love and healing, soon after, expecting everything to be just fine. We know that children who grow up with parents who talk to them this way are likely to be very troubled.

And, I suppose, one could argue that the Jewish people, on the whole, are more than a little “troubled”.

In some ways, it makes sense that we read these confusing texts during עשרת ימי תשובה, during these 10 days of intense teshuvah between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In so many ways, isn’t this mixed message the core of these holidays? That humans are by nature destined to screw up, to make mistakes, to go astray… but that we also can and should always try to do better.

Our tradition teaches us that humans are created in the image of God, and, in some ways, this week’s texts show us that the full range of human behavior and emotion that we see all around us, and within ourselves – that all of this is in God’s image.

We too get angry when we are hurt, when people let us down. We too lash out sometimes; sometimes we later regret that, but other times we realize that anger and disappointment are the appropriate responses to some situations. We too change our minds, change our emotions, after reflection or after time and distance have given us a different perspective. We too are capable of deep love and forgiveness and healing, in ways we may not think are possible, and that can surprise us. We too can learn to behave in new and different ways, or as Bennett said on Rosh Hashanah, to make new mistakes.

In the wonderful book, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, Rabbi Alan Lew writes that our task these holy days is to look at ourselves with full honesty, to look fully and mindfully at the truth of our lives – at our successes and failures, our pains and our angers, our fears and our joys, our desires and our distractions, at the places where our hearts are open, and the places where they are hardened. [And just so you don’t feel too overwhelmed by this list, he also notes that “The truth of our lives is reflected in everything we do, and if we focus on even one small part of our lives, it brings up the entire truth of it.” (p 76)]

Elsewhere in the book, he advises that we move through this process with compassion. Building on the teaching of the Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg, he notes that if all we see is our mistakes, if we focus only on what is wrong with us, on rejecting ourselves, and beating ourselves up for what we have done, we only move farther away from the goodness we seek, not closer to it. He asks: “What would happen if every time we did something we disapproved of, we opened our heart to heaven? What would happen if every time we felt an impulse we didn’t like, we acknowledge its Divine origin?” (p 130)

It seems to me that this is part of why we need to read the sections of Torah like the ones we read today, why we need to struggle with them, and question them. It would be much easier, much nicer, to only see divinity as compassionate and kind, accepting and forgiving, to focus – as we often do – on only parts of the texts that Torah provides to us. It is much easier to focus on the parts of Torah (and of our traditions) that make us feel good, just as we much prefer to look honestly at the parts of ourselves that we’re most proud of. But this week’s parshah reminds us that the Divine – in the world, and in each of us – is more complicated than that, and that being complicated, and having a wide range of emotions and reactions, including some pretty awful ones, is OK.  Actually, it’s more than OK. It’s what make us human. And it’s what connects us to the Divine.