Sunday, September 13, 2009

Standing in God's Presence, Then Moving On

My sermon from Sept. 12, 2009 - Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelekh


This is a time of year when rabbis everywhere struggle with choices. What are the overarching themes of the time? What are the issues on which we should be focusing at this time of year? In short, what will we speak about on Rosh Hashanah, when our sanctuaries are full and more people will hear our words that on the average Shabbat?
The irony is, the kinds of issues we address on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are no different from those we address during the year. All year we look at the six o’clock news through Jewish lenses; we try to learn from our sacred texts what the Jewish position is on a variety of contemporary issues. Social justice, the holy society, Jewish identity, God – these are not three-day-a-year topics.
As if to prove my point, the double parshiyot from which we chanted this morning offer a number of suggestions for how we should be approaching the cosmic issues of this season. This is not a holiday sermon, my friends. It is “merely” a Shabbat d’var Torah. But the message is, I think, as far-reaching as any you will hear next week.
Our double reading is comprised of parashat Nitzavim and parashat Vayeylekh. The text is dramatic. “You (Israel),” says Moses, “are all standing here today before Adonai your God. All of you – leaders, tribes, elders, officers, children and women, the stranger within your camps, wood cutters and water carriers.” The picture the Torah paints is a powerful one. While the census often quoted is six hundred thousand, in truth those are just the men of fighting age. From this figure we can extrapolate perhaps two million people, standing together, listening to Moses’ final address.
But it is not only the numbers that make the passage powerful. After 40 years of leadership, Moses is stepping down, not to a comfortable retirement but to face the end of his life, his mission, at least in his own eyes, not fulfilled. While the people have striven with him for all those 40 years, they are undoubtedly struggling with many emotions. They are saddened by the imminent loss of their leader and teacher. They are fearful of the unknown and wish that they could have a familiar face at the front of their ranks. They are in awe of this man, who would go into the tent of meeting and converse with the Holy One of Blessing, who ran interference between God and Israel, who defended Israel despite their sins. And they know they are witnessing a historic moment, when a career of passion and humility will soon come to a poignant end.
The second parasha opens with a signal that the lessons of Moses’ three discourses are at an end. Moses begins his own valediction: “I am a hundred and twenty years old today; I can no more go out and come in; and God has told me ‘You will not go over this Jordan.’ Adonai your God will go over before you…Be strong and of good courage.” Following these words, Moses charges Joshua before the entire community of Israel with the same words: Be strong and of good courage. Hazak v'ematz.
It would not be difficult, I don’t think, to find ways to apply these parshiyot to the end of one’s career and the handing over of one’s responsibility to one’s successor. And if we can find meaning for that purpose alone, I suppose the Torah has done its job. But I think there are greater lessons to be learned as well.
Consider the first words of the two parshiyot: Nitzavim – you are standing, and Vayeylekh – he went. Verbs, and specifically verbs concerning motion, and more to the point verbs in opposition to one another. One parasha opens in a condition of statis, the other in a mood of movement. While I think there are other reasons for the rabbis’ decision to combine these two when not enough Shabbatot are available to read them separately, I think the juxtaposition of these two verbs can teach us a significant lesson.
The Hasidic master Rabbi Barukh of Medzibozh brings a commentary based on the opening words of Nitzavim: The righteous are considered to be in the category of walking, because throughout their lives they continue moving from one stage to a higher one; the only time they are considered to be standing is when they actually cleave to God. Moses realized that right then the people were all standing because they were “before Adonai your God” and nothing separated them from God.
Rabbi Barukh’s commentary suggests that piety is less a goal than a process, and if that is so, living a meaningful Jewish life is always possible, always a road we may choose to walk, and it is the walking that path that defines us, not our sense of “having arrived.” However, we also learn from Rabbi Barukh’s words that the highest form of piety is an absolute stillness in the presence of God. Piety, thus, is less a series of details of observance than the sum total of the effect of all those details. As we work to learn what God wants of us, we re-define our lives according to holy principles, and at last we sense God’s nearness and we are absolutely still.
But that is a lesson focused only on atem nitzavim hayom – you are all standing here. Today, we find two parshiyot, and the second begins not with absolute stillness but with motion. So how can we learn something from this connection?
I would like to suggest that this business about being Jewish is highly dynamic. I am far from the pious figure of classic rabbinic literature and therefore cannot speak for those individuals, but I cannot imagine achieving such a place in life where I am so aware of the presence of God in my life that I am absolutely still and remain that way. There have been moments in my life, moments my colleague, Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, calls moments of transcendence, moments when I have been so completely aware of the presence of God, the touch of God on my soul, that speech or even movement were impossible. But those moments pass. I miss them when they go, but for us to function in our world they must go. We cannot remain in a state of suspended animation. For one thing, we would be very hungry very soon. We would need to sleep. We would need to stir and go back to the business of life, but here’s the point: Once we have felt the touch of God on our souls, we are never again quite the same. We begin to think what that contact was all about. What does God want? What does God want to teach us? And how can we make ourselves available to learn the lesson?
Assuming we have learned the lesson, intuited the lesson, the next step is to do something about it. Here, we must pause to consider another Hasidic master and what he has to teach us about teaching. Rabbi Dov Baer of Mezeritch was asked how a person could know whose way of Torah teaching is best. The rabbi responded essentially that it is not the person but the message that is critical – we must not be so concerned with our own self-aggrandizement that we get in the way of the message. If you hear the teacher more than you hear the words, find another teacher.
Profound lesson. But there is more. Rabbi Dov Baer likened one’s style to the fragrance of a flower, which is only a part of the flower, but which serves to attract people (and bees) to the flower. The teacher is the flower, the fragrance is the teacher’s style, and the bee is the student. But surely you have watched bees doing their work. They don’t linger on any one flower but flit from blossom to blossom. And as each bee takes pollen from flower to flower, students take the lessons of their teacher and go out and teach to others, become teachers themselves, enriching the world with the words they have found personally meaningful and profound.
Vayeylekh. He went. In our parasha, this term refers of course to Moses. But in general, “going” is the next logical step after having felt God’s presence in our lives. We may hesitate to talk about exactly how it felt, because the moment was so intimate, and that hesitancy is appropriate. But I suggested earlier that sensing ourselves in the presence of God and finding ourselves absolutely still implied opening our inner ears to God’s message. And it is the teaching of that message that we need to understand as the meaning of Vayeylekh. While it was only Moses whose movement was recorded in the opening verse of the parasha, the word needs to be applied to every one of us. What do we learn, from God and from our teachers? What truths do we understand about Jewish living, about the Jewish approach to interpersonal relationships and the nature of a holy society? While it is important to be still while learning these lessons, the next step needs to be movement, taking the lessons to the marketplace, to the office and the halls of government.
What might prevent us from taking the second step, from going out into the world with the lessons we learn? Possibly we feel humbled by the task – we should be, by the way. But we think we are inadequate, not articulate enough, not powerful enough, not privy to God’s insights. Who are we to speak for God?
Remember the opening lines of Nitzavim – all of you are standing here, from elders to children, from leaders to the lowliest wood cutters and water carriers. All of you, says Moses, stood at Mt. Sinai to hear Torah, and all of you are here today, breathless before God and witnesses to my passing my role of leadership to Joshua.
All of you. All of you. No one was thought to be not good enough to hear Torah at Sinai. No one today is less able than another to offer the Jewish approach to life to the rest of the world. It’s really very easy. All it takes is standing perfectly still when God touches you, then going out to share what you have learned with the rest of the world.
Rabbi Diane Cohen

No comments: