I'm Jon Spira-Savett, rabbi at Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, New Hampshire. This website and blog is a resource for Jewish learning and Jewish action. It is a way to share my thoughts beyond my classes and weekly Divrei Torah. You'll find blog posts, standing resource pages with links and things to read, and podcasts as well.
According to this week's parasha, Va-etchanan, after the Israelites heard the Ten Commandments directly from God, the leaders of the community who approached Moshe.
They said: "This day, we have seen that God can speak to a human being (adam) and that person lives (chai). Now, why shall we die….? For who of any flesh (basar) who has heard the living voice of God speaking from the midst of a fire, as we have, can live? You go close and hear all that Adonai our God says, and you speak to us…and we will listen and do it." (Deuteronomy 5:21-24)
The leaders' request seems to make no sense. They don't notice the contradiction in their own words. They recognize that they have just lived through this direct encounter with God. How can this be proof if it happens again, they will die?
The Slonimer Rebbe notices a subtle shift in their language. The leaders say: We understand that God can speak to an adam -- a person, living (chai) at the level of the image of God. Yet when we are at the level of mere basar -- flesh -- a direct communication from God could not be understood. Hearing God in such a state can only make a person aware of their spiritual deficiencies, and drive one further from the deeper reality of living.
This is why, according to the Slonimer, God endorses the elders' solution. When it is too overwhelming to listen when God might be calling -- find someone in your life who represents closeness to God, and listen to her or to him. Listen for the voice of God that person, for however long it takes.
This week marks the beginning of the season of teshuva, of return and repair in all facets of life before Rosh Hashanah. The Shabbat after Tisha B'Av is known as Shabbat Nachamu, after the words of the haftarah. Nachamu nachamu ami -- Comfort, comfort my people.
From the depth of the fast day, recalling so much national tragedy, so much distance of the Jewish people from God, we immediately begin the spiritual climb. Even the last verses of Megillat Eicha (Lamentations), the graphic poem of destruction which we read on the fast, point this way. Hashivenu Adonai elecha v'nashuva -- Return us, Adonai, to you and we will return.
And so the Torah reading, Parashat Vaetchanan, brings out the big guns. We hear from the mouth of Moshe the Ten Commandments, and the Shma. The parasha is both a loud wakeup call, and a vote of confidence in us. God says: You don't need a slow healing, a gradual climb back to spiritual health. Let me show you the heights. Let me remind you of who you have been and who you could be again -- who you will be!
Still, we have these seven weeks to put ourselves in order. To look at our relationships -- in our families, among our friends, with others in our community. To ask whether we are leading our lives by the values we claim to living by. To think of any changes of direction. This is an agenda for weeks, not for the hearing of one reading of the Torah. The days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, even the single month of Elul is not enough.
So the Torah exhorts us, sets the bar, brings back the wisdom we know is out there. And the haftarah encourages us, lifts us when the burden of teshuva seems heavy. May we be blessed with both throughout these weeks. The wisdom and the encouragement we need to repair, to heal, and to begin a new year.