VR Podcast 4: Elul and Teshuvah
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This week's portion: blessing and curse

Here's the d'var Torah I gave yesterday at my shul, crossposted to my From the Rabbi blog.

See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God which I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced.

That's how the JPS translates the beginning of this week's Torah portion: Deut. 11:26-28. I like to read it slightly differently.

Behold: this day I set before you
blessing and curse.
The blessing is when you listen to My mitzvot
and the curse is when you don't connect with My mitzvot
but turn away
and follow other gods
with whom you don't have a personal connection.

In my reading, Torah isn't telling us that if we follow the mitzvot we'll receive blessing and if we fail to follow the mitzvot we'll be cursed. As in, do the right thing and you'll be rewarded, do the wrong thing and you'll be punished. Torah is telling us that following the mitzvot is, itself, the blessing. And that being alienated from our Source is, itself, the experience of being cursed.

The word mitzvah -- you probably know this -- means commandment. You may or may not know that it's related to the Aramaic word tzavta, which means to attach or join. Mitzvah can be understood to mean not only commandment, but also connection.

I love the idea of the mitzvot as connections. They connect us with God. They connect us with our tradition. They connect us with other human beings and with the earth. They connect us with ourselves.

The classical Jewish tradition identifies 613 commandments. 248 of them are positive commandments -- do this, do that -- a number which our tradition considers equivalent to the number of elements in the human body. 365 of them are negative commandments -- don't do this, don't do that -- and that number is understood to be equivalent to the number of blood vessels in the human body.

One strand of the tradition teaches that if you have an ailment in your body, you should consult a hakham -- one who is wise in these matters -- who can tell you which mitzvah is associated with that part of your body, so you can do the mitzvah and thereby become healed. Does this sound far-fetched? It might. But I find it very beautiful.

613 may be a daunting number to approach. Some of the mitzvot outlined in Torah were only possible when the Temple was standing. So I invite you to set aside your perfectionism. Even if we can't necessarily do all 613 mitzvot, we can still aim to live in a way which connects us.

The mitzvah of daily prayer is connective. Say thank you to God for the food which sustains you; say thank you to God for waking up alive in the morning; on weekdays, ask God for what you need, because articulating your needs to God can be transformative even if you don't believe that a literal response is going to come your way. Say the bedtime shema and reconcile yourself with each day's actions before you sleep. The mitzvah of making blessings is connective. Bless bread, bless wine, bless the rainbow, bless your child, bless a stranger you meet on the street.

The mitzvah of sanctifying time is connective. When Shabbat arrives, let go of your workday consciousness. Gather the light of the candles into your heart. Stop rushing and planning and doing, and take one day of the week to emulate God and to rest, to just be. Celebrate the holidays and festivals: eat apples and honey and hear the shofar at Rosh Hashanah a mere month from now. Fast and connect with God on Yom Kippur. Rejoice in a sukkah during Sukkot. Each of these mitzvot connects you with millennia of history, with Jews around the world today, with God, and with a deep part of yourself.

You can't do mitzvot without knowing what they are. So in order to gain the benefit of living the mitzvot, you need to experience the mitzvah of Torah study. And the more you learn, the more you're able to do; and the more you do, the more connected you are; and the more connected you are, the more blessing you receive.

The Torah verses I read earlier include the idea that the curse comes when we turn away from God's path and follow other gods whom we have not personally experienced. Some of us may not feel that we've ever experienced our own God, much less anybody else's. We may not feel that we know how to have a direct experience of God.

But I invite you to consider that you can experience God -- you can experience a connection with the Source of all Being -- whenever you do a mitzvah, whether an ethical one (such as cooking for Take and Eat) or a ritual one (such as lighting Shabbat candles.) You can experience a connection with the Source of all Being when you feel love for your parent, your child, your spouse, your friend. You can experience a connection with the Source of all Being when you walk in the woods, or step outside our sanctuary, and become aware of the birdsong and the glory of the mountains.

When we do these mitzvot, we feel connected to God, and that's our blessing.

When we turn away from this path, and become distracted by the constant chatter of email and twitter and Facebook and obligations; when we imagine that our to-do list at work is more important than really connecting with our family on Shabbat; when we value money and privilege more than we value kindness and caring -- then we're disconnected from God.

There's an old joke which says that heaven and hell are both dinner parties, both featuring people sitting around a table with incredibly long forks. In hell, each person spears their own food with their own fork, and then can't reach their mouth, and goes hungry. And in heaven, each person spears some food and feeds it to someone across the table, and in this way everyone is fed, and there is joy. It's kind of cartoony, and it doesn't match the Jewish conception of heaven or hell, but I think it speaks to this week's Torah portion.

When we ignore the mitzvot, when we think only of ourselves, we go hungry.

When we follow the mitzvot, when we feed one another, we receive the sustenance we need.

Shabbat shalom!