What Gets Me - a new poem for Tisha b'Av
Gevurot: Be There

Return To Your Heart: Va-etchanan 5783

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After the deep dive into communal grief that is Tisha b'Av, our tradition gives us seven Shabbatot of comfort. On Wednesday night we faced the age-old hatred of antisemitism and the brokenness of the world. Maybe in the aftermath we feel anew that when we let ourselves be real, the grief doesn't annihilate us after all. And with that awareness we begin tradition's seven weeks of consolation. 

Enter this week's Torah portion. Parashat Va'etchanan is a kind of Jewish Greatest Hits. Moses recaps the Sh'ma and v'ahavta, reminding us to listen and to love with all that we are. Moses recaps the Ten Commandments and reminds us of receiving Torah in the first place. And we also have this verse, which maybe we recognize from the Aleinu prayer, because the Aleinu borrows these words from Torah:

וְיָדַעְתָּ֣ הַיּ֗וֹם וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ֮ אֶל־לְבָבֶ֒ךָ֒ כִּ֤י יְהֹוָ''ה֙ ה֣וּא הָֽאֱלֹהִ֔ים בַּשָּׁמַ֣יִם מִמַּ֔עַל וְעַל־הָאָ֖רֶץ מִתָּ֑חַת אֵ֖ין עֽוֹד׃

Know therefore this day and keep in mind that יהו''ה alone is God in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other. (Deut. 4:39)

That's not a bad translation; it captures the simple meaning of the text. The Sforno says, "establish it firmly in your heart." I like that better, because he's attuned to the use of the word lev, heart. But I want to look more deeply at this phrase וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ֮ אֶל־לְבָבֶ֒ךָ֒ / v'hasheivota el-levavekha, because I think it's no coincidence that this verse appears for us now. It's a reminder, a foretaste of what's coming. 


The Hebrew root שׁוּב mean to return or turn around -- as in teshuvah: repentance, return, turning our lives around, re-aligning ourselves with our highest values and with our Source. Returning to something we've maybe left behind or strayed from or forgotten. Literally re / turning -- turning again. In modern Hebrew, a teshuvah can also be an answer, as in a halakhic answer to a deep Jewish question. 

So another way to translate this verse might be: Deeply know, today, as you return to your heart: God is God. Torah is instructing us: to go into our hearts and make teshuvah. Do the inner work of re-aligning ourselves with our highest values. Answer the deep question that our heart is asking about who we mean to be. Return to our hearts and return to our Source, because God is God.

יְהֹוָ''ה֙ ה֣וּא הָֽאֱלֹהִ֔ים / Adonai hu ha-Elohim: God far away is also God deep within. There's a unity that encompasses all of our differences. And as always if the "G-word" doesn't work for us, try: we do our inner work because Justice. Because Love. Because Truth. Because we just reminded ourselves at Tisha b'Av how much brokenness there is for us to repair in this world, and we've got work to do.

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Tisha b'Av set us on the runway toward the Days of Awe. Exactly seven weeks from tonight we'll be here in this sanctuary welcoming not only Shabbat but also a new year. Torah is here to remind us: the time for teshuvah is beginning. Return to our hearts, because that's the first step toward the great turning of the year, the great turning from who we've been toward who the world most needs us to be.

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In the spring we count the seven weeks of the Omer from Pesach to Shavuot, from liberation to revelation. We focus on seven inner qualities as we prepare ourselves to receive Torah anew. Now we move through those same seven qualities in reverse as we prepare ourselves for the new year that is coming. We begin this journey where we ended the last one: with malkhut, presence.

We begin this journey by simply being present to what is. Present to what's real, in us and around us. What does it take to really be present -- really in the moment, not in the stories we tell ourselves about what was or what might be? How can we be present for and with each other? Because though each of us has our own inner work, Judaism is a communal tradition; none of us walks this path alone.

Our mystics teach that Shekhinah (the immanent, indwelling divine Presence) goes with us in exile. Originally this was a teaching about being kicked out of Jerusalem. When Babylon destroyed the first Temple and sent us into exile, Shekhinah came with us. The place that we understood as God's home address was destroyed, but our mystics said: the Presence of holiness goes with us wherever we go.

And that teaching continued to be relevant. When Rome destroyed the second Temple and sent us into exile, Shekhinah came with us. In every expulsion: Jews kicked out of England, or Spain, or Portugal, or eastern Europe -- Shekhinah came with us. It can also mean: in whatever ways we feel exiled from wholeness, Shekhinah is with us. No matter how isolated or alienated we may feel, we are not alone.

It's a radical idea. God isn't just "out there" or far from us. We find God here with us in the messiness of our human lives. And -- this feels important -- not only in the easy places. On the contrary, tradition holds that Shekhinah hovers over every sickbed. When we say God's presence is with us in exile, we mean in our fear, or suffering, or doubt. אֵ֖ין עֽוֹד / Ein od -- there is no place without the Presence.

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Ein od milvado calligraphy by soferet Julie Seltzer.

Our journey toward the new year begins where we are. With presence, Shekhinah, malkhut, really inhabiting all that we are. Step one is to return to our hearts. Be present to who we are, how we need to re-align. Make teshuvah and begin to return. Because justice, and love, and truth matter. Because we are about to start over, and we can make choices about who and how we want to be.

Shabbat shalom.


This is the d'varling that I offered at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)