When I was younger, middle or early high school age, there was a short lived cartoon called God, the Devil, and Bob. The premise of the show was that a very Jerry Garcia-looking God is contemplating destroying the world again, but he’ll save it if one person can prove that it’s worth saving. The catch, of course, is that he lets the Alan Cumming-voiced Devil choose the one person, and, of course, he chooses Bob Allman, Grade A Schlub. In the first episode, Bob has great difficulty with the concept and asks God what exactly it is he’s supposed to do. God’s words echo those of this week’s Torah portion, “This is not new stuff! It’s written in scrolls, books, stone tablets! What do you want me to do, scribble it on a bar napkin?!”
As we learn from Moses, the lessons that we need to guide us on daily life are not only written down in all sorts of books throughout history, they are very close to us. God is not in the heavens, not across the sea, not far off. God is in each of us, and we are here to guide each other, as much as we are to learn from Torah. And yet, sometimes, doesn’t it feel like it would be nice to have concise directions scribbled onto a bar napkin? We sit in services every Yom Kippur listing off sins, including ones we didn’t commit, and it starts to feel wearisome. It’s so repetitive. What are we even doing here?
Well, we do it year after year, and year after year we remind ourselves of the closeness of God’s way, because we still constantly find ourselves missing the mark. We go searching for meaning in our lives, like we think it must be far off, that it will be hidden in a good job or an exotic land or at the bottom of a bottle. Maybe it’s in the oceans or the skies or the deserts or jungles, maybe it’s at the crowded Kotel in Jerusalem or the empty Choral Synagogue in Vilnius. Or maybe it’s much harder than that. Maybe God and the way to a better world is through Isla Vista and Ferguson. It’s in fighting for justice. It’s in discomfort. It’s in intersectionality and breaking down all institutionalized systems of oppression together. It’s in the tears that well up when you worry you’re not doing enough or that you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. It’s in the kind and friendly words you share with strangers, when you are mindful that “Friendly” or “complimentary” don’t cross into “cat-calling” and “harassment”. It’s in the challenge to look in the mirror and find your own flaws, it’s in checking your privilege, and it’s in opening up your world to be inclusive of those different from you. It’s in reading things that upset you. It’s in speaking out. It’s in tzedakah. It’s in g’milut hasadim.
We can only get there through true and honest t’shuva. It’s not going to be scribbled onto bar napkins for us. We can’t send someone into the heavens or across the sea to receive the directions straight from God as Moses was able to. All we can do is read and reread the directions we have, the Torah. All we can do is read between the lines to find all the extra hidden messages of faith, love, and righteousness for our time. All we can do is be honest with ourselves and God and each other at this season and make a point to do better in the coming year. So when we stand in this same place next year, t’shuva won’t just mean apologies and forgiveness, a clean soul and a fresh start. It will mean really looking back and saying, “Did I walk a little more along the Way? Did I stay on course? Am I actually any farther along this year? Did I make the world better?” And when that time comes, may we all answer: Yes.