Thursday, October 6, 2016

Parashat Vayeilech: Shabbat Shuvah 5777

          Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Vayeilech, in which Moses announces his death and begins to close his whole Deuteronomy-long lecture on commandments and covenant and prepare the People of Israel to follow Joshua into the Promised Land instead. He warns the people that whenever Israel comes before the Lord, they should read and speak, hear and listen, the words of Torah that Moses has given them. By doing so, they will know the commandments and follow them. But God warns Moses that the people will not always actually do this. God knows that in a future time, the people of Israel will violate the mitzvot and the covenant, and will be destroyed by greater armies. Call it Divine Omniscience, but it also seems pretty obvious that such a thing is likely, considering what a stiff-necked people the Israelites already are. The Torah is full of problematic characters who act against God or in ways that confuse our own moral sensibilities, so it’s no surprise that in the Haftarah for this week, that is indeed what’s happening.
          In Haftarat Vayeilech, the prophet Hosea addresss the Israelites. In Chapter 5, he references the wars with the Assyrians which would eventually lead to the destruction of the Northern Kingdom, but Chapter 14, this week’s Haftarah, is written as prophecy: in the future, Samaria shall be destroyed, and Judea shortly thereafter, because of the guilt of the Israelites. They relied on human kings and false prophets, they assimilated to other traditions of the Ancient Near East, prayed to Ashterot and Ba’al, and turned their backs on God and Jewish traditions. Still, God wants their teshuvah. It is no accident that this is the Haftarah chosen for Shabbat Shuvah. The first word read of the Haftarah portion, Hosea 14:2-10, is “Shuvah” – Return. Return, and turn, ask for forgiveness for all your iniquity, request that God treat us graciously and that God accepts the words of our lips. In this time of destruction of the Israelite Kingdoms, Hosea hopes that our lack of access to the Temples and our inability to offer Hatat sacrifices will not impede our ability to make restitution with God.
          Of course, now we live in post-destruction time, when the idea of a Temple and making sacrifices is so far removed from our personal experience, that we don’t even think to worry about God’s potential preference for it. But we might still worry about our ability to make restitution. We might still worry that our prayer is pure enough, that our actions reflect our words, that we are truly turning and returning to Judaism. During this season of Teshuvah, we are especially aware of these concerns, and turn inward to find the atonements in our hearts. Throughout the High Holy Day liturgy, we read “The 13 Attributes of God,” which let us know that God might be compassionate and forgiving, slow to anger, and lovingly merciful. Or God might be judgemental, a harsh ruler who punishes the children for the sins of the parent. At Selichot, God hovers above two thrones: The Throne of Mercy and the Throne of Judgement. As we pray for forgiveness through the holy days up until the Gates of Forgiveness close at Neilah, we hope that we can persuade God to settle on the Throne of Mercy and inscribe us for blessing in the Book of Life. On Haftarat Vayeilech, the prophet Hosea tells the Israelites, Return to Adonai your God. Rabbi Meir, a second century sage who lived in Roman-occupied Israel, commented on this that the Israelites should make teshuvah while God is still Adonai, our compassionate and loving God of the Jewish people. Otherwise, God is Elohei, the God of Justice and Judgement.
Although we say that the Gates of Forgiveness close with Neilah, and we emphasize the importance of using this time to persuade God to rest on the Throne of Mercy, that does not necessarily mean that once God settles on the Throne of Judgement, we’re goners. Our liturgy also makes clear that God does not want to condemn us. God wants us to make teshuvah, whenever we are ready. But as we know from our own interpersonal conflicts, the longer we wait to make amends for something, the harder it becomes to talk about and greater the hurt it causes. So, let’s not delay. Yom Kippur is nearly upon us. Although we know we can confront our mistakes at any time, let’s use this time to make sure we’re starting off the new year right. May we embark on 5777 with clean slates, open hearts, and walking humbly with a merciful God. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

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