This week is the first of seven weeks that take us to Rosh HaShanah. This week’s Torah portion is an excellent first step. We have here the 10 Commandments as well as the Shema, two foundations of the Jewish religion.
In thinking about the High Holy Days, though, I find myself drawn to another part of our Torah portion – the first few verses. “Va-etchanan” means, “I pleaded.” Moses pleaded with God to allow him to see the Promised Land. God refused. There are competing theories why God said no, but the most important thing was the “no.” Moses was not going to get what he wanted, what he dreamed of, what his life’s purpose was. At least what he thought his life’s purpose was.
According to the book of Deuteronomy, Moses did not collapse. He did not quit. He doesn’t even seem to have been depressed. He carries on. Promised land, but not to him. “All right. Did not see that coming. Now what?” All right. Did not see that coming. Now what?
Does Moses suddenly understand that it was never ultimately about the land, about his going into the land? Surely –[?] the land of Canaan was a place where Israel could, as a nation, create a spiritual and moral path to God.
Moses had been traversing another path to God since the day he left Pharaoh’s palace on a journey into the unknown. When Moses encountered the angel of God in the heart of the burning bush, he was told, “Take your shoes off your feet, for the place that you stand upon is holy ground.” That ground was his holy land, a holy place he never left, wherever he went.
The land across the Jordan was crucial for the formation of the “kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” but not sufficient for encountering the Holy. You can walk the land and never encounter the mystery. Angels watch as we walk on by.
As we begin our walk to the Days of Awe, we have to remind ourselves: It’s not about religion. It’s not even about God. The Days of Awe are about encountering the God beyond God, the encounter with pure Being. The soul encountering its source.
This encounter can be profoundly unsettling. Beyond the text, beyond the prayers, beyond theological knots – a place where you just know a Presence that cannot be named – yet, it somehow knows your name. Silence is the greatest prayer, as we experience the unbearable lightness of our being.
Menachem Mendel of Vorki was asked, “What constitutes a true Jew?” He said, “Three things are fitting for us. Upright kneeling, silent screaming and motionless dance.” (Buber, Tales of the Hasidic Masters).
This encounter is unbearable if it lasts too long. If you stay there, you can’t come home. If you have been there, you can’t come home anyway, not the way you used to be.
This experience never leaves the heart, and in some ways creates a hole in the heart that yearns to be filled. Some of us are born with that tear (a “kera” in Hebrew) in the heart; for others, life rips it open. It can only be filled with the overflow of pure being (the “sheaf,” as the Kabbalists call it). The overflowing, the “sheaf,” has many vessels into which the it pours itself. Religion-this-side-of-God can certainly be one of them. For many, however, religion out of a can is not a satisfying vessel. Much of religion this side of God refuses it to admit it is a finger pointing at the moon. It is not the moon. And the light of the moon is not its own light. Moonlight reflects sunlight.
Suturing that tear, that wound, takes us into the world of spirit, to the garments of God: Love, justice, truth and beauty. The Good. The Holy.
When experiencing the incoming Overflow, you face the existential burden of knowing that you are choosing a life in the presence of the Knowing One. With this knowledge, a calm resilience, a strength and courage, settles in as well.
When God says to Moses, “You can’t cross over to the land,” perhaps Moses thinks, “I’ve been on this land the whole time, anyway.”
Of course, the problem is we can forget all this. Just go back to sleep. We have to be methodical about staying awake to the beauty, to the light, to the love.
So here is a start on the path to the High Holy Days: Remember to love this Truth, this Beauty, when you lie down at night and when you arise in the morning. From love will come duty.