Meaning to the Mundane – Parshat Ha’azinu 5778

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Are certain moments objectively meaningful, or are we responsible for assigning all meaning? There are plenty of events we call “life changing,” the ones that rock you to your core. Moments like the birth a child, the loss of a loved one, a great success in life – these are typically the ones that leave us forever changed in some way. Moments like changing the sheets on your bed, picking a place to eat lunch, finishing a particularly good book – these moments aren’t typically thought of as meaningful, nor do they usually add depth or beauty to our lives. But are moments really meaningful or not meaningful? Black and white? Or do we place meaning ourselves? Consider moments that seem ordinary, ones you engage in every day, but still contain a moment of magic like tucking in your child at night, a quiet conversation with a loved one, or a beautiful walk on a gorgeous day. These are moments that can take you by surprise; suddenly their ordinary nature isn’t so ordinary at all.

As we come to the end of the Torah, we find ourselves reading about massive miracles and life changing experiences of the Israelites at the same time that we’re reading about the mundane experience of simply plodding through life. For the Israelites, seeing God’s miracles, which happened so often for them along their journey, became a bit meaningless. Miracles, as strange as it sounds, became mundane and something they expected to happen. For us reading about it now, without grand acts of God taking place regularly in our lives, “miracles” are anything but mundane.

This past week we read the penultimate Torah portion, Parshat Ha’azinu. It’s the last section of Torah read on Shabbat morning, and it’s actually structured as a poem explaining the pitfalls of negative behavior and the blessings of good behavior. The text ends with Moshe ascending the mountain and into the clouds as he takes his leave of the Israelite nation. This parshah serves as a link between generations, between new and old leadership, and between living on earth (in the land of Israel), and living with God (on top of the mountain in the heavens).

In one of the final lines of the text we read that the Torah is “not an empty thing from you.” In other words if the Torah appears to be meaningless, empty, or unclear, it is not the Torah’s fault, but your own inability to make meaning out of the text (or out of a moment). The final lines of the Torah remind us that it is our task to add meaning to our lives, and that is the purpose of Torah in a nutshell: adding meaning and purpose to what otherwise might be mundane.

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My Rock – Parshat Ha’azinu 5777

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In times of trouble we often hear people talk about their “rock,” that person who stood by them as they weathered the storm that was upon them. It could have been any number of qualities that were helpful in that time of need. Your rock might have been someone who didn’t falter, was always positive, or always open-armed. It could have been someone who could simply listen to you vent about a crazy problem, or someone who was always at the other end of the phone no matter what time of day it was. A “rock” can vary from situation to situation, but ultimately it’s a phrase used to describe someone firm, strong, and solid.

We also refer to God as a rock throughout our liturgy. On Hanukkah we sing “Ma Oz Tzur” (“Rock of Ages”) and daily at the end of the Amidah we share in Yihiyu L’ratzon, “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to You, God, my rock and redeemer.”

This week we read parshat Ha’azinu, Moshe’s final poem to the Israelite people. In it, he reminds the people of God’s grace, compassion, and loving leadership, while at the same time criticizing the Israelites for their lack of faith and understanding. In this poem we read, “Remember the days of old, Consider the years of ages past; Ask your father, he will inform you, Your elders, they will tell you.” As Moshe is moving toward his final farewell to the people, he implores them to ask their elders to clarify laws and to share their stories.

Specifically, there is this line: “For their rock is not like our rock, In our enemies’ own estimation.” The God of Israel is unfailingly supportive and reliable, while, according to this verse, the pagan gods are incapable of that type of solid, steadfast strength and dependability. Our God is responsive, caring, creating a world in which the good outweighs the evil. God is our rock.

The point of this sentiment, and in a certain way the entirety of the Torah, is that when all else fails, when there is no one to listen or to hold you up, there is God. When you find yourself struggling to move forward or needing something to hold onto, there is God. As we continue through the final days of this period of heightened joy and introspection, may we give acknowledgement and thanks to all the “rocks” in our lives. We are stronger because of them.

Head in the Clouds – Parshat Ha’azinu 5776

Head in the Clouds

You probably already know one of my favorite parts of my day is the time I take to walk.  When I got a Fitbit last year as a gift, it spurred me on even more. Here’s the catch: I don’t walk on a treadmill or on a track in the gym.  Indoor exercise feels lacking to me, especially because I use my walks to clear my mind, brainstorm new programs and sermons, and find myself at peace.  Walking outside all the time can mean that sometimes I’m bundled up, and sometimes I’m seriously sweating it out. In Portland, it often means that my walks happen in the morning fog and clouds that hover over our hilly neighborhood.  Ironically, when I’m physically in the clouds is when I find myself most clear-headed.

Weather plays a prominent role throughout the Bible; consider the stories of Noah, Jonah, and Job. Specifically, clouds and fog are referenced in spots as well.  Mount Sinai is described in the Torah as being covered in a heavy cloud, which represents God.  One imagines Moshe needing to wade through the heavens in order to “find God.”  Way back in Bereshit, the descriptions of the earth mention being covered in a fog-like substance that then swirls and whirls and separates into water and sky before the land takes shape.  Walking in fog can be a surprisingly spiritual reminder of a preformed world.

This week we read the penultimate Torah portion, parshat Ha’azinu, which has the special honor of being the last section of Torah read on Shabbat morning.  Parshat Ha’azinu is a poem which warns of the negative behavior of the Israelites, but reminds us of the blessings that will come to them with the good behavior they are capable of.  The text ends with Moshe ascending the mountain into the clouds as he takes his leave of the Israelite nation.  This parshah is the link between generations, between new and old leadership, and between living on earth (in the land of Israel), and living with God (on top of the mountain in the heavens).  

The parshah begins, “Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; Let the earth hear the words I utter!”  The Hatam Sofer, an 18th century commentator from Hungary, interprets the verse in the following way:  “Listen to me you spiritual people whose thoughts are in heaven, and also you down-to-earth people whose concerns are more material.  This message is meant for all of you.”  As the final Shabbat-read section of the Torah, Ha’azinu not only has the unique designation of being a mini summary of the entire Torah, it also points out that Torah is for everyone. Judaism can speak to your soul and your brain; it can challenge your mind and your body.

Wherever you are, with your head in the clouds or your ear to the ground, there is a piece of Torah for you. As we enter a new year of learning and living, may we find ourselves growing and engaging with our spiritual selves as well as with our physical world, and may the journey be filled with blessing, challenge, and success.  

Another Turning Point – Parshat Ha’azinu/Rosh HaShannah 5774

Rosh HaShannah, the beginning of a new year.  Parts of it sped by, parts seemed to go slowly, but we reach this new year and see the broad expanse of time and possibility spread out before us.  But unlike the beginning of a secular year, this moment in the Jewish calendar is marked by transitional time.  The Jewish calendar is set up for this transition from one year to the next to be not only smooth, but transformative.  From the 17th day of Tammuz, when we enter into a period of 3 weeks of mourning leading to Tisha B’av, to the beginning of this final month of the year, Elul, we are occupied with transitions of the past, present, and future.  It is common Jewish practice to spend Elul in transformation, searching our souls to make changes and make the new year different.  So here we are at the turning point, called Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of return or repentance.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Hebrew language is the way in which the shoresh, the three letter root of a word, can often have several meanings.  For example, the shoresh Nun, Sin, Aleph, spelling Na’Sah, can mean to lift up, to carry, or to marry.  You could spend an eternity analyzing the meaning in this relationship between the words with the matching root.  It should come as no surprise that the holiday we celebrate this week, Rosh HaShannah, has wordplay of its own.

Rosh means head, but that could be the body part at the top of the neck responsible for thought processes, the person sitting at the special spot at a table, or the first day of anything.  Whatever the meaning, we know there’s some type of beginning involved when we see the word rosh.  The second word, Shannah, typically means year, but there’s a little more to it.  The root of the word is Shin, Nun, Hey.  This special shoresh can mean year, to alter, or to repeat, and the slight variation of Shin Nun Nun, even means to teach.

We’ve reached this time in our yearly cycle where we have the opportunity for a new beginning, but also an opportunity for change, for learning, and the chance to perhaps learn from or repeat our prior mistakes.  The question is how will you view this coming year?  At this Shabbat we read the words of parshat Ha’azinu and the beginning of the end of Moshe’s final instructions to the Israelites.  We are reminded about the changes he led them through, the teaching he’s done, and the years of dedication he gave to the nation.

At this turning point, the rosh, the head of a new year, give yourself the gift of change.  Make sure that it includes learning new things, repeating those things that worked in the past, and making changes for the better, toward what will lead you to your dreams.  That will make the year truly transformative.