ON THE WAY
Rabbi David Walk
This week's double Torah reading always shows up right around Rosh Hashanah. So, we rabbi types are annually searching for the connections between the parsha and the imminent Day of Judgment. For the first reading, Nitzavim, it's a no-brainer. Appearing prominently in the midst of the text is chapter thirty which is called the portion of repentance: And it will be, when all these things come upon you the blessing and the curse which I have set before you that you will consider in your heart, among all the nations where the Lord your God has banished you, and you will return to the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, and you will listen to His voice according to all that I am commanding you this day you and your children, then, the Lord, your God, will bring back your exiles, and He will have mercy upon you. He will once again gather you from all the nations, where the Lord, your God, had dispersed you (Deuteronomy: 30:1-3). As you can see these inspiring verses describe both spiritual return and a physical homecoming, both of which we pray for. But what is the inspiring message for the upcoming Days of Awe in parshat Va'yeilach? I think it's in the name.
Every week the great Spanish commentary Rabbeinu Bechaye (d. 1340) chooses a verse from the book of Proverbs which in some way summarizes the major issue in that week's Torah reading. This week he chose: Go, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have poured (Proverbs 9:5). According to Rabbeinu Bechaye the bread represents Torah and the wine symbolizes wisdom. We need both revelation and intellectual acumen to nourish a meaningful life. But the main point of the good rabbi is the use of the term go (Hebrew: Lechu). Generally, one would expect the invitation to be worded 'come' to taste of my intellectual treats, not go. As a matter of fact, most of the translations I checked used the expected word 'come.' Shame on them. The whole point is that to check out God's goodies you have to go out into the world. They're not hidden in a study hall or library. And the word 'go' has more baggage as well.
In many mystical texts humans are referred to as the beings who walk or go, as opposed to angels who stand, and are static. This means that we change, and can improve. With angels, what is you see is what you get. With humans, hopefully, you ain't seen nothin' yet. We are expected to develop and improve throughout our lives. This is very different than come (Hebrew: bo), which describes arrival and conclusion. Last week we read about bringing first fruits in that stable situation of when having arrived (Hebrew: Ki tavo) with a sense of permanence in your homeland. So, going is about continuing to improve and fulfill potential. Therefore the first verse in our parsha is amazing. Moshe is still going strong and evolving even at 120 years old. That's cool. I had a congregant who died at the age of 96, and was sharp and with it until the very end. When I asked him his secret he told me that he learned something new everyday. Sound advice.
We need both aspects, coming and going, in our lives. There's a famous verse which we read in the Haftorah of Re'eh, three weeks ago: All your children will be taught by the Lord, and great will be their peace (Isaiah 54:13). In our prayer book this verse is interpreted to mean that Torah scholars bring peace to the world, because we should read the word for children (banayich) as builders (bonayich). It's very punny. Except Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein (1860-1941) explains that it's not really a pun at all. It's the real meaning of the words. We call a male child a ben, because he builds (boneh). That's what the word really means. Daughters are called bat, because they establish the home (bayit). These are the etymologies. The concept of building is moving forward into a new situation. Building is about the future. The importance of a home is to provide a foundation for the individual based upon traditions and values which can then provide stability and morality when the person ventures forth into the surrounding world. The home is about the past; it provides background. We need both to have a successful life. We need education from our heritage to give us direction for our destiny. I don't think that it's important which parent provides which blessing, but historically there were traditional roles, Dad at work and Mom at home.
We often make a mistake about Rosh Hashanah. People think that the holiday is primarily about where we've been and what we've done. Although that aspect of reviewing of our deeds is present, the essence of the festival is our commitment and resolve for the future. The Netivot Shalom (Reb Shalom Noach Barzovsky, 1911-2000) makes a marvelous observation about the famous metaphor of the three books lying open on Rosh Hashanah. The allegory is that God opens the books of the righteous, the evil and the people who are mixture of the two (namely us). We traditionally have assumed that God is reviewing our actions to assign us a place in those three imaginary tomes. However, the Rebbe explains that that's not the case at all. God's opening them up before us for us to choose which book will describe our life and behavior in the coming year. We're being challenged on Rosh Hashanah to fulfill this prophecy: This day, I call upon the heaven and the earth as witnesses that I have warned you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live (30:19).
The word Va'yeilach instructs us that Rosh Hashanah and our heavenly judgment is less about where we've been, than it is about where we've decided to go. Please, choose well.
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