By Rabbi Paul (Shaul) R Feinberg, PhD, Associate Dean, Emeritus and Adjunct Associate Professor of Education, Emeritus,
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
, Jerusalem, Israel.
“The last word has not been spoken,
The last sentence has not been written
The final verdict is not in
It is never too late to change my mind, my direction
To say no to the past and yes to the future, to offer remorse to ask and give forgiveness
It is never too late
Some word of mine, some touch, some cares may be remembered
Some gesture may play a role beyond the last movement of my head and hand.”
(Harold Schulweis, In God’s Mirror, K’tav, 1990, pp296-297)
We are finite creatures with an infinite potential for looking backward and looking forward; our behavior is always open to reflection, self-criticism, to being applauded or disdained on account of how it measures up … or doesn’t!
It is during the Days of Awe, Tishrei, 5776 where both regrets and reconciliation (may) meet, especially in the words we speak to and hear from one another, the Holy One of blessing, and the universe itself.
Finding ourselves this Shabbat of Return between the Day of Judgement and Day of atonement, one can feel especially imbued with the poetic words of hope, a plea, uttered in the concluding lines of the Una-Tana-Tokef: “Teshuva, Tefila, Tzedakah temper (cause to pass) the severity of the decree (Gates of Repentance, CCAR).”
The choice is in our hands, how we want to recount the past year’s doings, with what testimony will we weigh in the scales of the Zodiac’s graphic representation of the month of Tishrei? (See S.Y. Agnon, Days of Awe, Schocken, 1965, p.16).
So, it is up to decide what we make of our God given gifts of communication: speaking, hearing, listening, “with ‘all our heart, with all our soul, with all our might.”
A man, walking along the seashore notices a young boy throwing back one starfish after another, that had washed up on the beach in the killing sun. “What are you doing?” asked the man, what good do you hope to accomplish?” I am saving this one and that one, and those others!”
“But what difference does it make?
“To this one (the starfish being thrown back at that moment) it makes a difference!”
Each of us uses the means at hand to reach towards a level of our higher calling, such as that to which the prophet Hosea adjured us this Shabbat of Return. “Return, O Israel to the Eternal, to your God for you have fallen because of your sin. Take words with you and return to the Eternal saying to God forgive all guilt and accept what is good; Instead of bulls shall pay—we shall make good, through (writer’s extrapolation)—the offering of our lips[Hosea 14:2-4.” (The Torah, A Modern Commentary, ed. G. Plaut, 1981, p 1634)
The offering of speech (in place of animal sacrifice) distinctly echoes in the opening verses of the Parasha, Ha-azinu (Deuteronomy 32:1-3): “Give ear o heavens, let me speak; the earth hear the words I utter! May my discourse come down as the rain, my speech distill as the dew.”
Weaving a tapestry of nuances one recalls the earliest address to the first human beings as “speaking spirit” (see Aramaic translation/commentary [The Chumash, ArtScroll Mesorah, 1997,p.10) noting having the breadth of God –Ruach Mimallah—given the denizens of the Garden of Eden and all of their and their descendants. Consequentially great power and favor at once are bestowed on flesh and blood creatures, with “death and life” in the power of the tongue (Proverbs 18:21).
Moral use of language in last week’s Parasha, Ke Tavo (Deuteronomy 28:1) already anticipated what has been suggested already here in Ha-Azinu. “V’hayah im sha-moah tish-ma b’kol Adonai Eloheh-kha…”
Rabbi Arthur Green, in his interpretation of Sefat Emet, empowers darshan Rabbi Adam Greenwald to teach a profound understanding of our responsibilities and privileges as students of Torah: “If you will hear, and truly listen, to the voice of God.”
The grammatical repetition of the root “shin –mem—ayin– elicits a compounded, emphatic understanding, of the phrase, i.e hear/listen, “listen to that which you are already hearing.” (Cited today’s Torah, Rabbi Adam Miller, Zeigler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University).
Moreover this gift of speech, passed on from the outset of our recorded religious tradition through the Prophets on to our day is complex . Rabbi Greenwald declares, “We can and often do, chose not to listen to that which we hear.”
Whether because of distraction, antipathy, or indifference, we have a phenomenal capacity to shut our minds to the sounds our ears let in.
I add newscasts, in all their graphic horror, often, of asylum seekers here in Israel; refugees in Europe from the Middle East, as well as everyday exchanges within the family that go unnoticed, often have little impact on us.
Hearing reports of physical abuse, acts of terror, including hate crimes – religiously, racially sexually, politically motivated – too often shows us “…to go about our daily business disconnected even from ourselves,” declares Rabbi Greenwald.
It can be different, if we will it: personally, institutionally, and politically. Rabbis for Human Rights and the Israel Religious Action Center work in broad coalitions to help prevent these evil acts. I for one will continue adding thusly to my own confessions in these Days of Awe.
A congregant at the end of the Holy Day n’eela service once asked me, “Does God hear our prayers?” “I do not know,” I responded, “but the more important question is do we?”
Ending where we began, I turn to the late Rabbi Schulweis whose enduring inspiration inspires this d’rasha and so much else in my life: “… It is never too late, some word of mine, some touch may be remembered, and some gesture may play a role beyond the last movement of my head and hand.”
With profound gratitude to Rabbi Greenwald, I conclude with his adjuring us to accept that “listening is the fundamental religious act…Equally important are open minds and hearts. Redemption awaits on the other side of our capacity to unite the three, to not just hear, but truly listen…”
G’mar chatimah tova, chag sameach
. May we be worthy of blessings for well-being, with loved ones near and far, and all vulnerable pained ones to whom we extend hands and hearts.