Standing at the Foot of God’s Mountain
My beautiful daughter is no longer a newborn at fourteen weeks. Even more striking than the swift flow of time since her birth is the fleeting function of memory. I can no longer picture her in my mind as she looked in the first few weeks, just as I can no longer imagine my five-year-old son the way he looked when he was fourteen weeks old—or my little sister, now in her thirties, as she looked when we were kids. The images replace themselves, as a teacher of mine once put it.
Modern man has found a way to capture those memories of course. Photographs make us think that we remember (“Oh yes, she looks just like her brother did at that age!”), but in truth—as research into the mind and memory tells us—it is a trick. The images replace one another and we are hard-pressed to retrieve old information, even of the most important, sentimental kind.
So when Moses instructs the people not to put off fulfilling vows they’ve made to the Lord, and suggests that it is even better still not to make the vows in the first place, we can understand his point. After all, I can’t remember what my own daughter looked like three months ago. How on earth am I supposed to remember what I promised God way back when?
“When you make a vow to the Lord your God, do not put off fulfilling it, for the Lord your God will require it of you, and you will have incurred guilt; whereas you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing. You must fulfill what has crossed your lips and perform what you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God, having made the promise with your own mouth.” (Deuteronomy 23:22–24)
The Midrash tells us—as we know from one of the verses of “L’kha Dodi”—shamor v’zachor b’dibur ehad: God acts and remembers that act simultaneously, something that is impossible for us, mere humans, to do. Time intervenes so that we set out to do something, forget what we wanted to do, and only later remember what it was that we intended; a source of daily frustration for those of us who can never remember where we put our car keys. More seriously, however, it is a source of aggravation of the soul when our forgetfulness involves “not doing.” Having forgotten the urgency we felt at the moment of our vows, we put off doing what we promised ourselves and our God we would do. And then, in all likelihood, we forget about it altogether.
Until Rosh Hashanah. How timely, to be chastised for unfulfilled vows as we watch the first weeks of Elul slip by and the Yamim Nora’im creep closer. No, we no longer remember all that we promised to God at this time last year—but we know the gist of it. We have no photographs to remind us, but we do have the Mahzor and the melodies, and as soon as those opening bars of Rosh Hashanah services are sung, the memories of all that we wanted to do and become last year come flooding back. We read these verses in Deuteronomy now, with a few weeks still to go before the High Holy Days, to remind us: God doesn’t want us to put it off any longer.
” . . . The Lord your God will require it of you,” says Deuteronomy. The verb root here isd’r’sh. It means require, but it also means seek, inquire, interpret, and discuss. When we make a vow to God and don’t fulfill it, or put it off, God will seek us out, God will come looking for us and ask us to discuss—metaphorically speaking—what happened to that vow. The Yamim Nora’im is that time of year, the time when God calls us back, and then invites us to remember all that we pledged to ourselves and to God. It is the time of year when God remembers too and comes looking for us: “I longed to be near You, I called you sincerely; went out to seek You, and found You seeking me!” to say it in the words of twelfth-century poet Yehudah HaLevy. Our hearts begin to turn back inteshuvah, a teshuvah rooted in forgetting and remembering, in promises forgotten and renewed.
God is waiting for us. We have forgotten but God remembers—atah zocher ma’asei olam as the Mahzor phrases it. The Midrash teaches that Moses spent all of Elul praying to God for forgiveness after the sin of the golden calf; only on Rosh Hashanah did God agree to forgive the people, and only on Yom Kippur did God give Moses the second tablets of the Law as a sign of renewed relationship.
This week of Parashat Ki Tetzei, we too are perched at the foot of the mountain, awaiting God’s permission to re-ascend to that holy place we dared to go last year. And God waits for us to remember what we have forgotten, to do what our souls realized needed doing at this time last year, but that our memories buried away in the daily dance to get through each day. We have only a few short weeks left to fulfill all that we set out to do during the last High Holy Day season. Lo t’acher l’shalmo—we can no longer put it off. Time is speeding by, precious photographs and memories fading. Perhaps Hillel describes the dilemma best: “And if not now, when?”
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.