To What Shall We Return?
Several weeks ago, I ran the four-mile loop in New York City’s Central Park for the first time since last fall. I had been sidelined by an injury connected to my roles as mother of a small child and head of household: the schlepping and carrying had taken its toll on my back, and a playful lifting of my child in shul on one particular Shabbat served as the straw that broke the camel’s (or rabbi’s) back. Finally, well enough (and not too fearful) to lace up my running shoes, I relished the opportunity to join the many runners enjoying the park; see former coaches, friends, and team members; and notice how it felt to exercise once more. I craved the chance for my feet to hit the pavement one after the other after the other. Even more than putting my body to the test, this run was a gift to my soul that yearned for the spiritual practice to which it had become accustomed as I ran regularly, training for full and half marathons and raising money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
Throughout this run of reentry, I revisited conversations with my health professionals. One doctor’s reminder that my full recovery would take nine months reverberated in my mind. Nine months? It was not nearly nine months from the epidural that had helped quiet nerve pain in my leg; how could I ever have that much patience? The time frame of the gestation of a baby was not lost on me. And that space of waiting, imagining, planning, and ultimately entering space anew remains with me during this month of Elul, the time in which we attend to the call from within, returning to the one we are meant to be.
As we engage in teshuvah, (re)turning to the deep, soulful place hidden beneath the barriers we erect for others and ourselves, we must ask ourselves to what we are returning and how that relocation will manifest itself in our lives. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (19th-century Hasidic master from Poland, aka the Kotzker) provides some insight in his comments on the first of this week’s double parashah, Nitzavim-Va-yeilekh. Citing a midrash about a fisherman who claims that knowledge was not given to him from Heaven to study Torah or Mishnah, he remarks on the verse from our parashah, “Ki karov eilecha hadavar m’od beficha uvilvavcha laasoto” (No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it,) [Deut. 30:14], saying,
The fisherman gave an excuse for himself before Elijah, explaining that he had failed to find an opening that would lead inward, toward God. Elijah replied to him: you were not born a fisherman, so where did the insight and understanding come to you to know the process of fishing? It was the pressure you experienced to make a living that led you to it. If then you felt the same pressure in your soul because you lack knowledge of Torah and are far from God, you would strive to perfect your soul with all your might, just as you do in attaining your livelihood. (Ohel Torah)
The Kotzker asserts that the intelligence necessary to acquire Torah is accessible in the same way we gain practical skills: through attention and desire. Just as significant as ability and motivation is the invitation to take seriously the commitment to maintain a livelihood (beficha, in your mouth) AND draw close to God (uvilvavcha, and in your heart). We cannot feed our body at the expense of our soul, nor can we focus exclusively on spirituality without attention to the way in which we are to function in the world.
Torah functions as a means of drawing God close. Whether we study text, immerse ourselves in prayer, invite someone for Shabbat dinner, hold the door for another, or cast our vote in an election, our commitment to living a life of mitzvot, exploring what brings meaning into our lives, and opening our hearts often and enough to experience surprise at what we learn via our intellect and spirit may awaken us to God’s Presence.
Our parashah reminds us that we all stand before God to receive the Covenant: “Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnai Adonai Eloheichem.” The type of commitment that invites organic growth through introduction and investigation requires patience, curiosity, gentle determination, courage, and love. While our instinct may be to cover as much ground as quickly as possible, loving God and uncovering the depths of our soul takes time and practice and a willingness to sort through the chaff and discover the smallest most beautiful grain hidden within.
Elul, the Hebrew month in which we find ourselves and a time of searching heart and soul, provides an acronym for Ani L’DodiV’Dodi Li (Song of Songs 6:3), I Am My Beloved’s and My Beloved Is Mine. This sense of mutuality, of reciprocal love and commitment demands engagement. We cannot draw close to God through Torah from a distance. We need to stand, ready for God to circumcise our heart, to pull it apart and allow us to feel that we may love God with all our heart and soul so that we may live (Deut. 30:6).
Mary Oliver writes in “Walking to Oak-Head Pond, and Thinking of the Ponds I Will Visit in the Next Days and Weeks”:
I don’t know where such certainty comes from-
the brave flesh or the theater of the mind-
but if I had to guess
I would say that only
what the soul is supposed to be
could send us forth
with such cheer
As we approach these High Holy Days, may we stand as souls filled with potential for rejuvenation and reentry into a new year of learning in body, mind, and spirit.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.