Today we have begun the Hebrew month of Elul with a new moon in the sky. The 30 day countdown to Rosh Hashana when we will see the next new moon. We add to that the 10 days from Rosh HaShana to Yom Kippur, the Yamin Noraim. And we have a 40 day period for reflection, repentance and renewal.
What a gift! Our goal is not to wait until Rosh HaShana to start thinking about our successes and failures or the ways we have missed the mark. But to start now. To look up in the sky each night and let the phases of the moon inspire us to search our souls and to be ready to start 5781 with a fresh start.
This week’s parsha is Shoftim which underscores the theme of Justice from in Deuteronomy with the famous words - Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof - Justice, justice you shall pursue. (D16:20) You shall pursue - this is an action incumbent on each one of us. We need to be in active pursuit of justice.
With a simple phrase the Torah distinguishes two types of Justice. The phrase is Misphat- Tzedek. In the commentary Eitz Hayim we learn that Tzedek is justice in the sense of doing the right thing in a legal procedure and Misphat is the cosmic principle of justice that is so important it maintains harmony in the world. (p. 1088)
Both are important. And remind us of the Jewish imperative to create a just society. How do we do that? By following this principles in Deut 16:19. They are the first teachings after appointing judges. “You should not judge unfairly, not show partiality, not take bribes, for bribes blind the eye of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.”
All of these are ways of reminding us of the limits of human power. It is a system set up to protect the most vulnerable among us, from the most powerful.
Tonight I’d like to help you have a meaningful Elul, so that when Rosh HaShana 5781 gets here you feel you have a head start and by the time Yom Kippur rolls around you’ll be ready to start the New Year- as a version of your best self.
- In what ways are you one of the vulnerable? In what ways are you one of the powerful?
- Have you taken responsibility for your own state of mind or do you find yourself blaming others for your unhappiness?
- Have you been careless with following Covid guidelines forgetting that these are rules to protect us, not rules for us to try to get around.
- How have you contributed to the racism problem in America? What can you do to help fix the issues?
- How have you played a role in not preventing injustices in our society. What injustices are you going to work to eliminate to fix.
- How have you helped others this past year?
- What was your biggest accomplishment or the thing you are most proud of in the past year?
- Where will you put your energy in the coming year? Is this a shift in behavior or similar to 5780.
Jonathan Safran Foer in writing about the environmental crisis writes- We believe that the environmental crisis is caused by large outside forces and therefore can be solved only by large, outside forces. He continues with this fabulous line- “But recognizing that we are part of the problem is the beginning of taking responsibility for the solution.” (We are the Weather p. 110)
This Elul, we can work toward justice, not by waiting for others to act, but by searching in our own souls to determine ways that we can change our own behaviors to help the moral arc bend toward justice. Each of us can play our part to make the world in 5781 and onward, better than it has ever been before. And just think, if each of us in our congregation does the work and then we come together as a community of faith and justice, we can truly change the world.
Can you imagine with me how the soldiers must have felt in June of 1967 when they reached the walls of the Old City and found that they were able to enter and then when they made it to the Kotel, The Wall, and then when they realized that there was no resistance and then how they felt when they made it all the way to the Temple Mount. This was the Jewish dream to be this close to the Holy of Holies in Jersalem - in Yerushalyim - Yir Shalom. Even the most secular Jew was moved by this moment.
We have been blessed to have heard this story from Rabbi Gil Nativ, a friend of the congregation and a Rabbi in Israel who was one of those paratroopers. And today was Yom Yerushalyim, celebrating 53 years since the reunification of Jerusalem.
Noone expected the 6 day war to be over in just 6 days. Actually Israelis were digging trenches to prepare to bury their dead which they anticipated being in very high numbers. People knew war was coming and they really didn’t know what the outcome would be. Today, when we talk about it as History, things seem so obvious. Of course little Israel would defeat the entire Arab world, Jerusalem would be recaptured, and Israel would become a source of pride for American Jewry. But while it was happening, the outcome was uncertain and scary.
Similarly we begin Bamidbar, in the Desert, the book of Numbers this week. It is obvious to us that the Israelites would be wandering in the desert for 40 years. But they didn’t know that. God didn’t say how long the journey would be. We only know this from hindsight. If you have ancestors who immigrated to America, when they started their journeys they had no idea how they would end. They had hopes and dreams and faith that something good would happen.
American soldiers who we are remembering this Memorial Day weekend didn’t know if they would make it home from war. Some did and some did not. We thank all of them for their bravery and service to our country as be imagine how frightening the unknown must have been.
Alvin Fine wrote a poem that we often hear at funerals or at a yizkor service. And when we read it in those circumstances we are applying it to a life that was. But tonight I’d like to share it with you as a reminder that life is an unknown journey. An adventure, full of twists and turns, some uplifting and others scary. Some joyful and others profoundly moving. It is a poem that when I read it today, in this moment, in which parts of life have stood still; when some days are great and others are awful (just like they were before) but everything seems more so now; I know, can inspire us to make the most of our journey.
Life Is a Journey
By Alvin Fine
Birth is a beginning and death a destination;
But life is a journey.
A going, a growing from stage to stage:
From childhood to maturity and youth to old age.
From innocence to awareness and ignorance to knowing;
From foolishness to discretion and then perhaps, to wisdom.
From weakness to strength or strength to weakness and often back again.
From health to sickness and back we pray, to health again.
From offense to forgiveness, from loneliness to love,
From joy to gratitude, from pain to compassion.
From grief to understanding, from fear to faith;
From defeat to defeat to defeat, until, looking backward or ahead:
We see that victory lies not at some high place along the way,
But in having made the journey, stage by stage, a sacred pilgrimage.
Birth is a beginning and death a destination;
But life is a journey, a sacred pilgrimage,
Made stage by stage...To life everlasting.
We can’t look back and see how it will all turn out. But we know that if we are here, we’ve probably overcome some adversity. So all we have is the now and how we choose to live it.
I love the midrash about the Israelites walking through the Sea of Reeds and realizing that while some people looked up and saw the miracle, some were so worried about what they were leaving behind and what the future would be that all they could do was look down and see the mud. Can you imagine living through the most miraculous event in Jewish history and missing it because you were busy tying your shoes or kvetching about something. What a beautiful reminder to look up, enjoy life and see the miracles all around us.
We can take inspiration from those who came before us and entered an unknown and survived. And even from those who didn’t make it, but they had their journey nevertheless.
In this hour, recommit to making the most of each moment. Take an extra walk, give an extra hug - virtual or physical. If it rains tomorrow- do something in your house you’ve been meaning to do, or curl up with a good book or play a board game. Do something that will help someone else.
We won’t know the outcome of this moment, or of our lives, until “looking backward to ahead, we see…that life is a journey, a sacred pilgrimage.” Seize each moment and celebrate. And one day we’ll know how it ends, and whatever way that is we will get to say we were part of the miracle.