Thursday, 22 Aug 2013

Written by Rabbi Alexandra Wright

A few months ago, I was invited to a congregant’s house to affix a new mezuzah on their front door.  The service for the consecration of a house in our Siddur is short – a prayer asking for God’s blessing on the new home, a reminder of its sacredness, its source of strength to the Jewish community, the blessing for affixing the mezuzah and the Shema which speaks about the mitzvah of writing the very words of the verses from Deuteronomy on the doorposts of our house and on its gates.  The service begins with a verse from Psalm 122: “Unless the Eternal One builds the house, its builders toil in vain.”  As the family were all Hebrew readers, and good Hebrew readers at that, I read that one verse in Hebrew and prefaced it with the words (for the benefit of a three year old and five year old present), “I’m going to begin with some Hebrew words.”  The three year old leant against his father’s legs and grinning at me, showed unusual attentiveness.  The five year old, also very bright and articulate, turned to his mother before I had even spoken three words and said: “I don’t understand a word she’s saying” and ran down the garden path.

I was a little taken aback, but the experience of being chastened by a five year old is always good for the soul. Afterwards, when I came home and thought about the little boy’s response, it occurred to me that when we sit in services, hear the words, see them on the page, deal with the concepts and ideas of our liturgy, we often feel exactly like that child.  What do the words of our prayers really mean?  How can we relate to the concepts and longings written down so long ago?   I’m not speaking about the Hebrew here, but about the language of transcendence, omnipotence, command, blessing and promise?
Among the most elevating and beautiful words of parashat Ki Tavo are the verses that come at the conclusion of the famous passage associated with the Haggadah at Pesach: ‘A wandering Aramean was my father’ (Deuteronomy 26:5). In this chapter, the Israelites are to dedicate their first fruits to God and give thanks for their yield.  Having given the priest the basket of fruits, they recite a brief litany of Israelite history – slavery, exodus, the gift of the land. The bounty of the field is to be shared with the Levite, the stranger, the orphan and widow –  those who are most vulnerable, having no income in kind from owned land.  The Israelite declares his integrity and obedience to God: ‘I have neither transgressed nor neglected any of Your commandments…’  The declaration ends with this uplifting and poetic prayer to God: Hashkifah mi’me’on kod’sh’cha min-ha-shamayim, u’varech et am’chah et yisrael, v’et ha-adamah asher natatah lanu…. “Look down from Your holy abode, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel and the earth You have given us, a land flowing with milk and honey, as You swore to our ancestors” (Deuteronomy 26:15). 

I am drawn to the poetry of this verse, the alliteration of the sibilants, the imagery of a Presence, a Divine Being who resides in a ‘holy abode’, the heavens, somewhere above us, looking out through heavenly apertures, peering at all that goes on in the world with the capacity to bless and pour out on His people the blessings of a ‘land flowing with milk and honey.’  But is poetry enough to provide the foundations of faith?  Once you begin to unpack the verse, a horde of difficult theological ideas are revealed.

Is there a God residing above who can see and hear all that takes place in the world?  Is there a God who looks out for us, provides for us and guards us from evil and harm? Is there a divine plan and are we part of that plan? 

Recently, a study in South Africa showed that relatives and families of those who had been murdered or shot and who accepted, as it were, the divine plan in which they had been caught, fared better than those without any kind faith.  But the idea that somehow the tragic and early loss of life through violence or accident is part of God’s plan is an inordinately difficult piece of theology to come to terms with.  We are not fatalists in that sense, indeed the acute sense of uncertainty with which we live is probably the only kind of certainty in our lives.  And contemporary theology or language about God often involves protest, anger and a sense of injustice which comes way before the sad acceptance that such fate cannot be reversed. 

The second idea that emerges from our verse is one of divine providence: the belief that by observing the mitzvot, we will merit divine blessing.  One commentary on the confessional verses of this portion, ‘I have neither transgressed nor neglected any of Your commandments…’ notes that every time the word hash’kafah, meaning “look down” is used in the Hebrew Bible, it implies a chastisement or judgement from heaven on the individual with the implication that something evil or ominous will take place – the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the mother of Sisera who looks out of her window awaiting her son’s return from war, Michal watching from a window as her husband David dances naked before the Ark of the Covenant.  But, adds the same commentary, the Zohar points out that when we don’t exclude ourselves from the community, but confess as part of a congregation, acknowledging that we have given to others from what belongs to us, then some kind of transformation occurs, and as part of a community, God looks upon us with greater mercy and kindness.  (Itturey Torah, Deuteronomy 26:15 ad loc).

Even that commentary brings its own difficulties because our own experience and knowledge teach us that suffering is not punishment for sins, nor prosperity the reward of good deeds. I may feel drawn to the aesthetic beauty of these poetic verses, but that doesn’t mean that I accept their theology, their assumptions.  Critics of religion and spirituality, who argue that religious believers are nothing less than violent, irrational extremists, fail to understand what John Cornwell describes as “religious faith [that] is metaphorical, poetic and symbolic rather than factual in a scientific sense.”  Cornwell, who is director of the Science and Human Dimension Project at Jesus College, Cambridge, has written an eloquent defence of doubt drawing on the life of Mother Teresa who left letters in which she wrote: “Where is my faith?  Even deep down…there is nothing but emptiness and darkness.  If there be a God – please forgive me.”

These thoughts bring us to the threshold of our Selichot services at the end of Shabbat and the great and solemn themes of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that lie ahead.  More than any other days of the year, we become, through our immersion in the liturgy of the Machzor, more conscious of God as Judge, Parent, Creator – presiding over the Book of Life to decide who will be inscribed and whose name will be held over until the close of the Fast.  We may well feel like that five year old boy who cries out, “I don’t understand a word she’s saying” and runs off into the garden, carrying the hammer that is to nail the mezuzah to the doorpost of the house.

The voice of protest and defiance and the need to question reminds us, as Cornwell points out, that religious faith is not “absolute, seamless, literal”.  It arises from the imagination, from the symbolic, from our sense of poetry and metaphor.  I don’t need to believe that God sits in his heavens and looks out at his world like an old man peering over his spectacles.  But that verse does give me a powerful and inevitable sense that there is something or someone Who cares deeply about humanity, Who envelops us, embraces us, forms the deepest part of our existence and redeems the broken among us, delivering into our hands cause for renewal and hope.

Rabbi Alexandra Wright
Ordained Leo Baeck College 1986

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.