Imagine thirty Jewish people in a room, all of them rabbis or cantors. Now imagine that they are completely silent – for hours at a time. They eat, pray, and study in total silence. This must be the beginning of a Twilight Zone episode, or the set-up for a Jewish joke, right?
This week’s parasha asks a challenging question: Is repentance alone enough to wipe away our wrongdoing, or is something more required of us? And what is the nature of true repentance?
If you have ever demanded an apology from a young child, you know that reluctant repentance is far from adequate. I remember reminding my daughter that a coerced “sorry” under her breath was not enough to earn my forgiveness -- unless it was accompanied by one other important word.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is probably the most eloquent writer ever on one of my favorite subjects: Shabbat. This week’s Torah reading wastes no time in reminding our people, not for the last time, of the importance of this holy day. It goes so far as to threaten death to anyone who violates the prohibition to work on the seventh day.
Our rabbis tell us that Moses was the humblest of men. After all, he tried to refuse God when asked to lead the Children of Israel. He was “slow of speech” by his own admission. He did not seem to have a very high opinion of himself. Those who knew him well may have disagreed, as this week’s parasha Yitro points out. There is a kind of ego-centrism that often creeps in when we’re not looking.
Last night I fought my way through terrible traffic to get my daughter to the airport. I was late for another event. Five minutes after dropping her off, she called to tell me her flight had been cancelled. The futility of my long drive was my first thought. Then, I took a deep breath and thought about the extra time I’d now have with my daughter. I picked her up and learned that the cancellation was due to mechanical failure. I breathed an even bigger sigh of relief and headed back home with a smile on my face. My daughter was safe. We were together. Halleluya.
There is a new buzz word in our culture right now. The word is “mindfulness,” which is a term that I never heard until a couple years ago, although the concept is quite ancient. In fact, as this week’s Torah portion demonstrates, it may have been invented by our ancestor Jacob.
This week’s parasha Ma’asei begins with a detailing of our people’s many journeys. I must say that the cantors trip to Spain that we took part in this summer -- with 50 cantors and another 280 congregants from all over the country, felt a bit like moving B’nei Yisrael through the wilderness (although the nine air-conditioned buses did help quite a bit!).
We’ve all had the experience of attending a party or event we didn’t want to go to. Sometimes you feel obligated, sometimes someone schleps you along. You’d rather do something else. You might be surprised and enjoy yourself, but more likely you’ll be grumpy, and spend the evening checking your watch. Still, you’ve fulfilled your obligation by going, and (you keep telling yourself) it’s good to do things for the sake of others.
I’m writing today from a cantors’ conference in Palm Desert. It’s pouring rain, and we had an earthquake this morning. But other than that, it’s been great! I’ve had a chance to participate in some of the most moving prayer services I’ve ever experienced.