Tonight is Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat during the period we call the “days of awe,” the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. During these ten days, we hope for a special pause in the hustle of living to turn back to our real selves, the highest ideals and principles that we believe in.
Shabbat Shuvah is not named for our Torah portion this week, as most of our Shabbat names are derived; it is named for the haftarah reading for the week from the book of the prophet Hosea, and this is what Cantor Green has chanted for us today. Shuvah, commonly understood as repentance and returning, a return to God.Hosea says,“Return, O Israel, to the eternal your God.”Shuvah, Yisrael, ad adonai elohecha.
What does return mean? Return to what? Return to temple for the two days a year that many Jews associate with organized religion?Well, certainly, that’s a start.But what else?
Hosea spoke 2800 years ago, but it might as well have been last week. Listen to him:Never again shall we say “Our God” to the works of our hands.We quoted him earlier this week, as we ushered in the new year with our Rosh Hashanah services.In part of that service, we lamented that "many have said to the works of our hands, you are our gods." We admitted to God, "You are absent only when we shut You out, only when, full of ourselves, we leave no room for You within our hearts."
This is a brilliant characterization of the soullessness of our dying century.This is the malady which so many people are attempting to cure with the current return to spirituality and religion.We worship the works of our hands virtually every day.That self-worship fills our hearts and leaves no room for God. Our entire society, the world, worships its own creations. We forget that all we can really do is rearrange the raw materials given us by God.
Still, Hosea recognizes that how we rearrange those raw materials does matter.It matters a lot.That is what this Shabbat is all about.Be humble – and yet proud. Live your faith humbly through your actions - and be proud of those actions, that faith, the good you can do.
The humility-pride continuum is fascinating.Judaism refuses to take the simple path of predetermination or the simple one of existentialism. We do not say, God is directing our every move and we are merely God’s instruments.And we do not say, God is long since gone (or never lived) and it’s up to humans to invent the world in our own image.
No, Judaism says, you are smart people.You can handle reality, which involves ambiguity and complexity. The chasidic master Bunam of Przysucha taught us that each of us should carry two slips of paper at all times. One should say, “for my sake the world was created.”This reminds us of the extraordinary importance of each human life, the inestimable potential for good in every one of us.And in the other pocket we must carry another paper:“I am nothing but dust and ashes.”And this is to remind us that we are accountable to a greater power than just ourselves, that the work of our hands is not to be worshipped. We must earn our worth through a relationship with God which includes study, prayer and action.
We are nothing but dust and ashes; be humble: remember God gave us this glorious work of creation. We did not create it, and we can’t really create. We can rearrange, we can give matter new forms, we can make beauty and we can make horrific brutality, we can do a great deal, but we are not the Creator. Don’t be foolish enough to say “our god” to the works of our hands. We remind ourselves with the blessings, the brachot, and the simplest one is a perfect example. What is the first bracha that our children learn in preschool? With their challah, they remember that Adonai is "hamotzi lechem min-ha’aretz,” the one who brings forth the bread. We may plant the seed, water and nurture it, reap and mill and bake it into bread, but it is God who gave us the earth, the rain, the sun, and the laws of nature that allow for growth of that seed.
And yet, Judaism says, for our sake the world was created: be proud too. We are not to give up in passive depression when things are tough, we cannot blame all evil and pain on an omnipotent God, we stand up for ourselves and improve the world we’ve been given. We don’t think of pain and suffering as a way of exalting us, as something we are to accept as special evidence of God’s love – as some other traditions do. We hate pain and suffering. We fight them. We work to eliminate them. It is up to us to complete the work of creation which God began. We are partners with God, every one of us has a role, however large or small it may seem, in perfecting this world.
And this is what we have to be proud of: the work of our lives. Our work, our role, is the path to t’shuvah, repentance and returning, which is what the high holidays are really all about. Hosea says, Return, O Israel, to the eternal your God … The wise shall understand these things, the discerning shall know them: that straight are the ways of the Eternal.
Now what are the ways of God, darchai adonai? What then, shall we know?
And this is the great challenge of Reform Judaism since its inception, and a challenge which we have largely failed thus far. We are not wise in understanding, discerning in knowledge. In fact, as Eric Yoffie, the president of the Reform movement, has said, there is a literacy crisis in our community. Less than a year ago, he said, “Ours is a uniquely ignorant generation… And the great irony of our ignorance, of course, is that we are simultaneously the best educated generation of Jews that has ever lived. Wonderfully educated in the ways of the world, we are abysmally ignorant in the ways of our people. Too many of us can name the mother of Jesus, but not the mother of Moses. We know the author of Das Kapital, but not the author of the Guide for the Perplexed….”
If we believe that we, dust and ashes, are yet partners with God in work of perfecting creation -- if we want to return to our great moral and ethical tradition, the rich teachings of Judaism -- then we need to know what those teachings are. To take actions grounded in morality and ethics implies a choice, and choice implies knowledge of the options for action, the principles and implications of those options. Yoffie, again, says that "there is no task more urgent and no mission more compelling than deepening the study of Torah in our midst."
In this week’s Torah portion, in Deuteronomy 31:9, we find the first reference to a written Torah, and the first instructions to read the Torah aloud to all the people – men, women, children, and the stranger among you. The Torah reading and the haftarah reading are telling us the same thing: listen and learn… thendo.
The resources for learning in Judaism are phenomenal. Within our own temple, we have adult education and outreach opportunities, several torah study groups, a vigorous book discussion group, and in October our redesigned book and learning fair will feature resources for individual and group learning. We have our library, thoughtful and generous leadership willing to share their time to teach us, and many opportunities through committees to form new connections and learn in new ways. The temple’s own Web site, and the beautifully designed Web site of the UAHC, are wonderful places to begin if you are comfortable with that method of learning.
And this is the start oft’shuvah. T’shuvah is repentance and returning, and this is the season in which many of us try to work toward a deeper understanding of what repentance and returning will mean to us. The road map is here. It is not just study, but the connection between learning and doing. Learning how to do, how to choose what to do.
I am constantly impressed with the torah study group, the book group, the conversations and emails among some of those in our temple who are really trying to learn – this is not an abstract, theoretical crowd. This is a bunch of people – you all – who really want to understand what our tradition has to teach and to offer us today, to find and follow darchei Adonai, the paths of God, and to use that perspective to find and follow their own paths in life that make sense and that make a difference.
Last Shabbat, Rabbi Gerson reminded us all that the Judaism we learned as a child is not the right size, the right style, to fit us as adults. We can't stop learning at 13 or 15 and think that we know Judaism. As we grow older, we have the extraordinary possibility of learning it all again, with new insights every time, and with the really profound pleasure of sharing with others who are doing the same.
This is something that any member of our community can do. And it's a lot easier, more rewarding, and more fun with other people. There is no end to the process; it’s a lifelong opportunity to continue to study and think, to be alive, to choose actions. But there is a beginning to the process, and every one of us can make that beginning right now. Check the Messenger every month for book group and Torah study options. Check our library and the book and education fair. Check the web sites for the incredible discussion groups on email, the lectures you can study online, the funny and profound and reflections on our holidays, even the recipes!
Return, O Israel, to the eternal your God… Never again shall we say “Our God” to the works of our hands… The wise shall understand these things, the discerning shall know them: that straight are the ways of the Eternal. We are dust and ashes, and yet the world was created just for each of us. We owe everything to God's grand design of creation, and yet we are necessary to complete the work of creation. Our tradition reminds us to do good the day before we die – and the punch line of this serious joke is that, of course, we do not know what day this will be and so must do good every day. Our prayerbook gives us a list of obligations without measure… and Torah, learning, is equal to them all, because Torah leads to them all. If we learn our tradition we can make wise and informed choices about our lives and the ways in which we will use our lives to continue to perfect the work of creation. This is the truest t'shuvah, and may it be a sweet year full of learning and doing for us all. Amen.