Parashat Va-yeilekh

Shabbat Shuvah

Deuteronomy 31:1–31:30
October 4, 2008 / 5 Tishrei 5769

This week’s commentary was written by Rabbi Marc Wolf, assistant vice chancellor, JTS.

There is so much fundamentally wrong with the world today. As Chancellor Eisen wrote in his High Holiday message this year, “On bad days, the problems seem utterly beyond managing. On good days, they call for a degree of judgment, sacrifice, and national unity seldom seen in our country or our world.” My fear is that we have actually become too accustomed to calamity; too proficient at responding to disaster.

Our world is rife with adversity—be it at the hands of nature, the economy, or governments. When natural disasters ravage our country and world, we respond with aid, financial and otherwise, to assist those in need. As the economy comes dangerously close to collapse, lawmakers and advisors strategize on how to avert the crisis. When instability in governments the world over is giving way to escalating tensions, world leaders do their best to keep them under wraps with negotiations. While each appears to be manageable for the short term, collectively these states of affairs illustrate that we are much better at responding to a situation rather than changing an underlying behavior that would keep us from the brink of failure in the first place.

Change—it is the buzzword of the season, both political and religious; and with our cavalier attitude to the word, it is quickly losing any genuine meaning. Across the spectrum, the idea of change is being co-opted. However, if we continue to respond to calamities with stop-gap measures, we cheapen the potential impact of real change.

Professor Michael Fishbane, in his poetic, theological treatise, Sacred Attunement, recognizes the difference between a response to something that shocks us and the residual change that can occur when refracted through a theological lens.

When the charged moment palpably calls to our elemental nature and conscience, directing us to: Remember, Do Something, or Have Sympathy; and to the extent that one can fix these revelations in one’s mind through rituals of action and recollection, their moral charge remains. (20)

If this moment is, as Fishbane comments, an “event of nature, such as an earthquake or flood,” then our response of “Having Sympathy” will only live beyond that moment if we can tangibly incorporate our response into our lives.

Seen from this angle, we begin to realize that there is much that the world can learn from Judaism’s original understanding of change.

The first lesson is that change is a process. When the Hebrew slaves left Egypt, for the individual, the Exodus lasted an instant. One moment you were in Egypt, the next you were out —that was the extent of the Exodus. However, it took forty years of wandering in the wilderness for the people to truly cleave to God, change who they were, and become Israelites. This is the force of the verse from Deuteronomy. On the precipice of Israel, after their journey through the desert, Moses states, “Yet to this day the Lord has not given you a mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear” (Deut. 29:3). It is only after the experience of the wilderness, after the failures and celebrations, the trials and accomplishments, that they became the people who could enter the land. Likewise, for us as individuals, the pain and loss, happiness and festivities, parallel the stops along the journey of the Exodus. It is through them that we grow, develop, learn, and change.

A second lesson of Jewish change is that of Rabbi Akiva who when walking with his son saw the potential impact of repeated drops of water on a rock. “If these drippings can, by continuous action, penetrate this solid stone, how much more can the persistent word of God penetrate the pliant, fleshly human heart, if that word but be presented with patient insistency” (Avot de Rabbi Natan, 6:28). This patient insistency is the consistency that Judaism recognizes is a necessary catalyst for change. As Fishbane notes above, it is only when we fix the response in our action and memory that it has a lasting impact. Although individually they leave no impression, Akiva teaches us that the repeated, consistent drops of water on a rock will bore a hole straight through.

Finally, Judaism focuses on this real, sustainable change during the season of the High Holidays—in the form of teshuvah. When Maimonides speaks of teshuvah in the Mishneh Torah, he describes two distinct types of change. First, he writes of the person who recognizes that she or he must atone for particular actions—and thus does teshuvah. For example, if I did not honor my father and mother, I could do teshuvah for that behavior by seeking forgiveness for the bulk of my teenage years. However, when the discussion switches to the elemental ways the person needs to change, it is here, and not simply atoning for prior actions, that the Rambam recognizes that true teshuvah is deep, systemic, and not simply a response to failure. This is an elemental behavioral change in the individual. Continuing our example, with this level of change, I don’t simply apologize for my teenage years, but act differently toward my parents because of a fundamental behavioral modification that the process of teshuvah has brought about.

As we begin 5769 there is so much that we are looking to change—personally, nationally, and globally. Yet the change that will have a lasting impact will take into account the Jewish lessons of change. May we each recognize that lasting change comes from our journey through life, becomes incorporated into our action and memory, and leads us to true teshuvah.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.