Nitzavim: Mouth before Heart

September 21, 2011 at 1:39 pm | Posted in Nitzavim, Yom Kippur | Leave a comment

For this commandment that I command you today is not too extraordinary for you, and it is not too far away.  It is not in the heavens, to say:  Who can go up for us to the heavens and take it for us, so we can listen to it and we can do it?  And it is not on the other side of the sea, to say:  Who can cross over for us to the other side of the sea and take it for us, so we can listen to it and do it?  Rather, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 30:11-14)

What commandment is it?  There are two possible commandments in the sentence that precedes the above passage from this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim (“Taking a Stand”).  One possibility is observing every rule in the Torah; the other is returning to God:

—when you listen to the voice of God, your god, to observe its commandments and its decrees, which are written in the book of the Torah; when you return (tashuv) to God, your god, with all your heart and with all your soul.  (Deuteronomy 30:10)

torah = teaching, instruction; the first five books of the Jewish canon; the entire body of religious teaching and law

teshuvah = returning, turning around; repentance, turning one’s soul toward God (the theme of the upcoming holy day of Yom Kippur)

Traditional commentary is divided on whether the “commandment” in the next verse (the one that is not too extraordinary nor too far away) refers to Torah or teshuvah.  I think that the teaching that underlies all the rules in the Torah is that we need to turn toward God, and keep returning to God.

This is especially true if we accept the post-biblical idea that behaving ethically toward other people is part of turning toward God.  This idea is supported by the many injunctions in the Torah to love your neighbor as yourself; to assist strangers, orphans, widows, and the poor; to honor parents; and to avoid cheating, lying, stealing, and murder.

What else is part of turning toward God?  The Torah is packed with rules and laws (613 commandments, according to the Talmud, from ethical principles to procedures for temple rituals).  The rules that have to do with temple sacrifices obviously do not apply today.  I stand with the Jews who believe that some of the other commandments also do not apply to us today, the ones that are based on aspects of the specific culture and social structure of ancient Israel.

The essence of what does still apply today appears near the end of this week’s Torah portion:

… life and death I have placed before you, blessing and curse; and you must choose life, so that you will live, you and your descendants—to love God, your god, to listen to its voice, and to cling to it … (Deuteronomy 30:19-20)

Is it too extraordinary, difficult, and distant from us to love, listen to, and cling to God?  Or to behave ethically toward other people, who are also part of God?

The Torah says no, it is not a magical ability.  We don’t need a new prophet to bring it down from heaven, nor do we need a hero has to bring back from across the sea (as in the Sumerian story of Gilgamesh crossing the great sea to obtain the secret plant of immortality).  Turning toward God is something we can all do, right where we live.  We have the Torah to guide us, the classic commentary says, and we can interpret and apply it ourselves.

Rather, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it.  (Deuteronomy 30:14)

davar = thing; word

The thing, the word, the method for turning toward God, is in your mouth first, and then in your heart.  Wait a minute.  Don’t you have to feel like turning toward God before you can do it?  Don’t you have to feel like being good to another person before you can do it?

No!  At least not in my own experience.  I know I should be kind and just to the people I have dealings with,  even the ones I have no particular feelings about.  So I make an effort to acknowledge them, say something friendly, listen to them, treat them with respect.  And after I’ve done this for a while, a person whom I felt indifferent toward at first becomes someone whom I care about. Good speech and action lead to good feelings … perhaps more often, for me, than good feelings lead to good speech and action.

The same thing applies to my attempts to love and listen to God.  It’s harder for me to relate to God than to human beings, especially since I only have a vague concept of what the word “God” might legitimately mean.  It used to be easy for me to be an atheist, and just ignore my occasional undefinable feelings of transcendence.

But now, when I pray and when I ponder some piece of Torah (including when I prepare to write this blog, or a Torah monologue), the thing is in my mouth first.  I say the words of a prayer, and they echo in my consciousness, and some meaning occurs to me that touches my heart.  I read words of Torah, and my mind and heart rise to the occasion, and sometimes an insight arrives.  On the rare occasions when I do get that feeling of transcendence, the words I’ve been speaking and reading give the feeling context and meaning.

No wonder the book of Genesis says God spoke, and then the universe was created.

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