Friday, September 11, 2009

A Renewal of Vows – Parshiyot Nitzavim-Vayelekh
I surf. I’m not particularly good at it, but that doesn’t stop me. A rabbi of mine once told me to always have a hobby you’re bad at – it keeps a person humble. So mostly I go for the rush and the exercise, and for the unique beauty of sitting on the water, staring at nothing but the sea.
            I was out again a few days ago. Towards the end of my session the swell calmed, and I was alone with my thoughts. I had the realization that the sea doesn’t change. Sure, the conditions are different from day to day, but the jetty at Venice beach is in the same place every time; the waves break and curl in from the right; the feeling of being rushed forward as my board takes off and I drop in is the same feeling. To quote Kohelet (,
“All the rivers enter the sea, but the sea is never full; to the place where the rivers flow, there they return.”  (Kohelet 1:7)
            I realized that the sea never changes, but that I come back a different person. I remembered that last year, at almost exactly the same time, I was in the same place, doing the same thing. But last year, I was at the cusp of my career, looking towards my first High Holidays as a rabbi, full of tense excitement as the thought of the first year of my profession. This year, I come back changed.
            This week is a double parsha, Nitzavim and Vayelekh: they’ll be separated during Jewish leap years. The beginning of Nitzavim is powerful, but very odd:
Today you stand before Hashem your God – your leaders, your tribal chiefs, your elders, your law enforcers, every Israelite man, your children, your women, and the strangers in your camp – even your woodcutters and water drawers.
You are thus being brought into the covenant of Hashem your God, and accepting the oath that God is making with you today.” (Deuteronomy 29:9-11)
            This Torah is odd because we’ve been here before. This isn’t the first time that God has brought us into the covenant. There was Sinai, with all that thunder, lightning, God speaking, and some tablets.
            The message, it seems, is that the moment of covenant – a holy contract – is an eternal moment. It is a moment that God and the Jewish people can return to again and again. Perhaps like a relationship, covenant requires renewal to survive.
            The moment of covenant is eternal; it does not change. It is the parties to the covenant that change. We change, for better and for worse; and I have been taught that God changes as well. And our encounter with the unchangeable throws into relief the people that we have become.
            Such an eternal moment is a week away. Rosh HaShanah is, for us, Yom Harat HaOlam, the day that the world was created. I hope for the blessing of sight, to see clearly who we have become, how our world has changed, to be blessed to accept, once again, an old relationship that has become new.


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