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a save point

This week is Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbos that occurs in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In English, it is the Shabbat of Return. It is a pause in the middle of the days of awe, the days of repentance. (It is also the twentieth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, but there are a lot of posts about that already.)

A save point, if you will.

our Rosh Hashanah table this year © 2021 k. rowan jordan-abrams

And in our communities there has been a lot of talk— as we still make socially distanced minyans over Zoom, minyans that enable us to be together across so many miles and enable us to truly include people; as we are facing the high holy day season in the middle of a global panini… I mean global pandemic, for a second year— of returning to ‘normal’.

On Twitter yesterday, Rabbi Ruth Adar said, “Forget “back to normal”. Let’s go back to being the people we aspire to be.” (So many of my favourite rabbis are on Twitter; and the ones who aren’t? Are on TikTok.)

One of the things that I  particularly love about Judaism is that we are invited, encouraged, that in fact we are required to wrestle with the texts. This week’s Torah portion is Vayeilekh, the start of chapter 31 of Devarim, the book of Deuteronomy. The English for the first aliyah, which I chanted at this morning’s pop-up minyan that a friend and I put together, is as follows (with adjustments made to use a neutral pronoun):

Moses went and spoke these things to all Israel.

He said to them:

I am now one hundred and twenty years old, I can no longer be active. Moreover, Hashem has said to me, “You shall not go across yonder Jordan.”

Hashem your Gxd Themself will cross over before you, and They Themself will wipe out those nations from your path and you shall dispossess them.— Joshua is the one who shall cross before you, as Hashem has spoken.—

It is difficult, today, when we are living as a diaspora people.

When so many countries exist due to the displacement— and quite often much worse than simply displacement— of the indigenous populations who were here before, how do we bring ourselves to truly wrestle with these verses? Not to simply say that it happened and ignore it, or say that it did not happen and thus ignore it, but truly bring ourselves to think about how it is we got here. Regardless of how much that this plot point may make sense within the story narrative of the journey between Egypt and Israel, how do we contend in a modern sense with being on land that still is sacred to someone else?

The parsha continues.

Moses calls Joshua to him, speaks some more, writes down the teaching and gives it to the priests. It specifies that during Sukkot of the shmita year, the sabbatical year, they should read the teaching, the Torah, aloud in the presence of all of Israel— men, women, and the strangers within your midst.

This year, 5782, is the shmita year, the sabbatical year.

It’s not a ‘normal’ year within the agricultural cycle, rather it is the time during which lands are to lay fallow, debts are to be remitted.

So the question becomes, on this Shabbat Shuvah, who is it that we aspire to be?

And how can we use our process of teshuvah to help us to get there?

Teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedakah. The Unetanah Tokef prayer on the High Holy Days tells us that penitence, prayer, and righteous acts shall avert the severity of the decree.

And although teshuvah is often translated as penitence or repentance, it is so much more than simply saying “I’m sorry”. The atonement that we are aiming for of teshuvah is that of returning, of ethical self-transformation.

Maimonides lays out the steps of teshuvah and within those are included three stages: confession, regret, and a vow not to repeat the misdeed.

So how do we make sure that we do not repeat the misdeeds of those who came before us with regard to the land? And I think that one answer, at least, is simple, although the bigger answers never are. When we gather, all the people Israel— non-binary people, transgender people, agender people, converts, those who were born Jewish, the strangers within our midst—

Let us make a vow that the learning will go both ways.

Let us consider that at times, we are the stranger within the midst of others. And that sometimes, that’s okay. I think that it is important to seek answers other than isolating ourselves within our own communities; it is important to come to the table and sit in solidarity. One way that we can be active in our process of teshuvah is by learning from the indigenous nations whose land it is, learning to respect and care for the land in ways that are important to them. (For further reading, please start with A guide to Indigenous land acknowledgment by the Native Governance Center, and also consider Jews On Ohlone Land for an example of what the relationships between Jewish and Indigenous communities should look like.)

Wherein we continue to remember that our values place the highest and utmost importance on pikuach nefesh, saving a human life.

That our new normal will continue to be one wherein accommodating the needs of others isn’t just an afterthought.

Let us all be people who look around us and see the problems in the world and ask, in the truest spirit of tikkun olam, “How can I make these better?”

Shanah tovah u’metuka, a gutn Shabbos, and Shabbat Shalom.


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