The Torah portion Ki Tavo closes with a wonderfully disorienting perspective, as the reading cycle prepares to leave the Israelites on the banks of the Jordan, while we, as readers, prepare for the new year. Who experienced what in the desert years? Who is about to enter the Promised Land, with instructions for bringing the first fruits? And who is in the exact same spot reached each year at this point, wondering about the meaning of the journey and what chance there is for moving forward?
When Is “This Day”?
Moses tells those gathered before him: “Ye have seen what the LORD did before your eyes to Pharoah…” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 29:1). But the entire generation that experienced slavery and the signs and wonders of the Exodus first-hand — with the exception of Moses himself — has already died. On the other hand, every participant in a seder over the past year was enjoined to observe as if experiencing slavery in Egypt and the Exodus for her- or himself. Do Moses’ words ring truer for some of us (readers) than for those gathered at the Jordan?
On the other hand, Moses reminds everyone that their clothes and shoes did not grow old during the forty years in the desert and that all their needs for sustenance were met (Devarim/Deuteronomy 29:4-5). Has this been our experience of the wandering period?
In the midst of this confusing set of declarations, Moses explains: “But the LORD hath not given you a heart to know, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, unto this day” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 29:3). Perhaps “this day” is meant as the day of the first fruits offering, or maybe it’s meant as “right now as you read/hear this.”
As we approach the high holidays, it can be helpful to roll with the disorientation. Whichever day is meant, it’s the day we are given “a heart to know, and eyes to see, and ears to hear.” Whenever “this day” might be, it’s the day we see a clear path, hear what we’ve been missing, and finally know our way to reconciliation with others and with God. Is it today?
A Heart to Know
The ideal of a heart that knows is beautifully rendered in Pamela Greenberg’s translation* of Psalm 37:
The one who acts rightly — her mouth
murmurs words of wisdom;
her tongue speaks softly of justice.
God’s wisdom is in her heart;
her footsteps do not slide.
— Psalm 37:30-31
But clearly we fall short of this ideal all the time. Therefore, particularly in this season of repentance/return/teshuvah, we try to re-examine our paths and see how we might repair the damage caused when our footsteps do, inevitably, slide.
Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi shares a teaching that compares offering forgiveness to getting rid of the mud from a beautiful white garment…or from a heart. The ability to do this, he suggests, is easily available to us. (pp.15-16, Rosh Hashanah Readings: Information, Inspiration, Contemplation.*)
In this context, the psalm for this season, includes several heartening (pun intended, I suppose) verses:
My heart tells me [l’cha amar libi]: “Turn to God’s face.”
It is Your face, Your presence, that I seek.
— Psalms 27:8 Siddur Eit Ratzon*
“Keep up your hope in God,
Strengthen your heart and sturdy it;
keep up your hope in God”
— Psalm 27:14 Pamela Greenberg translation*
I find it especially helpful to consider that “l’cha amar libi” seems to imply that, despite errors on the path, “libi [my heart]” retains the essential knowledge that leads to seeking God’s face.
Eyes to See
The siddur includes a daily request that God enlighten our eyes in Torah [“v’ha-eir eineinu b’toratecha“]. The Shema — considered “prayer” by many but also understood as Talmud Torah [learning Torah] — immediately follows.
Look! The root of Torah is supernal wisdom–hidden and concealed, perceived only through its wondrous pathways. How wondrous are the offshoots! But since the root is wisdom, who can ever reach it? This is why Israel’s sweet singer sang, “Open my eyes, so I can see wonders out of your Torah!”
— Moses de Leon (13th Century CE, Spain)
p. 61, Rosh Hashanah Readings: Information, Inspiration, Contemplation.*
Many hold the tradition of closing/covering the eyes for recitation of the first line of the Shema, an ironic practice as we have just prayed that God open our eyes —
The more real a thing is the less you can see it. After you reach the level where you see all those things which are not to be seen, then you open your eyes and everything is clear to you, and it feels like you saw it all the time. To love someone is the deepest thing in the world, but you can’t prove it. You can’t put your finger on it, but it’s the most real thing in the world.
God is the most, utmost real thing in the world, and you can’t see Him, but after you don’t see Him, you see Him. Then you can see Him everywhere, in every flower, in every cloud, in every little stone, in every candle. When we say the Shema, God is one, we close our eyes, because first we don’t see God…We just believe. But then we open our eyes, and it is so clear. He’s always there.
— Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (1921-1994)
p. 62, Rosh Hashanah Readings: Information, Inspiration, Contemplation.*
Ears to Hear
The story of Hagar and Ishmael in the desert without water — Genesis/Breishit 21, the reading for first-day Rosh Hashanah where two days are celebrated — is a powerful one to consider in preparation for the Days of Awe. Rabbi Shawn Israel Zevit offers a poetic lesson based on this text for this season:
…”And God heard the voice of the child where he was.”
The text does not mention that Ishmael cried out,
only that his mother Hagar did.
Yet God does not respond to her,
but the “voice of the child.”
According to Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vurkah
the text hints to us that although Ishmael did not cry out openly,
his heart screamed inside him with a silent scream
that only the Holy One could distinguish.
On this day — what voices do we listen to
that have no form,
that are beyond words,
the stilled small voice….
Hear the silent cry we all hold —
and may the Source
that is Life itself,
be witnessed in our listening.
— Rabbi Shawn Israel Zevit
pp.109-111, Rosh Hashanah Readings: Information, Inspiration, Contemplation. *
Find the entire poem and many additional thoughts about Rosh Hashanah by searching out this volume on Google Books, from your synagogue or public library, your local bookstore, or from JewishLights.
If you are in the DC area, consider joining a study session on the story of Hagar (with many other study options) followed by an early Selichot service at Temple Micah, 5 p.m. on Sept. 4. Meanwhile, here are some resources to explore.
* See High Holiday Sources and/or Source Materials for full citations and more details.
And, speaking of new eyes and new ears, do be sure to check out Pamela Greenberg’s The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation, just published this year, for some new views and some new sounds.
Joseph Rosenstein, editor/translator of Siddur Eit Ratzon, offers a mediation on Psalm 27 for Elul as well as other resources. See also Machzor Eit Ratzon.
See also Ki Tavo: A Path to Follow.