September 23, 2011

We have all heard incredibly moving speeches from our politicians and leaders during the course of our lifetimes.  However, I believe that the greatest speeches of all come in the next few weeks of our subsequent Torah readings.  Here, Moses delivers his last thoughts to the Israelites before his death and the transition of leadership for our people.  This week we have a double Torah portion, Nitzavim-Vayeilach.  Our first portion, Nitzavim, ends with a rousing speech by Moses calling upon heaven and earth to witness the choice to be made by Israel between life and death, blessing and curse.

Modern Bible scholars who view the Torah as following the format of a “Suzerain treaty” in which Israel enters into alliance with the Lord, just like a vassal would to an authoritarian ruler see this phase as the final witnessing of the agreement. Yet this passage is clearly about more than power and loyalty.  Moses frames Israel’s choice in terms of devotion, and clinging to God, who is the source of life.  Indeed, the idea of “clinging” to God is distinctive in the Torah to Deuteronomy (in Genesis, men “cling” to women, and in Numbers “cling” to land).

What does it mean to cling (or be glued—nidbak) to God?  This question arises in Midrash Sifre Devarim 49.  Here the rabbis wish to know how a person might cling to God—is it really possible to ascend to the heavens and cling to fire?  Rather, the Midrash says that we should cling to the sages and their students, and God will, as it were, lift you up as if you had taken heaven by storm.

Clinging to God’s ways is understood by the rabbis as a reference to imitating God’s qualities. An even better known passage from the Sifre emphasizes this point—to walk in God’s ways, is to be merciful and compassionate…and righteous, and faithful.

In the Midrash there is a key word play on Joel 3:5, “whoever is called by God’s name”—how can a person be called by God’s name?  Rather, follow God’s attributes and you will, as it were, be identified with God.

The 20th Century Chasidic writer Rabbi Shalom Yosef Faigenboim in his Netivot Shalom notes that it does not suffice to do acts of compassion and mercy, but that one must strive to become in essence compassionate and merciful—this is the path of God.  Netivot Shalom speaks further about this transformation to imitate the divine qualities as “purification of moral qualities,” or Taharat HaMiddot, and goes on to say that this work precedes the actual observance of mitzvot, and exceeds them in difficulty.

Often times, it is tempting to focus on our intellectualizing and on our external performance of mitzvot. These are indeed essential parts of our service to God.  Yet especially during this time leading into Rosh HaShannah, we also must consider our middot—our internal qualities, our ways of relating to other people in our community and those afar.

I pray that we will use these coming days of teshuvah to draw ourselves closer to the divine qualities of compassion and mercy described in this important Midrash.  As the Sifre says elsewhere, chanun, “gracious” also comes from chinam, giving others the gift of forgiveness, whether or not they deserve it.

May we all forgive one another and also become worthy of clinging to God, and emulating God’s attributes of compassion.

Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham