In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Re’eh, there is a beautiful verse in Deuteronomy 12:28 which says, “shmor v’shamata”, “be careful to heed all these commandments that I enjoin upon you; thus, it will go well with you and with your descendants after you forever; for you will be doing what is Hatov V’Hayashar, good and right in the sight of the Lord your God”. This verse presents variants on the language found throughout Deuteronomy, alluding to a general sense of ethics, in addition to the specific rules. Indeed, our foremost commentator, Rashi, on this verse claims that “tov” refers to that which is right in the eyes of God, and “yashar” refers to that which seems right to other people. I commend and endorse this dual foundation for ethics—there is a social check on tradition and a traditional check on society. It is that tension between received norms and contemporary insights which forms the core of Conservative Judaism.
But the verse has an unusual opening, “shmor v’shamata”. What does it mean to guard and listen/comprehend or, as another translates, safeguard and harken? Rashi links the first verb to a verse in Proverbs 28:18 which follows a verse about listening to the words of the wise with a command to place them in your belly. Rashi alludes to a three-fold process of gaining wisdom—first to ingest the words, then to review and comprehend them, and finally to put them into action. The word “shmor” is analogous to “store the Torah inside you” and the next word “v’shamata” denotes, “then review so that you can comprehend”.
As Moses instructed, first we must safeguard what we have learned. Specifically, one must review the laws and be fully cognizant of them. Once we have internalized them, then we can properly observe and obey them.
This message is apt for all of us as we start a new year together; the goal is first to expose ourselves to the sacred tradition, then to review and reexamine until we can understand it for our day, and finally begin to put these words into action. The process is not always so linear or continuous. Sometimes we need to act in order to understand, as we know from the everlasting formulation in Exodus 19:8, “na’aseh v’nishmah” (we will comply and then comprehend). Experiential learning is a necessary accompaniment to textual study; the combination of study, review and action is an effective plan for learning and growing as a human and as a Jew.
We are entering the final weeks of summer. This Shabbat is Rosh Hodesh Elul where we begin our month long preparation for the High Holidays. It is a time to pause and listen for the voice of God. What are the voices of teshuvah that come to you each day? How can you use the coming month and the New Year opening before us in order to engage with the synagogue, engage with each other, and ingest the words of Torah so we can put everything we want into action? This is the great opportunity and challenge which lies before all of us. It is a call to come close to God. I hope that you find this to be a fruitful, challenging, and ultimately joyous time.
As the month of Elul begins, we will blow the Shofar at our Sunday morning minyan. Even as one anticipates it, the clean, clarion-stirring sound resonates with intensity through my and, I hope, your inner beings. Please join us at 9:30 AM. Shabbat Shalom and Hodesh Tov!
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham