Friday, September 04, 2015

Deed by deed, letter by letter

Our Torah portion, Parashat Ki Tavo, involves some of the most famous and enduring language of our tradition.  In particular, Moses instructs the Israelites on how to show their gratitude, ki tavo, when they enter the land.  Generally speaking, the recipe for Israelite success in the Land of Israel can be summarized by saying, “whatever God tells you to do, do it – trust me.”

But the particulars are unusual in this portion because, unlike most other “thou shalts,” here the Israelites are given actual scripts for what they should say, literally – confessions that must be uttered, word for word.  The first script is the more famous of the two, that of the First Fruits.  We read it regularly during Passover—
Arami oved avi, my father was a wandering Aramean who went down to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number.  There he became great, mighty, and populous, etc.”

You know the rest, and if you don’t, I don’t want to give it away—you’ll have to wait in suspense for Passover to arrive again.  The second Confession is the Confession of Tithing.  Less famous but no less interesting.  Our text reads:

When you have set aside in full the tenth part of your yield -- in the third year, the year of the tithe -- and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, so that they may eat well among you, you shall declare before the Eternal your God:
     "I have cleared out the consecrated portion from the house; and I have given it to the Levite, to the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, just as You [God] commanded me;
     I have neither transgressed nor neglected any of Your commandments: I have not eaten of it while in mourning, I have not cleared out any of it while I was impure, and I have not deposited any of it with the dead. 
     I have obeyed the Eternal my God;
     I have done just as You commanded me.”
                                                                           (Deut 26:12-14)

This Confession struck our commentators as unnecessary, at best.  The 15th century Italian commentator Rabbi Isaac Abravanel asked: "What need is there for the person to boast orally about what he has done?" Another contemporaneous commentator, Isaac ben Moses Arama, similarly pondered, “What point was there in demanding that the worshipper recount what he did and did not do, so long as he performed the commandment properly?”

This question – what need is there to articulate our deeds aloud, whether a deed of sin or of merit—is as relevent to us today as it was in antiquity.  On the one hand, we can imagine what it’s like for someone who follows the rules, colors between the lines, does exactly as he or she is told.  Whenever you look back and see that you did something exactly the way you should have – it feels pretty good.  And there’s a part of us that enjoys the recognition. 

On the other hand, there’s also the stigma of being a braggart. Why do these most important things need to be verbalized? After all, we read in the ethical treatice Pirkei Avot, to “say little and do much” (1:15)?  For a tradition that time and again tells us that we’re judged not by what we say but what we do, we sure have a lot to say.  Is this text urging the Israelites to brag, to disobey the prophetic demand to “walk humbly before your God”? 

Our commentators teach us that this text is not about bragging at all, it’s a text about the nature of speech, about how speech and action are interconnected.  Sefer HaChinuch, a 13th century list of the Commandments of the Torah, perhaps authored by Rabbi Aharon HaLevi, said this about our 2 Confessions:
“The mind and the imagination of people are deeply impressed by what they say….  The reason for [the tithing commandment] pertains to man’s unique gift, setting him apart from and above animals—his power of speech. Most people will recoil from dishonoring their word, their distinctive give, before sinning in their actions.”

How counterintuitive: “the minds of people are impressed by what they say” – isn’t it the other way around?  You think, then you speak?  Your words reflect your actions?  Apparently not.  Apparently, you are what you speak. 

There’s good precident for this line of thought: God speaks and then creates.

The 19th century Hasidic master the Kotzker Rebbe said: “most people do the right thing in public, and the wrong thing in secret.”  So he taught the opposite: “keep your good deeds private,” he said, “and do wrong only in public—since fear of exposure will reduce your misdeeds.” 

This is why the liturgy that we will read from in 9 days from now, on Rosh HaShanah through the end of Yom Kippur, is so utterly essential to our ethical integrity. 

The name of our new Machzor, our High Holy Day Prayerbook, is Mishkan HaNefesh, the dwelling place for the spirit or soul.  This is a collective articulation of our spirit.  And the spirit can only dwell in the present tense. The fact that we will be praying from a Machzor that is brand new means that this year we are afforded an opportunity to encounter liturgy that is “in the present tense.” A teacher of mine once said, if you want to understand the heart of the Jewish community at any moment in time and space throughout our expansive history, there is no better place to look than their prayer book.

The two “Confessions” that we read of in our portion– that of the first fruit and then of the tithing – arrive in timely anticipation of own ultimate annual Confession, the Vidui that we say on Yom Kippur.   Our short confession, Vidui Zuta, famously begins with these words:

Ashamnu, Bagadnu, Gazalnu, Dibernu Dofi – “We are guilty, we betray, we steal, we scorn…” The confession continues, listing a total of 24 sins.  Why 24?  (I’ll give you a hint, it has nothing to do with a famous television show starring Keifer Sutherland.)  24 - One for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. 
Ashamnu- Alef. 
Bagadnu- Bet,
Gazalnu - Gimmel,
Dibernu Dofi – Dalet… and so on and so forth. 

The words that we use that confess our sins compose an acrostic, spanning the entire Hebrew alphabet.  This acrostic intimates the human need to push our language to the limit, to verbalize in the most maximal manner.

And not because we are loquacious.  (Although we are…quite loquacious.  What, we’re people of the book…  it so happens to be a very, very long book.)

No, our liturgy reflects an economy of language, althewhile reaching toward the Infinite One. As Sefer HaChinuch teaches us, our minds are changed by what we say. 

And as we will see this year, Mishkan HaNefesh, our Sanctuary for the Soul, offers readings which—in the present tense—add layers of heartfelt confession, poems that recognize failures of integrity, failures of justice, failures of love, all failures of which none can plead inculpable.

Thus we, heirs to the tradition of Israelite Confession, we verbalize, we admit everything.

We confess in full voice. 
We confess with fullness of language. 
We confess with each and every letter of our holy tongue. 
We confess in order to potentiate our embodiment of holiness.

Pirkei Avot may tell us, say little and do much. 
But this time of year, we say much
so that we may do so much more,
so that we be so much better….
     Deed by deed, letter by letter.

D'var Torah delivered by Rabbi Matt Soffer Temple Israel of Boston on August 4, 2015/5775



Post a Comment

<< Home