What We Share In Unity

In this last week before the Jewish New Year, the music is full of the joy of unity, as well it should be. For, after Sinai, the world was forever changed with the hope of duties and blessings that would be shared by all peoples, in unity.

We read in this week’s verses that all stood together – the heads, the tribes, the elders, the officers, men, women, children, strangers – indeed all, from the wood-hewer to the water-drawer.

They were the ones who stood before God on that day to make a covenant to live in love of God and their fellows. But this covenant wasn’t just for them. It, too, was for those who were not there that day. It was for all who follow and will yet follow; it was for all of us. As Micah teaches, it would one day be for all humankind forever.

All who err (all of us) also share in the unity of being given the way back. “You will return to the Lord, your God…and He will have mercy upon you…He will gather you…and will bring you into the Land…”

Isaiah, beautifully and poignantly, says that the land to which we will return will no longer be called “The Forsaken One” or “Desolate Place,” but rather “My Desire Is In Her,” or more simply “Inhabited.” What comfort and relief these words bring to all who stray and seek to return!

Unlike as with many other philosophies or systems of thought, believers in the One God are also united in their universal access to the truth and its ways. They are “not beyond you, nor is it remote from you. It is not in heaven…It is not across the sea…Rather, it is very close to you, in your mouth, in your heart, that you may do it.”

Each of us – all of us – have the glorious opportunity to believe, as with Isaiah, that “God has dressed me in the raiment of salvation, in a robe of righteousness has He cloaked me, like a bridegroom who exalts with a splendor, like a bride who bedecks herself with her jewelry.”


The Greatest Bounty

In Deuteronomy this week, Moses teaches of a time “it will be when you come into the land the Lord, your God, gives you for an inheritance, and you possess it and settle it.” Moses’ promise is rich indeed, but the glory of the inheritance becomes clearer and grander when we read Isaiah’s words that accompany the text.

Isaiah prophesies: “Nations will walk by your light…Lift up your eyes all around and see, they are all assembling and coming to you…they will be brought up with favor upon My Altar, and I will glorify the House of My Splendor.”

The land, thus, is more than a land of promise to the Israelites. It is that, to be sure. But, for Isaiah, it is also to be the spiritual destination of all peoples, that is, it will be where all the nations, whatever their gods, will place their hope, where they will glorify the place and the ways of the God that dwells in our midst.

So, what is the land of which our teachers speak? Is it the physical land we see on a map that we associate with Israel? Yes. But should we see it as more? Could it be as well the space in our lives – wherever we may be – where we live in accord with the Divine principles of righteousness and love? Could the inheritance that Moses and Isaiah have in mind be that space in our lives and that of the nations where living true to these principles brings wholeness and peace?

Let’s look first in the text of Isaiah for answers. This inheritance for all is God’s wish, yes, but, importantly, it requires something of us, too. God will indeed be our “eternal light,” yet our “inheriting the land” goes along with “our people being righteous.” “I will designate your appointed officials for peace and your overlords for righteousness.”

Do we have guidance on what leads to this righteousness? Moses helps us here. At the very beginning of this portion, he grounds our inheritance of the land in our bringing the first of our fruits to honor God, to serve those in need, and to support those who bring us closer to God. This is to be done “so that you will be a holy people to the Lord, your God.”

So, we sacrifice the precious first fruits of our production as a step to holiness. In other words, holiness begins with our acknowledging that our true riches come not from fortune or even principally from our own doing, but rather from the Source of all blessings. Once we are oriented to serving, loving and giving of our best – first fruits – in this manner, we’re of a way to becoming righteous and loving. And once we’re righteous and loving, we will inherit the greatest bounty.


Loving Those in Need

There is an extraordinary likeness between this week’s verses both in Deuteronomy and Isaiah. In the first, God teaches us to show love and mercy to those over whom we have power, principally by limiting our will in favor of serving their needs. Then, in some of the most moving verses anywhere in sacred text, in Isaiah, God actually models this lesson in a remarkable display of love and mercy for us.

In Deuteronomy, though the text may sometimes appear ancient to our modern eyes, we are taught the virtue of loving-kindness.

For example, when a soldier takes a beautiful woman captive in war, he may be tempted to ravish her. God teaches that the urge be resisted and that respect and propriety be shown.

When the ravenous hunger and power of the hunter drives him to take the mother bird in the nest along with her young, God says no, and insists upon respecting the feelings of the bird and avoiding cruelty.

When a day worker does tasks for us, God helps us resist the temptation to hold on to our money but rather pay the worker the wages he/she needs on the same day the work was delivered.

When we want to strictly enforce the terms of loans we make, God helps us understand to be caring in our actions, especially if they might unduly pinch the poor or the widow.

In Isaiah, the scene changes. It still involves the Teacher teaching. But, here, the Teacher is principally serving as the Consoler and the students are now those who are bereaved. God is addressing the remnant who, while having suffered the degradation and pain of exile for having strayed, now seek reconciliation and return.

God is present with them to hear and comfort. “Sing out, O barren one,” God exclaims. Forgiveness will be theirs. “Fear not, for you will not be shamed; do not feel humiliated, for you will not be disgraced.” Upon their return, God receives them back with love. “With eternal kindness shall I show you mercy, says God, your Redeemer.”

God’s compassion for the weak and wayward who have returned is powerful. The Divine seeks that their song turn jubilant, that they foresee a more hopeful and expansive future than ever. “Broaden the place of your tent and let the curtains of your dwellings stretch out…for you will burst out to the right and to the left; your offspring shall inherit nations.”

Just as God asks us to limit our will to show love to others in need, God actually limits the Divine will to show love to us. “Just as I have sworn that the waters of Noah would never again pass over the earth…, My kindness shall not be removed from you and My covenant of peace shall not falter, said the One Who shows you mercy.”

The covenant between God and humankind was never, nor will it ever be, simple. But the God Who expects us to love and show mercy to others is the God Who loves and shows mercy to us.



Starting and Enduring

The pair of Biblical passages this week shares a most curious feature. Both display uncommon, prominent double uses of words. That’s odd…and exciting.

In Deuteronomy, we read one of the most significant statements in the Bible: Righteousness, righteousness you are to pursue, in order that you may live and possess the land that God is giving you.

There are many extraordinary explanations of the meaning of this verse. But let’s do something fresh. Let’s come at what Moses is instructing by looking at the unusual use of double words in our companion piece in Prophets. Here Isaiah is explicitly talking about the promise of return. But could it be that he is also teaching us something invaluable about what it means to live a life of righteousness?

Recall what we just read: the people were doubly taught in the way of righteousness so they might live AND persist in the land. But we now know centuries later that they did not persist in righteousness and they were exiled from the land. They lived but did not persist. Why? What was missing?

Isaiah begins this week with the remarkable, “Anochi, Anochi.” God says I, only I, am He Who comforts you. We are always to remember that it is God Who always seeks our presence and always consoles and redeems upon our return. It’s as if “Anochi” is repeated to show us that God starts with us as our Redeemer and endures as our Redeemer.

In another double call, the prophet challenges us, “Awaken yourself! Awaken yourself!” Have we lost our way? Are we so pained or subdued that we have forgotten the promise? Even in our lowest state, we may know God seeks our return. But awakening out of the pain requires more than a memory of hope; it sometimes takes a double shaking to move beyond being stirred to being fully awake.

Isaiah then beckons us, “Turn away! Turn away!” It’s not easy to see error, pick ourselves up, and return. We doubled up in losing our way and straying, ending up in exile. Now it will be a double challenge to start and then endure in the terribly difficult work of turning back.

Do we now have a new sense of what Moses is teaching in the first place? Perhaps this: It’s one thing to have learned the virtue of righteousness and made an initial commitment to it. But now we know from experience that’s not enough. The second use of the word tells us we must endure in the hard work of doing righteousness and carry through to its end in what we do. That’s how we live AND possess the expanse of God’s promise.

As Chasidic wisdom suggests, being righteous has a good and right beginning, but its proper effect is not achieved without demanding, continuing effort.


The Most Beautiful Sight

We are instructed in this week’s Torah portion to “see.” What are we to see? It’s essentially that there are profound blessings that flow from living true to God’s expectations and curses that flow from going down wrong paths. With keen insight and in rich detail, Moses gives us clear direction on how best to live in the way of blessing.

One other thing we see in these particular weeks of Torah/Prophets readings is how much the people strayed from that way and the pain they experienced in the curse of exile.

Even to us, the pain of exile – theirs (and perhaps ours) – is something we see and feel in too vivid colors, that is, until the tears blur our vision.

Yet, there’s something else we see. God offers the deepest sort of consolation in the Isaiah verses. We have experienced loss, but we have the promise that the whole world can be God’s resting place in the future. Hope remains. God still intends renewal for us and our children. There is great hope and mission in Jerusalem: “I will extend peace to her like a river….Like a man whose mother consoled him, so I will console you, and in Jerusalem you will be consoled.”

Here’s what we now see: “You will see and your heart will exult, and your bones will flourish like grass.” “We will see your gladness.”

Indeed the vision is greater than ever: for those who “listen to the word of God” and “are zealous regarding His word,” the time has come “to gather all the nations and tongues, they will come and see My glory.”

So, re’eh, re’eh, see, see! The “poor and broken-spirited who are zealous regarding My word” have the most comforting and glorious sight: God gives us a path back from the exile after straying, and it’s a most extraordinary path at that. “For just as the new heavens and the new earth that I will make and endure before Me, so will your offspring and your name endure.”