Drash on Parashat Re'eh, Rosh Chodesh Elul 2019
Rabbi Jeffrey B Kamins
Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra, NSW
Parasha Re’eh, coinciding with Rosh Chodesh Elul and the season of preparation for the Yamim Noraim, gives us a great opportunity for understanding how to approach these 40 days ahead, which liturgically are about our relationship with God. Many of us will come together over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, reciting elaborate words of praise and petition to this God while questioning just how or if God exists. What can be the point of it all? Perhaps we need to deconstruct (and then reconstruct) what we mean by God to give us the access to our deepest self and attention to our most meaningful relationships as intended by these days.
Just recently I had the time to re-read George Orwell’s 1984, a tragic dystopia in which human society and culture as we know it is destroyed through the omniscient and omnipotent power known as Big Brother, who demands absolute loyalty. One of the methods Big Brother uses is “to cut the links between child and parent, between man and man, and between man and woman. No one dares trust a wife or child or a friend any longer.” (p.306). That image came to my mind as I re-read this week’s parasha Re’eh, which addresses among other things the concept of absolute loyalty to God: “If your brother…or your son or daughter, or your wife or your friend entices you in secret, saying, ‘Come, let us worship other gods’…do not assent or give heed to him. Show him no pity or compassion, and do not shield him, but take his life. Let your hand be the first to put him to death, for he sought to make you stray from the Lord your God. Stone him to death…” (Dt. 13:7-11). It is passages of the Torah like these that distance Jews from both God and religion, just as similar passages in Christian Scripture and the Koran do for others as well. In these teachings God seems more like a power-hungry Big Brother who needs our absolute adoration rather than the source of all who invites us to sanctify life by being our best self. Since these next 40 days call us to focus on our relationship with God, we must deal with the teachings of our tradition that make God sound a bit like Big Brother, someone who insists on absolute loyalty through coercion and violence.
One important thing to understand is that these stories of an authoritarian and vindictive God are just someof the stories our ancestors and others have told about God. There are many more beautiful and loving teachings in our tradition about God that can provide foundation, structure, connection and meaning in our lives, which is precisely what this month of Elul and the Aseret Yamei Teshuvah, the ten days of repentance, are all about. The way we can make this time meaningful is to acknowledge that we create and choose the stories we tell about God. Many philosophers, psychologists and historians teach that the stories we tell fashion our character, relationships, community and society. Understanding that just as 1984 presents George Orwell’s imagination of Big Brother, so too does Torah and tradition present our ancestors’ imagination of God. For as long as humans have told stories of God, there have been stories of Big Brother God alongside those of God as the infinite, mysterious one, the source of love and compassion, connection and responsibility. If one looked at Judaism historically, one would quickly observe a consistent trend over thousands of years to limit and contextualise any stories of the Big Brother God and enhance those of the benevolent and forgiving life force. We can and should be part of that trend. We can imagine better.
In one-month’s time, we will open our machzorim, which focus on our relationship with God. It is incumbent upon us to realise that the prayers we recite are just like the stories we tell in the Torah, a projection of the mental map of our ancestors. We follow in their footsteps when we internalise those stories and prayers through our own mental map for which we have full responsibility. While we have inherited these stories and prayers, we have also inherited the responsibility to contextualise, interpret and apply them. We do not have to believe literally that God is sitting over us in judgement demanding our obeisance. Rather, we can choose to imagine God as the life force within each of us that connects us to all. However we choose to imagine God is a projection of our inner self. We can imagine a God not of power over, but empowerment. We can internalise the core teachings of these next forty days to become more forgiving and compassionate. Over this time, let us choose to imagine God not as one who threatens us as “Big Brother”, but one who teaches us that we are our brother’s keeper.