Drash on Parashat Va'etchanan
Rabbi Allison Conyer
Etz Chayim Progressive Synagogue, Bentleigh, VIC
This week, in Parshat Va’etchanan, we continue reading Moses’ retrospective as he looks back on the Israelites’ journey that has brought them to exactly where they are at that moment. He laments his inability to enter the land, recalls the time they stood at Sinai to receive the aseret ha’dibrot (the 10 commandments), reminds the people to hear G-d wherever they are, not to turn away from G-d, but to love G-d with all their heart, their soul, and their might in all their actions towards their loved ones at home and all who they encounter in the wider world. And, arguably, most importantly, Moses reminds the people to pass on these teachings to their children, for it is always in the hands of the next generation to uphold the covenant – the special bond between G-d and the Jewish people.
In addition to the Shema and the repetition of the aseret ha’dibrot, this week’s parsha mentions that when the people have gone astray, “If you search there for Adonai, you will find G-d, if only you seek G-d with all your heart and all your soul – when you are in distress because all these things have befallen you, and in the end, return to Adonai your G-d and obey G-d. For Adonai your G-d is a compassionate G-d and will not fail you or let you perish. G-d will not forget the covenant which G-d made as an oath with your ancestors” (Deut. 4:29-31).
As I read this, I could not help but think of the current lockdowns in Sydney and Melbourne. Although there have been world situations far worse than this, many of us (or people who we know) have been distressed by the ongoing uncertainty and instability caused by the fast-changing COVID-19 variants and our government’s response. I know that our 2020 infamous 112-day Melbourne lockdown from June through October shook us to our core. However, after the shock factor, many of us settled into the lockdown.
Now, in our fifth lockdown since the COVID outbreak, some have hit another low. Listening to the radio, I heard that in Sydney, and probably soon here in Melbourne, the mental health hotlines and services are being stretched to the same point if not more than they were in the middle of the 2020 lockdown. Some of us were lulled into a sense of returning to normality, and thus, found ourselves shocked and unprepared for this “backward step”; while others have made the adjustment to our “new normal”, learning to adapt and be flexible with this on again-off again lockdown situation. Simchas and consecrations have been re-scheduled, sometimes for the second or third time. Businesses are losing money. Children are losing motivation. Parents are trying to hold it together. Grandparents are missing their sacred time with their grandchildren. There is a mixed blessing for those who have been moved into palliative care, as palliative care allows two visitors at a time; whereas hospitals, nursing homes, and retirement villages are shut down, leaving many feeling isolated and helpless. Then, there are those of us who live alone, deprived once again of face-to-face human contact. And, there is death, COVID deaths touching people we know, or not-COVID deaths, where we are unable to be with our loved ones to mourn together.
These are indeed distressing times. And so, I turn to our teaching in this week’s parsha – when in distress, search for G-d with all our heart and all our soul. Given the fact that I Myself have not grown up in a “faith-based” household, where G-d was not a regular visitor to our dinner conversations, it’s taken me a while to get my head around the concept of “search for G-d”. Ironically, it was my mother, the devout atheist, who shared with me the well-known WWI sentiment: “There are no atheists in foxholes.” In other words, even those who don’t believe in a higher power, don’t turn their back on the possibility that one might be there when they are in their darkest hour. Rabbi Meachem Mendl of Kotzk said “The very act of seeking God, the longing to find [God], means “You shall find [God]; that, in itself, is enough” (Greenberg, A. 1998. Torah Gems Vol. III, p. 195). So, perhaps this is not our darkest hour, but, we are, indeed, in distress. I encourage each of us, in our own way, to seek G-d, to look beyond or deep within ourselves for the resources to prevail, find light, hope, compassion, and patience. Actively listen for the voice of G-d around you, in whatever form it takes. Actively seek out “evidence” of G-d, witness G-d in the world around you and the people you know, admire, and love.
שְׁמַעיִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ, יְהוָה אֶחָד
Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohainu Adonai Echad
Listen, Jewish people, Adonai is our G-d.
We are all united – as one - in the Divine presence.
We’re all in this together. Have faith and we’ll all make it out of this together.