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Ha'Azinu 5783       October 8, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

     Rabban Gamliel, the head of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem during Roman times, had a trusted servant named Tabi. The story goes that Rabban Gamliel sent his servant into the marketplace to bring home the best food he could find. Tabi went out and returned to his master and presented him with a tongue. This, Tabi declared, was the greatest delicacy. The next day Rabban Gamliel sent Tabi into the marketplace to bring back what he thought was the worst food on the market. This time Tabi went out and returned to his master and presented him with a tongue. “What is this,” said Gamliel, “I send you for the best food and I send you for the worst food and both times you come back with tongue? How is this possible?” Tabi replied, “My master, when a tongue is good, there is nothing better, but when a tongue is bad, there is nothing worse.

     Moshe Rabbenu, our teacher Moses, in the poem of our Parsha makes a similar claim about the world. Moses asks that his word should fall like rain. But rain can also be good, and rain can be bad. When the time of planting comes, when the growing season in underway, rain can be exceptionally good. It gives us the food that will sustain us every day, including the winter days of scarcity. But rain also has a bad side. It can come at a time when it causes food to literally rot before the harvest. It can flood fields and prevent crops from growing, or worse, cause streams to overflow and wash away everything that has been planted. Even the shelters from the storm can be brought down when undermined by flooding rainwater. I think that the residents of Florida and Puerto Rico understand exactly how rain can be both a blessing and a curse.

     Our Parsha then takes these ambiguities and applies them to the words of Torah; that sometimes Torah can be the path to peace and sometimes it can be the road to hell. There are parts of the Torah that bring blessings to those who observe them, and words of Torah that make life harder and more difficult.

     The Torah that Moses gives us is a Torah of Mitzvot; something that the world has never seen before. Moses uses the words of this poem, Haazinu, to try and convince the people that all the words of Torah can be a blessing, and if they are understood properly, can bring us closer to God, the source of the Torah’s words.

     Moses then warns the people that the power of the words he has written is in their hands. They have not, until now, and for whatever reason, found the Torah compelling. They ignore the words. They ignore the Torah; they ignore God and then they wonder why everything in their life is going wrong. It is certainly possible to find things in the Torah that we find offensive today. Some of the Torah can actually be offensive to modern ideas and ideology. But when will Israel find the wisdom that is wrapped up in the words of Torah?

     Can the Torah, however, be both good and bad, like words and rain? Most of the Sages say “No,” that Torah, God’s gift to humanity, the very blueprint of creation, cannot have anything in it that could be ever considered troubling. If Torah is understood as having parts that are not the source of blessing, then that is a problem caused by human beings, who don’t understand how to read and how to understand what the Torah is trying to say.

     The Sefat Emet takes this a step further; it is not that we don’t know or understand what we find in the Torah, we have to also learn what we are to do with the parts of Torah that do not meet our needs. The Sefat Emet writes: “Even though it is written here that God chose Israel from most ancient times – “For the Lord’s portion is God’s people.” The statement that God found Israel refers especially to the “times of trouble and hiding’ it is in the darkness that you “find” something. The Jew is ever anticipating that God’s holiness will be revealed here in this lowly world. This is the desert land, a place where all we have is desire.”

     What are we flawed human beings supposed to do in a flawed world with our own flawed presence in it? The Sefat Emet tells us that we have to be treasure hunters in the dark, searching for the hidden meaning of everything. This is a common Hasidic practice. To turn what looks like a curse into a blessing. Rabbi Arthur Green, in his book on the Sefat Emet explains, “The essential religious task, as Judaism understands it, is that of sanctifying the ordinary, of uplifting the most common of worldly objects, deeds, and moments to reveal themselves as repositories of divine light. In order to do this, the religious person – and the Jewish people as a whole – must experience inner darkness, living in the “desert land.” It is from there that the uplifting is greatest, that the miracle of a revealing God is most profound.”

     Rabbi Green is teaching that it is exactly in the darkest places of the world that we can find the items that are most in need of being uplifted into God’s presence. We go through the darkness to find these items and reveal the divine light they contain inside. In some ways we do this all the time. We find items on the street, in our office, in the back of a drawer in our homes, and suddenly we come to understand why it is there and what we can use it for. Suddenly what looked like junk becomes an important reminder of who we are and what we are capable of becoming.

     This is a week of transition. We move from the Days of Awe to Shabbat, to Sukkot. We finish Yom Kippur in a state of purity. We have come as close to the divine as we dare. How then is it possible that now we have to go out into that mundane world and try and uplift that world into a holy place; we never know what things we will discover that will have more of God in them than we could ever imagine. Just as a small piece of something ordinary can be the missing piece from the puzzle of our life and had we not been looking; we would never have all the parts needed for a spiritual life.

     We are not being asked to go to some elaborate holy place to raise ourselves even higher on the path to heaven. Our path is through the ordinary world. It is in this world we can look to see the imprint of God’s hand in all of creation, and through finding God in all the world, we can find God even in our ordinary selves.

     Sometimes it is easy to see the problems and broken parts that make up our natural surroundings. Sometimes we wonder why God would create such a broken place in which we live. To be sure, we have done a lot of the breaking in this world to get it into the broken state in which we find it. But sometimes we are too busy or too tired, or too troubled to even look for God in the world around us. We are commanded, through the words of Torah, to never give up on life. Doing Mitzvot forces us to see the place where everything in the world connects to God and we say blessings to lift up the holiness we find inside.

     Once we are able to find the sacred that is all around us, once we are able to find the sacred in the most ordinary things that we do, we find that there is nothing in the world that is not infused with God.

     This is the lesson of the holy days we have left behind and the lesson of the festival of Sukkot, that we will begin our year searching for the traces of God that God has left behind waiting for us to discover them. May God always be with us as we search and may we be moved ever higher from the very things that used to make us feel low. May we find God in both the good and the bad as we say …

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Sun, October 1 2023 16 Tishrei 5784