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It’s all downhill from here


A couple weeks ago, in response to my cranky post about gender & Torah, my very sweet father-in-law asked me for a glass half-full next. I couldn’t do it – not last week and not this week and probably not next. We’re in the final readings of the annual cycle and they depress the hell out of me.

For dozens of verses, in several different word combinations, we read the following:

You, Israelites, have free will. Choose good or bad, life or death, God’s commandments or waywardness. Yeah, yeah, you have good intentions, but I (Moses) know you’re going to screw up badly. Over and over and over. You will worship other gods, pursue wrongheaded morality, think you can cover yourself up with a fig leaf like Adam & Eve and not be seen.

But I (God) will know what you do. I will punish you with plague and fire and pestilence; with everything in my arsenal until you finally get it. Then you will return to the land I promised your ancestors and you’ll want for nothing. There will be peace in the land and ample harvest.

Until you (vexing and stiff-necked people) screw it up again. Which you most definitely will.

This tension between free will & its resultant behavior permeates this coming Shabbat’s double reading of Nitzavim and Vayeilech (“Standing” and “Went”), preparation for the grand finale when the Torah cycle brings us to the death of Moses, with the people  left to muddle through what comes next, the prediction of failure ringing in their ears.

On Abu Taleb Street is this week’s poem. It was written in Spring 2003, just after the U.S. invasion of Baghdad. It was a real street, filled with real blood and terror. My heartbreak was real, as was my rage. If you read the poem, please keep in mind that the “we” speaking on the page is humanity, not just us Jews. I don’t want anyone wondering whether I blame the tribe for every misery on Earth. (I don’t — just the miseries we’re responsible for.) Also keep in mind that the word Torah translates into something like “instruction.”

Just to throw a bone to Herb, I will say that 1) there is some beautiful language in these readings – which I will quote shortly; and 2) there is comfort to be had in being a free-willed people. We can always do better. Many of us strive to do better. As a communal body, we humans are just not fabulous at it.

I leave you with this, from Nitzavim:

Surely, this commandment which I command you this day is not too mysterious for you, nor is it too far away.  It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us so that we can hear it and follow it?” Neither is it across the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us so we can hear it and follow it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

In this week before Rosh Hashanah, I’m going to try to hold on to how close the better angels of our nature can be. How we each have it in us – in our mouths and hearts – to turn this crazy-ass mess of a planet around. That, dear readers, is the best I can do.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Victoria H. Bedford permalink
    09/01/2010 12:14 pm

    I’m so proud of you for finding a positive message in all this depressing torah stuff, despite insisting on how cranky you are. You clearly took your father-in-law’s words seriously. As I see it, the ancient words of torah had quite another ring in ancient times for an ancient people. I love the more figurative message that we can be better and that we can do better. Personally, I’m inspired.

  2. sue swartz permalink*
    09/01/2010 12:40 pm

    Well, yes, I couldn’t live with a 100% empty cup. It would be a) paralyzing and b) dishonest.

    Glad to be inspirational, despite my best intentions.

  3. judith rose permalink
    09/02/2010 3:38 pm

    at a workshop this past spring I was presented the concept of the ‘rubberband effect’ – i.e. the more tension you put on a rubber band; the better it works. I offer to you that the same thing happens with human beings. If we are always is a state of sagging serenity; where’s the push to do better next time? Stretching is what we do just to maintain balance. Tension is healthy as it allows us to grow. Of course, sometimes the rubberband does snap.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      09/02/2010 8:53 pm

      Sagging serenity. Love it! Sounds just the sort of thing us middle aged folks need more of…

  4. Herb permalink
    09/02/2010 5:08 pm

    Hi Sue: Good try–not without success. Thanks. And how about this: We Jews must have done more than just something right in presumably fulfilling God’s mitzvot that persuaded her to allow us to re-enter the promised land in 1967. And this: We Jews could not have survived time and time again against all odds without having repeatedly chosen life or, at least at times, viewing the “glass” as being half-full. Even Elie Weisel,who was as justified as anyone, refused to give in to dispair. Love, Herb

    • sue swartz permalink*
      09/02/2010 8:56 pm

      Glad to have a little success here. I’m trying, truly, but the corporate dogs of BP just announced that if they don’t get the right to continue offshore drilling in the US, they won’t be able to pay for all the mess they caused with the last spill. See, it’s just things like that – unsurprising as they are – that fill me with despair that we’ll ever get it right.

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