I’d like to focus my comments today on the more traditional topic of Teshuva at this time of year, and specifically what speech and language have to do with it, but our parsha of Ha’azinu has something to say about this too. So I’ll begin with a few remarks about the parsha.
Moshe opens this final speech to the Jewish people with many terms describing the fact that he is about to speak:
“Va’adabeyra,” let me speak, “imrei fee,” the words I utter, “likchi,” my discourse, “imrahti,” my speech, “eqra, I proclaim.”
He exhorts the people thus: Shih’alavicha v’yagedcha, z’keynecha v’yomru lach-Ask your father, he will inform you, Your elders, they will tell you,” referring to the importance of seeking out one’s history orally, from one’s ancestors.
After his speech, which touches upon the themes of Divine punishment, retribution, and deliverance, Moshe says
“Simu levavchem l’chol hadevarim asher anochi me’id bachem hayom, asher titzavum eht b’neychem lishmor la’asot eht kol divrei haTorah hazot-
Take to heart all the words with which I have charged you this day. Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this teaching.”
Here, words can be used to witness, mey’eed, to command, titzavum, and to teach.
Words count. Rashi describes the Torah’s words as ‘haririn t’luyin b’s’a’ra,’ mountains suspended on a hair, because each is so packed with meaning, weight, direction. Malka Drucker, the author of many Jewish books for young people, including Jacob’s Rescue, and Grandma’s Latkes, writes,
“Heaven is in each word…all of Torah is song, and not always plainly spoken. It invites, indeed requires, deeper inquiry and explanation. Moshe warns the people that this is ‘no vain teaching for you.’ Ki lo davar reyk hu,’no empty thing. If we don’t get it, it’s not because the words are in vain or empty, but maybe we are. Maybe we are vain, maybe we are empty. Maybe we need to dig deeper.”
Perhaps when we don’t understand each other, we need to ask for clarity. How often do we say, ‘whatever,’ either out loud, or to our selves as we walk away from a difficult exchange?
In Ha’azinu, Moshe, who had been addressing Bnei Yisrael directly, gathered them, not to speak to them, but in order for them to listen to him speak to the heaven and earth! Moshe even silences heaven and earth, which were created to praise Gd, in order to LISTEN. For this one moment, just---- -----listen.
Hard. Listening can be hard, afraid of what we may hear, or not hear. Will we hear love or envy, justice or hate? Will we hear Gd? Ha’azinu suggests that like the Shema, sometimes we need to be quiet and listen.
At a Limmud conference I attended in Colorado this past May, Rabbi Mike Comins taught about the power of hit’bodedut, sitting mostly in silence, alone, then crying out to Gd for what you need. No magic formula, but the magic for me, was in the being in stillness. Even after just 20 minutes of listening internally, and being quiet, I could feel the power of listening.
Now, please open your Siddur to page ________ of the SHACHARIT service, and find the Elohai Netzor prayer, always said quietly, during a time when it is also marvelous to listen to the intensity of the silence in the room. Let’s take a brief look at it.
Elohai, netzor leshoni mey’ra, us’fatai, midaber mirma. My Gd, keep my tongue from evil, my lips from lies, says our translation. The prayer goes on to ask for Divine help-- in ignoring those who slander us, in being humble, in being open to Torah and mitzvot. It asks Gd to thwart the plans of those who seek evil. It appeals to Gd’s compassion, power, holiness.
But if the final bracha of the Amidah is about Shalom--- ham’varech eht amo yisrael bashalom, then what is this doing here?
Ah, Elohai netzor comes back to that theme, ending by asking Gd to bring peace. Is there a connection, then, between our speech and Gd’s granting us peace? Is it perhaps, a partnership?
The Elohai netzor supplication itself was said by Mar, son of Ravina when he concluded his Amidah, according to the Talmud. The text itself was abridged and added to by different sages at different times, and appears in the machzor in a variant form. According to Elbogen’s book on Jewish liturgy, much freedom was, and is allowed for individual prayer at this point in the Amidah.
Then why again is it used in musaf? Do we need to heed a speech warning twice? Did we gossip during the Torah service? In fact, why is it tacked on to every Amidah?
Now this drash is NOT an explication of the laws of Lashon HaRa, which Joanna Weinberg did during a very thorough drasha years ago, and, whose categories take up at least 13 lines in the ‘al cheyt.’ but I discuss it because of a song I learned at that same Limmud conference, by a new singer-songwriter from the Colorado Jewish community, named Julie Geller. It contains both the beginning and ending of this awesome paragraph:
(E-lohai netzor: Julie Geller's tune.)
I must admit, both while I heard her sing it, and during a subsequent listening, I wondered why she would put these 2 very disparate ideas together into one song.
But are they so disparate? And what could this possibly have to do with Shabbat Shuva? Hold those questions.
A number of years ago, the guests in our Sukkah were comparing notes on their Yamim Noraim experiences. One young man, a Sefardic Jew, explained that he did a Ta'anit Dibbur. I had only heard about this through some personal reading I had done, but here was a live person who chose to do a speech fast for the duration of Yom Kippur.
Here is what I subsequently learned about unusual types of fasts, excerpted from A Guide to Jewish Prayer, by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. On the topic of fasts, he writes:
In addition to the usual one-day fasts, there were those who wished to do added penance by fasting two or three days in succession (as recorded in the books of Jewish customs from the Middle Ages on). There were even some who undertook to fast "from Shabbat to Shabbat.”
“Another type of fast (observed mainly among Sephardim) is Ta'anit Dibbur--a "fast" of speech, in which an individual, or sometimes an entire group of people, avoid speaking of secular matters for one or several days. There are contending views in the Talmud and in later works for or against fasting and self-mortification in general. Some sages used to fast year-round, eating only one meal each night, as quoted in Talmud, Masechet Pesahim. Some did so for many years, and even in recent generations certain righteous people have continued this practice. At the same time, there were many who objected to this mortification of the body, notably leaders of the Hassidic movement such as Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Lyady, who instead recommended that one increase acts of charity and the performance of good deeds.”
Nevertheless, I was quite intrigued. I wondered how I’d manage it, and whether to try it the following year. I decided against it just then, however, since it would be awkward to do this with my parents visiting. During breaks in our services, they love to tell me how much they are enjoying themselves, and I honestly thought it would hinder their enjoyment if I could not respond. So, I laid the idea to rest.
Last year however, I tried it. I created a badge before Yom Kippur that explained the practice. Here is some of what I learned, on that day, and in the course of the following year, about speech, about silence, and about liturgy:
1. I talk too much. The day was so much quieter, so much more peaceful, even when I was not davening, due to my choice to be in silence.
2. When I was looking around for a quiet corner to rest in during the break, I tried to avoid groups, so as not to create any awkwardness. This also gave me time for peaceful reflection. I noticed that people talk about normal things; we don’t seem to do too much gossiping on Yom Kippur. People are catching up with each other, peacefully. Soft words seem to be promoting peace.
3. The Aseret Y’mei teshuva liturgy, reminds us of the power of words even before Yom Kippur begins. Here, I am reflecting on an experience I had a few days earlier than Yom Kippur, at Sefardic Magen David in San Francisco.
In Sefardic tradition, Selichot prayers are said early each morning during the entire month of Elul, and during the 10 days between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. On erev Yom Kippur, however, an additional prayer, or ceremony, actually, is added. (This exists in the Ashkenazi tradition too, but traditionally is done before Rosh HaShana.) It is called Hatarat Nedarim, the nullification or absolution of vows. In it, one person asks three others to act as their bet din, or religious court. In turn, each of the four asks the other three to act as their bet din. This ritual enables one to come before God on Rosh Hashanah with a clean slate - without any unfulfilled promises.
In this synagogue, however, there was a kind of ‘tribunal’ set up, and in a very formal, ritualized way, men came forward to the beit din and recited the appropriate passage. What struck me was the sincerity and earnestness in which they did so, many of them, weeping copiously, almost begging for forgiveness. The beit din grants it to all, but the rabbi went on to say how serious the practice was, how critical it was to annul ones’ vows before witnesses, ostensibly admitting one’s faults in not fulfilling one’s own words. Witnessing it was powerful and humbling for me. I can only imagine that doing it was much more so for those involved. I imagine they felt like they had more of a clean slate, a peaceful closure, once the ceremony was performed.
4. The Yom Kippur liturgy uses the theme of the power of words often. I noticed this first when preparing for the Sefardic Kol Nidrei, when I realized that we sing a long paragraph about this exact topic, 3 times in a row. There are 8 terms in the text itself for various kinds of vows. (chant this sample, Sefardi style)
Ko----l Nidrey, ve’esarey, va’charamey----, v’niduyey--, u’shivu’ey------, v’kunamey-----, v’kunachey,v’kuna-----sey…
And the tradition is to sing it a bit louder each time, to really get our attention!
“All vows, restrictions, bans, oaths, renunciations, pledges, and promises” by which we have vowed, or will vow, by which we have sworn, or will swear, by which we have excommunicated, or will excommunicate, why which we have renounced, or will renounce, by which we have restricted ourselves, or will restrict ourselves, from the past Yom Kippur to the present Yom Kippur, and until the next Yom Kippur, may these vows no longer be considered vows, etc. Regarding them all, we regret them, etc. You get the idea. Words are not to be taken lightly. Broken promises can lead to discord.
I remember one Yom Kippur, when we were still at Northbrae, when I looked up from my machzor and began to shake. I immediately understood the staging of Kol Nidrei, with someone holding a Torah on either side. The room was a powerful, serious courtroom. I felt much relieved at that fearful moment, that though we confessed publicly, we also confessed privately.
5. For a number of years now, I have been chanting the Avodah service here at Netivot Shalom. I was initially challenged by even including this in our modern services. But I have since come to love the text of it, and here’s why. Again, it holds the power of words. The Kohen makes confession for himself, his family, the other kohanim, and the house of Israel. Now,far be it from me to carry all that power. That’s a rather ridiculous image, honestly. It has been thousands of years since anyone did this, I am not a kohen by birth, and it is a role I can only imagine. But nonetheless, I am charged with reciting these awesome words. And you can bet, that before I do, I am shaking. I am thinking of my own actions, my community’s actions, my nation’s actions. I am using numerous descriptions of sin-chatati, aviti, pashati. But I am also DEMANDING Gd’s forgiveness. The power of the words helps me do this- the kohen uses a proof text from Gd’s own Torah, as if to say, “YOU PROMISED!” Keep your word! Purify us!”
Then, the text goes on to tell us that another MOST POWERFUL word was used, the glorious and awe-inspiring name of Gd, ha’shem ha’nich’bahd v’hanora, mefo’rash. And it was not just said; it was said bik’dusha, uv’taho’ra, in holiness. And purity.
6. Here is a bit of public confession about something private. I finish Glenn’s, and others’ sentences, way too often, even though last year I spent a part of my Yom Kippur davening praying for the ability to stop doing this. Not only does the speaker not get to finish his or her thought, but the speaker might have a completely different thought than I think he has! Not fair. Not humble. Not aware.
We have known about the power of words ever since the word play in the Garden of Eden. Words were manipulated by both animals and people in that story. Later in the Torah, tribal spies and close relatives use dibah ra’ah, calumnies, bad reports, that lead to disastrous consequences— alienation, exile, wandering, discord. The Jewish people as a whole often murmur against Moshe and Aharon, and feel the power of their words through subsequent, harsh consequences.
7. In both the Sefardic and Ashkenazic traditions, we recite the 13 Attributes numerous times, until it begins to sound like a tribal chant, to quote Erin Leib Smokler, a teacher at the Drisha Institute in New York. A high school rebbe of mine referred to this mantraas “Gd’s telephone number.” So what is their power, what is their magic?
The Gemara tells it this way, from Masechet Rosh HaShana: A-donai passed before Moshe and proclaimed, etc. Rabbi Yochanan commented, if this verse had not been written, it would be impossible to say it! It teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be Gd, wrapped Gdself in a tallit like a leader of prayer, and said to Moshe, whenever the Jews sin before Me, let them perform this procedure and I shall forgive them. Later in the passage, Rabbi Yehuda said that a covenant was made regarding these attributes, that they would never return empty, that is, they would never be ineffective in bringing about Gd’s favor.
Well, that would certainly shorten High Holiday services!
It seems that according to the rabbis of the Talmud, the 13 attributes do have mystical powers. Declaring Gd’s merciful goodness would yield such goodness. So, the geonim and rishonim of the 8th through 15th centuries who authored the selichot, inserted this incantation repeatedly into the service.
But why do these words bring about Divine forgiveness? A look back at their context will shed some light on this. Their transformative power lies in the forgiving encounter between Gd and Moshe in Shemot parshat Ki Tissa. Moshe received then smashed the first set of tablets, then punished the people for their outrageous sin of the Golden Calf. Moshe is then commanded by Gd to carve a second set of tablets, and he complies. Listen, now, to the pairing of these 2 verses in the narrative: (Hebrew)
And A-donai came down in the cloud and stood with him there and proclaimed the name of Adonai. And A-donai passed before him and called out, “Adonai, Adonai! A compassionate and gracious Gd, slow to anger, and abounding in kindness and truth!”
Do you hear the intimacy of the moment between Gd and Moshe? Gd descends to get close to Moshe. No thunder, lightning, fear or trembling. This second Matan Torah, revelation, was one of Gd coming down to humanity, softly, quietly, lovingly. “Va’yityatzeyv imo shahm,” Gd stood WITH Moshe, united in purpose. A few verses back, Gd had indicated this possibility: Hiney maqom iti v’nitzavta ahl hatzur-there is a place WITH me, stand on the rock. Now in our verse a bit later, both Moshe AND Gd stand on the rock of Sinai, in togetherness.
So teshuva, repentance, is about much more than words, it seems. It is the pursuit of a certain kind of relationship. The 13 Attributes are not so much magical as they are significant in forming the relationship that is most conducive to compassion, Smokler writes. We must strive for a spirituality of intimacy, where we are fully present, and Gd’s presence is real. Real turning back is standing side by side, making ourselves worthy, and opening to this kind of encounter.
Sounds hard. But the text gives us a method. P’sol le’cha shnei lu’chot ava’nim ca’rishonim. Carve the stones, do the work, and I will write upon it. WE must take the initiative, take the responsibility. NO
‘Whatever’ allowed here. No walking away. Then, says Gd, I will join you. The second tablets were a true partnership, symbolizing the power of second chances. WE need to be able to carve out a little space within ourselves for Gd to write upon us.
So as we enter into the deep places of Teshuvah at this season, as we cry out Adonai, Adonai, El rachum v’chanun, we have both awesome responsibilities and awesome possibilities ahead of us to consider. Let us work hard, let us ask Gd to work hard, and let us stand, together, in peace. “Oseh shalom...”