27 August 2020
By Rabbi Gerald Serotta
The month of Elul and the daily sounding of the shofar provide us a reminder to review our experiences of the past year and to prepare for an accounting of and for our lives during the Yamim Noraim. This year it seems easier than usual to imagine that we are individually and collectively entering a time of judgment when our very lives are at stake, a premise that comes into focus during the U’netaneh Tokef prayer.
As the Elul moon wanes this year we read a double portion from the Torah, Nitzaveem-Vayelech, during the week concluding with Shabbat on September 12. The Hebrew words used to name the combined portions create an odd juxtaposition since Nitzaveem connotes being stationed in one place and Vayelech derives from the verbal root for moving. Linked together the words can remind us that we grow and progress most successfully when we may compare ourselves to trees, not only firmly planted in a soil rich with experience and tradition, but also nurtured alongside living and moving waters.
With the recent passing of perhaps the greatest living American, John Lewis, the Torah portions brings to mind a further association with two spirituals: (like a tree standing by the waters) “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around (gonna keep on walking, keep on talking, marching on to freedom land) This year part of our collective reflection must include a return to contemplate the values of compassion in our Tree of Life, Etz Chayyim, which inspires us to pursue justice (tzedek, tzedek tirdof), the only mitzvah that we must chase after to prevent it escaping from us.
I had the good fortune of walking across the Edmond Pettus bridge with John Lewis twenty years ago on the 35th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march for voting rights. My partner walking across the bridge was Professor Susannah Heschel, daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who joined Representative Lewis and Martin Luther King on the second, successively march that year. We were also joined by a cherished local colleague and pursuer of justice, Rabbi Jack Moline, as well as then President Bill Clinton. Susannah Heschel has written, “When he came home from Selma in 1965, my father wrote: “For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”
Rabbi Heschel was not the first to connect marching with praying. Perhaps the greatest American of the 19th Century, Frederick Douglass, made a daring escape from slavery at the age of 20. He is reported to have said: “Praying for freedom never did me any good til I started praying with my feet.” Similarly our sages asserted that it is forbidden for anyone to pray in a room that doesn’t have windows. (Ein adam mitpallel ba’ulam sh’ein bo chalonot,) teaching that our spiritual life cannot be separated from the needs of those passing by in our streets.
The double torah portions that we read this week also convey a similar message in the radical inclusiveness that they imply. The renewal of the covenant with the Holy One described in Parshat Nitzaveem specifies that every person regardless of age, gender, or socio-economic status be present. The second to last of the 613 commandments of the Torah is expressed in Parshat Vayelech. “Hakhel,” the command to assemble a periodic gathering for purposes of renewal is even more expansive as it extends beyond the Israelites to include all residents of the community, regardless of ethnic origin. And the haftarah reading which many traditions associate with Parshat Vayelech (Isaiah 55:6-56:8) contains a precis of universal morality and an emphasis on the interconnection of morality and justice. Isaiah declares: “Observe what is right and do what is just…let not the foreigner who has attached themselves to the Eternal say, “the Eternal will keep me apart from God’s people…for My House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
One Elul/High Holy Day custom suggested by the Rabbi Jack Riemer’s teaching of the power of the tradition of constructing an Ethical Will is annual review of the legacy that we hope to be passing on to future generations. With this tradition in mind many of us read the column that John Lewis wrote in the last days of his life that he addressed to the younger generation as beautiful example of this tradition: “Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe.” This Elul should include an inventory of the highest calling of our hearts and being prepared to stand up and march for what we truly believe.
John Lewis faced incredibly difficult challenges in his life time and met them not with optimism but with unrelenting hope. He said “Never give up, never give in.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written in a different vein about the requirement to find hope during difficult times: “Optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the belief that, together we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to have hope.” May the example of the life and legacy of John Lewis bring us hope and may we be inspired by his message and example that we find our way into “Good trouble, necessary trouble,” in the coming year.