Parashat Shoftim 5779

Rabbi Aaron Goldstein – 6 September 2019

What a gorgeous summer morning we are having! So many warm days and a decent amount of rain to keep relieve gardeners and allotment holders and quench their patches. Hopefully, we have enjoyed positive experiences, whether on holiday or because everyone else has been on holiday, clear roads and aisles in stores. I sincerely hope that we had moments of harmony, like those experienced at our Liberal Judaism Music Day or following Day of Celebration . Now we conclude the first week of the month of Elul.

The Sefat Emet, the nickname for Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, the Gerer Rebbe, wrote of the season of Elul:

    “Certain times, we are told, are “times of favour” before God. These include the month of Elul, the time of [lighting candles on Shabbat, a seder meal] and others. We are told this even though we know that time itself does not apply to God! The truth is that these are times of favour for humans, moments in which we are more able to draw near and attach ourselves to God with the inward desire of our hearts. God is filled with favour, but we must deserve to come close to the Eternal One. “As the face in the water is to the face (Prov 27:19)” – as one has compassion on themselves, seeing that they contain a holy point of godliness, while yet formed of matter, so too is great compassion for the one aroused in heaven.”

The Sefat Emet is not suggesting that God is changed in any way by the Jewish or any other calendar for that matter, nor by our own special moments in life. Rather, that God is omnipresent, it is just that we are unable to perceive it. On occasion it is manifest to us and the Sefat Emet suggests that that it is when we create sacred time, special moments.

Even then, that moment must be suffused with a purity of soul, one that is free and unburdened, unfettered from guilt, self-absorption or worry. We are urged to treat ourselves with compassion and forgiveness or at least to put ourselves aside in an unselfish act. Only then can we be somewhat outside of our daily selves, truly able to concentrate, to encounter and absorb the holiness and wholeness of the moment.

Arthur Green describes it somewhat more poetically, “The divine well overflows with grace at every moment. It is only we who need those sacred times to inspire and refresh us, so that we will have mercy on ourselves and go drink of those ever-flowing waters.”

No matter where we are on the religious-secular spectrum, there are moments, when the distinctiveness, the uniqueness is palpable. On occasion, we experience that in our sanctuaries, celebrating a life cycle event or health and happiness; commemorating a yahrtziet, bereavement or struggling with illness; or for no other reason that we belong, belong to a community provides meaning and shelter under the wings of the Shechinah Mekor Chayyeeynu – the Source of our lives.

Only the most hardened or pained in the congregation might not have encountered a warm, fuzzy feeling on such occasions.

And then it is down to our individual definitions of life. Pure and simple.

Martin Buber, quoted in my father and Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh’s companion to this season, cites the Kotzker Rebbe as surprising his followers by asking:

    “Where is the dwelling of God?” – for surely God is not contained in one or any place. With this he “surprised a number of learned men who happened to be visiting him. They laughed at him: “What a thing to ask! Is not the whole world full of God’s glory?” Then the Rabbi of Kotzk answered his own question: God dwells where a person lets God in.”

Though I contend as you would expect me to, that there is something special, something divine about the month of Elul, the message of the Sefat Emet holds good for secular and religious alike: our lives are best lived in community with others, that our communities are sacred because they can contain all who choose to belong, and that our life has meaning when we can free ourselves of ourselves to completely celebrate the life of another.

This Liberal Judaism is a rich tapestry. Thank God that we can all be here to enjoy it our souls enriched through it.

  • p.s. This was inspired by a Cyndi Lauper song, which recently came into my head as I was cycling up a mountain. Must use it in a creative service sometime!

    “If you’re lost you can look and you find me, time after time.
    If you fall I will catch you, I’ll be waiting, time after time.”

    Cyndi Lauper, Time After Time
  • The words of the Sefat Emet and Arthur Green from ‘The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger’ – translated and interpreted by Arthur Green, p. 310-311.
  • Rabbis Drs Andrew Goldstein and Charles Middleburgh, High and Holy Days: A Book of Jewish Wisdom –

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