This week is Shabbat Shuvah, the special Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a Shabbat of reflection and introspection. The word Shuvah means return, but also has the same root of the word in Hebrew for answer, Teshuvah.
There are people that expect religion, Judaism or others, to give only answers, therefore we call the act of becoming religious or observant lachzor bitshuvah, to return “in answers”. The religious experience seems to these people like a shelter against the craziness of life. An understanding of the World that can help to explain the challenging moments in life. They see faith as offering the believer the comfort that life is as it is supposed to be and our spiritual work is actually acceptance, reconciling that idea with the reality of life.
I believe Judaism is completely opposed to these ideas.
From Abraham and Sarah, Moshe, Isaiah the Prophet, Rabbi Akivah and to modern thinkers like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel or Rabbi Louis Jacobs in the 20th Century, Israel’s faith was never to accept and live with it. Maybe one of the most important ideas in Jewish faith is that the way things are now it is NOT the way things should be. Our path in life and the destiny of the World are realities we CAN change. God, through the Torah and the calls of the Prophets, created a vision of the World as it should be, not as it is. Not yet. That’s true on the personal level as well as a society and as humanity. Meaning, there is still a version of ourselves, better, more advanced, that we are not yet it. A version that our families and our community need us to be.
The Sages from the Talmud continued with the task of developing a vision of a World of justice and mercy, giving this vision a name: Geula, redemption. Still the Sages didn’t intend for us to ignore the real World to dream about redemption, they demanded from us to be present in the World with all its fractures and failures, and at the same time holding in our hands this vision of how does the World should be.
This idea is developed in a Talmudic discussion where the rabbis imagine which questions we will be asked by the Heavenly Court after our death. Ravah said in the Tractate of Shabbat that these questions are: Were you honest in your business? Did you designate time to study Torah? Did you bring children to the World? Did you expect salvation? Did you discuss with wisdom?
“Did you expect salvation?” What does this question mean? How does this question help to determine whether we lived a worthy life? Actually, what does it mean to expect salvation?
One reading is that the rabbis thought that the act itself of expecting redemption, waiting for the World to be as it should, is such a meaningful religious act that we must be judged whether we lived with that hope in our daily life or not.
Another understanding is that the word “to expect” means something more active that just a passive waiting and hoping. In Hebrew to expect, letzapot, has the same root of to observe, litzpot. If this is the case, we can understand the question of the Heavenly Court as whether we had a vision, a point of view, of the World as better that it is now. Did we have the courage and the strength to imagine who can we be in the World? Were we able to identify and deal with the characteristics of ours that are an obstacle to that vision? Or maybe we lived lives of detachment, accepting the World as it is now?
These are the important questions we will have to answer at the end of our lives. The uncomfortable feeling created by it, should be creative and not depressing or shocking. Without this tension we won’t wake up to push the World towards redemption. The dissonance that this tension creates is supposed to inspire us to identify and connect with the work necessary to bridge the gap between the vision and reality.
The rabbis asked in the Tosefta: Who is a tzofe, a pilgrim on his way to Jerusalem? The one who sees the city and doesn’t stop. Maybe this is a good metaphor for our spiritual lives. This pilgrim has to find out where he is in relationship to where he is supposed to be. We all have to be pilgrims, with the mission of finding out where we are and navigate to the place where we want to be. Judaism pushes us to develop an awareness of where are we on this long journey to Jerusalem, to our ideal, challenged to never stop looking at Jerusalem on our way there.
May we be blessed with a year of health, peace and challenging but meaningful moments. May we be able to experience the uncomfortable feeling of looking at the World as God wants it to be and in merit of this, may we be able to do our part to make a better World a reality.
Shabbat Shalom, Shanah Tovah and Chatima Tovah!
Rabbi Mijael was born in Chile and made Aliyah in 2005. He is married to Raya and father to Hallel and Yair. Since September 2014 Mijael has been Rabbi of Edgaware Masorti Synagogue.