Moving Towards Wholeness
This Dvar Torah was written by Orot Center for New Jewish Learning cofounder Rebecca Minkus-Lieberman.
There are those times when the crash of the tide of the Jewish calendar and the steady rhythm of the weekly parshiot coalesce in a breathtaking crescendo.
So it is this week.
We only just inhaled deeply and welcomed the month of Elul. That Hebrew month that can stir both anticipation and utter dread, knowing that the intensity of the High Holidays are really much closer than we had imagined, that the spiritual ferocity and elevation of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are only a few weeks on.
And as we open our eyes and feel the presence of Elul sitting alongside us, Parshat Shoftim tiptoes in the backdoor with a quiet reminder, soulful guidance - garbed as battle instructions – to steady our sight on this winding and, at times, foreboding path:
And the officers shall speak unto the people, saying:
'What man is there that has built a new house, and has not dedicated it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man dedicate it. And what man is there that has planted a vineyard, and has not eaten its fruit? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man eat his fruit. And what man is there that has betrothed a wife, and has not been with her? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man be with her.'
And the officers shall speak further unto the people, and they shall say:
'What man is there that is fearful and faint-hearted? Let him go and return to his house, lest his brothers’ hearts melt as his heart.'
Devarim/Deuteronomy 20:5 – 8
When the People of Israel are readying their ranks for battle, the officers are instructed to pause and to offer these exemptions to the soldiers.
In these four circumstances, individuals are allowed to bow out of their military service.
But why are these individuals exempted? What is it about these particular situations that are exceptional, that require attention before serving the communal call of military service?
In all of these cases, the individual is caught in a transitional place:
- One who has bought a home, but has not yet had the chance to live in it.
- One who toiled and planted a field, but has not had the chance to taste its fruits.
- One who has begun a committed relationship, but has not fully realized its potential.
- One who is a member of the People of Israel, but has not yet summoned the inner strength and courage to stand fully and confidently with the community.
Here, the Torah is tenderly and insightfully recognizing the need for individual actualization. There is an understanding, in each of these cases, that human beings need wholeness - shleimut. Wholeness in our sense of place. Wholeness in our work. Wholeness in our relationships. Wholeness in our inner lives.
Before we embark on giving back to our communities – in fact, in order to give back to our communities – our individual selves, our individual paths must be on the road to actualization.
The Torah knows that to rip a person midstream from a necessary journey towards realization will do harm –to the individual and the community.
Arthur Green, in his book “Seek My Face” speaks about the yearning for wholeness and the ways in which the shofar guides us there:
“This dream of restored wholeness is sounded out dramatically by the shofar blasts, the central symbolic expression of the teshuvah season. The shofar represents prayer beyond words, an intensity of longing that can be articulated only in a wordless shout. But the order of the sounds, according to one old interpretation, contains the message in quite explicit terms. Each series of shofar blasts begins with tekiyah, a whole sound. It is followed by shevarim, a tripartite broken sound who very name means ‘breakings.’ ‘I started off whole,’ the shofar speech says, ‘And I became broken.’ Then follows teruah, a staccato series of blast fragments, saying: ‘I was entirely smashed to pieces.’ But each series has to end with a new tekiyah, promising wholeness once more.”
Standing here, in the first week of the month of Elul, we begin our process of cheshbon ha’nefesh – inquiry of our souls.
And as I read these psukim from Shoftim, I kept hearing the words of Mary Oliver’s poem “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac” in my head. The poem, written after her recent bout with cancer, celebrates – as do so many of her poems – the breath-stopping beauty of the world, and our obligation to stop and notice and listen and fully actualize our selves in the midst of all of that wonder.
She writes in the third stanza:
I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you're in it all the same.
so why not get started immediately.
I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.
And to write music or poems about.
The entire poem is astounding, and you can hear her recite it in its entirety here.
Mary Oliver and Parshat Shoftim urge us to stop and notice what needs our attention in this month of Elul.
- Do our homes hold the holiness that we strive for?
- Does our work allow us the opportunity to be challenged and fulfilled, to feel actualized?
- Are our relationships being realized in their deepest capacity?
- Are we giving enough time and energy and attention to our inner lives, in the midst of the whirlwinds forever swirling outside of ourselves?
May we use these gentle reminders in Parshat Shoftim to look with honesty at the many facets of our lives and to spend the coming weeks searching for ways to move towards wholeness and holy actualization.