Unfinished Business

This week's Dvar Torah on Parashat Shoftim is taken from the book “This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation” by Rabbi Alan Lew (z"l) and is dedicated to the Refuah Shleimah of Dr. Warren Janowitz, a longtime student through CAJE Adult Learning classes.

Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash

...There are several very powerful suggestions in Parshat Shoftim as to precisely what it is we should be looking for during the month of Elul as we turn toward the gates of the soul in preparation for Teshuvah / Returning. These suggestions come, oddly enough, in the laws of war...
Before Israel goes off to war, the Torah tells us, the officers of the army must address the people and tell them the following:

וְדִבְּר֣וּ הַשֹּֽׁטְרִים֮ אֶל־הָעָ֣ם לֵאמֹר֒ מִֽי־הָאִ֞ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֨ר בָּנָ֤ה בַֽיִת־חָדָשׁ֙ וְלֹ֣א חֲנָכ֔וֹ יֵלֵ֖ךְ וְיָשֹׁ֣ב לְבֵית֑וֹ פֶּן־יָמוּת֙ בַּמִּלְחָמָ֔ה וְאִ֥ישׁ אַחֵ֖ר יַחְנְכֶֽנּוּ׃

5 And the officers shall speak unto the people, saying: "Who is the man who has built a new house but has not yet dedicated it [inhabited it]? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man dedicate it.

וּמִֽי־הָאִ֞ישׁ אֲשֶׁר־נָטַ֥ע כֶּ֙רֶם֙ וְלֹ֣א חִלְּל֔וֹ יֵלֵ֖ךְ וְיָשֹׁ֣ב לְבֵית֑וֹ פֶּן־יָמוּת֙ בַּמִּלְחָמָ֔ה וְאִ֥ישׁ אַחֵ֖ר יְחַלְּלֶֽנּוּ׃

6 And who is the man who has planted a vineyard and has not yet eaten its produce? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man eat it.

וּמִֽי־הָאִ֞ישׁ אֲשֶׁר־אֵרַ֤שׂ אִשָּׁה֙ וְלֹ֣א לְקָחָ֔הּ יֵלֵ֖ךְ וְיָשֹׁ֣ב לְבֵית֑וֹ פֶּן־יָמוּת֙ בַּמִּלְחָמָ֔ה וְאִ֥ישׁ אַחֵ֖ר יִקָּחֶֽנָּה׃

7 And who is the man who has been betrothed to a woman but has not yet taken her to wife [consummated the marriage]? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man take her."

The idea of all this seems to be that if we leave something incomplete, we fall into the state of mind the rabbis called traifeh da'at -- a torn mind -- a mind pulled in various directions.
A person in such a state of mind would be of little use in an army. He would be unable to focus on the task at hand and might even present a danger to his fellow soldiers...
So while we are conducting spiritual inventory during Elul, we might begin by asking ourselves: What are the loose ends in my life? How is my mind torn?
Where are the places my mind keeps wanting to go? What is the unfinished business in my life? What have I left undone? When we look out at the world through a torn mind, our experience of the world is torn...
There was another instruction officers were required to give their troops and this instruction also points us to something we might be looking at during this month of Elul as we turn toward the gates of the soul in preparation for Teshuvah/ Returning.

וְיָסְפ֣וּ הַשֹּׁטְרִים֮ לְדַבֵּ֣ר אֶל־הָעָם֒ וְאָמְר֗וּ מִי־הָאִ֤ישׁ הַיָּרֵא֙ וְרַ֣ךְ הַלֵּבָ֔ב יֵלֵ֖ךְ וְיָשֹׁ֣ב לְבֵית֑וֹ וְלֹ֥א יִמַּ֛ס אֶת־לְבַ֥ב אֶחָ֖יו כִּלְבָבֽוֹ׃

8 And the officers shall speak further unto the people, and they shall say: "Who is the man who is fearful and faint-hearted? Let him go and return to his house, lest his brother's heart melt as his heart has."

The assumption beneath this admonition is staggering in both its scope and its simplicity: we all share the same heart. We penetrate each other far more than we are ordinarily aware.
Ordinarily we are taken in by the materialistic myth of discrete being. We look like we are separate bodies. We look like we are discrete from one another.
Physically we can see where one of us begins and another of us ends; but emotionally, spiritually, it simply isn't this way.
Our feelings and our spiritual impulses flow freely beyond the boundaries of the self, and this is something that each of us knows intuitively for a certainty...
We know that emotions are contagious. We know they do not honor the boundaries of self, and even seem to mock them.
We all have the same heart. So if someone is afraid, the Torah tells us, we had better send him home from battle before the fear spreads from his heart to ours. The fear is more real than the [supposedly separate] self.
But this emotional contagion is not limited to fear. Fear is only one example of what ripples soul to soul and heart to heart.
Love also does this. So does happiness. So does suffering...
I often visit people in hospitals, and over the years I've gotten into the habit of doing a special meditation at the threshold of each hospital room.
I stand in the threshold breathing deeply until I can feel the fear that always follows me into these rooms. It is the fear of not being able to do anything to help the person who is ill.
What, after all, can I do? Can I make their illness go away? If they are dying, can I forestall their death? Perhaps I can comfort them, but what if I say the wrong thing and make things even worse?
So I stand in the doorway until I feel this fear come up, as it always does, until it has filled me completely, and then I remind myself that I am not going into that room to do anything for the person who is ill. Rather, I am going there to be with them, to listen to them, to offer them the only gift that makes any difference at all in this transaction, the gift of my presence.
And when this meditation works and I really am able to simply be with them and let their feelings flow naturally from their heart to mine, it is almost always a beautiful experience, a rich experience for me, whatever effect it may have on them, and it's quite clear that there is nothing to fear from their suffering when it flows from their heart to my heart.
Suffering is just suffering, a feeling that only wants to release from the imprisonment of the self-- a spiritual impulse that often ennobles, and that like any feeling, carries its own considerable burden of beauty with it.
And this is even true of fear, and of anger, and of every other feeling that spreads heart to heart until it has filled the world.
It is true of love, and it is true of compassion.
So even if we're not going off to war, these ancient laws of war are still extremely useful, especially during the month of Elul, as we stand watch at the gate of our soul...
What unfinished business, what unnecessary complexity is making us traifeh da'at, is tearing our focus away from the present-tense reality of our experience, from the present moment, the only place where we can really have our lives?
And what shadow of fear or anger-- what imagined impotence-- is keeping us from a deep emotional and spiritual connection to the people around us?

Shabbat Shalom!