All the Jewish endings come together every year. Here we are at the last Shabbat of 5770. We are almost at the end of the Torah, with just five chapters left to go. The old year is coming to an end. In just a few days, we will come into the synagogue for Rosh HaShanah seeking guidance and direction as we embark on a new year. If, as I proposed when I began writing these passages on Deuteronomy months ago, the Torah is our GPS for life, where is this week’s portion taking us? How many options are we given for this last leg of our journey?
The answer in Deuteronomy 30:11–14 is that we do not have to travel by plane or spacecraft, nor do we need to book a cruise. The blueprint for a new year is closer than we think:
Surely, this Instruction [mitzvah] which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond your reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get if for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.
I love that phrase, “the thing is very close to you.”But, I ask myself, “What does it mean for something to be close to us?”
I found a passage by an unknown author that answers this question for me.
In Rabbinic literature, we find an interesting story attributed to Rabbi Joshua ben Chananiah. Once, Rabbi Joshua was walking on a road seeking his way to an unfamiliar town. He met a young boy at the crossroads. I imagine that the boy was very much like the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. Rabbi Joshua asked, “Which is the way to town?” The boy, pointing his finger to the right answered, “This road is near and far.” He turned to the left, pointed his finger, and said, “This road is far and near.”
Now, let’s stop right here. As an avid mystery reader, I know that the words used by people can be critical to solving a mystery. “Near and far” . . . “far and near”—which road would you take?
Rabbi Joshua ben Chananiah clearly was not a member of the Agatha Christie Society. He took the road to the right, the one the boy told him was near and far, thinking it was the shorter, because he stopped listening actively after the word “near.” Yet, soon the rabbi discovered that the way was obstructed by fruit gardens surrounded with fences.
Tired and frustrated, Rabbi Joshua returned and found the boy who had given him directions. “Why did you mislead me?” Rabbi Joshua admonished in a grumpy tone.
“You did not take heed of my directions,” the boy responded respectfully. “Did I not say that the road to the right is near and far? It is the nearer road if you ask about distance on a map, but because of the garden barriers, it is the farther involving more time and effort to traverse. I told you that the other road was far and near. It is further on the map, but nearer because it is clear and unobstructed” (Babylonian Talmud, Eiruvin 53b and Midrash Eichah Rabbah 1, in Moments of Transcendence: Inspirational Readings for Rosh Hashanah, ed. Dov Peretz Elkins [Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1992], p. 32)
God tells us in Deuteronomy that Torah and mitzvot are not far from us in the heavens or across the sea. We are too often like the impatient Rabbi Joshua, asking for directions but not truly listening to them, clear as they may be. Moreover, we do not ask very many follow up questions, an important tool in solving any mystery. Too often, we don’t hear someone out before we act or jump to conclusions. God doesn’t only say that the answer is “close to you.” God actually tells us the location of this incredible gift of Torah: “[it is] in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.”
When we come into our synagogues on the High Holy Days, we will ask forgiveness for all of the times we took the long way through the fences and orchards and other obstacles with our mouths and the words that came out of them. We didn’t let the Torah guide our speech or our writing, and it ultimately took us a lot longer to remedy a detour that could have been a straight path guided by kindness, compassion, and understanding.
We will seek atonement as we enter 5771 for all of the times we were deaf to our hearts’ pleas for respite, when we knew that Shabbat would give us peace and rest. Instead, we took the seemingly shorter route by continuing our work and our responsibilities leaving ourselves no time for a Sabbath of rest. Yet, this “shortcut” ultimately created an over-programmed and far less-fulfilling life in which we expended great time and energy with little personal or spiritual result.
Observance not only takes less time, but in the end, it offers a better, clearer, and unobstructed path. The observant Jew knows that keeping Torah close to you is the direct way to Shabbat and holidays, study and spirituality, mitzvot and acts of social justice. The mitzvot add meaning, purpose, and direction in a life filled with stress and struggles. As Reform Jews, we need to remember that a life guided by Torah is for us as well.
Often we are Rabbi Joshua, quick to blame the giver of directions—God, rabbis, teachers, tradition, or Torah. But, patiently and lovingly, a modern, authentic Judaism is the boy at the crossroads offering the way, if we would only listen, reflect, and seek answers when the way is unclear.
Sh’ma Yisrael, “Listen Israel!” This week’s portion is offering you a direction: Take the road that is far but near. It is very close to you.
There is a story told by Winston Lord of a speech he wrote for Henry Kissinger. “[Kissinger] called me in the next day and said, ‘Is this the best you can do?’ . . . this went on eight times, eight drafts; each time he said, ‘Is this the best you can do?’ So I went in there with a ninth draft, and when he . . . asked me that same question . . . I said, ‘Henry, I've beaten my brains out . . . I know it's the best I can do. . . ..’ He then looked at me and said, ‘. . . now I'll read it.’” 1
Doing one’s best has come to be a cop out: something we might say, mealy-mouthed, to avoid improving ourselves. But as this story illustrates, it’s actually a challenge—to commit one’s faculties and abilities fully to the task at hand.
But what happens when our best isn’t enough? At some point, we will say the wrong or hurtful word, we will duck our responsibility to others, we will be overwhelmed by the task before us. What then?
We find an answer this week in our parashah, where turning is mentioned twice (Deuteronomy 30:1?2). First, when our best isn’t good enough, we turn to God (v’shavta ad Adonai, “and you return to the Eternal your God,” Deuteronomy 30:2). Then, God turns to us (v’shav Adonai, “the Eternal your God will restore . . . ,” Deuteronomy 30:3). That turning defines our High Holidays. When we falter we turn and say, “I did my best, but sometimes it wasn’t good enough. I’m sorry, and I will do better in the future.”
As the High Holy Days approach, ask yourself: when were you at your best this year? What do you need to work on? How will you turn again to God, and those in our community?
No one is perfect, but so long as we strive with all our heart and soul to do our best, we may turn toward blessing.
1 Taken from an oral history project:
"Nitzavim, Deuteronomy 29:9–30:20
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,537–1,545; Revised Edition, pp. 1,372–1,381;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,217–1,234"