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This Left Doesn't Feel Right

The following sermon was given at Valley Temple in Wyoming, Ohio on Friday, August 30th.

There is a reason that we read the Torah today thousands of years after it was written. Few books have that level of staying power, yet here we are reading the same words that our ancestors have been reading for centuries. One of the reasons for its popularity is that it works very hard to speak to the reality in which we find ourselves. The Torah feels relevant, timeless in a way that has almost never been duplicated.

This week’s Torah portion is particularly understandable. Deuteronomy 11 tells us “See that I’ve set before you today blessing and curse.” It is the simplest dichotomy. If you follow the rules that God has laid out: great things are going to happen. If you don’t? If you spurn the covenant, and choose to do what is evil in the eyes of God? Curses are coming your way.

We are reading a text that thousands of years ago literally began with the phrase: look, here’s the deal. That feels accessible, understandable. We get to choose our destiny. Do well, and receive prosperity, do poorly, and suffer.

The text wants it to feel simple. At this point in the history of our people, we have seen the Israelites go through 40 years of wandering. A people born into slavery has turned over into a generation eager to taste what freedom can be, to experience liberation in a land of their own. For hundreds of years, the people of Abraham have been promised a land full of blessing and opportunity, and that promise is about to be fulfilled.

But God knows how this is likely to go down. The people are going to get into their new homes and become so wrapped up in their own lives that they get distracted from all the things they have been told they must do. What may seem simple initially isn’t going to be so straightforward when there are distractions, when there is governing to be done, preparations to be made, and a lifestyle to create.

God and Moses are making one final call to the people. Look, they say, don’t forget what we’ve set up here. Don’t forget the intention we’ve created. We’ve given you all the tools to succeed. Don’t get distracted and fail to hold up your end of the bargain.

As a student, this idea strikes a particular chord. For the past nine semesters, I’ve started afresh in the fall, thinking to myself, “ya know, THIS is the semester where I’m really going to do it all. I’m going to do every reading. I’m going to go to every meeting. I’m going to read for pleasure more, go to the gym more. This year, I’m going to do it just right.” Well, it’s week two, and already, I’m coming to the realization that I’m not going to be able to be everything to everybody. It simply isn’t possible to be perfect, no matter how good an intention we set.

But God didn’t ask for perfection. In the same set of commandments that God reminds us to observe when we get into the land, there are many that make reference to what happens when we sin. There is an entire system in place for what kind of offerings need to be made when we fall short, when we make mistakes, when we aren’t the level of perfect we had hoped to be. The repentance process, though, assumes that we were TRYING to do it right in the first place, and simply fell short.

“Look, you have two options: great things, or terrible things.” Our Torah portion tells us that we can either prosper in the land that God is about to give us, or we can forget about the covenant we’ve worked so hard to create and suffer the consequences. When we get to our promised land, we are called not to forget that we are striving for something big, something great. We are striving to live our best lives in relationship with holiness and in pursuit of righteousness. So too when we, in our busy lives, get bogged down in the minutiae, overwhelmed by the details, we are given the chance to pause and remember why we do what we do. We’re doing this because there is an incredible opportunity before us. We get to choose blessing or curse, to choose meaning and purpose, or more time spent wandering in a wilderness of our own creation.

Look. See. We get to make a choice. And we get to set our intention in order that that choice be one of righteousness, holiness, and blessing.

Shabbat Shalom.

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