Two Towers, Two Tasks

FOR SOME REASON, THREE SIGNIFICANT dates fell out fairly close together recently: Sonoma’s first (?) 9/11 commemoration, Simchat Torah and the autumnal equinox. The first marks the end of American innocence; the second, the annual restarting of the synagogic Torah cycle; the third goes on regardless of human observation (unless, of course, Time only exists for those of us who count it). I was privileged to say something public about this in the pieces which follow; the first at Sonoma’s first 9/11 commemoration, the second at a service I led not long after:

D’var 9/11 – Open, Closed, Open (title borrowed from Yehuda Amichai)

I’m Neal Ross Attinson, a lay leader at Congregation Shir Shalom, and first I’d like to ask for a show of hands – On this day last year, how many people felt somewhat unable to get through the day, let alone the coming year?

On that Tuesday afternoon, I put an American flag on my car antenna as a sign of mourning. I’m removing it tomorrow, and I’d like to tell you why.

Jewish tradition recognizes the first year of mourning as an important stage of grief. During that year, we say a special memorial prayer every day. But at the close of the year, we stop – and only say it on each anniversary of the death thereafter.

This doesn’t mean we stop thinking about the person who has died – just as none of us here tonight will stop thinking about what happened a year ago. It means that we have integrated the person’s death, and our own grief, into our lives. We have not put the person behind us. What we have put behind us is the first year of grieving. In effect, we have closed one door and are ready to open another.

The central statement of Jewish faith, which the Torah commands us to say twice daily, is called the Sh’ma. The word “Sh’ma” means “listen,” and the first six words in Hebrew are “Sh’ma Yisroel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.” My favorite interpretation is, “Listen, you who wrestle with the Divine and with yourselves. G-d is simply G-d. G-d is One.”

I’m going to recite the first six words of the Shema, just as we recite it in synagogue – feel free to join me if you know it. As the echoes of this Shema die away, let’s take a few moments to listen – to our hearts, to the sound of our own breathing and that of those here with us – listen to the sound of the future through the open door before us all.

“Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad…”

Dvar Haazinu 5763

An old rabbi once said to a young scholar, “Sogt mir a posek – give me a verse of Torah – tell me what you know.” “But Rabbi,” the student said. “I only know a little Torah.” The rabbi replied, “That is all anyone knows of Torah.”

This week’s Torah portion finds Moses about to die, exhorting the Jews not to forget their heritage when they pass into the Land. “For this is not a trifling thing for you,” Moses says. “It is your very life; through it you shall long endure.”

It’s a fitting portion for this Shabbat – Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Shuvah means return, and on this Shabbat Shuvah I’d like to challenge us all to do just that.

Sunday, September 29 is Simchat Torah. We reach the end of the Torah and immediately begin again at the beginning, just as we’ve done for more than 2,000 years. We’ll then read a little bit each week until October 19, 2003, when we start all over again. We do this because the Torah is THE core document of Judaism – it’s not the only one, but it is why we have all the others.

Here’s the challenge: On September 29, why not come along for the ride?

If you accept this challenge, I personally and absolutely guarantee that three things will happen: You will be profoundly bored by some of what you read. You will be profoundly moved, maybe shocked, by some of it. But most importantly, you yourself will know what the Torah actually says. And using Torah as a door, you may travel a little further down the road to understanding Judaism – and maybe also yourself.

Some things to remember: Don’t get hung up on the “right” way to read the weekly portion. Many people like to read a little every day. Others read the whole portion a couple of times during the week, or on Saturday morning. You also don’t need to agree with or even believe what you’re reading – in fact, you probably won’t – you just have to believe it’s important.

Obviously, you also need a good translation of the text and a schedule of readings. If you don’t have the text, or – worse – if you only have the King James version (a notoriously bad translation), talk to me after the oneg; it’ll be easy to get one before the 29th. There’s a schedule of readings in each temple bulletin, but I will also post them weekly on our congregational email list – and give you any other help you ask for.

So there’s the challenge: Read one book, over the course of a year, a little at a time. What have you got to lose?

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