August 11, 2023
This Shabbat is a time of turning and transition, as it is the Shabbat preceding the new month of Elul. Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah, is meant to be a time of deep self-reflection as we move toward the new year. In a noisy world, with so much demanding our attention and the too-easy digital access to an overflow of information, it can be difficult to ground ourselves in mindful awareness; to see what is easily overlooked; to give attention to our innermost selves; to see what we need in order to grow and to heal, so that we can best manifest the gifts of our neshama – our unique, essential, self – in this world.
This week’s Torah portion, Re’eh (See) is a call to attention, and it is no coincidence that it is read on the Shabbat just before Elul begins. In this Torah portion, we find Moses reminding the Israelites of the many challenges and blessings of their long wilderness journey, and the practices to which they are obligated as God’s covenantal partner. He begins: “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse.” (Deuteronomy 11:26) Soon, our people are to cross the Jordan river and settle into the land so long promised and dreamed-of. We can understand the verb “to see” as “to be mindful and aware.” Perhaps the Israelites are in danger of being so relieved to finally have arrived in the promised land that they will forget that every action has consequences, that they have a profound obligation to themselves and to one another to create this new society based on the laws they have been given, urging them toward compassion and justice.
Our Israelite ancestors went through a journey of growth, learning, evolution and transformation just as we do as individuals. In the wilderness, they were infants at first, filled with the anxiety that can come with newfound freedom. They needed to grow and learn, and the many challenges recounted in Torah (the building of the golden calf, the incessant kvetching, especially to Moses, the sin of the spies, Korach’s rebellion, just to name a few) are all examples of a people in a process of profound emotional, psychological and spiritual development. They’ve come a long way after these 40 years, both geographically and emotionally. And now, this wandering people are to experience an entirely new kind of freedom as they construct their society rooted in the land promised to their ancestors, having accepted the responsibility of manifesting the values of Torah in this society and in the world. Moses tells them: “For you are about to cross the Jordan to enter and possess the land that your God יהוה is assigning to you. When you have occupied it and are settled in it, take care to observe all the laws and rules that I have set before you this day.” (Deuteronomy 11:31-32) Re’eh – See! This is a call to pay attention when, in their newfound freedom and stability, they might easily not.
Paying attention, being mindful of our choices, our responsibilities, our actions and their consequences, is also the demand of this season, and this begins with paying attention to our deepest selves. It is a difficult task to carve out the mental space and quiet to go inward and do so. And, it is difficult because we won’t like everything we see, and there are so many ways we can distract ourselves to avoid it. It can hurt to be honest with ourselves, but our responsibility in this spiritual warm-up to the High Holy Day season, is to see our souls, in all their fullness. Where are we hurting? What do we need? What fills us up and what depletes us? If we can be present to ourselves in this way, through any practice that quiets the mental clutter (this could be mindful breathing, taking a walk in nature, meditation, journaling,or even exercise, listening to instrumental music, or dance), then we are fulfilling the call of Elul, so beautifully foreshadowed in this week’s Torah portion. “See!” “This day” is repeated in these first few verses, to tell us that this practice, this work of paying attention and being mindful, is ongoing. Whether we are in the equivalent of a wilderness journey fraught with anxieties and unknowns, or settled in a “promised land” where we feel more secure, we must constantly pay attention to where we are on a soul-level. When we are present to ourselves, we can be present to others, and present to the task of creating a world of compassion, love, justice and peace wherever we are.
There is a wonderful type of meditation practice called RAIN, which stands for “Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nurture.” It is one way of coming to “see” ourselves, where we are and what we need. If you are interested in learning about mindfulness and meditation practice, I encourage you to read this piece and try out this practice (scroll down for the guided meditation) led by master mindfulness teacher Tara Brach. This one is particularly focused on anxiety, but the RAIN practice can be used with any emotion that you “see” when you go inward and pay attention. I also highly recommend Tara Brach’s podcast. Mindfulness practice is just one way to fulfill the command to “See,” and no matter how you choose to approach the task of preparing for the new year, I hope you will cultivate presence and honesty with yourself. I am always here for you as a resource to help you with this kind of spiritual work or anything else, of course.
Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman