By Rabbi Craig Marantz, Guest Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11)
In the words of the great Rav Kook, the human soul is part-intellect and part-emotion. The mind and the heart, they work together. And, nourishing this complementary pair are the practice of talmud Torah and the mitzvot, to which Torah study leads. Some mitzvot sharpen our power to discern, to look at ourselves and the world around us with a critical, moral eye. Other mitzvot “guard and direct [our] emotions, refining them so that they will harmonize with the rational intellect.”
Rav Kook offered this wisdom as a commentary on the nature of vows. To Rav Kook, vows flow from the realm of emotion–”an overpowering sense of holiness, awe, fear or gratitude that fills one’s heart.” In addition, vows direct us to live “an emotionally refined life that complements our intellectual attainments.” And, given their moral power, Torah calls us to hold our vows in high regard and carefully fulfill them. An excellent message always, but especially so as we move ever so closely to the Yamim Nora’im–the Days of Awe–in which we take inventory of our commitments and how well we’ve kept to them.
Rav Kook’s commentary also serves as a meaningful warm-up as we arrive at this week’s parashat Va’etchanan, the textual origin of the Shema–the very basis of our brit (covenant), the essential watchword of our faith.
Reflecting on the Shema and Talmudic commentary on the nature of our relationship with G-d, another commentator, Rabbi Judith Z. Abrams, paints a picture of a wedding, two souls–G-d and us– standing together establishing their devotion for one another. And, while these nuptials don’t include an exchange of vows per se, they do involve for us the recital of the Shema–our statement of commitment expressing the terms that mark our relationship with G-d. For Abrams, the rabbis define our brit with the Holy One as an “intense, monogamous relationship of one soul and the one G-d which encompasses all our experiences, good and bad, and is expressed in time through mitzvot and Torah study.”
The intensity spoken of here marks the powerful emotional quality our relationship with G-d can have, not unlike the feeling stuff from which, Rav Kook tells us, vows flow. And, note the presence of Torah and mitzvot, crucial as we seek to discern the spiritual power of our relationship with G-d in all our experiences in life, positive and negative. Just as our study of Torah and our practice of mitzvot harmonizes our minds and our hearts, the combination of talmud Torah and the commandments also refines our relationship with G-d. And again, while this work of refinement applies every day, it’s especially meaningful as the High Holy Days approach and we approach the thoughtful and impassioned work of teshuvah, turning (or returning) to G-d and repairing the covenant we may have damaged in missing the moral marks of our lives.
To be sure, vows are a key subject of our High Holy Day liturgy. And there is perhaps no more emotionally transformative experience than the hauntingly beautiful melody of Kol Nidrei. Some say our Kol Nidre prayer formed from a desire to nullify vows of forced conversion in the Spanish Inquisition. Others argue Kol Nidrei arose as Jewish mystics sought to rescind oaths made to evoke evil forces in the universe dedicated to harming the Jewish people. For me, Kol Nidre helps me recognize my susceptibility as a human being to breaking a vow here and there. And more accepting of my own humanity, I can more easily summon the confidence to bounce back. This feels morally liberating. Regardless of origin and purpose, Kol Nidrei captures a deep feeling that echoes the powerful nature of vows that Rav Kook articulates.
We commit to a life of Torah and mitzvot, but sometimes we stray. We vow to choose G-d or virtue. But instead, we occupy ourselves with material temptation and spiritual distraction. So, as we prepare for the Yamim Nora’im, may every time we utter the Shema be an opportunity to discern clearly and feel deeply the power of G-d to inspire us and the strength of Torah and mitzvot to refine our virtue and our commitments: to love G-d, neighbor and stranger; to honor mother, father, the elders of our community and the wise; to uphold the dignity of the vulnerable; to prevent the shame of others; to not stand idly by while another’s life is on the line; to celebrate Shabbat and holidays; to rejoice at weddings and comfort mourners; to sustain our planet and protect animals from suffering–all of which can serve as catalysts for our emotional and moral growth, our teshuvah, and our personal change. Kain yehi ratzon!
Rabbi Craig Marantz is rabbi of Emanuel Congregation (Reform).