“I, I Am the One that comforts you; who are you, to be afraid of man that shall die, and of the son of man that shall be made as grass. . .?”
--Haftorah Shoftim, Isaiah 51:12
“Righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue . . .”
--Parashat Shoftim, Devarim 16:20
“Walking the thin line, between fear and the call; one learns to bend and finally depend on the Love of it all.”
--Noel Paul Stookey, For the Love of It All
The month of Elul started last Monday at sundown, on Rosh Chodesh, the sixth New Moon from the New Year for months.
My Elul dream this year came late, on Wednesday night, and without clarity or drama. In fact, I really don’t remember it at all, except that I dreamed of the current rabbi at our former synagogue, and of a neighbor in need of help finding a lost cat. I awoke to Tippy, my guardian Border Collie cross, pawing at my shoulder in the middle of the night. She feels it is important to awaken me when something unusual is going on. I went out to see an elk buck with eight points standing in the meadow in the deep darkness under a setting Big Dipper handle. Tippy did not bark at the elk this time; she seemed to think the elk belonged exactly in that place. She just wanted me to know he was there and awakened me to see him standing.
I don’t have a ready interpretation for the fragment of a dream or the meaning of seeing the elk standing in his place. Their significance escapes me, except that as I stood gazing at the elk in the starlight, I remembered that it was now Elul.
This Shabbat, as the Engineering Geek and I sat down to study Torah, I was struck by two statements that jumped off the pages and into my mind, one from the beginning of the Parashat of the week, and one from its Haftorah. As I turned them over in my mind, I realized that the two of them together represent that place I have been for the last half-decade: I have been “walking the thin line between fear and the call” as Emmy Lou Harris sings in the Paul Stookey song, The Love of it All.
The Torah portion for the first Shabbat in Elul is Shoftim, which means “judges” or “chieftans” in Hebrew. In the first paragraph, which deals with how judgment must conform to justice, we read:
“You shall make for yourselves judges and officers in all your gates, which Adonai your G-d gives you, tribe by tribe; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment: you shall not pervert justice; you shall not respect persons; neither shall you take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the righteous. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and possess the land that Adonai your G-d is giving to you.”
צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדּף Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof
The call at the beginning of the Month of Elul—the beginning of the season of our turning, is to pursue justice or righteousness. In Hebrew, the words are the same. Justice means to make a judgment according to honor, standards or the law, meting out to every individual what is right according to his or her rights and actions. Our rabbis taught that there is the justice of the streets—the righteousness with which we must treat every person—and the justice of the courts. If we fail to act with justice in all of our dealings on the streets, then justice must be adjudicated in the courts. In his commentary on the Torah, Joseph Hertz, Ph.D., who was the Chief Rabbi of Britain in the early 20th century, points out that in this sense, the Hebrew understanding of justice differs from the Greek. He wrote that in the Greek, justice implies:
“[A] harmonious arrangement of society, by which every human peg is put into its appropriate hole, so that those who perform humble functions shall be content to perform them in due subservience to their betters. It stresses the inequalities of human nature, whereas in the Hebrew conception of justice, the equality is stressed.”
--Soncino Press Pentateuch and Haftorahs: Hebrew Text, English Translation and Commentary, J.H. Hersch, Ed., p. 821
This is the case because in Hebrew thought, every human being is made in the image of the Eternal, and his life is unique and precious, possessing, as he does, a spark of Infinity. Therefore, as Hersch continues, every person has “the right to life, honor and all the fruits of his labor,” (p. 821). For this reason, Jewish Law demands that every human being be treated with honor in the streets, and with righteousness in the courts.
But if the call of Elul is to justice, then the burden of answering it is fearful, as the prophets show us. For to behave with righteousness towards everyone in the streets and to mete out equal justice in the courts, flies in the face of social conventions and political correctness. One must honor truth, consider the facts, and render judgment accordingly in all dealings. One may not condemn the rich man because he is rich nor excuse the poor man because he is poor (“you shall not respect persons”), and one may not base how one treats another on gifts or flattery (“you shall not take a bribe”). For this reason, acting with righteousness and justice is likely to get a person in trouble socially and legally in an unjust society. And as we currently live in a society that no longer makes judgments based on righteousness and law, but does so on the exigencies of political correctness and the whims of men, acting with justice is a difficult and dangerous thing.
And herein lies how I, among others, have been “walking the thin line between fear and the call” as we recognize the truth of what is being done to our civil society and to its values and law. For in my determination—made every Rosh Hashanah for the past four years—to honor the truth and act righteously, I have said and done things that have earned me the anger and contempt of friends and acquaintances. Sadly, this has ended many friendships that were based on my former habit of ignoring the reality of growing differences between our worldviews. Some of the ways in which those friendships were ended, and the accusations leveled against me, have cut me to the core of my being.
And in my weaker moments, I am afraid that in stepping out beyond the lines of political correctness and social and legal convention, I will be harmed not only socially, but financially and/or physically. Because making a stand for plain old justice in a world of collectivist notions of “social justice” is no longer simply bad form, but with the oppression of the surveillance state and the police state being created and solidifying with terrifying rapidity, it is downright dangerous. Speech and action that now can cost one her dignity, property and perhaps, her liberty, may soon cost one her life.
And that fear causes me temporary confusion and wrong action. It creates doubt in my mind and silence in my mouth. And so the Haftorah Shoftim, the fourth in the seven Haftorot of Comfort, also comforts me:
“I, I Am the One that comforts you; who are you to be afraid . . ?
“. . . And where is the fury of the oppressor? He that is bent down shall speedily be loosed; and he shall not go down dying into the pit. Neither shall his bread fail.”
But to paraphrase Julian of Norwich:
He did not say “You shall not screw up.” He did not say “You shall not be discouraged.” He did not say:\ “You shall not be harmed.” But he said: “You shall not be overcome.”
I suppose what that means is open to interpretation. To me, it means that trials and troubles, and even harm are not the worst thing. The worst thing is to lose one’s honor and integrity; to lose one’s identity and one’s very soul. And if I persist in finding righteousness and doing justice, turning and returning again to walk the thin line, then despite any shame or harm done to me, I will remain who I am, and that is the greatest value to me.
The name of the month of Elul is an acronym in Hebrew that stands for Ani l’dodi, v’dodi li—I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine. Elul is the point of turning and returning again in the dance of Shekinah, She who dwells with Israel in our exile, in our eternal betrothal with the Master of the Universe. And here, in my own dwelling place, Elul is the point of turning and returning again in my dance as a Jew, longing all my life for that moment of loving kindness, that betrothal of righteousness and justice, that Place, that shelter in the rock, where I get a glimpse of all of G-d’s goodness passing before me.
“For the Love of it all, I would go anywhere; to the ends of the earth, Oh, what is it worth, if Love would be there?
Walking the thin line, between fear and the call; one learns to bend and finally depend on the Love of it all.”
It is the love of it all—of life and being—that unites the call to justice and righteousness with the will to overcome fear and fills my heart with strength for the journey. And year after year, I turn and return again to the call in the dance of Elul. I come again to Makom, the Dwelling Place of Israel, only to know that I have been here, walking the thin line, day after day, year after year.
So. Maybe I can construct the meaning of Tippy’s silence as she brought me to see the elk. He was standing within his place, his Makom. And so am I, walking the thin line. Here, in this place between fear and the call, is Makom, the Presence of the Eternal. As Israel learned in her exile, as Isaiah reminds Jews to this day in the first Haftorah of Comfort:
Here is your G-d.