My colleague in Toronto, Rabbi Yael Splansky, suggests that we take a moment to imagine the idealistic visions of the Promised Land that our ancestors must have held onto for hope through their centuries of brutal slavery; the legends about the land they must have told to encourage one another during decades of parched wandering in the desert.
Take yourself into the mind of an ancestor, finding yourself on the shore of the Jordan River finally able to look across the water and see the real Promised Land right before your eyes; You know we were just weeks away from – finally! – making the dream come true by going into that land-of-legends-become-actuality. Amidst the incredible buzz of excitement, you eagerly await Moses’ words of guidance.
What you hear is this week’s Torah portion, a list of 72 commandments such as:
“When you take the field against your enemies, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her and would take her to wife… ,” this is how you should treat her (Deuteronomy 21:10–14). “If a parent has a wayward and defiant son… ,” this is how he should be punished (Deuteronomy 21:18–21). “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it” (Deuteronomy 22:8). If a young engaged woman is raped in town, this is how the case should be treated (Deuteronomy 22:23–24). If a young engaged woman is raped in the countryside, this is how the case should be treated (Deuteronomy 22:25–27)…
On goes the list with laws about how to treat the widow, the orphan, the rejected wife, the hungry, the slave who is fleeing from his master, and the one who suffers a skin disease…we are even told to set up lavatories outside the camp and to use shovels to cover over what we leave behind!
Rabbi Splansky notes that in this week’s parasha, Ki Tetzei, Moses isn’t exactly painting a picture of the land of our dreams! Not a paradise on earth!
The crucial point, continues Rabbi Splansky, is that all these 72 commandments from Moses are aiming “to prepare the Children of Israel for what is just around the corner: not a perfect life, but a life of potential; not the “Promised Land,” but a land filled with promise.”
“We, too, are poised at the edge of something new and full of promise. Just on the horizon, less than three weeks’ distance, sits Rosh HaShanah and a new year of possibility. Some may dream: “This is the year that I’m going to get it right. This is the year I turn it all around. I’ll be the perfect parent, the ideal spouse, the most loving son or daughter [or grandparent]…” Visions of our highest selves are necessary if we are to advance, but like the dreams B’nei Yisrael had of life on the other side of the Jordan River, our dreams of the year ahead must be tempered with the realities of life on the ground. Like sovereignty in the Land of Israel, we, too, are works in progress.”
This month of Elul which leads up to the High Holidays, is our opportunity to identify the vision of the best people we can and want to become. This is our chance to change – first to figure out how to change ourselves, and then to make those changes. We ask forgiveness. We make amends. We challenge ourselves and test ourselves and evolve ourselves in preparation for the New Year.
Perhaps start by taking ten minutes per day between now and Rosh haShana to do the work on yourself that Elul encourages…write down your resolutions, list the mistakes you have made and the things you need to do now to fix them. Or take a daily walk on the beach, calling to mind the ancient banks of the Jordan where the grand vision meets the how-to details of reality. Hear the call of the shofar at daily morning minyan, waking you up from the doldrums of routine and blowing you in the direction of the Return to the most authentic and best version of yourself…