When I was a kid, I went to Shabbat services almost weekly. And I mean weekly until I graduated from high school. It was for real.
This was so long ago that we used the old-school black Silverman siddur, the one with Adon Olam on page 162. Since then I’ve used the Sim Shalom, the pocket Sim Shalom, the ArtScroll (not sure why), the Or Chadash, the Yavneh siddur, the Mishkan Tefilah siddur, and a few in between, including the British siddur that’s used at KI in Brookline. I like seeing what’s out there.
Circa 1985, before I was a proficient Hebrew reader, I would always read sections of the prayers in English in the Silverman. Most memorably I would sing the Shma and the V’ahavta with the congregation, and then know to read the next few paragraphs until the end of the prayer (this was also long before it was trendy to sing the Tzitzit paragraph).
The language of those intermediate paragraphs is striking- do good, and God will reward you with rainfall in its season and an abundance of crops. Stray from the mitzvot, and suffer the consequences. Quid pro quo.
The second paragraph of the Shma, which we read this week in parashat Ekev, leads to questions I pose to students all the time- if there weren’t any consequences, why bother being good at all? Is it in our nature to bury our selfish desires, or are we prone to willfulness and disobedience? To whom are we accountable for our actions? Are we really at God’s mercy? Are you sure?
This is indeed the season for contemplating these questions. Tisha B’av was not so long ago, thus the memory of the churban habayit (destruction of the Temple) is fresh in our minds. Whether or not you believe that the destruction and expulsion was due to our immoral and un-mitzvot-y behavior is up to you, but around now it’s worth asking whether or not there just might be something to be said for ethical behavior after all. Although we’re not quite at Elul it’s never too early to start thinking about teshuva and our small, or large imperfections.
This week also continues the sequence of the Haftarot of consolation- the second of the seven readings from Isaiah that will carry us to the New Year.
We are certainly still in need of God bringing us close. Why?
1) We just had a Torah reading about the consequences for being bad, and it’s getting a little intense.
3) The high holidays are lurking on the horizon. In less than two weeks, as we enter Elul, the Shofar will begin calling our attention to that fact.
Our existential doubts might just be elevated.
In the midst of this emotion, Isaiah brings us back to a better place. He writes not only of the Jewish people, but in a rare moment of self-revelation, he writes about his own experience of redemption and consolation. It is perhaps his most personal writing that we read.
Despite all the ups and downs of the Israel-God relationship (and it’s very down this time of year), Isaiah assures us that it will in fact, be all right. Sometime soon, he writes, “gladness and joy shall abide [in Zion], thanksgiving and the sound of music” (Isaiah 51:3).
In a week where we mourn the victims of terror in Southern Israel and comfort their families, this is indeed a Shabbat of consolation for us. Let it be our prayer that gladness and joy, thanksgiving and music, shall reside in Zion in our days, and for eternity.