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Teshuva by Making Judaism a Reality

“זכר ימות עולם בינו שנות דר-ודר, שאל אביך ויגדך וקניך ויאמרו לך” “Remember the days of old, understand the years, generation to generation; ask your father and he will tell you and your elders and they will say it to you (they will inform you.)”

What is it to remember something? When we recall a previous event or experience, that event or experience is existing in our mind. In this way, we can say the event or experience is in the present tense. At the moment of recall, it is currently happening. The song of Haazinu, written long ago, is a testimony to our lives as Jews, not just for our ancestors. This idea holds true for every generation that reads this portion. We are subject to the same shortcomings as our forefathers. We would act the same as they did, were we faced with similar situations.

However, the Torah holds out an antidote to the predicament described above. “Ask your father and he will tell it to you; and your elders, they will inform you.” Our heritage, our traditions, our values, our entire unique Jewish way of life must always be real in our minds. They must be current and fresh. They must be viewed by our mind as critically vital to our existence, for the here and now.

 There are four ways this reality to the mind is brought about. The first and most primary way is by partaking and experiencing that way of life. This goal is first instilled and partially accomplished during our initial, first 5 or so years of life. At that time, we are in the primary care of our mother. The care and concern the mother displays for the welfare of her family are absorbed and embedded into the young soul of the child. Through her painstaking preparations, it is the mother who first introduces her children to the sights, sounds, and unique aromas accompanying Shabbat and each individual Yom Tov and celebration. Rabbi Soloveitchik remarked on the words from the verse in Proverbs, 1:8 “and don’t forget the Torah (teachings) of your mother,” as referring precisely to these very formative years and experiences in the life of a child.

However, as the child transitions, grows, and matures, other questions and issues arise. Here, a second method is endorsed by the Torah and is essential in making Judaism real to the mind’s eye. It is by virtue of the very practical institution of “mesorah,” entrusted to the laypeople of Israel.  What is part and parcel of authentic Judaism is determined by “tradition,” to quote Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof. Its veracity comes by one generation following the actions of all the preceding generations. How do we know what an etrog is? Maror? The meaning of “an eye for an eye?’ We have an authentic Mesorah, a reliable tradition that determines the reality of Judaism for today not only in the past. Its source, “…ask your father, he will tell you; your elders and they will inform you.”

A third way to know the reality of Judaism is via “halacha,” a legal decision from our Jewish court, “Beit Din.” The term “halacha” comes from the Hebrew word “l’halach,” meaning “to go” or “to walk.” The Torah endorses this process as another way to know the reality of Judaism. Devorim, 17:8-13 gives license to the courts and rabbis to use the halachic process and determine by it how we should go or walk, meaning how we should practice and enforce Jewish observance be it a question of ritual, civil or capital law. Today, while the court has a limited range of functions, we are blessed with many renowned Torah scholars. They are available to us and can be consulted on a wide range of halachic issues old and new, including what to do when faced with critical life and death medical decisions.

There is, finally, a fourth method. It is available to every person who wants to see the truth and reality of Judaism. It may be the hardest to do but it is the most enduring and satisfying of the methods we have. It is to engage in the very mitzvah of “Talmud Torah,” the study of Torah. This fourth way, by its very nature, is focused directly on the mind. Engaging in this activity brings the reality of Judaism to the mind in ways none of the other methods can. In this method, there is no middleman. Your mind engages directly with the facts and phenomena that make up the system of Judaism. It is via this method that the internal improvement, proper direction, and advancement for our lives, envisioned for us by the Torah, is ultimately attained.

As this Shabbat before Yom Kippur is traditionally known as “Shabbat Teshuva,” let us resolve in the coming year to use all the methods outlined above to see the reality of Judaism. In so doing may all our actions and conduct be guided by our Torah and restore our relationship with God.

Shabbat Shalom and G’mar Chatimah Tovah,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan