The Gift of Forgiveness

[Yom Kippur morning, 5777]

A friend recently told me about his 95-year-old grandmother, who is friends with 3 women who are sisters, living in her building. The sisters are 99, 102 and 105 – kinna hurra! The 99-year-old and the 105-year-old live together in one apartment; the 102-year-old sister lives alone, in the same building, one floor above them. The two sisters live apart from the third one, because they don’t get along with her – they find her irritating, they talk behind her back ……. It may reflect a long-standing pattern among them, stemming from some long-lost, perhaps long-forgotten history, leaving now only the pattern of isolation and disconnect. I wonder, what could possibly have happened, that after almost 100 years, it couldn’t be put to rest?

Merriam-Webster defines forgiveness as the capacity to stop feeling anger or to stop blaming someone. It comes from the Greek, meaning ‘to let go’. Psychology teaches that forgiveness is a conscious, deliberate decision to release resentment or vengeance, whether they deserve forgiveness or not.

The ability to forgive is what sets us apart from all the other creatures of the Earth. From the first words in Torah, we are reminded that we are created, b’tzelem Elohim – in God’s image. We know that isn’t about what we look like, the color of eyes or hair or skin, our height or our facial expressions. Scientists once thought that our capacity for language distinguished us from all other living beings, but now we know animals clearly have a capacity of emotion, to a degree– picture the loving nuzzle of any mother, animal or human, for her offspring. Even plants communicate with one another. But Forgiveness – the ability through what we say and what we do to transform ourselves, to transform a relationship, is the divine gift to us. This is one of the qualities that our tradition ascribes to God, labeling it mercy.

The struggle of forgiveness – between mercy and justice – is not ours alone. A midrash on the creation story explains that when God created the world, God said, “If I create the world with the attribute of mercy alone, its sins will be too many; if with justice alone, how could the world be expected to endure? So I will create it with both justice and mercy, that it may endure!”[1] The Talmud goes on to ask “What does God pray?” The answer given is: “May it be My will that My mercy conquer My anger. . . that I behave towards My children with the attribute of mercy, and that for their sake I go beyond the boundary of judgment.”[2] Even God must pray that the mercy to grant forgiveness will prevail above judgement. If this prayer is good enough for God, isn’t it more than good enough for us?

I admit that I struggle with forgiveness in certain situations. This is especially true when the transaction is not two-sided. I know I am not alone in this. We are troubled and confused about how respond to harm when the other person does no repair or restitution, or we do not feel we can do the repair or restitution ourselves.

Reconciliation doesn’t always require forgiveness, and forgiveness doesn’t always require reconciliation. We can forgive someone and not want to be reconciled. It is all too easy to get caught up in the rights and wrongs of what our actions should be.

So why do we continue to carry anger for wrongs done to us? We are here today, in part at least, because we want to begin, continue or resume the work of putting ourselves back together. How can we find wholeness in the midst of this anger?

What is anger, really? The word “anger” is from Old Norse and means: grief. Anger is grief. When we have been hurt, we are grieving the realization of an imperfect relationship. Grief arises from loss; if we can recognize that it is grief that underlies our rage, then perhaps we can begin to get unstuck, and become open to finding a way out. Usually, when we think of grief, we think of death and mourning. For a mourner, their loss and grief is apparent; while the path is unique for each mourner, the destination is same: toward healing and wholeness. I would like to apply here the same steps from the mourner’s path toward healing the grief that is anger – which is forgiveness. Those three steps are: getting unstuck, letting go, moving ahead.

Most often when we cannot forgive, we are stuck in anger. We are out of balance on the mercy-justice scale. The idea of forgiveness gets stuck in our throats, like a dried old crumb of bread. To move through grief, we do not have to excuse the hurt done to us, but we can refuse to be consumed with anger. We can choose to get unstuck from our angry place. That is where the healing process actually begins: with a choice not to be stuck. We have to want to move from our stuck place. To begin, we have to turn away from the facts. Even when we know all the facts – who to forgive, what to forgive, why to forgive – we still struggle with how to forgive. We want to figure out how to deal with the emotional residue, the scars of our grief– a lack of trust, lingering feelings of guilt, of shame, of inadequacy – it is not about litigating the facts. To get unstuck we have to ask: we can we give ourselves the permission to let go of destructive feelings, regardless of facts?

Being right does not release us from punishing ourselves or holding onto a narrative that no longer serves us, or even hinders becoming our best selves. Rather, we should ask ourselves the question: “what gets in our way of forgiving?” The answers help us to get unstuck, to begin to be able to move out of the quicksand in which we find ourselves.

The second step therefore comes in the awareness that healing from losses does not change them; forgiveness begins with letting go of the resentments that we hold, righteous or not. Being freed from the notion that we can change the past. The open heart we seek requires letting go of the anger that suffocates the heart and soul.

We often think of forgiveness as a blessing extended to the transgressor, easing the conscience of the wrong-doer. In this view, the person who does the forgiving is seen as engaged in gallant self-sacrifice, while the person who is forgiven finds benefit. With further observation, can we see that forgiveness is just as important for the person who forgives – perhaps even more so – as for the person forgiven? Could we be better off when we forgive? While it may take some deep work to remove the angry fire from long-held resentments, this step of letting go can happen in an instant, propelling us right into step three – moving ahead.

Imagine a tree swing, one of those old rope ones, suspended from a tree branch high up over the edge of a river bank. Sit down, grab the rope, swing back and forth, gather some momentum.….is it nerve-wracking? What will happen if we let go? Will the river be deep enough? Our tense grasp on the rope is keeping us on the swing, afraid. But, it also keeps us from soaring. If we let go of the swing, if we take a ‘leap of faith’, we might just soar above that river in graceful flight, landing in the water- safe, wet, and changed – for having taken the risk. When we think about letting go, we are afraid. We think we know what will happen if we let go, but really we do not. We imagine – we have whole stories we tell ourselves of everything that will happen when we let go. But we still are holding the rope. To let go, means to accept that we cannot predict what happens next. That is when we move on.

That moving ahead is the third step. The riskiest step yet – this whole day of Yom Kippur is one big gamble. The liturgy illuminates the unconditional atonement embodied in this day. Our prayer ‘al cheit shechatanu – for the sin that we have committed’, acknowledges that we atone and we forgive; but it does not say what happens next. Yom Kippur isn’t about neat and tidy apologies between people. Human relationships are complicated; they don’t always resolve, but they do move on.

Recognizing the good in ourselves can help us to judge that our own well-being is more worthy than continuing to hold our resentments. Finding the good within ourselves enables us to move on to find worthiness in others. One of my favorite Chasidic masters, 18th Century Reb Nachman of Bratzlav says this is the key to our own spiritual wholeness. He urges us to seek out some bit of goodness, someplace in the person who has wronged us, some place where he or she is not evil. When we find that bit of goodness, he says, we can raise that person up to goodness, allowing them to be restored. He writes: “The first little dot of goodness will be hardest one to find, or the hardest one to admit you find! The next ones will come a little easier, each one following another……these little dots of goodness in become your own melody. You sing them, and you then rescue your own good spirit as well.”[3] For Reb Nachman, forgiveness is the song of the soul.

Forgiveness then becomes about entering into these three stages of a grieving process: getting unstuck, letting go and moving on. These three things enable us to see ourselves and others in a new light, one that no longer weighs heavily on the heart. They enable a changed perspective that we can choose. Studies show forgiveness is essential to happiness. Experiencing anger or hatred only causes us to descend into misery and resentment, giving the person who wronged us even more power. We suffer from the original transgression and the burden of anger and grief.  Getting unstuck, letting go and moving on lifts the burden that we all carry.

This is hard. We need help. Just because we should be doing something, even something that is good for us, we all know that does not mean that we will actually do it. Habits are hard to build and hard to break. So we build time in as a community, filled with the ritual and symbolism of these Holy Days, to bring us together and to knock on the deep recesses of our souls.

Mishkan HaNefesh, the new Reform machzor (High Holy Day prayerbook) that we will use beginning next year is filled to the brim with awesome and powerful words to help us along this journey. Here is a beautiful example by poet Marge Piercy, who exquisitely unwraps the murkiness of forgiveness in the last stanza of her poem, How Divine Is Forgiving,

We forgive mostly not from strength

But through imperfections,

For memory wears transparent as a glass with the pattern washed off,

‘til we stare past what injured us.

We forgive because we, too,

have done the same to others

easy as a mudslide;

or because anger is a fire that must be fed

and we are too tired to rise and haul a log.

The poet paints for us the exhausting burden of carrying anger, a load that scars us. We churn over all we cannot control. And that is why forgiveness is so hard. We can’t control what has already happened to us, how we were wronged, or how the other person behaved. Living in that turmoil, we suffer.

Through this perspective of forgiveness – getting unstuck, letting go, moving onward – we can reinterpret our own experiences. The truth is that we don’t live with the facts of our lives, but rather, we live with the conclusions that we make about the facts of our lives. Forgiveness allows injuries and injustices from our past to transform from building blocks of our persona, to being ‘just a part’ of our life; a part of who we are, and not our entire being. Our grudges and resentments, hatred or self-pity are no longer needed. We can accept the things over which we have limited or no control, or rage against them – that is our choice. We can make peace with how we have been wronged, with incomplete or imperfect relationships – and doing so allows us to receive the present and the future with an open heart.

I am thinking still of those three sisters. After 100 years, is there anything that cannot be forgiven, that we must still hold on to? Do we have to wait that long? And if not, what are we waiting for?

[1] B’reishit Rabbah, 12:15

[2] B’rachot 7a.

[3] Likkutei MoHaRa’N 282


The True Source of Human Sustenance

Shabbat eve 8/15/14 –

Most of us probably remember an early childhood ‘experiment’ – taking a lima bean, placing it gently in a small cup of dirt from the yard, giving it a bit of water, and waiting….watching….waiting….until one day, a tiny green tendril poked its head out from the soil, reaching upward, stronger each day. A leaf unfurling, a new shoot sprouting forth.  A moment of creation, re-enacted.  As a child, it was almost miraculous to behold; but soon enough, with age and time, the miracle more than likely became routine, even burdensome – awe transformed into chores of weeding (though Ralph Waldo Emerson says: ‘What is a weed?  A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.’) or raking for our parents, then later on maybe to landscaping and planting gardens for ourselves….and the more that we do, the more we are impressed by the work of our own hands.

That changed for my family 7 years ago.  We moved into a house where there were 12 fruit trees, and a large yard with potential for a large produce garden.  John and I – well, mostly John – slowly and systematically redesigned our yard, creating a drip-irrigated fruit and vegetable garden, to the extent that there was very little that I bought anymore in terms of produce.  We would eat whatever was growing, whatever was in season.  Moreover, the more that we cultivated, the more that we became acutely aware that while we worked very hard, either trying to replicate things that ‘worked’ or trying different techniques and arrangements, using varieties of seeds and plants – sometimes things worked and sometimes they didn’t.  While we worked to create and prepare all of the conditions for growing, there was a piece of it that was out of our hands. And we stood in awe of that – God’s presence in creation, in our yard.

In our Torah cycle this week, the Israelites are [still] standing at the edge of the Promised Land – “For the Eternal your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; 8) a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey;”  It is an image I totally relate to, standing at our back door in California, looking out at the abundance of what we coaxed from our yard.  And now, I stand here, glimpsing the abundance of my new ‘promised land’: of meaningful work, a new community, and bright new opportunities ahead in this next phase of my career and my family’s life; the gifts of life bring us sustenance.

As we look over the Land of our lives – lands of streams and springs, walking paths and trees; of abundant produce and beauty; lands of shopping malls and billboards, of life’s comforts and the illusion of security… we are always in some danger of forgetting the source of all of these gifts.  It is all too easy for us to think that what we have is solely because of our own work, our own education, our own talents, or our own perseverance.  It is too easy to forget that our successes depend on so many things beyond our own talents.  I know – it is too easy to be lulled into believing excessively in the extent of my own capacity – whether excess pride in our garden, or excess pride in the achievements that helped me to get to this moment.

Our tradition knows this danger.  Moses exhorts us to remember that with abundance and plenty comes the risk “that your heart will grow haughty and you will forget Adonai your God” (8:14) and “You will say in your heart: My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth…” (8:17).

Ah, you might think, but that isn’t me, is it? I am not haughty or egotistical or self-impressed…..for myself, I could look at all the good that I have done – we shared our abundant harvest with neighbors, friends and family;  or – look at what a great job I am already doing here at NVHC!  We all pride ourselves on a job well done. We all consider ourselves deserving of the profits of our labor.

The concern for the tendency of humanity toward self-promotion and need for appreciation and admiration is clearly addressed here– a trap for each of us.  But – here’s the beautiful part – we are given a way to avoid that path of arrogance, to avoid thinking that all that we have achieved is by our own hands alone. The prescription for how to counteract this is here, in the verses that follow, in the commandment embedded in this section: ‘V’achalta v’savata uveirachta’ – after we have eaten the manna that God has provided, and we are satiated, we are to give thanks – literally offer blessing to God, the ultimate source of all of our sustenance.  That is, when we start thinking this way, we are to remember that our strength was, after all, given to us by God.

Gratitude for the source of life, to the Source of Life, is meant to be at our center. And how does Torah describe the consequences of not holding this consciousness? “If you do forget the Eternal your God . . . I warn you this day that you shall certainly perish.” (Deuteronomy 8:19).  Will God really come and strike us down? Unlikely – at least not in my theological construct.  But, look around at our world.  At people whose lives seem full of stuff, who procure every material thing that they desire, who are never left wanting for food or clothing.  That is only sufficient if we can recognize that things are fleeting; without expressed and understood gratitude and blessing for all that we have, our lives become overrun with an endless spiritual hunger, bereft of finding true joy and sustenance, even when our bellies are full of manna.

There is a teaching from Menachem Mendyl of Rymanov, an 18th Century chasidic teacher who teaches that the virtue of manna was that it was given every day in appropriate measure to each person’s needs.  Even so, this did not quench the cravings of the Israelites, for their cravings were spiritual in nature. Food feeds the body but not the spirit. The human spirit is such that we crave more than bread. While we may pursue money or materialism, there is a spiritual dimension of life that ultimately satisfies the soul, making our existence feel truly worthwhile.

The successes we achieve do not guarantee our happiness. After we’ve bought the house of our dreams, or our fantasy sports car, the latest cell phones, laptops or DVDs, we are all too often looking to the next thing. This is the essence of our teaching here: For satisfaction to be lasting, it must be more than material; it must be spiritual. It is right here in this week’s reading: “…in order to teach you that a human being does not live on bread alone…” meaning, we need more than bread and money; we need stimulation and a sense of meaningful achievement. We need to know that our lives have purpose, and that somehow we have made a difference. We want to be assured that our work is productive and will have lasting value.

The spiritual challenge of Ekev therefore becomes how to break the spell of consumerism – the human obsession with acquisition and ownership – whose power over us rests only in our continual dissatisfaction.  Amitai Etzioni, a professor at George Washington University, writes: “Shifting away from obsessive consumerism does not call for a life of sackcloth and ashes, nor of altruism. And it does not call on poor people or poor nations to be content with their fate and learn to love their misery; clearly, the capitalist economy must be strong enough to provide for the basic creature comforts of all people. But it does call for a new balance between consumption and other human pursuits.” Physical and spiritual.  True Sustenance requires meaning.

One more story: It is of a prisoner in a Russian labor camp whose job it was to turn a heavy wheel attached to a wall. For twenty-five years, the prisoner worked at his backbreaking labor. He assumed that this wheel must be attached to a mill on the other side of the wall; perhaps he was milling grain, or pumping water that irrigated many fields. In his mind’s eye, though, he saw the plentiful crops and the sacks of milled grain feeding thousands of people. After twenty-five years of hard labor, when he was about to be released, the prisoner asked to be shown the apparatus behind the prison wall. There was nothing there! The wheel was just a wheel—all his “work” had served no useful purpose. The man collapsed in a dead faint, absolutely devastated. His life’s work had been in vain.

What we find here about living is that it is upon us to go beyond just eating and being satisfied, but it is rather in making the opportunity to acknowledge that we are part of a larger world, that much as we like to think we are in control, and whatever one’s theology, belief in God, looks like, it is just not all in our hands.  As we approach the transformative time of our High Holy Days, may we find ways to explore how we can truly sustain our souls in order that we can pursue real t’shuvah – a true turning to our best selves.

Shamor V’zachor

Anniversaries bring moments of reflection – times of looking backward, look ahead.  So as John and I celebrate our anniversary next week, I am once again thinking about our years and life together as we have built our family. Our marriage, which joined us and our 4 relatively young kids together, opened up many opportunities to share and retell the stories of our lives – not just as a couple, but with new ‘audiences’ for our stories in each other’s children.   The kids were all eager to listen, to absorb, and ultimately to embrace the stories as their own.  It is both entertaining and awesome to hear them talk now, to hear one of my daughters begin, ‘do you remember the time when John chased his brother David up the tree?’, or when my step-daughter talks about where I grew up – retelling and recounting moments of family history that preceded them, that preceded our family coming together– talking as if they had been right there, as if these were their own stories all along! The tales have grown over the years, taking on a bit of a life of their own.

In the Book of Deuteronomy, which we began last week, Moses is a skilled storyteller.  At the end of his life, he is standing before the generation of Israelites who would soon enter the Land of Israel – this is not the same generation that left Egypt, nor the same people who stood at Mount Sinai. This new generation, therefore, must hear stories of their history, so that they can embrace them and experience it as their own, to bring it with them as they journey forward.  That is why we find so much repetition from the first four books of Torah repeated in this 5th book.  Moses works hard to really get and keep their attention; rather than a dry retelling of the laws and history, he draws the people into the events of the past, telling it in ways so that they could really feel it as if they were there. One particular repetition, found in this week’s parasha – Va’etchanan, is of particular note and interest: The experience at Sinai.  In Parashat Va’etchanan, Moses recounts for them that moment in time, restating its primary content: the Ten Commandments.  He whispers to them of the fire, of the thunder, of the darkness and the cloud of God’s presence hovering at the mountain…..we the readers, are also drawn in and can even imagine being there.

But, like any great storyteller, Moses embellishes.  A close reading of the Ten Commandments as recorded in Parashat Va’etchanan reveals deviations from the wording of the Ten Commandments in Exodus. Many scholars have offered explanations of these variances, each taking into account one or more of the relevant factors of time, place, experience, purpose and point of view of those hearing the speech and of the speech itself.

At Mount Sinai, the people were terrified by the sound of God’s voice; they begged Moses to go get the Torah and bring it to them, saying (in Exodus 20:16) “Speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us directly, lest we die.” In this week’s portion Moses recounts that moment in this way: “God talked with you face to face in the mountain; out of the midst of the fire I stood between God and you at that time, to tell you the word of God; for you were afraid because of the fire, and wouldn’t go up to the mountain, so [here is what ]God said: ‘I am the Eternal your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery…” (Deut. 5:4-6). So for starters, it might seem just from the text and Moses’ introduction to the 10 Commandments in Deuteronomy that the Exodus version was the original version, and here Moses is doing a recap, a paraphrase!

9th Century commentator Ibn Ezra supports this idea, stating that the Ten Commandments as found in Exodus are the words of God, while those found in here in this week’s portion are the words of Moses recounting God’s words; he finds evidence for this in the addition of the phrase “…as the Lord your God has commanded you.” to commandments #4 (Shabbat) and #5 (honoring parents); however, in the introduction to his Torah commentary, he does not ascribe further significance in meaning to the different versions.

When our kids embellish our stories, or their stories, it is entertaining, maybe even endearing, possibly irritating!  But Moses?? Really? Perhaps he was trying to make history more accessible, more understandable, with explanatory comments tailored to different audiences –his first audience were the newly-freed slaves; his later audience were the generation that grew up in the desert.

For now , there is one difference, one embellishment which catches my eye every week as it is highlighted in our Shabbat prayers. It is in the 4th Commandment, concerning Shabbat.

In Exodus 20:8, it says “Zachor et Yom HaShabbat,” Those of you who might know some Hebrew words may recognize that “Zahor” comes from the same word as “Yizkor” or “Zikaron”—do you know what that word means?   “Remember,” right?  So “Zachor et Yom HaShabbat,” means “remember the Sabbath.”

In this week’s portion, Deuteronomy 5:11,  we have a different beginning.  It says “Shamor et Yom HaShabbat.” “Shamor” – maybe you’ve heard: the words ‘Shomeir’ – a guard, or “Shomrim,” those are people who watch over someone after they’ve died, so what is “Shamor?”  So this is “Guard” or “keep” or “protect” or “watch over.” ‘Keep – Shamor (or, guard) the Shabbat day.”

The word ‘remember’, zachor, in Exodus is replaced with ‘guard’ (or ‘keep’), shamor in Deuteronomy, and the additional phrase – ka’asher tziv’cha Adonai Elohecha –  “as the Eternal your God has commanded you” is tacked on.

But that’s not all!  Exodus 20:8-9 continues: “Six days shall you labor, and do all your work; But the seventh day is Shabbat of the Eternal your God; on it you shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger that is within your gates.” While Deuteronomy 5:12-13 states: “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; But the seventh day is Shabbat of the Eternal your God; on it you shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your ox, nor your ass, nor any of your cattle, nor your stranger who is inside your gates; that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you.

The additional words in Deuteronomy do not contradict the Exodus version in any way; while they expand the perspective of our livestock, it also add another idea of purpose: “that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you.”

And wait, there’s more! In the last part of the 4th commandment comes the reason for Shabbat; it is here that we find two divergent rationales for Shabbat observance.  Exodus 20:10 reads: “For in six days God made the heavens and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore God blessed the Shabbat day, and sanctified it.”  Deuteronomy 5:14 reads :  “And remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Almighty your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm; therefore the Almighty your God commanded you to keep the Shabbat day.”

Wow, these are completely different!  In Exodus, the rationale for Shabbat is Creation: Shabbat is a sign of the Covenant, a testament to the wonder and power of creation. On the other hand, in Deuteronomy, the Shabbat is commanded as a reminder of our enslavement in Egypt, and of our liberation by God’s divine power. This is no mere explanatory or narrative instruction heaped on by the storyteller; they are two vastly different reasons for observance of Shabbat.

Zachor and Shamor – Just as these opening words of the two versions are familiar to me, they probably familiar to you, because we sing them together every week.  If I begin the phrase, which opens “Shamor V’Zachor B’dibur echad”, can you finish it? …. Yes, “hishmi-anu el han’yuchad.” Where does that come from, what prayer, do you remember?  Right, it comes from L’cha Dodi.  Let’s open to that in your siddurim and look at it for a minute.   It’s on page 138.

(sing): “Shamor V’Zachor B’dibur echad.”—it says that “Shamor”— “guard”— “v’zachor”— “remember”—Shamor and Zachor were said as if God uttered it in one utterance.  What does that really mean?  Well, most traditional commentaries refer us to the nature of Divine Speech (Talmud, Shevu’ot 20b): that is, zachor and shamor were uttered by God simultaneously, in a way that human speech is incapable of imitating or understanding:

L’cha Dodi is a piyut – a creative and inspired Shabbat poem, whose author drew upon these commentaris that express a belief that God really uttered them almost in one breath, and that “remembering” and “observing” (zachor and shamor) are two distinct acts, and that we must do both.  That is, you really can’t have one without the other.  “Remembering” is what one does in order to prepare for Shabbat — perhaps thinking about what one is going to do to make Shabbat special. “Guarding/Observing” Shabbat is what one does on Shabbat itself.   They are not necessarily the same thing.  We can easily imagine a 24-hour period in which we disengage from creative activity as a way to express Divine rest, a sterile day of no work in which we have indeed fulfilled the commandment of zachor to the letter– honoring the cessation of work at the end of creation – without actually having observed Shabbat.  Similarly, one could prepare down to the last detail for Shabbat – cooking, preparing, saying Kiddush, even sitting in synagogue, and yet still not keep Shabbat – missing the essence of the sacred rest. Each aspect of Shabbat together creates a complete, sanctified day of rest. In effect, that is how God could utter zachor and shamor simultaneously.

But, that still leaves us with the question: why is “Shamor” first in the piyut when in the Torah “Zachor” comes first and “Shamor” comes later, in this week’s version?

Here is perhaps one clue: this beautiful piyut was written in the 16th century by a famous mystic named Shlomo Alkabetz.  There’s this aesthetic thing that paytanim – piyut writers – love to do, which is to write the verses of their works as an acrostic, which means if you take the first letter of each stanza, it spells something.  So what do you see if you look—start with the first stanza if you can read Hebrew: Shin, Lamed, Mem, Het.  Do you know what that spells?  Shlomo!  That’s his name!  But ‘Alkabetz’ would be very cumbersome to try to compose lines for, so he doesn’t spell out his last name on the other stanzas, he instead spells “the Levite” so he’s “Shlomo HaLevi.”  So there’s one reason that the verse begins with shamor, not with “Zachor”, in order to easily spell his name!

While this an amusing answer, it does not really satisfy, for it seems way too narcissistic for a great mystic to decide to change the order of words from Torah just so that it would spell his name out.  So, other commentaries offer the following: that “shamor” refers to commandments that are associated with nighttime; when you think about things that you guard, you guard things in the evening when things get dark and they need protection and guarding, and “zachor” are things that you remember when you’re awake during the day.

How does that help us understand this and give it meaning? Well, in Judaism, a day begins when?  …..When the sun sets, in the evening.  So, as we begin Shabbat right now, this evening, we begin with “shamor” – because it is the nighttime, so we’re going to ‘shamor’ first and then in the day tomorrow, we’ll ‘zachor’.

A third possible understanding for why the order here is “Shamor v’zachor” is that the Sages teach that “Shamor” refers to all the commandments around Shabbat that you have to guard against, meaning all the negative commandments, the things that you shouldn’t do on Shabbat, in order to observe Shabbat. “Zachor” then refers to all the positive commandments, all the things that help you make Shabbat meaningful and embrace its beauty and rest – things like lighting the candles, sanctifying the wine, taking a rest.  We should consider the things first that get in our way of observing Shabbat so that we can then embrace the things that help us, both sides then of our observance coming together.

I said earlier that God’s uttering both words simultaneously was considered beyond human comprehension.  Let’s consider for a moment the human capacity in how we hear more than one thing at the same time.  We all hear selectively – we may think that our kids are really great at this(!). How does this order of the words Shamor v’zachor matter for us today?  What do we selectively hear? What is it that we need to hear?

This Fourth Commandment tells us to remember the Sabbath as well as to keep it. And when we try to remember the vision of the holiness of life that is embedded in Shabbat, we help create the conditions – an atmosphere of true peace and repose – making it possible for others to remember Shabbat, and its meaning, too. And all of that remembering brings us closer to a world in which the idea of Shabbat can be transformed into genuine force and action for the betterment of all communities.

The link between Shabbat and the community it creates is highlighted by Ahad HaAm, a pre-State-of-Israel Zionist thinker who said, “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.” He certainly meant more in this statement than Jewish survivalism. He saw that in the new Jewish homeland, the regulation of time through the laws of the Sabbath gave the Jews the chance to regroup in communities at the end of every week, and it was that regrouping which sustained their Jewish identity. Shabbat fosters community; it coordinates non-work time. It makes people stop working not only for 25 hours a week, but for the same 25 hours a week.  When, as a community we share non-work time, when we look up from our tasks, our computers, our smart phones – and start to look into the actual (not virtual) faces of others, we see family, we see neighbors, we see people.  Not bosses, or employees, or service people – and it is in relationships between people that we forge bonds of a loving and caring community.

For me, I believe that Ahad Ha’am’s intention in noting that Shabbat has kept our people together turns Shabbat into the clock for Jewish living. It is a remarkable idea that we become more Divine when we stop our endeavors, and simply appreciate all that we have.  Shabbat provides a necessary “release from our daily grind” and resting becomes a collective act.  That we need Shabbat in our lives then makes obvious, intuitive sense. Society and cultural trends today involve advanced technology which while enhancing the quality of our lives also puts us into a state of endless, inescapable ‘on-ness’.  Here, we generally begin together, as we did tonight, by asking you to unplug, to turn off, even to just put your phones on vibrate – and I know that is truly difficult for some.  But without some sort of framework or boundary, we become blurred, with a loss of appropriate boundaries between day and night, work and rest, consumption and appreciation.

The Sages point out that these two perspectives of Shamor and Zachor point to the duality of holy time in Judaism – that is, our sacred moments have more than one purpose, one expression. We can observe Shabbat individually or we can observe Shabbat connected to others. We can choose certain actions to do only on Shabbat and we can choose certain actions to put aside until after Shabbat. We can choose to observe Shabbat on Friday night or we can choose to observe it on Saturday. We can begin Shabbat with beautiful rituals and music and we can end Shabbat with beautiful rituals and music. This duality is one of the many reasons we light two Shabbat candles every Friday night.

Being a Jew has always meant finding a place on the spectrum between keeping all the commandments and keeping none.  Contrary to claims made by certain Jewish authorities, there have always been many paths of practice in Judaism. You can observe – guard – Shabbat in one way or many ways, to the letter of the law or honoring its spirit.  I believe the important part is that you are always seeking, growing, and learning.  I once learned that rather than rejecting something that we don’t do or don’t want to do, we should instead say it is something we don’t do yet – allowing always for the possibility of change that can exist in every moment.

So perhaps you will one day turn your phone off for an hour on Shabbat and give yourself a little peace. Or take a walk that you have put off. Or put off a chore that could be done a different day. Just for a little while. Shamor – Find what is in your heart, the kavanah, the intent of your practice; this will guide you to remember – Zachor.   As you think, you can embrace your ways to observe, leading you around to act, to guard  – Shamor – this precious heritage that is the continuous cycle of our communal moment of holy cessation. Shamor v’zachor – keep and remember. Shabbat shalom.