Re’eh: The Pilgrimages

Every time I wrestle with something, whether it’s a deep spiritual lesson or some silly life blunder, I always land in the same place. I always come back to one question: How do I live with greater awareness and greater intention? How do I wake up, and live more consciously?

That’s the question that I think Re’eh poses and, thankfully, gives us ways to answer.

It’s a parshah that, like many, comes with a blessing and a curse. Which we’ll receive, depends on our actions.

Re’eh makes me think about what motivates us. What causes us to make kavvanot, deep intentions, commitments. Also what causes us to go unconscious. To run the other way. To fail to live up to the commitments we’ve made.

Moses, who’s not going to enter the Promised Land, tells the people: When you get there, if you do what God’s said, all will go well. But if you fail to keep the commandments and practices God has set for you, bad things will happen.

It’s your choice: lovely fresh carrots from the garden, or a stick swung right at your head.

It’s not a new insight. You have to wonder whether the Israelites are even listening. Their attention is in front of them. And Moses isn’t offering a rah-rah cheerleading farewell. He just keeps telling them what to do.

It’s like when you drive to the coast and get to Mapleton. The air changes. You can smell the salt, feel the difference in the ions. You wanna get there and play. Not be warned and scolded one last time about how the ocean is powerful and dangerous.

Also, what’s being said is coming from Moses the man. No fireworks like Sinai. The Jews are done schlepping. They’re ready to be there, whatever there is. And old Grandpa Moses, whose stories you’ve heard maybe once too often, keeps dishing out advice.

Even if he’s right, you figure you’ll file it somewhere. So if something bad happens later, you can pull it out and see if it helps. Like most of us, the Israelites aren’t listening in the Oh you mean me, now, kind of way.

That’s often how we listen to good advice. We nod, say uh-huh, but our attention is elsewhere. Usually it takes some crisis — a health diagnosis, job cut, car accident — to really get our attention.

Less traumatic wake up calls would be much more welcome.

Hooray for the Jewish calendar! Moses also lays out festivals everyone is supposed to observe: Passover, Shavuous, and Succot. He says three times a year they’re to go on pilgrimage to the Temple, to be built in a place God will choose, which becomes Jerusalem.  At these pilgrimages we are to see God and be seen by him.

These pilgrimage are to reinforce our intentions. But seeing God is a goal worthy of daily life. It gives both motivation and accountability, the way blessings and curses might also do.

The practices Moses sets out delineate the year in a way that says: if you remember that God took us out of Egypt (Passover), that God gave us the laws (Shavuous), and that what nourishes us comes from God (Succot), then you’ll be living in tune with HaShem’s gifts. You’ll become worthy; the land will welcome you, nurture you, and keep you.

When do we make pilgrimages, and what do they represent? A pilgrimage is both a literal and a metaphorical journey. It’s a way to get closer to God. But it’s also more tangible shifts in our lives. Things like leaving your parents’ home, getting married, retiring.

Sometimes, like at a wedding, we make vows. But usually we’re more concerned with finding the missing boxes of tchotchkes than the deep spiritual meaning of whatever journey we’ve embarked upon.

How can elevate our lives to get closer to God, whether it’s next Tuesday or a great festival? And how can we sustain our holy aspirations and intentions against daily onslaughts of busyness and unconsciousness?

Your mind, if it’s anything like mine, is too rarely quiet. It’s not on a pilgrimage, just in motion. Too often it’s wandering around the wilderness, instead of aimed towards what Rabbi Shefa Gold so nicely calls The Land of Promise. You’re replaying the day, in imaginary conversations, or fretting about the crisis du jour. Generally thinking about things that never happened and probably never will.

That’s part of the lure of prayer, of sacred music, services, and meditation. Whatever quiets the busy voice in our heads can only support an intention to being more present and aware. But it’s not enough.

Why don’t we live every day by the commandments and mitzvot? It’s more than soccer games, deadlines, or Facebook. There’s an intrinsic level of resistance that the promise of blessings or the threat of punishment doesn’t seem to overcome. Many of us are also addicted to fretting, and to the inner chatter we’re nursed on and too rarely wean from. It’s a distraction and a waste of emotional energy.

Another lethal ingredient, is a subliminal, though mistaken, belief that when God talks to us — directly, through Moses, or in our own hearts — that his word is worth not much more than our own. That his promise or threat is like the kavannot we set, and break all too often.

Too often we treat vows as elastic and malleable, or like any oral contract: worth the paper it’s written on.  If you don’t keep it this time, you’ll get another chance, and another, and another. But sometimes, that isn’t true.

Think Noah or the creation story. Adam and Eve stunned, standing outside the gates of Eden. Evicted from paradise. Because it turns out God meant what he said: don’t eat that fruit.

Now what?

Instead of Paradise, we’re facing the unknown. And because we’re human and likely to screw up again, we’re pretty sure bad things lurk in our future. That knowing fuels our fretting about what might lurch out at us.

There was a great, but sadly ended comic strip, called Calvin and Hobbes. Hobbes is Calvin’s stuffed tiger, or seems to be when observed by others. When they’re alone he’s a philosopher, guiding and teaching like a wise old rebbe. But he’s also a tiger. He pounces on Calvin regularly and fiercely, lest he get too secure in his daily life. Their relationship’s a precarious balance between camaraderie and terror, and learning from both.

That’s what daily life often feels like. Unless we cling to God, to prayer, and to practice, unless we actively heighten our awareness and intention, it’s too easy to live any given day always afraid of the tiger, afraid of the unknown. Yes we want to relate to God with y’ira, fear and awe, but we don’t want to be hobbled by the fear or relax into the awe. We need both to be part of our practice, on an annual and a daily basis.

There are remedies. Shabbat is the simplest and most obvious. But like a spouse or friend we can take too much for granted, if not truly observed, Shabbat can’t do her work.

Sidebar: there’s this great midrash that says if every Jew truly celebrated Shabbat together just once, the messiah would arrive. Scary to think next week we’ll start choosing the Ducks over the world to come.

Because life is filled with tempting distractions, we‘re given three chances a year to make pilgrimage, to go to Jerusalem. It’s not an accident that Re’eh comes here, at the cusp of this holy time. It’s one more chance to appreciate the opportunities and requirements the Jewish calendar offers.

The only missing ingredient, as a cake mix box might declare, is You! You have to show up. You have to do your work. You have to actually participate to get the benefits of the process.

The good news, Moses insists: If you do, blessings will follow.

We have a great opportunity right now to do some deep work. During the 60 days that start next week, the months of Elul and Tishrei. The gateway into and the time of the High Holidays. The period that emerges from Av, the month just ending, when we mourn the destruction of the temples. Now we’re preparing ourselves for t’shuvah, for returning to the core of our selves and our relationship with God.

In Elul, we have a chance to clean our psychic cupboards, like we clean out all the chametz [leavened goods] before Passover.  It’s a chance to participate in a deep conversation with God.

Rabbi Simon Jacobsen of the Meaningful Life Center uses a wonderful image for part of this time. He talks about God as an ancient king riding back to his castle after battle. We’re out tending our fields, and the king rides by. Not God on a faraway throne, but God immediate and accessible. You can go over, stand next to him, feed his horse an apple. Talk to him, say Help me please; this is what I need… That time is coming soon, in the next few weeks.

This isn’t a go to Jerusalem pilgrimage. Instead, you need to commit some time each day for your soul. For meditating on the holiness of now and of the unfolding process of cleaning out and getting closer to God. You need to open your heart and have a deeply honest conversation, with yourself and with HaShem. Right here, right now, because God is standing right before you listening. You see God and God sees you.

Your only job is to open your heart. To return to the core of your self, your holy spark, and to listen to what it is telling you and what it is asking for. To be willing both to be honest and speak your truth. To stand in your field and be open to God.

There’s more to the process but it’s better lived than heard.

I’m asking each of you to make a kavannah to use the next month to prepare yourself for Rosh Hashanah. To begin the process of t’shuvah by remembering each day to do so and setting aside time for this higher dialogue.

Some days you may go unconscious, or get lost, or talk your way into recess. But every step you take on this pilgrimage brings you a little closer to the temple of your holy spark, a little closer to your inner Jerusalem.

Shabbat shalom.