Shabbat Greetings

Our journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in our Promised Land is an essential theme of our Torah. This collective memory shapes our liturgy, in prayers such as Mi Chamocha, and our holidays, most notably Passover. Egypt, in Hebrew, is mitzrayim, which literally means narrow place. When we were slaves in Egypt, we lived in a narrow place. Our freedom, on the other hand, is broad and expansive: mentally, physically, and spiritually.In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9), we are still wandering in the desert, still in that in-between place – not quite in slavery, not yet free. Not in Egypt, and not in the Promised Land. A transitional place. We’re not there yet, but we’re on our way.

Throughout our narrative, many times, the Israelites threw up their hands and said, “We had it better in Egypt!” “At least there, we had food to eat!” God responded to this kvetching in a typical biblical, all-powerful deity kind of way – that is, by opening up the earth swallowing up those people, assigning various plagues and ailments to them, etc. I joke, but only because we know this is the way our ancient ancestors imagined God worked in the world.

So this week, as we move through our final book of the Torah, ever closer to concluding our desert wanderings, we receive an important instruction: “[do not] return my people back to Egypt… You must not turn back that way again.” V’lo yashiv et ha’am mitzraymah… Lo tisphun lashuv baderech hazeh od. Twice in that verse, we hear a root used, shuv, which is so timely for our season. Shuv, turning or returning, is most familiar to us from the idea of teshuva, literally returning, often translated as repentance. Do not return my people back to Egypt. You must not turn back that way again.

Today is the first day of the month of Elul, the last month of the Jewish calendar, the month that concludes with the first month, Tishrei – and with the first day of that month and of the new year, which is Rosh Hashanah. Elul is traditionally dedicated as an entire month of spiritual preparation for the High Holy Days. Our tabbis teach that Elul is a gift, because it enables us to ramp up slowly for our most significant days of prayer and reflection, rather than go from zero to sixty on the first of Tishrei.

Elul grants us the opportunity to think about returning, and turning back. The words of Psalm 27, traditionally recited every day from the first of Elul through Sukkot, offer another way to think about shuva – about return.

One thing I ask of you, Adonai, only that do I seek
To live in the house of Adonai all the days of my life
To gave upon the beauty of Adonai
And to frequent God’s Temple.

To live in the house of Adonai – shivti b’veit Adonai. Even though they are different roots, there is a connection between shivti and shuv. You must not turn back that way – lo lashuv. May I live in the House of Adonai – shivti b’veit Adonai.

Our Torah portion is unequivocal – You must not turn back that way. If we can’t turn back the way we came, we must find a new path forward. We must turn and return, inward to ourselves, and only then will we return to dwell in God’s house. So what is back that way for you? What are the old habits, stories, and paths you want to leave behind this year? You must not turn back that way – so as we enter Elul, what are you leaving behind?
And what does it look like when you live in God’s house? Where are you going? What will it look like, feel like, be like when you come home?

This month of Elul, may our journey, even if we wander, be one of teshuva, of returning to dwell in God’s house, shivti b’veit Adonai. You must not turn back that way, toward Egypt, the way you came, the way of transgressions against yourself, others, and God. It is time to return to beit Adonai, to God’s house.

(Special thanks to Rabbi Liz Hirsch, director of the Women of Reform Judaism – whose words inspired this week’s greetings)