Remaking our tomorrows
Tracking gaffes committed by politicians feels like an increasingly popular sport these days. Beyond the giddy delight we enjoy when leaders we dislike slip-up, the arrival of the Hebrew month of Elul this weekend signals the season of introspection when we deeply consider our own miss-statements and miss-steps. And in spite of the gravity and seriousness of the forthcoming High Holy Day period, it is possible to approach the challenge of self-renewal feeling encouraged and with good cheer.
An important new book by Yoram Hazony, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, juxtaposes the leadership gifts of our patriarch Jacob’s two most prominent sons – Joseph and Judah. Joseph has strong instincts for political and economic leadership, witnessed by his ascension to power as second-in-command to Pharaoh in Egypt. His qualities offer a compelling model for governance and order. Yet, the bible promotes Judah whose gifts are quite different. Judah possesses the capacity to repent, to revisit earlier iniquities and mistakes, emerging as a rare biblical model for penitence and self-renewal. Actually, Hazony argues that any historic period requires a healthy combination of leaders representing the talents of both Joseph and Judah. What applies to matters of national governance also has application of personal agency. We seek to bring order to our lives (Joseph) and to retool our priorities (Judah).
Amidst the various mitzvoth pertaining to diet, festivals, and tzedakah in this week’s Sedra, there is a prevailing anxiety around straying toward idolatry. “Watch yourself in case you’ll be trapped after them…in case you’ll inquire about their gods, saying ‘How did these nations serve their gods?’ (v’e’ese chen gam ani) And I’ll do that – I too (Deut. 12:30). Curiosity is negatively reinforced when pagan worship is at hand. I take the final phrase v’e’esa chen gam ani to mean, and ‘I will make myself a fixed object of worship’. By standing idly by when it comes to my own potential for repentance, I idolize an inability to grow, I cement at disbelief in the promise of remaking my tomorrows.
Our rabbis urgently convey regarding self-renewal, it’s never too late. Lessons this weekend inform us, it’s never too early.
A sweet Shabbat to you.
Rabbi William Hamilton