Stepping into the Same River

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, July 23, 2021 / 14 Av 5781

Summary: This week’s parsha discusses the Covenant. In my Oasis Songs, I explore what the Covenant can teach us about renewal, change, and hope.

Reading Time: Four minutes

Yesterday, Rabbis Eve, Isaak, and I met with three conversion candidates who will soon go to the mikveh. These conversations are usually quite rich, and this was no exception. One theme that was brought up was the significance of Shabbat. Reading the essays of our newest “members of the Tribe” was overall a heart-warming experience. Their passion for Judaism, its traditions and culture, and the blessings of a religion that embraces questioning and wrestling is beautifully affirming. Their appreciation for how Shabbat has changed their relationship to time and provided a respite from the busy pace of contemporary life, allowing them a way to reconnect at a deeper level, was moving. This led me to reflect, again, on how much the Jewish community needs the fresh insights and energies of those who were not born into the faith. There are a couple of reasons why that are worth exploring.

First, we all know how easy it is to take for granted anything that has become commonplace. I don’t know if that quite falls into the notion that “familiarity breeds contempt.” What we do know is that the brain starts to filter out anything that doesn’t change. It’s an efficient move, although it clearly carries risks to our relationships with both the world and other people. This automatic feature of the brain can cause us to become complacent and blind to the beauty that surrounds us. New Jews help to remind Jews by birth of our gorgeous legacy.

Second, I once learned an impactful piece of Torah from one of my mentors of blessed memory, Alan Lew. Speaking of the Dead Sea, he noted that for a body of water to avoid becoming stagnant, it needs two things: an ingress and an egress. New water must enter to replenish the body of water, and older water must have a way to continue on its journey, creating a sense of flow that is the source of life. As an old actress, Mae West, once noted, “If you are not changing, you are rotting.” When a lake, an ocean, or even a river meets these two conditions, it remains vital. At the same time, this raises an interesting question of identity. If the water always is renewed and changed, how can we talk of a lake as being the same? How can we speak of ourselves as a single entity when over time, all the cells in our bodies have changed? And yet we do.

Our Torah portion of Va’etchanan highlights this. As Moses continues to retell the new generations of Israelites about their history, slight changes arise. Some of the way that history was told earlier in the Torah flows out, while Moses fills in that space with other emphases. Among the lessons he wants to transmit to the wilderness generation is a notion of Brit, or Covenant. Moses states that the Covenant wasn’t only made with those who stood at Mt. Sinai, but with those listening to his oration. The simplest explanation for this is that most of those who received the Ten Commandments and the Torah were no longer alive. Moses is informing their children that they, too, have a part.

Later Biblical scholars developed a “Documentary Hypothesis,” by which they claimed they could trace different sources that were threaded together to form our Torah. According to this, Deuteronomy was composed substantially after the earlier narratives. In this understanding, the repetition of the Covenant, and the emphasis that it is given to the current generation as well, occurs long after Moses is dead. In other words, much later generations also understood that they were part of an ancient covenant. A self-renewing covenant. Ingress and egress. Amcha, the people of Israel, maintains its identity and its vitality precisely because we recharge, regenerate, and refill the body of the Jewish nation.

I take comfort in this. I find it encouraging to note how diverse the American Jewish Community is becoming. It’s how we stay relevant. It’s how we keep the faith. It’s how the wisdom and guidance of the Torah can touch more lives.

In college, I studied the pre-Socratic philosophers, among whom Heraclitus is arguably the best known. Certainly one of his aphorisms is well-known—“You can’t step into the same river twice.” For Heraclitus, there was no river and life lacked continuity because it was always in flux. That’s not a Jewish way of viewing things. We are the people whose national anthem is HaTikvah, the Hope. Hope is impossible to maintain if one doesn’t assume that things will change. Each of us needs to make room for the inevitability of change.

There’s a Shabbat custom that you might want to consider adapting called “kos brachah,” or the cup of blessing. Those who practice this custom hold a cup of wine while they recite the birkat hamazon, the Grace after the meal. Normally, when we conclude a meal, we are creating an intention that we won’t eat further. Holding that cup in your hand is a statement that you are inviting new blessings in as the old ones flow out. As people conclude the birkat hamazon, they immediately recite another blessing over the wine (or juice) and take a sip.

May we all welcome the new—people, Jews, events, changing times—into our lives. May we see and celebrate the vitality and blessing they each contain. May our cups overflow.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. When have you gone through a period of stagnation in your life? What helped you move past it?
  2. As the American Jewish community continues to grow and evolve, which features of Judaism do you think are essential?
  3. In what way do you feel part of our Covenantal people? What does that Covenant mean to you?

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