- Posted by Matt Soffer
- On August 23, 2016
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Rabbi Soffer’s D’var Torah from 8/19/16 delivered at Temple Israel of Boston
This week’s portion is called “V’etchanan,” and it offers a clear window into the fierce love between Moses, God, and the Israelites. I say, “fierce love,” because that’s what we mean when we say, “Covenant,” or B’rit.
Covenant is not an easygoing friendship. It’s a love that is tested, broken, reconstituted, and – as a result of all of this – stronger and more enduring. In the business of “Covenant-Making” the word V’etchanan is impossible to overlook. It comes from the word “chein,” meaning, “Grace.” V’etchanan–Moses pleaded with the Eternal.” Moses asked God for Grace.
Now… anytime we talk of Grace, at some point in the conversation someone mentions that Grace sounds “so Christian.” For good reason: it is! But in fact, Grace is one of the most important words in all of Judaism— and especially at this time of the year.
Chein, Grace in the true Hebrew sense, doesn’t just mean “kindness”- it’s more specific. Chein means “unmerited favor.” It’s when we get something and don’t deserve it. In this context, it’s when you receive compassion after committing sin.
Now… anytime we talk of sin, at some point in the conversation someone mentions that Sin sounds “so Christian.” There’s some truth to the claim that Judaism doesn’t hold quite as “strict a view of human foible” as Christianity. But there’s a very strong current in Jewish thought that contends that human beings are fundamentally sinful.
There is an entire rubric of the weekday worship service devoted to sin, and it’s called “Tachanun,” from the same Hebrew root as chain and v’etchanan. It means, “supplication.” It’s pleading with God. V’etchanan, like Moses pleaded with God, time and again.
Tachanun was created in the 2nd Century, after the 2nd Temple was destroyed, a tragedy which, the survivors deduced, must have somehow been linked to their essential sinfulness. According to liturgist Dr. Larry Hoffman, Tachanun is “the most singularly theological” part of our liturgy; and it’s the most troublesome part of the service to moderns. Hoffman says that’s because of the tendency on the part of modern liberal thinkers to assume that human beings are fundamentally good. Tachanun assumes the opposite. This why, internally, Jews have been quibbling over the role of Tachanun— that is, penitential prayer– for more than 2,000 years. Tachanun, in Jewish law, is technically considered, r’shut, optional.
But on a practical level, for most Orthodox, it’s optional the same way that setting up FaceTime between my parents and my children is optional: “You don’t HAVE to do….it’s fine…. I understand…But it’s been a while….”
Well, it’s been a while since we non-Orthodox Jews have practiced Tachanun. It’s been so long, that I bet every time I say Tachanun, at least someone in this room (or reading this online) is thinking that the word sounds less like a prayer rubric and more like a Middle Eastern Cuisine. Or a far off planet… named after a Middle Eastern Cuisine.
But I can promise you, there is a real spiritual cost to the infrequency of engaging in this kind of reckoning. We see it and feel it every single year when we run smack into the High Holy Day season— and suddenly have to make sense of our sins. Only once a year does our community grapple with our mistakes, as a community. Meanwhile, it’s in the daily prayers of Tachanun that we find the words: Avinu malkeinu chaneinu vaaneinu ki ein banu maasim— which means: Our father our king, chaneinu, give us Grace or pardon, and answer us, even though we are unworthy— “ein banu maasim” literally means, “we don’t have within us good deeds.”
If I may editorialize (and I may just editorialize), I think the hardest part to stomach about this theology– this notion that there is a dominant lure inherent in human beings toward sin– is that it’s in the first person. “We have no merit.” Personally, I would prefer not to made to read a piece of paper that says, “I’m a sinner.” It’s much easier to hear or say, “that person messed up,” or “those people over there are rotten.”
Campaign season, by the way, is fueled by this phenomenon. Undoubtedly, this is a scary time to be an American of strong social conscience. Very frightening. And very confusing. Yet, the Tachanun, the Chein, the Grace question is not, “
How could they think or vote or act like that!?” The Tachanun response– not just in election season but in every moment of our lives– says, “this is what humanity is like–unless!” And the “unless” is where our religion comes in. The “unless” is what our religion is talking about when using the word Salvation.
Now… anytime we talk of Salvation, at some point in the conversation someone mentions that Salvation sounds so…. Christian. Salvation, (Latin, Salvare) being SAVED. In mainstream Christian thought, what saves the human being is faith. In Judaism we need saving too! But in Judaism, what saves us is Covenant: the mitzvot—the human actions on our end of the “fierce love” that we call Covenant. As we read this week in our Torah portion:
“The Eternal Our God made the Covenant with us… It was not with our ancestors that God made this Covenant but with US THE LIVING, every one of us who is here today. Panim b’fanim, Face-to-face God spoke to you on the mountain…..”
Our Torah reminds us that humanity has a sinfulness, a darkness, that we face as reality. V’etchanan, and thus we plead with God that through our mitzvot– through the loving things that we have to do–may we kindle enough light to make tomorrow brighter than today.