Today is the 10th day of the month of Av on the Jewish calendar. Yesterday was Tisha B’Av, the 9th, and the most sorrowful day of our year. Today is a day of renewed hope, of rising from the ashes like a phoenix and soaring.
The Torah uses images of up and down to convey much more than mere directionality. Down is sorrow, loss, aloneness, inability to move forward in meaningful ways. Up is growth, relationship with the Divine, spiritual fulfillment.
It is no accident that when Jacob was alone, sleeping with a rock for a pillow, he saw angels going “up and down a ladder.” Not coming down first, as you’d expect. One of my favorite interpretations of this image is that the angels had work here on earth, and needed to go up to renew their relationship with God before returning to complete their missions here.
Our mystics often spoke of descent for the sake of ascent. Sometimes, we need to go down, all the way down into the pit of despair and sorrow, before rising up again.
We humans do not like this. We would much rather that things just keep getting better – the stock market should always go up, our children should always become more successful, our lives should always get better, our souls even more fulfilled.
But as the Rolling Stones pointed out, you don’t always get what you want. Take Moses, for example. This week’s Torah portion begins with the word va’etchanan. It means “he pleaded” and we are privy to Moses’ grief-stricken plea to cross over into the Promised Land with his people.
God replies, “Enough! Never speak to me of this matter again. Go up to the top of Mt. Pisgah and gaze about…Look at it [the promised land] well, for you shall not go across this Jordan.” (Deuteronomy 3:26-27)
I have always thought of this moment as a gift to Moses at one of his lowest moments. He can’t cross over – his term has ended, and it is Joshua who will take up the mantle of leadership – but he is given an extraordinary opportunity to see into the future. For this, he must go up.
It is no accident that we read this particular Torah portion immediately after Tisha B’Av. Remember that it means the ninth day of the month of Av? In our tradition, ten is a number of completion. We need ten Jewish adults in order to say important communal prayers. And at Mt. Sinai, when we received the entire Torah, it is the Ten Commandments that are spoken first.
This Torah portion is when Moses repeats the Ten Commandments to the people. He reminds then how and why God gave him the laws to transmit to them. He begins with the words, Shema Yisrael, listen Israel! But it’s not the Shema; not yet.
First, Moses recounts the people’s reluctance to come near to the mountain, and he tells them that God said, Shamati, “I heard all the words that the people said.” I heard.
The word shema means more than just to hear, it means listen, pay attention. One of the kindest things we can say to one another is “I hear you.” Sometimes that’s all we need, is to be heard.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Jewish prayer is an act of listening. We do not bring forth our own words. The self is silent; the spirit of the people Israel speaks. In prayer, we listen.”
Listen. You know what commandment comes next: Shema Yisrael; “Listen Israel: The Lord our God, The Lord is One.” (Deut. 6:4)
But immediately before the Shema there is a three-word phrase that has always jumped out at me: V’Shamata Yisrael v’shamarta. The first two words are easy to translate – Listen Israel! But the third is a multi-layered word, from the root lishmore. To be watchful, to do, to protect. A shomare is a person who watches over others. We sing v’shamru every Friday night, “and you will observe Shabbat.” This simple phrase, “listen Israel, and observe,” speaks volumes about what the Torah expects of us.
Of all the words in the Torah, this portion contains the most uses of the words shema and shamore. We are constantly reminded of our task here on earth.
And so on this tenth day of Av, we listen, we do, and we rise up from our sorrow like the phoenix, and we soar.