I remember walking out of my first orthodox service. I had lots of questions for my father – it was certainly a different experience than our classical Reform synagogue in South Florida. I remember being most intrigued with the manner in which they prayed. Being in middle school, I didn't understand individual prayers or melodies, but there were observable customs that interested me. I watched them pray - daven as my father would tell me - and I asked, Dad, why do they do that?!
I was referring to their bodily movement - the rhythmic back and forth shuckling that Jews perform in order to obtain a mastery of intention to the words on the page.
Our High Holiday liturgy teaches us that our words should lead to actions: Let us learn in order to teach … Let us learn in order to do.
The process of t'suvah, of repentance, is one of action. Yes, it is one of contemplation - as we evaluate our lives, our past deeds and our relationships - but it cannot occur without taking action. During this month of Elul, each of us is receiving a daily email. These thoughts and messages are meant to be a catalyst for movement.
T'suvah is not a meditation; it is an action.
This brings me back to my fascination with shuckling. During my first year of rabbinical school in Israel, I finally received an answer to my childhood question. A rabbi said that Jews shuckle in order to remind ourselves that our bodies can serve as the appendages of God. Our bodies can do God’s work within our lives. As prayer serves to comfort the bereaved, and discomfort the apathetic, we must sense the connection between the words we read on the page and the actions we perform. We should enact the liturgy that we recite.
Our liturgy is a statement of our ideals. The words we say must come back to us to infiltrate our souls. The word t'suvah is commonly translated as reprentance but a more literal meaning is return. T'suvah is a true return - not to the past necessarily, but to the best parts of ourselves. Our prayers remind us of the connection between thought, prayer, and action.
In this week's Torah portion of Shoftim, God commands us: Justice, justice shalt thou pursue - that thou mayst live … - tzedek tzedek tirdof, lmaan t'hiyeh. Commentators have struggled with the fact that the word for justice - tzedek - is mentioned twice. If every word, every letter is in the Torah for a specific purpose, what could be the point of the word listed twice?
The commandment to pursue justice is two-fold. We must pursue justice when it is within our grasp - when we can experience the hope of a better future. But, more importantly, we must pursue justice even when it appears hopeless. Just as God puts a choice before us and asks us to choose life, we must choose to make the world a better place despite the ignorance, hate and despair that might assail us. We must act as a light onto the nations - an or hagoyiim. It is this continual pursuit of justice in fact, that gives us our birthright to Israel! The verse continues - Justice Justice shall you pursue so that you might live, and inherit the land that God gives you. Thus, we must enact the ideals of Judaism in order to maintain our claim to Israel.
As we continue to prepare ourselves for the High Holidays, perhaps it might help us if we shuckle a bit when we pray. To connect us to the words on the page - our ideals and our hopes. To connect us to the community around us. To connect us to our God. But most importantly, to move our bodies to action, so that we too help to repair the world. Tzedek Tzedek tirdof - justice, justice shall you pursue. If we follow this charge, we will commit our minds and bodies to the practice of t'suvah. We will indeed return to our true selves.