Wednesday, October 22, 2014 Tishri 28, 5775

Time to Turn Hearts to Sacred Task of Memory

September 7, 2011 By:
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell
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KI TETZE, Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19

A week ago, we marked the beginning of the month of Elul. Each day during this month of preparation for the Days of Awe is marked by the sounding of the shofar.

Every year, these days challenge to rouse ourselves from the pleasures of summer, to return to the questions and reflection that will prepare us for the rich and serious work of the High Holidays. Have we been asleep? Or simply dozing? How often do we sense that we are fully present, fully engaged, fully awake?

The rabbis teach that the name of the month of Elul is significant, for it directs us to the tone and posture that guides our journeys through these days. "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine" is a phrase from the Song of Songs, the powerful biblical love song that is an integral part of many Jewish wedding ceremonies and celebrations.

Elul is the month when we reconnect with our beloveds, human and divine. Linking the month to the Song of Songs helps us remember the excitement of young love, and the delight of discovering mutual connection and celebration. Elul challenges us to put aside our cynicism, and to re-enter that magical world of love where every moment shimmers with possibility, when even inanimate objects seem kind and generous and forgiving.

When we consider our beloveds and friends in the special light of Elul, we may be able to forgive both intentional and unintentional insults, oversights and hurts. When we approach ourselves with an awakened sense of love and compassion, we may be able to let go of our defenses and grudges, and open our hearts to accepting and forgiving ourselves.

During the month of Elul, we read parshah Ki Tetze, which poses questions about the role of memory in maintaining relationships and sustaining community. Professor Judith Plaskow notes in The Torah: A Women's Commentary, "Through telling the story of our past, we learn who we are and must become."

During this month of reflection, this portion reminds us to "remember that we were a slave in the land of Egypt." Tradition teaches that the moral response of this memory is to behave in ethical ways towards the fatherless, the widowed and the foreigner.

Yet, Plaskow notes, excluded from this protection are the Ammonites and Moabites, who did not offer food to the wandering Israelites, and the Amalekites who attacked the Israelites. Plaskow goes on to explore the adjuration to remember Miriam's affliction, which appears, like all references to Miriam, suddenly and without context.

Plaskow points out that throughout the Torah, Miriam's history is presented in such disparate fragments that it is challenging to reconstruct and assess her crucial role in the Israelite's story. Ki Tetze leaves us with deep questions about how to reconstruct a story with compassion and justice.

So as we make our way through this month of remembering, how do we discern what to remember and what to forget? The shofar calls us to wake to the seriousness of the task. The awakened heart of Elul approaches remembering and reconstructing with a generosity of spirit that may be unavailable throughout the rest of the year.

Let us take up the sacred task of teshuvah, of intentional remembering, asking what has been left out of the story, and how we can prepare for a new year in which we will make considered, compassionate and just decisions.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as rabbi and worship specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism. Email her at: [email protected].

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