July 21, 2023
Choosing the Real World
This transcript was edited and formatted by a third party and may vary from the live sermon delivered at Shabbat.
Choosing the Real World
Rabbi Rebecca Rosenthal
I’m always a little surprised when we reach Deuteronomy. It is the sign that we are deep into the summer and that, like it or not, the High Holy Days are starting to creep up to us. Deuteronomy is a book that retells our people’s stories, hitting the major highlights and lowlights of the Israelites’ time in the desert. We are being prepared for something, whether it be for the coming of Tishrei in just about eight weeks or, in the case of the Israelites, to enter the Promised Land.
But we are also being prepared for the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, the holiday of Tishah B’Av that begins on Wednesday night. We commemorate the destruction of the Temple, and a number of other tragic events that have befallen our people over the course of history. This parashah, the first one in Deuteronomy, is always read on the Shabbat before Tishah B’Av. If we believe there are no accidents in how the rabbis set up our calendar (and believe me, they thought of almost everything), then we have to ask, “What is it about this parashah that sets us up to observe this holiday?”
Deuteronomy has an interesting history. Most biblical scholars date this book quite late, later than the other four books of the Torah. But no matter if you think it was written later, or whether you think it was given to Moses at Sinai, it is clear that Deuteronomy is a retrospective, a chance for Moses to look back on his history with the Israelites and all they have been through and impart some lessons. It is a book that asks us to look to the past, to remember what we have done and where we came from. And it is also a book full of Moses’ fear that the best days of the Israelites are behind them. Over and over the Israelites are told that they are going to mess up, and that God will punish them and even desert them.
Tishah B’Av is Moses’ worst fears in Deuteronomy coming true. The rabbis teach that the destruction of the Temple comes about because of the Jewish people treating one another and God with baseless hatred. They turn away from God, treat one another with contempt, and, in revenge, God destroys the Temple and exiles the people from Jerusalem.
Eichah, the book we read on Tishah B’Av, is one of the most frightening books of the Torah. It describes all kinds of ravages of war and destruction, including mothers eating their own children, famine, enslavement, loneliness, and the fact that the Jewish people, exiled from their land, will never again find comfort and joy. Four incredibly detailed, gruesome chapters of wrath without so much as a glimmer of hope.
But then we reach the end of the book. The final two verses read:
Take us back, Adonai, to Yourself,
And let us come back;
Renew our days as of old!
For truly, You have rejected us,
Bitterly raged against us.
But because we are a people of hope, we won’t let a book, even one as difficult as Eichah, end on a down note. Instead, when this book is read aloud in communities around the world on Wednesday night, we repeat the last verse, ending with the words hadesh yameinu k’kedem, renew our days as of old.
We hope. Even in the midst of our deepest despair we look for a glimmer of light and we hope. We remember a time when we could feel God’s presence and we try to get back there.
One could very easily read this hope as a longing for the way things were. After all, we are asking God to renew us as days of old. Perhaps we are longing to go back to the good old days, when things were simpler or clearer or cleaner. To a time when we understood where we stood, and we were sure we could do what God wanted. Days of old. There must be something in the past that we want to go back to.
But Eichah Rabbah, the midrash on the book of Eichah, takes this in a different direction. The word kedem, appears twice in the Garden of Eden story, once when Adam and Eve are in the garden, and the second time after they have been exiled. Eichah Rabbah chooses the second one when trying to understand kedem, days of old. We aren’t asking God to take us back to paradise, to the perfection of the Garden of Eden. Instead, what we yearn for is the moment that Adam and Eve set out on their journey into the real world, away from God’s constant protection and away from a predestined future.
Because what we are really asking for is a renewal of hope, a renewal of resilience, a renewal of the strength we need to face the inevitably difficult moments of life and know that there is an opportunity for renewal waiting just around the corner.
If you’ll indulge me in a current pop-culture moment, there’s a scene in the trailer for the Barbie movie, which comes out today, where Barbie is becoming unsettled that her perfect life, her Garden of Eden, seems to be crumbling around her. She is confronted by Kate McKinnon’s Weird Barbie character offering her two shoes—one a perfect pink high heel, the other a flat brown Birkenstock. She can go back to her seemingly perfect life, where everything just works, or she can go forward and, as she is told, “She can know the truth about the real world.” Barbie picks the heel and the other Barbie, brandishing the Birkenstock says, “You have to want to know; do it again.”
A “perfect world,” a “perfect past” is an illusion, and we shouldn’t hold onto it. We should not try to return to it. We have to want the mess, the imperfection, and the challenge, because that’s how we grow. That’s how we build our muscles for hope, resilience, and change. And because we know that, however much we might long for the past, it certainly wasn’t perfect.
One of my favorite midrashim is the story of Adam and Eve at the end of their lives. God brings them back to the Garden of Eden and offers that they can return there and live out their remaining days in this perfect paradise. It feels like it would be an easy yes, to return to a place you remember where everything was taken care of and everything was as it should be. But Adam and Eve think back on their lives, on their family, on the challenges they faced and overcame, and reject God’s offer of return to the Garden. The real world, the one that looks forward, the one that supplies so much joy and so much pain, the one that asks us to work hard, unendingly, for justice, and peace, and prosperity for all people, is the only world worth living in.