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Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Nitzavim/Vayelech 5763

I remember the first Yom Kippur service of my adult life. At the time, I possessed a hefty dose of youthful arrogance, coupled with a paucity of Jewish knowledge, the absence of which I was too arrogant to be embarrassed about.

I recall sitting in the sanctuary in Washington Hebrew Congregation and wondering what kind of G-d needed the constant repetition of praises that were part of the liturgy. After the evening service was over, I specifically went out and bought something to eat, effectively thumbing my nose at the binding fast that has marked Yom Kippur since Biblical times.

We are at the tail end if the Hebrew month of Elul, just a few days away from Rosh Hashana. Our tradition teaches that the period from the beginning of Elul through Yom Kippur is a time for us to be reflective about our Jewish lives.

This week, we read two short Torah readings. Combined, Nitzavim and Vayelech are 70 verses with a shared theme of repentance.

There’s a bittersweet poignancy to these readings, because they recount the very last day in the life of Moshe (Moses). Moshe, who has led the Jewish people through the most eventful 40 years of history, is going to die on this very day. Moshe is giving his final speech to the Jewish people and his words have a resounding power, because they are among his last.

Among them is a famous passage about the accessibility of our tradition.

“For this commandment that I command you today – it is not hidden from you and it is not distant. It is not in heaven, [for you] to say, “Who can ascend to the heaven for us and take it for us, so that we can listen to it and perform it?” Nor is it across the sea, [for you] to say, “Who can cross the sea for us and take it for us, so that we can listen to it and perform it?” Rather the matter is very near to you – in your mouth and in your heart – to perform it.” (30:11-14)

What is the relevance of this famous passage today?

Many of us, myself included, were denied a robust Jewish education as children. If we went to Hebrew school at all, it was more likely than not an unpleasant experience.

We are like the Lindsay Lohan character in the movie “Freaky Friday” – spiritual children in the bodies of adults. We have the intelligence, emotions and resources of adults, coupled with a child’s understanding of what it means to be a Jew.

Moshe’s message reminds us that, in this period of reflection about our Jewish lives, we can do something about catching up. No one needs to be stuck in what has been called “pediatric Judaism”. Most adult Jews in America have never attended a single session of adult Jewish education. This can be the year that you set yourself apart from “most adult Jews in America.”

Our community is blessed by an impressive array of over 50 organizations that offer adult Jewish learning at every level, from absolute beginner to Torah scholar. Adult Jewish education is offered by nearly every synagogue and Jewish organization in town, all across the denominational spectrum.

Professionally, I’m responsible for developing a clearinghouse to disseminate information about adult Jewish learning options in Baltimore. During the High Holiday period, you’ll begin to hear about Jewish Learning Connection, our campaign to make adult Jewish learning as accessible to you as possible.

Reflecting back on that Yom Kippur so many years ago, I’m aware that life itself made me far less arrogant. And adult Jewish learning made it exhilarating for me to be a Jew. If I’d been exposed to adult Jewish learning before that Kol Nidre night, I’d have understood that the repetition of praises during the prayer services is not because G-d requires them… but because it is we who need to be reminded.

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