Vayeilech: Be strong and open your heart

open-heartIn this week’s Torah portion, Vayeilech, Moshe gives instructions to the children of Israel and to Joshua who will lead them into the land of promise. This year as I read this Torah portion, I was struck by a repeated phrase. חִזְק֣וּ וְאִמְצ֔וּ, “Y’all be strong and resolute,” Moshe says to them. And in the next verse, he speaks directly to Joshua and says the same thing in the singular to him: חֲזַ֣ק וֶאֱמָץ֒.

חִזְק֣וּ וְאִמְצ֔וּ, “Y’all be strong and resolute.” The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra writes that we become able to follow this instruction when we know that God is walking with us in all of the places where our path takes us. No matter where life takes us, when we know that we are not alone, then we can be strong and resolute. Or, as Reb Zalman z”l translates those words, that’s when we can be sturdy and make strong our hearts.

We find that phrasing in his translation of psalm 27, the psalm we’ve been davening since the beginning of the month of Elul, the month leading up to the Days of Awe. Over Rosh Hashanah (and again this morning) we sang a beautiful setting of one verse from that psalm:

קַוֵּה אֶל-ה׳:
חֲזַק וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ
וְקַוֵּה, אֶל-ה׳

Keep hope, keep hope — keep hoping in the One.
Be strong and open your heart wide,
and keep hope in the One.

There’s a kind of echo effect for me between the verses from Torah, with their repeated refrain of “be strong and resolute,” and this verse from the psalm we’ve been singing. Torah tells us to be strong, whereas the psalm invites us to strengthen our hearts. How do we do that? Our singable translation offers an answer: by opening them, and by cultivating hope.

We strengthen our hearts when we work to keep them open. Psalm 27 calls us to open our hearts to each other, maybe especially at this time of year as we immerse ourselves in the work of teshuvah, repentance and returning to our truest selves. Psalm 27 calls us to open our hearts to the unknown future, and to cultivate hope.

The Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Sir Jonathan Sacks, writes:

To be a Jew is to be an agent of hope in a world serially threatened by despair. Every ritual, every mitzvah, every syllable of the Jewish story, every element of Jewish law, is a protest against escapism, resignation or the blind acceptance of fate. Judaism is a sustained struggle, the greatest ever known, against the world that is, in the name of the world that could be, should be, but is not yet.

For Rabbi Sacks, hope is the quintessential psycho-spiritual move of Jewish life. To be a Jew is to hope toward — and, importantly, to act toward — a world that is better than the one we know now.

Hope is built into the structure of Jewish time. Jewishly speaking, a day begins with sundown and moves toward morning. ויהי ערב ויהי בוקר — “and there was evening and there was morning.” Why does a Jewish day begin in darkness? So that the natural trajectory of the day moves from darkness to light. Night represents fear and exile — which makes perfect sense to any child who has ever been afraid of the dark — and the coming of day represents the rebirth of hope. Or as the author Anne Lamott teaches (in her book Bird by Bird), “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come.”

The actor Christopher Reeve, of blessed memory, used to say that “once you choose hope, anything is possible.” He knew something about situations that look hopeless: he said this about hope after he had the riding accident that paralyzed him from the neck down. What I find interesting about the quote is that he used the word choose. It takes some work. It’s a turn, like teshuvah.

The existential turn of teshuvah is always open to us. The existential turn of choosing hope is always open to us. No matter what cards you’ve been dealt, you can choose to open your heart wide and keep hoping in the One.

This is the d’var Torah that Rabbi Rachel offered at CBI yesterday morning. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

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