Thursday, August 23, 2012

Don't Return to Egypt: Parashat Shoftim

            I, like so many others in my generation, have an addiction to online TV.  Sometimes I can justify my viewing habits because I am watching something thoughtful and artsy like The Wire, and other times I simply cannot find a suitable excuse for watching the 14th video of baby sloths on youtube in one day.    Despite my inability to justify my behavior, there are days when I just continue to fall further and further down the rabbit hole because it is so comforting, easy, and passive.  With the advent of internet television, my brain created a feedback loop that releases endorphins each time I hear the theme songs of one of my favorite shows.  On one hand, my bad habit is humorous, but in reality, it is quite depressing.  It does not make me happy or fulfilled -- I indeed would rather be meeting my obligations -- but TV puts my brain to sleep; it provides momentary comfort from the stresses of life.  In many ways, Netflix is my Egypt.  I know it all too well, it continues to feed me familiar and tasty delights (the Israelites loved the watermelon and leeks found in Egypt), and it keeps me from worshiping God and fulfilling my obligations to the Divine.
         Yesterday, however, I had a breakthrough.  I got sick and tired of failing to write my sermons and went to a cardio kickboxing class.  All of a sudden, I felt my life falling back into line. When I came back home, I finished several sermons and began researching the ones that I had left to write. In the midst of my frenzied productivity, I also remembered  that I had been forgetting to blow shofar each morning for the month of Elul.  That is how out of it I had been for the past few weeks.  This morning I blew shofar, put on my tefillin, prayed, and got back to studying.  Elul is propelling my life forward, out of Egypt and toward Eden, away from TV and toward Torah.
        One of the pieces about Parashat Shoftim this morning was by Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, who highlights Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch's commentary on Deuteronomy 17:16:

16. Only, he may not acquire many horses for himself, so that he will not bring the people back to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, for the Lord said to you, "You shall not return that way any more."טז. רַק לֹא יַרְבֶּה לּוֹ סוּסִים וְלֹא יָשִׁיב אֶת הָעָם מִצְרַיְמָה לְמַעַן הַרְבּוֹת סוּס וַי־הֹוָ־ה אָמַר לָכֶם לֹא תֹסִפוּן לָשׁוּב בַּדֶּרֶךְ הַזֶּה עוֹד:


Why are we commanded not go to back to Egypt?  Hirsch points out that Israelites have returned to Egypt several times throughout our history.  Whenever there was a drought in the Land of Israel, our ancestors would go to the fertile shores of the Nile for sustenance.   When we were wandering in the desert, our ancestors cried out to Moses about how badly they wanted to return to the familiarity and richness of Egypt. It only took a short period of time before they forgot the horrors of slavery and lusted for the material comforts of their former home, and the sense of security they found in the familiar.  We are commanded not to return to Egypt because despite all of its challenges, it is a tempting place to return to.
         Sometimes certain places and behaviors make something click in our brain, and that click provides us with a sense of pleasure.  The click is not always a good thing.  Many times, it is the needle of our brain returning to the familiar and well-worn groove of bad habits.  This click feels good because it signals a return to a path of little resistance.  However, Elul is the time when we need to jump to a new groove, even if it is  new and bumpy. 
        One of the lines from our liturgy that  has always caught my attention and seems very apropos to the spirit of Elul is from the prayer Etz Hayim Hi.  We plead with God to "Hadesh Yameinu K'kedem."  This line can be translated in many ways -- it can either mean, "renew our days like in days of old" or "renew our days like in the East."  Where is East?  Eden -- the land of perfection toward which we always strive.  In truth, we can always go back to Egypt, and it is in our nature to always want to return.  Our lives generally do not consist of one great Exodus and one miraculous redemption/return.  Rather our lives are spent in the the desert wandering back and forth between our better and worse selves.  Elul is the time to wake up and make sure that we're heading in the right direction for the new year.  And even if we cannot live a life completely free of Egypt, this is the time to locate our Egypt, identify our best exit route, and begin the path back toward Eden.

Shabbat Shalom.