Moses’s final words to the Israelites reverberate with the drumbeat of a keyword, hayom, today. The opening verses of Nitzavim center around the idea of hayom:

“You stand today, all of you, before the LORD your God… that you may enter into the covenant… which the LORD your God is making with you today, in order that He may establish you today as His people and that He may be your God, just as He spoke to you and as He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Now not with you alone am I making this covenant and this oath, but both with those who stand here with us today in the presence of the LORD our God and with those who are not with us here today.” (Deut. 29:10-14)

Hayom appears a total of 16 times in this double-parasha, which represents over one-fifth of the 74 mentions of the word in Deuteronomy. By comparison, the other four books of the Torah combined mention hayom a total of 61 times. If Deuteronomy is significant for its unusually high concentration of hayom within the Torah, Nitzavim-Veyelech is particularly distinguished.

Midrash Tanhuma offers one interpretation of hayom in this parasha: “Just as today is sometimes dark and sometimes light, so too for you: even though it may be dark now, in the future the Holy One will shine an everlasting light, as the verse states, ‘And God will be for you an everlasting light’ (Isaiah 60:19–which was from last week’s haftarah). And when will this be? When you are united as one…” (Tanhuma Nitzavim 4). The Midrash’s understanding of hayom here focuses on the transience of a single day: this too shall pass. Whatever darkness, whatever suffering we may have today will ultimately be superseded by the everlasting light of God. Not, the Midrash argues, on account of grace, but rather when the Jewish people find a way to be unified.

Another understanding of hayom is that offered by various midrashim throughout Deuteronomy: What does the Torah mean when it states, “And the words that which I command you today shall be on your hearts?” (Deut. 6:6–from the Shema) That every day you must see yourself as standing at Sinai being commanded anew. Or, in other traditions, that every day a voice goes forth from Sinai again. Here the emphasis is not on the transience of today, but on the newness and preciousness of today. The point is not to hold on and get to tomorrow, but to recognize that every day has the potential to be just as transformative as the moment of Revelation at Sinai.

Hayom is one of the watchwords for the High Holidays. The traditional Musaf ends with a prayer whose refrain is hayom, recited seven times (eight in some editions). Hayom harat olam, today is the birthday of the world, we say on Rosh Hashanah. Ki bayom hazeh yichaper aleichem, For today you shall be atoned, we say on Yom Kippur.

When we say these lines we can experience both approaches: Today can be a day we get through, a day to endure until a brighter day comes. But today can, simultaneously, be a day of transformation, renewal and change–as dramatic and meaningful as the day the Torah was given. This is the paradoxical nature of living in time: it is, as Abraham Joshua Heschel observed, the dimension we cannot control, but it is precisely the dimension that makes us human. We know that this moment will end, that this day will end–and that is exactly what makes it possible for the moment or the day to be meaningful.

Shabbat shalom.

The highlight of the Torah reading of Yitro is the Revelation at Mount Sinai. Chapters 19 and 20 of Exodus, which narrate the story of the revelation, are some of the most mysterious and difficult of the entire Torah. What makes these chapters particularly challenging are the paradoxical motions of their words: it becomes unclear who is speaking when and what precisely is happening.

One good example of this is Exodus 20:14, which begins with the words, “And all the people saw the sounds.” Rashi comments that at the moment of revelation, the normal laws of nature itself were suspended, and one could see sound, and hear visions.

The Talmud glosses Ex. 19:19, “Moses would speak, and God answered him in a voice,” by asking, “What voice did God use to answer Moses? Moses’s own voice.” Similarly, the midrash relates that all the people heard the same thing, but heard it in the voice that was appropriate to them: Old people heard the voice of old people, babies heard the voice of babies, and so on.

On more than one occasion I have heard people criticize these chapters, arguing that they are good evidence of why the Torah needed a better editor. Yet, as Prof. Benjamin Sommer of the Jewish Theological Seminar (formerly of Northwestern) has described, the contradictory and paradoxical motions of the Torah’s narration are intentional. Paradox is the point. (Or, as a teacher of mine used to say, ‘It’s religion, it’s supposed to be spooky.’)

The moment of revelation is one that of necessity defies the ability of language, and even the human capacity of understanding. That doesn’t mean we can’t catch glimpses of it. The beauty of being human is our ability to occasionally ascend the heights, and sense what lies beyond the plain facts of the material world.

These are the moments of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called Radical Amazement. They may come to us when we experience a profound moment of artistic genius, a poem that resounds in our souls, or beholding the miracles of God’s creation. These moments are a shadow of the moment at Sinai, the moments when life is made meaningful and we engage our deepest capacities as spiritual beings. They are moments beyond language, moments of paradox and beauty.

Shabbat shalom.

My friend Nathaniel Whittemore writes a beautiful piece today about what social entrepreneurs are thankful for (and he is good enough to include me among his list of respondents), which inspires me to reflect on thankfulness as well.

Tonight we enter the Hebrew month of Kislev, in which Hannukah takes place. During Hannukah, the traditional liturgy adds a paragraph thanking God for the miraculous achievements of the Maccabees. Significantly,  this paragraph is added not as its own blessing during the daily Amidah, the litany of eighteen blessings; instead, it is included in the daily blessing of thanksgiving.

Why is this significant? Because the ancient Rabbis had the option of mentioning Hannukah anywhere during the Amidah: during the blessing for redemption, for instance; or the blessing that mentions our hope for the coming of the Messiah. Yet the Rabbis decided to mention Hannukah as part of the blessing of thanksgiving, and thus we can legitimately ask why.

Gratitude requires a certain view of the world, a certain existential posture. It requires openness–the same openness that leads to curiosity, to learning, to inspiration and to courage. That basic openness is at the root of all that makes goodness possible in the world. If Moses had failed to open himself, would he have noticed the burning bush? If Judah Maccabee had failed to open himself, would he have had the courage to lead a revolution? If Dr. King had failed to open himself, would he have been able to inspire?

The Talmud says that “An embarrassed person cannot learn.” If we cannot open ourselves to the world and admit the limits of our knowledge, we can’t ask questions. At the same time, that openness to learning needs to happen in a context of wonder. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Humankind will not die out for lack of information, but for we may perish for want of appreciation.” The interpretive move that has poisoned the achievements of modernity was a move of closure, a move that encountered new knowledge with a spirit of doubt, instead of a spirit of gratitude. 

Thankfulness is a habit that has to be practiced. That is why Jews say blessings, and why all religious people pause in gratitude around mealtime. It is why the Jewish tradition mandates blessings for encounters with all sorts of natural phenomena, and why Jews are commanded to pray three times a day. It is easy to become selfish, to forget the miraculousness of our existence. It is particularly easy during the winter, when the night is long and the day is short. So we have Hannukah, when we literally light a candle just when we are ready to curse the darkness. And like all observances on the Jewish calendar, Hannukah concentrates our focus on a value habit we have to practice all the time, in this case the habit of gratitude.

So in that spirit, thank you for reading, thank you for being open to my reflections.

Happy Thanksgiving.