Deuteronomy The Comfort of Our Own Significance
(Parashat Va’Etchanan, Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11)
Every week, we invite our ancient prophets to address us through the haftarah (the prophetic reading follows the Torah reading), bringing their vision, their encouragement, and, especially in the previous three weeks leading up to Tisha b’Av, their excoriation. It can be hard to hear the criticism of contemporary prophets; sometimes the ancient words echoing across the millennia can better draw us into the self-examination we so desperately need.
In the seven weeks from now until Rosh Hashanah, we ask our ancient prophets to play an equally challenging role, bringing us words of comfort from God – for how can we allow ourselves to be comforted in a world where brokenness surrounds us and the work of repair seems infinite? Platitudes or empty promises of redemption would fail; we need words that allow us to see ourselves as lovers and beloved, and ultimately as responsible actors in building a redeemed world. And so Isaiah’s words of comfort this Shabbat, called “Shabbat Nahamu”—the Sabbath of consolation–both unsettle and reassure us:
Have you not discerned how the earth was founded? It is God who is enthroned above the vault of the earth, so that its inhabitants seem as grasshoppers. (Isaiah 40:20-21)
This zoomed-out perspective on our lives suggests that each of us is tiny, insignificant on a cosmic scale, ultimately expendable. Perhaps it gives us a hit of humility while enraged in traffic, but it also shakes our belief that our actions bear significance.
And then the haftarah ends with an image that calls us back to significance in the Divine gaze:
Lift up your eyes and see: Who created these? The One who brings them out and counts them, Who calls them each by name. (Isaiah 40:26)
Our cosmic insignificance is suddenly paired with the notion that God notices each of us, and calls each of us by our names. The infinity of being knows each tiny manifestation as a subject self, worthy of knowing, of counting, of being given the ultimate gift of loving attention. Perhaps here we can find a sense of comfort that comes from clarifying that each of us is nearly nothing, but yet profoundly worthy of being known.
This week, there is a caterpillar growing in a jar on my kitchen counter. My four-year-old brought it home as an egg on a leaf when we spent a Sunday morning learning about monarch butterflies, the danger they are in as a species, and how we can hatch them at home and release them to help the species survive. I look at this tiny caterpillar, feeling the utter futility of trying to help a single monarch butterfly grow to adulthood as its species’ extinction takes place on a much larger scale, influenced by pesticide use in industrial agriculture and our rapidly changing climate. And yet, a swarm of butterflies is nothing if not butterflies, each one having hatched from an egg and feasted on milkweed for a fortnight as a caterpillar. The swarm is only there because each butterfly has survived to unfold its wings. The daily practice of giving the caterpillar a new leaf and cleaning out its jar – that is, nurturing an individual insect, hoping the best for the survival of its species in the wild – is a way of enacting Isaiah’s understanding of how God works in the world.
Working as a family to give loving attention to a tiny creature whose existence seems almost negligible is a practice I hope will awaken in us loving attention for all beings on the margins, for anyone whose life is seen by another as expendable.
In Parashat Va’ethanan, Moshe recalls for us our collective encounter with God at Sinai, describing God as speaking with all of us panim b’fanim, face to face, unmediated. The midrashic collection Shemot Rabbah interprets this idea as God appearing in many different ways at the same moment, presenting each person with the Divine image they needed to see – as standing or sitting, as old or young – and today, we can imagine God appearing with any gender, sexuality, color, class, or ability. In that moment at Sinai, the Infinite was present with all of us finite beings, looking us in the eyes, calling us by name, and becoming something new for each of us – inviting each of us to leave our imprint on the Divine.
From that encounter, an obligation arises: Va’ethanan includes a strongly-worded and lengthy version of the prohibition on creating graven images. The fundamental error in their creation is their immutability – a mirroring of the Divine requires the capacity to carry many changing aspects within a single self. As my teacher, Rabbi Art Green, writes in Judaism’s Ten Best Ideas, in the name of his teacher, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:
You are the image of God. But the only way you can shape that image is by using the medium of your entire life. To take anything less than a full, living, breathing human being and try to create God’s image out of it – that diminishes the divine and is considered idolatry.
Each of us, as insignificant as we might imagine our lives to be from a cosmic perspective, carries a unique Divine image, reflected to others in the fullness of how we live in the world. The haftarah’s words of comfort call us back into ourselves out of the grieving of destruction, and they call us to action – for we in every moment have the opportunity to offer each other the revelation of Sinai, a face of the Divine.
Like the butterflies, the well-being of each of us is fundamental to the well-being of all. In the seven weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah, let us practice being face to face with the Divine –that is, let us give our attention to the beings we might have overlooked, to those on the margins, calling each other by name. This practice will unsettle us, taking us outside our habits, pushing us to see those we might rather ignore. And yet, this is the act that the prophet Isaiah calls us into to bring comfort – each of us, a Divine image in this world, offering a mirror to the others to know that our presence matters. Without any one of us, humanity would be sorely lacking.
Rabbi Emma Kippley-Ogman, ordained in 2010 by the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, is a rabbi and teacher in St. Paul, MN, and a resident in spiritual care at United Hospital.