7 Elul 5782
Listen to the recorded message: https://youtu.be/tyO0x18zhsA
Am I headed in the right direction?
This parashah, Shoftim is the most significant portion in the Torah for me because it represents the beginning of my Teshuva, “turning” to the Bore Olam where He restored the years that the locust had eaten. I know that I have spoken about this before, but please bear with me because it is just so powerful and so relevant for today. I had spent most of my life, between the ages of 16 and 42 driven to find relief from a pain deep within my soul but finding it nowhere. I never planned ahead or looked for opportunities; they found me; doors would open, and I would step in often without seeking wise advice. I compare my life with the journeys that Israel took in their 40 years in the desert, with each stage meant to teach a lesson. For example, I remember, that before starting my second year at McGill University, I was confused about whether to continue. I thought I wanted to be a teacher but that year 200 teachers were out of work, and I felt guilty that my parents were struggling to pay my school fees. Then one day, a friend told me about a course at the Royal Victoria Teaching Hospital. It would take 3 years to complete, and they would pay me to learn. How could I refuse such a deal! I loved the program, and I learned more than I could ever have imagined about the medical system which I had already begun to doubt. I believe that God always “directs” us even when we don’t recognize it. I think of him as the “Great Director, the Orchestra Leader” and each of us is an instrument. One door closed but a better door opened. It’s important to remember that, and not try to walk through walls to get what we think we want. Of course, God directs each of us differently depending upon our personality and our roles. Although I wanted to be a teacher, and I believe that this is a gift that I have, it was not meant that I would teach within that system; God had something else in mind for me.
Our Creator nudges us to head in the right direction and in this parashah in chapter 17 we read that the Bore Olam was directing the King of Israel. He was to have a copy of the Torah written in a book. “And it shall be with him, and he shall read it every day of his life; so that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, to keep all the words of this Torah and these statutes, to do them; so that his heart would not be lifted up above his brothers, and so that he would not turn aside from the commandments, neither to the right, nor to the left; to the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he and his children, in the midst of Israel.” It is no different for us today. How else would we be able to LEARN to fear the LORD and to recognize the multitude of counterfeit truths that are being pushed in the world today? I remember our Rabbi telling us that when someone was hired by the government to learn how to recognize counterfeit money, they would have to spend years studying real dollar bills.
I spent ten years engulfed in New Age thinking, replete with counterfeit half-truths and if I had known the Torah in my youth, it would have saved me and my family a lot of pain and trouble. This is not an expression of regret, it’s simply fact. I wondered why my great-grandparents didn’t pass the Torah down to the next generation but what gives me hope is written within the Second Commandment, “I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me (that represents a limited period of time) and showing mercy unto the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments (that represents forever).” Counting down from my great-grandparents, I am that 4th generation. I have come to love my God and to do my best to keep His Commandments. This brings me hope for the generations after me because through me, generational curses can be broken. When we stop to look at the generational curses in our own families, some are more obvious than others. Some may take a little digging to recognize and that’s where prayer and hard work come in, but that’s another whole message in itself. We all have the ability, with God’s help, to shift our direction and choose a different path for ourselves. Although my mother and I were not close, I know that she loved her children and did the best that she could. She believed in God in her own way and before she died, she told me something that I will never forget…she looked me in the eye and said, “You are the hope for our family”. I was so shocked when I heard that. It must have come from the heart of God because I’m not sure that she understood what she was saying, but then if the LORD can speak through a donkey, He can certainly speak through my mother.
This is where Shoftim comes in. In 1989 at the age of 42, after having been away from Montreal for those 10 years, I went to visit my cousin. I told her about my long spiritual journey, and that now I decided to go to the Lubavitch Jews, because after searching everywhere else perhaps my own Judaism held the answers. My years of working with medical professionals and having worked in hypnotherapy convinced me that the unconscious mind held the answer to all our problems, all our illnesses, so I couldn’t understand why I still had this huge emptiness, this uneasiness within me, like a large aching in my gut stemming from my childhood. What was I missing?
I told my cousin some of the things I had learned by delving into the New Age ideologies and then she opened the Bible to the verses from this very parashah in which God was telling Moses, “When you will come into the land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not learn to do after the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, a soothsayer, an enchanter, a sorcerer, a charmer, one who consults a ghost or a familiar spirit, or a necromancer. For whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD and because of these abominations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you. You shall be whole-hearted with the LORD your God.”
My first thought was “I was an abomination? What I did and the people that I worked with did “abominations?”. Out loud, I said, “Why didn’t anyone ever tell me?” You can ask anyone who knew me, I was whole-hearted but whole heartedly headed in the wrong direction. It is so easy to put all our hearts or even half of our hearts into things that do not please our God, in fact, that can incur His wrath!
So, I attended my cousin’s bible studies and was sure that I was now on the right path. Having God in my life changed everything, but my direction would continue to change over the course of the next, what is now 33 years. Our walk with God should not be stagnant. It does not consist of rigid rules and regulations that keep us in a box; it is a walk on this earth knowing that we are not alone. Walking means putting one foot in front of the other, taking one step at a time even when we’ve lost our direction. When I get up, I have a basic understanding of what I have to do during my day, but every morning I ask God to order my day. Where I once thought that I was walking alone, now I know that I walk with my Creator. It doesn’t change who I am intrinsically, it changes how I see life. He tells us “Do not be afraid because He will never leave us nor forsake us. But do we believe Him? That’s where going from faith, emunah to developing trust, bitachon, comes into play. Where I once asked no one for help, now I know I can’t live without the advice of those who care about me and want to help me grow and improve.
My journey is ongoing, and I can fill volumes of books on how God rebuilt my life, miracle after miracle, struggle after struggle, tear after tear. There may be moments when we want to give up; when we can’t take it anymore and then suddenly, God shows up in a way we never expected. Walking the path of God is a narrow one and it is not always an easy one. It is one fraught with challenges, but it also contains moments of sheer joy. The journey is where the joy lies, the satisfaction of a job well done. If we are sweeping the floor, let it be the best-swept floor.
The Torah is filled with stories of regular people like you and me. The Torah doesn’t demand perfection from us; it tells us to acknowledge our faults and that we need help; if we are too proud to do that, how can we walk wholeheartedly with our God? We must learn and place His commandments in our hearts and be able to repeat them until they have become a part of our psyche and the basis for every decision we will ever make. That’s how we shine for the people around us and how we are judged. Parashat Shoftim, which means judges, like the rest of the Torah contains principles from which we can learn to be down to earth not flighty, to be who we are meant to be, to be a light to others, and to know the sheer joy of walking under God direction.