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Parashat VaYelekh – At Summer’s End

Excerpted from Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Deuteronomy, co-published by OU Press, Maggid Books, and YU Press; edited by Stuart W. Halpern

At Summer’s End

The summer is over, and we observe today the last Shabbat before Rosh HaShana. As the last syllables of the dying year fade away, we shall begin, tonight, the seliĥot – the appraisal of ourselves, our failures and our successes, and our petition for forgiveness as we look forward towards the new year.

How do most of us respond naturally when we challenge ourselves to this self-appraisal, to evaluate the year we are now ushering out? What have been our attainments and our accomplishments? No doubt, the majority of us and those in our social class, in this economy of abundance, will be able to record an impressive number of achievements and feel a warm glow of satisfaction. Business, I am told, has been good, our reputations have been upheld or enhanced; we have made progress on almost all fronts.

And yet – if that is our attitude, it is the wrong one with which to end the old year and begin the new. Listen to how the prophet Jeremiah sums up what ought to be our mood on this threshold of the changing years: “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved” ( Jeremiah 8:20). For the prophet, the dominant mood at summer’s end is not one of jubilation and satisfaction, but one of disappointment and frustration. He turns to his contemporaries, in the agricultural society of those times, and tells them: You may have a good and bountiful harvest, you may be pleased with yourselves at the ingathering of the summer’s fruit, but that is not what really counts. “We are not saved.”

Those are hard words, words with a cutting edge, words that etch like acid on the flabby and complacent heart. Yet without these words and the attitude they summon up, we remain blind, out of contact with reality, caught up in the euphoria of a dream world. Our sacred tradition prefers that we end the old year and prepare for the new year with
the heroic self-criticism of a Jeremiah – with a confession of frustration. We look back over this past year and we think we are well off. Yet for all our work, for all our victories, our triumphs in business and social life, our attainments and profits that we have entered into our ledgers and accounted for, for all that we have done and all we have harvested – we have a nagging sense of futility and helplessness! “And we are not saved!”

If we follow our natural instinct and pamper ourselves with congratulations, we will never grow; honesty is sometimes cruel and devastating, but it is indispensable. Without acknowledging our failures of last year, we can never avoid them in the coming year. The parent or child, congregation or family, community or nation which rejects reproach and criticism, is like the businessman who prefers to ignore his accountant’s stern rebuke as to the conduct of his affairs. The feeling of frustration, of being dissatisfied and unredeemed despite our harvest, is most appropriate for this season of summer’s end. Every one of us must ask: Have I been a good spouse this year, or have I been indifferent to my husband or wife, taking him or her for granted? Those of us who are blessed with parents who are still living – have we acted towards them with honor and love, or have we allowed the excuse of our busyness to deny them the companionship and affection and feeling of importance that they crave? Have we acquitted ourselves well in our responsibilities towards our children – or have we so involved ourselves in “activities” on behalf of our children’s welfare that we have overlooked the most significant element – the direct relationship between ourselves and our children?

At summer’s end, after the fruits of our labors are harvested, we concentrate on the discrepancy between the real and the ideal, and we emerge with self-judgment, “and we are not saved!”

Indeed, Moses, in today’s sidra, experiences the same frustration, in an even more tragic sense. “Behold, you are going to die,” he is told by the Lord (Deuteronomy 31:16). What kind of harvest is Moses to reap at the end of 120 summers of utter dedication, toil, often bitterness and anguish? “Vekam ha’am hazeh vezana aĥarei elohei nekhar ha’aretz” – This same people to whom you gave your life, whom you taught the worship of the one God, will immediately upon your death forget all about you and go astray after the local pagan deities. What a let-down! What a bitter harvest! “And we are not saved!”

Unless the words we recite in our Seliĥot prayers, which we shall begin reciting tonight, are merely empty, automatic, rote prayers, we must be prepared to translate them into relevant, contemporary terms. If the Seliĥot means anything at all, then it means that in this season we must cease the bombastic little ritual of proclaiming in public, “I am proud to be a Jew,” and acknowledge in private, amongst ourselves, that occasionally, “I am ashamed as a Jew.” We shall say those words tonight: “ashamnu mikol am,” “we are more guilty than any other people;” “boshnu mikol dor,” “we have incurred more shame than any other generation.” Perhaps, indeed, our greater guilt is the result of the fact that we have more to be ashamed of than any generation of Jews that preceded us.

Shall we not be ashamed to the core of our souls when every time we read statistics about the religiosity of the American people, the Jews always trail the other major religions in the degree of their religious devotion? What Jew is not embarrassed by the fact that the leading peddlers of smut, and their most articulate defenders, have intensely Jewish names? Or that the most disgraceful and degenerate novels are by Jewish authors about Jewish life? Boshnu mikol dor – how disgraceful! What shall we say to the blasphemous abominations of a member of the Supreme Court of Israel who compares our Talmudic laws, which declare a child to follow the faith of its mother, with the infamous Nuremberg laws of the Nazis? If this is the fruit of the summer’s end of fifteen years of independence, if this is the harvest of all our tears and toil and hopes and work and sacrifice, then Jeremiah is right – indeed, “we are not saved,” we have a long way to go!

How dreadfully frustrating and devastating to learn that pious Jews, so-called, with all the outward appurtenances of Old World devoutness, are arrested because of illegal dealings on an international scale. What a sense of frustration for all of us who devote our lives to the teaching that Judaism leads to a different kind of conduct! What an

At this juncture, each and every congregation must pose before itself the same question. What kind of year have we had? Most synagogues and temples can probably produce impressive figures and overwhelming statistics: increased membership, more people, greater attendance, more activities – a wonderful congregational harvest! And
yet, if they are honest, then the rabbis and leaders and members of a congregation – any congregation! – must be ready to admit that to a large extent “we are not saved,” we are yet unredeemed. As long as our people do not translate affiliation into the observance of Shabbat, membership into greater honesty and integrity in their business and social lives, participation in “activities” into greater dedication to Jewish education, dues-paying into an increased sense of responsibility for Jewish philanthropy, then much of the fruit of our harvest must go to waste
and the summer must end on a frustrating note. “The harvest has past, and the summer is ended, but we are not saved.” To a large extent we have tilled the wrong field, planted the wrong seeds, and harvested the wrong fruit. Last year’s harvest was plenty – but a good part of it was, like gourds, outwardly attractive, but inedible and unable to sustain life. Do I mean to say that the picture is all bleak? Heavens, no! There are many shafts of light that cut across the gloom, there are many reasons for healthy and realistic optimism. More of our youth is returning to Judaism, Orthodoxy is achieving a greater prestige, our educational institutions are increasing. In fact, one can say that the last several years have seen a decided improvement and an upward trend.

What I am emphasizing is that there is a time and place for everything. We American Jews have silently accepted a new dogma – that you must always assume that this is the best of all possible worlds, that to admit less than success is neurotic and bad business, and that to congratulate yourself is to keep in the spirit of things. This dogma may come from Madison Avenue, but certainly not from Mount Sinai. And at this time of the year, at summer’s end, in the season of Seliĥot, we turn the eyes of our mind and our heart to our failures, our inadequacies, our shortcomings.

Such an admission of error, of frustration, of spiritual poverty amidst material wealth, of having pursued the wrong goals and succeeded in the wrong ambitions, can be wonderfully creative – but it requires courage, guts, backbone. The weak, the immature, the incompetent – they cannot abide anything but compliments and blanket surface-optimism. The strong, the mature, the stable – they can face up to the truth even if it be unpleasant, they can bare their hearts and acknowledge failure. For they know that the road to ultimate triumph in the things that really matter is paved with the cobblestones of little failures freely acknowledged and lovingly corrected.

Now we begin a new year, and if we realize the mistakes of the past we can prevent them in the future. Now we must plant new seeds of the spirit, of Torah, and above all of love – love of God, love of Israel, love of mankind. Let us plant them with care, with devotion, with tenderness. And if the planting is marked with tears for the failures of yesteryear, may they end this next year in a song of joy for a harvest of happiness. “Hazorim bedima berina yiktzoru” (Psalms 126:5) – may those who sow in tears reap the harvest of all their efforts and their work in joy and in happiness.