Old lessons

Old lessons

Ki Tavo | Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8

Serious coffee drinkers know that coffee preceded Starbucks. They say that it was first discovered in ninth-century Ethiopia. By the 16th century, it had reached Jews in Israel, where it helped revolutionize Judaism.

Prior to coffee, people went to bed early. Once they became wired on coffee, however, they stayed up late, a challenge that led kabalists to invent nighttime rituals. To this day, Jews gather on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashana, traditionally at midnight, for Selihot. And, I kid you not: it is the result of coffee!

The service had previously been held sunup Sunday morning, but under the impact of coffee, once nighttime hours were discovered as something to enjoy Jews learned to identify them as rife with spiritual potential, and the penitential service was moved to midnight.

Such spiritual and moral lessons may be found in other cultural breakthroughs as well. Here’s my short list of what we might learn from technology: From e-communication advances, I learn how prescient Judaism was way back in the sixth century BCE, when it concluded that all human beings are children of one God and that our future is indelibly interwoven together. “Why does the Torah provide the story of Adam and Eve?” the rabbis asked. Answer: to teach us that all humanity is descended from a single set of parents.

From Twitter, I learn that in hardly any words at all, it is possible to bring great joy, but also enormous hurt. I love the way our most central Jewish prayer, the Amida, opens with “God, open my lips that my mouth may declare your praise” and the way it concludes: “My God, keep my mouth from speaking evil and my lips from spouting deceit.” Like God at creation, we too bring whole worlds into being by what we say. Just a few words can augment the world’s beauty, harmony, and promise or pollute us all in a haze of violence, filth, and despair.

From the icloud, I conclude that what we say and how we act do not so quickly disappear into oblivion. When Marc Antony eulogized Julius Caesar, he thought, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” The rabbis, by contrast, believed it is the good that remains behind. The very names of those we memorialize can be a blessing — according to the Yerushalmi, because “The words of the wise are an everlasting memorial.” Long before computers, Judaism directed us to preserve our people’s wisdom as a legacy for tomorrow.

Rosh Hashana was already the most universal of holy days: a time to celebrate God’s rule over a marvelously diverse, yet interconnected, human family.

We human beings are uniquely “creatures of speech,” the rabbis say, who can use our gift of speaking to fashion a world rich with promise.

Throughout the days of awe, especially, we are urged to leave our own legacy of lessons that will be a blessing.

From Selihot to the end of the Yom Kippur, we get time to marvel at the way old lessons become truer over time and how they call us to make life matter.

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