By Rabbi Fredi Cooper
I look above and see a different sky than I have encountered all summer. The clouds have changed their character and announce that summer is waning, with the first hint of fall in the air.
This change tweaks at my heart and reminds me that lying just around the bend are the awesome days. Rosh Hashanah will be upon us in an instant. The travels of summer come to a screeching halt in the days in front of us. This hinting of fall invites travel as well, but this travel is internal and individual. The travel of this coming season helps us know our hearts anew for a new year.
In this week’s parshah we are invited into the journey that is necessary this time of year. In Deuteronomy 18:13 we learn, “You must be wholehearted with the Lord your God.” The Hebrew word used to indicate this wholehearted approach is Tamim. It is used within the parshah to prohibit the recourse to sorcerers or soothsayers. We are discouraged from consulting such sources as we can never know our own future, and an astrologer may lead one to believe that such foresight is possible.
It is human nature to want to feel control of our lives and to know that we can handle what lies ahead. We may bring this mindset to synagogue when we are confronted with a year that has passed and a year stretched in front of us. We enter this season filled with sincere hopes that we are equipped to embrace the future with a whole heart. This whole heart may allow us to know something new that the almighty may ask of us in this new year.
Our sages grappled with how we can come wholehearted to God. Rambam teaches that this is an invitation from Torah to look into our souls as this process alone is for the welfare of the soul. Rashi warns that we are not to try to know the future in its fullness. We are not to seek the future to assure that it will be only good for us. We are to know that whatever lies ahead in the future requires this full heart and the embrace that the all-powerful one can offer in this season.
Several verses later in Deuteronomy 18:15, we learn that God will help us with a wise teacher to show us the way. In this verse we read, “From among your own people your God will raise up for you a prophet like myself, that is whom you shall heed.”
As we approach this awesome season, we are not so different from those in Biblical times. We search for the prophet within our midst to help us understand the direction that our whole heart needs to face our world. Perhaps if one enters this season with an open heart, the prophet may appear to you, unexpectedly.
I had an experience with such prophecy more than 30 years ago. I came into synagogue on Rosh Hashanah unaware that my own heart would be opened that year … or even that it needed to be opened. I sat wanting to hear what my rabbi would teach, not sure that it would change my future. And then it happened.
The rabbi, now a dear colleague of mine, used an image of a ladder. He spoke of how the system of halachah (Jewish law and mitzvot) was akin to this ladder. It had steps that invited you to climb — that you could ascend as high as you were able. This ladder seemed so approachable, and it made sense as nothing had before. I could step onto the ladder and just do one step right now without needing to go all the way to the top. The ladder had opened my heart.
I left synagogue excited to find a greater way to engage with my Judaism. I could try one more pathway to God and see if it would keep my heart complete, in new ways. That year God had sent me a prophet that spoke to me in words that I might never have understood before that season. I knew that I would heed this prophet.
As we approach this season in an increasingly complex world, we are all in need of Godly connection. May each of us enter this season with a whole heart ready to hear the words or see the image that will help keep our hearts open to what is needed to face a New Year.
In this personal search, be ready for your own personal prophet to invite you to travel a new road in this year ahead. May each one of us be blessed to know that through the words of prophecy that move us, our deeds will determine the outline of the future that lies ahead.
In this way, each one of us can find the way to be wholehearted with our God.
Rabbi Fredi Cooper is a retired rabbi, a former member of the faculty at Reconstructing Judaism and now serves on its Board of Governors. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.