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Choosing God, and Good: Torah Talk for Yom Kippur and Shabbat Ha’Azinu 5779

This week we read great Torah portions on Yom Kippur, this coming Wednesday, that explore holiness and commitment to God. In Reform practice on Yom Kippur morning we read from the portion of Nitzavim in Deuteronomy, which affirms that we have the responsibility in this great season to choose life and God. In the afternoon we chant from Kedoshim, the Holiness Code, which teaches us how to be holy through sacred and ethical lives.

And next Shabbat we’ll chant one of the final portions of the entire Torah reading cycle, Ha’azinu, penultimate section of the fifth book of the Torah, Devarim. Ha’azinu includes Moses’ last poetic words to the people of Israel before his death. It’s an elaborate instruction, a charge and a prediction of the future for the Israelites, but mostly it’s also about choice.

Ha’azinu is both a final look inside the thoughts of the greatest leader our people has ever had, and a fascinating snapshot of what was predicted for the future of the twelve tribes once they arrived in the Land of Israel. The longish, powerful poem includes a description of God’s word dropping like “a gentle rain on tender grass,” and a vision of the Lord’s justice and faith as complete and flawless. It describes God’s love for Israel bringing forth “honey from the rock” to nourish and favor our people, a prediction of the way that Israel has made the desert bloom today.

In language rich and complex but also challenging, Moses promises that God rewards those who preserve justice but punishes those who fail to keep faith. In one memorable phrase that has made its way into our prayer book Moses says, “Ki shem Adonai ekra, havu godel LEiloheinu—I will proclaim the name of the Lord; ascribing greatness to our God.”

Our role as Jews is both to praise God and to create justice. Both are important, and both support each other in our world. We praise God and acknowledge that justice comes from the One Source of morality. And then we work to assure that justice for all is central to our moral life. We must strive not only to be good, but also to create goodness in our world.

It’s all about the choices we make: do we accept our role as God’s partners in creating holiness in our lives? And do we truly work to guarantee justice in our society and in our world?

May you be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year, a g’mar chatimah tovah, and have a tzom kal, an easy fast on Yom Kippur. And may we all choose well in this new year!

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