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Speed, God & Pandemic

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ

Sermon Parshat Va'Etchanan 5780, July 31, 2020

In the midst of pandemic, you might not have noticed a simple fact of life in the 21st century: every year the pace of events in the world speeds up. Things are constantly moving quicker and quicker all around us, even during a hot Tucson summer of our discontent, such as this one, where everything appears to have hit the brakes for COVID-19. The truth is that many things are still going faster and faster.

It has been a long slow process, this increase in the tempo of human affairs, but the pace of life has accelerated considerably, even exponentially in recent years. It took a very long time to start this process, though. The armies of Julius Caesar 2000 years ago and of George Washington 250 years ago travelled at the same pace—about three miles an hour at top speed. For that matter, Thomas Jefferson never traveled any faster than Moses did 3000 years earlier. Their speed was determined by the pace of the fastest galloping horse a man had ridden, and as fast as they are horses haven’t gotten much faster over the millennia. Through much of human history the measured movement of life was more or less a constant, controlled by the physical limitations of our species and those we could domesticate, by the flow of the seasons and the vagaries of the weather. In fact, for centuries—no, millennia—you couldn’t travel on muddy roads, so you were restricted to going places during the dry or frozen seasons. It took time to get anywhere.

Information, too, spread at a gradual pace, and because it took a good while to arrive it was usually passed on in fairly complete form. Books were long, and readers were expected to have the time to wade through extended arguments, discussions and descriptions. Even news of important, earthshaking events took a very long time to disseminate. Famously, the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, which made Andrew Jackson famous enough to become president and decorate our twenty-dollar bill, actually took place long after the treaty ending the war had been signed. It took almost two months for news of the peace treaty to get to America, and weeks longer to reach New Orleans, by which time a battle had been fought, men had died and reputations made and ruined.

Things began to change with the development of railroads and telegraphs in the 1800s. Suddenly, you could speed through the world at 30 or 40 miles an hour—imagine that!—and communicate across the country, and later the world, in just a single day. If you had access to the new technology, everything seemed faster, more immediate. Life was quicker, and changed more rapidly.

The long history of the changes that have followed is one of increases in the pace of life. Some have been small and steady—automobiles are much more flexible but only moderately faster than trains. Some changes are dramatic: jets are vastly faster than ocean liners or railroads. But because of the limitations of technology, the physical movement of people hasn't demonstrably speeded up much since the mid-1960s, a kind of 60-year plateau. And of course right now flying in a jet seems like a really bad idea… Still, the fact remains. We can’t fly to New York or Europe—if they would actually let us in!—any faster than we could have flown there in 1970.

But in one area the acceleration has been constant, and is becoming exponential. As the information age moves toward maturity the flow of ideas and images has leaped breathtakingly forward. Where we once read newspapers or magazines for information and entertainment, we now receive a flood of quick, vivid images and ideas that change constantly. And that affects how we think. No longer are we willing to wade through long, complex material—we want to see the ikar, the bottom line, instantly. Television commercials that ran for a full minute, were reduced to 30 seconds, then 15 seconds, now often 10 seconds. Political speeches, once famous for being fabulously long-winded, are now encapsulated as 5- or 10- second sound bites. The entire virtue of the Internet is that we can have almost unlimited access to information in a nice, digestible, short form, and get it immediately. If you don’t know something—well, no problem. Google it and move on.

Fast is good. Faster is better. Fastest is best of all. In everything, right?

So we have come to prefer, in everything, speed, brevity, concision. Well and good, particularly this week. For if you knew nothing else of Judaism besides the Torah portion of Ve'etchanan you could safely say that you had an excellent sense of the central meaning of the entire religion. If Devarim, Deuteronomy itself is a wonderful summation of the ideology of the Torah, then Va’etchanan is the encapsulation of all that makes this book important. There is so much here—in fact, almost everything you need to understand Judaism in epitome form.

We begin with Moses gazing over to the Promised Land he cannot enter; we are powerfully told several times of the central brit, the covenant with God, to forswear idolatry and follow the mitzvot, to live good lives of commandment and faith. We receive again the Ten Commandments, hear and learn the Shema/Ve'Ahavta, are taught to love God by listening and doing; even the central statement of the Pesach Seder is found here in Va’etchanan, the rationale for reveling in our relationship with a God of freedom who redeems us from slavery and even from death.

Va'etchanan has, in a word, everything, the whole of Jewish history in one Parashah: the promise of Erets Yisrael, the guarantee to preserve us while greater and much more powerful peoples perish, the threat of Exile and Diaspora if we ignore God, the tolerance and even respect for other religions that revere the Lord, and the constancy of the Divine promise of an open door to return to God's love and favor, remembering the goodness of our ancestors to our own thousandth generation since Abraham. If you read and heed only one Torah portion this year, this could be the one: take Va'etchanan to heart.

In this season of the year, as we move from Tisha B'Av last Wednesday to the consolations of Isaiah this Shabbat Nachamu, and then onward towards the preparations and atonements of Elul and the coming High Holydays, this brief and compact portion speaks to the soul.

Va’etchanan shows Moses at the end of his task, having served as God's intermediary in forging the Israelite nation. The ancient leader uses the power of memory, promise and even threats to keep the nation of Israel in line, to move them towards obedience and holiness. Yet Moses must leave the stage. And we have been left to our own devices these 3200 years. Over the millennia we know very well the reality of Diaspora, near annihilation, assimilation, and the promise of redemption and a new nation, all transformed from Biblical prophecy to a painful but marvelous history.

Along these lines, this Shabbat is called Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Comfort, following as it does the fast day of Tisha B’Av, which remembered the destruction of both Temples on that solemn day.

What comes through most strongly here is this repetitive cycle of rejection, forgetting, and redemption, perhaps because it is a cycle we all go through, sometimes daily. In a parochial, pragmatic way, think about how often your own emotional responses change in the course of given day. Some days you awaken in the morning tired, or out of sorts, feeling less than happy with the world. A good breakfast or a strong cup of coffee can change that; so can going for a run, or a workout, or a desert walk, or a few minutes for prayer. You start to warm to the day—but a bit of bad news, personal or financial, brings you back down with a thud. A boring Zoom meeting—is there any other kind?—or a disappointing errand, or a bad email, really anything can bring you to the realization that much of life is less than stellar. And then, God willing, you find a connection that brings you back—a loving touch or conversation with friend or spouse or child or parent can open your heart to the goodness present in life. Or maybe you see a great sunset—ours are outstanding—or, God-willing, there’s a real-live monsoon rain, or a truly worthwhile show on Netflix or Amazon Prime or Disney Plus. And things seem better.

There is a cyclical quality to all of this, a sense that some of what we do, some of what we touch is holy, but that we are not always ready to see that. There is also a sense that sometimes nothing seems to work, nothing is really holy, and perhaps God has simply left the building... especially when we are just about fed-up with being stuck at home all the darned time.

These may be the times when we turn away from God, or when God seems to turn from us. But to quote our Torah portion, "if you search [there] for the Lord your God you will find God, if only you seek God with your heart and soul, b'chol levavcha uv'chol nafshecha". All we need to do is commit ourselves to looking for the Lord, to seeking holiness. Whenever we resume our search for God, we reawaken this eternal covenant.

And as we spend so much time at home now, deprived of our usual ability to bury ourselves in fast-moving business, well, isn’t that the best time of all to slow down, open our hearts, and begin to seek for God? Because we have the ability—in fact, the necessity—of going slowly now. And that is a unique and beautiful gift. The time, and the ability, to search for God. What a remarkable moment this enforced limitation can truly become, if we choose to make it so.

So as you go through your own personal cycles—both daily and annual—of rejection, forgetting, remembering and redemption, you may, if you search with your heart and soul, slowly or speedily, find God.

May this be God’s will. But more importantly, may this be ours.

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