middot adaptability torah inscribed instructions

inscribed instructions

Written by  rabbi russ resnik

art-handtefillinAn older man is driving down the freeway and his car phone rings. When he answers, he hears his wife's voice urgently warning him, "Herman, I just heard on the news that there's a car going the wrong way on route 290. Please be careful!" "Tell me about it!" says Herman. "It's not just one car. It's hundreds of them!!!"

Herman is pretty good at focus and perseverance but not so great at adaptability. He could just turn around and go with the flow, but he’s holding steady through it all—and bound to run into trouble before long. On the other hand, going with the flow too readily isn’t good either, as we see in the friend whose style or interests change every week or two, or the politician who constantly switches his positions to match the polls.

True adaptability requires balance, and the Shema provides us with a key:

    Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Dt. 6:6–9 NJPS)

      The phrases “at home” and “away” and “lie down” and “get up” are what the scholars call a “merism”—contrasting terms that are meant to include everything in between, so that Moses is instructing us to speak these words in all places and at all times. The circumstances of our lives will vary greatly: we’ll be close to home and in the most alien surroundings; we’ll have our bright early mornings and our long dark nights. How are we to adapt to these different circumstances? Not by surrendering totally to them nor by stubbornly resisting them to the utmost. Instead, we can adapt to all of life’s variations if we hang on tenaciously to the one thing that remains the same, the word “with which I [Hashem] charge you this day.”

      Holding on to the word of God provides for balanced adaptability, but what exactly does it look like? The Shema provides a few phrases that might help us put this into practice:

      • Take to heart these instructions” points to the practice of meditating on Scripture, so that we don’t just hear or read God’s words, but we take time to absorb them inwardly.
      • Speak of them to your children . . . recite them” means that we cultivate a practice of speaking of Scripture or the God of Scripture in our daily surroundings, finding opportunities to bring God into the conversation in authentic and natural ways.
      • Bind them on your hand . . . inscribe them on your gates” can be practiced literally, and is also a metaphor for memorizing the words of Scripture and reminding ourselves of them in all circumstances. “Your gates” refers to the central public place in the ancient city, the heart of the political and economic world. Even here, or perhaps especially here, we are to remember the word of Hashem always. 

      In sum, we’re talking about inscribing these words “with which I charge you this day” on our hearts, our words, and our actions. With this foundation we can adapt to anything that life might throw our way—its best and its worst—and remain true to Adonai Elohenu, the Lord our God.

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