July 29, 1999
Sit Right Down and Write Yourself a Letter
Parashat Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)
Write a letter. Address it to those you love -- your spouse, your children and grandchild, your friends, your community. Put into this letter what life has taught you: What you learned from childhood, from growing up, from your education. What you learned from marriage and raising children. What you have learned from work, from your triumphs and successes in the world, from your failures and disappointments. What you have learned from the death of loved ones, and the path of mourning and grief. What has life taught you? What is the meaning, the lesson, the wisdom of your life? What is your message?
I ask you to do this for three principal reasons:
First, do it for yourself. You deserve to know what your life has meant, what it has taught. There are 5,485 verses in a Torah scroll, tens of thousands of words and more than 100,000 handwritten letters. According to tradition, if any one letter, in any word in any verse, is defaced or erased, the entire Torah is pasul, invalid, and may not be read. A Torah missing even the tiniest yud is set aside. Why such an obsession? A Chassidic tradition teaches that each letter stands for one human soul. Each individual human being carries one letter, one byte, of God's message into the world. Just as the loss of the tiniest letter invalidates an entire Torah scroll, losing one human being makes God's message indecipherable. You carry part of the message. But do you know what it is? Have you discovered, decoded your part of the message? Have you delivered it?
Second, write the letter for your loved ones. As a rabbi, I frequently accompany families as they grieve. I ask them to share the stories and wisdom of their loved ones' lives. And I'm often surprised how little they know. They can recount with precision the history of declining health, but they have no notion of the soul -- the inner life, the moral struggles, the deepest values. God forbid anything should happen to you. But shouldn't your loved ones know what you've learned from life, what secrets you've wrestled out of the experiences of living, what wisdom you've found?
Third, write the letter for your spiritual life. Our tradition begins with the commandment to Abraham -- lech lecha, "go into yourself." Hearing the voice of God begins with hearing your own soul. There are many who believe that spiritual wisdom is far away -- on some mountaintop to be wrested from a master of mystery. But Torah, real spiritual truth, we are taught, "is not beyond your reach. It is not in the heavens...neither is it beyond the sea.... It is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart..." (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).
Write the letter. But know that it isn't easy. For so many, the heart is more inaccessible than the heavens, more forbidding than the sea. Denial, avoidance, even distraction keep us from listening.
Modernity has brought us many gifts. But one of the casualties of modern life is contemplation. Our ancestors lived in a much slower world. They walked to and from work. They had time to think, to meditate, to pray. At evening, their homes were not filled with television, Internet, CDs VCRs., DVDs or AOL. Instead, they read to one another, made their own music and told stories.
In the world before computers, air travel and running water, they had time to discover the meaning and lessons of existence. With all our leisure and freedom, we must discipline ourselves to make time for contemplation. Otherwise, we live from day to day, from appointment to project to vacation and back again to work, without ever stopping to wonder why. It takes a conscientious effort of the will to make the time, to find the quiet, the turn inward and to listen to what life has come to teach us.
"If only you would listen," begs the Torah in this week's portion, then all of God's blessings would find you.
Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.