The secular calendar says mid-summer, and my Northeast home swelters for an umpteenth day above 90 degrees. The timing is right: on the Jewish spiritual calendar, the great gear shift has come. It's time to start turning inward towards the heat of our hearts and souls.
Probably few of us instinctively respond with delight. After all, the journey inward can be hard – inconvenient, unpleasant, even painful. Already its hot outside: the national political climate is overheating, and the world seems to boil over. With heat seemingly everywhere, we can understand our ease-seeking instinct seeing the High Holy Days approach and wishing we might run the other way toward someplace cool and calm.
For this impulse to run, this week's Torah portion (Devarim) gives a gripping reply. It comes just as we approach Tisha b'Av, Judaism's bleakest day commemorating the Temple's destruction, the Jewish exile and the seven-week journey to Rosh Hashanah. This spiritual synergy is poignant: only when we experience our own inner ruin for what it is, without protective walls, can we make the Rosh Hashanah journey of forgiveness, healing and renewal. So often in life, we must descend for the sake of ascent – in Hebrew, yeridah tzorech aliyah.
This turning, this descent for the sake of ascent, reveals a hidden meaning of our Torah portion. As R. Alan Lew observed in one of my all-time favorite books, This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, this week's portion proclaims four times that we must turn – turn away, turn toward, get up and turn, return. Repetition focuses attention: this is the moment of the great turning.
But turning toward what? Hearts and souls, yes – and something more. Torah pointedly begins this week that our ancestors reached this point after 40 years of wandering, reaching much the same proverbial fork in the road as when they were too afraid to enter the Land of Promise. Forced to wander 40 years to purge inner fear, they return to the same context 40 years later to try again.
As for them, so for us. We return to this place and time each year, with a key choice to make. We can turn toward inner truths and tend the inner repairs that we most fear, or we can go through the motions and spend more time wandering. The journey might be hard and hot – change often is – but the reward is an inner life flowing with milk and honey.
Now it's your turn. Choose wisely, and let the great and timeless journey begin anew.