Shoftim: Shake off the Dust

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shoftim

Hello again!

It’s been too long since we’ve been learning together. This week we’re reading the Torah portion Shoftim and the fourth of seven haftarot of consolation , which are read between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah.

All of these haftarot [readings from the prophets] are taken from the second half of the book of Isaiah, which has the general theme of redemption, restoration, and rebuilding Jerusalem and the Temple. These texts are poetic, with metaphors upon metaphors; the prophet addresses the city of Jerusalem as if she were a person, yet it’s understood that Jerusalem herself is symbolic of the people Israel, ready to return from exile:

Awake, awake, O Zion!
Clothe yourself in splendor;
Put on your robes of majesty,
Jerusalem, holy city . . .

Arise, shake off the dust,
Sit [on your throne], Jerusalem!
Loose the bonds from your neck,
O captive one, Fair Zion!” (Is. 52:1-2)

In context, this and other verses (cf. 51:17) which commands Jerusalem to “arise,” “rouse” or “awake,” are probably exhortations to the people to find courage and encouragement in the imminent return from exile. That is, exile to Babylon is like the dust that needs to be shaken off or the sleep which dulls one’s senses- awakening, rousing, and shaking off the dust are metaphors for the people’s return and restoration. (See Rabbi Riskin’s take on this here.)

Some readers will recognize these verses in the Shabbat evening him Lecha Dodi, which we’ve discussed previously. I’d like to interpret these verses a little differently than I did last year, based on a text from the Ba’al Shem Tov, whose teachings I’ve been learning with a friend. The Besht, as the Ba’al Shem Tov is know, draws a distinction between two spiritual states: katnut and gadlut, which literally mean “smallness” and “bigness” but which refer to a spiritual experience of constriction, fear, or distraction, compared to an experience of expanded awareness, connection and love.

Yet these ways of experiencing aren’t real or objective. Even when we’re in katnut, or smallness, if we can just think of the “upper worlds,” we’ll be there, “for a person is where his thought is.” [Tzava’at HaRivash 69] That is, you might think you’re “covered in dust,” or in a constricted spiritual place, but that’s just your thinking talking to you, as it were. The Besht teaches that you can think of the “upper worlds”- that is, expand your spiritual horizons- because you’re already there. If you weren’t already there- how could you think of it?

Returning to our text, and to its placement on Shabbat evening, I see the image of “shaking off the dust” as remembering that it’s possible to be in a different state than the hurried, distracted and ego-centric rushing around that many of us are doing throughout the day. Just thinking: “I can be more centered, more God-aware, more generous, more connected to the Source of love,” moves us there, because if that wasn’t the root of our being, how could we even think of it?

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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