In the recent film Mr. Holmes, very cute Roger looks at himself in the mirror; his mother asks him why. He says he wants to see whether he can figure out where he’s been. What clues would someone like Sherlock Holmes pick up on to prove what he had been doing earlier in the day? His mother suggests he probably knows where he’s been without having to look in the mirror.
Our Torah portion includes many verses that have been appropriated for later liturgical use or significance. There is a line we sing during the grace after meals which is the legal basis for the prayer itself: You will eat, be satisfied and bless the Lord your God. The seven species of fruit and grain, mentioned in Deuteronomy 8:8, are singled out as special produce that deserve an intermediate-length grace when bread is not consumed.
Last week we read the first paragraph of the Sh’ma that so many know by heart. This week’s portion includes the second paragraph, the one about consequences recited traditionally twice a day. In short: If you listen to Me and observe my commandments, the rain will give you decent crops. If not, you’ll lose the land entirely; you’ll be exiled.
This paragraph has been interpreted in various ways.
1. Simply by many traditionalists some of whom can trace all of the misfortunes that befall us due to failure to live up to divinely ordained contractual obligations.
2. Ecologically by Jewish Renewal, specifically Arthur Waskow: If we treat the land irresponsibly, it will cease serving us.
3. I wanted to share a different take by Rabbi Eliezer Diamond from this week’s JTS Commentary, saying that our actions have an Afterlife of Consequence:
When I recite these verses I do not experience them as a threat. I see them as a vital reminder that the effects of the good and evil we do are not limited to the moment in which we act. Our actions have consequences far beyond that moment, and most of them are beyond our control. If I spread gossip about you, I hurt you not only in the moment that I tarnish your reputation in the mind of the hearer. He will undoubtedly tell others who will in turn tell others. I cannot control the ripple effects of my act of denigration, nor of anything else I do, for better or for worse.
Of course this is true not only of sin, but of good deeds as well. Shakespeare got it wrong when he had Anthony say, in his funeral oration for Julius Caesar, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” (Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 2). Good has an afterlife just as vigorous as that of evil....
We need not let our theological differences with Deuteronomy blind us to the deep truth underlying its words: Until we act, we are the master of our actions. Once we do act, they master us.
Which brings me back to Mr. Holmes’ young disciple Roger looking in the mirror.
Tomorrow morning we’ll announce the new month of Elul, the final month of the Jewish year of 5775, the one that prepares us for the High Holy Days, a time of introspection.
If we are to look into the metaphorical mirror of this past year, do we really know where we’ve been? Do we know what loose ends we’ve left untied? Do we remember whom we’ve hurt? Have we apologized? Have we granted forgiveness where it’s been asked? Have we judged others fairly in their treatment of us?
We will likely not have Sherlock Holmes to answer for us.