5771 — Va’etchanan — “It is About Us”

03/09/2011 at 21:31 Leave a comment

“It is About Us”


Parashat Va’etchanan

Neil F. Blumofe

13 August 2011


As we together now enter these seven weeks of repair through this gate of Shabbat Nachamu, this Shabbat of Comfort, we look off into the seven-week distance and perhaps dimly see the outlines gathering of a new year.  We can be confident that we don’t know how events in the new year will go – and today we look with unease across the world at the gathering storms in the financial markets, and at the even present threat of terrorism, we look at Israel at the demonstrations for economic equity among its hard-working citizens, we look into East Africa and see famine and starvation, we look across the Arab world at political instability and unrest, we look at England and see rioting and social unrest, and perhaps we wonder when more of thesse events will come to our shores and how deeply and for how long, even just a few of these events will effect us.


Amid this opaque uncertainty, our Jewish tradition gives us valuable guidance as we make our way through these rocky paths.  We hear Isaiah’s uplifting words in our Haftarah – nachamu, nachamu ami yomar eloheichem – comfort, comfort My people says God – although the Midrash teaches that God, who is directly involved in this consolation, is the last who tries to give comfort to a beleaguered people, stepping in only after all of our Avot, our ancestors, are unsuccessful – our great patriarchs and matriarchs who cannot adequately address the fears and the anxieties of the people – so we see that Isaiah’s prophecy is mixed – half with reassurance and half with affliction.


However, as we turn to our Torah portion, we see that Moses, in addressing the people is engaged in a soul searching – in a review and reflection of his life that may help us too, that may be exactly what we need to do in these seven weeks before us, as we assess the world around us.  Moses tells his story to the people, however, you may see that his is speaking mainly to himself – in order to process so much that is on his mind.  The first word of this portion, the word that gives its name to our Torah portion is va’etchanan – which is a verb that is found as a synonym for prayer, meaning beseech.  In this case, it is in the hitpael form, the self-reflexive form which can mean that Moses is looking inward, turning himself inside out, pondering and hoping that things will get better, even though he knows that his circumstances are grim.


Interestingly, here Moses is not thinking about the world around him and the numerous delays and detours that he has had in leading the people in the wilderness.  As is our human tendency, here Moses localizes all of the trouble and inconvenience around him and makes it about himself – he chooses to dwell on God’s statement that for some inscrutable reason, Moses will not enter the Promised Land.  This seems to be a clear directive, and if anything, it is helpful that Moses may know this ahead of time – that God’s decision to tell Moses is one of loving kindness – that he shouldn’t have to wonder this or get his hopes up too high or die with this unrequited wish on his lips – God is giving advance warning and here, Moses is working through it – beseeching within himself that maybe, something will change – that perhaps with a crisis looming, Congress will meet and raise the debt ceiling, again and again, averting total disaster.


So, in his imploring, in hoping for a different outcome, for God to change the decree, Moses changes his terms for entry.  Here, Moses prays that he be allowed to cross the Jordan River and enter the land and just walk in the land – its length and breadth.  According to our Talmud, Moses is no longer concerned about having a place of leadership before the people – his connection and love of the Promised Land supersedes any worldly consideration.  He just wants to experience the land, itself – to be in the land and walk among its riches.


This prayer of Moses is an incredible prayer.  Moses comes out of his position as leader, one who for 40 years crafted a mixed multitude, survivors of slavery into a robust nation – one who pleaded before God on their behalf and guided them and ministered to them – here,  for Moses, it’s personal – as a man, outside of his assumed heroic role, and he is denied.  The reply from God is direct – rav lach. Al tosef dabeir alai od ba’davar hazeh – enough.  Do not speak to Me further about this matter.


God is letting Moses know that the world has changed and that while his life was a good life, it has come to an end.  Our tradition has made much of this reply – however, let us look at the passion with which Moses presents his case to walk the length and breadth of the land.  When leading the people, Moses was not on automatic pilot – he believed in his cause and he believed in the necessity of getting the people to their promised destination.  While many of us struggle with purpose and the lasting value of the work that we do, Moses was confident and sure that beyond anything he wanted to feel the land under his toes.


We recognize that things change quickly, and as we continue to make a life for ourselves, we cannot be certain what tomorrow will bring.  We are being guided, that as we perform this great act of teshuvah, of turning ourselves, of literally, rebooting and updating ourselves in a whole and fresh way that underneath it all, we need to stand for something.  Something must be of value, beyond our professional goals.  Our Torah portion is asking us – beyond everything, what matters most to us?  The question is not, what have we sacrificed our lives for – it is, in our inner depths, what is most enduring and what keeps us alive?


It is this idea, this hope for attainment, which roots us and invites us to do any of the work that we do.  In this initial week of comfort, we realize that our conversation is between us and God – not through any human intermediary and as we enter into this conversation of transformation, we recognize that we are not being asked about the work that we do – as important as it may be – we are not being asked about the conditions in the world around us – rather, in this beginning step towards action and repairing the world thought mitzvot, we are asked perhaps the most difficult question of all – what do we want most of all, that we would continue to pester God and try to overrule a given decree?  On what would we sacrifice our life, striving to change the rendered decisions of nature or fate or God’s will, to bring us not more material comfort, rather an alignment, a harmony of our soul and the ultimate, living truth?


Shabbat Shalom.

Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

5771 — Devarim — “Reading a Familiar Story, Rendering it Unfamiliar” 5771 – Ekev — “Reward and Punishment”

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