Ha’azinu (5776) – Greatest Living Yankee

27/09/2015 at 12:58 Leave a comment

“Greatest Living Yankee”


Parashat Ha’azinu

Neil F. Blumofe

26 September 2015


What was it like when you were leaving home for the first time – who was there to send you off – what advice was given to you? Did you feel prepared or worthy of your next adventure, or did those in your home want to follow you, ostensibly to make sure that you were doing well, but also perhaps, they were unsure how to live without you?

As Moses speaks to the people for the last time, his frustrations and his deepest anxieties rise to the surface. He evokes the witness of the heavens and the earth in his castigation of the people, whom he calls ikaish uf’taltol – a perverse and wicked generation. He beseeches them to shift course – and not to become like previous generations – courting corruption, greed, and overall bad behavior.

As our tradition teaches, the people that Moses is addressing are the people who will be entering into the Promised Land – essentially the children and the grandchildren of the former slaves and mixed multitude. The Israelites stayed in the desert for forty years in order to start again – to lose their dependence on a dominant culture and to cultivate independent thought. The constant complaining to Moses at difficult moments that they should return to Mitzrayim, belonged to their elders – at this point, these new generations possess a clearheaded vision of what lay in front of them – entry and adaptation into a new, unexplored land with fresh possibilities.

Perhaps one of the reasons why Moses did not enter into the Promised Land is that he was unable to pivot from leading one group of people to the new demands of the next generations. His models and emotional conditioning were vestiges of old needs – now there were fresh opportunities that required a different way of thinking, and Moses was struggling to speak a new adaptive language that would befit leading this largely untested group – or perhaps as Yogi Berra taught – I never blame myself when I’m not hitting. I just blame the bat and if it keeps up, I change bats. After all, if I know it isn’t my fault that I’m not hitting, how can I get mad at myself?

The Golden Calf, the incident of the spies – in fact the whole enterprise of slavery itself belonged to Moses more than it belonged to this wilderness-born assemblage, gathered at the river, waiting to go forward. Those were stories that were heard, rather than experienced – and while they were tangible, passed to these new generations, they were not eyewitness accounts.

This new generation, condemned before it begins, asserts patience while listening to Moses, out of respect for him and his accomplishments to lead them this far. They listen as Moses tells them that they are doomed, and that eventually God will take up vengeance on their behalf to acquit their spilt blood. The song of Ha’azinu is certainly not a pep talk or an encouraging valediction – rather, Moses speaks his greatest dread and his constant fear – that the people, although they have the kiss of progress, will fall into the same patterns as have ever been and will not distinguish themselves in worthiness as they begin to enact God’s covenant in the sacred, promised place. Whether in the wilderness or in Eretz Israel the people remain the same, prone towards imperfection, deceit, exploitation and impropriety. To Moses, all that has been, remains the same.

More than with his family, Moses has constructed his identity exclusively in his service to the people. He is defined by his work – and now that his work is coming to an end, there is no place for him to go. The struggle is that the generations change – and just like there was a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph – there are emerging generations that do not know Moses. He is vital in a certain frame of time – and yet, the world continues to shift and demand leadership from others as his skills were appreciated and then ultimately cast aside.

As Shakespeare has Macbeth lament: Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow/ Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,/To the last syllable of recorded time;/And all our yesterdays have lighted fools/The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Or there is something dazzling about seeing Don Draper operate in his Mad Men milieu – filled with glamour, intrigue, and prestige – when he was at the peak of his powers – except if he lived, Don would not be as vital now – and he certainly wouldn’t possess that same interest or charisma much anymore – as he reviewed his life – how much could he adapt to a rapidly changing world, as he ages?

It seems that the world appoints leaders when it needs them and then discards them, sometimes suddenly, when their use is done. Moses has made his bed with the people and now that his responsibilities have ended and Joshua has been chosen to lead a new generation of people across the banks of the Jordan into the new land for new conquest and new experiences, Moses is a bit flummoxed.

For us, what are the signposts of our success? What are our reasons for living that God forbid, if it went away, we wouldn’t quite know what to do? Is it our work – or particular relationships with our partner, or our children? Is it this community – and as things change, how can we meet the challenge of our own maturation and inevitable decline as the world develops new technologies and interests – today’s Snapchat is tomorrow’s Friendster. How can we see that the places, people and experiences that we loved are like mist – fading so quickly from time and space?

Contrasting this dilemma of Moses with the end of Abraham’s life is instructive, as well. Moses pleads with God, unsuccessfully, to enter into the Promised Land with the younger people – and then he dies in the wilderness, buried in an unmarked, and thus, unvisited grave to be forgotten – after the debacle with Ishmael and Isaac, and after the death of Sarah – Abraham marries Keturah – siring a large, new family – a new chapter separate and apart from the drama of our established narrative. It seems that Abraham finds a way to make new choices and cope with life, when his chapter comes to a difficult end – do you remember that song from the 1936 musical, Swing Time – don’t lose your confidence if you slip,/Be grateful for a pleasant trip,/And pick yourself up,/Dust yourself off,/Start all over again.

How will we cope with changes – as others that we love are now or will soon be leaving home, or this world? As we turn into the New Year and prepare to celebrate Sukkot – how do we listen to this last song of Moses, who was convinced that the more things change, the more they stay the same? As we are still negotiating our own habits and establishing new paradigms for ourselves, should we as well develop new insight into our own relevance and mortality – as we see our influence wax and wane? When are we Moses and when are we Abraham – both imperfect – and both trying to derive meaning out of their diminished circumstances?

What will be the last advice that we give – what will be the last notes that we sound in our symphony of life? As Yogi Berra said, the future ain’t what it used to be. Can we then get to a place of resolution and after our own concluding at bat, can we then rest and enjoy as the game plays on?

Shabbat Shalom – Hag Sameach.

Entry filed under: Judaism, Talmud, Torah. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Vayeilekh (5776) – Shaking Hands Va’etchanan (5776) — Being Moses

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