Vayeilekh (5776) – Shaking Hands

27/09/2015 at 12:55 Leave a comment

“Shaking Hands”


Parashat Vayeilekh

Neil F. Blumofe

19 September 2015


As we see Moses finish his address before the people and prepare to get his affairs in order, we can utilize his example as we engage in our preparations for Yom Kippur. More than a day of atonement, Yom Kippur is considered too, to be a day of confronting our mortality – in our complete fasting, by the white kittel that we wear, how we refrain from life-affirming physical refreshment and activity – we let ourselves decompose just a bit – physically and spiritually – as we move past the needs of our body, and concentrate on the movement of our soul.

Inspired by the great medieval commentator and mystic Ramban, we see Moses seal a renewed covenant with the assembled people – and then they disperse, returning to their homes. We now see Moses, fully aware of his impending death – leaving his home and walking through the camp of all of the tribes to wish a valediction to people – and to essentially shake their hands and say goodbye.

One of the cherished moments I have during the Yamim Noraim, is after both the Rosh haShanah and the Kol Nidre evening services – we have gathered at sunset as a people, immersing ourselves in the machzor, hearing some Torah, and singing the great High Holy Day melodies – welcoming the beginning of each sacred moment – renewing the covenant, if you will – and then we begin to disperse after Yigdal, going home to our own private observances and celebrations.

However, before we go – we have a chance to greet each other – and I have a chance to have a moment, to wish all those who would like, a Shanah Tovah – and a G’mar Hatimah Tovah. While I realize that standing in line to do so is not everyone’s cup of tea, to me it is significant and helps to center me, especially on Yom Kippur, as I seek to encounter my mortality – and the mortality of my family and community.

Our tradition states that Rabbi Eliezer taught — shuv yom echad lifnei mi’ta’tach — to repent the day before we die. We are to cultivate a spiritual practice of each moment standing before God, uttering Hineni – here I am – to be of service, or to breath my last. As we do this, our time becomes more intentional – our words become more precious, and our company becomes more holy.

Over the years, in speaking to many and in providing pastoral care in our community, I realize that from time to time in our life – we resemble those in the corridor, just waiting for life beyond this one – each of us living our life as if we are in a waiting room, expectant for something significant to occur in our next appointment. The thrill and privilege of living now sometimes seems to escape us, as we set our sights on future goals – and as much as we would like to avoid the topic of our death – as much as we strive to outwit the angel of death, we know that eventually, all of us meet the same situation, as the Book of Ecclesiastes teaches – ki mikreh v’nei ha’adam u’mikreh hab’heimah – k’mot zeh, kein mot zeh – for that which happens to each of us, happens too to animals – so as one dies, so dies the other. There is no distinction at the end of our days.

And to imagine Moses, having argued with God for just a little more time – ultimately comes up short, and after blessing the people and blessing Joshua to have discerning and enlightening leadership, pays a visit to each tribe to personally wish them well as he takes his leave. The emeritus leader, at the end of his days confident that his words now have limited effect on policy – and God’s attention is elsewhere, and soon the people’s attention will also be elsewhere – as I am present with people who are nearing death, who, because of time, are in a very different form than when they were most vital – with the family as we look at pictures, or sometimes tell stories – it is hard to see that this person lying before us as once so capable and so robust – in short, once so alive.

And there is a tickle in the back of our minds that there but for the grace of God go I. We see this in a shiva minyan for one who has past away at an advanced age – the friends and colleagues of the deceased look around tacitly and uneasily, wondering who’s next. And at the funerals of those who have died too young – middle-aged people who are in the prime of their life – their friends take it hard, thinking about their own situation and how long they can avoid a fatal diagnosis, or keep creeping and debilitating issues of aging at bay.

Yom Kippur is not a sovereign remedy against our mortal anxiety – however it does invite us to put into perspective all of the machinations, stratagems, pettiness, and intrigues that rule our lives – Yom Kippur invites us to dismiss what others may think of us, as we expend our best efforts to make our relationships right, as we too are sometimes unsuccessful in our teshuvah – and resentments and disappointments in our relationships carry over from one year to the next.

A very powerful memory I have of Yom Kippur, is at the end when we are racing through Ma’ariv, just before the final shofar blast – but really the next day – is to see my father stand for the Mourner’s Kaddish at precisely that moment, to say kaddish for his mother, who died the day after Yom Kippur.

As we enter into Yom Kippur, may we seek each other out with the implicit realization that this is a day that all words, study, melodies cannot mask – as we plead for a commutation of the evil decree, there is no guarantee of what tomorrow may bring – and are we truly just a bundle of acrimony, grudges, and displeasure, when we prepare to leave the corridor of this world? Cannot we look at our heart and tame it – retraining it from becoming a Pharaoh’s heart – as we tenderize and circumcise it, as we look into the face of the void of our life’s end?

Yom Kippur is known to be a day of celebration – and perhaps doing this difficult work, we can emerge on the other side, grateful for what we have had and incredibly joyful to be, just in this moment, together, with our shaking hands outstretched, bidding each other acceptance, receiving, and peace.

Shabbat Shalom – G’mar Hatimah Tovah

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

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