Va’etchanan (5776) — Being Moses

29/08/2016 at 11:34 Leave a comment

Parashat Va’etchanan

Neil F. Blumofe

20 August 2016


As we experience this day of Shabbat – called Nachamu in our tradition – a Shabbat particularly shaded by the wishes for comfort – an internal comfort that promotes equanimity, and a comfort to be reassured that our world will not implode on top of us, we read of Moses who tries again to convince God to let him enter into the Promised Land.


In this time of year, in the middle of the Hebrew month of Av, we pay attention to all that has gone wrong – all of the mistakes, the willful misunderstandings, and the intentional attempts to harm and defame and we see how – from generation to generation – because of this, we have been persecuted, exiled, and all too often, killed.  We are preparing for the New Year – and rather than lurching to what will inevitably be again next year, our tradition asks us to take some real responsibility to try and disrupt what we might think are immovable narratives – and for us to be responsible agents to aid in our own wellness and well-being.


For Moses, the paradigm has changed – because of the strength of his leadership over his lifetime, there are now new ways – new negotiating strategies and new outlooks in the world that will give the children of Israel more success in their new circumstances.  As our sages make clear, God has determined that the people will have a new leader and that Moses will not be permitted to enter into Israel – and we can make a convincing case for why Joshua now has the privilege to lead the people.


However, why God forbids Moses from entering into the land is less clear.  What would be the harm as our Talmud speculates, for Moses just to walk its length and breadth of the Promised Land and to be given a chance to perform the mitzvot that can only be done specifically in the land of Israel?  He wouldn’t get in anyone’s way – he would be content to be just a simple Jew and let Joshua lead – and God is silent and our Torah is inscrutable in assessing a reason that Moses couldn’t do just that.


And when Moses tries again to change his circumstances and again hears nothing, Moses changes tactics.  Rather than accept his fate — bringing the people to exactly where they need to be, and for him to be content in his accomplishments, he tries to find a reason why.  Ignoring the advice of our Wisdom Tradition which teaches us – let us not seek to understand what is too difficult for us, nor search for what is hidden, nor be preoccupied with what is beyond, for we have been shown more than we can comprehend, Moses is frustrated and takes out his frustration on the people.


And certainly, over the course of our lives, many of us get frustrated too, as we see the world and our circumstances in it change past our comfort zone without, what we think, is good reason.  And, how do we cope?  Past our addictions and strategies of escapism, some of us have family or circles of friends to whom we can privately unburden ourselves, allowing us to blow off steam, venting to the point where we can gain an illusion of satisfaction, or at least a way forward.  Over the years, I have seen that those afflicted actually would prefer complaining than working towards a solution to the problem.


Moses seems to exhaust his outlet for answers – and when he needs to protest, he realizes that he is all alone.  This is the greatest challenge that our Torah, in Sefer Devarim, offers to each of us – as we consider this sacred text as our own legacy.  As we see that things are not going our way and we see that our life is accelerating towards its end – and we have not accomplished what we thought we would accomplish, or that things turned out differently from what we imagined our life would be, where can we turn to express our grievances?


The actions and prayers of Moses do not change God’s decree – and we have seen that Moses has no family or circle of friends on which to rely.  The relationship between Moses and his wife Tzipporah is a perplexing and complicated one, at the very least – and as we have taught often in this sacred space, the relationship that Moses has with his two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, is fraught and according to the Torah, almost non-existent – the last mention of them was three books ago, in Exodus 18 – and we see that they are not even considered for the new leadership of the people.


Moses has feisty cousins – Korach and his family who led a rebellion against him and tried to get Moses to resign – ultimately, because of God’s intervention, themselves meeting a final end.  And it does not seem that Moses kicks back with a small group of buddies, decompressing and processing the days – exhaling the lashon hara and letting it dissolve safely into a mist.


So, the tragedy is that Moses has nowhere else to go, and turns to the people of Israel throughout this last book of the Torah, to hector them, lecture them, antagonize them, and ultimately to alienate them, because of feeling the letdowns in his own life.  The people mourned him when he died for the minimum of thirty days, and then they moved on, listening to Joshua – not even remembering where he is buried.


Moses, who is remembered in the Torah as the one, with God’s help, performed signs and wonders in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh with a strong hand and an awesome power.  And here, perhaps spurred on by his own disappointments of not getting an answer for why he can’t go into the Promised Land, he turns on the people to accuse them of his own misfortune.


In our own lives, as we are slowly lifted from these days of heaviness and rebuke and as we turn fully towards these weeks of recovering love and apprehending God’s active presence in our lives, how do we give voice to our fears and our disappointments?  Do we lash out against our very life’s projects, sabotaging and sullying what we have managed to accomplish?  When we realize that our circle of friends is much smaller than we’ve imagined, and that our family is involved in other activities and have found their own path in life that does not necessarily include us to our satisfaction, how do we endure?


This is a powerful lesson of our Torah as we consider our own mortality and our schemes of contending with the vicissitudes of an imperfect life – all too often I see in someone’s final days a chill of regret that comes on fast, when they realize the negative impact that they have had in their years, and that they must finally hire someone to sit with them in these concluding vulnerable moments.


These exhortations of Moses inspire us to appreciate our own shame – they are a wake-up call for us to recover our own honor in order to live a considered life possessed by a strength of character and not a sense of presumption motivated by our fears of our diminished relevance — and to hedge now against our ultimately living and dying alone.


Shabbat Shalom.

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