Nearing The End

Wow! We are about to complete the yearly cycle of reading the entire Five Books of Moses, The Torah, with only 2 more parshiot (portions) until we get to the very end of the scroll. But between now and the very last verses of the Torah, there are a bunch of holidays — Rosh HaShanah (the New Year), Yom Kippur (the Day of At-One-Ment or Atonement), and the festival of Sukkot (the Harvest Days celebrated in temporary huts called “sukkot“). So how does the Torah reading this Shabbat illuminate the days of awe, shortly upon us?

As if to signal we are close to the end of the reading cycle, this week we read two parshiot called “Nitzavim” (Standing) and “Vayelekh” (And He Went Out). Let’s begin with Nitzavim by looking at the G-dcast video:

The storyteller focuses on the speech Moshe/Moses gives to the Children of Israel on the last day of his life, and on the deals they are offered — what will happen to them (the curses that we read about last week, and this week in abbreviated form) if they don’t obey the mitzvot (commandments), and what they will get (the blessings) if they do manage to stay true to the commandments. It’s a very short parasha (portion), which is probably why it is so easily paired with the following one (Vayelekh).

However, even though it is short, it has several of my favorite passages in all of Torah. One comes at the opening of the parasha, and here is the most powerful excerpt:

You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God — your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer — to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God….I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day (Deuteronomy 29, verses 9-14).

Here is why these verses resonate so strongly:

  1. They are written in the present tense. Nitzavim — “you are standing.” It makes me feel as though I’m meant to be included in those standing there, listening to the tail end of Moshe’s long speech that has been going on for what seems like weeks.
  2. The statement includes the high officials and the common day laborers — and the women, and the children, and even the strangers. Again, this makes me feel included. As a woman, there are plenty of times that the words of Torah make me feel excluded; here, women, as a class of people, are explicitly included.
  3. These verses reference people who are “not here with us this day.” I love the fact that the Torah realizes that there are those who are not yet co-signers to the covenant, those who haven’t joined the Jewish people….but there is room for them to be part of the covenant, if they choose, and they too are standing with us, listening to the words called out by our leader and greatest prophet.

Another passage that has entered my heart and consciousness is from chapter 30 verses 11-14:

Surely, this instruction [commandment] which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea…No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, to observe it.

How completely affirming this statement is — that nothing that God commands is too hard for you; it isn’t impossible — you can do it.

And finally, a few verses later, verse 19:

Choose life — if you and your offspring would live — by loving the Lord your God, heeding the commandments…

What speaks to me so powerfully here?

  1. I am being told in no uncertain terms that I can do what is being asked of me. It isn’t too onerous, it is possible to lead a life of mitzvot (commandments), observing a code of proper conduct in all things.
  2. These injunctions are in my own mouth and heart, so to speak. They are not inscrutable, and in fact the opposite is true — they are intuitive, I can “own” them, and, in some sense, they already reside in me.
  3. Choose life: one of the best pieces of advice that anyone could give. And here, the Holy One of Creation is telling us, through Moshe: choose to do what is life-affirming, choose the path of blessings, choose the way that will make your life meaningful and will make your days count. In two words, we get a wisdom-infused motto that works on so many levels. Choose life! L’chayim!!

The second parasha we read is Vayelekh (“And He Went”); it begins in , Deuteronomy 31:2, by letting us hear Moshe speaking very personally: “I am now one hundred and twenty years old. I can no longer be active…”

Mayim Bialik focuses on what is commonly known as the 613th commandment, which is an interpretation of verse 19 of chapter 31, that each Israelite is to put the “poem” which is Torah into his or her own mouth. She asks what it means for each of us to write a Torah, or even more significantly, what it means to “be a Torah.” While this absolutely deserves considerable attention, I would like to take a quick look instead at the verses about how Moshe is asked to prepare for his death. In verse 14 he is told by God: “…the time is drawing near for you to die.” You can read more about how Moshes gets ready to die.

Moshe’s demise is both heartbreaking and instructive. This is the very time of year, when summer days wane and bleed into fall, as the liturgy of the High Holy Days reminds us, that our lives are finite, our days are numbered. Facing our own mortality naturally brings fear and trepidation, kind of like what the Israelites might have felt about crossing over the Jordan without their leader. We can read these lines metaphorically: one day we will “cross over” a river (the river of life) into a land unknown. And what does God tell us? “…God will be with you, God will not fail you nor forsake you. Fear not and be not dismayed” (chapter 31 verse 8). Does this remind you of a song by Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav?

The entire world is just a narrow bridge, and the essence is not to be afraid at all.
Kol Ha-olam kulo gesher tzar me’od v’ha-ikar lo l’fahchayd klal.

Crossing Over To The Other Side

The parasha this week, Va’etchanan (“And He Pleaded”), refers to how Moshe/Moses pleaded with God to cross over into the Promised Land, along with the People of Israel.

Interesting how when we look back on incidents in our lives, and we re-tell the story of what happened, some of the more difficult facts have a way of morphing into something other than what actually happened. Has this ever happened to you? Something happened one way but you tell the story in another way, without even meaning to hide the truth — it just changes in your memory.

You may remember, back in parashat Cukkat, when we talked about God’s extreme displeasure with the way Moshe (and his brother Aaron) handled the crisis in Meribah — when they were supposed to produce water from the rock (Numbers 20:6-12). Now, in this week’s parasha, Moshe revisits that incident, actually blaming the people and their incessant complaining as the reason he is not allowed to enter the Land. Deuteronomy 3:26:

But the Lord was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me. The Lord said to me, “Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again!”

The storytellers this week pick up on the incident with the rock at Meribah, and conclude that Moshe is punished because he hit the rock instead of speaking to it. Just as Moshe himself concludes that his punishment should be attributed to the behavior of the people, there are scores of commentators through the ages who have come up with other reasons. Dr. Jacob Milgrom, of blessed memory, writes an essay in The JPS Torah Commentary – Numbers (pates 448-456), discussing this complex problem in some detail. Known as Excursus 50, Dr. Milgrom orders 10 major interpretations given over the centuries for why Moses is punished into three categories: Moses strikes the rock rather than speaking to it; he exhibits character traits in doing so that are unworthy of his office; the nature of the words that he uttered is unbecoming. While the full essay is not available online, I have summarized it here.

Our storytellers choose one reason; it seems that Moshe has another; and the late biblical scholar, Professor Milgrom, concludes yet another.

What does this teach us? Are some reasons or interpretations wrong while another one is right? I don’t think so. I think we are meant to learn that the Torah is multi-faceted (as Ben Bag-Bag says in the Talmud, Avot 5:22: “turn it and turn it, for all things are in it”) and that different interpretations of what happened, in different historical periods, will better shape our understanding of what actually transpired.

This parasha also has several outstanding passages that have entered Jewish life on a daily basis, and have entered both the Jewish and Christians traditions in a major way.

  • For Jews, it is here in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, when we first read the Shema, often called the “watchword of our faith,” which is recited every morning, every evening, and upon going to sleep at night. The Shema prescribes two practices that are still done today, both of which involve parchment upon which the verses from our parasha are inscribed, instructing Israelites then, and Jews now, to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

    1. Putting a mezuzah on one’s doorway,
    2. and donning “phylacteries,” known as tefillin.
  • More universally, there is the other outstanding passage: The Decalogue, aka The Ten Commandments, or the Ten Utterances, which we previously read about in Exodus 19. (Because Deuteronomy is basically a speech by Moshe, he here repeats what we have read before, with a few minor changes.)

The storytellers suggest that Moshe is pleading for his life, to be spared a death on the across from the eastern border of the Land of Milk and Honey. Indeed, a metaphor for dying found in African-American spiritual songs is “crossing over the river to the other side.” The expression “crossed over” is linked with Moshe in the novel Moses Man of the Mountain by Zora Neale Hurston, the Aftrican-American anthropologist and novelist, published in 1939. In one paragraph, the sentence “he had crossed over” appears 12 times in a lyrical description of Moshe at a key moment in his life — during his transformation from Prince of Egypt to shepherd of the nascent Israelite nation.

The answer Moshe receives from God concerning his entering the Land of Israel is plain and simple: no, you may look but you will not enter…it is now time for new leadership to take over. Of course we then get to read another approximately 30 chapters of Moshe’s final speech, but at least we now know how these Five Books will end — with the death of our most beloved, most human, and most cherished prophet. When we get to chapter 34 of Deuteronomy we will talk about his death in more detail.

For now, if you are looking for summer reading, you might want to pick up a copy of Moses Man of the Mountain, to enjoy how “our” story was tweaked to fit the narrative of the African slaves brought to the New World in bondage. To whet your appetite, here are a few lines from the author’s introduction:

Moses was an old man with a beard. He was the great law-giver. He had some trouble with Pharaoh about some plagues and led the Children of Israel out of Egypt and on to the Promised Land. He died on Mount Nebo and the angels buried him there. That is the common concept of Moses in the Christian world. But there are other concepts of Moses abroad in the world. Asia and all the Near East are sown with legends of this character. They are so numerous and varied that some students have come to doubt if the Moses of the Christian concept is real…..

One more tidbit: this book was published the same year that Freud’s Moses and Monotheism was published, and the year that concepts of race began to define Jews in Nazi Germany.