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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:
Here is why these verses resonate so strongly:
Another passage that has entered my heart and consciousness is from chapter 30 verses 11-14:
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:
What speaks to me so powerfully here?
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?
OK, I admit it: I watched the recent Democratic convention in Charlotte, and Michelle Obamas’s speech stole my heart… and got me to thinking about how important it is to both presidential candidates to highlight their families. Some of the most intense feelings and experiences in our lives happen in the intimate spaces of family life. Fast forward to Rosh Hashanah and lo and behold, the Torah readings are narratives that takes place in the cauldron of familial relationships: Husband/Wife, Father/Son, First Wife/Concubine, Siblings.
On the first day of the new year, we read about Sarah, wife of Abraham, becoming pregnant at the age of 90; when she heard the news, she laughed, of course! She later names her son, Yitzhak, from the Hebrew root word for laughter. Unfortunately, Yitzhak’s life was anything but a barrel of laughs, as we find out on the second day when we read one of the most troubling narratives in the Torah, the “Akeidah,” the binding of Yitzhak (Genesis 22).
Back on Day 1, our narrative from Genesis 21 contains a story about Sarah’s maid servant, Hagar, whom Sarah earlier gave to Abraham to impregnate, in order that the elderly couple would have offspring. Hagar and her son, Ishma’el, are cast out of the household by Abraham at Sarah’s demand. Sarah sees Ishma’el, the big brother, playing with her toddler Yitzhak, and she is none to pleased. We don’t really know what Ishma’el was doing with Yitzhak, but the verb comes from that same Hebrew root that makes up Yitzhak’s name. And whatever is happening makes Sarah very angry. Abraham is distraught but God tells him to listen to Sarah, despite the fact that he loves Ishma’el as well as Yitzhak (and maybe he even loves Hagar too).
What a boiling pot of familial intrigue and passion!
The expulsion of Hagar and Ishma’el and the binding of Yitzhak have given philosophers (Kierkegaard for one), rabbinic commentators from 1800 years ago, poets, painters, playwrights, and others much to contemplate. Our questions way outnumber any satisfying answers.
I invite you to read the stories and talk about what happens in them. And why in the world do we read these particular stories on Rosh Hashanah as we renew ourselves and re-start our yearly Torah cycle?
Wishing you a sweet and bountiful year of blessings!