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.

Let My People Go!

For you to consider as you read this week’s blog post:

  1. Can you remember a time when you rejoiced in the pain suffered by someone whom you thought of as your enemy? What was that like? Did you feel justified or diminished? What would it take to set your joy aside?
  2. Why do you suppose that God neither hears the cries of the Israelite slaves nor remembers the covenant made with the Israelite ancestors, until now? Why did Israel have to be enslaved for so long?
  3. If the Pharaoh kept changing his mind and “hardening his heart,” why did the God of Israel keep sending more plagues? What do you think was going on with Pharaoh?

Last week we focused on the birth of our nation; we were introduced to the greatest prophet of the Jewish people, Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our Teacher). This week’s parasha, Va-eira, propels us right into the heart of the story of the Israelite journey from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light, from oppression to redemption — all familiar phrases that echo in our heads and hearts — likely imprinted there at the Passover seder, the most celebrated Jewish ritual of the entire year.

But wait, doesn’t Passover come in the spring? And aren’t we now reading this parasha in the dead of winter? Yes and Yes. The Torah narrative doesn’t correspond to the seasons, and it does seem like this story is coming too early in the cycle of the seasons; on the other hand, we can think of it as a preview of the next major Jewish festival.

So much of what happens in Va-eira is familiar: the story of Moshe and his brother, Aharon/Aaron going to the Pharaoh to tell him “Let my people go!” If you are like me, when you hear this, you immediately set it to the music of the African American “spirituals,” or songs that the black slaves of the American South composed, soulful melodies of sadness and uplift.

The parasha opens with a little speech God gives to Moshe outlining God’s own identity; telling Moshe that God’s name is YHVH, a 4 letter name that is never vocalized but stands in for the defining statement, “I AM EXISTENCE, TOTALITY”; and reminding Moshe that this God of the Hebrews intends to keep the covenant (brit) that was made with Avraham/Abraham, Yitzhak/Isaac, and Ya’akov/Jacob so many generations before (Exodus 6:2-4.) God/YHVH then commands Moshe to go to the Pharaoh to deliver the message that the Israelites are a people under the protection of YHVH and that they must be liberated.

The rest of the parasha is a back and forth power play between Moshe and the Pharaoh, aided by what we have come to know as “the 10 plagues,” although in this parasha, we just get the first 7 — next week we’ll find out about the last three. God knows that the Pharaoh is stubborn and will need lots of persuasion to allow his cheap labor force to leave the land of Egypt, so God addresses this issue straight on… read about it in Exodus 7:14-18. God tells Moshe to accost the Pharaoh in the morning, when he comes out for his morning ablutions at the Nile River. This body of water is like the life force of Egypt — fresh, potable water in the desert. And now the God of the Hebrews is going to turn it to blood!!!

Following that first plague, we read about the frogs that will appear all over Egypt. This second plague has been turned into a very popular children’s song at many seder tables; at my seder table, I place some colorful little plastic frogs around the table, to give little kids something to play with and to remind us of this plague. We make the frogs kinda cutesy as you can see in the song:

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there is a much more sober and scary depiction of what it could have been like to experience the plague of frogs, seen in the movie, Magnolia. (Viewer advisory: yucky stuff.)

After an absolutely horrible week of frogs everywhere, Pharaoh says he has had enough and begs Moshe to ask the God of the Hebrews, YHVH, to return the frogs to the river. Of course, anyone who knows human psychology can now predict that the Pharaoh will change his mind. And of course, he does… (Exodus 8:11). And so on and on it goes, one plague after another, with horror and destruction raining down on the Egyptians until YHVH stops the plague and Pharaoh, in turn, reneges on his promise to let the Israelite slaves leave.

The storyteller in this week’s G-dcast video points out that when we recite the 10 plagues that the Egyptians suffered as part of the Passover seder, we diminish the amount of wine in our goblets by one drop for each plague, to symbolize our sympathy with the plight of our enemy. After all, wine is intended to gladden the heart, and we are removing some of that happy-making substance. This comes to teach us to have compassion, even for the suffering of our enemies — it’s the polar opposite of schadenfreude.

All of these natural human emotions — changing your mind when the worst of consequences lets up, not jumping up and down with glee when your enemy is getting pummeled, and hardening your heart against the human misery and pain — are part of this story.