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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?
On the Shabbat of Sukkot, the harvest festival that the Pilgrims chose as a model for Thanksgiving, the scroll (or book) of Ecclesiastes or Kohelet (in Hebrew) is read in the synagogue.
The scroll has 12 chapters and is considered part of the “wisdom literature” of the Bible, reflecting on the nature of the world and the God who created it, and on the place of humans in this creation. Its author is thought to be King Solomon, the wisest king of the Israelites, and it is believed to be Solomon’s musings at the end of his life.
In the 3rd chapter of Kohelet, he writes verses that will be familiar to lots of people. In fact, these magnificent words provided a young American folk singer, Pete Seeger, with the lyrics he set to music in 1959, calling his new song, “Turn, Turn, Turn.” Seeger recorded it in 1962 and it became an international hit in late 1965 when it was hevel,” the same word that is the name of one of Adam and Eve’s sons: Abel/Hevel. In Kohelet, the word appears a whopping 38 times!!
If a key word for Kohelet is “hevel” (futility or vanity or air/breath) maybe he’s asking us to reflect on our own lives and what we harvest from all the days we have lived so far. Is time on this earth just a fleeting little breath…. or is there some substance to our days?
These days of early fall, as harvests are celebrated, seems a perfect time to reflect on the big questions of life and its meaning. Kohelet knows that all life eventually comes to an end — and that end is death. He also knows that we cannot know what comes after our death, what will remain of us in the memories of the living, and what will happen to our souls. Kohelet concludes that since we cannot know the future, it is important, perhaps even wise, to enjoy the fruits of our labors now, while we are alive.
(You might also enjoy listening to versions by Judy Collins (circa 1966) or Roger McGuinn at the Kennedy Center in 1994, honoring Pete Seeger.)