Yom Kippur, Aftermath of September 11, Sukkot, living -- it all seems somehow jumbled together and yet each thing is distinct and has its own flavor. And so the pot has become very full with emotional roller coasters and releases and sound bites and images and moments of deep reflection.
And, thanks to leading a very full schedule for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (they were great!), my new work on the Masters (Jewish Studies), teaching and other life activities (like a husband and trying to pay the mortgage and all that...), my life has been pretty full. There hasn't been as much time as I might have liked to absorb and think about the events of 9-11 -- and maybe that was okay.
I am not scared by those events -- the reality of possibilities and vulnerabilities hit me much earlier in life. I have had an attitude of extreme gratefulness at the freedom and living style of America for a long time and no delusions that anything was every guaranteed. And I recognized the paradigm shift that occurred on September 11th for commercial airliners as weapons as exactly that. My main focus was the loss of life, both for those who died and for those who knew them. I also recognized the financial burden these events would place on so many people in so many ways.
My first brush with terrorism was when I lived in Israel for the first time. It wasn't the terrorist acts themselves that got my attention, it was the consciousness that it brought to little things. There was a poster that hung in a bus station in which I sometimes waited that warned of the many forms of little bombs -- things as tiny as a little button on the road. I quickly became accustomed to being mildly searched when I went into a movie house, the department store, government buildings, etc. I am guessing that I looked too European to be searched very seriously (I was usually guessed as French, not American....). I also saw fear and hatred that is taught on all sides and from a very young age. The refrain of "You have to be taught, carefully taught" played in my head then as it does even now. And I wondered then what the future would hold for the world -- and I felt powerless then to be much more than an observer.
Some years later, I remember driving home from school (I was in grad school at the U of Pitt at the time) one day when traffic was backed up something fierce. Our lane was rubber-necking -- the spectacular accident was in the other direction. As the traffic cleared and I glanced to see what had held the traffic I had one of those instant pictures that has stayed with me. There were car pieces everywhere and one car was on its roof. There was someone squatting next to it, I think talking to the person in the upturned car. The unpredictability and tenuous nature of life in this world which I had known intellectually hit me at my core instantly.
Now, I had lost family members before this to illnesses and I had experienced pets dying from accidents and from illness and I had even been in a number of potentially fatal car accidents before this (all but one as a passenger at that time). I also had worked as a volunteer in hospitals and my father had exposed me to death in both people and animals as part of my general education, especially since I had planned on becoming a rabbi. But somehow, this quick glimpse of the accident did more in that second to bring home the unpredictability of life and events than anything before it.
And I shook, physically, for some time. And I noticed myself shaking and the inability to stop it. I lived with my parents that year and I remember sitting in the living room while my mother (a'h) prepared dinner and my father(a'h) and I sat wordlessly as he waited to see what I would do. He had "baby blue" eyes that usually twinkled and sparkled when he looked at you. When I looked at them that night they simply looked back attentively and without any judgement.
His silence was perhaps one of the strongest teachings he could have given me. We had hugged hello when I first got home -- tighter than usual thanks to my state. And then, when I told them what I had seen, he simply said "Why don't you sit down and work with it a bit." His silence told me that I had grasped something very important and powerful and that it was up to me to integrate the essence of it. His silence also told me that it was okay to be impressed with the enormity of what I had understood and whatever emotions it brought up, that was okay, too. And perhaps he was testing me in some way, also.
Dinner was quieter -- at least for me. My parents talked as they usually did, although no questions or comments were directed to me. I understood what they were doing -- I was welcome to join the conversation, but initiating the effort would come from me. I was not excluded, I was free to choose. I ate mostly in silence.
The next morning, my father looked at me as I poured a glass of milk. "I'm okay", I said to him and he smiled back.
Looking back I can see that my father allowing me to work things through was one of the best gifts he could have given me. He was expressing his confidence that I would work it through. I was always free to ask him a question -- although often that meant a lot more work for me. Sometimes he would ask me what I thought the answer was. Sometimes, he would hand me a flower from the garden -- he loved to garden -- and suggest that I go sit somewhere and study it and see if I could find the answer there.
He used to tell me stories about the Baal Shem Tov going off into the woods to study nature and learn about God there -- sometimes for days, sometimes even for weeks. I asked him at least once who was the Baal Shem Tov's teacher in the woods if he would go there by himself -- my father answered the trees, the flowers, the animals, everything that was there, including the BShT himself.
And so I came to realize that there are no promises of invincibility, ever. And I came to learn that I had to make every day count for something. And somewhere along the line I learned that dying wasn't a punishment because it happens to everyone and everything that lives. Taxes are, in fact, a choice -- dying isn't. So dying is not the issue, it is not what matters. Living is -- how do we live and what do we do with our lives? That's what counts, and for most of us, that's what we "leave behind".
And the people who have died earlier than we would expect have left us with the power of their lives not spent in this world. Those of us who live on incur the obligation to make that unspent life valuable in our own lives by what it teaches us and by what we do in response. If we ignore their death or seek vengeance, we desecrate their lives and deaths -- if we turn their memories into positive energy then we acknowledge the sanctity of their lives and wee honor them.
1. Parsha details: Deut 29:9-30:20 ( tri 29:9-30:20 ) [ Haftorah Isaiah 61:10 - 63:9 ]
2. Questions and a few observations
Summary: The song of Moshe; Moshe's final blessing and death.
Not much there and a great deal there. The song, carrying in its difficult Hebrew, a warning about how we live, affecting not only our own lives, but also that of everyone in our community, both large and small. It is easy to look at these words and say -- oh, if you are a perfect hyper-observant Jew, then everything will be great and wonderful and if not, then that's why bad things happen.
Simplistic readings like that fail to see the depth and the subtlety of the words in the Parsha. Again, living and dying are not punishments or rewards -- the quality of our life while we live is the gift or the punishment. We can be deadened or suffering while the outside appearance is that we should be happy -- or we can be living in miserable conditions and be at peace inside.
And it not that life is an illusion, it is that thinking how many cars we have and how many rooms we have in our houses is important that is the illusion. It is easy to get distracted. So much is going on around and inside us -- it is through the quiet moments, the reflective moments that we can hear ourselves and the One. And it takes understanding that we do not understand everything. It's okay to work at understanding -- and it's okay to work at accepting that we do not understand.
The words of the song are haunting and woven -- and the meanings are manyfold. There is one powerful line for me in this song (32:11) -- "As an eagle stirs up its nest, flutters over its young, spreads out its wings, takes them, puts them on its pinions;" What an image.
As my family was returning to Pittsburgh from Cincinnati the last summer of my father's life, he spotted an eagle teaching her young to fly in a ravine visible from the road. We pulled off the road and watched her for at least 20 minutes. She would give a shake at her shoulders and a young bird would drop and start to flutter poorly for a bit -- then she would swoop under it and catch it before it gave out completely. The shoulders would shake again and another youngster would get its turn. And the scene repeated itself over and over with the youngsters taking turns resting on top of their mother and trying to fly.
She passed not judgements on their abilities to fly and how hard they tried. She watched and protected them as they flew (or tried to fly) and caught them just in time -- over and over again. Moshe is telling us that we can imagine or understand the One in this role -- letting us flap about and try our wings and being there to catch us as before we fall. Of course, we do need to take our place on that pinion and have confidence that we can rest safely there for a bit.
And so the words of the song need to be read very deeply and with many understandings. "For it is not a simple thing for you; because it is your life;" (32:47) Moshe himself explains the wrestling we need to do with these words to make them part of us.
Perhaps there is a lesson here again fundamentalism that teaches, "do what I say and don't think about it". If the real truth is before us, it will stand the test of thinking and judging -- I think that is being said in this song. If someone is afraid of your questioning their teachings, then be alarmed that something may be amiss. And if we forsake the One who loves all, then we will be consumed and the false gods will not be able to help us.
And then we have the final blessing of Moshe. Moshe tells us that we are loved by the one. (And that's a good thing since we drift so much...) We are told that the enemy will be dispersed before us -- is that the enemy inside of each of us?
Moshe gives us a separate blessing for each tribe -- a reminder that each of us has a part to contribute to the whole. None of us is the whole story, but we are all part of it.
We are told st the beginning of the blessing that the Torah is our "inheritance, heritage, patrimony, legacy, empowerment" and I think that is a wonderful description of Torah and what it means to us. It is our inheritance in that it is passed down from parent to child, from generation to generation that we may glean some wisdom and understanding from it. It is our heritage in that it helps us define who we are, both to ourselves and to others, individually and collectively. It is a parentage in that it gives us identity in terms of who our ancestors were and what kind of people they were. And Torah is quite candid about their failings -- they are not perfect -- they are real -- and yet they did great things. It is our legacy in that it is valuable -- worthy of being passed through the generations. It serves as a deed to peoplehood and what qualities define what we have to offer to the rest of the world -- what contributions can we make because of the steepings of Torah. And lastly, it is our empowerment. The knowledge gleaned from careful study generates a very positive attitude and a self-understanding that enables us to speak with conviction about what is ethical and appropriate and to condemn wrongdoing where ever it appears.
Hebrew is so wonderful a language to incorporate all of these meanings into one word. This is a parsha of difficult or challenging Hebrew -- but all the more beautiful because of the many possible meanings and interpretations. As our teachers say, "Every translation is a drash -- an interpretation."
3. Some Observations
A powerful ending to the Sefer and the Torah. The last few pasukim are often traditionally attributed to Yehoshua after Moshe's death. And it tells us that there has not arisen in Yisrael a prophet the likes of Moshe, who could be with the One face-to-face. We hear the echo of this pasuk in the traditional Yigdal song which ends many services. ("Lo kam b'Yisrael k'Moshe 'od navi. Umabiyt et t'munato.")
Now the song is also a VERY distinctive visual part of the Torah. In the scroll we read from this past Shabbat we could see the letters chet-tet-mem (seal, completion) in the visual pattern of the song. What is unique about how the writing of the song is laid out is that the columns of the song are set two columns within the traditional one column of Torah. It is generally considered that when there is special spacing like this that what we are seeing is very old material in the text, preserved this way to be distinct.
Moshe and Yisrael's song by the sea starts the time in the wilderness and of our wandering and this song completes it as we are about to cross over the Jordan.
This is the second smallest book in Torah, Vayikra being the shortest. It is cast as Moshe's words as he summarizes everything to Yisrael as we are about to transition. And it is the Sefer (book) that uses YHVH the most -- almost twice the uses per verse than the next nearest. (for some interesting trivia on these usages, see 5. We finish... below.
The six words of the Sh'ma itself and the first two paragraphs of the Sh'ma come from this Sefer (6:4-9 & 11:13-21) [ The last paragraph comes from Bamidbar (15:37-41)]
And at the end of the Sefer, Moshe dies and the reigns are passed to Yehoshua. There is 30 day mourning period, which was fairly significant -- but then life continues and we make the transition. And even the mourning for a man such as Moshe is "completed" and events shift away from grief to daily business.
Did the people miss Moshe -- yes. They had Yehoshua and he was capable, but I have no doubts that the people who were used to seeing and talking to Moshe noticed and felt his absence -- how could you not? But the grieving became a private matter, a subject for quiet times, perhaps with close friends -- no longer the subject of public wailings.
We read these words as the conclusion to Torah on Simkhat Torah and start again with B'reyshit. We will read these words as we complete almost 30 days from the September attacks. We are starting to return to daily living -- we, too, are undergoing a transition and we will have trying days ahead -- perhaps it is also no accident that we return to the story of B'reyshit which reminds us that we all come from one couple, we are all b'ney Adam.
4. Grounding Intimacy and Grounding Grounding
Pretty serious Kingdom pointers here -- and what we might expect as we prepare to complete D'varim, the words, the things. So these Parshayot are about the foundation of the Presence of the One -- I think we have been feeling that. And I am sure that Moshe felt it as he knew his days were coming to an end.
Torah tells us that it was not that Moshe as sick or not doing well -- it was just that his 120 years, his full life, was complete.
Perspective here for a moment -- Moshe is 120. He and Yisrael wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. And Torah told us that Moshe was 80 (Aharon was 83) when they went in to speak to Pharaoh.
And so this parsha is about the foundation of the Presence, the Kingdom and the Presence of the Kingdom. Very Asiyah for Torah. And next week, we shoot back to Mercy -- more about that next week.
5. We finish D'varim and TORAH
Khazak, khazak, v'nitkhazeyk. This is the traditional phrase to indicate completing a book, a unit of learning. It means Strength, strength, and let us be strengthened!
It is always a celebration when one completes a volume of learning. We are now challenged with strengthening ourselves through what we have learned in the now completed volume of study.
This celebration is so important that if one were fasting and one completed a volume of study, one would be enjoined to break the fast and celebrate (Which we always do with food). In fact, people sometimes schedule things so that this is the case for some of the minor fasts -- such as the one for first-borns right before Pesakh.
For those who enjoy trivia -- the following is included in many Chumashim:
D'varim / Bamidbar in slashes/ <Vayik'ra in these> [Sh'mot in brackets] (Bereyshit in parentheses): Number of verses: 955 / 1,288 / <859> [1,209] (1,534) TORAH 5845
Number of Parshayot (weekly portions): 11 / 10 / <10>  (12) TORAH 54
Number of Sedarim (triennial weekly portions): 24 / 32 / <23>  (43) TORAH 151
Number of Chapters: 34 / 36 / <27>  (50) TORAH 187
Other trivia: God mentioned as Elohim or HaElohim -- 36 times ## / 9 times / <5 times> [69 times] (188 times)
God mentioned as Elohay (God of...) -- 15 times ** / 4 times #/<44 times*> [60 times] (31 times)
God mentioned as YHVH -- 550 / 396 / <311 times> [398 times] (165 times)
* different form from Bereyshit or Sh'mot in that here it not somebody's God (ie the God of Ya'acov), it is usually "your (pl or sing) God" or his God.
# twice as Elohay haRuakh (God of wind, spirit) and once as Elohay Yisrael (God of Yisrael), once as your God.
** 8 times as the God of your fathers.
## Once as aleph-lamed-vav-hah -- a singular form of Elohim used in poetry -- used in the song.
This presents an interesting piece of trivia.
Book verses per YHVH verses per Eloh***
D'varim 1.7 18.7
Bamidbar 3.3 99.1
Vayik'ra 2.8 17.5
Sh'mot 3.0 9.4
Bereyshit 9.3 7.0
There is an obvious progression from Elohim forms to YHVH usage -- Bamidbar is perhaps the one most out of place?
1. Listening and Hearing: What's the difference? Can we hear without listening? Can we listen without hearing? What makes you listen carefully, was can you ignore? When you get very, very quiet, what do you hear? Can you get quieter and hear more? Which takes more effort, hearing or listening.
2. Maley Ru'akh Khakhma (Full of the spirit of wisdom): What is it like to be full of the spirit of wisdom? Why is this important for a leader? How is it related to Moshe placing his hands and his trust on Yehoshua. How would Yehoshua have felt about leading the people across the Jordan without Moshe? Do you think he felt ready? Do you think the people thought he was ready? When you are ready to pass leadership on to someone else, what can you do to make the transition easier and more effective?
3. Eloha (Singular of Elohim -- God): Most of the time in Torah, Elohim, God, is plural. The verbs selected in Torah are usually singular to go with the plural form of the word for God. What would be special about a song or poetry that a unique form of God is used? What does it mean? Does the singular talk to you? What does it say that is different from Elohim?
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There are many traditional interpretations of the parsha that I neither talk about nor mention. That is done from a position of space. I trust that the average reader is either familiar with these or can find many of them easily in other commentaries readily available.
Thanks for reading this. If I have offended you, please forgive me -- that was not my intention. If you found some joy or happiness in reading this, thank you for allowing me to be a part. If you found a reason to think about something more deeply - kol hakavod and thank you!
And to the people giving me feedback thank you so much! I enjoy all of it. (Including the typos) You have made this weekly practice wonderful.
(c) 2001 Candy Lobb All rights reserved