Shabbat Shuvah: How Will You Go On the Last Day?

At the beginning of our parashat hashavua it is written: Vayelekh Moshe; vay’dabeyr et kol had’varim ha’eyleh el kol Yisrael, “Moshe went; he spoke all these things to all Israel” (Devarim 31.1)

Although this form of speech may seem familiar to some of us (i.e. “he went and spoke”, or “he’s gone and done it now”) a strict grammarian, or a Torah commentator such as the ancient Sages of Israel, sees here a question. Based on the Rabbinical rules for interpreting Torah, which take as a given that there are no superfluous words in the sacred text, we can ask the simple question: where did Moshe go? The Torah does not specify where he went. It is an even more interesting point when we note that this is Moshe’s last day on earth.

Where was he going, on this last day of his?

Commentaries abound to fill in the ambiguity, and give us several possibilities for interpretation:

1. Even at the end of his long and distinguished career, Moshe was still a humble person. Rather than call all Israel together to hear him, he chose to go to each family tent. He chose to spend his last day of life with his people, meeting intimately with those with whom he had shared so many years of struggle and hope.

2. More disturbingly, it is suggested that the people of Israel were not willing to gather to listen to him. At the end of his life, they dismissed him and his words as no longer meaningful or relevant.

3. The mystics suggest a third possibility from his words: “I can no longer come and go.” They remind us that Moshe had been accustomed to going “up” to commune with G*d, and then coming back “down” to be with the rest of the Israelites. Now, nearing his death, he had risen toward G*d and was unable to meet us on our level.

From these insights we see that the question is not where he went, but how. Did he go in humility as a great leader? did he go as a scorned old man that no one wanted to listen to any more? Did he go somewhere that no one could follow?

On this Shabbat Shuvah, our Shabbat of Returning between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we consider not where we are going but how we are going. Each day of our lives we draw nearer to the last day. How are you going?

On this Shabbat Shuvah, may you feel supported in your search for your best way to go forward, toward the rest of your life, and toward your last day. That is why we create spiritual community: to talk about this, to encourage and support each other, and to be there, on this Shabbat and every day.

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Shabbat Ha’azinu: Only Uncertainty Leads to New Truth – Jump, Already

During these ten Days of Awe in which we now find ourselves, we are challenged to really try to change from the ingrained habits that define us. It is easy in the first moments after Rosh HaShanah to experience a setback. In that moment, according to Jewish tradition, the yetzer hara’ will appear to you as a sense of despair, or, at least, resignation: you can’t possibly really change in that way. This is, after all, who you are. It’s who and what your life experience has made you.

Watch out for it. The yetzer hara’, the “evil impulse”, works within us with great subtlety; in this Age of Reason, often it masquerades as the reasonable voice within us. Have you heard it already? “Things will never change. Well, maybe a little, but not really.” That’s your yetzer talking.

It’s tempting to go with the reasonable voice, if only because real change creates wilderness, and no one really wants to wander in a wilderness without a clear sense of direction or a visible goal. And that’s what it takes to change: a willingness to lose the illusion of visible goals, not to mention the illusion of control over our direction.

Our parashat hashavua this week is called Ha’azinu, which means “listen!” in the imperative plural. Moshe is imploring us to hear his last song. And what a song it is, full of ancient Hebrew words and soaring poetry – and glimpses of an early stage of Israelite belief as well. Most of all, the Song of Moshe describes an overview of Israelite history as we rehearsed it to ourselves at the time. Interestingly enough, it all comes down to wilderness:

G-d found us in a desert land, in the waste, the howling wilderness   (Devarim 32.10)

During the High Holy Days it is easy to go with the flow of holiday celebration – greeting old friends, making new ones, enjoying the chance to get reconnected to our congregational family. In the rush of holiday organization and busyness, the parashah reminds us to listen for the song humming along, just below the level of distracted errands and mitzvot.

Listen, the song says. It is in the wilderness itself that life is lived most fully. If we are able to leave behind your current certainty, and enter that wilderness of unclear direction and unknown paths, of leaving behind the old certainty in search of a truer one, the song of Moshe holds out this amazing idea: there, where you cannot find yourself, there, G-d will find you.

Close to the end, Moshe is urgent to get the message through to us: this is not a rehearsal. No one has as much time as we think we do. Don’t sacrifice another minute to that false god, your internal yetzer hara’, as reasonable as it sounds.

Go ahead, Moshe urges us from a perspective only he has, staring at the road ahead that he will be unable to take: do the scary thing. Make that change. Say the words you’ve been unable to utter. Do the thing you’ve been afraid of. Get help for that issue. What if, after all, it goes well?

shabbat shalom and חתימה טובה – May you be sealed for good in the coming year