Tag Archives: Moses

V’Etchanan- Our Legacy, What Do We Leave Behind?

Moses continues his review of the journey through the wilderness in this week’s Torah portion, V’etchanan. He recalls the trials and tribulations and what it means to be in relationship to God. Moses tells the people that he will remain behind; Moses will die here in the desert and they will move forward to the Promised Land. Moses reviews the Law and we encounter a core Jewish teaching, the Shema followed by the V’ahavta.

We all know the words to the V’ahavta. It has been committed to our memory due to the recitation more times than we are able to count. In it we learn that loving God requires the active practice of the laws we have been given and that active practice requires that we teach these laws to the next generation, our children. We hear Moses recite this prayer to the people, but how might it sound if Moses internalized the V’ahavta as he accepts his fate preparing B’nei Israel to leave him?

If Moses was speaking personally, the language of the V’ahavta prayer might change. He might wonder if his children, the fledgling nation of Israel, have learned the lessons he spent his life living and teaching. In that, Moses resembles us, or rather, we who are parents resemble him. We invest our lives nurturing and teaching our children, hoping we instill good values so they may find a meaningful life based on a solid foundation. Are they ready to “fly on their own from the nest” is a question we all ask. We look back on our lives as parents and wonder; “Did I do it well enough? Were these lessons embraced?” I imagine Moses’ personal V’ahavta entreaty, and ours as well, might go something like this:

“I pray I have taught you well.
I hope the lessons and values I shared you have embraced,
And you will carry them and me in your heart
Down whatever path you choose for your life.
May these principles guide you
In the choices you make and the actions you take
From the moment you wake in the morning
Until it is time to rest at night.
Wear them proudly in your deeds and in your thoughts
So that everyone you meet will know
They have entered the presence of someone who tries to live life
Virtuously and with integrity.”

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Devarim– Moses teaches about him and us

 Devarim is the great repetition that isn’t.  Moses’ speeches in Devarim are a wonderful retelling of a story, but so much of it is not true; at least much of is does not comport with the stories of the previous books of Torah. So what is going on with Moses?

 Viewing Moses as a person and not the mythic Prophet, Teacher and leader, Moses is doing what so many of us do. He is trying to understand his place in history, trying to figure out whether his teachings and leadership from slavery to peoplehood was really worth it. In simple language, Moses asks himself what we ask ourselves in the sunset of our lives: “Did I do good, did I make a difference?” Even the great Moshe Rabbeinu seems to question if he did the right thing and if ultimately he will make a difference in the world. For us, the answer is an unequivocal yes, but for him in that place, he was unsure.

 Moses’ stories are retold with a tweak here and an embellishment there. In these Deuteronomy versions, Moses recalls himself prominently and his actions are above reproach. Here at this place in his life, Moses knows he is at the end of his journey and what he has done is all that he can do. There is a sense of authority in his voice, as he needs to reassure the people who will continue forward without his leadership, and there is a sense of desperation as well as he needs to reassure himself.  It is here that we can relate to Moses the man, as we sometimes find our loved ones doing as he did.

 For those of us with older parents or grandparents we too see similar behavior in their retelling of their exploits during the journey of their lives. And the subtext of their stories echoes the issues and fears of Moses. We are our most compassionate when we lovingly hold them and respect their stories as recounted. It is our way of saying to them yes my dear one, you do matter, you did make a difference to me. I will love you and remember you for these and all the other gifts you have shared.

Discipline at what Personal Cost?

Leaders or anyone concerned with the welfare of others can find themselves confronting a challenging personal conflict.  We saw this recently play out in parsha Shimini. Here, the story of Aaron is an extraordinary narrative illustrating the real tension in trying to navigate the waters between public and personal needs.  In parsha Shimini, there was an imbalance between the two competing needs and the cost of doing one at the expense of the other was overwhelming. 

Nadav and Abihu, Aaron’s sons are killed because they brought an offering of “alien fire” before God.  But instead of grieving as any father would, Aaron is admonished not to acknowledge this tragedy in any way.  He is to attend to his sacred duties. The needs of the Kahal outweigh the personal need.  So Aaron tries to fulfill his duties as the High Priest, as Moses instructed.  Aaron is completely silent, suppressing everything related to this horrific incident.  It is only when Moses chastises Aaron’s remaining two sons for improper ritual that Aaron breaks his silence.  Aaron yells at Moses, unable to contain the emotion that has been bottled up inside.

 Moses was so disciplined, that the needs of the Kahal came before everything else including mourning the loss of the two young men, his nephews, Aaron’s sons.  Moses could only see the need to properly perform the priestly service to the Almighty on behalf of the people.  But it is not his sons that have been slain.  Aaron tried to accede to the demands of his position and do as Moses instructed.  He however was unable to maintain the discipline of Moses. But when Aaron broke down and showed his pain, Moses was moved and in an act of humanity consoles his grieving brother.

 How often are we overwhelmed when a decision has to be made?  Often life confronts us with an “either/or” choice.  We do not have the luxury of the “both/and” that we speak of in our theoretical and lofty discussions.  So often we judge others by the choices they make, when in fact, they often do not see that there was a choice at all.  I recall a profoundly difficult time when this happened to me.

 We sat in shock in the hospital waiting area immediately after my mom’s death.  My dad started to cry.  Then suddenly he sucked it all up, steeling himself to the situation saying, “I have to be strong.” And the tears stopped flowing.  I on the other hand, could not “be strong.”  I needed to grieve, whatever form that took.  I remembered a conversation I had with my mom where she asked me if I would cry for her when she was gone.  I did.

 The differences in our reactions to her death created a rift between my father and me.  I needed to mourn in my own way and I could not do it with someone who was trying to impose such control.  How different might our experiences have been if I could have understood the discipline my father was trying to exert upon himself.  We might have found strength in each other and maybe even the space to share this profoundly sad moment in much more supportive ways. If instead of harsh judgment, I could have found compassion.  If instead of toughening himself for some idealized vision of what it meant to be the head of the household, he could have shared his grief with me.  It took me a long time to begin to understand.  If only I knew then what I know now.

Forever Changed- Relationships through the lens of Ki Tisa

Experience forever changes who we are, what we are, particularly when it is an encounter with another. Each of us can think of a person who has had a profound impact on our lives, and usually impact is based on one select memory we have of our experiences with them.  The experiences of this week’s Torah Portion, Ki Tisa illustrates the indelible impact of the encounter with God. 

 We struggle with God and the Divine presence.  God chastises us for abandoning God by demanding and worshipping the Golden Calf.  But doesn’t God deserve it? As we retell the story every Pesach, God “remembered” us and “with a strong hand and outstretched arm” redeemed us out from the land of Egypt.  But just one question, “Where was God for past 400 years, while we suffered in slavery?”  From our historical perspective it is a great story from which we make all kinds of meaning.  But if you were the “average Yehuda,” living in Egypt before the redemption, you suffered as a slave, plain and simple.

 So possibly, we remained a bit skeptical of God and this freedom stuff and we needed constant reassurances that it really was not merely smoke and mirrors, or in this case pillars of smoke and fire.  And when Moses, our leader left us and did not return when he promised, we panicked. We reverted to the familiar stuff that comforted for generations.  We went for the Golden Calf!  Forgive us our weakness, but recent miracles not withstanding, we were not getting the “warm and fuzzies” standing in the desert at the foot of a mountain with both our God and our Moses nowhere to be found.  We were scared and felt abandoned.

 And of course, God sees this and is deeply offended by our fickle actions; for the Divine Presence is actively sharing Torah with Moses so that Moses can bring it back to the people. They are engaged in a deep communion.  The people however don’t know that and react badly.  God does know that, and arguably He reacts badly too.

 God wants to wipe out the ingrates and start anew.  He tells Moses that He will make a whole new people from Moses and these will be the new loyal and chosen people.  It is Moses who stops God and persuades the Almighty that the existing people are indeed those with whom He is in Covenant, a sacred bond that cannot be irrevocably broken because of the bad actions in a moment.  God is persuaded by Moses’ argument, but God’s relationship to the people is changed.  God suggests that He will dispatch an Angel to lead them forward from Sinai.  God is no longer interested in personally leading these people.  Moses must use his powers of persuasion yet again to get God to amend this attitude.

 As Moses helps God in God’s time of need, so too God helps Moses.  For when Moses sees for himself the betrayal of the people and the great sin of the Golden Calf, Moses, to use common parlance, “loses it.”  He smashes the two sacred tables given to him by God, and heads back up the mountain to suggest that God’s original suggestion was not so bad after all.   Let’s start over!  This time it is God who must talk Moses off the ledge.  But Moses is also forever changed by this encounter.  Torah speaks of Moses descending with light radiating from his face, so much so that Moses wears a veil whenever he appears before the people.  The only time we are told Moses removes his veil is when he talks to God.  This Midrash confirms the relationship is irrevocable altered.  Moses still loves the people and remains their committed leader throughout the wandering in the desert.  But the relationship is now different from what it was before.

 The relationship between God and Moses is one from which we can learn and draw great meaning.

 God and Moses play off each other.  Both God and Moses need a partner, a sounding board to help them through.  Each keeps the other in check so that one does not to fly off the handle acting rashly or precipitously in the moment in a way that would irrevocably damage another.  How important is this lesson for us.  To ask for help in getting perspective, not letting ego or hurt or pain cause an outburst or reaction.  To consider and cogitate, dispassionately considering what really is the best course of action given the circumstances we confront.

 Who gives you this kind of non-judgmental, unconditional support that you need? Do you have the security of a relationship where you can expose your true self and your true feelings without fear of harsh judgment or repercussions?  Is there someone, or might you find that in your relationship with God. It can be your love, your friend, your rabbi or possibly a colleague such as my rabbi.  How much better off would we be if were to think before we were to act, to measure what we do by the standard of what is best for all those involved, rather than to let ego dictate a reaction that gives us satisfaction in the moment but leaves a path of hurt or destruction in its wake?

 Cain yehi ratzon May this be God’s will.

Shabbat Shalom