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The Eternal Cycle

  • The Eternal Cycle

    Haazinu, Deuteronomy 32:1–52
D'var Torah By: 

"You shall die on the mountain that you are about to ascend." (Deuteronomy 32:50)

In death as in life, he was Moshe Rabbenu—Moses, Our Teacher. With the greatness that was his alone, Moses taught us that we are all destined for a common fate.

Even such a momentous event as Moses' death is given only a few lines in this week's portion, Ha'azinu. Such is the spare beauty and compact genius of our Torah. However, we should not be surprised that our rabbinic tradition could not accept the stark simplicity of this text. Our rabbis had to dig for and search out the deeper, more profound meaning of the description of Moses' death. In so doing, they were trying to help us learn about the meaning of both life and death. As we approach the Yamim Nora-im—the Days of Awe—we have the opportunity to ponder the greatest and most complex of all of life's questions.

It may be a helpful exercise in confronting such questions to ask ourselves, "How are we like Moses, and how is Moses like us?" Like most of us, Moses was filled with contradictions. He struggled to determine his own identity, establish his leadership, and understand his relationship with God. He certainly struggled with his own sense of importance as he responded to God's call to lead this stiff-necked and rebellious people. A midrash assumes that in his last days and hours, Moses also struggled with the terrible knowledge that he could not oppose death. He knew, as each one of us knows, that we are mortal. But being the human being he was, Moses used every human emotion and device at his command to try to hold off his certain fate.

In Midrash Rabbah (Deuteronomy, New York and London: The Soncino Press, 1983, 181.ff.), Moses first makes light of his impending death and then scrambles to find prayers and mystical incantations that will keep death away. Of course, none of the above changes the decree of death. Next, Moses tries to bluff and bully God into changing his fate. It is all in vain. In the end, with many regrets and much unfinished business, Moses accepts his fate and submits to God.

What part of Moses' struggle with the end of life will be ours? Will we try to bluff God and bargain our way through those last days? Or will we, given Moses' example, begin right now to learn about how to live and also how to die? In this week's Torah portion, Moses says, "For this is not a trifling thing for you: It is your very life." (Deuteronomy 32:47) Because it is our life, let us make the most of our days on earth so that we give ourselves the precious gift of dignity and peace at the end of those days.

Living on the Edge
Davar Acher By: 
Paul Sidlofsky

Is there any scene in the Torah more poignant than that of Moses standing on the periphery of the Promised Land, his destination for forty years, after he was told that he cannot enter the Land of Israel? Like the midrash that depicts Moses as an infant reaching for riches but being redirected instead to touching hot coals, a great force is now also preventing him from reaching the object he desires.

The same dilemma faces the Israelites. Although we later read that they conquered the Promised Land under Joshua's leadership, in the Torah itself they remain forever outside. Forty years of wandering and wondering, and they end up still living on the edge!

The Torah's description of Moses and the Israelites is, in a very significant way, analogous to our own lives. Many of us remember being told as children, "You can look, but you cannot touch." Beautiful and tempting objects—the cookie jar, a lovely vase—were clearly in view but out of reach. Having learned this lesson at an early age, we may have already passed it on to the children of the next generation. One of the hardest challenges we now face is the realization that despite our best efforts, we can never fully attain all of our goals: We do not have complete control over our own destinies. We look, but often we cannot touch.

This week's parashah is read on Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. During these ten days of repentance, we reflect on our lives, our successes, and our shortcomings and are acutely aware of the Torah's teachings. Like Moshe Rabbenu himself, we have, at times, missed the mark.Chatanu, aveenu, pashanu: "We have gone astray, we have sinned, we have transgressed." We have not been the best we could be. On these Days of Awe, we sit on the periphery of our own selves and look inward. Often the vision of our ideal self seems beyond our grasp.

And yet, we do not despair, although we may not always reach our goals. We can begin again, just as the cycle of Torah reading resumes with Bereshit once Devarim has been completed. Will we succeed the next time around? Will we attain our goals? It is uncertain. We realize, however, that the beauty of life is the journey, not the destination. It lies in the hope springing eternal, rather than in our winning the race.

At the end of the parashah, God reminds Moses (and us readers) of the reason why Moses cannot enter the Promised Land: He had struck the rock in Numbers 20:8-16 after God told him to speak to it. This took place, we read, at the waters of Meribath-Kadesh, merivah meaning "strife" and kadesh being related to kadosh, "holy." The name is significant. Even during our struggles, even when our goals seem out of reach, there is holiness. In fact, strife can often lead to holiness. We are, after all, B'nei Yisrael, a people who struggle with God and with life itself.

May our struggles always lead to holiness and thus, ultimately, to our own growth.

9/18/1999
Reference Materials: 

Haazinu, Deuteronomy 32:1–52
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,555–1,566; Revised Edition, pp. 1,398–1,412
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,251–1,270

When do we read Haazinu

2019, October 12
13 Tishri, 5780
2020, September 26
8 Tishri, 5781
2022, October 8
13 Tishri, 5783
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