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Moses’s Last Lecture

  • Moses’s Last Lecture

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

Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;
Let the earth hear the words I utter!
May my discourse come down as the rain,
My speech distill as the dew,
Like showers on young growth,
Like droplets on the grass.

(Deuteronomy 32:1-2)

These beautiful words, filled with the imagery of nature begin this great final lecture by Moses to the people of Israel. Moses wants a moment to speak and impart to the people memories of forty years and before. A chance to remind the people, these children, that they carry with them into the Land of Israel, not only that which they need to sustain them, but also the words, history, and blessings that have been bestowed upon them since the time of Abraham and Sarah. This is the last great lecture of Moses to his students, his children, his people, before his final days; before his last great climb up to Mount Nebo.

Moses first calls upon heaven and earth to serve as witnesses to his last great lecture. Rashi writes: "Now why did [Moses] call upon heaven and earth to be witnesses [for warning Israel]? Moses said: "I am [just] flesh and blood. Tomorrow I will die. If Israel says, 'We never accepted the covenant,' who will come and refute them?" Therefore, he called upon heaven and earth as witnesses for Israel that endure forever" (Rashi on 32:1).

Moses's greatest fear before his final climb is in not knowing whether or not his life's work may have been in vain. From the time he returned to Egypt, led the people out, and fought for them, time and again, when God wanted to give up on them and find another people to fulfill the covenant, Moses pursued his lifelong goals that God imparted to him. Moses never gave up. He might have found other ways to fulfill the goals, but he never stopped pursuing them.

Rashi implies that these words of Haazinu are reminders that just as the rain provides life to the world, so too does Torah. Moses asks that his words should rain down "as the dew, like showers," to come down in small droplets. Moses hopes to teach the Torah and impart his knowledge before his final days by providing them like a quenching rain that will nourish the Land and allow for new growth. Rashi knows that if the rain comes too quickly or too hard it will only overwhelm the people and possibly destroy them (Rashi on 32:2).

Throughout our lives, we are students of all sorts of teachings-from Torah to life lessons. We have many teachers who impart their wisdom to us and challenge us to achieve greatness. And then, at some point, we each become not only a student (for each of us is always a student), but also a teacher. There is so much for us to share in our lives that we want to impart this knowledge so that others may either follow in our footsteps or avoid the mistakes we might have fallen into.

These life lessons may be imparted throughout our lifetime if we are so fortunate or they may be shared at our funeral. But no one wants to wait until he or she is gone to share a little bit of wisdom.

Randy Pausch, Carnegie Mellon professor and alumnus, is one who didn't wait. Told that he had but months to live, he took the opportunity to deliver his last lecture to his students, colleagues, family, and friends for one last teaching. He did this not to cry woe (for he was dying), but rather to share important life lessons through his lecture, "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams." He spoke about the importance of overcoming obstacles, enabling the dreams of others, and seizing every moment (because "time is all you have . . . and you may find one day that you have less than you think"). This is a reminder to everyone to choose life.

Randy reminds us that "brick walls are there for a reason: they let us prove how badly we want something." We all encounter brick walls throughout our lives. We wonder if, given the obstacles or challenges, fulfilling our dreams is even possible or should be pursued. But we can't give up-we've come so far.

In Parashat Haazinu, Moses and the people are at the border. They are waiting to enter the Land promised to their ancestors. The journey has not been easy and the future holds its own set of challenges. But they may heed the lessons, heed the warnings, embrace the blessings, and accept the gift that is theirs and for generations yet to come.

This is Moses's last lecture. He knows the end of his days is imminent and this is his time to impart lessons to the people. His only hope is that they have listened and learned from him, and now are ready to begin the next step in their journey.

Each of us has a lecture to give, lessons to impart. We are students, teachers, children, and parents. Will earth and heaven stand witness for us if we ask, so our words will not be lost and no one can say they were never spoken? Will our words rain down like a gentle shower quenching the thirst to share, embrace, and teach? It is not good for us to wait for the end of days, but rather, we should speak these words now, share our poem with those whom we love today, and allow the droplets of blessing to rest upon all those whose lives they touch. These are the words and these are the blessings.

Rabbi Heidi M. Cohen is the rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana, California.

L’dor Vador—From Generation to Generation
Davar Acher By: 
Debra Sagan Massey

"Remembrance is the secret to redemption." These words of the Baal Shem Tov were etched in my mind from a young age. As the phrase on the mosaic gateway to the beautiful Holocaust Living Memorial at URJ Camp Swig, this saying was echoed by counselors and program directors year after year. Before crossing the bridge that led into the memorial, we heard the story of how we are commanded to "never forget." Our counselors asked us to lend an ear. Before moving on to the next activity, we needed to stop, listen, and appreciate. We heard the stories of the artist, the campers, and the architect who crafted such an awe-inspiring and symbolic space. And we were told to remember-zachor. By remembering and hearing the stories of the millions who lost their lives we would continue to pass the torch of Jewish pride from generation to generation. It was our duty as Jews to celebrate by living Jewish lives, and to learn and reaffirm our heritage daily.

This week's Torah portion, Haazinu is Moses's address to the Israelites before they cross into the Promised Land. Haazinu literally means "give ear" or "lend an ear," which is Moses's way of introducing the Israelites to this poem. Moses has had forty years to think about this moment and compose his address. It has to be strong-his words have to stick. This is his last chance to speak to the Israelites and he better make it good.

So what does he choose to talk about? He warns the Israelites, he instructs them, and he gives them inspiration. This poem starts off hopeful and ends almost in fury. We are left wondering if the Israelites truly deserve to cross into the Promised Land.

But verse 32:7 instills hope for the future, "Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past; ask your parent, who will inform you, your elders who will tell you." This verse reassures us of the continuity of the Jewish people. Even though Moses himself will not be able to cross into the Promised Land, the Israelite people will survive and flourish. We can learn from the generation before us and pass on to the new generation the lessons from our past. We can appreciate being important links in the chain of tradition and better understand the value of zachor-remembrance.

While this command may sound simple, it certainly is not easy. It is upon us to reflect and learn, so that we can become better people. As philosopher George Santayana teaches, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" (George Santayana, Reason in Common Sense, volume 1 of The Life of Reason, 1905). It is our generation's responsibility to lend an ear to those who have come before us and to listen, repeat, and pass on the teachings to the next generation.

Debra Sagan Massey is director of education at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, California. Her path to Jewish education was strongly influenced by her being a camper at a URJ camp.

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

2020, September 26
8 Tishri, 5781
2021, September 18
12 Tishri, 5782
2022, October 8
13 Tishri, 5783
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