Sign In Forgot Password

Drash for Shabbat Shuva by Mark Matchen, September 15, 2018

27/11/2018 11:20:14 AM


Shabbat Shalom

I’ve had a question in my mind for a very long time, and I return to it once in a while without really reaching any clarity. And that’s OK; it’s nice to have these meaty questions out there for reflective moments. This one is, why does Yom Kippur follow Rosh HaShanah, rather than precede it? That might seem arbitrary, but another way to think of it is, why does Yom Kippur, the opportunity to cleanse ourselves spiritually, come on the 10th day of the year? Why don’t we get to start the new year freshly, spiritually cleansed? It’s interesting to imagine what our Rosh HaShanah experience would feel like if we encountered its majestic and hopeful themes while feeling at our spiritual height, and not concerned about which fateful book our names will be sealed into 10 days from now. So, that’s what I’ve been stewing over.

This Shabbat we read Parshat Vayelech, named for its first word: “Vayelech Moshe, vayedaber at hadevarim ha’eleh el kol Yisrael. And Moses went and spoke these words to all Israel.” That first word, Vayelech, means something like, And he went. But the great, modern Torah translator, Robert Alter, renders it, “And Moses finished speaking these words to all Israel,” which is very different. Alter didn’t change the translation lightly. It turns out a Deuteronomy text found at Qumran, among the Dead Sea Scrolls, has the Hebrew word for “And he finished,” as does the Septuagint. Our version, the Masoretic text, is the outlier. In Hebrew, the variant readings are Vayelech  – as we have it: And he went – and Vayechal: And he finished. They are the same word, with the last two letters reversed. Transposing two letters, especially at the end of a word, especially when both versions make legal and sensible words, is a common scribal error. And for Alter, it doesn’t make sense to say And Moses went, because in fact, Moses didn’t go anywhere. For Alter, it makes sense to say, And he finished, because the narrative of Deuteronomy is in fact done, and Moshe is about to begin his final summation. According to Alter, we really ought to rename this week’s whole reading.

And what happens in this Parshah? (It so happens I’m well-qualified to answer, because this was my Bar Mitzvah parshah, 40-odd years ago. It’s a good parshah for someone who plans to lein the whole thing, and especially for someone who would return from eight weeks of Camp Ramah exactly 10 days before his Bar Mitzvah, because it happens to be the shortest Parshah in the whole Torah: just 30 verses long. Parshat Naso, the longest one, is almost six times as long.) Vayelech is neatly divided into halves. In the first 15 verses, Moshe delivers encouragement and an upbeat, optimistic vision of the approaching invasion of the land, noting, however, that he won’t be part of it. In the second 15 verses, God and then Moshe deliver a completely different message – pessimistic to the point of traumatizing. Here is Moshe in verse 6: “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear and do not dread them, for the Lord your God, He it is Who goes with you. He will not let go of you and He will not forsake you.” And here is Moshe in verse 29: “You will surely act ruinously and swerve from the way which I charged you, and the evil will befall you in the latter days, for you will do evil in the eyes of the Lord to vex Him with your handiwork.” The people will surely rebel and God will therefore reject them. What just happened? How do we reconcile these conflicting messages?

So, context. What is it that Moshe has either just finished saying or is walking around saying? The bulk of the book of DevarimDeutoronomy – is Moshe’s retelling of the narrative and laws of the previous books of the Torah. The whole business – both the original and this repetition – is a literary cliffhanger that isn’t going to be resolved in the Torah itself. We know this because we’ve been reading it year after year without ever reaching the climax. The entire narrative has been focused on the march from slavery in Egypt to final emancipation in Eretz Yisrael, and the entire religious/legal program is designed for an autonomous nation-state in its land, but this is never realized in the text. Not only do the Israelites not reach the land, but we have the additional, poignant focus on Moshe himself, taken by God up the mountain to see the land that was the focus of his entire life’s effort. To see it, and to know he would not step foot in it. In the Torah’s final chapters, Moshe will hand off the leadership and then die on the wrong side of the Jordan river, and the next thing we read will be...Genesis, all over again.

I’d like to suggest a reading of the text that can help us make sense of this parshah, which is itself an instance of a theme that repeats numerous times in the Torah and on into the the books of the Judges and Prophets. Two streams run in parallel: one is the stream of covenant between God and Israel, with Israel’s promise of fealty and God’s promise of many offspring and material comfort. The other is the frequent projection by God and the prophets that Israel will fail in their commitment, and God will turn away from them. It’s hard to reconcile.

As a literal narrative, this is problematic, but only because we are hurt by the failure of the narrative. That is, we presume that success as defined by the Torah is to reach the land, to conquer it utterly, to live perfectly in accord with the covenant and to receive all of God’s bounty. By that standard, Jewish history is a failure, and the Torah does not serve its purpose. In fact, Israel never did conquer all of the land, and it never did establish a perfect, covenantal society. And the writers and editors of the text knew this very well. They had to mean something else.

Since Moshe never reached the land, and the land was never completely conquered, and it was subsequently lost entirely, I think the Torah was never about the land, except for what it signifies. The text isn’t a history, with the Torah ending before it reaches its goal and the Prophets overseeing the ultimate calamity. Rather, it’s an eternal directive. Covenant isn’t a condition – it’s a mission. The land isn’t a place we ever reach; it’s the goal we never cease to strive for. That’s why the story ends on the far side of the Jordan, in sight of the land: The Torah is about approaching the goal, not reaching it.

And what would be so wrong about reaching it? Well, to reach it means to stop working toward it. If it were a mere physical location, that would be fine – you got there! But if the goal is not a piece of the world but the condition of the world, then we can never stop working toward it. Even the successes we have are all too easily lost if we neglect the hard work of maintaining them. There is no culminating moment. There will always be new need, new strangers among us, sufferers from illness and poverty and injustice. The land, in other words, will always be across the Jordan. The end of Moshe’s life, in sight of the promised land but just shy of it, is exactly the condition we are always in. No matter how far we come, we must continue to strive.

There’s a danger in thinking of the Torah narrative as God employing Moshe to drag this people, sometimes kicking and screaming, to its destiny. In the Machzor most of us use here, the Kol HaNeshamah, the climatic prayer, “Unetaneh Tokef”, is printed over three pages. The first two are all about destiny.

Unetaneh tokef kedushat hayom: Now, we declare the sacred power of this day. True it is that you are our judge. It is you who shall write, you who shall seal what is written, you who shall read. And all who come into the world pass before you like sheep for the shepherd.

And ominously:

B’Rosh HaShanah yikatevun, u’veyom tzom kippur yehatemun: On Rosh HaShannah, all is written and revealed, and on Yom Kippur, the course of every life is sealed.

Fate! God’s will, not ours. That takes up the first two pages in the machzor. Then, we turn the page and in a large, decorative font at the top we read,

U’tshuva, u’tefilla, u’tzedaka, ma’avirin et ro’ah haGezeira: But teshuvah, and tefilah, and tzedakah make easier what God may decree.

It turns out, we do have some power over fate.

And what is the nature of our agency? I happened to look below the line on Rosh HaShanna, and read the commentary printed there, mostly provided by Reconstructionist thinkers. I saw one I thought was quite beautiful. At the end of each commentary is printed the initials of the contributor. This one was RH. I flipped to the front of the Machzor, where the names are given. RH: Richard Hersh! I got some of his teaching this year after all. Here’s what he says:

A Reconstructionist interpretation of the Hebrew might yield: “Direction, Reflection and Connection make it possible to live within boundaries not of our making and beyond our control.”

So there it is: the world seems fated, but we have some power to overcome it, or at least to adjust it. Teshuva is Direction: taking the decision to reorient our intention toward Godliness. Tefilla is Reflection: who are we and how can we adjust our progress? Tzedaka – in both its senses of charity and justice – is Connection: we are reminded, says Rabbi Hersh, “that our own salvation or self-fulfillment cannot exist apart from those with whom we share past, present and future.”

To superimpose that on the Torah narrative, Sinai is our directedness toward God; the land is our reflection of what can be, compared to what is; and covenant is our committed connection to all others, which is the essence of our mission.

Now the Parsha’s division into halves is resolved. The first, optimistic half is our direction. The second, pessimistic half is why we needed Sinai in the first place. Because we do live in a world where fate seems to weigh heavily against us. And we don’t always rise above it. And in those times when we fail to pursue the righteous goals our heritage has set for us and we set for ourselves, our connection to one another and to the state of grace we seek is lost. God and Moshe are not prophesying failure or punishment: they are acknowledging the human condition in the world we inhabit. We live in fraught conditions, and although we have some power to overcome, we can never quite reach the promised land. Still, the promise remains. The goal is ahead of us, always at our fingertips. And if we sometimes fall a step back, we must then take two steps forward. Never lose sight of the direction; never stop pursuing the goal.

So, although I’m a big fan of Robert Alter’s translation, I think he may have got this one wrong: I think our Parshah is properly named. To say Moshe finished his mission with his final speech is a mistake, because finishing the mission is only a dream, never a reality. To say instead “And Moshe went,” that Moshe delivers his message as a part of a never-ending journey, is exactly right. And when we face failure, we simply begin again: Genesis will get us back on track.

Why does Yom Kippur come on the year’s day 10, instead of at the very end of the year? Because it would be a mistake to imagine we can cleanse ourselves and now have a spiritually perfect year. There are no perfect years. When Ne’illa ends this Wednesday night and we are feeling at our spiritual height, and we have every intention of carrying this feeling forward, we will have to acknowledge that it can’t be a perfect year: nine days passed before we reached this state. This year won’t be perfect, but we can still aim for next year

Shabbat Shalom and G’mar Chatima Tova

Sun, 21 April 2024 13 Nisan 5784