September 15, 2021


9.17.2021 Weekly Torah Portion

What do you want your legacy to be? If you knew your death was impending, how would you want to be remembered? What would your last actions be?

These are the questions I imagine are running through Moses’ mind as he nears the end of his life. Not only is he thinking about his own legacy but he’s also concerned about the future of the flock he has been shepherding for the last 40 years and what their fate will be once he is no longer at the helm.

And Moses is afraid.

After all his experiences leading the Israelites out of Egypt and through the wilderness, he’s worried that they will nevertheless, forget God, forget the covenant, forget all the miracles and incredible feats that they have undergone all along the way. He’s worried that, after he’s gone, the Israelites will turn back to idolatry and slavery.

Let’s face it, he had plenty of reasons to be so fearful. He remembers how “stiff-necked” we are – the golden calf; complaints about meat, water, manna; the endless list of times we lost faith and forsook our creator, the one who literally fed us, sheltered us, and didn’t allow our clothes to tatter as we traversed a wilderness for 40 years!

We all lose faith at times, even Moses. Even rabbis.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes:

The immediate certainty that we attain in moments of insight does not retain its intensity after the moments are gone. Moreover, such experiences or inspirations are rare events. To some people they are like shooting stars, passing and unremembered. In others they kindle a light that is never quenched. The remembrance of that experience and the loyalty to the response of that moment are the forces that sustain our faith. In this sense, faith is faithfulness, loyalty to an event, loyalty to our response (God in Search of Man, p. 132).

Miracles, while they may change us momentarily, do not sustain our faith. The trek through the wilderness – each step we take through the muck and mud in response to that rare event – is what defines our faith.

And what I believe Moses is really troubled by is faithfulness. About our willingness to recall experiences of faith we had and stay loyal to those events. That we not allow the experience of the burning bush, or the splitting of the sea, or the military victories to pass us by like shooting stars and without leaving the everlasting imprint they are meant to make on our souls. Rather, that we nurture them, that they continue to kindle a flame that sustains each of us to do the next right action.

Just as our Torah is nearing the end of its cycle and Moses’ death looms, our calendar is also echoing this theme.

Part of the symbolism and rituals around Yom Kippur is for us to imagine “a death rehearsal.” We abstain from eating, drinking, and sexual activity. We wear white and refrain from luxurious shoes and oils, in order to transcend the physical and become angel-like, spiritual beings.

And almost immediately after Yom Kippur, after we experience the spiritual “light-ness” of being forgiven, Sukkot – also known as Zman Simchateinu, “The time of our Joy” – is thrust upon us. We get out of our safe and secure homes and dwell in temporary booths that are fickle and susceptible to the elements. The Sukkah is intended to remind us of our wanderings in the wilderness in physical booths and protected by God’s miraculous cloud. We recall the fragility of life and confront the pervading illusion of safety, directing our yearnings for sanctuary to our Higher Power.

At Sukkot we are asked to rekindle our faithfulness immediately after the ecstasy and joy of Yom Kippur. For only after we have been forgiven – and forgive ourselves – can we truly celebrate.

And similarly, as Moses approaches his own demise, despite his fear, what he leaves us with is song. Not prose, but the poetry of Ha’azinu.

Like an eagle who rouses his nestlings,
Gliding down to his young,
So did He spread His wings and take him,
Bear him along on His pinions (Deuteronomy 32:11).

Just like an eagle carries his young, God is extending His proverbial wing to fly us to safer harbors in uncharted territory of our souls.

Part of the magic and transformation that Torah offers is exemplified by the journey that Moses himself goes through. The lonely shepherd banished from Egypt who was initially reluctant to accept God’s mission at the burning bush because of a speech impediment, closes the last chapter of his life with a song.

When we are confronted with our mortality, how do we choose to live our lives?

Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Moses, the Hebrew calendar are all attempting to remind us that “life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s learning how to dance in the rain” (Vivian Greene).

May we continue to dance, sing and praise in the face of chaos and uncertainty, and may we let our legacies as ba’aleh t’shuvah, “masters of return,” inspire others to live well.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!
Rabbi Joseph