by Rabbi Shelton J. Donnell
What good does it do a person to live a just life, to pursue truth all life long and to face challenges (both those presented by the world around us and those that are personal) in order to live a life of honesty and faith?
We might well ask this very serious and fundamental question at the end of this week’s Torah portion, Ha’azinu. At the end of his life, a life of leadership and of service to his people, Moses – the servant of God – raises his voice in a moving poem in which he describes and encapsulates the relationship between the Israelites and their God, “Listen, you heavens, and I will speak; hear, you earth, the words of my mouth. Let my teaching fall like rain and my words descend like dew, like showers on new grass, like abundant rain on tender plants… Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain to you. When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he divided all mankind, he set up boundaries for the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel. For ADONAI’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted inheritance” (Deut. 32:1-3; 7-9). And after this poem the text goes on, “On that same day ADONAI told Moses, ‘Go up into the Abarim Range to Mount Nebo in Moab, across from Jericho, and view Canaan, the land I am giving the Israelites as their own possession. There on the mountain that you have climbed you will die and be gathered to your people, just as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his people. This is because both of you broke faith with me in the presence of the Israelites at the waters of Meribah Kadesh in the Desert of Zin and because you did not uphold my holiness among the Israelites. Therefore, you will see the land only from a distance; you will not enter the land I am giving to the people of Israel’” (Deut. 32:48-52).
Already at the beginning of Deuteronomy (in Parashat Va’ethanan) Moses recounts, “At that time I pleaded with ADONAI: ‘Sovereign God, you have begun to show to your servant your greatness and your strong hand. For what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do the deeds and mighty works you do? Let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan—that fine hill country and Lebanon” (Deut. 3:23-25), and God’s response was harsh, indeed, “That is enough, do not speak to Me anymore about this matter. Go up to the top of Pisgah and look west and north and south and east. Look at the land with your own eyes, since you are not going to cross this Jordan” (Deut. 3:26-27). We can only imagine the depth of the pain that Moses must have felt at that moment. And, as he looked out at the expanse of the land stretching below him – to the west and the east, the north and the south – perhaps he could also see himself as his life stretched before him. And, if so, what did he see – a life of success and achievements, or a life filled with failure and disappointment because he was not allowed to realize his ultimate goal and lead the people into the land? Did he dwell upon God’s harsh and, perhaps, ambiguous words about him, “This is because both of you broke faith with me in the presence of the Israelites…”? Had Deuteronomy ended with Parashat Ha’azinu, these questions may have remained open and unanswered, but there is yet another portion remaining in the Torah – Parashat VeZot HaB’racha. Moses’ last words are a blessing of the People of Israel, despite all and notwithstanding the fact that God’s anger was directed at him because of their sins, “Because of you ADONAI was angry with me and would not listen to me” (Deut. 3:26).
This Shabbat is Shabbat Shuvah, occurring in the midst of the Days of Awe, a time dedicated to heshbon hanefesh, real soul-searching. During these days we are supposed to ask ourselves tough questions about the value of our lives and how we evaluate success and failure, to consider what is of real worth and what is illusionary. These days give us the opportunity to see our lives from the Pisgah (from the promontory heights) in order to measure and to weigh our past and to chart the course for our future. In the end, it is up to us to ask ourselves, “What good does it do a person to live a just life, to pursue truth all life long and to face challenges (both those presented by the world around us and those that are personal) in order to live a life of honesty and faith?”