The Last Weeks of Summer
This Shabbat, I shared some words of Torah as guest darshanit at Temple Israel of Natick. I share them here with our school community as well.
This week’s reading begins “Va’etchanan el Adonai”, I pleaded with God. Moses asks God to allow him into the land of Israel, not because of his own merit or dedication, but because God somehow saw fit to include him in the beginning of this extraordinary journey, – taking a band of slaves out of their suffering, sustaining them through forty years in the desert and delivering them to their own land, – and Moses wants so much to see them arrive and take ownership of that great gift. The word, va’etchanan, itself implies a request for chen, grace, for an undeserved kindness. Moses knows that he can’t expect to lead B’nai Yisrael, (the children-of-Israel) forever. He knows his time is up, but he doesn’t feel done. He wants to take them just a little further and so, he asks, even without a logical reason, for just a little more time.
While, keyn-ayne-hora, (not to tempt the evil eye) I’ve never been in Moses’ shoes, staring down the end of a lifetime, with unfinished work to be done, I’ve had my share of opportunities to feel short on the time I need, or want, to accomplish what I’ve set out to do. From student days of finishing my final assignment while my parents packed up my dorm room; to running for the bus, or the train, or the occasional airplane; to the morning rush to get lunches in school-bags, breakfast in mouths, shoes on feet and everyone out the door; to that familiar feeling of “if I just had another week, I could have really been ready for Pesach.”
So here we are, already in August. The weeks of summer, where my kids were occupied with camp are drawing to a close. Next week we leave for a couple weeks of family vacation, and when we get back, staff-week begins at school, and I’m back to school-year mode. And I don’t want to alarm you, but this is not only the week we read parshat va’etchanan. As always, this parsha comes on Shabbat Nachamu, the day that we read the first of the seven haftarot of consolation, leading up to Rosh Hashanah and the High Holidays.
As usual, I started this summer with a long unwritten list of the things I was going to do; those things that when I thought of them during the year, I told myself, “I’ll have time for that in the summer.” In the summer, I’ll get the house organized. In the summer, I’ll get into a consistent exercise routine. In the summer, I’ll develop a more meaningful and consistent prayer practice. In the summer, I’ll take up crocheting. In the summer, I’ll cook well balanced, fresh nutritious meals all the time. In the summer, I’ll give the kids all the attention they want. In the summer I’ll make all the appointments that have been waiting. In the summer I will get enough sleep, and I won’t be cranky or stressed out at all. All the neglected needs of the body, heart, and soul will be met, in the summer. The summer is a magical time. Unfortunately, the summer is too short.
It’s been a great summer so far. I’ve accomplished a lot – most of what I needed to get done to prepare for the upcoming year at school, and a few of the tasks I wanted to do at home. I’ve slept more, relaxed a bit, given the kids some more attention, though probably not all that they wanted. I’ve taken better care of my body, mind and soul, and been less cranky and more grateful and hopeful. But many of the things on my list remain untouched, or incomplete. The time has come when it becomes clear that not all of the things will happen this summer. By the time we finish reading the seven haftarot of consolation, we will have accomplished all we can for this year, and will be in the thick of beginning the next cycle. I will know what I have and haven’t done and how foolish it was to have imagined that everything was possible. Even now, I have an inkling.
I imagine for Moses, the forty years in the desert has been like a summer. When he led the people out of Mitzrayim, the narrow place, it seemed that they would make a short journey to the land of Israel and his responsibility would be fulfilled. His great task could have been completed in about a week and a half, if the people had been ready. Here, in our parsha, Moses blames the people for his disappointment in not being allowed to enter the land. And it’s easy to understand how he feels this way. B’nai Yisrael’s lack of confidence, their slave mentality, led God to decree that none of the adults who left Mitzrayim would make it to the land of Israel, except the two spies who somehow had the clear vision to see the land as a precious gift even at the beginning of the journey. The forty years of wandering are supposed to give the people the opportunity to grow, to develop strength of character, confidence in themselves and trust in God. The desert, unlike the narrowness of Mitzrayim, is a wide open space of potential and possibility. It is B’nai Yisrael’s summer. And as I do, when I reach the end of my summer, I see Moses reflecting on the potential that may not have been reached. He had been preparing these people for forty years to enter the land that God promised them, to establish the just and righteous society that God desires, and to conduct themselves as God commands them. And he’s not sure that they have the faith, the confidence and the self control to do it.
Sefer Devarim, the book of Deuteronomy, is Moses’ response to this realization. It is all the things he thinks he might not have gotten through to the people, that they might need on the other side of the Jordan river. When we read this parsha, it is striking how many passages jump out as familiar from the liturgy, or as the most essential elements of Torah. Most notably, the Ten commandments, and the verses of shema yisrael, and v’ahavta. But also verses like:
V’atem hadvekim bAdonai eloheichem chayim kulchem hayom
while you, who held fast to the LORD your God, are all alive today.
Ata horeta lada’at ki Adonai hu haElohim ein od milvado
It has been clearly demonstrated to you that the LORD alone is God; there is none beside Him.
V’yadata hayom v’hashevota el-levavcha ki Adonai hu haElohim bashamayim mima’al v’al ha’aretz mitachat ein od
Know therefore this day and keep in mind that the LORD alone is God in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other.
V’zot haTorah asher sam Moshe lifnei b’nai Yisrael
This is the Teaching that Moses set before the Israelites:
Avadim hayinu l’faroh b’mitzrayim vayotzi’enu Adonai mimitzrayim b’yad chazaka
“We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the LORD freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand.
It is no coincidence that so much of our liturgy is found here. Moses is boiling down everything that he hoped the people could have learned in that last forty years into the little time that remains.
The last few weeks, when I’ve discussed the parsha with the children upstairs at the snacktivity challenge (learn it -build it – eat it), my son, Zalmen, has interrupted to point out that when Moses reminds B’nai Yisrael of what they’ve experienced, and urges them not to forget the lessons they’ve learned, that these B’nai Yisrael, the ones on the threshold of the land of Israel, didn’t really experience those things, because over the course of the last forty years, all of those B’nai Yisrael have died. How can you remember what you didn’t experience? [This question is, by the way not a she’ela, a question with an answer, but a kashe, a difficulty that must be grappled with.] Those B’nai Yisrael had all of the wondrous and awesome experiences, but they lacked the capacity to transform their mindset into a nation that could conquer the promised land. These B’nai Yisrael are psychologically in the right place for conquest, but without the memory of the experiences that they did not personally have, they will not be able to successfully establish a land of justice and freedom.
Moses was the right person to lead them out of Mitzrayim and through the desert, but his patience is wearing thin. These B’nai Yisrael need a Joshua to lead them forward, a person with different strengths. Before that happens, Moses needs to fill them with not just the stories of the experiences, but the emotional and moral imprint of those experiences. We do the same for ourselves when we re-enact these verses in our liturgy day to day, week to week, year to year. We do it when we tell our children, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt”, and when we stand each year to receive the revelation of the ten commandments as if we were at mount sinai. It is not enough to know the stories. We need them to permeate our being, and to motivate our choices.
In this parsha, as Moses finishes re-enacting the receiving of the ten commandments, he launches into what we think of as the first paragraph of the shema. Several of the classic commentators, including the RaMBaN suggest that this paragraph is, in fact a explication of the first commandment, “Anochi Adonai Elohecha” “I, the Lord am your God.” Here is another classic kasheh: What is the commandment? Ok, God is our only God. Nu, what are we supposed to do about it? The words of the shema teach us the practical application, how this command should motivate the way we live. Hear that God is one. When you do, you will understand that you are obligated to love God. How? Not just conceptually, but with your whole heart, your whole soul and all the physical strength of your body. Suddenly, the commandment that at first seems not to hold a particular imperative, becomes the essence of all that we do, the motivation for the way we conduct ourselves in the world.
As the school rabbi at MetroWest Jewish Day school, I oversee the Judaic curriculum, the daily prayer and holiday observances of the school. As such, I spend a lot of time, especially in the summer span of wide open potential, thinking about how to impart the most important elements of Jewish text, thought, and practice to our students in the short time we have. And whether we are talking about a forty-minute class, all the blocks of Jewish studies in a week, the weeks in a school year, or the years that a child spends in the school, in the words of Rabi Tarfon [pirkei avot 2:15]
Hayom katzar, v’hamelachah merubah, v’hapoalim atzelim, v’hasachar harbeh, uva’al habayit dochek.
The day is short and the work is much, and the workers are lazy and the reward is great, and the Master of the house is pressing.
There is never enough time, and so much important Torah to teach and learn.
I spend a good amount of time pondering what is most essential. What do we have to teach them, in order to say we succeeded? Knowing, as Moses’ example and life experience demonstrates, that we will not be able to teach them everything we want them to know in the time we have, how do we know when it is enough?
As the last school year drew to a close, I saw a need, as did others, to focus more attention, and in a more thoughtful way, on the Jewish values that inform the way we live our lives. For a few years we’ve had a midah of the month program where we encourage students to practice acting with a particular virtue. But it wasn’t reaching students deeply to the extent I had hoped. So a few of us spent some of the opportunity of summer collaboratively clarifying six essential elements of derekh eretz, that we want to permeate the hearts, minds, souls and actions of our community. They belong in the Jewish studies classroom, and beyond it, in the Torah that we study and on the field at recess, in social studies and in the cafeteria.
Here are the six we came up with, hoping that most anything else important can be related back to these: Ahavat Torah, Love of learning; Rachmanut (or Rachmones), Empathy; Chesed, Lovingkindness; Shalom, Peace; Emet V’emunah, Truth & Integrity; and Hakarat Hatov, Gratitude.
If we get this right, if the students use these values to construct a strong and positive Jewish identity that informs the way they live their lives, then whatever we don’t have time to teach them, they can continue learning later. Rabi Tarfon [in pirkei avot] follows his statement about time with the more well known “Lo alecha hamelacha ligmor, v’lo atah ben-chorin livatel mimenah. It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Though the work may be greater than any one of us or the time we are given, we are not in it alone. As long as we, like Moshe in this parsha, make sure to pass on what is essential, we can, and we will have to trust others, to continue.
As I mentioned earlier, va’etchanan is always read on shabbat nachamu, together with the first haftarah of consolation. Immediately following the week containing the fast day of tisha b’av, you might think that the nechama, the comfort, is for the loss of the holy temple. But that only explains the first one. There are seven, the last just before Rosh Hashanah. The days of summer are limited. And the days of this Jewish year are limited. The time of reflection and judgement is less than two months away, and I will presumptuously suggest that not one of us has lived up to the hopes and dreams we set for what we would do and who we would become last Rosh Hashanah.
How could we go straight into the High Holy Day season, knowing that we haven’t done it all? Moses, preparing for his big day of judgement, pleads for grace, chen, a little more undeserved time for all that he hasn’t done, and he tries to squeeze in the most essential of what is left. He experiences God’s answer, rav l’cha, “it is enough for you,” as angry. God tells Moses, “It is enough! Go, instruct Joshua and give him strength and courage so that he can continue.” What if we were to read it not as anger, but as nechama, comfort? Not, “Enough already!” but “It is enough. You can’t do it all, but you don’t have to.”
This is the same kind of nechama that we need as we stare down the end of the summer, and the coming season of judgement. No, we didn’t do it all, and there’s still time to do some of it, so make sure to focus on what is truly important. Know that even though the work is unfinished, it counts that it was started, or even intended. Continue to set the intentions, the goals, the dreams, even knowing that what we set out for ourselves as the next year begins will likely not all be fulfilled. But if we do what we can with the right intentions in our hearts, souls and bodies, that which we do not finish, will, with God’s help be passed on to those who follow us.