By Henry Morgen, August 13, 2022
Shabbat shalom. I’d like to remember my father-in-law, Hank Weiss, on the occasion of his yahrzeit that we observed a couple days ago. Here are a few words about him: Hank grew up in New York. He was trained as a weather forecaster in World War II, stationed in Greenland where he helped our forces anticipate adverse weather conditions from D-Day and beyond. Upon returning to the United States, he joined his family that had moved to Los Angeles, and completed a degree in meteorology at UCLA. He served as a weatherman and on the SCAQMD for a period of time. Later he was a rocket test site safety engineer for Rocketdyne. He headed-up several different departments there, and after a brief retirement, he went back to work for the Aerospace Corporation supporting the space shuttle program. He was always interested in people and was skilled at talking with nearly everyone on nearly any topic. Where he had strong differences of opinion, he generally found ways to shuttle them to the side rather than unnecessarily heat things up. In his later years he returned to painting and drawing. He kept in touch with friends and relatives via eMail and phone calls. For the last couple decades of his life, he was considered the patriarch of the family.
Turning to this parsha, it is totally loaded with material to discuss. It would take days to really deal with all of it. It’s got G!d reiterating to Moshe that he’s not going into the promised land. It speaks of the incredible and amazing power of G!d and how generous G!d has been to the Israelites. It’s got the second recitation of the decalogue. It’s got the Sh’mah with the v’ahavtah. It’s filled with Moshe reminding the people about all the places they’ve been and how they’ve behaved over the 40-year wandering. And in multiple places it anticipates the lack of faithfulness to G!d that will come once the people are in the land.
Today I’m just going to focus on the opening lines of our parsha and see what we can learn from Moshe’s relationship with G!d as he pleads, one last time, to enter the land. For context, let’s recall that Moshe is the youngest and last remaining sibling in his family. His older sister, Miryam, one of the people directly responsible for saving his life as an infant and the source of water during the travels through the desert according to the Midrash, died shortly after we learn how to perform the ritual of purification. It is this ritual that informs us how to prepare a body for burial. Now the people are without a water well, and this leads to the second “water from the rock” incident. G!d decrees that both Moshe & Aharon will die in the wilderness. In fact, Moshe is directed by G!d to walk away from the camp and transfer the priestly vestment to Aharon’s son, Eleazer. There Aharon is to be buried. Now Aharon, his older brother who was his spokesman to Pharaoh and who’s lineage will inherit the priesthood, is gone. Moshe is now alone. There is no mention of his parents coming out of Egypt. There is no mention of his sons after the revelation at Sinai. He’s already been told by G!d, at the same time that Aharon was told, that he would not be entering the land. There is a succession plan in place: Jehoshuah ben Nun will take the helm as they conquer the land. Furthermore, in the last few verses of our last chapter he has just reminded the people of the successes G!d has afforded them to take possession of land on the east bank of the Jordon. The conclusion of the long struggle to guide this often-rebellious people to the promised land is at hand!
Think of the frustration he must feel. He was raised in the court of Pharaoh and taught the tradition of the Hebrews by his mother at a young age. He attempted to right a wrong being done by a taskmaster and ends up being a fugitive to save his own life. He served as a shepherd for 40 years, which is quite a demotion from being treated as royalty. He was given a mission by “the one who will be who he will be” to take the Hebrews out of bondage by confronting the very dynastic leadership that raised him. He was reunited with his brother who served as his spokesman. He has defended both G!d to the people and the people to G!d for another 40 very challenging years. And now he’s being told, “mission complete. Your life will no longer be needed.”
Surely Moshe knows that human life is finite. And yet, he may have thought, to paraphrase Tevya: “What would be so tragic if I could live just a few months on the land itself?” G!d’s response is very curt: “Enough of this begging for more life.” G!d’s only compromise was to allow him to ascend a cliff and look at the land that the Israelites would soon inhabit. With this assurance in place, Moshe accepts his fate. He has argues and pleaded with G!d for 40 years. He knows his limits: what he can push for and where to hold fast. He now understands that with whatever time he has left, he must do all he can to admonish the people to be faithful to G!d and ethical with each other. It is from this realization that he begins his second rendition of recounting and paraphrasing the laws they have received with the hope that this generation will be more faithful to them than their parents had been.
Think of how both strong and humble Moshe had to be to pull this off. Unlike most people, he knows the end of his life is days or at most months away. He knows that the people depend on him as the conduit to G!d, especially now that Aharon and Miryam are no longer alive. He knows he must instill their confidence in Jehoshuah for the remainder of the mission to be successful. And he knows that the people’s faith in G!d and fidelity to the covenant is tenuous. Yet, he continues to teach and preach right up until the very end of his life.
And how do we honor such a person? One way is that we name the first five books of our Tanach after him. I have another couple insights to share that have also become embedded into our tradition. Back when Aharon died, we learn that he was mourned for 30 days. From this we learn that a brother (Moshe) is obliged to mourn the death of a sibling for 30 days. (Unfortunately, we don’t learn that about Miryam. We only learn that we should complain about not having any fresh water there.) But what about Moshe? He has no siblings, and we don’t have any information about his sons or his wife at this point. We learn that the community is obliged to mourn the passing of someone who has no specific relative for 30 days. And when does that 30 days start? They begin counting on the day of burial. We know when that was for Miryam and for Aharon based on the wording in the text. All we know is that Moshe went up to the mountain overlooking the land and never returned. We count the day after he left as the first day, because the text states that G!d buried Moshe there. And from this we learn that burying the dead is one of the highest acts of loving kindness that can be performed. Therefore, again, it becomes the community’s responsibility to see that one who dies is given a proper burial, especially if they have no family.
This would be a good time to plug the Hevra Kadisha, in which, with full disclosure, I am not currently a participant. For those that would be interested in learning more about it, there are several members among us who can further enlighten you. It is also important for us to continue to be the strong and engaged community we are during shivah periods. And I recommend that we think about how we could be a bit more supportive during the remaining 30 days of sh’loshim than we tend to be. Furthermore, as we grow older, I anticipate several of us, who do not have children, will outlive our relatives and spouses that would be obliged to formally mourn us. We may want to anticipate this and think about how we would commit to formally observing the sh’loshim period for one with no obligated mourner.
Our Torah continues to be an ever-renewing wealth of knowledge and inspiration every time we turn it over. I wish you all many more years of strength, prosperity and good health! Shabbat shalom.