Moses, The Exemplar
Parshat Va’etchanan – 16 Menachem Av 2776 – August 19, 2016
(This talk is also linked to the website of Congregation P’nai Tikvah.)
This is the time of year when we read the Book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is the fifth and final book of the Torah. The entire book takes place on the eastern shore of the Jordan River. The Israelites have just completed 40 years of wandering in the wilderness and they are preparing to cross the river and enter the Promised Land. As part of the preparation, this entire generation of Israelites attends a mega-mini-course taught by Moses.
The Book of Deuteronomy consists of all the lectures and talks that Moses gave during his mega-mini-course. The course lasted for approximately 36 days, and then, on the 37th day, Moses passed from this world. Now as far as we know, Moses was not aware of the exact date that he was going to die, but he did know that his death was imminent, because he was already 119 years old and G-o-d had already told him that he was not going into the Promised Land.
The sages say that Moses actually died on his 120th birthday. When we want to wish someone a long full life, we often say in Yiddish, “biz a hundert und tvanzig yahr!” “until 120!” We say this as a blessing that the person should have a long, full and fulfilling life just like Moses, because Moses not only lived until 120, but he was teaching a mega-mini-course to the entire Jewish people right up until the day before his 120th birthday, which also turned out to be his yahrzeit.
Whatever our individual fate, I wish for all of us that when we get close to the end of our road, that we merit to have the capacity, and the presence of mind, to offer our own mega-mini-course in our own individual area of specialization just before we fly the coop.
Now going back to the mega-mini-course, Moses gave many teachings that are recorded in this week’s Torah portion. I would like to focus on four of these teachings: the Ten Commandments, the Shema, Ve’ahavta and the story of how G-o-d told Moses that he was not going to go in to the Promised Land.
As we know, G-o-d gave the Ten Commandments to the Israelites at Mount Sinai. 40 years later, when the Israelites were encamped on the eastern shore of the Jordan River, the adult population consisted of a new generation of Israelites. All those who had been slaves in Egypt had died in the wilderness during the 40 years of wandering, except for two men, Joshua ben Nun and Caleb ben Jephuneh.
So when Moses taught the Ten Commandments at the Jordan River, he was teaching them to a new generation who had not learned the commandments at Sinai either because they were children at the time, or because the weren’t born yet.
The teachings of the Ten Commandments must be retaught and relearned in every generation. Just as Moses taught the generation that was about to enter the Promised Land, we too must study and learn the Ten Commandments in our generation, and many of us already have.
But just in case someone might have forgotten one of the commandments, I want to do a quick review. It says in the Ten Commandments that there is just one G-o-d and we should worship G-o-d and not get caught up in worshipping idols. The Ten Commandments also teach us to take a break. Don’t be working 24/7. Work 24/6 and then chill a little. It’s good for the soul. We call it Shabbat. That’s why we’re here tonight.
The Ten Commandments also tell us to honor our parents, and not to murder, not to steal, not to commit adultery, and not to tell the kind of lies that can get someone else in trouble. The Ten Commandments also tell us to not covet, which means to avoid becoming so jealous that we would hurt another person in order to get even.
After Moses finished teaching the Ten Commandments to the new generation, he turned from the topic of ethics to the topic of spirituality, and he gave the world the six words, “Shema Yisrael A-do-nai E-lo-hey-nu A-do-nai Echad.” “Listen, oh Israelite, the L-o-r-d is our G-o-d, the L-o-r-d is One.” This week’s Torah portion is the only place in the entire Torah that these six words appear all in one sentence, and it is not G-o-d who says Shema Yisrael A-do-nai E-lo-hey-nu A-do-nai Echad; it is Moses who says it.
The ancient sages and mystics repeated the words of the Shema slowly and carefully, learning their power. As a result of their experience, the sages determined that these six words: Shema Yisrael A-do-nai E-lo-hey-nu A-do-nai Echad, are among the most powerful spiritual tools in our entire faith. The notion that G-o-d is one, that G-o-d is the be all and end all, that is a very basic Jewish notion. Because of the spiritual power of the Shema, and because of its message of Divine Oneness, the sages of the Talmud declared that we are to recite the Shema every day at least twice.
I find it particularly interesting that the six words of the Shema are among the deepest teachings of Judaism and they are also completely accessible to everyone. Every human being who wants to recite the Shema may do so. Reciting the Shema does not cause one to become Jewish. However, if we stay with it, and recite the Shema deeply and regularly, it might lead to what is called in the east enlightenment, and what is called in Judaism d’veikut, experiencing the oneness of all that is.
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses recites the Shema, and then he recites V’ahavata. Ve’ahavta is the teaching to love G-o-d with all our heart, soul and might and to teach this love of G-o-d to our children. Here at Congregation P’nai Tikvah, we invite the kids to be up front for the Shema, because our kids are our future, and when the kids recite the Shema, it is a promise that Judaism will continue for another generation no matter what.
Here at P’nai Tikvah, we also invite our kids to lead us in Ve’ahavta, because who better than our kids to teach us, and remind us, what love is all about. The Ten Commandments remind us to respect our parents. Ve’ahavta reminds us to respect our kids. We are to teach our children to love G-o-d, because when we teach them to love G-o-d, we are also teaching them to love themselves, and to also love everyone, because we are all created in the image of G-o-d.
Now I want to turn to what is perhaps the most difficult teaching that Moses gives in this week’s Torah portion, which is that Moses shows us how to handle ourselves when we are deeply disappointed and people are depending on us.
This week’s Torah portion is called Va’etchanan. Va’etchanan is an ancient Hebrew word meaning “I pleaded.” As our Torah portion begins, Moses is telling the Israelites that he had pleaded with G-o-d to let him cross over the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land. Moses was 119 years old. He was not a young man looking for a promotion, or a new role in the establishing of the Jewish homeland. He just wanted to look around and see what it was like in the Promised Land.
But G-o-d said no, and the way that Moses described it is like this: Moses said, “G-o-d was angry with me on your account, G-o-d would not listen to me. G-o-d said to me, ‘it’s enough already! Never speak to Me about this matter again. Now, go up on the peak of this mountain and look around from there. Look west, north, south and east. Get an eye full, because you are not crossing the Jordan.’ ”
And what does Moses do? Moses listens to G-o-d admonishing him, Moses tells us about it, and then Moses lets it go and he moves on to the task at hand. The task at hand when the Israelites were encamped at the Jordan River was to prepare to enter into the Promised Land and to be secure in their religious and spiritual practice while conquering the land and living it. Instead of having an emotional meltdown about the fact that G-o-d was not going to let him into the Promised Land, Moses used his time and energy to teach the Ten Commandments to the new generation and to give our people, and the world, the deep and profound teachings of monotheism and divine love that are contained in the Shema and Ve’ahavta.
Moshe Rabeinu, our teacher Moses, gave us a role model for how to live. He did not sweat the small stuff. He did not prop himself up in self-importance. Instead he took his licks, he did what he needed to do, and he taught others what they needed to do in order to succeed in their lives. And not only did he do these things, but he did them right up until his 120th birthday, which, as I mentioned earlier, is considered to also be his yahrzeit, the day of his death.
May we all merit to be like Moses, to use our time here on earth to fulfill our own purpose in life, and to work simultaneously to help make the world a better place. The lesson of Moses is not to clone his genius, but rather to become our own genius, because no two people are ever alike, and that means that each and every one of us can excel to the max and be a Moses-like example in our own everyday life even when the going gets tough and things don’t go our way. In fact, it just might be that the most important thing we can do is to stop trying to control things, and stop trying to control others, and instead, take our licks in stride, and teach what we know, and as we say in Las Vegas, let the chips fall where they may.