Ha’azinu – what might we say and write when we confront our own mortality?

Moses knows he is going to die.  Not in the way we all ‘know’ we are going to die, the coldly logical knowledge that doesn’t impact on our emotions in any way, but in the way that some people who are very close to death know with a certainty that no longer expresses itself as fear or self-pity but with a clarity and sense of purpose.

I have sat at many deathbeds. I have seen denial and also acceptance, whimpering pain and alert peacefulness, sudden startling requests – for toast, for touch, for people long gone, for non-existent sounds or lights to be turned off or up.  What I have learned is that we none of us know how we shall die, how our last days and hours will be, but that at many, if not most of the deathbeds I have observed where there is some time for the process to be worked through, there is an opportunity to express what is most important to the dying person, to project themselves one last time into the world.

It is human to want to survive. Life wants to continue despite pain or confusion or fear. Even when a person seems prepared and ready for death there is often a moment where there is a struggle to continue in this world. Even Hezekiah who famously “turned his face to the wall” having been told that he must set his house in order for he would die and not live, then prays to remind God that he has done God’s will with his whole heart, and weeps sorely.   His prayer (found in Isaiah 38) resonates today “In the noontide of my days I shall go to the gates of the nether world, I am deprived of the residue of my years…. O God, by these things we live, and altogether therein is the life of my spirit; so recover Thou me, and make me to live.”

It doesn’t matter at what age we come to death – we want more life, we want to go on in some meaningful way, we want to be part of the future.

We all know we will die. We share death with all who have ever lived and all who will ever be. We may fear the how or the when, but generally we get on with life as if death is not real. And we don’t plan for how we might continue to be a part of the future, for how our life may make a difference for our having lived it, or for how or what might be remembered of our existence.

Yet sometimes we are forced to confront our own mortality. And when that happens, these questions demand to be asked.

The whole period of the Days of Awe which are now coming to a close forces us to acknowledge our own transience in this world.  Be it the wearing of the kittel we shall don for the grave, the taking out of a whole day from time to focus on how we are living our lives in order to reset and readjust our behaviours, or the saying of yizkor prayers and visiting the graves of our families. Be it the autumnal edge we feel as we shiver in the sukkah, or the browning and falling of the leaves, or the daylight hours shortening perceptibly – we are viscerally aware of the darkness that is coming, the lessening outer energy alongside the power of the interior life.

Sometimes this knowledge that we will inevitably cease to be in this world brings out a search for meaning, for a sense of self that will transcend the physicality of our existence. Sometimes we become engrossed in our own personal wants and needs, sometimes we look further outwards towards our family and our relationships, sometimes we gaze further out towards our community or we look further in time to see what will be after we have gone.  I think often of the story of Moses in the yeshiva of Akiva (BT Menachot 29b), comforted by seeing that Rabbi Akiva is citing him as the source of the teaching being given, even though he does not understand anything of the  setting that is 1500 years after his own life.  It is a story of not being forgotten, of projecting values down the generations. Talmud also tells us that R. Yochanan said that when a teaching is transmitted with the name of its author, then the lips of that sage “move in the grave” (BT Sanhedrin 90b.  Rabbinic Judaism gives great honour to the idea that we live on in the teachings we offered, but also in the memories of those who choose to remember us. It is commonplace in the Jewish world to be named for a dead relative in order to honour their memory, to tell stories about them long after the hearers (or even the tellers) have a first-hand memory of the person, to fast on the day of their yahrzeit (anniversary of their death) as well as to light a 24 hour candle and to say the kaddish prayer.

So it is time for us to give serious thought about how we project ourselves into the future, what we pass on in terms of life lessons, the stories people will tell about us, how they will remember us, how they will carry on the values that we have cared about enough for them to see and for them to choose too.

All rabbis have stories of sitting with the dying as these desires clarify. One colleague has I think the ultimate cautionary tale of being asked to come out to a deathbed of a woman he barely knew, a long way out from where he lived, in terrible weather, and sent in the form of a demand. Deciding that he must go but unsure of what was wanted, he collected together a number of different prayer books to be able to offer her the spiritual succour she wanted. Her final wish was that her daughter in law would not inherit her fur coat. She was taking her feud past the grave.  I remember the woman who sat in bed in her hospice writing letters to everyone in her life, beautiful letters – but she refused to actually see any of the people she was writing to. I remember the people who made great efforts to right wrongs and those who tried to comfort the people left behind. I think with love of the woman who sent an audio file with her message that she had had a wonderful life with the right man and they were not to grieve, even though her death seemed unfairly early. I think of the woman who, having lost her fiancé in the war, proudly told me she was going back to her maker virgo intacta, and the woman who told me of her abortion while she was hiding in Nazi Germany, and her belief that the child had visited her alongside its father who died some years later.

Many a personal secret has been recounted at a deathbed, but often having been released from the power of that secret if there is time, the soul continues its journey in this world, and suddenly all sorts of things come into perspective. And it is these stories that I remember with such love and that have had such great impact on me.  The stories that people had hidden from their nearest and dearest but which explain so much of who they are and why they have done what they did. Their belief that they were not loved enough which led to them thinking they were not able to love as much as they wanted. Their umbilical connection to Judaism that they had not lived out publicly for fear of what might happen to them or their children should anti-Semitism return as virulently as they remembered in their youth.  Their subsequent horror that children and grandchildren were not connected to their Jewish roots, and their guilt at having weakened this chain. There are multiple examples but what I see again and again is the need for good relationships with others, for human connection with others , for expressing warmth and love and vulnerability, the need for living according to clear and thoughtful moral values, and for a sense of deep identity that passes from generation to generation and connects us to the other in time.

Moses in sidra Haazinu is just like any other human being, wanting his life not to be wasted but to be remembered, wanting his stories and his values to be evoked in order to pass on what is important to the generations that will come after him, however they may use them.  He needs to be present in their lives, albeit not in a physical way.  The whole of the book of Deuteronomy has been his way of reminding, of chivvying, of recalling and reimagining the history he has shared with the people of Israel. He uses both carrot and stick, he uses prose and poetry, he is both resigned and deeply angry, he is human.

There is a biblical tradition of the deathbed blessing, a blessing which describes not only what is but also what is aspirational.  Rooted in that has come the idea of the ethical will to pass on ideas, stories and thoughts to the next generation of one’s family, a tradition that has found a home also in reminiscence literature.  Sometimes we find out much more about the person who has died from their letters and diaries than they ever expressed  in life – and often we mourn that it is now too late to ask the questions that emerge from these, or to apologise or explain ourselves.

As the days grow shorter and we have spent time mulling over how we are living our lives and trying to match them to how we want our lives to have looked once we see them from the far end, we could take a leaf out of Moses’ life’s work in Deuteronomy and write our own life story, not just the facts but the stories around them, how we understood them, what we learned.  Next year we might write it differently, but what a rich choice lies in front of us, to explore what is really important to us and to ensure that it, like us, will live on.

Devarim: Shabbat Chazon:- Both Vision and Words to understand how we got to this position and how we stand with God.

On the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av the liturgical calendar demands that we begin to read the book of Deuteronomy – Devarim, and for the haftarah we read the vision of Isaiah, the reading which unusually gives the Shabbat its special name – Chazon, vision. This haftarah is the third of a set of three haftarot that do not match up with the torah reading, but rather with the three weeks before the ninth of Av, and are called the haftarot of rebuke.  (In this case while today is the 9th of Av, it serves as the Shabbat before as we do not fast on Shabbat, and Tisha b’Av observance will begin tonight)

All sorts of cycles of Jewish history and philosophy come together in the readings for this week, focussing us for the task ahead as we become aware of the nearness of Ellul, and the need for serious introspection.  And the words, the language of the readings, give us a number of hints, guiding our thought patterns gently but certainly, as we enter this time.

On Tisha b’Av by tradition we read the Megillah of Lamentations, known by its first exclamation of desperation and sorrow – Eicha. The word, meaning “How can this be?” or simply “Alas” is not particularly common in bible, yet it appears in both the torah reading and the haftarah today.  It is as if the exclamation is being used as a prompt to our subconscious –“How can we have arrived at this state once more after all our good intentions last year?”

The word is uncommon.  It is used only by three prophets – Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah (here in Lamentations).  But there is another word which looks exactly the same in the unpointed torah text and the Midrash notes this with interest:  After Adam and Eve had eaten of the tree of knowledge of good and evil they hid themselves away from God when God came looking for them in the garden.  And God called out to them “Ayeka” – Where are you?

The words Eicha? And Ayeka? look the same in the unvowelled text.

The Midrash suggest that in that call God was showing all the despair that would later be the Jewish experience at the destruction of Jerusalem – “How lonely sits the city once great with people”. (Lam1:1)

The link is obvious – that it is the choices we make that bring about ill fortune, it is our own behaviour that is the progenitor of our despair.

But there is another way to look at this similarity of consonants – in the passage in Genesis God calls out to human beings “Where are you”, but we might as easily call out to God the same question.  As we survey the destruction of our worlds again and again, we must ask of God – “where are You?”

Some years ago I had a long conversation with a woman congregant who had been brought out of Germany as a child in the kinderstransport, but who had then had to live with the terrible pain of knowing that her family had not survived the camps, had written letters to her begging her to help them out of that hell, had died wondering if she would be able to save them.  She told me that she was not going to fast on Yom Kippur any more.  I said I thought that was reasonable – she was ill and on a great deal of medication, but that wasn’t her point.  “No” she said, “it isn’t the medication, it is just that for nearly 80 years I have been saying sorry to God every Yom Kippur, and now I feel I have done it.  Now it is time for God to begin to say sorry to me”.

Her life had been long and filled with all sorts of pain, emotional, spiritual and physical.  But she had come to the last stretch and she had a problem for God.  It was both the exclamation “Eicha” and the question “Ayeka” – “How could this happen? Where were You?”

The list of the calamities that are said to have occurred on Tisha b’Av is extensive.  The day that the spies reported back that the land was wonderful but would not be easy to take – and the people rejected Moses and Joshua’s urging to go into battle for it – was said to have been Tisha b’Av for example.  And as we consider the violent history of the Jewish people, surviving terrible destructions again and again, we are left with the questions – “How could it have happened again?  Eicha?  And: Where were You? Ayeka?”

As the pain of the Jewish people reverberates down the centuries, so do those two words.

Which brings us to Devarim – and Chazon.

God creates the world in the very beginning of Torah with words – God speaks and the world as we know it emerges.  The huge bulk of Torah takes place in the midbar, the place where the action of speech and the words spoken create a space in which God can be encountered.  Wilderness, unstructured and unowned land – the dimension where ideas can be embodied not only in our usual use of language but in our very existence.  And at the end of the book of Numbers, known as Bemidbar, the narration leaves us poised on the edge of the land, with Moses about to die and told to anoint Joshua, the only other survivor of the midbar experience, as his successor.  Moses passes on his authority of leadership, he climbs a mountain so as to see the midbar where he has spent most of his life, and the land of Canaan which he will never enter, and then he begins to speak. Devarim. Words pour from him in a torrent. His memories, his meaning, his purpose – his very soul. Facing his end he chooses to mirror the actions of God at the creation of the world – he uses words to bring into being the most important things he knows.  He answers the questions “Eicha” – how can these situations happen?”  And “Ayeka – where are You?”

The situations happen because we contribute again and again to them happening.  Where is God?– God is right here.  Moses wants us to know these answers. He puts an enormous amount of energy into reminding us, calling heaven and earth as witness. He rehearses our history – and our complicity in it.  He offers blessings and curses and repeats the simple rule – what we choose to do always has consequences.  And he tells us again and again how God is waiting for us, is close to us, is never far away and only waiting for our call.  Poor Moses – it is learning he can never quite pass on to us, for each of us has to learn it for ourselves.

Today is Shabbat Devarim. It marks the beginning of the book of Moses’ final and more distilled teachings to go with us into the future when Moses cannot.  It is the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av, a day of almost resigned and patient waiting for the worst after almost three weeks of semi mourning.  Words seem to be useless now. They cannot change the future.  We arealmost weighed down by the number of them being prayed and read, exclaimed or muttered.

Words are everywhere – we cannot get away from them. And they begin to lose their power to reach us, so many words surround us.

And so Isaiah brings us something else along to help us with all these words – he brings a vision, a different sense of how to interpret and understand the world.

The vision of Isaiah son of Amotz….  Isaiah’s vision projects onto the harsh reality around him and establishes a different kind of perspective. Isaiah reminds us that at the Creation God spoke, and God saw.  Sometimes, when the words aren’t enough any more, it is important to draw back and to see. To notice, to observe and perceive, to witness.

We Jews are a people of words, and we can use words in so many clever ways. We are sometimes able to block out our reality for a time with a judicious use of language.  We are sometimes able to confuse ourselves or others about the truth of our lives.  We can construct so many different worlds, from the minutiae of our legal system to the legends chronicled in our midrashim.  By declaring time sacred, we can make it so for the period of Shabbat.  By asserting our scriptural narrative we can make order in the universe.  But sometimes we need not to declare or proclaim, but to look, and to really see.  We may have a prayer called “Shema” – Listen!  which we expect others as well as ourselves to hear as we recite it, but we also have a torah reading “Re’eh” – see!

Moses, our greatest prophet, said of himself that he was not so good with words.  He had instead the experience, the encounter, the vision, to take him and our people through the wilderness and to the edge of the promised land. Our prophets were also men – and women – of vision, something we occasionally choose to forget.

But this Shabbat we are reminded – Chazon as well as Devarim – Vision as well as words, to look as well as to speak and listen.

As we enter Tisha b’Av we will need both of these senses fully honed.  And in the run up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur which these liturgical events signal to us, we are reminded- use words to understand the world and explain it to ourselves and to God, use words to pray, to ask, to meet each other – but never forget the other sense – stand back and really take a long hard look at our world and our place in it.  Watch ourselves and perceive our own contribution to where we now are.  Forget our clever use of words just for once, and instead, use our sight our foresight, our imagination, our revelation – get in touch once more with our own vision.

Balak of Moab who did not know what he did not know

Israel faces a crisis – and yet does not seem to know it. Balak, King of Moab, is alarmed at the prospect of Israel crossing his land, has seen what they have done to others as they have journeyed towards his land. The Canaanites were entirely destroyed at Hormah (Num 21:3),  then it was the turn of Sichon the King of the Amorites (21;25-26)  who would not let them pass through his land and was defeated and destroyed, and finally Og the King of Bashan (21:35) who also went out to battle against them was utterly ruined. So Balak chose to get some supernatural help, and approached Balaam, a well known prophet the power of whose blessings and curses were legendary.

The sidra focuses entirely on the negotiations between Balaam and Balak, and the consequences of this discussion. What is happening in the Israelite camp is irrelevant – bible is telling us what is happening “offstage” so to speak, a side story that is however hugely important to the Jewish people even today.

Famously, to begin prayer, we take from this sidra the final words of Balaam, which he speaks almost without conscious intent. Balaam is hired to curse the people of Israel, though he knows that he cannot do this, for God has made clear that the Israelites are special and that the normal rules of blessing and cursing them will not apply. At the end of a long process of attempted curses in order to satisfy the wishes of his paymaster Balak, Balaam blurts out the phrase “Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael” – “how good are your tents Jacob, your dwelling places Israel” and this statement is taken by us as a blessing, and used as the phrase with which we begin our services – a tradition that was already established by the time the 9th century Babylonian Rav Amram compiled his first siddur and instructed us “”When entering a synagogue say: ‘Mah tovu ohalecha. . . V’ani, b’rov chas’d’cha; I, through your abundant love, enter your house; I bow down reverently at Your holy temple.”

Our liturgy begins deliberately by turning the curse of an enemy into a blessing for us to express our delight in entering a synagogue, confident that God will accept our prayer. The Talmud understands the tents and dwelling places as being the synagogues and houses of study of the Jewish people (Sanhedrin 105b). The Midrash on the other hand, quoted by Rashi (ad loc) (also Baba Batra 60a), sees the phrase as a paean of praise to modesty and privacy: “When Balaam saw that the tents of the Israelites were set up so that the entrance of one did not face the entrance of another, he praised them with the “Ma Tovu”.

Both traditions are teaching that it is the thoughtful behaviour of the Jews, either their respect for each other’s private space and personal modesty, or else the connection to God through prayer and study, that brings about the change in Balaam’s words, transforming attempted curse to fluent blessing. And that may indeed be a good lesson to draw from the story, but I think it is important to see respect for the other not as an end in itself, but as an important way of being.

To take this further: In this sidra the Israelites had no idea that Balak was so nervous of them. They were not intending to destroy Moab (Deut 2:8-9) who were distant relatives, being descended from Lot the nephew of Abraham. So while Balak was terrified of this horde of people who seemed to be destroying the peoples in their path – and was presumably ignorant of the requests for safe passage that were sent by the Israelites but that were not accepted and instead met with hostility and warriors – the people themselves knew nothing of their effect on the other peoples of the land. They see themselves only as innocents, wishing to travel through, to take nothing but what they would genuinely trade or buy from the inhabitants.

So the ignorance of Balak is matched – even dwarfed – by the ignorance of the Israelites, both of the effect they were having on others, and the reputation they were creating for themselves. Their ignorance extended to the machinations of the Moabite King and the professional prophet he hired, and also to the work that God put in to protect the Israelite people travelling through the desert. In the words of Donald Rumsfeld, they did not know what they did not know.

While Rumsfeld, then US defence secretary, was (unfairly) awarded the Plain English Campaign’s trophy for most obfuscating remark in December 2003 for the words: “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know”. (Rumsfeld on February 12, 2002 at a press briefing at the White House on WMD)  The story of Balak is illuminated for me by his words. The Israelites knew the things they knew – though they did not always respond in the way that that knowledge would lead one to expect. They knew that God was looking out for them and providing for them, but they still rebelled; They also knew some things that they did not know – how to get into the land, when that would be, if they would succeed.  But they simply didn’t know how they were being perceived by the peoples whose land they needed to cross to get to Israel, they didn’t know how their reputation grew to be so fearsome that Balak was desperate for extra help, and they didn’t know that God was quietly active in the background in order to protect them.

What God is doing in this narrative remains, to the Israelites, an “unknown unknown”. Rabbi John Rayner would say that God does not intervene in the world, but that God is active in the world –meaning that God’s will is manifested in the actions of people: the choices by Balak and Balaam in this text, as well as the behaviour of the Israelites, being prime examples. Our daily actions, how we conduct ourselves and how that leads other people perceive us matters; indeed it is the one thing that can transform our world, that is able to transform curses to blessings. We cannot know the totality of the effects our choices have, but I would like to think that modern Jews and Israelites are more aware and perceptive than their ancient forbears about the effects on, and the analyses of, the peoples and lands around them of their actions. It cannot be enough to care for the wellbeing only of other Jews. It cannot be enough to spend our time in study and prayer. Such caring, such study must lead to good and ethical action, to being part of the action of God in the world.

The choices we make in our behaviour matters. How other people see us, even if we are currently unaware of them, or do not notice them, or find ways to sideline them – matters. If we see something as self defence but others see it as aggression – it matters. Even if their construction of events is something we would not recognise, their understanding must be understood and taken seriously and addressed. The bible is clear that God does not intervene in history – the story of the talking donkey shows how the bible views such intervention – but it is equally clear that the choices people make, whether they fully understand the situation or are in apparent ignorance of it, have real effects in the world. It is up to us, as it was to Balaam, to make the choices God would wish us to make, or we may find that the situation is taken out of our hands and we will lose the chance to make good choices and bring the will of God into our world. How then will curses be turned into blessings?

previously published on lbc.ac.uk