Vayelech: the time for us to grow up and take responsibility for our choices is upon us. or: the bnei mitzvah of the people of Israel

Eight years ago one of my dearest friends was about to be seventy years old, and she decided to celebrate this momentous and biblical age by having her batmitzvah. I had tried to persuade her to do this for years and she had brushed me off; it is typical of her that she made her choice by herself on a date that had such resonance, and then throw herself into study and thinking for herself.  We talked a little about the date and the sidra, and then she chose to direct her own study and do her own research. Luckily she sent me a near final draft. I say luckily because she never read this drasha or celebrated that long awaited day, for with everything planned and organised and ready to go, she suffered a cataclysmic and sudden bereavement and the weekend was taken over instead with grief and shock and the arrangements to honour the dead.

We spoke a while afterwards about her celebrating her batmitzvah on a different date but we both knew that was not really going to happen. The anticipated joy would never be the same, the shadow of grief never quite left her, and she too would depart this world suddenly and unexpectedly and quite dramatically, leaving the rest of us a small flavour of the shock she had experienced on the day of her birthday batmitzvah, to grieve and to question, and to process the reality of what happens when a life is torn from the world without warning.

Checking my computer recently, and thinking also of her as I do at this time of year, I came across an email where she had sent me this draft of the drasha she was to give to the community she had been at the heart of for so many years. With the permission of her children, I want to share it here.

“Vayelech is the shortest parsha in the Torah. It is 30 verses long, and I don’t recall ever hearing it read. In non-leap years like this one it is linked with Nitzavim. When I read Nitzavim-Vayelech they held together. They are followed next week by Ha’azinu which, when I looked it up I discovered is one the 10 Shirot [songs] conceived or written as part of the Almighty’s pre-Creation preparations. The only one still to be written is the song we will sing when the Messiah comes. 

We are coming to the end of the Torah. This name, given to the first of the three sections of the Hebrew Bible, is better translated as Teaching. We are coming to the end of the month of Elul the month in which we begin to prepare for the approaching High Holy Days, and in the coming week we will celebrate Rosh Hashanah which in turn is followed by the 10 days of penitence and Yom Kippur. Then in roughly a month’s time on Simchat Torah we will finish reading the Teaching, the end of Deuteronomy, and seamlessly begin Bereishit – Genesis – again. 

Vayelech must contain the most important rite of passage in the whole history of our planet. But we will come to that.  

Israel is camped in its tribal groups on the banks of the Jordan, waiting to cross. The preceding parsha, Nitzavim, tells of Moses addressing the whole of Israel, in preparation for entering the land God has promised them. He reminds them they are standing before God, and is clear that every person is included in this relationship.

 [my son] tells me I can tell one joke… a clear example of don’t do as I do, do as I say …but I have two, and we will come to the second soon. A very good friend sent me a card, writing in it “I saw this, and thought of you.” The cartoon was a line drawing of 2 dogs, the larger one saying: “I understand more commands than I obey.” I hope you agree with me, that this is arguable!

Moses and God know from experience that the Children of Israel will fail to follow God’s Teaching. 

Moses warns those listening to him that the consequences of disobedience will be that the land will become desolate, but mitigates this by prophesying they will make t’shuvah, return to the right way, and God will reconcile with them and bring them back.

 And he says something that has always troubled me:  that the commandment he is giving to them and so to us “is not beyond you, or too remote. Not in Heaven, or across the sea. It is very close to you… in your mouth and in your heart, so you can do it.”

 What I have never been sure of is what this is, what it is that is in my heart, and in my mouth?  Not the 10 Commandments – too many!    And not the 613 mitzvot buried in the text. And then the man who is not my chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks said quite plainly on radio 4, no less, what it is, even quoting where I should find it. It is found in Genesis chapter 18, vv 17 – 19, where God is choosing Abraham because he deals with his household with Tzedakah and Mishpat:  two words which together give the meaning of justice tempered with mercy. This is how we hope God will deal with us on Yom Hakippurim.

 And finally Moses said that we have a choice, God has given us the choice of life and death – blessing and curse. We should choose to love God and walk in God’s path and keep God’s commandments. And just as the penalties for not doing so have been listed, the rewards of obeying are explained. 

What we have been told is that all Israel is equally bound by this covenant, regardless of social position or occupation. And that even if we disobey God’s Laws there can be future redemption.

Further, we know that obedience to God’s Laws is within our scope. 

And also that we are to have that freedom to choose that sets us apart from the animals.

 And then we come to today’s portion, .Vayelech “And he went” which is the beginning of the rite of passage for the Children of Israel.

 There is to be a change of “Top Management”. This is the day of Moses’s 120th birthday, and Moses has finally accepted that it is also his death day. It’s been hard for Moses to come to terms with his mortality, and he has behaved a little like a child trying to justify not going to bed, not just yet. There’s no time to discuss this today, try reading Louis Ginsberg’s Legends of the Jews. God has been forbearing with this servant with whom God has been in conversation for the last 40 years.

 In this time the generations born into slavery have died, and the people who are born into freedom have known no other Leader. Moses has taught them, settled disputes, referred knotty halachic problems directly to God, and brought back the answers. It is explained that God will go with them, and lead them across the Jordan. Further, that although Moses may not go, they will have Joshua.

 Moses has been frightened of dying, and the Almighty has shown him Aaron’s painless death. God is giving him the signal honour of dying on the anniversary of his birthday, and although Moses is not to be allowed to cross the Jordan God has taken him to look down upon the land.

 Moses is kept busy on this day – there are the tribes to address, and writing enough copies of the Teaching to give one to each tribe, and lodge one in the Ark of the Covenant. This is talked of as a witness against the people, but I suppose it’s the master copy, and proof of God’s promises and provisions. Moses writes The Scroll to the very end, until it is finished, which is taken to mean that it is prophetic, containing as it does an account of his death. Further, the Almighty gives him a message to deliver, and a song of 43 verses, one of the 10 Shirot, to teach to the people.

  How many people do you think there were, camped by the river? How many going into the Promised Land?

 Jacob went to Egypt with 72 souls in his household. A rabble of 600,000 freed slaves left Egypt – and these were the men of fighting age. Add their relatives – minimally a wife each, one child. – Not parents and siblings – this could cause doubtful accounting – a conservative estimate would be 1,800,000 people. No wonder manna was needed!

Nor was it just Jews who escaped Egypt, plenty of escapee opportunists would have taken the chance, and been the “strangers within your gates” who are to have equality under the covenant with Jacob’s descendants.

 The instruction was given for this to be read every seven years in the shemittah year. All Israel is commanded to gather at Succot in the place God has appointed (eventually the Temple in Jerusalem) and the King read to the people from the Scroll.

 And the chapter ends with the prediction that Israel with turn away from God, and that God’s reaction would be to turn God’s face away from them – but also with the promise that their descendants will not forget the words which will remain in their mouths.

 So what is happening?

 It seems that with the completion of the Torah and our entry into the Promised Land, our Creator considers we are grown up. We have the Torah; we have the record in it of discussions and decisions. We are aware that we can judge matters between human beings – but not matters between human beings and God. We cannot deal with these because it is not our business to govern or over-rule another’s conscience.

 God will not appoint another Moses – there is to be no dynastical continuity. No further theophanies. Israel has become a nation of priests with everyone having access to the Almighty and to God’s mercy.

 And when we begin Genesis all over again, we go back to Creation and the dysfunctional families of Adam and Noah. When we come to Abraham, look out for the Teaching and how it is built on chapter by chapter.

 And where’s the second joke? – listen to the translation.”

Sadly, we never heard the second joke. And the poignancy of some of the comments in the drasha make for difficult reading for those who knew her and knew her later story, though the mischief of her personality comes through this text for me, as does her clear and certain faith in God. This was a woman who, as administrator in the synagogue, would regularly leave open the door to the sanctuary in her office hours “because God likes to go for a walk”, but actually so that visitors would feel able to enter and sit and offer their prayers or order their thoughts. She would tidy up the siddurim and make sure they were properly shelved, saying that upside down books “gave God a headache”, to cover her need to honour God by keeping the synagogue neat. She spent hundreds of hours talking to the lonely, reassuring the frightened, supporting the vulnerable. She spent hundreds of hours creating the databases and systems to ensure that the synagogue ran as effectively as it could. And the roots of all this voluntary caring for the synagogue community was her own life’s struggles and her awareness that if God considers we are grown up now, with equal access to the Almighty and no “top management” to direct us, then we had better get on with it, with the work of creating and sustaining the world with tzedakah and mishpat, with righteousness and justice.

In this period of the Ten Days, as we reflect on the lives we are leading, the choices we are making, and the mortality that will come for us all, either with or without warning, I read her drasha as a modern ”unetaneh tokef”, and, as I was for so many years when I was her rabbi and she my congregant, I am grateful for the learning I had from her.

 

In memoriam Jackie Alfred. September 1940 – January 2017

 

 

 

 

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.