January 19, 2020

Torah Portion: Moving toward possibility

Moses is 120 years old when, in this week’s Torah portion, Va’etchanan, he recalls his recent request of God: “I pleaded with the Eternal at that time, saying, ‘O Eternal God, You who let your servant see the first works of Your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal! Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon’ ” (Deuteronomy 3:23-25).

Every year when I read this passage, I am moved by the optimism of Moses and the firmness of God — “Enough from you! Never speak to me of this thing again! Go up to the summit of Pisgah and gaze about to the west, north, south, east. See with your eyes, but you will not cross over this Jordan” (Deuteronomy 3:26-27).

Why does Moses describe to the Israelites this almost embarrassing scene of his asking God to reconsider and let him into the Land, and God’s steadfast refusal?

Perhaps Moses really thought he could change God’s mind on this subject. After all, in the course of the 40 years, God has shown some flexibility.

Or, well aware of the reticence of their parents toward entering the Promised Land, perhaps Moses wishes to encourage the current generation to go on without him, lest they, too, hesitate at the last minute.

In this moment, even in the face of God’s edict and his likely certain knowledge that his fate had been decided, his hope persisted, and he argues. That’s one definition of hope — working toward one outcome when you expect or fear another. And by demonstrating hope, Moses gives the Israelites a memory of a strength they will need after they cross over the Jordan — something he knows can be a challenge to hang onto.

How hard it can be, at difficult moments, to keep one’s hopes up. Even in less challenging moments, how many of us find that fear of disappointment keeps us from optimistically moving ahead?

This week began at a low point on the Jewish calendar — the sad day of Tisha b’Av, when Jews gather to mourn all the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people. We sit upon the ground, as mourners do, and recount the sad and terrifying story of the destruction of Jerusalem as told in the Book of Lamentations/Eicha. In the heat of summer, we imagine ourselves at every low point in Jewish history, beginning with the moment told in Torah when God condemns the Israelites to wander 40 years in the wilderness. If ever there were a time for Jews to feel hopeless, it would be Tisha b’Av.

And yet, we do not remain long in the depths of sorrow. Even before the day ends, we begin our climb into optimism as the liturgy takes on a more hopeful tone later in the day. And less than a week after Tisha b’Av, we come to Tu b’Av — a minor holiday that some call the Jewish Valentine’s Day. The Shabbat following Tisha b’Av is called Shabbat Nachamu — the Sabbath of comfort. Named for the special haftarah read on it, Shabbat Nachamu is the first of “the seven Sabbaths of consolation” leading us right up to Rosh Hashanah, one of the most hopeful days on the calendar. The haftarah for Shabbat Nachamu begins “Comfort, comfort, My people, says Your God, speak tenderly to Jerusalem” (Isaiah 40:1-2). Just as the week of sitting shivah after a death ends with the mourners taking a walk around the block — re-entering life — so we get up from our sad day of Tisha b’Av and enter our walk toward Rosh Hashanah, “the day of the world’s conception.” What could be more hopeful, more filled with possibility?

Still, even in our Torah portion, there is something perhaps equally hopeful. His request refused by God, Moses simply moves on, focusing on the next generation and the next, trying to prepare them for the road ahead without him. Referring to God’s covenant with us at Horeb/Sinai, he says, “It was not with our fathers that God made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today” (Deuteronomy 5:3). Even though he knows he is about to die, he includes himself — at that moment — among the living. And he also includes every one of us who reads this verse ever after, allowing each of us to stand with Moses, and to make anew our covenant with God.

Lisa Edwards is rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim (bcc-la.org), a Reform synagogue in West Los Angeles.