On the Anniversary of Moses’s Death, We Can Prepare for Ours

The Jewish month of Adar is known primarily for the celebration of Purim. This holiday, recognizing the events of the biblical book of Esther in which Esther was able to save the Persian Jewish population from destruction at the hands of Haman, is marked by fun and games and a lighthearted tone. It falls on the 15th of Adar which this year begins on Saturday night March 11.

In the month of Adar, however, we have another anniversary. While not a holiday per se, it is a date our tradition records as one of note: the 7th of Adar, which is traditionally understood to be the yahrzeit (death anniversary) of Moses. Moses, who the Torah records as leading the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery through the wanderings in the desert to the edge of the Promised Land, dies just short of reaching the goal. The Torah ends, in fact, with Moses’s death and tradition records that it was God who buried him.

The recounting of the story in the Torah is simple, sweet and sparse. The classical midrash (commentary) comes to fill in the gaps in what happened on this last day of Moses’s life, here as recounted in the famous modern collection of classical midrash, The Legends of the Jews by Louis Ginzburg: (a big long, but worthwhile)

On the seventh day of Adar, Moses knew that on this day he should have to die, for a heavenly voice resounded, saying, “Take heed, O Moses, for you have only one more day to live.” What did Moses now do? On this day he wrote thirteen scrolls of the Torah, twelve for the twelve tribes, and one he put into the Holy Ark, so that, if they wished to falsify the Torah, the one in the Ark might remain untouched. Moses thought, “If I occupy myself with the Torah, which is the tree of life, this day will draw to a close, and the impending doom will be as naught.” God, however, beckoned to the sun, which firmly opposed itself to Moses, saying, “I will not set, so long as Moses lives.” When Moses had completed writing the scrolls of the Torah, not even half the day was over. He then bade the tribes come to him, and from his hand receive the scrolls of the Torah, admonishing the men and women separately to obey the Torah and its commands…

Moses on this day showed great honor and distinction to his disciple Joshua in the sight of all Israel. A herald passed before Joshua through all the camp, proclaiming, “Come and hear the words of the new prophet that hath arisen for us today!” All Israel approached to honor Joshua. Moses then gave the command to fetch hither a golden throne, a crown of pearls, a royal helmet, and a robe of purple. He himself set up the rows of benches for the court, for the heads of the army, and for the priests. Then Moses betook himself to Joshua, dressed him, put the crown on his head, and bade him be seated upon the golden throne to deliver from it a speech to the people…

While Joshua and all Israel still sat before Moses, a voice from heaven became audible and said, “Moses, thou hast now only four hours of life.” Now Moses began to implore God anew: “O God of the world! If I must die only for my disciple’s sake, consider that I am willing to conduct myself as if I were his pupil; let it be as if he were high priest, and I a common priest; he is king, and I his servant.” God replied: “I have sworn by My great name, which ‘the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain,’ that thou shalt not cross the Jordan.” Moses: “God of the world! Let me at least, by the power of the Ineffable Name, fly like a bird in the air; or make me like a fish transform my two arms to fins and my hair to scales, that like a fish I may leap over the Jordan and see the land of Israel.” God: “If I comply with your wish, I shall break My vow. Moses: “Let me skim the land with my glance.” God: “In this point will I comply with your wish….God thereupon showed him all the land of Israel….

To this mountain [Nebo], upon God’s command, Moses betook himself at noon of the day on which he died.

This beautiful story shows us a more complex approach to dying than does the Torah itself. Understanding that he is to die, Moses takes it upon himself to get his affairs in order: he writes Torah scrolls to give to the tribes so that his teaching lives on. And he honors his successor Joshua in front of the entire community so that he can be assured that there would be continuity in the congregation and that it will continue on with out him.

But Moses does not go easy. He thinks by taking on the project of writing the scrolls his death will be delayed since it would take so long. And he pleads and bargains with God to allow him to go into the land, even though he knows that is not to be his destiny.

Moses’s death, like all death, is filled with competing tendencies—a desire to be prepared and a desire to resist. And as with Moses, so too with us. Death is a hard subject to think about, though we all must no one of us wants to.

The 7th of Adar, Moses’s yartzeit, can thus take on special significance for us. And it has, in contemporary Jewish practice. While not a “holiday,” the 7th of Adar has become a day of special significance. Some traditional religious Jews would fast on this day. And as a community, the 7th of Adar was the date on which the local chevra kadisha (burial society) would meet, have a banquet and conduct any business that needed to be done. It was a date that the community set aside to deal with the communal preparations for deaths in the community.

And we can use the 7th of Adar (this year falling on Sunday, March 5) as an opportunity to think about our own death and, like Moses, overcome the resistance to do what we need to do to prepare. Moses knew he was dying, and moved to get his affairs in order. But we do not need to wait. We can begin to think about things like advance directives, Do Not Resuscitate orders, what type of funeral service we would like, how do we get our affairs in order, ethical wills and on and on. These are all things that we can do now so as to put our mind at ease, let our wishes be know, and take decision-making burdens off of our children and loved ones.

On the traditional anniversary of his death, we can follow the example of our greatest spiritual figure Moses and do the work to ease the way for the next stage of the journey, both ours and those who come after us.

Being Good Citizens

In this week’s Torah portion the Israelites, under the leadership of Moses, have escaped from Egyptian slavery, crossed the Red Sea and are beginning their journey to the Promised Land. Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, has heard about the events that took place, and travels from his home in Midian to meet up with Moses in the Wilderness. Jethro brings Moses’s wife and children, and the family is reunited. Jethro congratulates Moses on the victory and offers up a blessing to God on behalf of the Israelites.

The next day, its business as usual, and, as the text describes, Moses takes his position at the head of the community to adjudicate the disputes of the Israelites:

Next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening. But when Moses’ father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” Moses replied to his father-in-law, “It is because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God.” But Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. (Exodus 18:13-18)

Jethro then advises Moses to set up a system of system of judges wherein selected leaders would be placed over smaller groups of people, “over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens,” with each leader handling the disputes of the group that they are overseeing. Larger disputes make their way up the chain, and Moses is left just handling the most important and difficult cases.

It is a system of jurisprudence that is familiar to us, with lower courts handling local disputes with the ability to appeal to higher courts as necessary.

This story of Jethro is taken to teach the importance not only of having an orderly court system, but to have an organized system of leadership in general. Moses running the entire community by himself was not sustainable neither for him nor for the people. We recognize the need to have institutions of government in order to facilitate community and ensure that everyone’s needs are met.

But Jethro has another lesson for Moses. For before advising Moses to set up the system of leaders he says to him, “enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow.” (Exodus 18:20)

In other words, Jethro says before you set up a system of judges, make sure the people themselves know the law and what is expected of them as members of the community. A successful system, therefore, is one that not only relies on a functional system of government but on an active and engaged citizenry.

Earlier this week I sat on a panel at The Evergreen State College on the subject of religious liberty and specifically how it relates to the LGBTQ community. I represented a faith community perspective in a wide ranging conversation in which we talked about law, discrimination and the Constitution, circling around the Arlene’s Flowers case, in which a florist was sued for discrimination for refusing to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding claiming it violated her religious beliefs. (The Washington Supreme Court unanimously decided against her on Thursday.)

During my opening remarks, I cited the famous letter from George Washington to the Jewish community in Newport, RI in 1790, which has become a sacred text to the American Jewish community. In that letter, a response from Washington to a letter of congratulations sent to him by the congregation on the occasion of his inauguration, he writes,

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

I’ve always knew this letter to be an affirmation of religious liberty, especially important to a minority faith community wary perhaps of its position in this new country. But in reading it again we see that while Washington affirms those rights, he also notes that at the same time in order for those rights to be guaranteed, those who live by them should behave as “good citizens.”

From Jethro to George Washington the message is that while we have leaders and guides, the obligation rests on us to know what is expected of us and to behave accordingly.

We are responsible for our civic lives, needing to be educated in our laws, our rights and responsibilities and to conduct ourselves in such a way that we not only exercise them for ourselves but guarantee them for others. Courts can serve as a correction when things go wrong, but the onus is on us to treat everyone fairly.

And we are responsible for our own spiritual lives, needing to be educated in our traditions, texts and practices and to find our place within them in order to live out our values and convictions. We can find others who serve as teachers and guides, but we can not expect others to do it for us.

In both instances, we ourselves are expected to “know the way we are to go.”

Moses and Aaron: Allies for Justice

The Inauguration is upon us. The peaceful transfer of power that is a hallmark of our American democracy goes into effect on Friday. Yet this time power is being transferred to a man who enters the office with the lowest approval rating in recent history, who lost the popular vote by 3 million votes, whose entry into office will be marked by protests across the country of unprecedented scale.

There is an intriguing juxtaposition of these events and our Torah reading this week, parashat Shemot. This week we read in the Torah the beginning of the Exodus. As we move from the Book of Genesis to the Book of Exodus, we make the transition to a book of a family’s saga to the book of a national epic. Jacob and his sons have settled in Egypt and have become a people.

This people, however, is seen as a threat to the new Pharaoh. The new Pharaoh who, the text says, did not know Joseph. In other words, he did not know his history, he did not know of the relationship and bond between the majority Egyptians and the minority Israelites. Seeing them as his enemies, as those who could even overthrow him, he enslaves them.

We are introduced to the character of Moses, who will dominate the rest of the Torah. Born a slave, but sent off by his mother, he is raised an Egyptian in the house of the Pharaoh. When as a young man he sees an Egyptian overseer beating an Israelite slave, something stirs in him and he kills the guard, then flees to Midian to escape punishment.

It is there in Midian he makes a new life, a new family. And it is there in Midian that he gets the call that will change the course of his life and of the world.

Tending sheep one day he notices a bush on fire, but the fire is not consuming the bush. From the bush comes a voice, the voice of God, who tells Moses that he is to go back to Egypt to free the Israelites. After some argument—Moses is a reluctant hero—and assurances that God will support him and he will have his brother Aaron as a helper, Moses answers the call and heads back to Egypt.

As the story continues, a story that we know from retelling, from the Passover celebration, or even popular imagination, Moses confronts Pharaoh, demanding that he release the Israelites. Pharaoh continues to refuse, and Moses exhortations get stronger, more strident and when accompanied by the plagues, more perilous to the Egyptian society.

It is a powerful story of telling truth to power, of standing up to despotism, of making the plea for equality, liberation and justice. It is a story that we know resonated with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whom we celebrated this past week. And it is a powerful story that will hopefully resonate with us as new leadership takes over at the highest levels of our government.

There is, as our Torah teaches in this story, the opportunity and obligation to call out that which we know to be wrong. That we do not need to be nor should we be silent in the face of oppression. And that we have the power to confront our rulers when we seek change.

But in addition to reaching up, we also must reach across. We must reach across to our neighbor, our fellow community members. For what is most important, what forms the strongest society, what allows us to be successful in what we hope to accomplish, are the relationships that we are able to forge.

The Torah models this for us as well. For Moses knows that he can not go it alone. Standing in front of the bush he says in the text that he is “slow of speech,” and asks God for someone else to be the divine emissary. But God insists, and tells him the Aaron his brother will be by his side. We can say that “slow of speech” is up for interpretation, so while it can be interpreted as a speech impediment, or as lack of eloquence, we can also say that Moses understands that one person’s words by themselves may not be that effective. That what is needed is not a soloist, but a chorus.

Aaron’s presence symbolizes the strength in numbers. Aaron’s presence represents the need for allies in the fight for justice.

And how does one be an ally? Aaron and Moses meet for the first time shortly after the episode of the burning bush. Moses returns to his family in Midian, and prepares to return to Egypt. We read in the text, “God said to Aaron, ‘go to meet Moses in the wilderness.’ He went and met him at the mountain of God, and he kissed him.” (Exodus 4:27)

Aaron doesn’t wait for Moses to return to Egypt. Aaron goes out to meet Moses where he is. And that is how we become allies, how we form strong relationships: we meet people where they are. We go out of our way to connect with them. We recognize that it isn’t about the “I” it is about the “we.” We support each other, we give of ourselves, we uplift each other’s tactics even when they differ. We make sure that challenging external threats is not compromised by needless division and infighting.

We turn towards, and not against each other.

It is through these relationships that we can overthrow the Pharaoh, free the oppressed, envision a better world and climb the mountain of God.

Swinging Across the Jordan

I didn’t post last week because I was away at summer camp. Each summer for the past few years I have spent a week as a faculty member at URJ Camp Kalsman, a Jewish summer camp in Arlington, WA. I spend my week leading services, tutoring for b’nai mitzvah, teaching Torah, hosting a reception for the counselors and overall spending time with campers (some from my congregation) and staff.

It is also a bit of a retreat week for me as I get to spend the week away from home and work with nice accommodations, three meals a day and a beautiful setting up north. I use some of my down time to relax, but also do to preparation work—think about the High Holidays, do some planning for the year ahead, and read and study.

Getting outside is also part of the camp experience, of course. The camp sits on a lot of land, so I had occasion to hike around the camp lake, and into the woods in search of a waterfall. The former was easy, the latter was a bit of an adventure into the woods on a poorly marked trail, but my friend and fellow faculty member and I forged ahead and found it.

Leaving camp is also an option (as an adult its possible to leave camp, but it still feels weird in any event—if you have been to overnight camp you understand what I mean). I do usually leave camp once or twice—there is a nearby spot that I like to visit when I am at camp, a swimming hole on the south fork of the Stillaguamish River.

The swimming hole is off of Jordan Road, and I thought it was funny that there is a Jordan Road near a Jewish camp, especially as the weekly Torah reading cycle during mid- to late-summer brings us to Deuteronomy, when the Israelites are camped out on the eastern side of the Jordan River preparing to enter into the Promised Land. After their forty years of wandering, the Israelites are ready to move forward, but not before Moses gives one last speech. The Book of Deuteronomy is essentially this speech: part retelling of the journey, part review of the laws, part pep talk, part admonition for good behavior.

If you have been to Israel you know the Jordan River is not that impressive. It is a surprising modest body of water. The Stillaguamish off Jordan Road near Arlington is more impressive. The swimming hole I go to is at a slow part of the river, the rocky and sandy riverbed serves as a nice beach, and the water is deep, calm and cool.

There is a rope swing there, and while I was there this past week a bunch of kids had commandeered the rope. They took turns jumping off into the water. One girl was excited to try for the first time, but noticeably nervous. Her friends and her parents were there watching. Her father coached her on the proper technique—to wait until the rope is at its farthest point and then let go, he even said he would tell her when to let go. She was hesitant and stood there for quite a while as her parents and friends coaxed her on.

It was a tense moment, and I watched with interest. It was a moment that I felt in my gut— I thought back to times when I was in the situation of that girl, coaxed on to do something risky and scary, how nervous I was, and the feeling of internal and external pressure. And I felt it as a father, I understand those times when you are sensitive to pressuring your kids too much to do something they don’t want to do, while at the same time wanting to encourage your kids to stretch themselves and try something new.

Moses’s speech to the Israelites is in that same vein: coaxing them to do something risky, something nervewracking, all the while knowing that while it will be scary, it is a necessary step into the unknown that will allow the Israelites to grow as a people. Two rivers, two leaps forward.

The girl swung, and the look of joy, relief and accomplishment on her face when she came out of the water was electric. She swam over to her father and gave him a big bear hug. Her fears overcome, her goal accomplished, she offered appreciation to one who had shown her love and support at her leap.

In that moment I realized that we are all in that position at times, that of the Israelites or the girl on the swing: while we naturally want to be cautious, we know that ultimately without risk, without swallowing our nerves and taking a leap forward, we are not going to know what we are truly capable of.

That Which is Buried Can Also Be Unearthed

Last week I watched a short documentary called Atari: Game Over, about the rise and fall of the video game company which, in the 1970s, popularized home video gaming systems. I have fond memories of hours spent playing my Atari 2600 when I was a kid.

The framing of the documentary, which dove deep into the early days of home video gaming and the development of an industry that we take for granted today (now that we have games on our phones, and phones themselves), was the investigation of an urban legend: that in 1983 Atari dumped millions of copies of a video game based on the movie ET in a landfill in New Mexico. This act, and the story surrounding it, was the symbolic end of the company that had fallen on hard times.

The filmmakers set off to find out the truth to this legend, by digging up the landfill to see if the game cartridges were there. With a local garbage historian, who used old photos and records to determine where exactly in this large landfill would the Atari dump be, they excavate the site using archaeological techniques: digging, sifting and sorting. In the end, the dumped games were found, although elements of the urban legend were disproven: the number of dumped cartridges was closer to 700,000, not millions, and the dump wasn’t exclusively of the ET game, but of a host of other games and inventory. In the end only about 1300 game cartridges were unearthed, the rest remained buried. So while the overall legend was exaggerated, the story itself was true.

The burial motif brought to mind this week’s Torah portion, Korach. In it there is yet another uprising by the Israelites against God and Moses. Usually it is brought about by complaints about their station—their lack of food or water, or their lack of settledness—but this time is different. This rebellion, led by the portion’s namesake Korach and fronted by a small group of followers, is against Moses’s leadership specifically. “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and God is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the God’s congregation?” charges Korach against Moses.

Moses is obviously not pleased, and neither is God. Korach is disrupting the order of things; Moses’s counterargument is “Come morning, God will make known who is God’s and who is holy, and will grant him access; God will grant access to the one God has chosen.” In other words, yes, Korach, you are an important guy, but you need to respect the hierarchy. Not everyone can be considered “holy,” not everyone has “access.”

The punishment God metes out in this case is a weird one, one that was terrifying as a Hebrew school kid: the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his followers whole. It is certainly dramatic, one need only think of a host of natural disaster movies to imagine fissures in the ground opening up and people falling in. And that is the interesting part about it—the swallowing up whole. Not zapped, not struck down by plague or other divine punishments found in the Torah. The text does not say they die, in fact it specifically says they remain alive. They simply disappear underground.

And what can be buried can be dug up. In the film, the unearthing of these old video games served several purposes: it vindicated the early video game designer who made the game, a trailblazer who was brought down by this one misstep. It served to highlight the fact that the decline of Atari was not even brought about by one bad video game, but by a host of factors. It served as a point of nostalgia for video game aficionados. And, perhaps most importantly, it allowed a community to reflect back on the past with a new perspective, and to see things differently and in a way they weren’t able to at the time.

Sometimes things need to be buried until they can be unearthed again later.

Traditional Jewish interpretation of Korach was that he was wrong and destructive, and he was wrong because his challenge to Moses was disruptive to the proper functioning of the community. Because while we need ideas, we also need order.

But sometimes that order needs to be disrupted. Korach was right: we are all holy creatures, so we should always be suspect of the order and norms to which we have become accustomed. Earlier this week on the Fourth of July I reread the Declaration of Independence and these words jumped out at me: “and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” This was the argument Korach was advancing: we need to think differently sometimes in order to guarantee that the systems we have in place do honor the divinity and holiness of each and every person. We know that in our society we fail in this regard over and over.

And we can also think of Moses and Korach as two competing forces in our own hearts and minds—the push to see and do things differently, to tap into deep truths and recognize our own uniqueness and agency (Korach), and the desire to stay with what is “working,” what is comfortable, what is orderly and what is safe (Moses). We need Moses to provide security and stability, but without Korach we would not grow and expand.

This was the point of the unique fate of Korach in the Torah: Korach was buried alive not as punishment, but as preservation. His message perhaps could not be heard in that particular moment, but it is a necessary one to hold on to.  When the Atari cartridges were unearthed, it unleashed a spirit of joy at the reminder of the innovative, creative and expansive nature of the early video games, despite the financial failure of one company. It allowed for a new story to be told.

Korach reminds us that we too are holy beings. We have the capacity for innovation and creativity and expansiveness. We have the capacity to retell our story. Even if we don’t see it in the moment, it is always there, waiting for the right time to be unearthed and exposed.

Could This One Text Message Have Saved the Lives of 3000 People?

The story of the Golden Calf, which we read in last week’s Torah portion, is a great lesson in punctuality.

In the story, the Israelites have left Egypt and have made their way to Mount Sinai. There they are to get the Torah from God which will form the basis for their new community and new covenant. Moses is to go up on the mountain for 40 days and return with the Torah, but the people start to panic and lose faith, and ask Aaron, Moses’s brother who was left in charge, to make them an idol. God and Moses both get angry, and the result is Moses smashes the stone tablets of the commandments and executes 3,000 of the Israelites.

So where does punctuality fit in? What prompted the Israelites losing faith in God and Moses was the fact that Moses was late coming down the mountain: “When the people saw that Moses delayed in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.’” (Exodus 32:1)

The ancient rabbis in a midrash (Torah commentary) ask the obvious question of the story. How long, they ask, was Moses late in coming down the mountain? Their answer? Six hours. Their answer comes from a play on the Hebrew. The Hebrew word for “delayed,” is boshesh. The rabbis deliberately misread this to be bo shesh, or “come six.” Six hours. The Israelites waited six hours before building an idol.

It is an interesting question: How much time must elapse before we assume something is wrong? How long do we wait before we move on? Or give up? [I remember in college talk of the 15-minute rule, that if a professor did not show up for 15 minutes class was cancelled.] Did the Israelites not wait long enough? The story of the Golden Calf teaches that patience is a virtue, but it can also be tested.

Today, we could imagine that Moses could have simply texted Aaron that he was going to be late, and all of this mess might have been averted. But that too might not have been the best solution.moses-text5

 

Our contemporary technology with cell phones and texting and other communication apps make life very interesting for us. There is a lot of talk about how technology is making the world smaller—that we are now closely connected with those who are geographically far away from us.

At the same time that these apps make the world smaller, they are also making time longer.

I think about my own habits. I am late in picking up my older son from high school more often than I care to admit. I tend to get caught up with things at work or home and do not leave enough time to drive cross town to the school. But because I rely on texting to make a connection—saying “be there soon” or “I’m on my way”—then I feel that its OK to be late. So when I’m supposed to be at the school at 5:00, I text at 4:55 that I’m on my way, and show up around 5:15-5:20. Texting thus just made time longer.

I’m not condoning this behavior, but it is a symptom of our day and age. We feel that we can be less punctual because we send a text or a Facebook message or whatever to indicate we are going to be late, then we don’t feel bad not showing up on time.

We can, though, extend time in positive ways. Earlier this week we had Leap Day, the day added to the end of February every four years (except in years divisible by 400) in order to account for the fact that the Gregorian year and the astronomical year don’t exactly line up. And in our Jewish calendar we are currently in the middle of our Leap Month added to the calendar nine times in a 13-year cycle, to balance the difference between the lunar year and the solar year, which is necessary to keep the holidays in their correct seasons. In both of these cases we extend time in order to make things work better.

But when we extend time in negative ways, in accepting lateness because of easier communication, in thinking we can send a text rather than showing up at an appointed hour, we invite trouble. We need only look at the story of Moses and the Golden Calf to see what disaster might ensue from a lack of punctuality and a lack of respect for another’s time.

The Torah portion this week, which immediately follows the Golden Calf, speaks of the building of the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary that the Israelites are to carry with them as they journey through the wilderness. (An earlier portion gave the instructions, now we read how they were implemented.) But immediately prior to the description of the construction, the Torah gives a reminder of Shabbat, the sacred seventh day of rest:

Moses then convoked the whole Israelite community and said to them: These are the things that God has commanded you to do. On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to God, whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day. (Exodus 35:1-3)

A traditional reading of this juxtaposition connects the idea of Shabbat with the Tabernacle, that even though the Israelites are about to engage in a massive labor project, that they must not neglect the commandment to cease from that labor on Shabbat. (And indeed the type of labor done in the process of building the Tabernacle is the source for the types of labor traditionally prohibited on Shabbat.)

However we could read these verses about observing Shabbat not as a prologue to the building of the Tabernacle, but as an epilogue to the building of the Golden Calf. The Torah reminds of the sanctity of time immediately following a story in which a misuse of time led to communal discord.

Time is sacred. Maybe the Israelites should have waited more. But on the other hand, maybe they should not have been kept waiting in the first place.

Here We Are Again, For the Very First Time

This was one of my favorite phrases to come out of my recent 18-month program on mindfulness and embodied spirituality for Jewish clergy, run by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. One of my teachers, Rabbi Jonathan Slater, spoke them as we came to one of our last mediation sessions of the program.

I echoed these words as I stood on the bimah at the beginning of Rosh Hashanah services this year, and I thought of them as we stood with the Torah unrolled at Simchat Torah a few days ago.

Here we are again, for the very first time.

I love the celebration of Simchat Torah. I love the singing and the dancing. I love throwing candy to the kids and having a glass of schnapps with the grown ups. I love the spiritual raucousness—the idea of letting loose and having fun in a context of ritual and spirituality.

But it isn’t just fun—unrolling the entire Torah scroll and seeing it held aloft by the members of the community (including those who will celebrate their bar or bat mitzvah in the coming year, standing next to their Torah portion) is to me one of the most moving sights. It is moving because it is so rare—we usually engage with the Torah scroll a few columns at a time in a controlled viewing. It is moving because of the physical beauty of a Torah scroll—the weathered parchment created from natural sources and the careful and exquisite calligraphy. And it is moving because of the ancientness of the words themselves, and how generations of Jews have taken them to heart and made them a part of their lives.

And it is moving because of the fact of it being a scroll. There are no real divisions, the words and verses and chapters and books flow into one another. Seeing the whole scroll reminds us of the fact that we liturgically read the whole thing in order, that we are not able to cherry pick verses or sections we want to read, we must read (and wrestle with) all of it. And seeing the scroll we see that once you reach the end, there is nowhere else to go but back to the beginning.

When we gathered for Rosh Hashanah to celebrate the new year, we gathered at the same time and the same place, but we were not the same people. We had lived a whole year with its joys and sorrows, advances and setbacks, victories and defeats. We were there again, for the very first time.

As we set out to engage with the cycle of Torah reading again, the same is true. The words on the scroll never change. We read the same stories, the same laws, the same ethical teachings every year. But we are different each time we read those words. What speaks to us, what resonates with us, what challenges us will be different this year than it was last. As we approach each portion again this year, we can say, here we are again, for the very first time.

The Torah, like us, ends with death and begins with the creation of life. At the end of Deuteronomy, Moses, after having viewed the Promised Land he will not enter, died and is buried. We then go back to the beginning, and read about the creation of the world. Our Torah reading cycle begins anew this Shabbat with Genesis 1.

One of the seeming great ironies of the Torah is that although the narrative arc of the text is the journey of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom and covenant in the Promised Land, the Israelites never make it there. The Torah ends with Moses’s death, with the Israelites still encamped on the eastern shore of the Jordan River. The scroll ends with the journey incomplete.

But perhaps this is not an irony after all. Perhaps the story is meant to be incomplete, that it is not so much about reaching where we are going, but the journey to take us there. For really, do we ever really get to where we are going? We may set goals, we may make plans, but their fulfillment just leads to new goals and new plans. Learning leads to learning, experience leads to experience.

Our lives are linear, but they are also cyclical. We grow and return, return and grow. The cycle of the seasons turns, the cycle of the year turns, and each time we meet them new and fresh. Every day an ending, and every day a beginning.

Each day, we say, here we are again, for the very first time.

At the end of our last retreat, someone edited the schedule...
At the end of our last retreat, someone edited the schedule…