Each week we feature a different outstanding Florida Rabbi.
Torah Portion of the week:
Rabbi Jackie Wexler
Congregation Shomrei Torah
Va-etchanan: "I pleaded". There is something about the beginning of this week's parsha that is incredibly poignant. The Children of Israel are poised at the banks of the Jordan River, ready to go into and conquer the Promised Land. Reality has hit home to Moses- he will not be joining them. Rather he will die, before entering the Land of Israel. With this realization, he pleads with God to allow him to "cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan.: But God says no; He instructs Moses to climb up to the summit of Pisgah where he may view the land, but he will not step foot in it.
Why now do we have Moses pleading to God? Why didn't he plead when the judgement was first passed, that he would not enter the Land of Israel? Back then we heard nothing from Moses; no complaint, no pleading, nothing.
According to Rabbi Allan Kensky, in an article published in Spring 1991 issue of Reconstructionist Magazine, Moses was in denial. Sure, he had struck the rock, not obeying God on bringing forth water and thus the people's faith in God.....but somehow it seems that Moses never really believed that God wouldn't change His mind. After all, what about all the other times God had made pronouncements, and later softened and changed His mind? Surely, after all was said and done, this time He would as well. By this point in the narrative, Moses has begun to realize, with his death imminent, that he will in fact die before the people enter the Land.
This denial is only the beginning. For as Rabbi Kensky points out, Midrash uses this silence as a beginning point- to teach us the stages in grieving, and hopefully ultimately accepting our own death. Five stages are apparent in this process: denial, anger, bargaining, despair, and acceptance. If these five stages sound familiar, one only has to look at the name of this article, "On Death and Dying and the Last Days of Moses" to hear vestiges of the work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her work with terminally ill patients. Only our sages were teaching the same things 1500 years before she was a twinkle in anyone's eye!
I have taught this particular Midrash on a number of occasions, and people are always astounded to recognize these stages in the text. But what often becomes less noticed, is the end result of the process. Up until the real acceptance of his death, Moses is truly struggling, and at odds even with himself. It is with acceptance that we sense a real peace beginning to descend, and Moses' heart can turn to his people, whom he has sheparded for so long. We read: ""They came and said to Moses: The hour has come for you to take leave of this world. He said to them: Wait for me so that I might bless Israel who had no satisfaction from me all the days of my life because of the many admonitions and warnings I gave them. He began by blessing each tribe individually. when he saw that time was running out he included them all in one blessing. He said to them: The time of my death has come. He said to Israel, I caused you much pain through the Torah and commandments. Now forgive me. They said to him, Our lord our teacher, you are forgiven. Then Israel stood and said to him: Our teacher Moses, we brought you much trouble and pain. Forgive us. Said he: You are forgiven."
How wonderful it is to have the chance for such reconciliation! As long as Moses was not at the point of accepting his own mortality, he could not turn towards the people he loved. It was only with such acceptance that he, and they, could join together in love. Moses is the parental figure, who had to reprimand and admonish his children on many occasions, in order to teach them and guide them in how they needed to live. Isn't this the true job of any parent? When the Children of Israel left Egypt, it was as though they were infants; without Torah, they did not yet know right and wrong. They needed to be taught. Throughout their wanderings in the wilderness, they are depicted almost as adolescents-wanting instant gratification, whining constantly, unappreciative....it fell on Moses'shoulders to be the parental figure and discipline them. On their part, the Children of Israel did their best trying his patience in the process.
This reconciliation at the end then, just before his death, therefore teaches us the wonderful sense of peace and connectedness that can occur between parent and child, when they move through these stages of grief, and finally accept death as inevitable. The stages are natural and necessary- they are a part of the process. But we may become stuck at one or another stage, never making it to the acceptance that may lead to this reconciliation. Moses is reconciled with himself, first and foremost; and only then his people. We look to him as our model- whether as child or as parent- that with those roles comes inherent difficulties which may cause a rift that divides.....and that with acceptance of our own mortality we may bridge the divide, and in the words of Malachi speaking about Elijah the Prophet, "turning the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers." May the role modeling of Moses inspire us to do the same.