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“Without You,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

July 21, 2023 | 3 Av 5783

Welcome again to Shabbat Awakenings, a weekly reflection as we move toward Shabbat. You can listen to it as a podcast here.

Spoiler alert: Moses dies at the end of the book of Deuteronomy. How will the Jewish people survive without him?

As we begin the book of Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah, Moses is front and center. It is his chance to recall the narrative as he saw it regarding the journey of the Jewish people’s exodus out of slavery and pending entrance into the land of great promise. The entire story is told while the people are perched to move across the Jordan River. In other words, the narrative is about the outside looking in. Moses will never enter the land.

Micah Goodman, one of the Hartman scholars who instructed my cohort in Israel this summer, teaches that Deuteronomy is the way Moses helped the people prepare to move on without him. The last time Moses disappeared did not go well. Though the people knew that Moses had ascended the mountain to receive the commandments, they quickly lost faith and turned to idolatry with the construction of the Golden Calf.

This time it had to be different.

Moses “undertook to expound this teaching.” (Deut. 1:5) The commentators assumed that the teaching could only be Torah. The 16th century Italian commentator, Ovadiah ben Jacob Sforno, imagined that Moses would be concerned that the first time they would be obligated to follow the Torah would be after they crossed over. Therefore, Sforno commented that Moses worried that they needed to understand Torah in order to follow it, so he taught it all to them. Other commentators like the Sfat Emet, thought that Moses conveyed the Torah in many languages so that each and every person would understand its meaning.

I think Moses expounded on a different kind of teaching. He is close to the end of his life. His teaching is the lesson of his own experiences with its beautiful and imperfect moments. He shared his own wisdom to prepare the people to know they had the capacity to confront whatever challenges they might encounter on the other side of the Jordan and prevail.

We, too, live without Moses.

What are the resources we have to make it through the world without the strong voice of Moses? Deuteronomy will frame the strategy to keep moving forward.

Starting next week, we begin the seven week count up to Rosh Hashanah. It is a slow ascent of awakening to the ability to reflect on the narrative of our lives. It is a time to consider how the past has affected us, what the present is teaching us, and whether the future will allow us to consider the kind of person we strive to be.

Our tradition has been preparing us for this very moment long ago when Moses shared that no matter what, they and we could put one foot in front of the other and move forward.

Shabbat Shalom!

I continue to value the many comments you exchange with me through these Shabbat Awakenings. Share with me what you think here. Your email goes directly to me!

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Rabbi Elaine Zecher