Torah Portion: Ha’azinu
Book of Deuteronomy
September 25, 2015
The renowned Jewish existentialist of the early 20th century Franz Rosenzweig began his famous philosophical text, The Star of Redemption, with these words: “All knowledge of the Whole has its source in death, in the fear of death.”
The 40-year journey of the ancient Israelites from Egypt to Canaan has come to an end. As they prepare to enter the Promised Land, God takes his devout servant Moses aside and says to him, “You may view the land from a distance, but you shall not enter it-the land that I am giving to the Israelite people.” (Deut. 32:52) For Moses, death will rob him of the opportunity to realize the fruit of his 40-year labor. Not unlike the mountain climber who after an extraordinary effort can only see the summit but is unable to reach it, Moses will end his life wondering “what if?”
The truth is none of us escape the inevitable. Death is a dark reality from the moment of birth. Each day of life is one less day to live. One’s mortality becomes even more real with the death of grandparents, then parents, and finally we stand at the head of the line. What possible meaning is there to life if we are condemned to spend it entirely in the “valley of the shadow of death”?
Rabbi Brad Artson writes, “Death threatens to reduce human life to an absurdity. If I am to die, then it doesn’t really matter how I live my life at all. Whether we’re righteous or selfish, generous or stingy, rich or poor, death will claim us all in the end. This fact is so staggering that it makes our lives appear irrelevant, like we’re merely passing the time in the face of the inevitable.” Artson goes on to ask, “But does this really render our lives irrelevant?”
Though Moses will only be able to view the Promised Land, the Israelites will inherit it. What may appear a disappointment on the surface is in fact a moment of fulfillment and satisfaction. Without the leadership of Moses, the Israelites would never have realized their future. Franz Kafka writes, “Moses fails to enter Canaan not because his life is too short but because it is a human life.” His life is spent paving the way for the future of the Jewish people. His death becomes a monument to their epic journey. What more could anyone ask?
The ancient rabbis picked up on this theme when they taught, “You are not obliged to complete the task, neither are you free to desist from it.” (Pirke Avot, chap. 2:21) What we do in life does have meaning. Our lives well-spent become the underpinnings for the future of our children and our children’s children, and so on, and so on!
Rabbi Howard Siegel