Commentary by Karen Muriello - September 21, 2012
Our Torah portion for this evening is Deuteronomy 31:1–30, one of the last sections of the Torah. It is entitled
Vayelech (“And He Went”). It describes the events of Moses’ last day of earthly life. Moses announces, “I am
one hundred and twenty years old today and I can no longer go forth and come in. Moreover, the Lord has
said to me, ‘You shall not go across yonder Jordan’." This troubles me. Moses spent his entire adult life, a
mythic century, moving the recalcitrant Israelites toward the land of milk and honey. But at the very moment
of attainment, sweet victory is snatched away from him. Why does Moses merit only a glimpse of that glowing, fertile land, but never gets to set foot there? Is this a lesson in futility? Shouldn’t a mighty life like Moses’ earn an equally mighty reward? Is being “good” and “doing the right thing” only for the naieve?
Shabbat Shuva has been special to me, falling between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It seems the congregation is more introspective while walking through the thirteen prayers. Believers and doubters, cynics and agnostics, join together in this sacred time with our intellectual doors held open a bit. We’ve come to find some peace with ourselves. We try to pray sincerely. Can each Yom Kippur bring us closer to that ultimate goal: that at life’s end, we, like Moses, might die in peace?
John Varley writes in his novel Steel Beach,
“Again, just to be sure you understand me . . . I like life. Not all the time and not completely, but enough
to want to live it. And . . . I’m afraid to die. I don’t want to die. I suspect that nothing comes after life,
and that’s too foreign a concept for me to accept. I don’t want to experience it. I don’t want to go away,
to cease. I’m important to me.”
Can the High Holidays help us connect the dots between virtue and peace, life and death?
Human beings have an imaginative ability that allows us to visualize what is not physically present. In literary
terms this is our “suspension of disbelief.” When we go to the theatre, our minds easily accept the “fourth wall” as invisible, and we imagine the conversations and soliloquies given on stage are overheard rather than recited. Perhaps we can use this innate ability to find psychic comfort with the challenges of the High Holidays.
During these ten days of searching, what we have left unexamined the rest of the year is in focus today. This is the precisely the time to employ suspension of our habits of disbelief. Tonight, God is possible. God is the best in you, the richest journey, the brightest legacy. Doing the right thing is possible, and peace with ourselves is possible too.
So let’s entertain uncomfortable ideas. We stand naked with our baggage, our past year of thoughts and actions. We have all of us hurt our spouse, our child, our co-worker, or our friend. We may have taken an action purely for self-interest, at the expense of others.
In this quiet moment it is appropriate to entertain the possibility that we could have done better. Facing ourselves in front of this existential mirror, we confront our flaws, regrets and recriminations. We remember apologies not given or explanations unspoken. And it is here, in this silent place, with other Jews, in the presence of that which judges and forgives, that we are truthful with ourselves. There is right and wrong, and we know when we’ve done wrong, and thank goodness we have this unique process to shake ourselves back toward civilization.
These ten days allow us to suspend our disbeliefs. It is the time to entertain new possibilities of forgiveness of ourselves and others. Do not look back, full of regret. I’ve learned firsthand that regret is poison for the soul. Robert Heinlein writes in his novel Time Enough for Love,
“Babies and young children live in the present, the ‘now.’ Mature adults tend to live in the future... Give
the future enough thought to be ready for it – but don’t worry about it. Live each day as if you were to die next sunrise. Then face each sunrise as a fresh creation and live for it, joyously. And never think
about the past.”
I have come to believe that Moses did not cross the Jordan River because the journey was important, not the
destination. We need to travel through our lifetimes face forward, with goodness and mercy for our fellow
travellers. Don’t let the destination obscure the importance of enjoying life’s journey. Remember the words of
Henry David Thoreau,
“Go confidentially in the direction of your dreams! Life the life you’ve imagined.”