Parashat Devarim 5776

Rabbi Leah Jordan, 12 August 2016


There’s this great scene in Annie Hall – the film by Woody Allen. Maybe you’ve seen it. In the film, the character Woody Allen plays is reflecting on what a serious child he was – and then there’s this flashback to when he was a kid, this serious little kid.

There’s this little boy Woody Allen sitting on a therapist’s couch, with his mother sitting next to him (this classic, pre-war Brooklyn Jewish mother, with her bag on her knees), and the mother tells the therapist, sitting across from her and her son; “My son’s been depressed. All of a sudden he can’t do anything! …It’s something he read.

Why are you depressed, Alvy?” asks the therapist. And little Woody Allen just sits there. He says, “The universe is expanding.

Why does that upset you?” the therapist asks.

Well,” the little boy says, “the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, some day it will break apart, and that would be the end of everything.

What is that your business?!” cries his mother. “You’re in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is not expanding!

Little Woody Allen raises his hands: “Then what’s the point of homework?

I think that’s one of the essential dilemmas of life. What’s the point of doing anything when it’s all going to end? Not necessarily with anything so drastic as the expansion of the universe – but with our own life’s ending. The truth is – it’s all going to end, before we’re ready for it, and in this life, we won’t get to do everything we wanted to do.

This is the particular truth that – every year at this time, in the lead-up to the High Holidays – we read that Moses himself has to face, as he stands “on the other side of the Jordan” in parashat Devarim, this week’s Torah portion, in the start of the Book of Deuteronomy. Devarim – “the words [of Moses],” Deuteronomy – “second law [or telling].”

Moses has taken the people to the very entrance of the Land of Israel, but he will not be allowed to enter it. He is going to die. Imagine – Moses has been on such a long journey. He grew up thinking he was Egyptian and only acknowledged his kinship to the enslaved Jewish people around him through a bloody act of violence. Then he encountered a mysterious God in the midst of a burning bush and was compelled to come back to Egypt to pit himself against Pharaoh in an epic struggle to free his new-found people from bondage. He parted the Red Sea, found them manna in the desert, went up to Mount Sinai – twice – built the Tabernacle, saw God pass before his very eyes. He endured forty years in the desert – the rebellion of many of the people against him, the death of his sister and his brother – and now, he and his people, they are all at the entrance to the Promised Land… and God tells Moses he cannot enter. That he will die here. So Moses in parashat Devarim is telling the people, us, what we need to know because he will not be with us. “Never again,” we are told, “did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses—whom Adonai singled out, face to face.

This story has echoed down the ages – because it is both very epic and very human. Epic in the scale of the biblical drama of gods and kings and miracles – but human in that it is about one man, dying before he can complete his life’s work, and we can all understand that.

The day before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, he was alive to this message from our Torah in the last, rousing speech that he ever delivered, about the black civil rights struggle. “And then I got into Memphis,” says King, “and some began to say the threats – or talk about the threats that were out [against my life]. What would happen to me from some of our sick, white brothers? Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now – because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with ya. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

That speech by King and Moses’ story, which he is echoing, arouse such pathos in us – because “like Moses on Mount Nebo, we behold the Promised Land from afar, but may not enter it.” This reminds us of our own mortality and frailty – our very smallness in the scheme of things.

So why do our homework? Why go to all that effort? To do better, to try harder, to fix what needs fixing? Why did Moses go to all that effort? Maybe it’s like King says: “I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” Yes, of course, we do the work of goodness and change for others who will come after us. In other words, as we are often told that our Mishnah enjoins us: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.

A teacher of mine says this is what, in fact, it means to be covenantal, like Moses or like us now: To live as part of the Jewish people in a covenant with God, however one understands that, is to live the covenant but not complete it. That is why God mentions Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to Moses when God says, “This is the land which I swore to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob… I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross there.” God reminds Moses that these great ancestors did not get there either – that they were other stepping stones on the journey.

We will not accomplish everything, as Moses did not get to the Promised Land, but our homework cannot be desisted from either. “The universe is expanding,” little Woody Allen laments. ‘… that would be the end of everything!

What is that your business?!” cries his mother.

It’s true. What is that your business. But you’ve got to do it anyway – cross the Red Sea, get the people the manna, settle their disputes, go up to Mount Sinai – twice – travel for forty years in the desert. Or in more mundane terms, live well and do well and work for the generations we will never see or know, but they will be better for our work, we hope.

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