Dvar Torah, Shabbat Vaetchanan 5767, 7/28/07

This is a d'var Torah, or sermon, which I gave 7/28/2007, at my synagogue, Congregation Kol Shofar, Tiburon, California.

We've just passed the calendar landmark of Tisha B'Av -- as Bonni and Steve Schiff have pointed out, believe it or not, it's almost the chagim. Rosh Hashana is now less than 7 weeks away.

So it's a good moment for reflecting on our relationships with each other, with G-d, with ourselves. It's a time when disappointment can crop up, as we think about our situation in life, our own behavior and the mistakes we've made, the ways we've lose sight of our goals. I'm going to talk about one view of disappointment in this parsha and the lesson it might have for us as we start down the road of getting ready for the High Holidays.

In this parsha, there's a moment that seems terribly sad and unjust. Moshe repeats to the people his dialogue with Hashem about being allowed to cross over into the Promised Land. Moshe says that he pleaded with G-d, saying "Ebrah-na ve'er'eh et-ha'arets hatovah asher be'ever haYarden." Please let me cross over and see the good land across the Jordan.

But, Moshe goes on, "Vayit'aber Hashem bi lema'anchem velo shama elay vayomer Hashem elay rav-lach al-tosef daber elay od badavar hazeh." In the JPS translation, But G-d had turned Himself against me because of you, and He would not listen to me. G-d said to me, 'Enough! Do not speak to Me any more about this!"

Hashem then gives Moshe permission to at least see Eretz Yisrael from a mountaintop, granting some of his request, but denying him entry into the Land.

Some commentators say that Moshe was forbidden to cross the Jordan because of his earlier display of anger, striking the rock to bring forth water instead of speaking to the rock as G-d instructed. That explanation seems too trivial to satisfy me. How can it be that someone so righteous doesn't get his heart's desire? What can this mean for him and for the rest of us?

I was lucky enough to hear Dr. Aviva Zornberg speak about this parsha in Berkeley a few months ago, and she pointed out that Moshe's speech to the people is like a form of therapy, healing Moshe from his pain and bitterness at being refused entrance into Eretz Yisrael.

She focused on the word "la'avor," to cross or to pass, which occurs when Moshe wants to go into the land, "Ebrah," I will cross over. She pointed out the way that this word la'avor is usually used of the transition between our time in the wildnerness and our moving into Eretz Yisrael, and that this word could also signify the people moving forward in time without Moshe, who will now cease to cross the years into the future.

I want to extend Dr. Zornberg's thought to focus on the way that Hashem also is described as using the verb "la'avor" in the reflexive tense, "Vayit'aber Hashem bi," "Hashem turned himself against me" in the JPS translation.

In this description of the dialogue between them I hear echoes of the vision Moshe has in parshat Ki Tisa, Exodus chapter 33, where Moshe also gets a request partially refused. Moshe asks to see G-d in all G-d's glory. Hashem says it's not possible -- no human can see G-d's glory and still live.

Hashem says that instead, Moshe can see the afterwake of G-d's presence. "Vehayah ba'avor kvodi vesamticha benikrat hatsur vesakoti chapi aleycha ad-ovri." When My glory passes by, I will place you in a crevice in the mountain, protecting you with My power until I pass by.

"Ba'avor kvodi", in the passing, la'avor, of my glory, says Hashem, Moshe can stay protected somewhat "ad-ovri", until my passing. Many repetitions of the verb la'avor.

And then when it actually happens, when Hashem has his beautiful encounter with Moshe -- including the description of G-d's attributes of mercy and love, restraint and caring, which we will read again and again during the chagim -- that verse again begins with the verb la'avor, to cross. "Vaya'avor Hashem al-panav vayikra Hashem hashem kel rachum vechanun erech apayim verav-chesed ve'emet." G-d passed by before [Moses] and there was the proclamation, 'G-d, G-d, Omnipotent, merciful and kind, slow to anger, with tremendous [resources of] love and truth.

It's a lot of repetitions of this verb la'avor. The connection between Moshe and G-d seems to be reflected in this verb, encountering each other in motion and fleetingly but with intensity of connection.

Moshe wants two kinds of crossing, to cross the Jordan, and to see Hashem passing in front of his eyes. And in both cases, G-d says No to Moshe's heartfelt request. Moshe wants to go into the land, and instead only gets to glimpse it; Moshe wants to see Hashem, but instead only gets to view a little of the glory left after Hashem has crossed in front of him.

When G-d crosses in front of Moshe and shows G-d's glory, it's easy to see that G-d was protecting Moshe and keeping him from the negative consequences of his desires -- if he had seen G-d directly he couldn't have lived.

It's harder to see anything positive in the case of Moshe not getting to go over the Jordan. Hashem sounds so harsh and punishing -- not just saying no, but Don't ever talk to me about this again.

I think it's actually possible to read that in both cases Hashem is acting lovingly and protecting Moshe from a request that really wouldn't be appropriate for him. The phrase that was translated "G-d turned himself away from me", "Vayit'aber Hashem bi", could also be read "Hashem made a turn inside himself in or to me", and the phrase "rav-lach", which could be translated "Enough out of you," could also be translated "You have done enough." I suggest that it's possible that even if Moshe doesn't consciously know it, Hashem might be giving him what he really needs -- rest at last. Leading the people has been incredibly difficult and exhausting for Moshe, often bringing him to a feeling of despair.

Maybe it's a kindness to stop Moshe from taking care of us, to prevent Moshe from going forward in time, so that he will now stay always in the eternal self-enfolding turning that is an expression of the loving relationship that Moshe shares with G-d. When G-d turns G-d's self, "Vayit'aber," it could be that G-d is reconnecting to the way that Moshe and G-d have been the closest together, hinting at the mercy and kindness that is G-d's alone, and highlighting the way that G-d previously satisfied Moshe by saying no to him.

Maybe Moshe doesn't actually even want to go over the Jordan to be with the people and continue watching them squabble and make mistakes. What if he feels it is his duty to keep leading them, but also knows he doesn't have the energy left?, Maybe when he recounts this dialogue to the people, he's emphasizing that he tried, really tried to change G-d's mind. just so that they won't feel abandoned. When Hashem says he won't talk about this with Moshe anymore, it could be like the permission of a loving parent to stop agonizing about a life decision that pulls you to keep revisiting it and second-guessing yourself. By saying that the matter is not open for discussion, Hashem might just be giving Moshe the gift of peace. You have already done enough, Moshe, you don't have to keep worrying about this.

If this is a possible reading, it no longer feels to me as though Moshe is being punished. It feels like a loss that only leads upward. After all, when human beings were driven from Gan Eden, it was a judgment on us, and yet all the richness of our moral lives and the beauty of having independent thought and free will in the world began at the moment when we lost our perfect enchanted childhood in the garden. Similarly, maybe Moshe's heartfelt plea being denied is a good thing for him, the only right thing, and the best reward for so many years of exhausting leadership.

In Isaiah 55:8 it says "Ki lo machshevotay machshevoteychem velo darcheychem derachay ne'um Hashem " --"For My thoughts are not as your thoughts and your ways are not as My ways says G-d." We can't understand Hashem's plans for us or for the world; we can't understand the way Hashem might answer us or seem not to answer us when we pray. The way Hashem relates to Moshe is so mysterious, and all the more incomprehensible is the way Hashem might find to be present in our lives without our being able to perceive divine presence.

It could be that at any given moment Hashem is steering us toward something that will be even more right for us than anything we could choose. I'm not suggesting that it's always the right thing when we get our hearts broken, because I don't have any idea why Hashem would intend some of the cruel and pointless things that occur in our lives. I'm just reaching toward forgiving G-d for the ways that our lives disappoint us, and toward forgiving myself and those around me for falling short, for giving up, for ceasing to dream, for feeling defeated when it seems like we haven't gotten what would be best for us.

It's so easy to fix our attention on small grievances and on the ways that we feel shortchanged in life. Couldn't it be that at least some of the time, when we don't get what we hope for, even when we are frustrated in ways that feel tragic, that this frustration itself is part of our connection to the divine? That our very disappointment is a spark of how we are in G-d's image, how we have a yearning for perfection. To paraphrase Rumi, sometimes our own longing for G-d to answer us might be the best answer to our prayers. That yearning could be urging us toward G-d, helping us to turn across the ways that we usually hold ourselves aloof from longing, so that we can open up our hearts in this pre-Elul season of the year and begin to ask, where am I in my life? How can I be more grateful for what I've got? How has Hashem been kind to me, maybe even kind in saying no? And even if you don't always get what you want, could it be that on some level, at least some of the time, you get what you need?

Thank you and Shabbat Shalom.

--Shifra Raffel

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