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Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Vayelekh                      October 5, 2019 - 6 Tishrei, 5780

10/03/2019 04:56:27 PM


Author Agatha Christie once quipped: “An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can have. The older she gets the more interested he is in her.” And journalist Andy Rooney observed: “I’ve learned that life is like a roll of toilet paper. The closer it gets to the end, the faster it goes.” Comedienne Phyllis Diller had this to say about growing old: “I’m at an age when my back goes out more than I do.” The Torah portion “VaYelekh” also makes observations about growing old; in this case about Moses in particular. The Torah portion for this Shabbat opens with Moses saying: “I am a hundred and twenty years old. I can no longer go out and come in.” Our translation reads: “I can no longer be active - and the Lord has said to me: 'You shall not go across the Jordan River.'” A hundred and twenty isn't bad—and there are two contradictory statements about Moses' condition. Here he says, “I can no longer go out and come in,” a statement of physical weakness; and in the closing verses of the Torah it says, “His eyes were not dimmed and his strength had not left him.”

The Sages of the Talmud and Midrash offer various comments: He was physically strong, but he was weak in Torah. He could no longer study and teach Torah, so he realized that his life was at an end. Another comment suggests that even if he was not weakened, he was no longer growing in strength. He was no longer acquiring new knowledge. Some people stop learning at a much younger age. Moses, always the teacher and always the learner, knew that when he stopped learning, the game was up.

However, Rabbi Harold Berman thinks there is something more to this, and Moses actually tells us what it is. Moses says: “The Lord has said to me: 'You shall not go across the Jordan River.'” God is telling Moses, “You're finished with your life's work. You have nothing more to achieve." We all know stories of people who looked forward to their retirement, finished their last day of work or went to their retirement dinner, and suddenly died. On the one hand, there is a great sense of sadness that a person did not get to enjoy the leisure time he or she had planned. On the other hand, there is a realization that most people need purpose in their lives to be able to keep on going. Some people, when they leave their life's work behind, have no real sense of what living is all about.

I feel sorry for people like that. I believe life is more than work. Life is a sharing of good things with people we love, it is in many cases the opportunity to see and enjoy children and grandchildren and even great grandchildren, telling them stories, offering them ideas, and being role models for their future.

We don't know much about Moses' children. Rabbi Berman reminds us that they are mentioned only as children, when they are born and in one other story when they join Moses wife and father-in-law following the Exodus. Unlike Aaron, whose children are active and share in the priesthood in his lifetime, Moses' sons seem to be nowhere around. Except for a strange hint in a text at the end of the book of Judges suggesting that someone might be a descendant of Moses, we never hear anything about them. There is good reason to believe that they and their mother have long since departed the scene. What we know about Moses is all work, never interested in retiring, tired of traveling, no home life that anyone speaks of, no friends that we know of; it's all leadership all the time. Everything is focused on the goal of getting these people to, and preparing them for, the Promised Land.

And here they are. Goal achieved. No more goals left. We see in this Torah portion Moses' frenetic movement from Levites, to elders, to Joshua, to closing ceremony—desperate to hold on to something important to do. Finally, he will take to writing poetry; a few parting words of verse to leave with us besides the law and the history. He can't stand the idea that there is nothing left for him to do. Perhaps, concludes Rabbi Berman, the enigmatic expression: "I can no longer go out and come in,” is best translated: “I have no place left to go, and nothing left to do.”

All we can do is feel sorry for Moses, as we feel sorry for anyone who is so wrapped up in anything that without it there is nothing left. We are grateful for all Moses has given, only saddened by the reality that he has held on to nothing for himself. Maybe he should have taken up golf? Maybe a good poker game with the guys from time to time? Maybe he should have volunteered on occasion and helped a school or orphanage? Even the greatest and busiest of people need to have a life outside their work.

Some may remember the movie City Slickers with Billy Crystal, in which the tough cowboy teaches the city guy the secret of life. “Just one thing,” he says. We disagree. Just one thing isn't enough. We need to look around us and think of many things we could do, many ways we can connect to other people, many opportunities we all have to make our lives meaningful, no matter how old we are.”

As we begin a new year may I suggest that we keep doing the most important things we do and keep getting better at doing them, but that we also bring some variety into our lives. There are people to whom we can offer support and there are causes that need our attention. There are new things to learn and places to explore. Personally, I am looking forward to many different things in many places in the year ahead. I hope you are, too. If we stop finding things to do and places to go, we have very little left.

May the year ahead be a happy and healthy one, a varied and interesting one, a year of giving and receiving, coming and going and a year of always growing into new things that will enrich every day of our lives.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova

Wed, August 12 2020 22 Av 5780