Moses asks himself the same questions. In our lives, Yom Kippur is a rehearsal of death, an opportunity to ask ourselves in advance each year the questions we will wrestle with when our lives draw to a close, so that we can redirect our lives now in the hope of finding rewarding and comforting answers to those sticky questions when our time comes. For Moses, it is no rehearsal.
The combined Torah portions of Nitzavim and Vayeilech we read this week recount the last “chapter” of Moses’ life before he ascends Mt. Nebo, where he will die and God will bury him. His summing up and final words are addressed to the entire Israelite nation, and we hear in them the poignant strains of any parent who has poured his life’s energy into his offspring and now ponders their future without his guidance. Will they follow his advice, or will everything he has tried to teach them evaporate? Will they live by the distinctive moral values he taught them, or operate by the values of others around them? Will they be loyal to the tradition he passed down to them?
Torah tells us that at the last moment of life, Moses was robust and powerful, the exemplary leader he had always been. Torah will report that in his last moments on Mt. Nebo:
Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated… Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses — whom Adonai singled out, face to face… (Deuteronomy 24:7, 10)
Torah is saying that when he died, Moses was a youthful and vigorous 120 years old.
At this particular moment in time, however, Moses’ self-experience is utterly different. He feels depleted and worn out, incapable of leading the people any longer:
Moses went and spoke these words to all Israel. He said to them: I am now one hundred and twenty years old. I can no longer be active (Deuteronomy 31:1,2)
We can sense Moses’ anxiety. He knows things will break down after he dies because God has told him as much. He orchestrates an inspiring ceremony to reaffirm the covenant made at Mt. Sinai. Everyone participates — your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer (Deuteronomy 29:9-10). Moses reminds the people that God brought them into the Land to open up your heart and the hearts of your offspring to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, in order that you may live (Deuteronomy 30:6) and that they now stand at a crossroads: See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity (Deuteronomy 30:15). If they obey God, life and prosperity will be their reward; if they turn away from God, death and adversity will be their lot.
Yet Moses knows, because God tells him, that no sooner will he die than Israel will make the latter choice:
Adonai said to Moses: You are soon to lie with your ancestors. This people will thereupon go astray after the alien gods in their midst, in the land that they are about to enter: they will forsake Me and break My covenant that I made with them. Then My anger will flare up against them, and I will abandon them and hide My countenance from them. They shall be ready prey; and many evils and troubles shall befall them. And they shall say on that day, “Surely it is because our God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us.” (Deuteronomy 31:16-17)
No wonder Moses feels drained and diminished! Has it all been for naught? Did Kohelet get it right when he wailed:
Utter futility! All is futile!What real value is there for a personIn all the gains he makes beneath the sun?One generation goes, another comes,But the earth remains the same forever.The sun rises, and the sun sets —And glides back to where it rises…Only that shall happen that has happened,Only that occur that has occurred;There is nothing new beneath the sun! (Ecclesiastes 1:2-4,9)
Will we, some day in the future, bemoan our futility and irrelevance the way Moses and Kohelet did theirs? Muriel Rukeyser, in her poem The Place in the Ways, expresses the on-going struggle to see our lives as meaningful:
Having come to this placeI set out once againOn the dark and marvelous wayFrom where I began:Belief in the love of the world,Woman, spirit, and man.Having failed in all thingsI enter a new ageSeeing the old ways as toys,The houses of a stagePainted and long forgot;And I find love and rage.Rage for the world as it isBut for what it may beMore love now than last yearAnd always less self-pitySince I know in a clearer lightThe strength of the mystery.And at this place in the waysI wait for song.My poem-hand still, on the paper,All night long.Poems in throat and hand, asleep,And my storm beating strong!
Will we, too, look back and say, “My life didn’t really matter; I didn’t really make a difference; the world is no different”? It helps to focus our Yom Kippur-induced “year-end review” or “life review” not on a global, panoramic view that attempts to encompass everything. Even Moses had trouble with that perspective.
Rather than the panoramic, let’s aim for a close-up, granular view of our lives. Consider your individual relationships, the “small” accomplishments, and the (no doubt many) deeds of chesed that you have performed during this past year. They are most reflective of who you really are. Whom have you loved, helped, taught, and supported in the past year? Whose life is better because of you?
Even more, if we can enter the chagim, and especially Yom Kippur, fully conscious of the good we have done (and therefore our potential to do more), the spiritual work of assessing, repenting, and confessing will be far less painful and far more productive.
In preparation for the chagim, take some time to look at the trees and you’ll see that they make up a significant and beautiful forest. A close-up view will reveal that we do matter and we do make a difference.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman