October 7, 2022 | 12Th of Tishrei, Parashat Ha’Azinu 5783 / פָּרָשַׁת הַאֲזִינוּ
Dear Beit Rabban Community,
This week’s Torah portion, Parashat HaAzinu, is particularly sentimental for me. My grandfather, Avraham ben Salcha, whom I called Baba, passed away the week of this Parshah when I was 19 years old and I spoke about this Parasha at his funeral.
The parsha ends with an ostensibly cruel act on the part of God. Hashem instructs Moshe as follows:
עֲלֵ֡ה אֶל־הַר֩ הָעֲבָרִ֨ים הַזֶּ֜ה הַר־נְב֗וֹ אֲשֶׁר֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מוֹאָ֔ב אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־פְּנֵ֣י יְרֵח֑וֹ וּרְאֵה֙ אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן אֲשֶׁ֨ר אֲנִ֥י נֹתֵ֛ן לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לַאֲחֻזָּֽה׃ וּמֻ֗ת בָּהָר֙ אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ עֹלֶ֣ה שָׁ֔מָּה וְהֵאָסֵ֖ף אֶל־עַמֶּ֑יךָ כַּֽאֲשֶׁר־מֵ֞ת אַהֲרֹ֤ן אָחִ֙יךָ֙ בְּהֹ֣ר הָהָ֔ר וַיֵּאָ֖סֶף אֶל־עַמָּֽיו
Ascend these heights of Abarim to Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab facing Jericho, and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving the Israelites as their holding. You shall die on the mountain that you are about to ascend, and shall be gathered to your kin, as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his kin.
Not only does God prohibit Moshe from entering the Promised Land after all he did to bring the Israelites to this moment, but God seems to rub it in Moshe’s face by telling him to climb the mountain that will be his ultimate resting place and take in the beauty of the land that he will not enter, not even for burial. Despite all he has done, this land is being given to the Israelites, and not to Moshe, and he is forced to confront this reality as his very final act of life.
My grandfather Baba didn’t have the easiest of trajectories, moving from Baghdad to Calcutta, to Rangoon, to Surabaya to Los Angeles. He arrived in California during the Great Depression, worked in the Salinas Valley canaries, and then left his wife and four children when he was conscripted to serve in WWII. He lost his beloved wife to cancer way too young, and he never fully recovered from that. Eventually passing away in his 90s still carrying the heavy heart of loss.
God, why not just wrap up in a bow for people as they go? Make it come together and let all of us all go having completed bucket lists with a sense of shleymut, the serenity that comes from fulfillment.
Everyone has experienced a Moshe ending: a loved one who passed with an incomplete, bucket list leaving a painful void behind, even under the best of circumstances. On Yom Kippur, when we recite the haunting Unetaneh Tokef prayer, asking who will live and who will die and how their ends will play out, I look around the room and think of the people lost. For those I know personally, I always wish for them a more perfect and complete end with “shleymut” for them and all their loved ones. I think about my own end and how my children and I will feel. Will saying goodbye, if I am lucky enough to have that opportunity, feel terrible; like being brought to the top of the mountain only to be prohibited from crossing it with your people?
And here’s where the wisdom of my 19 old self comes in handy (note, that same teenager made many poor choices, but she did hold some wisdom). In my eulogy for Baba, I talked about how we might consider God’s act of commanding Moshe to ascend Har Navo as one of chesed, loving-kindness, rather than as cruel. Maybe commanding Moshe to look out at the land that would be imminently inhabited by his people under the leadership of his student Yehoshua, was a way to show Moshe that his legacy will continue. All he had invested in this people, would empower them to continue on the path he so believed in, the path toward a promised land, which is a path that never quite ends because it is both literal and figurative. It is indeed a place that includes Yerushalayim shel matah, the earthly and literal Jerusalem, but it is also an eternal aspiration, Yerushalayim shel maalah, the concept of Jerusalem. Yes, Moshe would not reach this place himself, but neither does anyone else, ever. The most incredible sense of fulfillment might be knowing that you have set up the generations that come after you to continue on the path. I want to believe that about my grandfather in his passing, my other loved ones who have passed, and about myself when my time comes.
That belief also inspires my work moment to moment. I am in Jewish education because I believe it is a critical investment in the Jewish future. I know that I will not complete the many goals on my bucket list as a Jew living in this moment, and it comforts me to know that I can take part in setting up our children to continue on the path toward a promised land.
The Talmudic passage from which our school name, Beit Rabban, is derived reads:
אֵין הָעוֹלָם מִתְקַיֵּים אֶלָּא בִּשְׁבִיל הֶבֶל תִּינוֹקוֹת שֶׁל בֵּית רַבָּן
The world is only sustained by the breadth of the young children of the house of study.
How better to sustain the world than by investing in our children, leaving a legacy of people we have taught and inspired to continue to pave paths toward better. And, we appreciate all of you who entrust us with your children and grandchildren, who bless us with the opportunity to take part in your children’s Jewish education- to take part in ensuring the Jewish future and sustaining it.
Wishing all a restful and rejuvenating Shabbat,