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His Last Words: Service to God ‘Is Your Very Life’

September 27, 2012 By:
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell
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What would your last words be if you knew you were about to die? How would you choose and position your words to reflect your deepest commitments?

How would you capture, and then keep, the attention of your listeners, and, without self pity, give them the tools to carry on after you are gone? This year, after spending 10 days focusing on questions of life and death, and on how to make meaning after the catharsis of Yom Kippur, we read Haazinu, Moses’ last lecture, Moses’ final song.
 
Moses’ words are in the form of a poem, Shirat Haazinu, also called The Song of Moses. In the Torah scroll, as well as in all printed versions, these 43 verses are written in columns, the only poem that appears this way in the Torah. This ancient form was chosen by the editors of the Torah to underscore the importance of Moses’ last words, even though, teaches professor Andrea Weiss, the poem tells of a “relationship gone awry.” 
 
The poem begins with great strength, as Moses addresses not only the people, but the heavens and earth, “Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;/Let the earth hear the words I utter!”
 
As Moses stands at the edge of the land he will not enter, he pours out his heart to his people. The words that tumble from his mouth are words of love, but as so often happens when we desperately hope that our listeners will take our words to heart, Moses turns to rebuke, warning and threat.
 
Employing a rich range of metaphors, Moses speaks of God as father, as companion, as eagle, as nursing mother. In spite of this nurturing, the Israelites “grew fat and gross and coarse/They forsook the God who made them/And spurned the Rock of their support.” Instead of offering us a nechemta, a message of comfort and healing, the poem ends with the words of an angry, vengeful God.
 
But Moses cannot conclude in anger. “Moses said [to all Israel]: take to heart all the words with which I have warned you this day. Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching. For this is not a trifling thing for you: it is your very life.”
 
Moses has been speaking to the people for more than 40 years, acting as God’s mouthpiece, attempting to serve both his God and his people. Here, at the last moment, he wants desperately to give direction and guidance to the people he is about to leave. With words of love that reflect his life’s passion, he reminds his people that true service to the Holy One demands all our energy, indeed, our entire beings.
 
He points the people to read these words as one part of a much larger corpus: “take to heart all the words,” those spoken today and those spoken on our long journey from slavery to freedom, on the shared and arduous trek towards the land of promise. These teachings are “your very life … ”
 
The parshah concludes with one of the most poignant exchanges in the Torah: God tells Moses that he will not enter the land that is spread before him. “You shall die on the mountain that you are about to ascend, and shall be gathered to your kin…You may view the land from a distance, but you shall not enter it … ”
 
Moses’ song is spent, and he is silent. We remain to consider his torah, his passion, his angers, his loves. We remain, to weigh Moses’ words, and to contemplate how we, at this time of Sukkot, will move forward towards celebration. 
 
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell serves as the rabbinic director of the East Geographic Congregational Network of the Union for Reform Judaism.

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