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When We See With Our Own Eyes, Reality Shifts

August 10, 2011 By:
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell
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VA'ETCHANAN, Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11

We've begun the book of Deuteronomy, Moses' final attempt to share his message of faith with the people Israel. As he anticipates his death, Moses looks back on the journey that he has shared with his contentious and beloved people. Moses' tutelage under Pharaoh, who was considered an earthbound god, prepared Moses for service to the Holy One.

Throughout his life, Moses continued to translate God's direction to a wary constituency, seeking to temper his leadership with compassion. Deuteronomy reiterates Moses' legacy, recording, in his words, God's direction to the Israelites as they prepare to end their wandering and to finally enter the promised land.

This year, we read Va'etchanan on the Shabbat that follows Tisha B'Av. The opening word of this portion is Moses' crie de coeur, his poignant request to the Holy One. "O God, ... let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan ... " Moses recalls his pleading with God, and God's immediate and seemingly harsh reply. Moses says, "God was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me. God said to me, 'Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again.' "

God's response is swift and final. "Never speak to Me of this matter again." Moses, who has pleaded with God on more than one occasion, is told that this time, there will be no appeal, no reconsideration. The matter is closed. Moses will not enter the land.

As Moses retells this story, he is all but consumed with pain and anger. As he recalls his pleading, he swells with the fire of blame against the people whom he sees as standing between him and the achievement of his hope: to "cross over and see the good land ..."

But then, Moses' anger subsides. Somehow, Moses remembers that one of the primary challenges of leadership is to look dispassionately at one's own emotions and responses. We are not privy to Moses' conversation with himself as he attempts to continue to address and guide the people as he faces his own disappointment.

Perhaps he thinks of the prophet Jonah, who twice told God, "I would rather die than live." Or perhaps he thinks of Job, who also cries out, saying, "Perish the day on which I was born ... " Moses, like Job, realizes that God's counsel is, finally, wise and compassionate, if beyond human understanding. As he makes sense of his own struggle, Job says, "Now I see You with my eyes."

Moses' subsequent words to the people reflect this truth: When we see with our own eyes, our realities shift. When we encounter holiness directly, we are challenged to translate this new perspective into our deeds. In retelling the story of his pleading, Moses perhaps sees, with his own eyes, that "never" may be God's answer to him, but it is not God's answer to the people.

So Moses reminds the people that their relationship with God is a long-term commitment. He continues: "... do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live. And make them known to your children and to your children's children." God told Moses, "never." Moses, serving as guide and leader, changes that "never" to "forever" -- "as long as you live." Moses the teacher lifts himself up and sees beyond his own disappointment.

As this final book of Moses begins, Moses the prophet leaves a legacy of listening and responding, with God's teaching as the bridge between never and forever. In these days that follow the mourning of Tisha B'Av, may we, too, see with our own eyes, and glimpse the hope of forever.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as Union Rabbi, East District, for the Union for Reform Judaism. Email her at: slelwell@urj.org.

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