devarim 2011s

Parshat Devarim

Sermon Saturday Morning


  1. Shabbat Shalom

  1. What do you say at a retirement party? You are presented with a gold watch; the boss says lots of nice things about you and your work. Your colleagues and co-workers share wonderful anecdotes about how they enjoyed working with you and then you have a chance to say a few words of your own.

  1. That must be how Moses felt as he stands, one last time, in front of the people of Israel before he leaves them to enter the Promised Land and he prepares to travel to a different Promised Land. Moses will soon die. His leadership will be transferred to others; his place in history is secure and he will ride off into the mountains, into the sunset. What should he say? How should he say it? What should be the last words that his followers will remember when they think of Moses and his legacy? The answer is the book of Devarim, this final book of the Bible, the last word and testament of Moses at the end of his long and extraordinary career.

  1. There is another ending this week. In just a couple of days we will observe the great black fast of Tisha B’Av. The date that we mark the end of Israelite history and the beginning of the Judaism we know today. Israelites were led by a hereditary priesthood that officiated over animal sacrifices in the Temple of Jerusalem. Judaism is led by rabbis in synagogues and they officiate over prayer and life cycle rituals. What did the people of Israel say when the only religion they knew was destroyed and their Temple burned to the ground? They wrote the book of, Eicha, Lamentations, a collection of eulogies for Judea and the Temple. What is remarkable about their laments is that along with their cries of agony and pain, they included at the end, a verse of hope for the future. The ending of the Temple and the sacrificial service was a trauma that we today can only guess at, but through their trauma, they still held out hope for tomorrow. That is not too bad a lesson for us to take away from our observance of the Ninth of Av, this dark day on Judaism’s calendar. What would we have said if we were the survivors of such a great catastrophe? Israel speaks words as the Temple burns and they conclude their eulogy with words of hope. Moses speaks words at the end of his life and he ends with words of hope. What would we say as the end of life as we know it is at hand? Could we speak words of hope as our last words?

  1. Don’t think that this is a rhetorical question. Moses is not just speaking to the people he once led, he is speaking to us. What he says is not just important for Jewish Law, what he says is important for our lives as well. His words are important for two reasons. First of all, there is good reason to believe that Moses did not write these last words. That the book was composed later, much later, as someone’s idea of what Moses would have said had his words been recorded. Almost like a modern historical novel, the book of Devarim is a mythological account of what the people of Israel thought about when they thought about Moses. This is why the whole series of speeches seem so larger than life. Hundreds of years after his death, Moses had indeed become larger than life and this is how later Israelites viewed Moses from the vantage point of history. It is an amazing book and I think that is why it had to be included in the selections that would eventually become the Torah that we study and teach from today.

  1. But I believe, as I have said many times, that the questions of the Torah are questions for us. If the Book of Devarim asks what we would say if we were Moses; if Devarim is about how our ancestors saw Moses at the end of his career; then this is also a chance for us to comment on the endings that we encounter in our lives. The Torah here is calling to all of us to contemplate the end of our own lives. Not to be sad that we will be gone, but to help us focus, like Moses, on what kind of a legacy we will leave behind.

  1. There is a famous poem by Linda Ellison about how we should contemplate our lives. She calls her poem, “The Dash”

The Dash Poem

by Linda Ellis

I read of a man who stood to speak

At the funeral of a friend

He referred to the dates on her tombstone

From the beginning to the end

He noted that first came the date of her birth

And spoke the following date with tears,

But he said what mattered most of all

Was the dash between those years

For that dash represents all the time

That she spent alive on earth.

And now only those who loved her

Know what that little line is worth.

For it matters not how much we own;

The cars, the house, the cash,

What matters is how we live and love

And how we spend our dash.

So think about this long and hard.

Are there things you’d like to change?

For you never know how much time is left,

That can still be rearranged.

If we could just slow down enough

To consider what’s true and real

And always try to understand

The way other people feel.

And be less quick to anger,

And show appreciation more

And love the people in our lives

Like we’ve never loved before.

If we treat each other with respect,

And more often wear a smile

Remembering that this special dash

Might only last a little while.

So, when your eulogy is being read

With your life’s actions to rehash

Would you be proud of the things they say

About how you spent your dash?

  1. Devarim however, does not just call upon us to think about what wisdom we might share at the end of our lives, Devarim implies that there are other endings we can contemplate as well.

When I talk to a family about a loved one who has died and I want information about their life for a eulogy, I often ask about their career. Some people work in several different careers over the span of their lives. Some work in the same place for over 40 years. Some children can define a father or mother by the career that they chose, and others say that the career was just an interruption in their real love of being a parent, friend or community activist. It can be telling how the skills used in a career can also be transferred to other aspects of life as well. It is also telling if we are defined only by the way we earned a living. What would we want our children to say to the Rabbi about how we managed the boundaries between our personal and professional lives?

  1. Are there other times in our lives when we realize that a door has closed and that part of our life is over? What about when we sent our last child off to college? What about when others danced a Mazinka for us as we married off our last child? What did we say to ourselves, our spouse or our friends as we sat shiva for our last parent and realized that we were now orphans in the world? What did we say at these turns of life? Did we slip away in our pain or did we find words to give us hope?

  1. Not all endings are sad, however. Do we remember the day we quit a job to go out on our own in a new business? There was the anxiety of not knowing the future and leaving behind a secure and reliable past. Do we remember the time when we realized that our bodies, once so young and vibrant, bodies that we believed, in the innocence of youth, were indestructible and eternal, that our body would now need medications and support to get us through the rest of our lives? What about the day we went in for important surgery, and we stood between illness and health and wondered what the future had in store? What did we say when we went in for that important test that would tell us once and for all what we had and what we would be able to do about it? What about the day we were told we would need a cane in order to walk, or a hearing aide in order to hear? Did we speak words of worry and concern or did we speak words of hope?

  1. In less than 60 days, just eight weeks from today, we will, God willing, stand at the entrance to another new year. In just three weeks we will hear the first calls of the Shofar reminding us that we need to examine our souls as we prepare to transition from 5771 to 5772. What do we plan to bring with us into the new year and what baggage do we intend to leave behind? The time we have to contemplate the passage of time is growing short. I know rabbis who use this time to consider how our lives have changed over the course of this year. What new inventions and new ideas challenged us and what tragedies and disasters plagued us? Some rabbis bring out a list of obituaries of those famous people who did not make it to the Jewish New Year. It is all an attempt to get us to focus on how quickly time passes and why it is so important not to waste even a moment in time.

  1. Soon we will be having the retirement party for 5771. Each of us has lived this year in different ways. What are we prepared to say about it as it comes to its end? Was the past year kind to you? Were you kind to others in the past year? Was the past year full of joyful moments? Were you a joyful person to your friends and to strangers in the past year? Was the past year filled with tragedies? Did you, in the past year, comfort those who suffered tragedies? What do you have to say about the past year and what does the past year have to say about you?

  1. As Devarim unfolds we see all the facets of Moses’ life. The good moments, the moments of anger, the times of frustrations and the stunning moments of success. We don’t see Moses as a superhuman hero, we see him in all his beauty and flaws. And yet Moses ends with words of hope. Tisha B’Av has unfolded as a day of many tragic moments in Jewish history. Each time tragedy struck, who could blame us if we wrote verses of pain and sorrow? And yet Eicha ends with words of hope. Another year is coming to an end. It was a year of remarkable success and of indescribable disasters. What does this year mean to us and will we do all we can to have it end with words of hope? Moses and our ancestors never let a story end on a sad note. We should learn from their example and always find the words of hope when a door closes, a life closes and when a year closes.

May we learn and grow from all our experiences in the year that is ending and may God help us as we assess this year, to find not just good times and bad times, but always a reason to look to the future with hope as we say….


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