Parshat Va’etchanan

Torah Reading for Week of August 11-17, 2019
“Holy Supplication”
By Rabbi Janet Madden, PhD, ’11
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
“I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts.”-Primo Levi, “Shema”
Parshat Va’etchanan, the parsha that is always read on Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Comfort/Comforting, is best known as the parsha that contains the Shema and the V’ahavta, words and concepts that are central to our liturgy. And what a vehicle it is for teachings about boundaries and limitations and hopes and warnings and disappointments and the Divine gifts of life and Torah.
The connection that I feel with this, my birth parsha, is held in its name: Va’etchanan– “And I pleaded/entreated/beseeched/implored.” When I was younger, I was dazzled by the beauty of the prayer and poetry, the reiteration of the Aseret Dibrot. I thought it terribly sad and so very unfair that Moses, who had given a lifetime of service to HaShem and to the people, was denied entry to the Land, in spite of his pleading/entreating/beseeching/imploring. I wondered how embittered he felt and I thought, fearfully, of how many of my own dreams, hopes and prayers would inevitably be denied.
I see things differently now. I am still dazzled by the beauty of its prayer and poetry, but now, with every death that I attend and funeral that I officiate, I am reminded of the words of the medieval Spanish rabbi Bachya ibn ben Pakuda: that our days are scrolls and that we “Write on them what we want remembered.” And so I see Moses’ pleading in a different light: his urgent awareness that he is coming to the end of his life is translated into Devarim, his extended ethical-spiritual will, the transcendent history and inheritance that he longs for his people to fully receive, to take into their hearts.
In Va’etchanan, Moses is not so much pleading with HaShem as with the Children of Israel. He has parented them from the throes of birthing as he led their parents and grandparents to freedom out of the Place of Narrowness through the birth canal of the Sea of Reeds, on to the expansive, barren and terrifying experiences of Desert-Wilderness and now, to fruition: the emergence of the new generation that will enter the Land. For this generation, the literal Egypt is a metaphor, a story, but not a memory. Almost ready now to pass his leadership role onto a new leader, Moses is the embodied keeper of memory, the conduit to direct conversation with the Divine. Through two or three lifetimes of marching, kvetching, rebellions, errors, repentances, deaths, births and wars, from the terrifying to the mundane the sublime, he has struggled to lead. And he has also struggled with his own frustrations, triumphs, joys, losses, griefs, fears, exhaustion.
The poignancy of Moses’ extended and painstaking valediction is that it is not merely a recapitulation. His retelling of the story of the holy and painful journey of their ancestors to this new generation, poised as it is to enter into their inheritance, so naturally focused on the present and the future and so in danger of forgetting the past, is not only a series of reminders and warnings. It is also a mechanism for Moses’ own processing, the transformative process by which he comes to understand and articulate the reality that every life, including his own, is encoded with limitations, and that as each of us becomes a memory keeper for the next generation, we hold that realization in bittersweet balance with cautionary tales of the lessons we have learned and our loving hopes for those who come after us.
“I must die in this land, I must not go over the Jordan,” Moses tells the people. “But ye are to go over, and possess that good land.” This hope for taking possession of the good land by the generations that will come after us becomes our comfort and consolation, a way to project our love and care into the unknown and unseeable future. It is a form of comfort and consolation as we consider how we have written our scrolls, what what we have learned, what we have and continue to hold dear, what we yearn for, now, not for ourselves, but for those we love and from whom we know, in our deepest knowing, that we must part.