A Generation of Change — Parshiot Nitzavim-Vayeilech

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This dvar torah first delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom in Seattle, WA, on September 20th, 2014. Minors edits were made for readability.— Beth Shalom’s presentation on Millenial views of Jewish life will be held around 11 am during second-day Rosh Hashana services, featuring me, Shoshana Wineburg, Rabbi Oren Hayon, and Talya Gillman.— 

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It’s a season of change. Elul is all about change. But, really, what season isn’t about change? What year doesn’t change us from one to the next? How drastically have we changed over our lives? How are our lives today different than our parents’ and grandparents’ lives? How are Jewish life, and American life, and American Jewish life changing?

Today the Jewish community is going through a monumental shift. My generation and others can feel like we’re at odds. So many of us have opted for alternative institutions. Others of us have walked away entirely. So many new offerings, an explosion of Jewish identities that baffles and bucks preexisting categories. Existing models are collapsing, new ideas are untried. Next week, on this bimah, four young Jewish leaders will address in content what those ideas might include. But today I want to approach it from a more spiritual angle.

These two parshiot — Netzavim (Deut 29:9 – 30:20) and Vayeilech (Deut 31:1-30) – are all about generational change. They are penultimate concluding paragraphs of Moses’ final address to the children of Israel, standing on the east bank of the Jordan.

Nitzavim is a prophecy of reward and punishment. If the tribes obey God, they will flourish in the Land of Canaan, but if they worship other gods, then they will suffer exile among the nations. It also lays the foundation of redemption: a return to the Land and God’s favor will happen after exile. And this covenant is expressly issue upon the generations to follow.

Vayeilech concludes with Moses revealing that he will not join the people in Canaan, instead naming Joshua as his successor. And to ensure that the terms of the contract are well understood, God embeds a poem into the book to be read generation after generation. A book that Moses finished transcribing and leaves with the priesthood, a book we read today.

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Midrash expands this Biblical event into one of the most dramatic confrontations between God and any biblical hero.

Moses insists, “I have done so much for Israel and for You, God, that it is wrong for me to die.” So he draws a circle in the sand and refuses to move until God annuls the decision.

“No,” God declares to Moses. And so Moses sits down to pray. God quickly orders the angels, “Hasten, bar all the gates of every level heaven to Moses’ prayers!”

But who can pray harder than the greatest scholar that ever lived? The midrash says, “Moses prayers were like a sword, ripping and tearing, and nothing could stop it.”

Moses begs that at least his body be brought into the Land. But God stands firm. Moses begs twice that his soul be put into an animal to experience Israel, but God refuses. And so Moses goes begs heaven and earth, the sun and moon, the stars and planets, the hills and mountains, to argue on his behalf. But they each point out their own mortality in the end of days.

God reaches out to Moses then. “Moses, I have sworn two oaths – one to punish Israel for its misdeeds and the other to punish you for yours. You begged me to annul the first, so I did. But to annul the second I must reinstate the first. You seize the pulley ropes at both ends – do you not?”

Still, he weeps, “Master of the universe, shall the feel that walked in heaven, the face that saw Yours, the very hands that first touched the Torah – shall they now lick dust?”

God replies, that was my intent from the very very beginning, Moses. “Each generation is to have its own interpreters of Scripture, each generation is to have its own providers, each generation is to have its own leaders.” Until now it was you, Moses, and now it is Joshua.

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This midrash spoke to me immediately for two big reasons.

That frustration we feel with Moses at the beginning, that’s my life. I was turning pages with my heart thumping, “Yes, yes, I felt, this is how I feel!” I am nine years out of college, in middle management at a Jewish organization, I’ve had my years of rebellion and now I’m looking for Moses to soon give up his cushy corner office and hefty salary so I can have it.

But more seriously. Remember your parents. Remember something about the things your parents believed dearly, that they expected for you. One that drove or drives you nuts. That thing they wanted of you, for you, by you, that you could never give them, or couldn’t be, or didn’t want. Put yourself in our shoes.

Moses won’t let go of leadership. Despite the natural order of things, he fights it. And just as Moses appeals to the sun and moon and others to entreat God on his behalf, so too do young people like me watch Jewish leaders and institutions turn to experts, sociologists, and philanthropic fads to – as far as I can tell – change me from who I am to what I should be. And despite the natural order of things, that the next generation will rebel and be different, it feels many times that dominant conclusion is disappointment in us that we don’t look like them, talk like them, support the institutions they support, believe what they believe. I can totally relate to that frustration with Moses.

I wear tzitzit but no kippah. I come from a mixed ethnic background. I’ve founded and run two Jewish prayer communities but this is the first time I’ve been a member of a synagogue. I work tirelessly in support of Israel but through a progressive lens. I’ve worked and lived my entire 20s within a community of new Jewish institutions that didn’t exist 15-20 years ago.

The other reason this midrash made my heart pound is because I wonder about Joshua. What was that like? It is said that Moses was our greatest teacher. If Moses shone like the sun, touched by God directly, rabbis tells us, then Joshua was like the moon. A fraction of the radiance.

And I can relate. Here I stand, in the shoes of those who came before me, wondering if I – we, my generation – have in us what the last generations did. To not have been the generation that survived the Holocaust, or built the State of Israel, or place Jewry atop the highest socio-economic rung despite prejudice.

Are we fundamentally lesser because our travails now feel smaller? Does our generation really see any threat like those of the past? What could we do with this surplus well-being? What could we do that will be even half as trying, as difficult, as monumental as what you did? How will we make you proud? And how will we make you proud if, as we sometimes get the feeling, that we’re not exactly what you wanted and won’t do things as you think they should be done?

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If the parable about Moses had ended where Moses finally agrees to step aside, it would be less powerful for our purposes today. The beauty to me of the story is what happens after that. The point isn’t that Moses steps aside. What moves me, truly moves me, is what I see as the story’s climax.

Moses then asks to see the world once through Joshua’s eyes. Going undercover, Moses sees Joshua elucidate law and lead. Moved by what he witnesses, Moses surrenders to God’s decree. The climax of this rollercoaster of a midrash is the next event: he apologizes to the tribes and asks their forgiveness.

“Because of the Torah, I chastised you greatly. Now, please forgive me.” And they replied to him, “Our teacher, we troubled you even more, we made your life hell. Please forgive us.” And they forgave each other. Moses goes peacefully to his deathbed, attended by God and all those forces of nature he appealed to for help, and his soul is taken by God.

Moses and the Children of Israel reconcile. Remember the thing that drove you mad about your parents. Imagine if they looked you in the eyes and apologized for how it made you feel. Imagine having that moment. Now think of your children, your younger friends, mentees maybe, or students. Imagine what it would feel like to hear from their lips despite your differences, that they admire you, even love you. That they do everything which might drive you mad in your honor.

There are two lessons in this story. First we share in the frustration against Moses, then we share in the compassion towards him. In inhabiting this story, we inhabit each other on a two-way street of understanding. Next week, there is more opportunity for everyone to hear from young Jewish leaders from Seattle making important decisions about our future.

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Change is hard. As a closing example of Jewish change, here in this parsha are the roots of individual tshuva/repentence, a theological ideal that did not play a dominant role in Jewish thought for a thousand years. Can you imagine a Judaism without tshuva as we know it today? Would you want to even be a part of a Judaism without forgiveness? And yet our ancestors did and, if needed, we probably could again. Change – the thing that Jews are indeed the best at: practices evolved, entire paradigms rose and fell, our community expanded and contracted time and again.

As we enter the High Holy Days, let us follow the example in these parshiot. Of embracing change, however difficult. Of seeing in each other that we do what do out of love, not hate. Of thinking nonjudgmentally about what may come after us. Of recognizing the natural order that all of us at one point play the Joshua and all of us play the Moses. L’dor vador, Shabbat shalom.