Swan Song

Temple Emanu-El Providence
Shabbat Chazon, 2012/5772

Shabbat Shalom.

A parable: A servant, who has served his King already many years, is promoted in the King’s court and invited to live in the castle. Before he is permitted to move in, however, he is required to meet with the King’s most trusted advisor, who reminds the servant both of his successes and of his failures during his years of service. Why (our sages ask)? Because it was his successes that got him the promotion; it will be the way he overcomes his failures that will allow him to keep it.

We began the book of D’varim this week with the words “אלה הדברים” – “these are the words”. The Rabbis note that usually the word eleh – “these” is used in reference to a text preceding it, but since it is the first word in a new book of the Torah, its use here piques their interest. They conclude almost universally that eleh refers to another kind of words: that is, it implies that the words with which Moshe begins are words of rebuke.

The book of D’varim is particularly interesting to the biblical reader because it is a unique window into Moshe’s own psyche. Finally, we hear truly how Moshe thinks and feels, in contrast to his pervasive silence, as Rabbi Babchuck pointed out last week, regarding the events and dicta he is required to communicate throughout Sh’mot, VaYikra, and Bemidbar. In D’varim, which is essentially Moshe’s swan song and good-bye speech, Moshe spans the gamut of emotions and literary forms, showing us not only his rebuke, but his poetry, his love, his assertiveness, and his anxiety.

Moshe displays anxiety in particular toward his imminent death and toward leaving his people, but there is one anxiety that speaks loudest to me today: that is, Moshe’s anxiety about the impending transition of leadership from him to Joshua. Not only do we witness Moshe’s anxiety over the course of this book; we also witness his acceptance.

Seven times over the course of D’varim Joshua’s name is mentioned. The first two, in Chapter 1 and Chapter 3 of D’varim respectively, are simply Moshe telling the people what God had commanded him:

גַּם-בִּי הִתְאַנַּף יְהוָה, בִּגְלַלְכֶם לֵאמֹר:  גַּם-אַתָּה, לֹא-תָבֹא שָׁם. יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן-נוּן הָעֹמֵד לְפָנֶיךָ, הוּא יָבֹא שָׁמָּה; אֹתוֹ חַזֵּק, כִּי-הוּא יַנְחִלֶנָּה אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל

“God was angry with me because of you. He told me, ‘You will not go there [into the land]. But Joshua son of Nun, who stands before you, he will go. Strengthen him, for he is the one who will secure Israel’s possession of it .'” (Devarim 1:37-38)

After Moshe once again reinforces God’s frustration with him for asking, Moshe reports that as he overlooked the land of Israel from Pisgah, God said to him:

וְצַו אֶת-יְהוֹשֻׁעַ, וְחַזְּקֵהוּ וְאַמְּצֵהוּ:  כִּי-הוּא יַעֲבֹר, לִפְנֵי הָעָם הַזֶּה, וְהוּא יַנְחִיל אוֹתָם, אֶת-הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר תִּרְאֶה

“Look well, for you shall not cross over this Jordan. But charge Joshua, and encourage and strengthen him, because it is he who shall cross over at the head of this people and who shall secure their possession of the land that you will see.’”(Devarim 3:28).

Moshe seems to be treading on thin ice here, not wanting to betray negative feelings for Joshua to the nation, as he knows that Joshua is God’s chosen next leader; it is clear, though, that he’s feeling resentful and perhaps supplanted by this replacement.

Rashi, our teacher, comments that when God commands Moshe to “charge Joshua” that this regards the burdens and the hardships of his post. Rashi continues by quoting Sifrei, saying that God wants Moshe to charge Joshua in particular “with your words, so that he will not be discouraged, saying, ‘Just as my teacher was punished, so will I be punished because of them.’ I assure him [says God] that he will cross over [before this people] and he will make [them] inherit [the land].”

We, the biblical readers, and presumably Moshe as well, had been introduced to Joshua in the story of the twelve spies (which, despite the fact that we read about it only a few weeks ago, occurred chronologically 38 years prior to entering the land of Israel). When Moshe met Joshua, his name was “Hoshea,” and we are told, in one of the only re-naming stories not initiated by God, that “Moshe called Hoshea bin Nun – Yehoshua / Joshua”. Did this imply some kind of ongoing relationship? Perhaps. It’s unclear. We at least know from this that Moshe and Joshua were aware of each other for thirty-eight years. This also implies, by the way, that Joshua had to have been old enough to have endured slavery in Egypt, whereas that whole generation was destined to be wiped out before the nation could enter the land of Israel. Did Moshe think that he, instead of Joshua, should have been entitled to cross both the Reed Sea and the Jordan River, unlike any others of his generation?

After the verse in Chapter 3, Joshua is not mentioned again until 28 chapters later, in D’varim 31, as Moshe prepares for death. Here, however, Moshe’s tone is very different. He acknowledges his 120 years, and notes that he’s tired of all the “going and coming”. Here, he is more accepting of the reality that his journey will end on this side of the river. He tells the people, then, that God will help them fight their battles, and that Joshua will lead the people. And here, he finally blesses and strengthens Joshua:

ז וַיִּקְרָא מֹשֶׁה לִיהוֹשֻׁעַ, וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו לְעֵינֵי כָל-יִשְׂרָאֵל חֲזַק וֶאֱמָץ–כִּי אַתָּה תָּבוֹא אֶת-הָעָם הַזֶּה, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע יְהוָה לַאֲבֹתָם לָתֵת לָהֶם; וְאַתָּה, תַּנְחִילֶנָּה אוֹתָם.  ח וַיהוָה הוּא הַהֹלֵךְ לְפָנֶיךָ, הוּא יִהְיֶה עִמָּךְ–לֹא יַרְפְּךָ, וְלֹא יַעַזְבֶךָּ; לֹא תִירָא, וְלֹא תֵחָת

“Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: ‘Be strong and bold, for you are the one who will go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their ancestors to give them; and you will put them in possession of it. It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; He will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.’”

Well, I think it’s obvious why my last Shabbat at Temple Emanu-El might be a time that Moshe’s anxiety about transition speaks to me.

Let me be clear: I do not resent or feel supplanted by the new ritual director. Having spoken with Paul Stouber and having put him through “Ritual Director Boot Camp,” and having left him with an extensive “Ritual Director Handbook,” I am confident in his abilities to serve this congregation competently. In Paul we have found someone who is organized, who cares deeply for the Temple Emanu-El community, who will not merely strive to teach our students but invest in them and enjoy teaching them.

As Moshe’s final words to Joshua, in the eyes of all of the people, were meant to strengthen him and help him prepare for leading this people, I have a few words to share with Paul, though I admit they are not my own. Davin Wolok, ritual director in Chestnut Hill, MA, beautifully composed the following words, which are excerpted from his piece entitled “A Ritual Director’s Hineni”. I hope you, Paul, and everyone present can take them to heart:

O God, I thank you for the miracle of encounter,

for the moment of meeting those into whose path I come.

Teach me to appreciate the importance of simply being there, of being present to those who are seized by grief and whose pain may be felt to be unbearable.

Teach me to support those at an earlier stage who, excited yet nervous,

stand upon the threshold of adulthood within our community.

Teach me to value words, written and spoken, to young and old alike.

For more than wanting things do they desire words of kindness and understanding.

“You matter” means more than objects of matter.

Teach me to value teaching, whether the content taught be a skill

or an idea for the mind – and the heart.

Teach me to sense that the heart desires song.

Let our Torah be chanted.

The meaning of the text and its music are one.

Teach me to value the experience of sharing in the happiness of others.

Let me feel the beauty and dearness of tears of joy.

Teach me to be there and to give to those whom I meet

in the “space” You have created called life.

God, let me know that I am a moment in Your eternal drama. […]

Let me touch and be touched by my fellows, whom You have created. […]

Moshe’s swan song begins with eleh had’varim – “these are the words”. It is not as clear to me, as it might have been to our Sages, that the anomaly of the word eleh implies that Moshe’s first words were those of rebuke. Instead, let us contrast this Moshe, who prepares with this phrase to give a five-week long good-bye speech, to the one who told God at the beginning that he was “k’vad peh ukh’vad lashon” – heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue, that is, not skilled in speaking. Eleh – these words, the words of a man who at once didn’t feel he could stand on his own two feet as a leader. Look how far he’s come.

It has been my privilege to have served Temple Emanu-El these past three years. In line with my favorite mishna in the first chapter of Pirkei Avot, you have made me your teacher, you have found in me a friend, and you have judged me favorably. You have each taught me important lessons, and, as I move forward, I take these with me. Thank God, unlike Moshe’s relationship with the Israelite nation, which ends on the mountain, I can anticipate happily, albeit from afar, an ongoing relationship with Temple Emanu-El, and I hope that many of you will stay in touch.

Shabbat Shalom.


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