Va-et’chanan: The faithful resilience of Moses

Va-et’chanan: The faithful resilience of Moses

On the evening of Kol Nidrei, in 2005, I was in my final year of rabbinic school in Cincinnati, serving as a rabbinic intern for Adath Israel Congregation. That night, my mentor, Rabbi Irvin Wise, delivered a sermon in which he said, “Life begins after the tear.” He specifically mentioned the ritual of k’riah – making a tear in one’s garment as an expression of grief just prior to attending a funeral service. And after the tearing, after painful and emotional acknowledgment, Rabbi Wise taught that it is possible for a person to demonstrate resilience, to begin the challenging process of embracing life once again, of living, even in the shadow of loss.

While this sermon referred specifically to death, there are other moments in our lives in which we feel deeply torn – the loss of a job, a conflict with a family member or a colleague, a disappointing outcome, a moment in which we lose hope. Such circumstances require us to begin after the tear too, to acknowledge our pain and frustration, to pick ourselves up, to continue living, to demonstrate resilience, even if we feel that life’s experiences have left us feeling diminished.

For all of our people’s commentary surrounding Moses’ leadership and humility, the truth also is that Moses was no stranger to disappointment. After leading the Israelites through the wilderness and being God’s emissary to the people for forty years, Moses encounters a series of challenges as the Israelites grumble repeatedly in the wilderness. To recall, in Numbers 20, the Israelites found themselves in a location without food and water and complained to Moses and Aaron that they would be better off if they returned to Egypt. God tells Moses to get water for the Israelites by speaking to a rock. In a show of anger and frustration, Moses smashes the rock twice with his staff and copious water issues forth.

The consequence of Moses’ actions in Numbers 20 is dire. No matter how much he resisted the initial call from God at the burning bush, Moses has become inexorably linked to the Israelites. He has instructed them, challenged them, and even defended them. And now, he will never achieve his most cherished goal – he will never taste the sweetness of the land flowing with milk and honey; he will only see the land from afar.

This week, as we read from Parashat Va-et’chanan, the second weekly reading in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses pleads with God again, hoping that God will reconsider and reverse judgment, granting Moses the exceptional reward which his heart so deeply craves. But God doesn’t budge and merely says, “That is enough, do not speak to me anymore about this matter” (Deuteronomy 3:26).

We can only imagine the depth of emotion that Moses feels – his disappointment, his despair, and his heart breaking with sadness. He has endured a tear – an indelible mark in the fabric of his life – but he chooses to go on. It is remarkable that Moses does not give up and does not bury his head in shame. He resigns himself to his role as leader, choosing to be resilient even when confronted with pain and injustice, even when life threatens to become devoid of meaning. He still has a duty, a responsibility, an obligation. Even denied his ultimate wish, he needs to continue leading and continue living.

In this light, Moses’ utterance later in our parashah – you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your being (Deuteronomy 6:5) – becomes even more profound. Moses may not achieve his goal of setting foot in the Promised Land, but he can continue to help guide others to that destination, and the realization of God’s presence even in moments of pain and transition. Ultimately, Moses reminds us that resilience is possible even after a tear. May we too see such moments, however painful, as opportunities to begin again and to continue living.