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Moses’ Last Song #693

09/17/2021 05:46:00 PM

Sep17

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashah Ha'azinu

“Come gather ’round people wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone”
For the Times They are A-Changin’ (Bob Dylan 1963)

Moses' Last Song?

A question was once asked of the great Sage, Maimonides: “Until when is one required to study Torah in their lifetime?”

To which Maimonides replied, “Until the day of their death.”

Throughout the generations, Maimonides’ answer has been dissected by many. “How is it possible that during a person’s last and most frail moments, they continue acquire knowledge?”

Our Sages reply that even in our final moment, we are still learning and sharing life experience — even as we prepare for death.

It is within that context that this week’s Torah portion, Ha’azinu (give ear), opens. It is the last day of Moses’ life.

His spirit is slipping away. He is no longer strong enough to lead. But within his final hours of consciousness, he is still absorbing, learning and, above all, sharing with current and future generations.

The Torah pre-empts Moses’ last teaching — presented in the form of a poem — with a personal declaration that he is not yet done. He still has knowledge and life experience to share. Moses has much more to say.

“Give ear, O heavens let me speak,” he says. “Let the earth hear the words I utter.” (Deuteronomy 32:1).

Moses declares that the history of the Jewish people, and its future, will rest on one important word: Years.

“Remember the days of old, and understand the years of the generations.” (Deuteronomy 32:7)

In his poem, Moses reminds the Jewish people to respect the proud history and tradition of previous generations.

But respect for the concept of years does not end there.

The medieval scholar, Ibn Ezra (1089-1167), seized on the word “years”  sh’not or its singular form, shanah  and ran a thread to the Hebrew word for change  shinui.

Rabbis over the generations have doubled down on the closeness of these two words, emphasizing that Moses’ phrase, “understand the years of the generations” means that we must not only respect the past, but also embrace the potential for change in the future.

It means that in order for Judaism to survive, it must leave space for shinui — change — within every generation.

Over thousands of years, this, perhaps, has been one of the benchmarks of Jewish survival.

The Judaism our grandparents practiced tended to be more closed and isolated. Many of those who came to North America were rightly suspicious of other nations and cultures. We kept our distance. 

But based on changes within society — a less tribal culture — with the advent of mass communication and social media, we have learned there is much to be gained by engaging and interacting with our neighbors of a variety of faiths and backgrounds.

Judaism has again learned to change.

Moses reminds us at the beginning of his final teaching of the vital connection between past and present.

And this teaching has shaped us through time.

Forty years ago, many Jewish congregations split over whether to endorse egalitarian prayer and participation. Now the idea rarely enters the conversation.

Ten years ago, intermarriage was seen as the death knell of Judaism. Now, our synagogues are open to couples of different backgrounds and orientations with children of these new generations now populating our Hebrew schools.

A 2004 survey of college students reported that only 48 percent of the thousands polled, who identify as Jews, have parents who are both Jewish. Yet campus organizations catering to Jewish students are flourishing.

Years ago, we measured the success of a congregation and the commitment of a Jew to how many times a month they came to Shabbat services.

Now, in addition, we respect — if not cherish — those who lead us in social action, study, fund raising and education.

Indeed, we — as a people — need not only consider the years of our tradition, but also our capacity to change.

It is an essential and energizing debate, as we strive to respect the traditions that have sustained us through the years along with Judaism’s responsibility to adapt to a world which continues to evolve at such a rapid pace.

As we enter this new shanah, let us also consider how to endorse the idea of shinui — change. On a personal level, that includes a commitment to review our behaviors and our actions.

But as caretakers of the future, we must also consider how to make Judaism more engaging for future generations — whether at the Passover table, or how we model mitzvoth – charity, protection of the environment or interactions with those who surround us. 

As Moses inspires us to consider in one of his most important teachings, shared on his last day, it is vital that we understand and respect the power of “years” in the ongoing survival of the Jewish people. 

It extends from the depths of our souls, to our ability to embrace shinui, from the time of Moses, to this new shanah, and beyond.

Shabbat Shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

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