Rabbinic Reflections: Issue 177

September 22, 2023 (7 Tishrei 5784)

Parashat Ha'azinu - Sing Like Moshe (or Phil)

Dear Friends,

I hope this correspondence finds you doing well, having enjoyed an inspiring, thoughtful, and joyous Rosh Hashana with friends and family. We were thrilled to welcome so many of you to our spiritual gathering last weekend and we eagerly anticipate your return to the high school this Sunday. In the meantime, please don’t forget to join us this Saturday morning for Shabbat services, which will take place in our beautiful sanctuary at 10:15am. As always, these services will be available on our regular Zoom prayer link.

As I have discussed from the pulpit over the last few months, Devarim (Deuteronomy) represents the final swansong of Moshe Rabeinu, Moses Our Teacher. Our ancestral leader offers three lengthy speeches, which come to a culmination in this week’s Torah reading of Haazinu.

From a literary perspective, it is fair to say that Chapters 1–30 of Devarim consist of three consecutive sermons delivered by Moses on the Plains of Moab, shortly before Israel enters the Promised Land. The first sermon recounts the forty years of wilderness wanderings. The second sermon reminds the Israelites of the need to follow Hashem and His divine laws. The third sermon offers an appropriate message for us during this High Holy Day season: the comfort that, should the nation of Israel prove unfaithful, with repentance, all can be restored.

For a modest man, who entered reluctantly into an over four-decade long partnership with the Master of the Universe, claiming that he was heavy of tongue (Ex. 4) and not a man of words, Moshe, certainly makes up for his self-proclaimed oratorical deficiencies. Biblical scholars and colleagues go as far as to say that Moshe spoke to his assembled congregation for a combined 7 hours. (Even on Yom Kippur, I promise not to do that!)

In this week’s portion of Haazinu, we read, or rather chant, a ballad that is referred to as The Song of Moses. With his life’s work accomplished, Moshe sings to Hashem a melodious poem of thanks, entirely aware that he himself will not accompany his flock across the Jordan River into the Promised Land. His days are numbered.

From a psychological perspective, many would find it baffling that in his last hours, (especially after so much speaking, and frankly, not completing his original mission), Moshe now sweetly sings to Hashem on behalf of the Jewish people.

Is it possible to face one’s final days and muster musical composition accompanied by harmonious melody?

The Torah text clearly says YES.

Last week, I visited my longtime friend, Phil, who was a member and regular attendee at my previous synagogue. Phil attended our morning minyan daily and was a supporter of various youth program innovations that I introduced, (which sometimes ruffled feathers of the establishment). He also attended all of my adult education classes with an inquisitive mind and insatiable orientation for learning. Phil “religiously” attended weekly Friday night services for Kabbalat Shabbat. One time, when I inserted a rousing, if irreverent, interjection of Yam Ba Da Bim Bam Bam into the Kiddush, Phil enthusiastically joined in and sang it with me, later commenting, “Well, that certainly livened things up!”

Unfortunately, my friend has been suffering from deteriorating health for about eight months, resulting in an understandably weakened physical condition. Doctors now describe his situation as a failure to thrive. There will be no Refuah or miraculous recovery.

Recently, Phil returned home for hospice care, to face his final few days. When I went to visit him, I was not sure exactly what to expect, nor was I confident as to what kind of a room I would be joining.

Despite a lack of vigor, Phil sat up and greeted me, shook my hand, and was entirely at ease as we spoke. He shared with me that, despite his unfortunate circumstances, he harbors no complaints. He is blessed by a life partner of over fifty-five years and has immeasurable Naches (joy) from loving daughters and grandchildren. He also reported to me that before becoming incapacitated, he ventured to Gettysburg yet again. (Phil has visited the Pennsylvania landmark 91 times and is a lifelong scholar of the battles that took place between Union and Confederate forces during the American Civil War.)

This Friday after work, I hope, God willing, to see Phil one more time. This Shabbat is Shabbat Shuva or the Sabbath of Return. For nineteen consecutive years, at one congregation or another, Phil has chanted the special Haftarah that is recited between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Like Moshe, Phil wants to share one last song. His song, no doubt, will be heartfelt and emanate from the perspective of a life well-lived and a love that is deeply shared. His song will spring from a fountain of spiritual strength built up through decades of attachment to tradition and Torah. My guess is that, like Moshe, Phil’s last song will open the Gates of Heaven and be warmly received by the awaiting angels of Paradise and the Ribbono Shel Olam (Master of the Universe) himself.

May we all merit, at the sound of our Neila (closing of the Gates), to share in song graciously and with gratitude, while basking in Hashem’s presence and preparing to embrace our well-deserved eternal reward.

Shabbat Shalom and Tzom Kal,

Rabbi Eric L. Wasser, EdD, Hon.DM
Tel: 201-562-5277

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