II Samuel 22:1-51
The Book of Deuteronomy is the story of Moses’ life. Like every good story, this one carries a lesson. We see it very clearly in last week’s Torah portion. Moses explains that the people have a choice. They can choose blessing or curse, life or death, and they are urged to choose life.
But how is it that Moses, of all people, looks at his life and concludes that one of the most important lessons is that we have choices? After all, when God called to Moses from the burning bush and told him to go back to Egypt, Moses tried every excuse he could think of to get out of it. In the desert, Moses complains time and again that God saddled him with this stiff-necked people. It doesn’t seem as though he has had a lot of choice in his life. Does he teach this lesson in spite of his own experience?
Perhaps. Or maybe when he looks back on his life, he realizes he did make a choice. He chose to move forward. He chose not to keep fighting God, but rather to move forward with God’s instruction. That choice came with lots of responsibilities and restrictions. Yet, now, as he stands ready to send his people on to their destiny, he sees that his choice has indeed led to the path of life and blessing.
Moses ends his story with a prayer that we find in this week’s Torah portion, Ha’azinu. In this final poem, Moses expresses his hope that his prayers may be heard and he praises God and God’s strength. He understands his own lesson and declares confidently and proudly that his life was lived for the purpose of God, Torah and the creation of the people Israel. Moses comes to the end of his journey at peace with who he has been and the life he has led.
Each of us hopes that, in the end, we find a sense of peace with ourselves and our life’s journey. Unlike Moses, however, we do not know the precise time of our death. Therefore, we cannot wait until the last moment to reflect and review and come to terms with our choices and actions. Our tradition, thus, urges us to do that work often, especially at this time of year.
And, we can reflect by following Moses’ example. Moses discovers the lessons of his life by telling his life as a story. Thinking of our lives as stories can give us more objectivity, enabling us to see our life trajectory in ways that are difficult when we are completely inside our own experience. Telling the story of our lives can help us identify our most significant motifs — enabling us to determine whether our actions support what is most meaningful to us.
When we see our lives as a whole, we understand how specific events and decisions led to others. We can see how regrets and disappointments offered new paths that have been positive. We may find that, in telling the story of our lives, we can clearly see how our hopes and dreams have been fulfilled or are being fulfilled, and thus find contentment and gratitude.
Or, in telling our stories, we might find that we are not in a place we want to be. We might find that our choices and our actions are not teaching the lessons we want to teach. We might find that we have to shift our perspectives and expectations to find a new path, one that better suits who we want to be. How can we make our lives into stories with morals worthy of teaching?
It is, of course, no accident that we read Ha’azinu on Shabbat Shuvah, when we are in the midst of our reflection and repentance. Tradition is urging us to be like Moses, to tell the stories of our lives, to discover their lessons, and be content with our past, present and future. And, if we are not, these Days of Awe give us the opportunity to move forward differently and with intention, so we can make our lives into the lessons we hope to teach.
From Moses’ life we learn to choose life and blessing. What will be the lessons that others will learn from ours?
Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin is a rabbi at Temple Sinai in Oakland. She can be reached at email@example.com.