Hosea 14:2-10, Joel 2:11-27, Micah 7:18-20
An American Jew visits Russia and is asked about life in the United States.
“Thank God, life is good,” he replies.
“How is life in the former Soviet Union?”
“Here,” replies the Russian Jew, “it is also good, but here we don’t say thank God. Here we say thank Putin.”
“What will you say when Putin dies?” the American inquires. “Then we will say thank God,” the Russian replies.
What would you do if you knew today was your last day on earth? Would you lock yourself in a room and be angry and depressed? Perhaps drink the misery away? Would you put on a cheerful face and spend the day with family and friends? Would you, or could you, be thankful to God for the time you were given?
This week’s Torah portion records Moses’ last day on earth. It is the seventh day in the month of Adar, his 120th birthday, and he knows it will also be his yahrzeit. One can hardly imagine the flood of emotions Moses was feeling as he set out on his final day.
His life’s work and mission started when he took a stand against an Egyptian officer beating a helpless Hebrew slave; then years later he stood up to and defied Pharaoh himself. This pattern was to become the defining nature of his leadership, repeatedly putting his life on the line for his people. For 40 years following the Exodus, he shielded his people from God’s wrath.
Like no leader before him or since, when he had to choose between siding with God or his stubborn and recalcitrant flock, he always chose the latter. Now finally it would all be worth it, as he stands on the eastern bank, the end of the journey finally in sight.
That journey, he believed, would culminate with him leading the Jewish people home to the land of their ancestors, after hundreds of years of exile. Yet he learns that the dream he harbored all his life, to walk the sacred ground of the holy land of Israel, was not to be. He was not going to cross the Jordan River with his people, whom he had led and shepherded for 40 years.
Moses, who more than any Jewish leader in our long and storied history repeatedly challenged God to explain his ways and method of judgment. Who alone among mankind was granted inside access to God, to speak and be spoken to as one would speak to a friend. As the conduit to bring the wisdom and will of God through the Torah to the Jewish people, his grasp of God’s ways was unparalleled.
Yet Moses found one door closed even to him. As much as he probed and prodded God to explain it to him, the meaning of (his) death would remain elusive. Is there a rationale to God’s system of reward and punishment? Why do so many good people suffer and the wicked seem to prosper? If Moses of all people had been bitter and cynical at the end, it would have seem justified.
Years earlier, Moses had asked God to grace him with the gift of being able to visualize God and receive the answer to these questions that have vexed humanity. God responded that no human could see or comprehend God’s ways and live. However, he did grant Moses one wish. He said I will pass by you, my front you will not see, but you will see me from behind.
One of the most profound and moving explanations to this curious response is that God told Moses it is not possible to understand why the world is the way it is while it is still in front of us. Only after it has passed by, in hindsight, in retrospect, from “behind” the glass of time, do we see the hand of the Creator.
So Moses had one more day, perhaps his most important day. He used it to teach his people perhaps the most important lesson, the one they would need to survive thousands of years of exile and persecution. That great “gift” of being a “stiff-necked people” could and would be used to stubbornly cling to our faith and tradition even when circumstances dictated otherwise.
Incredibly, he spent his last day on earth writing an entire Torah scroll. Until his last moment, he was consumed with faith and purpose, teaching the Torah and making sure that its instructions would be carried out always.
Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi is the spiritual leader of Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.