We cling to memory, as we can never see enough of those most dear

Shabbat Shuvah
Deuteronomy 32:1-52
Hosea 14:2-10
Micah 7:18-20
Joel 2:15-27

You shall die on the mountain that you are about to ascend …You may view the land from a distance, but you may not enter it. (Deut. 32:50, 52)

In sacred literature, mountains are dramatic places for vision. Abraham named Mount Moriah Behar Adonai Yireh — “on the mount of the living God there is vision” — because that is where an angel stayed Abraham’s hand from slaying Isaac. God spoke to Moses from atop several mountain sites (see Ex. 3:1, 19:3; Deut. 4:11, 5:19). Elijah’s powerful vision of God’s voice following powerful wind, earthquake and fire is recorded in I Kings (19: 11ff). Isaiah (2:2) and Micah (4:1) refer to the mountain of the Lord’s house standing above the other mountains and hills.

Moses ascended the mountain referred to in Ha’azinu, this week’s Torah portion, to get one last sweeping look at the land he had hoped to enter, the people he had led and, perhaps, one last glimpse of God. A reader of the Torah, putting himself in Moses’ place, can imagine that Moses could not get enough of seeing the people he led and the land he loved. As he stood on the wind-swept mountain summit, he tried to seal this vision into his mind — the last picture that he hoped would always remain with him.

Many people safeguard memory because it is never possible to see enough of loved ones and things that are important to us, a recurrent theme reflected in a curious talmudic passage:

Alexander the Great, standing before the gates of Eden, asked for a sign of eternity. In response, an eye rolled out from under the gates. Puzzled, Alexander picked up the eye and turned to his advisors to explicate this sign. They placed the eye on one side of a balance scale and gold and silver on the opposite side. No matter how much precious metal was heaped on the other side of the scale, the eye always outweighed the metal. But when a pinch of dust was added to the side with the eye, the scale tipped.

“What is the meaning of this?” he demanded. Their response was fitting for acquisitive Alexander: “Only the return to the dust can end the desire to see, do and own everything possible.” To prove their point, they quoted from Ecclesiastes (1:8; also see Proverbs 27:20): “The eye is never satisfied with seeing.” (Tamid 32b)

Although it is true that many are never satisfied with accumulating worldly possessions, many more can never get enough of seeing their loved ones. Eyes thirstily drink in their countenances while they are alive, and people struggle to continue to see them when they are no longer here. If only they could shine before their eyes like the stars of the heavens that Shakespeare utilized to describe Romeo in love-struck Juliet’s words:

When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night,
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
(“Romeo and Juliet,” III, ii)

As the High Holy Days approach, Jews stand on the mountain of memory and hope to see, beyond the veil of tears, the images of long-gone-but-not forgotten cherished parents, treasured husbands and wives, and beloved children. We, like Moses, struggle for a glimpse of what is not ordinarily seen, a distant starlike shining face, a hint of the countenance of a loved one no longer here.

If only we had that sweeping-mountain vision that affords an opportunity to see loved ones long gone, even for just one split instant, we would trade anything for that. We think, “I miss you more than ever, especially when I remember how you gently guided me through life, as I wish you could do now,” a sentiment reflected in the words of Hannah Senesh:

There are stars whose light reaches the earth only after they themselves have disintegrated and are no more. And there are men whose scintillating memory lights the world after they have passed from it. These lights which shine in the darkest night are those which illumine for us the path …

Stephen S. Pearce is senior rabbi at the Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.