“Moses and the Ten Commandments,” engraving by H. Martin, ca. 1850
“Moses and the Ten Commandments,” engraving by H. Martin, ca. 1850

A great leader in life stays with us after death

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Deuteronomy 32:1-52

II Samuel 22:1-51

There is a beautiful scene in the musical “Hamilton” that takes place between Alexander Hamilton and President George Washington. Washington, having decided not to seek re-election, sings “One last time… Let’s take a break tonight and then we’ll teach them how to say goodbye… And if we get this right, we’re gonna teach ’em how to say goodbye, you and I.”

Throughout the lyrics, you can sense the real emotion between the two great leaders. One who is not ready to let his president retire, and one who has grown weary after a lifetime of service to his country. One who wants to write a letter that highlights the illustrious career of a general and a commander in chief, and the other who hopes that he will be forgiven for the many errors he knows he has committed.

In many ways, Parashat Ha’azinu is Moses’ own rendition of “One Last Time.” While Washington reflects on his career and his life, proud of what he’s accomplished, remorseful of his blemishes, yet hopeful of the possibility of what’s to come through the country that’s been created, Moses’ message is more challenging. Parashat Ha’azinu reflects the honest emotions running through Moses’ veins: the sadness, anger and loss; a palpable fear coupled with a warning of what’s to come if the Israelites stray from God.

Moses lauds God for choosing the Israelites as God’s people, hoping that the people will always choose God in return. There is, however, a sense of ambivalent acceptance as he gazes out to see the Promised Land that he will never touch. Yet, there remains an optimism of what’s possible if the Israelites heed his instructions. Perhaps, in the stinging rebuke of the people, Moses is conveying something deeper. Maybe, as the people he has led for the last 40 years prepares to enter the land, Moses just needs to share a final thought, one last time.

In his parting words, Moses says to the Israelites, “Remember the days of old; think about the years of the past generations. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain to you” (Deuteronomy 32:7). Inspired by a teaching of the late professor Gershom Scholem in his work “The Messianic Idea in Judaism,” Rabbi Marc Angel suggests that Moses is leaving behind an important three-fold message to the Israelites (Rabbi Marc Angel, “Angel for Shabbat”). First, we should always be mindful of finding stability in a time of change. How do we do that? By conserving the sacred rituals and traditions that have been a part of our faith for generations. The Torah, God’s great gift to the Jewish people, can serve as our guide and our rock no matter what changes we might face in life.

Second, we should never be afraid to go back to something that worked, even if it was long ago. Even during times of transition, we should not be afraid to “go back to the basics.” Sometimes what’s tried and true is easier than reinventing the wheel. And finally, it’s also a good thing to imagine what better can look like. Whether it’s a messianic ideal or taking small steps toward improving our lives, we must never give up on trying to create something that makes our present and even our future more sacred and meaningful.

What I love about Rabbi Angel’s interpretation is that, in a fragile moment filled with emotion and teetering between life and death, Moses shares his “one last time.” “Remember the days of old…” by protecting your tradition so that it may ground you and guide you in all that you do. “Ask your father:” in times when things don’t always feel hopeful, draw inspiration from the prophetic teachings of those who came before you. And remember that “your elders” in each generation can guide you to creating a better future. As we enter a new year and as we prepare to complete reading the Torah only to begin again, let us heed Moses’ blessing “one last time.”

I imagine Moses saying it this way: “My dear children of Israel, even though I won’t be there to guide you on your next journey, may you always remain steadfast to the wisdom of the Torah. And may you be guided by the leaders of the past and present so that you can bring a new light and restored hope to the world for future generations to come.”

Rabbi Corey Helfand
Rabbi Corey Helfand

Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at [email protected].