Following in God's Paths
INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA
PARASHAT VEZOT HA-BERAKHA
In memory of our beloved father and grandfather
Mr. Berel Weiner (Dov Ber ben Aharon z"l).
May the learning of these shiurim provide an aliya for his neshama.
- Steven Weiner, Lisa Wise, Michael & Joshua
Following in God's Paths
By Rabbi Michael Hattin
With Moshe's farewell blessing to the People of Israel completed, he reluctantly takes his leave from them and ascends Mount Nevo. Standing at its craggy summit, he looks with longing westwards, towards the Promised Land. Surveying the land from afar, he breathes deeply, contemplating his long life of devotion and loyalty to his people's needs and to his God's expectations. Moshe's intense contentment of having lived his life well is also tinged with sadness, for the objective of the journey, the entry and settlement of the New Land, is to remain beyond his grasp forever.
"God showed him the whole land, from the Gilead to Dan. He showed him the land of Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Menasheh, and the whole land of Yehuda, until the Western Sea. He showed him also the dry, southern land, the Plain of the Valley of Yericho, from the City of Palms until Tsoar.
God said to him: "this is the land that I swore unto Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaacov saying 'to your descendents shall I give it.' I have shown it to you with your own eyes, but over to there you shall not go" (Devarim 34:1-4).
Having scanned the regions where the tribes will soon settle, from the fertile northern boundaries of Naphtali to the parched southern reaches of Yehuda, and from the sandy shores of the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the plains of the winding Jordan River in the east, Moshe is now ready to die.
"Moshe the servant of God died there in the Land of Moav, by God's mouth. He buried him in the valley in the Land of Moav opposite Beit Pe'or, but no man knows the place of his grave until this very day. Moshe was one hundred and twenty years old at the time of his death, but his eye was not dimmed nor was his natural vigor abated (Devarim 34:5-6).
Moshe, God's loyal servant, secures that most sought after of deaths, a death unprecipitated by debilitating illness, unaccompanied by discomfort and suffering, and unburdened by regret or misgivings. He dies by experiencing the so-called 'Divine Kiss,' by which the soul is gently and effortlessly drawn out of the body as 'a hair is drawn out of a bowl of milk' (Talmud Bavli Berakhot 7b). Then, God buries him in a secret place, for no prying eyes are to intrude on that breathless moment and no trespassers are to later cheapen it, by turning his grave into a garish shrine.
Burial as a Moral Act
Thus, the final events of the Torah describe the end of all mortals, for no man can escape the eventuality of death. No other experience among all of life's other myriad events is as fearfully assured or as frustratingly obscured. Significantly but not surprisingly, however, this account of Moshe's mysterious demise and cryptic burial serve the Rabbis of the Talmud not as a source of mystical meditations on the enigmatic aspects of dying and internment, but rather as a rational and life-affirming lesson in ethical and moral behavior.
"Said Rabbi Chama ben Chanina: What is meant by the verse commanding us to 'walk after God your Lord' (Devarim 13:5)? Is it then possible to walk after God's presence? Behold, the verse states that God is 'a consuming fire' (Devarim 4:24)! Rather, it means to follow the attributes of the Holy One Blessed Be He. Just as He clothes the naked, as the verse states: 'God the Lord made garments of hides for the Adam and for his wife and He clothed them' (Bereishit 3:21), so you too must therefore clothe the naked. God visited the sick, as the verse states: 'God appeared to Avraham in Elonei Mamre, as he was sitting at the opening of the tent in the heat of the day' (Bereishit 18:1), so you too must therefore visit the sick. God comforted mourners as the verse states: 'After Avraham's death, God blessed his son Yitzchak' (Bereishit 25:11), so you too must therefore comfort mourners. The Holy One Blessed Be He buried the dead, as the verse states: 'He buried him in the valley in the Land of Moav opposite Beit Pe'or' (Devarim 34:5), so you too must therefore bury the dead" (Talmud Bavli Sota 14a).
This celebrated Talmudic passage serves as the central source for one of Jewish tradition's most important ideas. The account begins with a question. The Torah in a number of places asks of us to walk after God and to follow Him, "follow after God your Lord and revere Him; observe His commandments, hearken to His voice, serve Him and hold fast to Him" (Devarim 13:5). But how is one to follow in the ways of an Absolute Being, the fashioner of the vast and impenetrable cosmos, a superlative and supreme entity too transcendent to be comprehended by our mortal minds or to be described by using our finite and inadequate terms? How indeed does one follow in the path of 'a Consuming Fire'?
The Talmud overcomes this unsettling conceptual and theological chasm that seemingly separates us from the Creator, by reformulating the matter into a concrete and comprehensible guiding principle: it is only possible to 'follow' God by following the example that He Himself has set. Just as God clothed the naked, visited the sick, comforted the mourner, and buried the dead, so must we do likewise. By expressing the idea of 'Imitatio Dei' (imitating God), the Torah indicates to us that God's remoteness and otherworldliness need not be a barrier to our experience of His presence. Nor are we in need of esoteric and abstruse specialized knowledge in order to fulfill His word. God's essence may remain forever beyond our ken, but He can still be found and apprehended through acts of kindness.
The Four Examples
Examining the matter further, we in fact ascertain that the Talmudic passage is quite selective in its examples, for only four episodes are singled out for special mention. The first concerns Adam and Eve, who abrogated God's command and ate from the Tree of Knowledge. Having thus secured the self-awareness of physical nakedness and belatedly understood the implications of being distinct from all other creatures, they attempt to conceal their vulnerability with fig leaves, but God instead fashions for them more substantial garments to protect them.
The second example concerns the Patriarch Avraham, who had just fulfilled the commandment to be circumcised as a sign of the covenant between his descendents and God. God appears to the aged patient as he uncomfortably sits noontime at the entrance to his tent, attempting to escape the heat and lethargy of the midday sun. Avraham is invigorated by the visit and gladdened by the tidings of offspring that the Visitor bears.
The death of Yitzchak's mother had left a void in his life that remained unfilled until he takes the hand of Rivka in marriage. After the demise of his father some four decades later, Yitzchak mourns for his loss, and God then blesses him with words of comfort and strength.
Finally, in our parasha, Moshe's lifeless body is laid to rest by God Himself, Who lovingly inters him in his hidden tomb. Here, it should be noted, the recipient of the act of kindness is not physically conscious or capable of any response whatsoever.
Common Denominators 1) Universality
Why did the Talmud choose to emphasize these four expressions of Divine kindness as being exemplary of the ones that we should follow in our quest to emulate God? First of all, it will be noticed that these four things are universal. All of us can relate to the experience of nakedness, all of us have felt the enfeebling effects of illness at some point during our lives, all of us sometimes require comfort and solace from the buffeting winds of trial and tragedy, and everyone experiences death. In other words, one of the cornerstones of true moral conduct is that it is predicated upon being able to truly identify with the plight of the injured or the aggrieved. This empathy becomes possible through the fact that we all share in the human condition, and can therefore understand someone else's needs if we so choose.
2) Life Moments
Secondly, the four examples under discussion can be taken as a very broad outline of the experiences of a typical human life. We enter the world naked and cold, and like the first human beings are in immediate need of garments to alleviate our discomfort. During the course of our transient lives, we often feel the weakening effects of sicknesses small and great. We then require the direct loving care of friends and family, the medical advice of experts, and the miracle of medications to restore our health and spirits. As we acquire more life experiences, more friendships and more things, we also begin to experience the distress of loss with greater frequency of possessions lost or destroyed, of precious people wrenched from us, and of dreams and hopes that took flight with the wind. Finally, we stand before the menacing prospect of death itself, a specter that threatens to engulf our declining physicality and grind it into the dust. In the end, we are powerless before its ruthlessness, and like all those that came before us, we must submit to the cruel reality of its morbid grasp.
But, suggests the Talmud, the very experiences that sometimes seem to overwhelm our finitude, are the keys to our salvation. For within these four things and other experiences like them is the promise and potential of moral and ethical conduct. These events provide the possibility of becoming connected not only with other people, but also with a God Who is caring, compassionate and concerned, a God Who holds the promise of eternity in His embrace.
Finally, we notice that not only are these four experiences universal as well as typical nodes along the span of a human life, but also that without exception they involve some sort of vulnerability. The one who is naked is at a disadvantage because he has no clothes to cover his body or his shame. The one who is ill cannot provide all of his own physical and emotional needs and may in fact be incapable of taking care of any of them. The mourner who is bowed by sadness or tragedy needs a caring heart to share the burden of his sorrow and pain. The dead human being is, in a manner of speaking, the most 'needy' of all, for there is nothing that he can do whatsoever to take care of himself or to alleviate his plight.
By singling out these four, the Talmud again indicates a central idea of the Torah's vision of morality. Ethical and moral conduct ought to be of course extended to all people without exception and under most circumstances. Nevertheless, the truest test of a person's morality is not to be gauged by how they treat their friends, loved ones, equals or superiors, but rather by how they treat those who are clearly weaker than they are. Those who cannot fight back and who do not present a counter threat can be (and frequently are) conveniently ignored or brazenly exploited. But, to behave morally and ethically with respect to them is to truly follow in God's ways. After all, as regards an Absolute Being, are we not all at a 'disadvantage'? This explains the Torah's oft-repeated directive to show special deference to the 'convert, orphan and widow,' for these groups represent elements of society that are typically downtrodden, marginal, friendless and economically depressed.
Appropriately, the Talmudic passage adds a postscript to the above: "Rabbi Simlai explains: the Torah begins and concludes with acts of loving-kindness. It begins with God clothing Adam and Eve in their nakedness, and concludes with God interring Moshe at the Plains of Moav." In a manner of speaking, the primary thrust of the Torah's message is quite honestly bracketed by these two events, for they are the story of humanity. Adam and Eve are the first humans to be given life, and God cares for Moshe at his death, and in between these two poles the drama of the Torah's guiding illumination unfolds. As we stand to conclude the words of the Torah and to immediately begin them anew, let us bear in mind the precious lesson of 'gemillut chassadim,' the acts of loving kindness that make live meaningful and human existence heroic.