Friday, September 11, 2015

If You Knew (Portion Va-yelech)

What do we learn from our mortality?

On this, the first Shabbat of the new year—Shabbat Shuvah—we read from the shortest portion in the Torah, Vayelech.  As Deuteronomy winds to a close, Moses tells the Israelites that he will not be leading them into the land of Israel.  Shortly thereafter, God tells Moses that his death is imminent, and that he should prepare Joshua to take his place—which he does, with the extraordinarily generous charge, “Chazak v’ematz—Be strong and of good courage!

Every year, as I read this passage, my heart goes out to Moses.  After guiding the people for forty years, it seems so unfair that he is unable to finish the job.

And yet his fate is ours.  Few of us get to leave this life with no unfinished business.  Even if we die at a ripe old age, there are tasks left undone, dreams unfulfilled, hurts left unhealed.  There is never enough time.  As Talmud teaches: “The day is short, the work is great. . . and the master of the house is knocking.”

The pressing question for us, then, in this sacred season, is:  Can awareness of our mortality move us to live more fully here and now?  Does it paralyze us with fear?  Or might it lead us toward generosity, as it does Moses?  Shabbat Shuvah, this Sabbath of Return, is a time for meditating on these questions and turning our mortality toward a positive end: making amends with those we’ve hurt before it is too late, embracing our better angels, and choosing life and blessing.

I’ll leave you with a powerful poem on this subject by Ellen Bass, and pray that we are all signed and sealed for blessing in the Book of Life for the coming year.

If You Knew
What if you knew you’d be the last
to touch someone?
If you were taking tickets, for example,
at the theater, tearing them,
giving back the ragged stubs,
you might take care to touch that palm,
brush your fingertips
along the life line’s crease.
When a man pulls his wheeled suitcase
too slowly through the airport, when
the car in front of me doesn’t signal,
when the clerk at the pharmacy
won’t say Thank you, I don’t remember
they’re going to die.
A friend told me she’d been with her aunt.
They’d just had lunch and the waiter,
a young gay man with plum black eyes,
joked as he served the coffee, kissed
her aunt’s powdered cheek when they left.
Then they walked half a block and her aunt
dropped dead on the sidewalk.

How close does the dragon’s spume
have to come? How wide does the crack
in heaven have to split?
What would people look like
if we could see them as they are,
soaked in honey, stung and swollen,
reckless, pinned against time?

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