The View From Har Nebo
Every morning when I daven Shaharit—the morning service—in my home office, I face a picture that my father took from the vantage point of Har Nabo—the peak on which God took Moshe’s life, and where he was gathered to his ancestors. It looks into Israel and toward Jerusalem or, as Parashat Ha·azinu describes the scene, “Ascend these heights of Abarim to Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab facing Jericho, and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving the Israelites as their holding . . . You may view the land from a distance, but you shall not enter it—the land that I am giving to the Israelite people” (32:49, 52).
The scene is simply heartbreaking. After years of dedicated service, Moses knows he is not to take the final steps into Israel with his People. He is not to cross the Jordan River and conclude the Exodus from Egypt with this generation of the Children of Israel. We cannot begin to fathom the extent of emotion that must have rushed through Moses as he faced the reality that he was not to enter the Land, but “die on the mountain” that he was about to ascend. What words were exchanged between Moses and God? What conversation is not recorded in the Torah? One of the most moving midrashim I encountered during rabbinical school was taught to me by my rabbi and teacher, Rabbi Alan Kensky. The commentary known as Midrash Petirat Moshe—the Death of Moses—adds pages upon pages of dialogue, debate, argument, and reason between Moses and God. It fills in the gaps in the narrative and, as Rabbi Kensky taught us, describes a scene that remarkably parallels the five stages of grief that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross has enumerated for those coming face-to-face with the reality of death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Notwithstanding the intense emotional scene, Moshe is composed, and delivers one of the most compelling sermons of his career as the leader of the Children of Israel.
Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;
Let the earth hear the words I utter!
May my discourse come down as the rain,
My speech distill as the dew,
Like showers on young growth,
Like droplets on the grass.
For the name of the Lord, I proclaim:
Give glory to our God! (Deut. 32:1–3)
The Hatam Sofer, commenting on the opening lines of our parashah, understands that Moses’s address to both the heavens and the earth shows us that the entire community stood as a collective unit. He says that Moses’s last words to the Children of Israel are not solely for those who encounter God in the realm of the spirit, but those who relate to God in the here and now as well. Of everything Moses has accomplished in his life, to be able to speak to the entire community after these wearing years of wandering—and to speak to them not as a tribe, faction, rebellion, or insurgence, but as a People—places him in a unique class of leaders. Indeed, there are times that the multiplicities of voices that often find it difficult to talk to one another cannot allow a single message of hope, of fear, of promise, or even of blessing to be heard.
As the Children of Israel stood huddled at the base of Har Nebo, listening to the last words they—or anyone—would ever hear from Moses, they had no notion of what they were to encounter as they emerged from the waters of the Jordan.
We can imagine the scene, and the emotional current is all too overwhelming. Standing today, seemingly as we do, on the precipice of history, the anticipation and fear are analogous. The political rhetoric weaves through the pages of our newspapers, and tugs at our hearts as we hear reports of red lines and ultimatums through every pundit outlet.
But we do not stand as the Children of Israel did on the banks of the Jordan as one. We are not the unified People Moshe addressed as he faced their future and his death. That is not to say that debate and discussion, disagreement and dissent are not welcome in the Jewish community. I firmly believe that Judaism encourages multiple points of view, and that Zionism is characterized by an equally disparate array of definitions. Those categorized as left and right both fervently believe in hatikvah bat sh’not alpayim—the hope of 2,000 years that lives and breathes in the modern State of Israel.
But what our generation of the Children of Israel suffers from right now is an inability to see itself as one People. Unfortunately, we mimic the broken American political discourse—if you can call it that—vilify our brothers and sisters on the left and the right, and come dangerously close to the sinhat hinam (baseless hatred) that has wrought destruction on Peoplehood before. Now is a time when we must come to an understanding that, although we may not always agree on the actions of government—Israeli or international—or the policies of State, together our souls yearn deeply in our hearts and our eyes turn east, looking toward Zion.
That picture in my home office reminds me each morning that there was a time when we once stood as one People and gazed with hope and trepidation toward our future. At this time, at this moment, each of us needs to believe that od lo avdah tikvateinu—hope has not yet been lost.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.