YIZKOR SHEMINI ATZERET 5776
The holidays of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah at the close of Sukkot are really one holiday. In fact in Israel it’s celebrated on one day and only stretched to 2 here in the diaspora. The main Torah readings for these days are recited tomorrow when we complete the reading of the Torah and, almost immediately, begin it again. At the completion of the Torah we will read how Moses ascends Mt. Nebo. From there Gd shows him the entire Holy Land from Dan in the north to the Negev in the south. Then Gd tells (34:4) him: “This is the land which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob…I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross over to there.”
Why was Moses not allowed to enter the land? The previous Torah portion (Deut. 32:51) tells us: “Because you broke faith with Me among the children of Israel, at the waters of M’rivat-Kadeysh in the wilderness of Tzin, by failing to uphold My sanctity among the children of Israel.”
Whenever I come to these passages in the Torah, I’m still just as disappointed as I was when I read this story as a child. How cruel was the sense of frustration I shared with Moses. He had dedicated his very life to a single goal which drew him irresistibly on. To achieve it, he had led his people through 4 perilous decades, inspiring them with courage, battling their recurrent doubts, buttressing their sagging faith, keeping steadfastly before them the vision of the ultimate destination—the Promised Land. When, at last, he stands with them on the very threshold, the banks of the Jordan, Moses is permitted only a glimpse of the land before he dies.
To have struggled so long for an amazing goal only to be halted at the precise moment when it is virtually within reach—maybe only a couple of hundred feet to the other side of the Jordan—that appears to be too depressing a climax to such a noble adventure. The Midrash pictures Moses as pleading fervently with Gd to permit him to enter the land, if not as a person then at least to be reincarnated as a bird or in some other animal; if not alive, then buried there—but all in vain. Gd’s decree here is irreversible.
With maturity, however, my sense of disappointment was mellowed by the realization that the great always die too soon. The essence of greatness is that it sets up for itself goals that are too large to be achieved in any lifetime—however long. Big people are unsatisfied with small objectives. Every Moses inevitably leaves his final Jordan uncrossed.
I am tempted to make the generalization that it’s perhaps only small people who reach their Promised Land in their lifetime. If one is concerned only with acquiring things, or position or financial security for retirement, he can very well reach his Promised Land. But what of the person whose Promised Land is the fortification of Jewish life, the defeat of disease, the melting of prejudice, the triumph over poverty? Is he/she likely to reach his destination? And yet who will deny that it is in the very striving after these goals that life acquires its highest significance?
The truth is, one never really reaches the Promised Land. Real meaning in life comes from the struggle, the effort to achieve our goals. And for the Jew, his goal is, as we read in the Aleynu prayer on the High Holy Days and at the conclusion of almost every Jewish service, L’takeyn olam b’malchut Shakai, “To perfect the world for the Kingdom of the Almighty.” That’s where the phrase Tikun Olam comes from. If we always have as one of our goals in life Tikun Olam, to perfect this world—making it a more compassionate and human place—then life will always have meaning.
Remember the Biblical story of how King Solomon decided between 2 women both claiming the same baby as their own? King Solomon, in his great wisdom, ordered that the baby be cut in ½. At that point one of the women gave up her claim to the baby and King Solomon knew that only the real mother would rather give it up than see it harmed, and so he gave her the baby.
A colleague was trying to teach this famous story to a class in his religious school. To add some creative spice to the teaching, he had the class act out the story. He selected 2 little moppets to act the parts of the real mother, and phony mother. An older boy was crowned King Solomon with a paper Burger King crown—He was a reform rabbi—and my colleague provided a baby doll as the main prop for this mini-docu-drama. The baby doll was brought forward. Then the Burger King Solomon flipped out his Buck knife and squeaked, “I’m gonna cut this baby in half.”
The little girl playing the real mother panicked when she saw the knife and started screaming. King Solomon started sawing away at the baby doll’s neck. Kids started screaming and running around everywhere as my colleague tried to calm them down and stop King Solomon from decapitating the doll. My colleague pushed the real mother forward and screamed at her. “Say something!”
Then she looked at him, looked at King Solomon, looked at the baby and in a panic blurted out, “I’ll take the head!”
Sometimes things just don’t work out the way we plan them. At least that’s the lesson my colleague learned that day. On other days he had other classes where the real mother said, “Don’t cut up the baby; give it to her.” On other days he had other classes when the King Solomon with the Burger King crown realized that only a true mother would give up her own child rather than let it be harmed.
Sometimes things just don’t work out the way we plan them. But meaning in life doesn’t come from seeing our plans fulfilled. Real meaning comes from the struggle, the reaching and straining to be more than you are.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur called upon us to set lofty goals in the year ahead. We read of Moses’ failure to reach his life’s goal this holiday—soon after the High Holy Days—in order to encourage us to pursue those goals despite any difficulties we may encounter…for it is in the struggle to become better human beings, better spouses, better parents, better children, better Jews—it’s in this struggle—where we ultimately will find meaning.
Rabbi Tarfon teaches in Pirkey Avot (2:21): Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo ata ven chorin l’hibateyl mimena, “You are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it.” Perhaps this is what Oscar Wilde meant in his paradoxical comment: “There are 2 tragedies in life. One is not getting what you want. The other is getting what you want.”
Our parents and family who we come here today to remember had lofty dreams throughout their lives. They never fulfilled all of those dreams—no one ever does. My 94-year-old father—who thank Gd is still alive—always dreamed of becoming a millionaire so he could give it away to his children and to worthy causes. He never became a millionaire because this was not the task that Gd had for him in this world. What he did do and continues to do is to set an example to his kids and grandchildren and great grandchildren and to everyone he meets as to how to be a mentch, how to treat everyone with grace, good manners and kindness. And these are the kinds of things we need to remember about our loved ones as we recite Yizkor.
We should be suspicious of Promised Lands which are too easily reached in our lifetimes. They may not be worth the journey. As we enter this New Year, let us set our sights extra high. There’s no telling what we may accomplish. Hopefully it will be as much or more than our loved ones did. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis