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Love, Legacies, and Leaving

07/31/2020 01:06:15 PM


            Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat VaEtchanan, which means, “And I pleaded.” It starts off with Moses sharing an incredibly vulnerable moment in which he pleaded with God to allow him to enter the Promised Land, and God shut him down. But then he continues, “And now, O Israel, give heed to the laws and rules that I am instructing you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you,” (Deuteronomy 4:1) and proceeds to reiterate the Shema (including the first half of the v’ahavta) and the Ten Commandments. Moses also reminds the people of all those who lost their lives in the winding forty years leading up to this point, due to their inability to trust in God, and warns, “while you, who held fast to the LORD your God, are all alive today,” (4:4). The Talmud, in a line reminiscent of Proverbs, comments on this, “The wicked, even in their lifetimes, are considered dead. ... The righteous, even in death, are considered alive.”

            We learned on Tuesday about Ethical Wills, and we discussed last Sunday the question our purpose on Earth as Jews, particularly Reform Jews. We see in this parasha, and indeed throughout Deuteronomy, Moses’s Ethical Will. We see him retelling the story of the last 40 years, how he led the Israelites out of Egypt and tried his best to keep them safe and mediate between them and God. We see him lecture them about the commandments and what they are expected to do. We read him admonishing the people for their mistakes up to this point and warns against the disastrous consequences that will befall them when they inevitably slip up. This is his legacy, what he wants the rest of us to remember and learn about and from him.

            It’s no wonder the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used so much of this imagery in his final speech. He could not have known that it would be is very last, that he would be assassinated the next day, but it is clear that he knew of the threats against him and that he needed to get out these words before it was too late, “I've been to the mountaintop. God has allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight.” John Lewis echoed these words in his last essay, published yesterday to coincide with his own funeral, “Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. ... In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.”

            In our Haftarah of Consolation this week, the first of seven the accompany the Shabbatot between Tisha B’Av and Rosh HaShana, we are reminded that although destruction befalls our people, we rise again: “Ascend a lofty mountain, O herald of joy to Zion; Raise your voice with power, O herald of joy to Jerusalem— Raise it, have no fear; Announce to the cities of Judah: Behold your God!” (Isaiah 40:9). Many people may not survive each wave of violence that Tisha B’Av marks, but we as a people survive and we pass on to the next generations what we’ve learned from our hardships, the meaning we’ve made from our tragedies. The lessons I glean from Tisha B’Av is how important it is to survive, to stick together as a people, to do justice in the face of oppression, and to adapt when our usual routes to peace, justice, prayer, and community are disrupted.

            In a podcast I was recently listening to author, Divinity scholar, and Harry Potter expert Casper ter Kuile was discussing his past and burn out as a climate activist. He mentioned that often people will say that social justice is not a sprint, but a marathon, as a way to keep activists patient and motivated. But Casper points out that it really isn’t a marathon either, as so often these goals are not met, the task not completed in our lifetimes. Rather it is a relay race. We must run our leg and then pass the flag/torch/baton. As Rabbi Tarfon used to say, “You are not required to finish the task of repairing the world, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Whether or not you live to see the Promised Land, to see the Thing you’ve worked your life for completed, whether or not you’ve reached all your hopes and dreams and goals, you keep working toward them until you simply cannot any longer, and then you pass on everything you have learned and built, you inspire and encourage and warn, and you hope for the best that your legacy will be one of peace and righteousness that will be carried on after you are gone.

            We are now past Tisha B’Av and Elul will be here before you know it, ushering in our season of introspection and Teshuvah. I invite you this year, especially while so many of us are trapped inside more with fewer other distractions and demands on our time, to take up journaling, at least for these next seven weeks. Take a moment each day to reflect on your life’s work, your mission on Earth, what you will leave behind. Are you teaching your children/students/nieces and nephews/etc. about yourself and your values? What are you doing to ensure that you leave behind a Torah of peace, a legacy of love, quotes of compassion? May you come to peace with all you have accomplished and that which you will never see finished, may you feel satisfied with your life and leave your work in good hands, and may you strive every day until that time comes to earn a legacy such as Moses or Martin Luther King, Jr. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Fri, October 30 2020 12 Cheshvan 5781