Minutes of Torah
Parsahat Ha’azinu, the next-to-last portion in the Torah and read this year on the Shabbat after Yom Kippur, reflects and reinforces a central theme of that holiest day in our year: acceptance of our mortality as a path to transforming ourselves.
The foretold death of Moses hovers over the entire book of Deuteronomy. But it is specifically here that God directs Moses to prepare himself for the imminent end of his mortal existence: God tells Moses that he may only see the Promised Land from a distance on a mountain top, but will not be permitted to enter it.
Many midrashim depict Moses resisting the decree of his own death, contending with God and negotiating for a reprieve. However, when his final appeal is denied, Moses faces the undeniable truth of his impending death. This acceptance of his looming death enables Moses, remarkably, to request and extend forgiveness and blessings to the people he has been constantly rebuking; and to praise God, with whom he has been bargaining so vigorously.
Moses’ capacity to accept the reality of his own death is reflected in the opening words of the epic poem which comprises the majority of parashat Ha’azinu – a poem in which he proclaims that God is both just and infallible:
“He is the Rock, his work is perfect; for all his ways are justice; a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is he.”
Jewish tradition thus describes Moses as struggling mightily with the injustice of death, but ultimately accepting that hard truth. More than this, in his acceptance Moses finds a gateway to forgiveness and gratitude, rather than being stuck in blaming and bitterness. The precise language of this verse from Ha’azinu is utilized in the opening words of Tziduk HaDin, the prayer traditionally recited during a Jewish burial, as we re-enact Moses’ acceptance of the hardest of all truths to absorb.
Acceptance described here does not connote approval; nor is it a prescription for passivity in the face of that which we can and must change. Rather, it represents acceptance of that which we cannot change, and how to change that which we can.
Yom Kippur is a voluntary near-death experience. We rehearse our own deaths and imagine our own eulogies and obituaries. We wear white, or dress in a kittel representing our own burial shrouds. We recite the Vidui, the confession we are to profess before we die; say Yizkor prayers for those we have loved and lost; remember our martyrs; and end the day as we are meant to end our lives, by chanting the Shema. Along with our fasting, this enables us, like Moses in Ha’azinu, to attend to deeper, more enduring truths than our own, physical survival.
As we pass a certain age, thoughts about our mortality are ever present. Some of us lack the luxury of denial and are forced by illness and/or age to confront death. Some of us struggle with depression, and must practice keeping thoughts of mortality in their proper, healthy place. And some of us devote much energy to avoiding this most painful of truths.
Choosing to tolerate the distress of our mortality is deeply challenging. Yet, the ability to accept this irreversible reality is an opportunity to turn towards even that which we most wish to deny.
As we persist in accepting our reality, like Moses, we may envision previously unnoticed transformational possibilities. Paradoxically, our acceptance may fuel change within us, and within our world. If we can apply the lessons of Yom Kippur to our lives, we may find the resources we need to re-learn the deep lessons of our mortality on earth. And by accepting the inevitability of death, we may turn towards life with greater clarity, wisdom, and compassion for ourselves and others.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!
Rav Julius Rabinowitz