Shabbat Shalom with a Heart-Healthy Dose of Torah – Haazinu

My grandfather passed away in 1999. He was almost 95. This man had a profound impact on my life, teaching me all sorts of lessons in the blessings he shared and … also the challenges he created. Amongst the most impacting lessons he taught me was one about how to look at life and death. He used to say, “I want to live as long as I want to, and want to … as long as I live.” This was a nice pithy statement that I learned to cherish as I watched him live, and then die, on his own terms. Within weeks of the phone call that focused on, “Marc, I am tired,” we buried my last grandparent. Raymond Gittelman lived a very full life. He saw more than most hope to see. He accomplished more than a lifetime of work. He caused challenges for people beyond what we might expect one man could facilitate. To me, he was an amazing man.

Every time I read this week’s Torah portion, as I get to the part where God tells Moses when and where he is going to die, I can’t get past seeing my grandfather standing there in the robe and sandals, working through the details of his end as God utters the terms. Ok, I know that this sounds weird, but, how many of us hear the name “Moses” and think of Charlton Heston (The Ten Commandments)? Instead, and only at this point in the story, I think of Grandpa. I wonder what it would be to stand before God and learn a firsthand account of how and when I would take my last breath. Being part of the conversation still makes it partially on my terms, right?

Perhaps I am uber-sensitive to this one piece of the text because of its proximity to Yom Kippur. Having just walked out of the sanctuary, it was time to begin preparing for Shabbat … with this portion. Many say that the Yom Kippur service that holds the greatest influence over their prayerfulness is not Kol Nidre (the opening prayer of the holy day). It is Yizkor, the memorial service that calls on us to recall all those in our families who have passed before us. As we take some quiet time, we go through the list of people who we held in high esteem during their life on earth, and who continue with us we continue to grow in life. Sensitive to the precious line that separates life from death, I have to wonder what goes through our heads as we approach that defining ending moment.

Our text gives us a clue, and I have to believe that the proximity of this reading to the Yom Kippur memorial service is no coincidence. Moses spends most of the first 32 chapters of this book chastising Israel for the many places in which they had failed over the generations. He then learns of his fate and spends the rest of the Torah (next week’s portion) blessing each tribe. In the end, what he wanted most desperately to share were words of blessing.

So, we spent 24 hours praying to be more attentive to each other’s needs, each other’s dignity, and each other’s humanity. We spent 24 hours praying for the insight to fight less and listen more; destroy less and love more. We pledge to live and love with greater depth and more focused intention. We pray for a change of heart.

We then study the Torah for the immediately following Shabbat (in this case, just a matter of over two days) and read of Moses’ change of heart. In hearing God’s decree, Moses faced his own mortality and he prayed. How do we know this? Prayer changes us, and Moses had an immediate change of heart. He went form an incessant berating of the people (even in this final “song” of Ha-azinu), and turned immediately to bless Israel with his last breath.

Here is my quandary, if we know that offering and sharing blessings is foundational, why did it take facing death for Moses to open his eyes? Why do we only see the pain that we cause each other after we caused it? If prayer is supposed to change us and lead us to greater vision and awareness, why do we wait until it is nearly too late to take a stand for each other? My short answer is that we stay too self absorbed to see how we take each other for granted, how we stress the little things that upset us, and how we too often ignore our true feelings of love and blessing? Maybe we don’t pray enough. My grandfather’s prayer to live only so long as life had meaning pushed him to a continuing change of heart. He wrestled with demons and emerged from each match a more whole and wholesome man. By the time I knew his prayer, the man I knew provided me with the ultimate lesson in valuing life: wanting to live means wanting to live meaningfully. I cannot declare life to be precious, if I cannot or will not help others to experience knowing their own blessings. I pray that I can proactively fulfill this task and not serve only after some of my own bad news might wake me up. Shabbat Shalom.