Shabbat Shalom with a Heart-Healthy Dose of Torah – Matot-Mas’ei

Once a river flows, it can never return. Once we step towards each other, we can never go back. Once the day is past, it can never be lived again. We can bring the water back, but it will be different water. We can leave each other, but can never deny that we met. We can return to any space in life, but we can never relive any moment.

The story of Torah ends this week. For thousands of years, it has ended every time the Book of Numbers comes to a close. Yes, we have the next book, Deuteronomy, but it is a retelling of the story. Israel stands at the Jordan. The tribes crossing over stand poised ready to go. The tribes not crossing are building their communities, so that they may later cross and help their brothers establish homes. Moses knows his fate. Joshua is ready to take charge. We read this story over and over and over again, and yet, somehow each time we read it, life hands us experiences that make us read it with new eyes. The major difference at play between last year’s reading of this text and this year’s reading is simply that the year that has passed.

Who would have believed that the year 5775 would pay witness to such sociological upheaval? Wherever one stands on the political and sociological changes that we have experienced, one thing that brings the whole world into concert is the realization that there is no going back. Once Einstein announced that E= MC squared, there is no going back to life before an awareness of atomic energy. Everyone is shaking his/her head in acknowledgment. At the same time, a large number of folks not only yearn for the past but try their best to live by the rules of the past … now. 

Even if the law changed to put the Virginia Battle Flag (a.k.a the “Confederate flag) back on top of the South Carolina Statehouse, it can never be seen with the same eyes that saw it before it came down. The conversation and controversy made it a different flag. Now that marriage is a universally guaranteed right between any two consenting adults, were the law to change again, we could never go back to an old status quo. Even now, our President has announced a negotiated nuclear arms agreement with Iran. There are already people lining up to condemn it or support it, and yet it has no final form (assuming it ratifies) and knowing how its terms may or may not affect the related societies is, at best, an exercise in prophecy. Who would have ever guessed that Saudi Arabia and Israel would partner on anything political? 

The world will continue to change, whether we like it or not … and, as we have seen, there is often no way for even the best prognosticators to predict how it may play out. Still, though, we spend a lot of energy trying to recreate and preserve the past, creating other unforeseen conflicts that add to our challenges. We see this play out in all the Torah we read after this week’s Torah portion.

The story comes to a close, yet Moses will spend the entire next book retelling the story … and changing large pieces of it, as he goes on. Will it be his philosophical/spiritual agenda to change the conversation or his faulty memory that alter the Deuteronomy version of stories from the way they appeared in the rest of the text? Intentionally or accidently, Moses rewrites the Torah. Having read it, though, we immediately call into question his inability or willingness to accept the evolution of tradition. His farewell address would be even more powerful if he spent it sharing prophecy for our future benefit, and less so in justifying the past.

Prophetically, the final words of each book of Torah are not written in the scroll. As we conclude each book, we recite, “Khazak khazak, v’nitkhazaek – Strength strength, lets us be strong.” We remind ourselves to be strong and resolute as we move into the next book and cycle of reading. Most every prayer that we say, we say before performing or involving ourselves in the object over which we have prayed. Even the blessing after eating is really a blessing preceding using the nourishment we just ingested, to do good work in the world. Given this reality, for what are we praying with the words “Khazak khazak?” Perhaps it is to be resolute moving forward; committed to seeing the next texts with new eyes, even if the words have not changed.

It is so easy to live in yesterday … to accommodate ourselves to what we have known. Even where yesterday was difficult, we somehow make what we have known comfortable. Where we experienced blessings in the past, we cannot rest on those moments. We must use them to build an even more blessed tomorrow. It takes a lot of effort to step into that brave new world. It requires strength to walk into the unknown and take ownership of each new step and each new adventure. This strength roots in the faith that growth is going to happen whether we are on board or not, and it makes a whole lot more sense to own the process as it is happening. For some, the book that follows calls into question Moses’ faith. For others, it reminds us that despite having met God, face to face, Moses is still human and suffers from the same insecurities as do we all.

Tomorrow is going to happen, and it is going to look potentially nothing like today or yesterday. Khazak, khazak, v’nitkhazaek. Let’s be strong and resolute as we celebrate both today and tomorrow. Shabbat Shalom.