When people look back on this week, they may remember the big news being the use of chemical weapons in Syria’s brutal and deadly civil war. That is indeed a historical moment that should not be overlooked. If I had the ear of President Obama, I’m not sure I’d know what to tell him to do.
But that’s not the news that captured my imagination this week.
JD Salinger, iconic author of Catcher in the Rye published 62 years ago, died leaving five literary works with instruction that they be published posthumously. It brought to mind Kafka who, by contrast, ordered Max Brod to destroy all his writing after he died. Thankfully, Brod ignored his good friend’s dying wish.
In the middle of our portion this week, the beginning of the second half of Nitzavim-Vayelech, another famous author, Moses, tells the Israelites he’s about to die. He certainly intends for them to publish his work. But the first word of the parasha is odd, Vayelech, And Moses went. Where did he go? Some say that after sharing the terms of the covenant with ALL the Israelites, he went to each tribe, one by one, to tell of his death as that message required a more intimate tone.
We will have waited 70 years for the followup to Catcher in the Rye, but after Moses’ death, the book of Deuteronomy was lost for about half a millennium, only to be found in the 7th century BCE by Josiah, King of Judah. Whether it was truly ‘found’ or actually written by Josiah is matter of scholarly/traditionalist debate.
Although I think the debate matters, I don’t get too worried about the final verdict.
A story was told about the Chafetz Chayim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, to a judge who was about to hear his testimony. The lawyer who was going to call on him as a witness said that the Rabbi once ran after a thief to yell publicly that he was giving up ownership of the items stolen so the robber would be free of sin. The judge asked, Do you really believe that story? The lawyer said, I don’t know, your honor, but they don’t tell stories like that about you and me!
It’s only because of Moses’ elevated status that no one has ever suggested that after 30 chapters of uninterrupted sermon Moses might have GONE to where most historical filibusterers -- Huey Long, Strom Thurmond, Alfonse D’Amato and, more recently, Rand Paul -- eventually went when they finally stopped talking -- to the place where nature calls.
After he goes and informs the tribes of his impending death, Moses tells us to follow the entire Torah. As this might be an overwhelming task, millennia later, a rabbi made the following anecdotal analogy. He spoke with a man who just wanted to be a simple Jew. The rabbi told him, I wanted to be like the Besh”t, the Master of the Good Name, the finest rabbi of my generation and I managed to be a decent Rav. If you only aspire to be a simple Jew, you won’t even be that.
Noam M’gadim says that Moses went teaches that even after death Moses still speaks to us and we still hear the words of his Torah, of his teaching. Whether essential documents of his voice were hidden for centuries, as Salinger’s will have been for decades, or whether his spirit had to be recreated, much the way Kafka’s spirit has been resurrected by the likes of Borges, Camus, Ionesco, and Sartre, Moses clearly lived a life that transcended time and history.
Shabbat is an island of time, an opportunity for us to dream and aspire to do just that.