Drash on Parashat Ve'etchanan/Nachamu 2019
Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black
Leo Baeck Centre for Progressive Judaisml, East Kew, Victoria
This portion, more than any other, could be said to summarise what Judaism has become and stands for, since it contains both the repetition of the Ten Commandments and the paragraphs that the Rabbis chose to be theSh’ma– the central declaration of faith in the One God. This portion is always read on Shabbat Nachamu, the first of seven shabbatot of consolation, when in the Haftarahwe read Isaiah’s words, ‘Nachamu, nachamuami, Console, console my people…”. These seven haftarot, all from Isaiah, lead us up to Rosh Hashanah, making a potent reminder of the new start we are offered if we are truly repentant, and aim better and higher in the year to come. Nachamureinforces the idea that although the people will be punished – or must accept the consequences of their actions (depending on whether we believe in an interventionist God) – there is also hope of repair, return, a coming to terms and healing. There is a future for the people and the ideals even if each of us as individuals are merely links in the chain of tradition.
Yet the portion has a poignancy, carried in its title and first word ‘Va’etchanan’ – ‘Then I pleaded’ since it describes Moses pleading with God to be allowed into the land: ‘Let me, I implore, cross over the Jordan and see the good land on the other side, the good hill country, and the Lebanon.’
When first he was told of his punishment for hitting the rock instead of speaking to it (Numbers 20:12), namely that he would die before entering the land, there is no record of Moses’ reaction - he is dealing with more pressing concerns – he immediately sends a message to the king of Edom asking for permission to cross their land (Numbers 20:14 on).
When he does have time to react, Moses acknowledges God as the source of life (and by implication, the end of life) – and his concern seems to be for the people: ‘Let the Source of the breath of all flesh appoint someone over the community to lead them… so that they will not be like sheep without a shepherd – so God appointed Joshua.’ (Numbers 27:16 on).
But in this week’s portion, where Moses is looking back and recounting the journey, he discloses something not previously revealed: When he heard God’s sentence, Moses had pleaded with God. Or did he? Va’etchananis reflexive – and the root is ‘grace’ – so ‘I will have grace on myself’ or ‘I will beg (of myself)’? Perhaps he was more examining himself than pleading with God – itself an important message as we start the countdown to the New Year and the Ten Days of Penitence to Yom Kippur.
It is often hard to admit to blame – and whilst we should own our part and our shortcomings, it can even be unhealthy and damaging to take the entire blame on ourselves. But Moses admits no blame when he tells the Israelites that God was angry with him on their account! He was to die before entering the land because of them. He told them God was angry, saying “Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again! Go up to the summit of Pisgahand gaze about, to the west, the north, the south, and the east. Look at it well, for (when Joshua leads the Israelites into the land,) you shall not go across the River Jordan into it.
So the message of consolation of this shabbat Nachamuis foreshadowed in the portion itself. There is a future for the people and the ideals and teachings they carry, even if not for Moses, the greatest of prophets and leaders, but, in the end, merely mortal.