by Josh Yarden
The new year, Rosh HaShana, according to the Hebrew Calendar, arrives this week with the coming of the new moon. As we also reach the end of the annual cycle of Torah readings, I revisited the final words words of Moshe (or Moses*.) The prophet has a curious way of describing his exit from the scene. When he is preparing the people for his own passing and for the transition of leadership (Deuteronomy 31) He tells the Hebrews: “A hundred and twenty years old am I today” and, depending upon which translation you read, he might be saying, “I can no longer… be active” (JPS) “…sally forth and come in,” (Robert Alter) “… go out and come in” (Everett Fox) “I am no longer able to lead you” (King James Version.) In any case, the fact that he is about to die is not exactly at the heart of the sentence.
That which Moses will no longer be able to do is somehow bound up in leadership and particularly in the process of transition. He relocated and transformed his state of mind several times throughout the Exodus narrative. Within the first few verses, he comes into the world, gets put into a basket, placed in the river, drawn into the hands of Pharaoh's daughter, put back into the hands of his mother, and then taken into the palace. When we next meet him as a young adult, he gets into an argument, goes into a murderous rage, into exile in the desert, into Median and into the family of the local high priest. He then enters a marriage, fatherhood, a trance and eventually, he's on his way back into Egypt.
The rest is history. (… or maybe it isn't, but that's not even slightly important to the theme of the narrative.) He eventually goes back into the desert for 40 years, and now, we learn that this next stage of his life will be his last transition. If he is about to die, and if “going out and coming in” is actually what he will no longer be able to do, then the process of personal transformation is the essential meaning of life.
How alive are you?
Consider the possibility that people who live their lives without intention or realization of personal transformation are on the cusp of the own demise. They are, in effect, the walking dead. Perhaps it is not too late. Maybe those among us who are barely living can still respond to a wake up call. If you are fortunate enough to hear the call of the shofar later this week—the fanfare sounded on a hollowed ram's horn—or if anything else rouses you from your slumber, consider what you could do to make your corner of the world a slightly better place to live.
Ask yourself three questions:
• What do you wish to leave behind through your upcoming transition?
• What do you hope to discover as you move on?
• What change can you bring about at the entrance to a new year?
Stand there on the threshold for a moment. Listen carefully. Look around for friends and allies, and see who needs a hand. Envision a more just and equitable reality, or just open your eyes to see beyond the limitations you saw yesterday. Move now in that direction.
The Arc of the Epic is in Your Hands
Imagine the biblical narrative as a long series of impacts, like a stone skipping across the surface of a river or a lake, touching down lightly and bouncing up, leaving a trail of ripples in the water. Each brief story stands alone and connects to the next. The major theme of transformation from servitude to liberation spirals through the narrative.
Events of biblical proportions are filled with essential human drama. There may be either gut-wrenching matters, disasters and all sorts of battles, or subtle affairs, nearly missed, but for finely-tuned attention to small details. A quiet conversation or a silent walk in the desert can also be the backdrop for a realization that catalyzes sweeping change. The common thread running through all of our stories is our capacity to perceive meaning and to be somehow transformed by our understanding.
As we change, our memories and our texts seem to reflect the evolution of our understanding. It makes sense that we grasp meaning differently over the course of our lives. The ancient comparison of Torah to “living water” becomes clear. The water in a stream is sweet, refreshing, and when you look down into it, you see your own reflection. We perceive everything below the surface of the water, whether we realize it or not, through our own images, our own desires and our own expectations.
“Turn it and turn it,” the sages taught, “because everything is in it.” There can no more be a single definitive reading of a biblical text than there can be only one version of an argument or any passionate encounter. This is the nature of life, and the nature of the living water of Torah.
May this and every new year be a season of sweetness and good health, discovery and recovery, continuity and renewal, reflection and transformation.
the uneasy call
of a ram's horn
nine sound bursts
three clear reminders
one l o n g – d r a w n h o w l
Listen as the shofar calls
what is there to discover
I need to know
‘From where have I come,
where I am going,
before whom I will give my account'
rippling the surface
others in our wake
*The story tells us that baby is named “Moshe” because he is “drawn” from the Nile. This makes sense in Hebrew. “M-o-s-e-s” is just a string of five letters that don't mean anything. An attempt to recreate the wordplay in translation might have given him a more meaningful name in English. Our hero was not only drawn out of the river and eventually drawn in multiple directions, but he also drew the enslaved Hebrews out of Egypt, drew Pharaoh into battle, and drew close to the promised land as his days drew to a close. I'm thinking of naming the prophet “Drew” in my translation.