By the time we reach a certain age, we know that we are mortal. We have lost grandparents. Later, we lose parents. And, still later, we lose peers. And yet we spend our days as if we were not mortal. We initiate projects, we form relationships even though all we cleave to we must hold very loosely. At some point we will learn that now it is our turn. When we are told that we may look over into the Promised Land but will not reach it, how do we live out our final days? So many of our days have been spent anticipating times to come. Do we know how to live in the present when we have been told we will not be part of the future?
From the beginning of Elul we have been preparing for the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, which, ritually, is a preparation for death. Some of us actually dress in the kitel that will be our shroud. We do not bathe or eat or engage in sex. What is this annual rehearsal of death really about?
The holy day of Yom Kippur is not about death, but about rebirth. We let die the many ways we have grown callous, been spiritually asleep. Then these 25 hours of intense introspection, repentance, and physical affliction bring about liberation, a fresh start, a year new not only in time, but also in the opportunity to start again.
We have, over the course of the past 12 months, gradually grown away from the ideal self who emerged after the last Yom Kippur. Those first few weeks after the High Holy Days had been so promising, but eventually the old bad habits reemerged. These old habits now seem even worse than they were the year before. We feel helpless to overcome them by ourselves. Gritting teeth, making forced promises seems to be inadequate. Judaism is the religion of freedom, but our imprisonment springs from us, our habits, our appetites. And now we reach Shabbat Shuva, the Sabbath between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and we look to the Torah portion to map our own transformation.
Three times in the portion we read, “Be strong and resolute” (Deuteronomy 31:6, 31:7, 31:23). And in verse 31:6 we read, “For it is indeed the Eternal your God who marches with you: [God] will not fail you or forsake you.” By ourselves we cannot find rebirth. We imprison ourselves. We are tempted to accept our not-so-bad self. But the repeated verse gets our attention: “Be strong and resolute.” And before we can once again protest our weakness we are assured, “It is ... God who marches with you. [God] will not fail you or forsake you.” What has become clear to us over the course of the Ten Days of Repentance is that we can’t do it alone. Whether we locate God in our most authentic core, in the interaction with the Jewish community, or in the chain of tradition that makes our personal trials part of the story of the Jewish people, we need to relate our struggle with our people’s in order to cross over to the Promised Land.
But how is this portion supposed to guide and reassure us when Moses does not make it to the Promised Land? The line from Pirkei Avot 2:16 reminds us, “It is not up to you to finish the work, yet you are not free to avoid it” (trans. Leonard Kravitz and Kerry M. Olitzky, Pirke Avot: A Modern Commentary on Jewish Ethics [New York: UAHC Press, 1993], p. 30).
If we have understood our lives in terms of Torah, and Torah in terms of our lives, then we are ourselves a work in progress. We may not have reached completion, but that cannot keep us from the daily work of transforming ourselves.
Had Moses reached the stage of completion? There is no way we can know. We can only understand how Moses functioned for the Israelites. As long as he was around they were the Children of Israel — not yet the full-grown, responsible people who would battle for the Promised Land. Moses rejoined the democracy of those who age and die — the mere mortals who inhabit our Torah — reminding us of what mere people can do in alliance with God.
Are we ready now for rebirth? “Be strong and resolute.” Maybe this year can mark a new way of our being in the world. Maybe with the help of Torah, tradition, and community — maybe with the help of God — we can overcome the obstacles that have kept us from becoming our best selves. Maybe now we are ready to enter the Day of Atonement with the sense of hope and confidence that are the core of its message.