In some ways, Moses had the toughest rabbi’s job in history. For 40 years, it was kvetch, kvetch, kvetch. We’re thirsty. The manna is boring. Why do you get to be the boss? Are we there yet?
But then again, while Moses was a journeying man, he was not a journeyman rabbi. He stayed with his congregation for 40 years. He saw the children of the Children of Israel.
We are currently engaging with the Book of Deuteronomy. This is a book that purports to be the valedictory speeches of Moses. The book is situated at the end of the 40th year of the Wilderness period. Moses is not only a very old man. He is also talking to the younger generation of Israelites. The older Israelites had died off in the desert. As the Biblical authors remember it, no one over the age of 60 was present to hear the Book of Deuteronomy when it was first preached.
We often think of Deuteronomy as the words of Moses for the entire people. But let’s change the focus slightly, and remember that Moses is talking to younger people, people half his age, or less.
Put yourself in Moses’ place. What would you say, if you had the opportunity to get the younger generation’s attention? Picture it: all the cell phones have been stowed. No one is surreptitiously tweeting. You have the floor.
I would welcome your thoughts on this. Here is a sampling of mine:
“What can I tell you from where I am in life? What did I not know well enough when I was your age, that I know better today?
First, I would tell you, don’t worry all the time about being liked by all. It will not happen. If you take a stand, there are those who will disagree with you. Among those are people who don’t know how to disagree and remain civil, so they will dislike you. Deal with it. It’s an acceptable cost of living right. Besides, if you never take a stand, for fear of angering some of those who disagree with you, you will be despised more widely, precisely because you never took a stand.
Second, I would urge you, take your stand, when you do, for something more important than ego or self-centered wishes. You can’t leave the world a better place than you found it, if you don’t care about the world beyond yourself in your everyday choices. Ultimately, the merely personal part of what you’ve done will be less and less important. How you affected the world—that is what will endure, for good or for bad. Do your best to make it for good.
Third, if you need schooling in getting over yourself, nothing is a better school than relationship. Take your life partners seriously. They are not just planets orbiting around the sun—you. Everyone is another vessel of God’s spirit. Everyone is in God’s image.
Take this into the broader circles of your life. The teller who cashes your check is not just an ATM on two legs. The teller is a person, worth a hello and a smile. The waitress at the restaurant—the one working for a sub-minimum wage-- is wearing a name tag. That means, she has a name. As Mr. Rogers used to teach, everybody’s fancy, everybody’s fine. Your body’s fancy, and so is mine. Or, to switch from the nomenclature of children’s TV to that of Martin Buber, don’t treat people as an “it”. Treat them as a “thou”.
If your own parents were twice-a-year Jews, and/or if they let you drop out of Jewish learning at age 13, you are probably only functionally literate in your religion, not truly literate. I don’t say that to be condescending, but truth counts. This limited literacy means that you probably don’t recognize a hunger that is poorly recognized and still more poorly satisfied in our secular culture. That is the hunger for the spiritual. Or perhaps you have found your way to that recognition, but not to the Jewish ways of feeding that appetite. So check out your Judaism from the more adult platform that you now have--
you may well find that it answers your human craving to live meaningfully.
There is a reason why older people say, “Nearer my God to Thee”. That’s a very different statement than “nearer to the grave.” Nearer to God is popularly misunderstood as one day sooner to entering Heaven—as if Heaven were on the same time-line as this life. Think of it this way: in this life, you have the opportunity to align your being with Eternal truths and values. You can experience eternity in a moment. As you get older, you can focus less on the distractions and more on how to reflect Eternity in your Everyday.
As Moses says (in Psalm 90): Teach us how to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom.
Rabbi Michael Panitz