Every once in a while, something happens that really makes you wonder why. Why do Jews study Judaism? Why is there suffering, pain? Why do we become Bar and Bat Mitzvahs? Going through the whole process of preparing for my bat Mitzvah, those were some of the questions I asked. I think I learned what this ritual is about, even the suffering and pain part. It gives you a chance to achieve something. Yes, it takes time and effort, but it is worth it--if you can find an optimistic state of mind.
My portion is Nitzavim-Vayelech. In these two combined portions, Moses talks to the Israelites. They have yet to reach the Promised Land, but Moses knows he will die before they arrive. His main struggle is to find his optimistic state of mind. There’s no denying his upcoming death, so what can he do to accept it?
I was given many options as to what to focus on as a theme, ranging from passing leadership through generations to how Judaism can be viewed as a social network. I chose death. Moses, who gave advice to the Israelites even in his last days, had to deal with one of the biggest challenges: the end of life. My big question: How did he feel about his impending death?
The Torah itself doesn’t give us much evidence on this subject. It focuses more on events than feelings. However, there are midrashim which give us many different views on this topic.
One midrash I read was from Sefer Ha’aggadah, or The Book of Legends. It was written by various rabbis and explained the range of emotions that Moses could have gone through when he learned of his impending death. These feelings went from anger, to remorse, to denial, and, lastly, to acceptance. I think that everyone here today can relate to the feelings--or stages of feelings--that he went through. We’re all human, after all. We all have challenges that we have to deal with. The trick is to accept them in a way that can help you overcome it.
The midrash begins with this sentence: “When Moses realized that the decree [of death] had been sealed against him, he drew a small circle around himself, stood in it, and said, ‘Master of the universe, I will not budge from here until You void that decree.” Moses, like many others in the Torah, as well as modern times, used stubbornness to try to get his way.
According to the midrash, God had made Moses a deal going back to the incident of the Golden Calf. At that time, God was so angry that God had threatened to destroy the Israelites and give Moses a new people to lead. Moses calmed God down and convinced God not to destroy the people but to pardon them. Forty years later, Moses asked to stay alive long enough to enter the Promised Land. God reminded Moses of the earlier deal, saying, "If you wish to have ‘Let me go over (to the Promised Land), I pray Thee’ fulfilled, then you must nullify ‘Pardon (these people), I pray Thee’. In simple language, Moses has a choice to make: either undo history and let the Israelites die, or let himself die now, before they reach the Promise Land. According to the midrash, Moses chose to sacrifice himself instead of his people.
Another example of someone facing their own death was Martin Luther King Jr. In his famous speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” he references Moses’ death. Aware of the danger of assassination, he knew that if he had not been a civil rights leader, he would have been safer. One of the quotes that stuck out to me here was, “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind.” “And I don’t mind.” Those four words were the ones that really caught my attention. Dr. King found a way to accept his death. In the last speech he ever gave, he looked back on all the good things that he had accomplished. He knew that if he gave up the fight for equality, he was no longer under risk of death, but his people would not be able to reach the Promised Land.
In my opinion, sometimes the hardest thing to do is just accept the fact that it’s over. Sure, you can smile and lie and say that you’ve accepted that the end is upon you, but the only person you’re lying to is yourself. If you can accept that you’ve lost and deal with it like a mensch, you’ll be much happier in the long run. This past year, when I started sixth grade, everything changed for me. My school, some of my friends, my motives, my priorities, my name, and my general attitude. I kept trying to convince myself that I was okay, that people would learn to be nice and get along again and life would be normal, like it was before. But in learning to accept change, I also learned things about my friends and about myself that I never knew before. This whole year, I thought that these months had ruined the entire rest of my life. It was so hard to find a positive attitude when I felt like I was being dragged down. But honestly, I learned so much, things that I would never give up. I learned that giving something a chance is always a good idea, that there’s some good in everyone, and that being yourself is the only option.
For my Mitzvah project, I volunteered at my old school, the Haley Elementary School, which is the best place in the world, ever. Every Friday, I would walk into the Haley, say hello, and head to Ms. Patrick and Ms. Galvin’s classroom. I corrected quizzes while the kids were at recess, and when they came back, I would help them with whatever project they were doing that week. The biggest thing I learned from doing this was probably that no matter which way you read it, there’s always that one question on tests that makes no sense. No, just kidding. Mainly, I learned that even when your whole world changes, there are always going to be people there looking out for you, even if it’s a room full of ten- and eleven-year-old kids. I’ve always wanted to be a teacher.
I realized, as I was writing this, that maybe we all have our own Promised Lands, where we get to choose what it is, and set our lives to a path that will get us there. Or maybe there are a bunch of mini Promised Lands, just floating around in space, waiting for you to find them on your whole life’s journey.
I think what Moses really had to learn was that sometimes, the Promised Land isn’t what you think it is. Maybe it was just escaping Egypt, or maybe it was talking to the Israelites, or maybe even receiving the Torah.
If we really do all have different Promised Lands, quite possibly the best way to reach them is just to try. To reach for one of the many little Promised Lands, floating around, hovering away from humanity until we get the guts to lean out and find it.
Preparing for my bat Mitzvah, my mom and I fought a lot about what trying is. I think trying is doing your best, even if your best is terrible. My mom thinks that trying is getting it done. And if I have succeeded in teaching anyone here today anything, then I’ve tried and I’ve succeeded in reaching one of my Promised Lands. And part of finding this Promised Land was finding the positive attitude that goes along with it.
And for helping me get there, I have a whole long list of people who I need to thank. First off, my parents. My dad has been practicing to chant Torah for the past eleven months. If he could do it, I could, too. My mom, for helping me pick a tutor and reminding me to practice everyday...all the time… My sister, Maia, for offering to help me so often and for always supporting me. Then, there are my two tutors, Risa Wallach and Joan Makepeace, who have helped me so, so much in the past months. Then I would like to thank all the friends and family who could be here this morning, especially any friends or relatives that had to travel a long way to get here today. The rabbi, for the encouraging words and help with my D’var, and any or all of my past Hebrew school teachers, especially Tracy, who always understood the problems and turned them into solutions. It took a lot of effort from everyone who helped me get here, to one of my Promised Lands. I really appreciate everything.
Thank you, and Shabbat Shalom!