July 20, 2000
Invincible and Powerless
Parashat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10 - 30:1)
On the day of my wedding, my grandfather was on his deathbed. In earlier years, he had been a delight of my childhood, a source of insight and stability, a constant presence. In planning our wedding, we'd asked my grandfather to play some favorite old songs on his violin during the ceremony. But illness came suddenly upon this 90-year-old, and it became impossible for him to attend. That day, despite the intense celebration, my joy was diminished. But when he died seven days later, I knew he'd seen at least a glimpse of the life I was entering and the family I might later create.
In this week's Torah portion, Moses, too, is given a glimpse. He is nearing the end of his life. God invites Moses to ascend a tall mountain and, from that perch, to view the Land, which the Israelites will later enter. In other words, God offers Moses the chance to see the product of his work, to peek at the land his people will enter, to view the destination he's been approach-ing for so many decades. But he is not permitted to enter the land. Moses is kept out.
The tension here is palpable. Why would God make such an offer to Moses? What is the intention of such a viewing? Is it a gift to him, a sort of prize for having led the people for 40 years in the wilderness? Or is it something much darker, aimed at causing Moses a wistful sort of pain? After all, while it seems like a preview, it is not. It's just a view. Moses will be looking from a distance, at something he'll never see up close. And certainly, he'll never get to touch that ground.
And yet, this moment has great power and significance for him. By standing atop a mountain, he has the chance to peek at his own legacy. As he looks out into the Land, Moses will view something of the future, beyond years of his life. In essence, by facing the about-to-be-inherited land, Moses remarkably looks at the accomplishment of his life's work. He views his immortality, what will be forever lasting about him.
But in the next sentence of the Torah, Moses, it seems, changes the subject. He responds to God's invitation by worrying, out loud, about who will succeed him as leader of the Israelites ("Let God appoint a man for the commun-ity ...let the commun-ity of God not be like sheep that have no shepherd!" - Numbers 27:16-17). When faced with the specter of his legacy, the land that he has put into reach for his people, Moses turns immediately to the subject of succession. He glances at his everlasting legacy, then faces his imminent disappearance from the face of the earth.
In that single moment, Moses exhibits the ultimate human clarity: He simultaneously grasps his mortality and his immortality.
Such clarity is extremely difficult to achieve. Most of us don't have it most of the time. Nevertheless, a Chassidic teaching encourages us: A person should have two pockets at all times. In one pocket, there should be a paper with the words, "The world was created for my sake"; in the other, the words "I am but dust and ashes."
Many of us walk through the days and hours and minutes of our lives feeling alternatively invincible and powerless. We go from one pocket to the other. Ideally, though, we want to be like Moses at this moment. We seek a consciousness of both at every possible turn: a Moses-like balance between our finite condition and the pieces of us that will last beyond our years. And when we achieve that, we will understand how our grandchildren will somehow intuitively know, and love, the grandparents of their grandparents.
Shawn Fields-Meyer of Los Angeles, is rabbi of Congregation Etz Hadar in Redlands. She is instructor of liturgy at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.