In Moses’ fifth book, known as the Book of Deuteronomy or the “second telling,” Moses revisits his own story and journey with the Children of Israel. He reviews their forty years in the desert since their redemption from slavery in Egypt. This journey is significant for the generation of the desert and for all time.
Moses includes his reflections and sorrows just before he is about to join his Creator. He shares how he beseeched his G-d over and over to be able to enter the promised land but was denied. The book of Deuteronomy has been described as Moses’ “last will and testament,” reviewing his experience and sharing his regrets and instructions for future generations. Near the end of life, we must examine our successes and failures to leave a legacy for future generations. Our yearly task during Elul is a period of personal introspection as we approach the Day of Judgement, Yom Kippur.
Rosh Chodesh Elul always occurs forty days before Yom Hakippurim. This period echoed the experience of the people of Israel when Moses tarried coming down from the mountain, and they decided to create a Golden Calf to replace Moses. G-d was appalled and threatened to wipe out the whole tribe.
“I have seen these people,” the LORD said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.” (Exodus Ch 32: v9-10)
But Moses challenged God, saying:
“Why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth?’
And Moses urged G-d to forgive them, adding:
“But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.” (Exodus 32:32 New International Version)
Moses confronted the disaster with the people and G-d and went back up the mountain.
Forty days later, Moses came down with the second set of tablets, uttering G-ds message, the fateful words:
“Salachti k’idvarecha/I have forgiven as you, (Moses), requested.”
This is the day we continue to celebrate every year as Yom Hakippurim,/Yom Kippur/The Day of Judgement.
Here the Divine One demonstrates for us, for all time, justice with mercy – din v’chesed – not demanding perfection, but only that we improve our ways. The Supreme Judge reviews all behaviour and often offers second chances if we only improve a little. G-d is our Final Judge. For Jews, there is no other.
On Yom Hakippurim, our communal prayers catalogue every possible sin, but you alone can give an account of your sins. For example, have you treated your fellow man with respect? Have you cheated anyone of his wages? Only you know what you have done or neglected to do.
Our confession through our prayers is private and silently uttered between man and G-d alone. And we know that the ultimate judgement is up to G-d. On Yom Hakippurim, we say the fateful prayer, popularized by Leonard Cohen’s song, which enumerates how each of us may reach his ultimate fate, the only proper punishment in the coming year.
“Who by Fire… Who by Water…”
Legend reports that Moses died at the age of one hundred and twenty years and the traditional Jewish blessing for longevity is “ad meah v rim,” which means “May you live to one hundred and twenty!”
Moshe Rabbeinu gives us the blueprint for leadership in the example of his life, a life of service to others.
In this Book fo Deuteronomy, Moses also repeats many of the biblical commandments already received. But in addition, he gives us a blueprint for creating a just community, a challenge for all time.
As a sample, I quote some of the commandments reviewed in this week’s Parsha/Torah Reading – Ki Tetze/When you go out (to war). It will give you an idea of Moses’ instructions. The Parsha begins with the case of Eshet Y’fat To’ar, the beautiful non-Jewish woman who is taken captive in war. Next, the Torah outlines the procedure to be followed if a Jewish soldier wishes to marry a beautiful woman captured during the war.
Other topics among the 41 Mitzvot included in this week’s parsha are:
How to deal with the rebellious son;
the command to shoo away the mother bird before taking her young (“shiluach haken”);
the prohibition (“sha’atnez”) of mixing wool & linen together,
adultery, & kidnapping;
the permissibility of divorce when a marriage fails;
the need to pay one’s workers (especially day labourers) in a timely fashion.
And in this chapter again, Moshe warns us to show extra care for the widow & orphan, due to their increased vulnerability;
Andthe mandate to be honest in all our business dealings (this is one of 3 Mitzvot that promise long life).
We are bidden to recall on a daily basis the Exodus from Egypt, (This is frequently mentioned throughout our daily prayers/tefilot and in the Kiddush/the brief prayer/blessing of sanctification of the Sabbath and holidays/Shabbat & Chag, performed over wine at our tables before every holiday meal.)
Our Parsha closes with the admonition to utterly wipe out Amalek & their progeny – (the nation that attacked the nation of israel while they journeyed in the desset, falling even on the weary and the women and children, for no evident cause) until no memory remains of them or their hateful, barbaric behaviour.
For a more nuanced understanding of these laws, watch Rabbi Stewart Weiss’ Parsha discussion on Ki Tetze below.
These values and living principles are essential to “always keep top-of-mind” and are worth regularly reviewing, just as one may repeat one’s marriage vows.
The Haftora – the reading from the prophets – assigned for this week is Rani Akara, Isaiah 54/Yeshayahu 54. It continues the five “Haftorot of Consolation for Churban Yerushalayim,” which is the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, a second chance for the people of Israel promised by this prophecy of Isaiah (ch.54).
The prophet speaks of a future when Jerusalem expands its borders and welcomes new residents who will fill the streets with joy and celebration. It is a prophecy that some belief has been fulfilled after two thousand years of exile by the current return of Jews to their promised land.