When I looked at the last section of the Torah around this time last year, I noticed that one piece of language connected the story of Moses’s death with the beginning of Abraham’s saga. “Be a blessing,” God told Abram. “This is the blessing,” said the narrator of Moses’s last words.
Now I notice something else. Almost as early as Abraham becomes a blessing, he acquires the reputation that will name his offspring: the Hebrew. The first use of that word with Abram is in Genesis 12:6. He has just left his land, his family and his home to “traverse” (avar) the land. The wandering that begins with Abraham’s father a few verses earlier becomes the story of this nomadic people – settling for a while here or there, landing as slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years, and wandering for another generation or two until the very end of Torah.
The last great traverser of the Torah is Moses. And in the dramatic death scene that is Deuteronomy 34, he stands atop a mountain with a view of the land that Abraham himself traversed. The very last words God speaks to Moses are, “you shall not traverse.” In a liberal pun, “you are not the Hebrew [any more].”
It’s a fancy word, traverse. It is usually understood to mean “cross over,” a definitively forward motion, though, ironically, the same root also means “past,” the time we have left behind. I have always been struck by the poignancy of Moses looking at the destination of his life and being denied the opportunity to enter. Indeed, the early rabbis imagined all sorts of attempts by Moses to persuade God to let him in, even rallying the earth and sky and angels to his cause. It doesn’t work. No traversing. No crossing over. No bringing forward what is left behind.
There was a time for the people to be wanderers, but as they prepared to re-enter the land first promised to Abraham, the time to wander was over – it was past. The experts who had guided the people through their journeys had to give way to a new kind of leader. The forefathers and foremothers took the Hebrews in, around and through Canaan, eventually settling in a place of exile in Egypt. Moses led them out of Egypt and through forty years’ traversing. The person who had become the very model of “successful wandering” -- including his own transformation from Egyptian to Midianite to Israelite -- was absolutely the wrong person to plant roots. We were to be Hebrews no more.
On the day we read this last chapter of our early history, we do two things. We begin the story all over again, starting with the prehistory of the original Hebrew, and we then we pick up the next chapter of the story of the Torah in which Joshua leads us into the place where our saga started and then, after a long interruption, began again back where we started. This annual rehearsal of our story serves to remind us that history in general – not just for the Jews – repeats itself and progresses simultaneously and thus paradoxically. Every season, maybe every day, we have to ask ourselves if we are going to return to the past (avar) as if nothing before us had transpired, or if we will traverse with the leadership of the day one last time into tomorrow.
When reading the Bible it is possible to do both. When living a life, not so much.
I am not a lawyer (as will be evident in a moment), but it seems to me that the modern analog of this dilemma plays out whenever there is a vacancy on the Supreme Court of the United States. We discuss
passionately whether we should select someone willing to go back to where we started – with the intent of the original authors – to traverse the ground before us or whether the same material must be understood in the context of the journey thus far completed. In some ways, especially philosophically, we can have it both ways. But life-on-the-ground demands that we decide between two ideas: things were meant to be a certain way or things are meant to change.
If you know me at all, it will not surprise you that I am a proponent of the latter, both Biblically and constitutionally. But as a rabbi of certain background – Conservative Judaism, aptly named for perhaps the first time in my career in this context – I want to remember lovingly the wanderings of our youth, when the purpose was clear and simple. We just wanted to get back where we started to build an ideal society in the land of promise/the Promised Land.
If the successes and failures of our Hebrewing had been comprehensive, then the next chapters would have been uneventful and today we’d be blissful tribal members harvesting milk and honey. And if the Constitution had been perfected in its original form or since, we would want a sage technician to answer our ultimate legal questions.
But it is not merely praise of the man that the Torah ends with the declaration that answer our ultimate legal questionsontext --there has not arisen another Moses among us. He was the right person to get us back where we started. Then it was time to move on.