By Rabbi Tsurah August
At the outset of Parshat Vaetchanan, Moshe pleads with Adonai, “Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon.”
Adonai responds: “Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again! Go up to the summit of Pisgah and gaze about, to the west, the north, the south, and the east. Look at it well, for you shall not go across yonder Jordan.”
Although this parshah has many significant verses to chew on — the Ten Commandments and the Shema make a repeat performance — it is this scene that continually draws me. With the admonition “Enough!” perhaps Adonai was stopping Moshe’s pleading by giving Moshe an opportunity to gain new perspective, as when back in Parshat Shemot, Moshe’s pleading to see Adonai’s face was not granted. There, he was put high up in the cleft of the rock with a view of Adonai’s back while the 13 Attributes were given. Here his pleading is met with the opportunity to stop and “look well.”
As a chaplain, I accompany people who are looking “yonder Jordan.” Their yonder may be healing from an illness, frailty, their approaching death or the new normal of life after the loss of a loved one.
At the point I meet them, they are still in the the wilderness, an existential and physical situation they have not encountered before — a place of disorientation, of uncertainty and of not knowing.
Now my role is to assist them in their finding a way to having peace in the moment, despite their angst and pain. Perhaps just a moment, a breath of relief from their anguish. As a chaplain, I am there to suggest approaches for increasing spiritual and emotional wholeness and guide them on their journey.
In this parshah, Moshe gives us two excellent examples of this:
Life review and legacy giving: He does this by recounting the Israelites’ journey to peoplehood under Adonai’s power and guidance, by acknowledging his accomplishments in striving to build the community and devotion to Adonai and admonishing the people to follow the laws and customs that Adonai decreed.
The Torah does not give us Moshe’s inner end-of-life work, but perhaps, as he looked out from Pisgah, he had the time and space to explore his thoughts and feelings that we, as chaplains, guide our clients in probing, if they desire. The following are some of the considerations we offer:
Existential beliefs, hopes and fears: Wrestling with beliefs about God, death, dying, afterlife, eternity, good and evil, reward and punishment, et al.
Recontextualizing the past: Reviewing one’s life in terms of what one did, and how one’s actions, reactions and thoughts helped shape the person we become, and what learnings we’ve gained from our lives’ experiences.
Healing of relationships/forgiveness: Candidly questioning ourselves about who we want/need to forgive, including ourselves — and finding the best ways to accomplish this.
Deepening compassion: Developing greater compassion for others — people known and unknown who struggle to live lives of meaning, purpose and fulfillment, and those people whose lives are a daily struggle to simply survive.
Love and gratitude: Taking the time to dive deeply into appreciation of the gift of the life we have lived — with all its joys and also its sorrows — all the experiences, all the people, the sensations, the emotions, the thoughts, the doings, the giving and receiving, the learning and the teaching, the abundance, the beauty, the freedoms, art, work, community, desire and fulfillment. Gratitude and love for the Earth itself — land, water and sky, the universe — and all the creatures we share these with. For the traditions that help remind us of all we have to be grateful for and for it all.
Acceptance and saying goodbye: I put these two together because they encompass everything written above. When we have explored our beliefs, hopes, fears; taken a true accounting of our lives and offered the legacies and wisdom we gleaned from our lives; healed our relationships; expressed our love and gratitude; and deepened our compassion, we have reached acceptance. And we have said goodbye in profound ways so that when we do cross over yonder to restored health, to healing from grief, or our final breath, we know we have indeed seen “the good land” and it and we are truly enough.
Rabbi Tsurah August is the staff chaplain for Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia, and creator of “A Loving Good-bye”: individual counseling for families and their loved ones for end of life, funeral and memorial planning and bereavement counseling. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.