By Rabbi Judd Kruger Levingston
Although we might seem like a stiff-necked people, Moses remains an optimist and we have reason to be an optimistic people, too.
Throughout the second half of the Torah, relations between Moses and the children of Israel are difficult: The people lodge complaints, engage in power struggles and show a lack of faith, making it difficult for Moses to govern. Moses shows his own impatience and frustration, calling them stiff-necked and stubborn.
After he experiences his initial success in leading the people out of slavery, it is difficult for Moses to remain an optimist after the people betray him with the Golden Calf (Exodus 33), the lack of trust and the cowardice of the 12 scouts (Numbers 13), the rebellion of Korah (Numbers 16) and endless complaints about missing Egypt and the miseries of wandering in the desert.
Yet we see Moses’ moral character and resolve at its finest in this week’s relatively brief parshah, which constitutes all of Deuteronomy 31.
Moses is preparing for his own demise by telling the people of Israel that he is 120 years old, so they will be led into the promised land of Israel by Joshua; Moses courageously relinquishes his power. He encourages the people to be “strong and resolute” (31:6), promising that God will not abandon them.
Moses then gives the same charge to Joshua to be “strong and resolute” (31:7), but the future looks ominous. The children of Israel are destined to be defiant and stiff-necked, not strong and resolute (31:27). Moses prophesies that the people will stray from the sacred covenant with God, worship other gods and experience misfortune and evil. Yet, despite this unfortunate destiny, Moses doesn’t concede to pessimism and he remains optimistic.
As a school person, I deeply value and look forward to these first weeks of school because the fall offers a unique opportunity for each student to start fresh with a clean slate and a clean reputation after the long summer break.
Optimism is in the air as parents wave goodbye, encouraging their children to do their best, to behave well, to be a credit to their family, to make good friends and to be a good friend to others. My colleagues share my excitement about starting fresh with new texts, clean classrooms, alert students and new ideas for connecting with students while making their classes engaging.
With our Jewish new year barely into its first week, we should feel a similar positive, optimistic spirit.
This Shabbat, also known as Shabbat Shuva, marks the unique liminal moment in the calendar between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We have begun the season for repentance and fresh starts and, in just a few more days, we will undertake the solemn, joyful fast of Yom Kippur, acknowledging the missed opportunities, disappointments and failings of the previous year, pledging to do better in the new year.
Wearing white, I know that I won’t be alone in expressing my hopes to be strong and resolute myself in my conduct with my students, colleagues, friends and family.
Whether we are school people or work in other settings, and whether we are retired or not yet in the workforce, it takes a positive, optimistic outlook to confront our past before we face the future, to acknowledge our shortcomings and to feel uplifted and not dragged down, and to know that things might get worse before they get better.
I see a deep optimism in Moses because he acknowledges the challenges that the children of Israel have ahead of them and reassures them that they should have no fear (Deut. 31:8) because God and Joshua will go ahead of them into the new land, charting the right path forward, to be described more completely in next week’s parshah.
In our day, we don’t have a Moses leading us, but we do have civic leaders in our towns and cities, religious leaders in our synagogues, and we have teachers, social workers, journalists, elders and others who can echo our parshah and remind us of our capacity to be strong and resolute and to radiate optimism as we embark on the new year 5779.
Shabbat shalom. May you be strong and resolute, inscribed for a happy, sweet, fruitful and meaningful new year.
Rabbi Judd Kruger Levingston serves as director of Jewish studies at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy and is author of Sowing the Seeds of Character: The Moral Education of Adolescents in Public and Private Schools. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.