Now Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho. And the Lord showed him all the land, Gilead as far as Dan, and all Naphtali and the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, and all the land of Judah as far as the western sea, and the Negev and the plain in the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar. Then the Lord said to him, “This is the land which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.” So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord. And He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor; but no man knows his burial place to this day. Although Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died, his eye was not dim, nor his vigor abated. So the sons of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the days of weeping and mourning for Moses came to an end.
–Deuteronomy 34:1-8 (NASB)
The final verse of the final portion of the Torah refers to “the strong hand and all the great awe, which Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel.” According to the Talmud, the phrase “before the eyes of all Israel” alludes to the incident when Moses smashed the Tablets of the Covenant when he found the Jewish people worshiping the Golden Calf.
An odd conclusion for the Five Books of Moses! The whole Torah ends by recalling the destruction of the Ten Commandments by Moses! Another interesting point to consider is that after completing the reading of this portion in the Synagogue, we immediately begin reading from the first portion of the Torah (Gen. 1:1): “In the beginning, G-d created…”
The reason that the Torah ends as it does – by alluding to the breaking of the Tablets of the Covenant – is the same reason that we start over again once we’ve finished. Both ideas are rooted in the same principle; we never just finish up and move on. Just when we think we’ve reached the end – when we get to the very last line of the very last portion – we are reminded that the Tablets of the Covenant were once destroyed and had to be remade.
In many ways, the start of a new Torah cycle is about starting over. But like the Children of Israel at the death of Moses and being poised to cross the Jordan with Joshua as their leader and prophet, it’s also a continuation and even a radical change…or it can be. It probably should be, otherwise, you’re just recycling the Torah and spiritual learning year by year and as a result, not actually learning anything new.
As the Children of Israel discovered when Moses died (and Aaron and Miriam and an entire generation of Israelites before him), change inevitably means loss, sorrow, and grief, even as change can mean growth, progression, and fulfillment.
We know that after Moses destroyed the first set of tablets as a result of the sin of the Golden Calf, at the command of God, he made a second set. But it was God who made the first set and it was God who wrote on it. The second set was created by Moses and Moses wrote on it at the command of God. God gave the Israelites a “second chance” but it wasn’t the same situation as the “first chance.” Even if God grants you “do-overs,” you lose something, even if you don’t lose it all.
Rabbi Ben A. is the most famous anonymous rabbi. Using his pen name, Ben A. draws from his personal experience in recovery to incorporate unique Chassidic philosophy into the practice of the 12 Steps. He tells us that our spiritual journey is never complete and we are always starting over, but not quite with fresh start. There is not perfect “reset” button for our lives.
As newcomers looking at the Steps for the first time, many of us wondered what we were supposed to do once they were completed. The answer is that our recovery is never finished; it continues by beginning again. We remember that the life we now have was once in a state of apparent destruction, just as the Tablets containing the Word of G-d had been smashed. In our despair, we agreed to let go, and let G-d give us a new life. We learned to trust G-d. We cleaned house; and we repaired our relationships with others.
We remember that it is He who takes away our pain and gives us joy. It is He who takes away our sickness and gives us health. It is He who instills renewed energy into our desolate lives…it reminds us how the spiritual lives we now have began out of darkness, chaos and void. It is now our job to once again transform our lives with light, order and fulfillment.
Spiritual growth is like a 12-step program? A Spiritual recovery program? It seemed a strange thought when I first encountered it, but actually, it makes perfect sense. Who are we without God but human beings on a path to destruction. We repent, but repentance, forgiveness, and atonement are not accomplished in a single act. It takes time, perhaps a great deal of time…perhaps all of our lives, over and over, year by year, like the Torah cycle.
It is now as it was now a moment before. It grew no older. It was not touched, not moved nor darkened by the events that flickered upon its stage. They have vanished; it has remained. It perpetually transcends.
And it is immanently here. Tangible, experienced, real and known. For what can be more known than the moment in which you stand right now?
Yet, what can be so utterly unknown?
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Like the continual Torah reading cycle, we are constantly moving forward, continually experiencing and re-experiencing what we need and what God understands we need. But also, we only live inside of one instant in eternity at a time. It is always “Now.” We look to the future and remember the past, but it is always now. When you read Beresheet last Shabbos (if you follow the traditional Torah readings), it was “Now” and when you read Noah next Shabbos, it will also be “Now.”
It’s what we do inside of each instant of life that creates or inhibits the progression, the growth, the journey toward drawing closer to God. We may have done terrible damage to ourselves and to others in the past, but the past is just that. It’s gone, though the consequences can still be with us. It is now. It is always now. You are always in now. Living inside of now is like guiding a ship by working the tiller to move the rudder. Now you move it one way. Now you move it another. Now the tiller moves the rudder and now the ship moves in response. Moment by moment, every action you take in an endless progression of “now events” creates the sequence of our lives and results in consequences for us, for our loved ones, and in our relationship with God.
Rabbi Freeman concludes:
If you are here only now, what is the purpose?
And if all is transient, why be here now?
Grasp the now by both ends and every moment is divine,
every experience is precious.
For you have grasped G‑d Himself.
I will tell you a secret that can be told, and within it a secret that cannot be known: Take the Hebrew present tense of the verb to be, and prefix it with the letter yud to indicate a perpetual state of now-being—and you will have the name of G‑d.
G‑d is now.
Over two weeks ago, a friend of mine challenged me to experience God more fully. I felt backed into a corner knowing that I should want such an experience but dreading it as well. I didn’t want to change and I knew God would require it if I turned to Him. Now…yes, right now, God is also backing me into a corner. The choice of whether or not to turn to Him is still mine but God is limiting my options. The consequences for not accepting His challenge are becoming more dire, and I see that He has been allowing me enough rope and may yet let me swing if I continue in that direction.
I know there is a future, a wonderful and terrible future. Where I’ll be standing when that future becomes “Now” depends on which direction I move the tiller, which direction I choose to turn the ship. The wood is in my hands, I can move right or left, the ship is traveling forward into the storm. Moving one way leads to disaster, with my ship and everyone on it being broken apart on jagged rocks, and moving the other way leads to safe haven. I may have seen this before but I chose to ignore it, believing I had time before I had to make the final decision. Now, what I once saw vaguely and disregarded has become a present reality viewed with absolute and crystal clarity.
Now I grasp the ship’s tiller, I apply pressure. I feel resistance. The tiller moves and with it, the rudder. Now the ship begins to change course and…
…and Moses dies. And the Children of Israel mourn. And the Ark goes ahead of the Assembly into the Jordan. And Joshua leads. And we read the last few lines in Deuteronomy. And we hastily re-roll the scroll. And we read, “When God began to create heaven and earth…”
O Hashem, You have scrutinized me and You know. You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought from afar. You encompass my path and my repose, You are familiar with all my ways. For the word is not yet on my tongue, behold, Hashem, You knew it all. Back and front You have restricted me, and You have laid Your hand upon me.
–Psalm 139:1-5 (Stone Edition Tanakh)