Parashat Ha·azinu

Deuteronomy 32:1–32:52

October 1, 2011 / 3 Tishrei 5772

This week's commentary was written by Dr. Ofra Backenroth, associate dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education and adjunct professor of Jewish Education, JTS.

A few years ago, my family and I went on a bar mitzvah trip to Israel. Following a celebratory and meaningful weekend that included a beautiful party, a prayer service near the Western Wall, and a tour of the archeological excavations underneath the wall, we were taken on a memorable tour of Petra in Jordan. On the way south, on the east side of the Jordan River, we stopped at Har Nevo (Mount Nebo).

Standing on Har Nevo, looking at the desert spread in front of me on the other side of the Jordan River, I thought about Moshe and the last time he stood on top of this mountain overlooking Israel, reaching out to the land of Israel, so close, but yet so far. As described at the end of Deuteronomy, "And Moses went up from the steps of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the summit of Pisgah opposite Jericho. And the Lord showed him the whole land, Gilead as far as Dan" (Deut. 34:1).

What does it mean to a leader who, for 40 long years, led the people of Israel in the desert, providing for all their needs, and, in the end, was forbidden to enter the Promised Land? What a tragic end to a life of service and dedication. Moshe is separated from his destination by the decree of God. "And the Lord said to him: 'This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, 'I will assign it to your offspring.' I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross there'" (Deut. 34:4). In the previous chapter, another obstacle is mentioned—Moshe is not destined to cross the water of Meribath Kaadesh: "You shall die on the mountain that you are about to ascend . . . for you . . . broke faith with Me among the Israelite people at the waters of Meribath-Kaadesh in the wilderness of Zin . . . " (Deut. 32:51).

We realize that it is not the first time that Moshe encounters water and is seriously impacted by it. The first time happened when Moshe was saved from the decree of the killing of the firstborn son when his teva (basket) was placed in the river Nile by his mother and sister to hide him from Pharaoh's guards. His name, Moshe, was coined after the act of being pulled out of the water, "She named him Moses, explaining, 'I drew him out of the water'" (Gen. 2:10). The second time, Moshe courageously led the people of Israel through the Sea of Reeds and saved them from the strong hand of Pharaoh (Exod. 14). The third time, Moshe brought out water from the rock as the people of Israel began the long years of travel in the desert following God's orders, "Strike the rock and water will issue from it, and the people will drink" (Exod. 17:6). The fourth time happened in Numbers 20 when again Moshe needed to draw water out of the rock. However, this time, God's instructions were different; Moshe was asked to speak to the rock. Instead, "Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank" (Num. 20:11). Soon after, Moshe learned that because he did not obey and trust God and struck the rock instead of speaking, he would not lead the people of Israel into the land of Israel.

This statement is repeated in chapter 34 of Parashat Ha·azinu. We learn that Moshe was not allowed to cross the river Jordan into Israel because of the incident described in Parashat Hukkat, hitting the rock to draw forth water. We meet him standing hopelessly and probably heartbroken on the top of Mount Nevo, staring at the west bank of the Jordan River.

The scene of Moshe standing on Mount Nevo, looking at the yearned-for, beloved land, is a powerful one that became an evocative motif in literature and poetry. Rachel Bluwstein, the poet known by her first name Rachel (or Rachel the poetess), wrote a short but powerful poem, From Afar, expressing the yearning that Moshe must have felt standing on Har Nevo:

Outspread hands, gaze from afar
There no one comes
Each and his Nevo
Over a vast land

Rachel transforms the last moments of Moshe—standing on the mountain overlooking the Promised Land that he will never enter—into an existential mode of yearning for the unachievable. Standing on Nevo becomes a symbol for unfulfilled yearnings.

I would like to relate this situation of yearning to an issue that has concerned us at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education—something that was unfulfilled, but unlike the experience of Moshe and the way it is described in Rachel's poem, is finally being attained. Committed to Israel education, The Davidson School, for many years, was hoping to create a program in which students would be able to study for a semester in Israel; immerse themselves in Israeli culture, art, and Hebrew language; and learn about and engage with Israel's religious, social, and political issues in an authentic way that only a prolonged stay in the country could provide. Sending the students across the ocean was an inspired and thought-provoking task not only in terms of the physical challenges but also in terms of the type of program the school was aspiring to create. Kesher Hadash (New Connection), The Davidson School's new semester-in-Israel program, whose first cohort comes together later this year, is a program that aspires to be a new model of professional development for future American communal and educational leaders. The program's vision, curriculum, and structure are cutting-edge in terms of educational goals and practices. As its name suggests, the program requires participants to create connections, be fully engaged, and grapple with the problems and challenges that Israelis face in their everyday lives. In fact, the students will be purposefully placed in situations where, together with Israeli educators-in-training, they will be encouraged to seek ways to tackle those challenges. The program promotes Israel engagement in an educational mode that requires an activist's attitude.

With the support of a generous grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation, we are pleased to offer the Kesher Hadash program to our students, at long last. We wish the first cohort of participants success in their new adventure and in finding their own way of entering the Promised Land.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.