By Rabbi Nancy Kasten
None of us lives forever. We pray to be written into the Book of Life for the coming year while knowing that death is inescapable. In Parashat Va-yelekh, Moses accepts his limits. He is 120 years old, no longer able to move with the Israelites as they prepare to cross the Jordan River. Commentators suggest that Moses did not merit entrance into the Promised Land because he lacked sufficient faith in God throughout his life. But Moses was human. He made mistakes. And now he recognizes that, ready or not, his days on earth are numbered.
With the finish line in sight, Moses turns to the future, remaking himself even in his last days — days when his old self might have been jealous, judgmental and self-pitying. He encourages his successor Joshua, and the Israelites whom he has guided to this moment, to “be strong and resolute.” He models teshuvah — the process of renewing and recreating oneself — even as he is denied entrance into the land flowing with milk and honey that he had imagined throughout all those years of wandering in the desert.
Reading this parashah on Shabbat Shuvah reminds us that the purpose of teshuvah is to turn ourselves in a different direction so that we might leave behind that which no longer serves us. In doing so we emulate Moses, who continues to listen to God as he enters a different chapter in the Book of Life, one not limited by his days on earth.
Many of us were privileged to know Harold Kleinman, a community leader who recently died. Five years ago, at the age of 89, Harold wrote an ethical will for his family. In it, he communicated important ideas and values that guided him to a life of meaning and purpose, filled with triumphs and joy as well as tribulations and sorrow. One of those ideas addressed the importance of accepting limits. He wrote:
“Consider, and accept if you can, the concept of ‘enough’ — enough material possessions, influence, recognition, etc. to satisfy your reasonable needs — and when you have your ‘enough’ step aside and make room for others to find their ‘enough.’ It’s a mistake to measure your ‘enough’ by trying to match or exceed what someone else has.”
It is hard to let go of things we love. It takes discernment to know when to step aside. But everything has a beginning, and everything has an end. When we don’t accept that we need to redirect, we compromise the very future we want to ensure. As a clergy colleague said recently about retiring from his pulpit after 33 years, “in the end, we are all interim pastors.”
In Parashat Vayelekh, Moses realizes he has done enough. And though he steps aside, he does not step away. Even in his last days, knowing that he won’t be able to fulfill his dream, Moses is able to have impact, leaving Joshua and the Israelites with wisdom they will carry with them and pass down to their descendants. Through teshuvah, a renewed Moses can look to the future — a future where he will live on through memory, enlivened because he was willing to let go and accept his own humanity.
We do not need the High Holy Days to remind us that we are mortal. When an old friend dies, or a young parent is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, or a family member perishes in an accident, we realize that one day we, too, will depart this earth.
The High Holy Days give us an opportunity to consider our legacy, those values and ideas that we want to live on after us. Unlike Moses, we will not be told when our life will end, so it is never too soon to direct ourselves toward our eternal life. In this New Year may we be written into the Book of Life for now and for always, for wholeness, blessing and peace.
Rabbi Nancy Kasten is chief relationship officer at Faith Commons.