I think it is easy to figure out what is going through the mind of Moses as he stands before the people and begins his last speeches before he dies. He wants to remind people of how far they have come, how difficult the road has been and how careful they will need to be in the future. He will try and set the last 40 years into some kind of a context so the Israelites can learn the lessons from this time in the desert so they can appreciate the Promised Land that lies just over the river.
But what are the people thinking as they gather to listen to this final performance of Moses. On the one hand, Moses is old, very old, and his time for leading the people is over. He can no longer go to war with them. He has become highly critical of everything the people do and he still treats the Israelites as if they had just come out of Egypt and that he is the only one who really understands what freedom is all about. On the other hand Moses is the only real leader the people have ever had. He has made sure they have enough food and water. He has established courts of justice and brought the Torah to them from God. He has been the one man who has stood between God and the people and prevented tragedy when the people have sinned. When Israel acted with doubt and fear, it was Moses who made God forgive the people for being human.
Only now, at the end do they fully appreciate all that Moses has done for them. And now the Israelites must be worried about their future without Moses. Who will provide the food and shelter that the people will need? How will the people be able to enter and conquer the land without the intercession of Moses? How could they go on without their most revered leader?
My colleague Rabbi Ed Feinstein tells a story about his daughter when she was only three years old. Whenever he would tuck her into bed at night, as soon as he would turn off the light and shut the door, his daughter would begin to shout that there was an alligator under her bed. Dad would come back in, turn on the light, inspect under the bed for alligators and monsters, and say, “There are no alligators or monsters under your bed. It is late and you need your sleep. Everything is safe. Good night.” This went on every night for almost a year.
But one night, Rabbi Feinstein got to thinking about his daughter and the alligators under her bed. He began to ask the question, who is really living in a fantasy? Is it my daughter who thinks there is an alligator under her bed, or is it me who thinks that everything is safe and tomorrow will surely come?
I certainly could relate to his story. My son slept many nights with a towel stuffed under the door to his room to keep out the dreaded lizards. My other son slept on the floor next to the door, not on the wonderful bed we gave him, because he needed to know that his parents were really not that far away. Only my daughter was so fearless that she didn’t even need us to tuck her in. She would say good night, close the door and play or read quietly in her room until she fell asleep.
What Rabbi Feinstein realized that night, is that it is only our belief in God that lets us go to sleep at night sure that tomorrow will be another day. Here was the root of all that is spiritual. Our belief that we will have a new day tomorrow. We can read the paper, and get the news feeds on our computers, and listen to the news on TV and radio and it doesn’t take long to realize that for way too many people, there will be no better day tomorrow. Shootings, car crashes, boating accidents, stray gunshots, and train crashes are a regular part of life. People go to bed without jobs, homeless and hungry and have little to look forward to in a new day. Families struggle with illness and wonder what the next day will bring. There, but for the grace of God, go I.
This week we will observe the great black fast of Tisha B’Av. The greatest disaster that ever befell our ancestors, the destruction of the Temple, the only place they ever knew where they could worship God. It was a great crisis of faith. How could they feel close to God if the center of that worship was gone? How could they know that God would help them grow their food, feed their families, and give them another day of life? Many times at this season of the year our ancestors wondered how they would find the strength and the faith to go on. A second Temple was destroyed. Betar fell to the Romans, the Jews were expelled from Spain, the Jews were expelled from England, the Jews were expelled from Austria, 3000 Jews were killed by Khmelnitsky, and even World War I, a war that was very bad for the Jews of Eastern Europe began on the ninth of Av. There have been many time our ancestors wondered what tomorrow would bring. And yet they never gave up faith. The pain and suffering was hard and unbearable, yet they believed that God would still be with them tomorrow.
We read in our Siddur “Ruler of the universe, not because of our righteousness do we offer our prayer before you but because of your great mercy. Who are we? What is our life? What is our goodness? What is our righteousness? What is our help? What matters our strength? What difference does our might make? What can we say before you God? Our greatest leaders are nothing compared to you. Strong men are not strong, wise men are as if they have no wisdom, men of understanding are as if they know nothing. In your eyes, God, our work is all emptiness, our life is just vanity, we are no better than the animals and all of our plans are in vain.
And yet we go to sleep assured that we will be given another day. We are as sure of that as we are sure that there are no alligators under our bed (I’m from Florida; I know about Alligators!) God knows that we are not perfect and yet God loves us so much that in spite of our mistakes, our imperfections, our sins, God still gives us another day. Maybe we get the new day so that we can keep trying to do better. Maybe we get a new day because God promised Abraham that God would not forget Abraham’s children for all eternity. Maybe we do just enough good that we merit another chance.
Take another look at the speech that Moses gives to the people of Israel. Is Moses really talking to the Israelites in the desert, as they prepare to cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land? Or is Moses really talking to us? Reminding us that we have sinned, we have often acted in ways that God had forbidden, we have injured our friends with words. We have not thanked God because we are so selfish that we don’t even consider all that God does for us every day. We get angry with people who love us and we feud with our neighbors. We often are unkind and we gossip. Who are we to think that we deserve to enter the Holy Land?
And yet, that is the nature of God. God checks under our beds for monsters that children never dream about, and gives us a new day and a new chance to make something better out of our lives. Another day to visit the sick, comfort the mourner, help a neighbor, give to charity, volunteer at the synagogue, attend daily minyan, be kind to a stranger, show someone how much you love them, and maybe stop and consider how beautiful the world around is really is.
Moses is telling us that there are things in our past that we are not proud of, but we can still enter the Promised Land. We have rebelled against God, ignored God’s commandments, and acted without faith in the future, and yet we will have another tomorrow. If we can learn the lessons of our failures, if we can work hard to overcome our bad habits and our laziness, we can still earn another day. We believe that we can do it. God believes in us. That is the basic component of spirituality. That in the end, we try harder and God gives us another chance. That was the message of Moses to the people as he began to speak to the people before his death. It is the message that we need to hear as well if we are to find our way back to God.
In just seven weeks the Jewish New Year will arrive. We will once again promise to work harder in the New Year to live lives that we and God can be proud of. Can we believe in God enough, can we love God enough to continue, in the face of all the troubles in our lives, to believe that we can be better, to believe that we can change, and to believe that it is worthwhile for God to give us a new day tomorrow?
Our ancestors fasted on Tisha B’Av and continued to believe. Our ancestors set out on a journey that brought them and us to this land and even when their future was uncertain, they continued to believe. And we, who have loved in our lives, a spouse, a child, a friend and told them that tomorrow will be a new day, we too continue to believe, and it is that belief that makes all the difference.
Let us pray that God will give us the strength to overcome our sins. Let us pray that we will have another chance to live a life of kindness and caring to others. And let us pray that tomorrow will be another day.
May this be our prayer as we say Amen and Shabbat Shalom.
Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, July 29, 2017.