We too will fall flat on our faces.
There was once a chaplain who visited a jail to deliver a sermon to the inmates. While ascending the podium to speak, he tripped and fell flat on his face. The room erupted in laughter. He picked himself up and went over to the podium and said, "I have just concluded my sermon; the moral is that even when a person falls flat on his face, he can rise up again. The important thing is to never give up hope."
This evening we celebrate Shabbat Shuvah, Shabbat of return. As Jews, we have the opportunity between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to return. Return to Jewish values, to God, and to ourselves. Our tradition teaches us that every person is capable of repentance. Every person has the ability to change themselves.
Most of us know who we want to be; how we want to treat ourselves, and how we want to treat other people. When the High Holy Days come around, we are encouraged to think deeply about these commitments to ourselves and to others. We promise to make changes, yet more often than not, we lose sight of these promises once the holiday is over and we are wrapped back up in our busy lives.
So how can we make a plan to consciously and consistently return to being our best selves… Every. Single. Day.?
Maybe we should try setting a reminder on our smartphones? Sounds silly, but why not? We do it for everything else in life. My smartphone reminds me to do my homework, show up at meetings on time, take the trash out, and that's just the beginning of the list… If smartphones aren't your thing, leave a note on your fridge or on the mirror in your bathroom. However you keep track of your to-do list, consider adding a reminder to be your best self.
Learn the name of the person you buy your coffee from, a grocery cashier, or a receptionist at an office you call regularly. Ask one person how they are and hear them. Compliment someone's idea. Make words like please, thank you, and excuse me part of your daily vocabulary. These tasks seem basic, and they are. They are acts of basic human decency. They are opportunities to connect with other human beings for moments in our days that are spent buried in the monotony of technology, work, and schedules. We are capable of far more than we give ourselves credit for. Often our greatest obstacle is our own thoughts.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayelech, we read of Moses who speaks to the members of the tribe of Israel saying, “I am now 120 years old and I can no longer come and go. God has said to me, ‘You shall not cross over the Jordan River. Joshua will go forward and lead the people.’”
Rashi, an eleventh century commentator, asks the question, “What does God mean that Moses can no longer ‘come and go.’
We most often interpret this to mean that it is Moses’ time to die.
But, Rashi says “One might think God says this because Moses’ physical strength fails him, but Deuteronomy 34:7 states, ‘His eyes were not dim nor his natural force abated!’ What then? It means that Moses is not permitted because his power is being taken from him.”
Three times in the portion, God says to Moses, “It is almost your time to die.”
It is hard to imagine what Mosess was thinking? He lived his whole life for the purpose of entering the Promised Land and that promise is being taken away from him. He knows he has little time left to live. Even at 120 years old, he still wants to accomplish more! So what then will he do with his final moments?
God gives Moses no time to waste, as God charges him with one final task. In Deuteronomy 31:19, God commands, “Now, write down this poem and teach it to the members of the tribe of Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this poem will be My witness for the people of Israel.”
Our rabbis ask the question, “What is this poem of which God speaks?” The Talmud (Nedarim 38) states that “this poem” refers to the whole Torah.
So we are meant to believe that Moses spends his final minutes writing down the whole Torah? I don’t know about you, but that seems rather impossible to me. What then does this really mean? Maybe, that he revisits the very meaning of purpose in our lives, and he spends his final moments sharing that purpose, strength, and comfort with others.
In a way, Moses fell flat on his face when God shared that he would not be permitted to enter the Promised land; just as the chaplin in the story I told you about at the beginning. And just like the chaplin, he rose up and spent his final moments of life sharing purpose, strength, and comfort. He chose not to give up hope for the members of the tribe of Israel, rather to leave them prepared to lead the next generations of Israelites.
In the coming year, we too will “fall flat on our faces” so to speak. We will all make mistakes, we will all commit sin. For we are humans, and humans are flawed. No one expects us to be perfect. God only expects us to try. To try to be our best selves. To treat others with chesed (kindness) and kavod (respect). And to remember that when we do fall, to rise back up, and to never give up hope.
Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tovah
**Shabbat Shuvah 2018/5779