Looking Past Disappointment, to the Future!

This week’s parasha, Va-etchanan, is most famous for its “greatest hits” – and truly, it’s hard to beat the one Torah portion that contains both the Ten Commandments and the central prayer of Shema + V’ahavta! But, before we arrive at either of those key texts in our reading, Moses begins a speech with a recap, telling the story of how he pleaded with God, askingto be able to enter into the promised land, and how God denied his request.

This week’s parasha, Va-etchanan, is most famous for its “greatest hits” – and truly, it’s hard to beat the one Torah portion that contains both the Ten Commandments and the central prayer of Shema + V’ahavta! But, before we arrive at either of those key texts in our reading, Moses begins a speech with a recap, telling the story of how he pleaded with God, askingto be able to enter into the promised land, and how God denied his request. Here are the opening verses, from Deuteronomy 3:23-26:

I pleaded with Adonai at that time, saying, “Adonai Elohim, You who let Your servant see the first works of Your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal! Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country and the Lebanon.” But Adonai was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me. Adonai said to me, “Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again!”

The opening verb “va-etchanan” – meaning “I pleaded” or “I beseeched” – is a rare one, enough that commentators throughout the centuries derive great meaning from it. [This is an aside, but if you’re interested in geeking out on this word, click here to explore the many commentaries on this verse on Sefaria’s website. I was especially compelled by Chizkuni’s connection of this verse to the episode in Genesis 42 where Joseph pleaded with his brothers; to the Kitzur Baal HaTurim’s linking of this verse to “shiviti adonai l’negdi tamid” (a verse from Psalms that we at Kavana love to sing!); and by Aviva Zornberg’s articulation that Moses is experiencing “an unbearable encounter with God’s otherness” here.]

In the flow of Deuteronomy’s narrative, I think a more straightforward dynamic, albeit an emotionally complex one, is at play in this section of text. It seems incredibly important to Moses to be able to tell this story, naming his great disappointment at God’s denial of his request, and venting his frustration (towards both God and the Israelites). Functionally, Moses’s ability to express these strong sentiments seems to clear the way for him to move forward to new heights in his spiritual leadership of the Israelites.

This lesson feels so relevant to this moment. Over the last couple of weeks, Covid numbers have been super high in our area… and in a range of conversations and meetings with Kavana folks, it’s become clear to me just how much frustration many of us are holding about the continued disruptions to our lives and plans. If you’ve been sick lately – or if you’re holding disappointment around canceled family time, canceled backpacking or camping trips, no childcare, etc. because you or those around you have been sick – please know that you’re not alone! Many of us can probably relate to Moses’s pleading, his wanting things to be different than they are. But, no amount of praying, pleading or beseeching is going to change the reality that this pandemic is dragging on, and we’re still “in it.”

That said, taking a cue from Moses and acknowledging the disappointment and frustration might help us move forward. Once Moses clears the deck of his emotional baggage around his inability to enter the land, he is able to proceed in instructing the Israelites forward with a sense that the best is yet to come; the Ten Commandments and the words of Shema all help the people build towards a positive future, and have lasting power! At Kavana too, it’s indeed frustrating to be planning for another set of High Holidays and a new programming year while still needing to think about Covid considerations. And yet, naming this challenge and disappointment clears us to embrace the real excitement that lies just ahead for our community.

Over the last few months, Kavana has hired three incredible new full-time staff members: a new Rabbi (Rabbi Jay LeVine), a new Director of Education (Rachel Osias), and a new Director of Community Engagement (Avital Krifcher). Together with me and Liz Thompson, plus our many part-time staff members, this core team is experiencing a positive, electric energy around the amazing opportunity we anticipate having this year, for the first time in a while, to really build towards our vision of Jewish communal life! Over the next few weeks, you can expect to see schedules, details, and registration info as we roll out plans for the High Holidays, kids’ education programs, our various monthly Shabbat services and more… this should be an exciting year all around for the Kavana community!

Lastly, the language of the word “va’etchanan” also reverberates with High Holiday overtones. In it, you may hear echoes of “v’chanoti et asher achon” from the story of God passing before Moses (see Exodus 33:19) and of “Adonai Adonai el rachum v’chanun” from the Thirteen Attributes (from Exodus 34:6, and of course also all over our High Holiday liturgy!). In this sense, this week’s parasha invites us all to look ahead to the coming New Year, and the new beginning that it represents.

As we move towards the Shabbat of Parashat Va-etchanan, I send prayers for healing and well-being to all of those in our community who are currently sick or struggling with disappointment, and wishes for sweetness and meaning, optimism and connection as all of us – like Moses – strive to move past our these challenging emotions in order to embrace the future with enthusiasm.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum