Parashat Va'et'hanan

The Dutiful Student

Moses as a model of one who seeks greater understanding

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His final questioning of God occurs within this week's parashah. Moses beseeches God and recounts his request: "And I pleaded with the Lord at that time saying, O Lord God, you have begun to show your servant your greatness, and your mighty hand; for what God is there in heaven or in earth, that can do according to your works, and according to your might? I beg of you, let me go over, and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that goodly mountain region, and Lebanon" (Deuteronomy 3:23-25).

Questioning God's ban prohibiting him from entering the land, Moses appeals to God to cancel the decree and allow him to enter. His plea to God is compared by Horowitz to asking that an oath be nullified. Moses focuses intently on canceling God's oath preventing him from re-entering the land. In this, Moses is seeking to understand the ban, in its essence (Horowitz, Shnei Luhot ha'Brit, p. 107 Sharei Tzion ed.).

In his continual tendency to question and seek clarification and meaning, Moses provides us with a paradigm for a student's responsibility. His goal is to relearn his prophecy until he fully understands its comprehensive message. In each situation, Horowitz explains that Moses is not challenging God's message, but seeking to understand what he may have missed in the first telling.

As well it is with our calendar of holidays and observances. The historical message of each observance and holiday is clear, but our reasons for perpetuating them sometimes are not. Specifically, with Tisha b'Av, finding contemporary relevance in this day of mourning in an era in which the Jewish state has been re-established, can be particularly challenging. During the days of the Second Temple, as well, challenges were made to indefinitely postpone the fast of Tisha B'Av.

To guarantee relevance, we have defined this day on the calendar as the day on which numerous tragedies occurred. But our forte in Judaism is that of seeing relevance, not only through history, but also, as is evident in the example of Moses, through our own learning and relearning.

Each cycle of our calendar year is a call for us to refine and relearn our understanding of our holidays and observances. In Horowitz's conclusion, he states that this pattern of relearning is what eventually leads to actualizing the verse, "You who held fast to the Lord your God are alive each and every one of you this day" (Deuteronomy 4:4). Holding fast to our Judaism is not a passive observance but an active engagement--not simply passing through the calendar, but connecting to it and relearning our historic salient moments until we achieve the level of understanding inspired by Moses.

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Rabbi Marc Wolf

Rabbi Marc Wolf is assistant vice-chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary