"Moshe spoke to the people"
Rosh Chodesh Av, 5778/July 13, 2018
There's a lot happening these days. And to really understand just how much is happening these days, we need to define anew what we mean by "these days." These days refer to today, which is Rosh Chodesh Av, the first of the new month of Av. These days also refers to tomorrow, Shabbat, in which we read the closing Torah portions of the book of Numbers, Matot-Masei. And these days refer to the events which took place in our lives four thousand years ago.
This particular Shabbat, which is the Shabbat preceding the fast day of the ninth of Av, is also known as Shabbat Chazon, coined after the prophetic reading that we read on this Shabbat, Isaiah 1:1-27, which begins with the words, "The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz," in Hebrew, "chazon Yeshiyahu." In other words, Shabbat Chazon is the Sabbath of Vision, or prophecy, and despite the fact that Isaiah's vision in this reading is his vision of the looming destruction of the Holy Temple and exile from Jerusalem, a tradition has arisen that Shabbat Chazon provides for us today a unique portal through which we are able to see our own vision of the rebuilt Holy Temple, and a world filled with the light of G-d's renewed Presence.
Continuing with the theme of "these days," today, the first of Av, is the anniversary of the death of Aharon, who, as we know from Numbers 20:23-29, was commanded by G-d to ascend Mount Hor, where, after he was stripped of the garments of the High Priest and they were placed upon his son Elazar, his soul left this world, having fulfilled the role of Kohen Gadol (High Priest) for Israel up to his final breath.
Matot-Masei, the concluding readings of the book of Numbers, describes Moshe in a flurry of activity, after he has been notified by G-d that the day of his death is drawing near. G-d has one final task for Moshe, namely, "Take revenge for the children of Israel against the Midianites; afterwards you will be gathered to your people." (ibid 31:2) One would certainly understand if Moshe had procrastinated just a bit to fulfill this task, being that, once completed, his life is over. Yet Moshecarries out this responsibility with alacrity, organizing and rallying his people to exact a fierce vengeance on Midian. And once having completed this mission, Moshe continues to prepare his people for their imminent entry into the land of Israel. Knowing full well that he will not be accompanying Israel into the land across the Jordan, Moshe, nevertheless busies himself, almost obsessively, with detailed instructions concerning the establishment of Levitical cities in the land, and cities of refuge for unintentional murderers.
Moshe had to deal with his own disappointment when the children of Reuven and Gad approached him requesting to make their permanent homes east of the Jordan, outside of the land that G-d had promised Israel. Moshe, whose own soul was burning with the desire to enter the land, must have been devastated by Reuven and Gad's regarding their livestock as their chief concern, but he controlled his anger and elicited from them an oath to form a vanguard military unit to assist their fellow tribes in acquiring their own lands west of the Jordan.
Finally, after naming representatives from all the tribes who will take part in the future allotting of their tribal portions, Moshe is approached by "heads of the family of the sons of Gilead the son of Machir the son of Menasheh of the families of the sons of Yosef," (ibid 36:1) with a question concerning a detail of their impending tribal inheritance. Just as on the day when Yitro met up with Israel in the wilderness, at the foot of Mount Sinai, and he saw his son-in-law Moshe patiently hearing the personal concerns and disputes and litigations of his people, Moshe, to his last day, spent his final hours on earth in the service of his people, the children of Israel, the children of HaShem. That this almost incidental concern which the children of Menashehbrought before Moshe actually draws the book of Numbers to a close seems a touch ironic. After shepherding Israel for forty years, leading them from slavery in Egypt to being the beloved servants of G-d, from thirst and hunger to plenty, from desperate lows to life changing highs, that Moshe's final act should involve a seemingly tangential concern may seem like a sad conclusion to his life. But the opposite is true. Moshe'sconcern for his people was so profound that it eclipsed any concern that he might have for himself, right down to his final day.
The book of Deuteronomy, which we begin next week, contains the words of Moshe that he delivered to Israel over the final thirty seven days of his life, and they, likewise, are totally dedicated to the future well-being of Israel. Retirement was not part of his plan. Nor was he the least concerned with preserving his "legacy." We, the children of Israel, are his legacy, four thousand years later, living in the land that he led us to, the land of Israel. And this brings us back to the meaning of "these days:" Like Moshe, who lived his life for the good of his people to his final day, and like Aharon, who served his people as Kohen Gadol, to his last day, our days on this earth are numbered, yet the G-d-given opportunity to spend our days concerning ourselves with the welfare of others and working toward the good of the nation, knows no bounds. Take a moment this Shabbat to form a vision of where you will be when our Holy Temple is rebuilt, and what role you will be taking in making G-d's dream for mankind come true.