A Reflection on the First Day of Rosh HashanaBy Dr. Rosemary H. Cohen @ 7:00 AM September 29, 2011
The Torah portion of Ha’azinou, which will be read in two days, on the Shabbat between Rosh Hashana — today is the first full day — and Yom Kippur, is composed of two parts:
The first section is in the form of a beautiful poem Moses has composed, reminding us of the consequences of choices and actions that the children of Israel will make in the future.
The second part is written in the habitual language of the Torah, a private conversation between God and Moses, who is informed of his approaching death.
Moses is told to climb over the Mount Nebo from where he can see the Promised Land, which is being given to the children of Israel. He is told to die on that mountain and be gathered with his people, as his brother Aharon, died on Mount Hor some months before.
It is because he did not sanctify God in the midst of the children of Israel in the desert, he is told. (Moses hits the rock with his rod instead of talking to it, as he was directed, to bring out water for the people. His brother Aharon was punished with death because he built the golden calf while Moses was receiving the Ten Commandments.)
The death of Moses is not a surprise; he is 120 years old. But this Torah portion raises a question that disturbs the reader’s mind.
At such an advanced age, Moses was probably ready to join his ancestors anyway. Plus, after forty years of dealing with the Jewish people, he knew that he would not be left in peace.
Once in the land of honey and milk, his people would not leave him alone. As it was in the desert, they would not be thankful and satisfied for what they had obtained. They would complain about what they were missing.
Normal vs. the Extraordinary
If the Torah tells us that Moses begged God to give him the opportunity to walk in the Promised Land, that would be very normal again. For forty years they had talked about this land. Each one imagined it differently.
Now just before walking in, Moses is called to die. Although Moses is aware of the peaceful place where he is going, , he insists on entering the land. Maybe by doing so, he is trying to teach us the love of the Promised Land before he dies.
What bothers the mind is not the death of Moses but the lack of appreciation and recognition for all of his good actions at this very last moment. It is written that as both brothers sinned, both brothers are punished to die and not allowed to walk in the Promised Land.
Do we really believe that our loving and forgiving God thinks this way? Isn’t it possible that this part was manipulated by the people who put down the words on the parchment? This was a private conversation between God and Moses. It may be Moses himself who reminds us of his sin before dying, another form of modesty and humility, asking God for forgiveness.
Probably it is Moses who regrets and he himself has not been able to forgive himself after so many years. He wants us to know that he remembers and regrets his disobedience toward God.
The educational principle of the old times was based on the fear of punishment. This was the only way that people were taught to live their lives. If not, isn’t it cruel to remind a hard working person like Moses, who has done so much, to put his own interests aside in serving God and His people, to remind him at the moment of his death — “You are punished because you have made one mistake years ago.”
Why Was He ‘Punished’?
For sure in those days, people were not familiar with the science of psychology. If we analyze the action of Moses today, we can easily explain it differently. First, Moses had speech difficulty. Secondly he was so used to hitting his rod on many occasions and for so many years that it was natural, an automatic movement of his hand to strike the rock instead of talking to it, rather than disobedience of God.
The Torah portion Ha’azinou, read the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the most important period of the year when all Jews pray and hope that God will forgive their sins and inscribe them in the Book of Life.
After reading this Parasha, what hope do we have to be pardoned by Him, He who did not forgive Moses? Moses who did so much for Him and for His people? Moses who faced and overcame so many difficulties and obstacles in Egypt and in the desert. Were all his good actions forgotten because of one mistake?
What can we say to my friend’s parents, husband and children who built a new house and just before moving in, she died? Do we tell them to find the sin that she committed years ago and be happy she paid for it? Or should we tell them, “It was God’s will; she is inscribed in the Book of Life and now she is living in peace with her ancestors. We will all join her one day, when our time comes.”
My friend’s twenty-two-year-old daughter was scheduled for open heart surgery. The family was warned by their elders not to tell anyone about their daughter’s operation. They were afraid that l’ashon hara (bad mouthing) will say that they were “punished”! One day before the operation, their daughter asked her mother if they were all ashamed of her sickness.
When are we going to learn that death is not a punishment, but the natural and final act of the birth?
We all believe and hope that God forgives us; if not then why do we pray all the days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and ask for His forgiveness.
In reality, I believe it is we who do not and are not able to forget our past actions; neither have we forgiven ourselves and our mistakes, even if others have forgotten and forgave us years ago.
Probably it is Moses himself who has not forgotten or forgiven himself for the one mistake that he committed in the desert so many years ago; this way he justifies his death in the last seconds of his life.
Dr. Rosemary Hartounian Cohen, who lives in the Fairfax District, earned her Ph.D in sociology from the Sorbonne in Paris. She lived in two other countries before moving wth her husband and children to Los Angeles in 1984. She has published three books in America and is at work on her fourth. Since 1985, Dr. Cohen has operated Atelier de Paris, an international art business, on Robertson Boulevard. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org