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Saying Goodbye to the Holidays: What Next?
by Mark Hoenig
My daughter Emily shared a really nice thought about the Shofar. We first blow a Teki’ah, a long and uninterrupted blast, followed by a Teru’ah, which is a series of disconnected and disjointed sounds, followed by another long, uninterrupted Teki’ah. This, Emily explained, reminds us of the nature of our existence. When we are born, we are unblemished, we are spiritually perfect. Immediately, though, we lose that perfection as our lives proceed to take many twists and turns, our lives become complicated in many different ways, some good and others bad. During our lives, like the unevenness of the Teru’ah, there is a never-ending competition within us of good and bad tendencies and conduct, a constant shifting in our overall balance between being spiritually refined or degraded. Finally, and only at the end of our lives when all is said and done and our life’s journey is complete, the sum total of our conduct can be tallied, and a final balance, either a good one or a bad one, can be “announced,” like the straight, defined sound of the final Teki’ah. The Shofar thereby sends a powerful message, that we cannot ever become complacent, we cannot be satisfied with what we’ve accomplished to date, regardless of how confident we may feel at any given moment. I was thinking about Emily’s thought, this message of the Shofar, as I worked my way through Parshas V’zos Ha’bracha.
A significant portion of the entire Torah revolves around Moshe, and even a casual reading of the Torah makes clear that Moshe was an extraordinarily great man. And yet, the last three pasukim of the Torah (Devarim 34:10-12) tell us, in a nutshell, that Moshe was great. Why does the Torah take pains to tell us something that seems fairly obvious? Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch answers that this is precisely how the Torah had to end. The final thought with which the Torah leaves us is the fact that Moshe was the greatest prophet ever, and this message is critical in order that the perfect accuracy of the Torah, its inviolable truth and immutability, could never and would never be challenged at a later date. With this final message, Rabbi Hirsch teaches, the Torah precludes the possibility that there can ever be any adjustment of the Torah by a later prophet thought to be even greater than Moshe; through Moshe the Torah was transmitted, and no man can later change even a single letter of the Torah, for no man ever can reach the level that Moshe reached in his communication with G—d. This is why our belief that there will never arise a prophet like Moshe is one of the Rambam’s fundamental principles of our faith.
I wonder whether there is another message buried within the Torah’s seemingly unnecessary testimony to Moshe’s greatness. Perhaps the Torah is teaching us the lesson of the Shofar. Immediately after telling of Moshe’s death (Devarim 34:5-8), the Torah provides us with an overall assessment of Moshe. Perhaps we are being taught that, until Moshe’s death, we could not have been sure what his final “balance sheet” would look like. Maybe the Torah here teaches that, regardless of how certain Moshe’s greatness seemed to be as we read of his life’s work throughout the Torah, we could not be sure until his life was over. Only at that point could the final Teki’ah be sounded, expressing with finality the greatness of Moshe. This teaches us an important lesson, the lesson of the Shofar: If Moshe could not be described with finality until his death, if Moshe’s final “balance sheet” was in question up to the very last minute, then certainly the same must be true for the rest of us.
This idea, that we must remain ever mindful that the balance sheet of our lives is dynamic and not static—that it is constantly shifting and that we must therefore always be striving toward spiritual elevation—is important not only for each individual, but also for the entire Jewish nation. As a nation, we must understand that our final balance sheet is in a constant state of ups and downs; as a nation, we must always be thinking about improving our measure of spiritual success. This concept, that Emily’s thought about the Shofar applies also to us as a nation, is not a simple one because it requires that we remain in a constant state of national self-evaluation, always reexamining our national “assets and liabilities,” always looking ahead to the future of forever over the course of which we, as a nation, will establish our ultimate balance sheet.
Perhaps this concept of a national responsibility that spans all time was beneath Moshe’s very last words to the Jewish people. Just before he died, Moshe blessed each tribe (Devarim 33:1-9), blessings said to be the richest and most elaborate ever bestowed upon the Jewish people. Rabbi Elie Munk (Devarim 33:1) teaches that Moshe was no longer speaking to the people as a leader and prophet; he now turned to them as a loving father, a father about to leave his children, hoping to impart final words of consolation and loving words of encouragement. For each Jewish tribe, Moshe pinpointed the unique trait that was their strength, and he thereby urged them to pursue and nurture that trait for the benefit of the entire nation. These blessings bestowed by Moshe are recounted in the Torah immediately after the Torah retells (Devarim 32:51-52) that Moshe was punished and prohibited from entering the Land of Israel. Rabbi Munk (and others) note this sequence, that immediately after Moshe was reminded of the episode resulting in his punishment, an episode caused indirectly by the people, he is moved to bless them. From this juxtaposition, Rabbi Munk observes, we see Moshe’s greatness, that he was not angry or even bitter, that he was instead moved by his deep love and concern for the nation, like the love and concern of a father for his children and for all their future generations.
And embedded in his message was that the nation must remain true to the Torah at every turn and through every generation, that they must be vigilant and stay focused on pursuing the Torah through all the twists and turns of history, through every peak and valley of the national experience over the entire course of time. The Torah is described by Moshe as a “morasha kehilas Yaakov” (Devarim 33:4), a heritage for the Jewish people. We are taught that a heritage is not the same as an inheritance. An inheritance is passed down to an heir who can do with it as he wishes, squander it or make the most of it. A heritage, on the other hand, is an eternal gift for all future generations, and by calling the Torah a morasha, Moshe was teaching that the Jewish relationship with the Torah would be an eternal one, and that every generation has a duty to all future generations to maintain and protect the Torah, to make sure it suffers no blemish or impairment as it is handed down through time. No generation of Jews can ever relax; we must always be aware that the final balance sheet for the nation can and will be written only at the end of time.
As we read Parshas V’zos Ha’bracha on Simchas Torah, as we complete a cycle of studying the Torah and prepare to start all over again, these lessons about the critical nature of introspection and the need to constantly pursue self-improvement and spiritual elevation, lessons for each individual and for the nation, are what we are left with. Do we say farewell to this time of year, the Days of Awe, the period of atonement and the connected joyous period of Succos, do we finish reading V’zos Ha’bracha and proclaim “Chazak, Chazak, Ve’nischazeik” with a sense of self-satisfaction and accomplishment, a sense that we have achieved our goals, that we are repentant and righteous, a sense that we have worked hard at the Torah this year and we are now ready to relax? Or do we listen to the sound of Emily’s Teru’ah?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Hoenig is a Partner in the Tax Department of the international law firm, Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP. He attended Yeshiva University for his Bachelors degree, and received his law degrees from New York University. Hoenig has three grown children and currently lives with his wife and their youngest child in Teaneck, NJ, where he has resided for the past 25 years.
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from the August 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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