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Torah Commentary
Va-et'chanan (August 4, 2012)

Saul Kaiserman,
Director of
Lifelong Learning

AS IT WAS for the entire generation liberated from slavery in Egypt, Moses was punished for his lack of faith in God to never see Israel for himself. In this week’s Torah portion, Va-et’chanan, Moses pleads with God to let him cross the Jordan River and see the Promised Land. With no room for further argument, God says, “Absolutely not.”

Sometime in my late 30s, I had the alarming realization that I was reaching an age where, had I been among the Israelites liberated from Egypt, I would not have been one who settled in the Promised Land but rather one who wandered for 40 years and ultimately died in the wilderness. Doing the math in my head, I observed that most of those who would see Israel for themselves would be the ones who had been born in the Sinai desert, never having known slavery themselves.

This realization was a turning point in my thinking about my role in effecting social change: tikkun olam, repair of the world. Until that time, I always had assumed that I ultimately would inhabit that better world for which I was working, a world free of prejudice, warfare and inequality. Suddenly, I understood that the best I could hope for would be to pave the way for such a world for my children and their descendants — not for me or for my peers. Like Moses, no matter how much we plead, we will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. (As a side note: When I shared this great insight with colleagues, I quickly learned that commentators have been pointing this out for, literally, thousands of years).

But, why should this be? Shouldn’t those of us who strive to “act justly, love kindness and walk humbly” (Micah 6:8) be rewarded for our efforts within our own lifetimes? Shouldn’t we get to see the fruits of our efforts?

Comedian Steve Martin, on his album Comedy Is Not Pretty!, explains:

Life is easier as you get older because you become prejudiced…not against people but because you’ve dealt with things before…you just close the door. (Makes sound of a door slamming) People come up to you and say, “Hey, let’s go try this new thing.” (Makes sound of a door slamming again) “Sorry, we’re closed.”

It is inevitable. As we get older, we start to have our routines, our habits, our ways of doing things, and we can’t entirely leave them behind. We become narrow-minded. We aren’t really open to possibility the way we were when we were young. Those of us who were “born in Egypt” carry with us the memories of hatred, suffering and unfairness, and they are part of our assumptions about how the world works. We bring them into our work: They may inspire us, but they define us and thereby limit us as well.

Like Moses, we will not cross the Jordan, but we can look to the Promised Land and know what it will be like. We need to build for our children and our descendants a world completely unlike the Egypt we have known, a world without slavery, idolatry and injustice. We need to get them there, quickly, while they are innocent and idealistic, while there is still the possibility that they will not pass along to the next generation the failings of our own. They deserve to inherit that Promised Land.

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