There’s this great scene in an old American film. In the film, there’s this serious little kid. He’s sitting on a therapist’s couch, with his mother sitting next to him. She is a classic, pre-war, Brooklyn Jewish mother, with her handbag on her knees. And the mother tells the therapist, sitting across from her and her son – “My son’s been depressed. All of a sudden he can’t do anything! – It’s something he read.”
“Why are you depressed, son?” asks the therapist. And the little boy just sits there. Finally the boy says, “The universe is expanding.”
“Why does that upset you?” the therapist asks.
“Well,” the little boy says, “the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, some day it will break apart, and that will be the end of everything.”
“What is that your business?!” his mother cries. “You’re in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is not expanding!”
The little boy raises his hands: “Then what’s the point of homework?”
This is one of life’s essential questions. When everything is finite, when everything changes, what does it all mean? What does our work and our experience mean?
We read every year the story of Moses’ life, and the Torah always ends, every year, with his death. Right now we are in the heart of his story. He has been on such a long journey. He grew up thinking he was Egyptian and only acknowledged his kinship to the enslaved Jewish people around him through a bloody act of violence – when Moses encountered a mysterious God in the midst of a burning bush. And then he was compelled to come back to Egypt to pit himself against Pharaoh in an epic struggle to free his new-found people from bondage. Moses parted the Red Sea, he’s led the people through the desert to this mountain, and now he has just received the Ten Commandments, the Torah, for us, the Jewish people. But we know that not long from now, his story comes to an end too. Before he gets to enter the Promised Land.
As the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King famously said: “I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
Yes. So of course, we do the work of goodness and change for others who will come after us. In other words, as we are often told that our Mishnah enjoins us: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
Nice words. But I think we repeat them because they’re harder to do in practice than to preach.
Perhaps the goal is — as a character in a drama I watched recently put it — to “love every minute of it, your life, even the terrible bits.”
STORY from Adult Ed? Elisha ben Abuyah — trauma also makes this hard …
My friend’s ailing grandmother passed away not long ago. She had knitted a jumper for her grandson. It was special – it had taken her ages to do, and there is no other like it in the world. When she was done, her other children asked her to knit jumpers for their children – but they don’t have children yet. They want them for their future children. So my friend’s grandmother embarked on making more jumpers – for grandchildren she will now never meet. That’s looking into the Promised Land but not entering it.
Perhaps this is what it means to be covenantal, to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai as we do today, in this week’s parsha, like Moses or like us now: To live as part of the Jewish people in a covenant with God, however one understands that, is to live the covenant but not complete it.
“The universe is expanding,” that little boy laments. ‘Our death is imminent.’
“What is that your business?!” cries his mother.
It’s true. What is that your business. You’ve got to do it anyway – cross the Red Sea, go up to Mount Sinai. Or in more mundane terms, constantly recommit to living well and doing well — and to knitting the proverbial jumper for grandchildren and great-granchildren we may never know.