There is a strange overlap that occurs during the days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. While we celebrated the beginning of the New Year this past week, we simultaneously prepare to spend a day contemplating endings on Yom Kippur. At the same time, we wind our way to the end of our Torah; approaching the conclusion of the Israelite’s story and Moses’ life. This week’s parsha, Va’yeilech, begins with Moses’ acknowledging this process. He has spent the preceding 30 chapters reminding the Israelites of their journey and their covenant. As we read these chapters, we can’t help but feel and hear Moses’ reluctance to conclude the re-telling, for he knows that when he is done, he must say farewell and face his own mortality.
Nowhere is this more clear than in our parsha. “When Moses had put down in writing the words of this Teaching (lit. “This Torah”) to the very end…” We know how this Torah ends – it ends with Moses’ own death and the community’s mourning of him. This, then, is Moses’ final challenge: to write the description of his own death. The Eitz Chayim Torah commentary goes further in asserting that this is anyone’s final challenge; to come to terms with one’s own mortality. This is exactly the work of Yom Kippur, if we are open to it, if we can hear it, if we can stand it. We refrain from life-affirming activities for one day to not only atone for mistakes made during the past year, but to confront the terrifying reality that, inevitably, we will not all be standing together at this time next year.
Heavy, to be sure. And yet the day ends with a life-affirming note in the Neilah service – for those who are able to make it through to the very end (which I HIGHLY recommend!) And not only that, but mere days later, on the full moon, we welcome in THE life-affirming holiday of Sukkot – where we ground ourselves in the bounty of the earth, and more joyfully acknowledge the vulnerable nature of our humanity by dwelling in temporary structures – open to the elements. Our Torah beautifully aligns with the themes of our holy days, and the cycles of our seasons. The task is our’s to notice and to move through the uncomfortable realities, for which we are rewarded with an invitation to come back to life and shake off the heaviness with the joy of celebrating the newness of the year.
– Rabbi Callie Schulman