Devarim 5781 – Moses’s Very Meaningful ‘Retirement’

By: Dr. Joel Roffman

As many of you know by now, I will be retiring from my medical practice very soon. And no matter how much I try to line up other activities and remain productive in one way or another – docent at the Holocaust and Human Rights Museum, teacher of ESL, etc, etc, the fact remains that an entire, and what has been very productive, part of my life is essentially over. Now don’t get me wrong – the decision to leave practice was, I believe, well founded. And I believe that by leaving now, while I still have at least some mental acuity left (don’t snicker!!) I have the opportunity to engage in other things that will be of help to others.

But still, I’ve turned 70 years old, have medical issues and find myself with more and more cognitive dissonance as people my age come to my office for care. I look at them and think, “Why, that’s how old I am! I don’t feel that old! Medicare, AARP mailings . . .good grief – how did this happen? What day did I miss? And of course, the advertisements – a constant reminder that what used to come naturally now requires medicinal intervention. Instead of telling me how young I look, as used to happen, patients now tell me how good I look for my age!

But in Pirkei Avot. Our Talmudic wisdom teaches that at seventy, one is considered a sage. And that eighty is the age of heroic strength. Maybe there’s hope yet! Each stage of life brings new power and strengths. We gain opportunities for involvement and of input borne of our experiences. We’re taught that each age brings new qualities. First literacy, then achievement, then understanding and wisdom. Victor Frankl, in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, says that he looks at young people who have potential, but that he, HE, has achievements!

In this week’s parashah, Moses begins his valedictory to the Israelites. The man who begged off confronting Pharaoh because, as he said, he was not a man of words, now stands before his people forty years later. And with lots to say! He has indeed acquired words – a moral message. A LIFE message. Moses’s life needed no validation, but he is about to achieve one. One that grew more substantial with the passing of years. Moses will morph from a man of power, who commanded the Israelites in their daily dealings and issues, to Moshe Rabbeinu – our teacher.

Here was Moses. Disappointed that he would not be allowed to enter the Promised Land, who has watched his siblings die before him. They were his partners in many ways – his sources of inspiration. His life seems to be approaching a sad end. So what does he do? Plead with Gd for the opportunity to enter the Promised Land with his people? Live a life of nostalgia, remembering the good times – the crossing of the sea, the building of the tabernacle? Meeting the Master of the Universe on the mountain?

No. Rather, what he is about to do in Deuteronomy was change the entire emphasis of Jewish history. In Deuteronomy, he will set forth for the Israelites a vision of what it is to be a holy people. He will set forth a vision of what a society should look like – one based on individual dignity and of compassion for the downtrodden.

But more than what he said was what he did. Forget the miracles that he worked; forget the threats to Pharaoh. He became a teacher. He teaches that the laws are as they are precisely because we were slaves in the Land of Egypt. He teaches that the Israelites must remember what it was like to be mistreated, so that they will not mistreat. Slavery, he implies, was relatively easy. Freedom will be hard. Moses doesn’t recount what Gd commands them, but rather that what they should do will ultimately be for their own and for society’s good.

The laws that the Israelites are to follow do not come from a powerful ruler who will punish them for misbehavior. They’re not from kings. They come from the Almighty – a still, small voice that is calling them to become a holy people because Gd is holy. Moses understood that he would not be with his people for long, but that his teachings would, hopefully, endure. Military successes can be brief. The mightiest can soon become the second mightiest and be defeated. But spiritual might can last indefinitely.

And more. Moses tells the people that they must themselves become teachers. Several times in Deuteronomy, we will read that Moses begins a lesson with words such as, “When your child asks you,” or, “Teach these words to your children.”

I read that the word Lamud, meaning to learn, or some form of it, appears 17 times in Deuteronomy, but nowhere else in the Torah. We Jews don’t have pyramids or citadels. Jews venerate schooling and teachers. We have thus been called, justifiably, the People of the Book.

Today’s parashah is rather prosaic and by itself rather dull and uninspiring, but it’s the beginning of how Moses became a leader not just for his time, but for all time.

As most of you know from the various devarim I have given over the years, I look to our teachings for inspiration – not for history lessons. We just finished reading the Book of Esther with our own Simcha Shimon Rabeinu, our collective teacher, Fred Nathan. What was most inspirational to me? It was when Haman issued his decree that the Jews be put to death, and Mordechai tells Esther, (I’m paraphrasing) “Perhaps this exact circumstance is why you were placed in the position you now find yourself – as queen. So that you can do something heroic.” I often look at my own circumstances in just that way – maybe this very moment is my chance to make a difference.

(late addition to the D’var)
Just yesterday, I gave a tour to almost 20 teenagers in a program sponsored by the state for “at risk teens.” After bringing them through the gallery, I told them that what they had seen was the grotesque extension of prejudice, hatred and discrimination. In their own lives, they should be upstanders rather than bystanders in the prevention of just the type of hatred they had seen. They really seemed to “get it.” I thought that those teens were the exact reason and purpose for me being in the museum yesterday.

In a similar way, I look at accomplishments of older people and find inspiration. Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Guggenheim Museum at 92; Benjamin Franklin invented the bifocal lens at age 78. And here, today, we read that in his retirement, Moses gave lessons that would inspire Jews for many centuries.

So retirement? Why, I’m just getting started!

Shabbat Shalom