Ha'azinu: Our life -- what legacy?

Where I grew up and still spend much of my time -- Orange County, California -- special effort is needed to come face-to-face with any "very" old tangible object, such as a building more than a century old, or a museum artifact from the early Spanish or "Native American" communities. 

How different elsewhere!  Over the past two months that I’ve spent in Israel, the UK, and Western Europe, I’ve likely seen conspicuous, physical examples of human civilization at least 500 years old (often, several thousand years old) every day.  Among many other impressions, this routine encounter with the past has, perhaps ironically, impressed me with how fleeting most of our lives are in the “sweep of history.”   Only a relatively few very powerful, wealthy, privileged and/or talented individuals who lived or governed in the places I’ve visited have managed to leave some mark for me to see.  Yom Kippur’s Y’zkor memorial service, which expressly addressed the fleeting nature of life, reinforced this impression for me.  

Which brings me to relate the following occurrence that happened shortly before the Y’zkor service aboard the ship on which Barbara and I are traveling.  Midway into Kol Nidre, a man with a small briefcase walked in and sat down near the back of the small room.  I paused and asked whether he would like to join our barely-minyan sized temporary “congregation.”   He explained that he was a Christian seminary student who wanted to learn more about Jewish scripture.  I welcomed him and offered to discuss Judaism with him after the service. 

Later, he handed me a sheet of paper with triple-spaced Hebrew and English that contained what he had been told was the essence of Jewish scripture.  He asked me what it meant to Judaism.   Here are the familiar words which were written on it:

Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord; And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words, which I command you this day, shall be in your heart; And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up. And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the posts of your house, and on your gates.

Most of us would probably agree that he was taught correctly, i.e., that these verses, Deuteronomy 6:4-9, are at the heart of Judaism as a religion. (Although there has been a robust discussion among our sages over the ages as to which of many other Torah verses may be as or more important).  But few of us are familiar with the directly parallel verses that appear in this week’s Torah portion, Haazinu, the penultimate parashah in Torah.  Moses, aware that he is about to die, again urges the Israelites to:

Set your hearts to all the words which I testify among you this day, which you shall command your children to take care to do, all the words of this Torah.  For it is not a vain thing for you; because it is your life; and through this thing you shall prolong your days in the land, where you go over the Jordan to possess it.  (Deut. 32:46-47).

As I’ve continuously encountered “history” during this trip, I’ve often pondered what has allowed Judaism to survive when so many of the civilizations that existed over the past millennia in the places I've visited have left little or no remnant for me to see.  Whatever it is, we must do our utmost to support it!  

Although Yom Kippur and Y’zkor have now concluded, with their intense focus on us and our loved ones as individuals, it also behooves each of us to consider the "historical" legacy we will leave for future generations of Jews (if any!).  Each of us should ask: “What does my life mean for Judaism’s survival?  When my life is over, how will I have helped the Jewish people and Jewish values to survive and thrive?   

Each of us has the means to contribute to history – to leave a meaningful legacy -- by teaching Judaism’s enduring values.   Each of us can learn more about Judaism and share what we learn with someone, whether they be our children, grandchildren, friends, and/or neighbors.   As expressed in the Sh’ma/V’haftah and in this week’s parashah, as well as many other Jewish sources, it is our utmost responsibility as Jews to contribute to the Jewish legacy. 

As we begin to emerge from the High Holy Days with gratitude for continued opportunities to fulfill the purpose of our lives, let us resolve to make our brief existence more than a fleeting, insignificant moment in human history.  I appeal to and challenge each of us to commit/recommit ourselves to the great privilege and solemn obligation of strengthening Judaism for current and future generations.

Shabbat shalom from Italy.  


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