This week's portion: asymptote
October 10, 2008
Climb the mountain, God said. Look out
over the hills and the desert:
here dark spikes of cypress and cedar,
there scrub and sand pinked by sunset.
This is as close as you get.
Your years of service are over.
Honestly, the striving was the good part:
yearning like a thirsty man for water
meeting setback sometimes with fury
and sometimes with grace
dreaming of vineyards and groves
each house with an oven of its own...
Does it hurt, being so near and so far?
Trust Me: I know what I'm doing.
If you could live to see what's coming
it would break your heart.
This week's portion, Ha-azinu, mostly consists of poetry. (The JPS rendering, which is what you'll find if you click on that link, makes clear that most of the text is verse. It's quite lovely.) I thought about responding to the poem in verse of my own. But as I reread the parsha, it became clear to me that the hook which was calling out for adornment was the prose at the end of the portion, in which God tells Moshe to ascend Mount Nebo in order to see the land to which God has been leading them -- and that Moshe can look, but not touch: this is as far as he's allowed to go.
What a poignant moment! Though rereading it this year, I was struck by how sometimes yearning has its own sweetness, different from the sweetness of culmination. As a psychological and emotional truth, that idea resonates for me. And when I think of what comes next in the story of Tanakh -- from the conquest as chronicled in Joshua, through the complicated history of the land in our day -- I can see how it might have been a blessing for Moshe to die when he did. He got the pleasure of yearning toward the goal, without the challenging reality of reaching the goal and realizing how much work is still to be done.