Parashat Hashavua for Pinchas
Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio
Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra, NSW
A number of years ago I was posed a question: “If you could know the day of your death, would you want to know?” I grappled with this question and ultimately decided that I would not want to know the answer. This week in our parasha, in one of the most poignant moments in the Torah, Moses is told by God that he will soon be gathered to his ancestors, he will leave this earth as his siblings before him. God guides Moses to the top of another mountain, this time for him to see the land for which he has hoped, longed and dreamed for 40 years of desert wanderings: 40 years as he has led his people, stood between them and God, guided and loved them. I imagine as he surveyed the land that he was also looking back upon his life, reflecting upon the journey, its twists and turns, it challenges and triumphs. He sees the future but knows it is one of which he will no longer be a part. He sees his dreams unrealised, his hopes unfulfilled and perhaps, for the first time, is confronted with his mortality, the finite nature of life.
Many of us will have moments where we have brushes with our mortality, we will not know, as Moses, the exact hour of our death, but we will have times when we face the tenuous hold we have on our lives. And our reactions will all be different. Moses’ concern in those moments is for his people. He says to God, before he ascends the mountain, “appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that the Eternal’s community will not be like sheep that have no shepherd.” (Numbers 27:16-18) Moses, in a reversal of roles, asks something of God before he dies, he asks that God appoint a successor. Moses, acutely aware that he will not be leading the people, pleads for God to find an appropriate replacement, and he even directs God about the qualities that new leader should possess. In those moments, confronted with his death, Moses’ concern is for the well being of the people, and finding the right person to complete the task he had begun. God answers and sets Moses’ mind at ease. God explains that Joshua is an “inspired man” a man with the correct spirit and heart, and he shall be the new leader. Moses is instructed to place some of his authority and wisdom upon Joshua before the people so they can know that he has Moses’ blessing as well as God’s.
Some commentators have suggested that this moment is one of great disappointment for Moses, as unlike his brother, Moses’ own sons are not nominated as his successor. They suggest that this passage comes after the story of the daughters of Zelophad make their claim for land because Moses hoped that his children too would have an inheritance of leadership. But I don’t read it that way. Moses is not seeking hereditary succession, rather he wants to be sure that the future is secure, that the people for whom he cared and nurtured are going to be in safe, guiding hands. He is aware that his own children do not necessarily have the qualities that are needed as, I believe, he also recognises he does not either, for the next part of the Israelites’ journey. And so once Joshua is appointed, the future is secure, Moses can take his final steps, ascend the mountain and be gathered to his kin.
Even though few of us will have the opportunities Moses does to secure the future and to contemplate our lives before our demise, each of us has moments when we recognise our mortality and the finite nature of life. I was listening to Leigh Sales speaking about her book “One Ordinary Day” about people who have struggled with unimaginable tragedy and loss, turning what began as an ordinary day into the beginning of a reality and life forever changed by events which were to happen. When asked what she had learned from her own brush with her mortality and from the stories of all the people with whom she spoke, she said: “I have realised that there is no such thing as an “ordinary day,” and ordinary day is a great day, in hindsight it can look magical, so I have learned to try and appreciate each one,” to treasure small moments and remember how precious each and every day can be.
When we climb that mountain and have a moment contemplating our lives I hope that we will all be able to recognise and appreciate the extraordinary within the ordinary and be grateful for the small and beautiful moments.