Judaism: Devarim: Your Dying Words
Rabbi Lazer GurkowRabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.
What would you say If you were told you had five months left, whom would you spend it with and what would you tell them?
Thank G-d, this question is theoretical for most of us, but not for all. Unfortunately, there are those, who visit their doctor and receive the crushing news that the many years they had always envisioned has been whittled down to five months. How can you possibly load an anticipated five decades into five short months? Which part of the next five decades should you incorporate into your five months?
Moses was treated to that precise quandary when G-d told him on this first day of the month of Shevat that five weeks henceforth, on the seventh of the following month, he would live his last. Let us look at what Moses did and tear a page from his book.
Moses reprimanded the people for their sins. Our sages point out that Moses was wise to wait till the end with his reprimand because a dying person is given more leeway. If a healthy person reprimands it provokes defensiveness and resentment. When a dying person speaks we listen and look within. So it was wise of Moses to wait till the end, but was it wise of Moses to use his last moment for rebuke?
Moses then taught and translated the Torah into the many languages of his day.
The two projects, reprimanding the nation and translating the Torah, don’t appear to be linked. But if the Torah, a book of instruction, informs us that Moses spent his last moments on these two projects, there must be a link between them that serves as an existential lesson to us here today. What is this lesson and how might it teach us the proper way to spend our last moments?
Good and Bad
If any one sentence can sum up the entire endeavor of moral pursuit and purposeful living it is this, avoid sin and be righteous. To live morally we must do both; either on its own does not constitute a moral lifestyle. You can’t be both good and wicked and still be a moral person. You have to embrace one and eschew the other. Avoid transgressions and fulfill the commandments.
When our time on earth winds down, our focus naturally turns to the next generation, the children, who depend on our wisdom and life experience. For years, if not decades, we teach our children to love their heritage, embrace their tradition and believe in G-d, but nothing speaks more powerfully to our children than the final will and testament that we bestow when life wanes.
My great aunt was raised in the Soviet Union, where her father, a follower of the former Lubavitcher Rebbe, risked his life to build and maintain an underground network of Jewish schools for children, a crime punishable by exile and even death under Soviet law. It did not take long for the NKVD to learn of his counter revolutionary activities and one night the infamous knock on the door was heard. The agents burst in with customary roughness and searched the home for evidence. Knowing that he would soon be led away, never to see his children again, her father searched for the right words.
He gathered them close and whispered to them urgently while the agents ransacked his home. What can a father possibly say in such a short time? The heart is full, there is so much to say and so little time to say it. Which words to choose, what is most important, what will be most impactful?
G-d led him to the right words because his message impressed my aunt deeply and she never forgot it. “For that, which they are taking me away,” he told them,” devote your lives.” Succinct and profound.
It worked. Neither she nor her sisters rejected G-d for the loss of their father. They were passionate about their Judaism. My aunt’s faith and energy were boundless. She never saw her father again and suffered terribly, but somehow she survived the war and famine and came to these shores intact. She built a family and lived a long life surrounded by children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
How do you pack an entire lifetime of teaching into one sentence? For that which they are taking me away, devote your lives. Don’t resent G-d for taking away your father. Recognize that your father had the privilege of sacrificing his life for the highest purpose, ensuring Jewish continuity in the next generation. What powerful merit we accrue by making such sacrifice. Don’t resent it, embrace it.
They never forgot it because they knew it was his last testament. If it was his last statement, his highest priority and they treated it as such. Moses used his last moments the same way. He outlined his most important values and taught them to trust G-d at every turn. Don’t falter like you have in the past. When you encounter difficult trials, place your trust in G-d. He will come through for you.
But he didn’t stop there. He used his time to teach and translate the Torah. If we want our children to embrace our values, we must do more than instruct them, we must talk to them on their level. Moses translated the Torah so that it would speak to every Jew in his or her language. We must do the same. We must speak to our children in their language and relate the Torah’s teachings on their level. We must translate the Torah into a language they can understand and apply it in ways they can appreciate.
Exhorting them not reject evil is important, but we can’t expect it to work unless we also teach them how to love goodness. To teach that we need to understand their language, their interests and their needs and then speak to them from their perspective. That is how Moses chose to spend his last moments and that is how we ought to spend ours.
Sadly we treat life the way politicians treat their time in office. Rather than using every minute to accomplish good things, they spend their entire term focusing on reelection. Worthwhile projects are often jettisoned if they don’t play well in the polls.
In life we often focus too much on ensuring our future and not enough on our present. If teaching our children is important enough to warrant attention in our last moments, it is important enough to warrant our focus in the present. Let us not wait until the day we die, because by then it might be too late. Who knows if we will receive enough notice to prepare our children the way we might want? Who knows if we will have the wherewithal to speak and communicate when we breathe our last?
It is best to live each day as if it is our last. We must work to provide for the future, but it is critical to live in the present. Our children need to know that they are our highest priority and we must use each moment to cement this relationship of love. If you have something to teach them, teach them now. Tomorrow might be too late.