Moses' Farewell To Israel: Part I
Moses’s Psalm: A Paradigm Of God Answering Prayer
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
How did Moses feel when approaching the land of Israel, knowing he wouldn’t be entering the land with his people? This video is the first in a series of three, concluding the yearly Torah cycle, where we will attempt to get inside the head of Moses at the end of his journey as the leader of the Israelites.
This is Rabbi David Fohrman, and you are watching Aleph Beta, welcome to Parshat Vayeilech
So in these next three weeks I'm going to be looking with you at Moshe's farewell speech here in the Torah. But I want to look at it with you through an interesting kind of lens. That lens is going to be the Book of Psalms. In that regard, I actually have a theory that I want to share with you about the nature of the Book of Psalms. I want to suggest that hidden in the Book of Psalms is a kind of commentary on elements of the Five Books of Moses. There are certain crucial, climactic narratives in the Five Books of Moses that seem to get retold in the Book of Psalms, but retold from a slightly different perspective than how they're originally presented in the Torah. You see, the Torah tells you what happened, the Book of Psalms tells you what is was like to experience what happened.
For example, Moses is told that he has to ascend Har Nevo, that the people will go into the land but not him. That's what happened. But what was it like to experience that? What was it like to be Moses, heralded as the servant of G-d? And what was it like to be denied the only thing that you want at the end of your life? What was it like to walk up that mountain knowing that you weren't going to go to the land? What does your relationship with G-d look like in that moment? Those kinds of questions get answered in the Book of Psalms.
What I want to do over the next three weeks is look at a particular Psalm with you, Psalm number 90. I believe that if we look carefully at it, we'll find that it's giving us this kind of commentary on the farewell speech of Moses at the end of the Torah, and remarkably we'll find that it's also giving us a commentary on an earlier episode in the Five Books of Moses as well. And you know, at first glance the two episodes they seem to be disconnected, entirely separate things, but in the view of the psalmist they aren't actually disconnected. The psalmist weaves them together and suggests that they're all really one large story and what's more, the psalmist gives you that first person, inner, spiritual view of that large story.
Let me begin to show you what I mean. Let's jump right in and just read the first line or two of Psalm 90 and I think you'll start to hear the echoes of previous stories in the Torah. Tefillah l'Moshe ish ha'Elokim - a prayer of Moses a man of G-d, or the man of G-d. Hashem ma'on atah hayita lanu b'dor va'dor - G-d, You are our environment, our habitation, where we live, we live inside of You, so to speak. B'terem harim yuladu - before mountains were even born; Va'techollel eretz v'teivel - when the foundations of mountains, the earth itself was being formed. U'mei'olam ad olam atah Kel - from before all time You were G-d.
So let's just meditate right there on that kind of opening salvo and I think it brings you almost to the very beginning of the Torah and to the very end of the Torah. This notion of G-d being there before there was anything in space and time, well that's kind of resonant of creation itself, but then the rest of it brings you straight to the end of the Torah. For example, Psalm 90 talks about Moses; Ish Ha'Elokim - the man of G-d. Well there was only one time and one time only in the entire Five Books of Moses that Moses is called that, Ish Ha'Elokim, it's at the very end of the Torah when it says; V'zot ha'beracha asher beirach Moshe ish ha'Elokim - this is the blessing that Moses; Ish Ha'Elokim - the man of G-d, blessed the people of Israel before his death.
And, by the way, it's not just that. Go back to Psalm number 90, the first image of anything kind of physical in the scenery that we get is that of mountains; Before mountains were born. Back in V'Zot HaBerachah when Moses blesses the people that's also the first image we get; Vayomar Hashem mi'Sinai ba - G-d, You came from Mount Sinai, Your presence shown forth from Mount Se'ir; Hofi'ah mei'Har Paran - You appeared from the Mountain of Paran. There's all these mountains here, just like in Psalm 90.
And it's more than that too. For example, it talks about G-d being our environment in Psalm 90; Ma'on. That language Ma'on comes actually from V'Zot HaBerachah; Me'onah Elokei kedem - G-d has been our environment from infinite times. Think about that notion of infinite times, that's also getting echoed in Psalm 90 when we talk about G-d being there; B'dor va'dor - from generation to generation; U'mei'olam ad olam - from eternity He's been there.
So all of these ideas in Psalm 90 are really based on the beginning of the Torah, the Bereishit - creation story, on the one hand, but also very much on the end of the Torah, this V'Zot HaBerachah image of Moses blessing the people.
But now what I want to show you is that's not the whole story. Not only does Psalm 90 refer to the beginning of the Torah and the end of the Torah, it seems to refer to the middle of the Torah, to a key episode that took place right after the people left Egypt. Here's the evidence for that. You see Psalm 90 speaks of itself as a prayer of Moses. If you think about the end of the Torah it was a blessing that Moses gave, it wasn't really a prayer. When, back in the Five Books of Moses, was there a prayer that Moses prayed?
And, by the way, if you look at Psalm 90 it's a very painful and difficult and kind of scary prayer. Here, try this one on for size, verse 7. Ki kalinu b'apecha u'ba'chamatecha nivhalnu - we, human beings were consumed by Your anger, were terrified by Your wrath. I mean those are really pretty heavy things to say about G-d. Shatah avonoteinu l'negdecha - You set our iniquity, our evil, before You so that You can like look at it all the time. That doesn't seem to be a very nice thing to say about G-d either. So the themes of Psalm 90 are really kind of scary themes. Here's the question, do they hark back to a prayer that we hear about in the Torah? A prayer actually of Moses? When did Moses pray? When did he confront these kinds of scary things, the kind of overwhelming anger of G-d?
Well, you know, if you put all the dots together here, it sort of sounds like we're talking about the Golden Calf. I mean that's when G-d was really, really angry and Moses prayed on behalf of the people to try to save them. The theory I'm going to suggest to you here is that Psalm 90 is telling a story, a story that begins with Moses' prayer at the Golden Calf and ends with Moses' blessing in V'Zot HaBerachah. It's kind of connecting those two episodes.
Let's go to the Golden Calf episode. The proof that Psalm 90 harks back to that episode comes from similarities in language between Psalm 90 and the Golden Calf prayer. Because if you actually go back to the Golden Calf and you ask yourself what was the crux of Moses' prayer? It was when Moses asked G-d to change His mind and not do away with the people. Well listen to the Hebrew there. You're going to hear two crucial verbs. Shuv mei'charon apecha - the first verb was Shuv - return G-d from Your anger. The second verb; Ve'hinachem al hara'ah l'amecha - and change Your mind about the evil that You've decreed against this people. Look at Psalm 90, it's the exact same combination of verbs. Shuvah Hashem ad matai - return G-d, how long; Ve'hinachem al avadecha - and change Your mind about that which You've said concerning Your servants. Sounds pretty similar, wouldn't you say? It really seems like we are getting in Psalm 90 an explanation, a vibrant exploration, the back-story of Moses' prayer at the Golden Calf.
Okay so just to summarize, it seems like Psalm 90 is taking us back somehow to two different places; to V'Zot HaBerachah, the end of the Torah, on one hand, and to the episode of the Golden Calf on the other hand. What I want to show you now though is that Psalm 90 is kind of beginning to stitch together a story, it's really connecting these two episodes. Let's go back to the moments right before Moses prays on behalf of the people in the Golden Calf, what had happened? They were worshipping the Golden Calf, Moses was up at the top of the mountain and G-d says to him, go down, everything has changed. Leich reid - G-d says, go down; Ki shicheit amcha - because your people, they've corrupted themselves. Now in short order G-d is going to propose destroying the entire people and starting over with Moses, and bringing only Moses and his immediate family into the land, and when we think about Moses, we think about what he accomplished with his prayer is the salvation of all the people, that G-d didn't destroy all of them. But the truth is he actually accomplished something else too.
You see, there's almost a little game going on here in the interaction between G-d and Moses on the top of Mount Sinai. Whose people is it? If you listened to G-d; Leich reid ki shicheit amcha - not My people Moses, it's your people, go down, your people have corrupted themselves. One thing that Moses will try to do over and over in his prayer is convince G-d that that's not true. As displeased as G-d is, as angry as He is, at the end it's not really just Moses' people. Shuv mei'charon apecha, he will finally say; Ve'hinachem al hara'ah l'amecha - return from Your wrath, You can't do this to Your people G-d. It's not just my people, it's Your people too.
Okay, so I've shown you this issue of kind of whose people is it, G-d's people or Moses' people? But it's not just whose people is it, it's also whose G-d it is. Let's go back and look at the prayer a little bit more closely. Just before Moses prayed G-d makes Moses an offer. He says, I'll do away with all of them, I'll destroy them in an instant, and I'll start over with you. At that moment Moses prayed and when he did this is how the prayer begins; Vayechal Moshe et penei Hashem Elokav - Moses entreated the Almighty, His G-d. Why does it say His G-d, as if it was his own, personal G-d, just him, just him and G-d? By the way, this is the only time in the Five Books of Moses that this phrase Elokav - his G-d, is ever used with reference to Moses. Never again says this, that G-d is his own G-d. Why say it now?
Well, we might say that the reason for that is because that actually was the truth of the situation at that moment. When G-d had disassociated Himself from the people, said, I've nothing to do with them anymore, the only one left at that moment in time who really had a connection to G-d, who could say, this is my G-d, is Moses.
Now, now, we're beginning to see some of the strands that connect the story of the Golden Calf to the very end of the Torah; Moses' blessing in V'Zot HaBerachah. Because skip now to the very end of the Torah, there Moses is known as Ish Ha'Elokim - the man of G-d, singular man, as if it was only one. Well ask yourself this, where did he get that name from? When did he become the man of G-d? I want to argue to you it was back in the story of the Golden Calf. At the Golden Calf this man of G-d succeeded in bringing others into the relationship beside him, that was his great, monumental achievement. These are all of Your people, G-d, not just me, bring them all into the land, bring them all back into a relationship with You. Moses didn't just save these people physically, he restored the relationship between the people and G-d when that relationship was all but severed. The monumental triumph of his prayer was that G-d reclaimed His people. For a moment there it was; Pnei Hashem Elokav - it was only Moses and G-d, Moses was the one, lone, Ish Ha'Elokim. But Moses brought them back, all, into that relationship.
So let's just stand back and see what's happening here. The moment of the Golden Calf that really was the first moment when Moses was all alone; the one, lonely person with a relationship with G-d, and Moses said, I don't want it to be that way, I want all of these hundreds of thousands of people to be yours. That's the first part of the story that Psalm 90 tells us. But there's another part of that story, the next part of the story is in V'Zot HaBerachah, where once again we meet Moses and suddenly he is one more time the Ish Ha'Elokim. It's as if one more time he's all alone in this solitary relationship with G-d. In a profound way he really is all alone; Moses readies himself to bless the people just before his death; Mount Nevo is to his back, the hundreds of thousands of the people of Israel are before him.
At one level it's his greatest triumph, it's the moment that he knows that his prayer all the way back to the Golden Calf was actually successful. He prayed that they should all go into the land like stars of the heaven, well when does he know that that's going to happen? It's now, he's going to bless the people and then they're all going to go into the land. But yet there is a poignancy and a sadness here because one more time Moses is all alone as a man of G-d, because one man isn't going into the land, it's Moses, all alone. Aleih el Har ha'Avarim - G-d says, go up to this mountain of crossing. What a strange name for the mountain, Moses isn't crossing, all the people they're crossing into the land, but not Moses, but in some kind of way he is making the crossing isn't he? Everyone is crossing; the people, they're crossing into the land, Moses is also crossing, he's crossing into heaven. The people are crossing into the embrace of the land, Moses is crossing into the embrace of G-d. One more time Moses is a man of G-d, it's as if G-d is saying to Moses no, no, you alone, you're coming with Me.
This is the story of which Psalm 90 tells. Yes, the Torah in the Five Books of Moses it tells that story, but it tells you the facts. When you look at the Book of Psalms at Psalm 90 it's telling you the inner, spiritual narrative, that's what we're going to find when we read this Psalm. You want to know what it was like to be Moses as he alone confronted G-d at the top of Mount Sinai while the people were down below dancing around the calf? You want to understand the inner, spiritual world of that moment? Then look at Psalm 90 carefully, which is exactly what we're going to do together next week. I'll see you then.