This is a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 6/1/19 –
A few moments ago before we put the Humashim away I asked you to look with me at the last verse – and specifically the last word – of the the book of Leviticus, as well as the single line underneath the verse, that summarized the number of verses in the entire book. I would not expect anyone to remember the total number of verses – does anyone happen to? 859. But maybe a few of you remember the last word in Leviticus, which is? סיני, Sinai in the English, as in Mt. Sinai.
It has long been noted by biblical scholars that the last words of each of the books of the Torah have been carefully and intentionally chosen. Taken together they offer a five word summary of the Torah’s main narrative. Here is how that works – the last word of Genesis? מצריים – Egypt. Of Exodus? מסעיהם meaning ‘their journeys.’ Of Leviticus, as we just established, Sinai. What about Numbers? The last word of Numbers is יריחו – Jericho. And the last word of Deuteronomy, the very last word of the Torah? ישראל – in English? Israel.
Now think of the five words in order – Egypt – they went down to Egypt. They left Egypt, and began their journeys. They reached Sinai. They prepared to cross into the land at Jericho. And then, they became Israel. So the authors and editors of the Torah text are very careful to make sure that they end each book in exactly the right way, choosing a specific word that is thematic and summarizes something about the book that it concludes, and also the general thrust of the Torah’s story. You find a similar idea in the structure of the entire Hebrew Bible, again, the very last word of the Bible carefully and intentionally chosen – anyone happen to know what it is? ויעל – and he went up, as in going up to the land – making aliyah.
Any writer worth his or her salt will tell you how important endings are. Whether writing a long novel or a short essay, that last sentence and those last few words – and possibly even the very last word – can be agonizing to find and put together. You probably won’t remember a sentence that is somewhere in the middle of a book or essay, even if it is beautifully written. But a powerful last sentence can stay in your mind. I’ll give you a couple of last sentences from novels and lets see if you can tell me what book they come from:
“After all, tomorrow is another day.” – Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” – The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald
“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done. It is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens
“The scar had not pained Harry for 19 years. All was well.” Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, JK Rowling
Along these same lines I’ve been thinking recently that we’ve all become a little bit ‘ending obsessed.’ That mostly expresses itself in our approach to the endings of TV shows. When a beloved show is coming to an end there are weeks and sometimes even months of speculation about what will happen, how the loose ends will be tied up, and whether the ending will be satisfactory to the loyal fan base. And then once the last show is finally broadcast the debate begins! Was it well done, or not so much? Was it what was expected? Did they answer all the questions that needed to be answered? We’ve seen this happen over the last years with Mad Men, with the Sopranos, with Lost, going back a bit further with Seinfeld. And of course we’ve just been through this a couple of weeks ago with the final episode of the HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones. Anyone follow the series to its bitter end? Even if you didn’t watch it, it was hard to avoid it because of how intensively it was covered in the media. Almost 20 million people tuned in to watch that last episode, which was an all time record for an HBO broadcast.
But that number pales in comparison with the most watched final television episode of all time – which was? MASH, in 1983. (Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen) 106 million people tuned in to watch that last episode, and Hawkeye Pierce’s final farewell hug with his buddy BJ Hunicutt. At the time there were only 233 million people in the entire country – so a full %45 of Americans watched that last episode. Not taped and watched later, not streamed, not DVRd, but watched – at the same time.
You know maybe it is just a human thing. From biblical times down to this very day we love a good ending. The last episode of the beloved show, the last movie in the series – see Avengers Endgame! – the last words of the great novel. Or the last verses of a book of Torah when we stand and listen for the Chazak like we did this morning. We like a narrative to come to a conclusion. We like a quest to be fulfilled. We like the characters to finish whatever their task is, and then to ride off into the sunset. It was true in biblical times, and it is still true today.
BUT – biblically there is one significant exception to that rule. Which is that the Torah itself is a book without an ending. It is an incomplete narrative, an unfulfilled quest. Because what are the Israelites and Moses searching for in the Torah? What are they looking for? What is the quest that is at the core of the Torah’s narrative? The land of Israel! The Promised Land! That has been the whole point from the very beginning. Forget about Exodus, even going back to Genesis, Abraham is promised by God that one day his descendents would inherit the land – לזרעיך נתתי את הארץ הזאת – to your descendents I give this land! God says to Abraham in Genesis 15.
But when the Torah ends, and the last verses of Deuteronomy have been chanted, the Israelites are still not there. They are outside the land, on the western bank of the Jordan river, looking over the river at the city of Jericho, and beyond Jericho to the hills that lead up to Jerusalem. They can see the Promised Land, but they aren’t yet in it. And that is where the Torah ends.
That simple fact has often been used to illustrate the point that is summarized with the following phrase – life should be about the journey, not the destination. And there is some truth to that. But I think also that the Torah’s ending – or probably better to say lack of an ending – is the tradition’s way of acknowledging that although novels may end with a beautifully crafted sentence and exactly the right words, the events of our lives rarely do. You remember the old Yiddish saying – Man plans, and God – laughs. Our lives are complicated, often messy, and in many cases out of our control. Plans go awry. The narrative strands of our lives don’t all neatly come together.
The Torah reminds us that sometimes it is enough just to reach the edge of the Jordan. That means we are a step closer to the place we want to be. But it also means there are many steps we have yet to take. As we continue to take them – day by day, month by month, year by year – may we do so with family and friends, and with God’s guiding presence as a part of our lives.