Ha’azinu ode on a biblical urn
Deuteronomy 32:1 – 32:52
This week’s Torah portion of Ha’azinu contains a poetic narrative, and then in its conclusion it describes the last days of Moses’ life as he stood on Mount Nebo looking upon the land of Israel. Several years ago I stood at this very place on the east side of the Jordan River. Moses died somewhere on Mount Nebo after gazing upon the hills of Canaan and the west side of the Jordan River, which would be the future Judea. Afterward, Moses spoke with Joshua, his successor, since Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land because of his trespass against G-d at the waters of Meribath Kadesh. Moses was allowed to look at that land suspended in time, but he could not physically enter with the children of Israel.
As I gazed west toward Jerusalem I could barely see Mount Scopus in Jerusalem, the Jordan River and the beauty of the finest parts of Israel. The beauty of this horizon made me want to stand fixed on that spot at that moment forever. It must have been spectacular to observe this sight as the last thing seen in this world. My mind then shifted to the past. I recalled Dr. Alfred Shapiro, my English Literature teacher at Yeshiva University High School for boys. I remembered studying the works of John Keats, an author with whom Shapiro was enamored. I then began thinking about Keats’ masterpiece “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” which is one of the best literary pieces of all time. Keats imagined an urn intact from antiquity. There are men pursuing maidens carved on the urn. There are musical instruments with the music pictured on the urn being urged to play. Their song is eternal, and the trees pictured upon it cannot shed their leaves. The lover pursues that beautiful maiden but can never touch or kiss the maiden. They are congealed in the very moment prior to ecstasy or fulfilled love. The maiden can never lose her eternal beauty. The trees pictured on the urn cannot lose their leaves and therefore remain constantly in their peak. The lovers who are on the urn are suspended in time just prior to the moment of consummation, forever lusting for each other. The love, the trees, the music, the beauty is far better than actual reality, which eventually brings frustration and dissatisfaction. Anticipation may be more rewarding than fulfillment or consummation of an act or event.
After generations the urn will still be here with all its beauty, music and truth. These beautiful moments remain forever captured in time. What will not be there are the imperfectly fulfilled experiences of the past. My mind then returned to Moses on standing on Mount Nebo facing Jerusalem as the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land. From that vantage point Moses was able to experience the beauty of Israel. He was able to feel the intense emotion as the Israelites were about to cross the Jordan and enter Israel. That moment was eternal. The Jews had wandered 40 years and faced many painful experiences as they were about to cross the Jordan. Moses was able to experience the beauty, the spirituality and eternal greatness of Israel as he had imagined. He was able to see G-d’s dream just prior to its fulfillment. He would not have to face the bitterness of the future with Israelites quarreling among themselves or the sight of Jews turning to false religions, idols and false prophets in this new land. He would not be here to observe the future friction between the tribes and between Israel and Judah. He saw his successor Joshua in all his splendor before the many bloody wars he would have to fight. At that moment Moses saw the eternal beauty, spiritual holiness and the greatness of Israel and its people in all their grandeur. In his final moments Moses experienced something better than reality: the vision of eternal Israel in all its truth and beauty.
The vision of Moses and his intense multi-emotional experience was captured in a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. on April 3, 1968 in Memphis, Tenn.
King paraphrased Moses at the finale to his sermon. King stated, “Like anybody, I would like to have long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned with that now. I just want to do G-d’s will, and He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
Rabbi David C. Novitsky is rabbi at Beth Israel Congregation in Washington, Pa. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.