Shabbat candles: 8:03 p.m.
Torah reading: Deut. 3:23-7:11
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1-26
Shabbat ends: 9:07 p.m.
This parsha begins with a most poignant message: Moses, after dedicating a lifetime of service to God and his people, will not be allowed to enter the land. His reward is simply to see it. Moses recounts how God said, “Go to the top of Pisgah and lift up your eyes west and north and south and east, and see it with your eyes [Deut 3.27]. The verse echoes Genesis 13.14 when God shows Abraham the entire expanse of the land of Israel.
I imagine Moses standing high on the mountain, lifting up his eyes to embrace the entire landscape. I imagine him gazing for moments, maybe even hours, suspended in time, as the land rolled out before him: the lush plains of the Jordan; the hill country just west with sheep grazing on the gentle slopes; a herd of mountain goats appearing for an instant from behind the crags; Lebanon in the north with her forested snow-capped peaks; and the desert dotted with date palms in the south. Moses stood there contemplating, in awe and gratitude, the gift that was being given to his people.
In this moment, Moses encountered God and received a vision. The vision was not the dramatic, ephemeral revelation accompanied by lightning and thunder that we often associate with God’s presence. Rather he had an actual vision of the land, a vision, says the Midrash, even greater than the actual land that Joshua and the people would inhabit.
The land would be the physical and spiritual sustainer of the people Israel and also her witness. The land would be the greatest signifier of God’s presence and all that is good in the world. The land was the ultimate gift; it would generate life forever.
The land is repeatedly referred to as “good” in our parsha. More than half of the 19 times that the word “good” appears in Deuteronomy it occurs as a description of the land: the good land. Not yet tread upon by the Israelites, it is whole and pure—good—just like the waters, air and earth, just like all that was “good” when God first created the world. The land is good as it was in the beginning. Coming into the land symbolizes a new start for a new generation of Israelites.
Seeing the good land — the land of milk and honey — would be Moses’ consolation. It appears he was comforted. After seeing the land, he was able to leave aside his disappointment and move forward with the preparation of Joshua, his successor.
This Shabbat is called Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of consolation, which comes to console us after Tisha b’Av, after we have re-experienced anew the destruction of the Temple, our spiritual center.
On Shabbat Nachamu, the idea of being comforted as Moses was, by the sight of the land can be especially moving. Many of us find solace from simply watching the land: the sun rising each dawn, the waves of the ocean rolling in and out, the first tomatoes ripening on the vine, the growth of new vegetation each spring, the rains pelting down on a parched earth. Yet in these ecologically challenged times, the land needs our comfort and care as much as we need hers.
The idea of land as spiritual sustainer may seem foreign to many modern urban readers. Although it is silent, the land is a constant presence in Torah; she appears well over 150 times in Deuteronomy alone. Many of us are too wrapped up in the human drama to notice the consistent presence of land in our sacred text. And we’re so used to thinking about land in terms of territory, politics or real estate, that we don’t see the land as ecological community, spiritual sustainer, healer, and source of food.
But the whole Torah can be read as the story of a land and her people, a story of alienation and reconciliation of inhabitants with their habitat and with God, beginning with Adam, Eve, Cain and Noah and all the way through Abraham to Moses and the entire Israelite people.
If we begin to read the Torah with new questions — questions about how a people is to live on a land — it will yield surprising new insights that may guide us to help preserve the goodness of the land in perpetuity.
Ellen Bernstein founded the first national Jewish environmental organization, Shomrei Adamah in 1988 and is author of “The Splendor of Creation, and Ecology & the Jewish Spirit.” To learn more, go to www.ellenbernstein.org.