You will know from my recent sermons that I’ve been researching my family tree as a gift to myself for my birthday. I’ve met, on paper at least, the bootmaker, the tailor, the grocer, the judge, the businessman, the tabaco stripper and I’ve walked London, looked up google street view of Frankfurt am Main, visited graves and bored my children. The great Jewish tiyyul (a phrase coined by the poet Yehuda Amichai) is the story of diaspora – of discovering that wherever we find ourselves we always see the world through the hue of being just on the outside and a little on the inside. Some Jewish homes and synagogues are never quite finished, because a building is only ever temporary. Who knows when we might pack up and what forces might be driving the move – a fitting thought for this Sukkot which begins on Sunday night.
It’s more than the temporary nature of home that leaves our buildings unfinished. The Talmud records in Bava Batra 60b:
The Sages therefore have ordained thus: A man may stucco his house, but he should leave a little bare…A man can prepare a full-course banquet, but he should leave out an item or two…A woman can put on all her ornaments, but leave off one or two…For so it says, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I remember thee not…”
The unfinished home is a reminder of historic home and a dream of a future home. It is the basis for our connection to Israel – the Jewish people’s eternal home. Our Torah ends this week and next on the edge of the promised land. And whilst the miraculous flowering of the Jewish people and Jewish culture that has taken place in the State of Israel reflects our yearnings, it is not just a geographical space that we look towards, but an idea. A lofty vision of the world, a mission for our people to make the vision a reality and a framework within which we can achieve it – but we’re not there yet. Not yet – עוד לא. The State of Israel is not the completion of the vision, it is the beginning and it too is a work in progress. Even when we are in Israel, our Great Jewish Tiyyul is still going on. עוד לא.
Yehuda Amichai writes about Moses standing on Mount Nebo and the Great Jewish Tiyyul in his poem in his collection ‘Open Closed Open’:
Moses standing on Mount Nebo
was the first to say in his heart, “In the West is my heart,
and I am at the end of the East,” but he also said,
“In the East is my heart, and I am at the end of the West.“
Thus begun the long voyage, the great Jewish journey [tiyyul]…
(see here for the full poem)
According to tradition, Moses flees Pharaoh’s house to be married at 40 and he doesn’t even appear to Pharaoh until he is 79 and when he’s 80 he leads the children of Israel out of Egypt. Which means, as we know, he was 120 when he died. Of course forty year increments are symbol of a lifetime – not to be taken literally. But throughout the story of Moses life we know as the reader that his story will end in tragic unfulfillment. A עוד לא that will reverberate throughout time.
Moses will stand on one side of the Jordan river and look out across to the Promised Land knowing he cannot take the children of Israel there himself. And it is this lesson of unfinished business – of עוד לא – that is perhaps one of the most important lessons of the Bible. A constant striving for wholeness, completion or perfection is fine – in fact Judaism demands us to keep looking forwards to a world that is completed. But not to be put off or frustrated when we do not finish the job.
Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin in the Women’s Torah Commentary writes about Moses’ moment of עוד לא and his response to it in our Torah portion this week – written as a song:
This song can be seen as an expression of Moses’ feelings about having to die without entering the land. Instead of addressing his anger to God, against whom it is properly directed, Moses weaves it into his final farewell to the Jewish people. That is why it is here. Moses’ long farewell speech to the people occupies the entire Book of Deuteronomy. The man who protested when he was first chosen by God that he was not a man of words (Ex. 4:10), filled a book whose name is Devarim, “Words”. And now that his words are spent, now that the moment of leave taking is upon him, Moses is overwhelmed by his pain. He lashes out at his family, his people, because he can’t or won’t present his raw anger to God. The poem can be read as an expression of this frustration, this sense of being cheated, the jealousy, helplessness, and burden of loss. Moses chooses to hurt his loved ones because he is overwhelmed with hurt. This part of Ha’azinu, according to such a reading, would have little to do with the Israelites and everything to do with Moses.*
This story works on a national level – the Jewish people’s unfinished task in the world which we continue to try to be part of and our personal experience of always wanting to aim higher and deal with our own sense of incomplete mission. עוד לא – not yet. That’s what we say to our children – we don’t say ‘I can’t’, we say ‘I cannot yet’. So it is that through Moses frustration at not finishing the greatest story of all of history we learn our own lesson to take into our lives – our tiyyul continues and there is no way we’re giving up on our vision, not yet…עוד לא.
* On this point there is a certain connection to Amichai’s poem which also refers to the Torah containing something personal that was Moses’ alone as his own ‘travel book’ (even the Ten Commandments).