Each year as the new moon of Av arrives, I think about what I’ve come to call our two personal trainers. Their names are Moshe and Yeshayahu, and they are the voices of the biblical books that accompany us from now through Rosh Hashanah.
This week we start the book of Deuteronomy, and we will continue to read it weekly from now through Simchat Torah, the last of the fall holy days. This final book of the Torah has a distinct voice, and it is the voice of Moshe himself. While the first four books are narrated by a voice that tells us “And God spoke to Moshe”, in Deuteronomy Moshe himself is at the center. It is a remarkable first person voice, especially for the man who when he first appeared in the Torah required his brother Aharon to do his speaking for him.
Moshe’s voice in Deuteronomy is insistent and driving. It’s the final year in the wilderness, and Moshe has a lot to say to the people in front of him. In the weeks that are coming, we will hear Moshe urge them into the Promised Land. He will not be joining them in the new place and the new year. So he reviews for them why they have been stuck where they are for a generation. They have been holding themselves back for too long; it is time to march ahead.
Moshe recaps all the teachings, starting off by repeating the Ten Commandments. He lays out first principles. He appeals to reason and to experience. He anticipates the spiritual obstacles ahead. He has an answer for all of them, and he repeats over and over: Love your God, walk in God’s ways, observe God’s commands. If he could, Moshe would handle it all for us and make sure we don’t do the wrong thing. But he knows that only we ourselves can go ahead into the new year. So Moshe reminds us finally of the rewards that come from leading our lives in line with Divine wisdom.
And this same week, we switch in the Haftarah readings to the book of Yeshayahu (Isaiah). After this Shabbat, we jump to a section of the book that has its own distinct voice. In modern scholarship, this part of the book is taken as a whole different book or maybe multiple texts, from an unnamed prophet whose words have been attached to Yeshayahu’s.
The voice in the Haftarot from here until Rosh Hashanah is also very often a first-person voice — here, the voice of the Divine. It is a voice of encouragement and consolation.
The people the prophet is speaking to are about to return from two generations of exile in Babylonia, far from their home. The voice that speaks to them knows that they are wounded and they have felt abandoned. They are ashamed of the wrongs that ate away at their souls and their society, that led to their exile. Unlike Moshe, this prophet does not dwell on what happened before. The message is about hope and self-worth – you are worthy of redemption. There is a Divine who is more powerful than your doubts, about yourself and your return.
Yeshayahu knows every doubt and every sadness we have or might have. He too has an answer for each of them. He repeats: you are glorious, you are more powerful than you realize, you reflect Divine splendor.
Most years I have just thought of Moshe and Yeshayahu as two different but complementary personal spiritual trainers. We need urging, and we need encouragement. Moshe says: You need to do this! Yeshayahu says: You can do this! Moshe says: Here is the path, now walk! Yeshayahu says: There is home, and you can make it back. Maybe some of us need a Moshe, and some of us need a Yeshayahu. Maybe some of us need more of one and some more of the other.
This year I have been thinking: We need Yeshayahu’s voice more. We have been in exile, even in our own homes, separated from so much and so many. We have felt abandoned by our leaders. We have all felt insufficient, even ashamed — as people and citizens and parents. Our flaws have been shown to us –- the people in our communities we haven’t been there for, the injustices we have tolerated. The new year doesn’t feel like a promised land in focus just ahead. We are on a longer path of returning. We are longing. We need more than a set of guidelines. We need consolation and hope.
I will be listening in these next two months for Moshe’s voice as well. Even if our time feels more like return from exile than a forward march, there are new things to discover and create. The new year will indeed be new, as we explore hybrid Jewish lives in person and online, as we head toward a consequential election in the United States. There will be a time for the voice of Moshe, driving and insistent.
But we won’t be able to hear it without much more Yeshayahu this year. A voice of comforting, encouragement, and hope. A voice that reminds us we are worthy of being redeemed, and we are capable of being renewed in the new year that is coming. A voice that tells us of the splendor in us that we have doubted. May we hear that voice as much as we need in these weeks ahead on the way to the new year, and may we remember to voice it to one another as well.