Parashat V’etchanan:

The Last Lecture
By Sandra Kilstein

The bittersweet stage of the Jewish calendar cycle is reflected in the overtones of Parashat V’etchanan. The feelings of having made it through the Three Weeks of mourning parallels the feeling of relief and the ability to move forward after the defeat of Og and Sichon It is the time of transition from the struggles of the desert to the forward-looking planning involved in settling The Land.

Yet for Moshe, the struggle remains. V’etchanan is the heart-wrenching plea of the ever modest leader of a great nation, a man obsessed with entering The Land. V’etchanan is the language of deepest humility ‘ a beseeching, an imploring request from someone who acknowledges that he may be unworthy, but asks nevertheless. Indeed, the word v’etchanan is related to cheenam, ‘free.’ Moshe asks for a free gift, despite the fact that his deeds don’t merit this reward.

Denied, he returns to his mission ‘ his farewell statement, his preparation of his people. Like the guardian or parent who cannot escort his children all the way to their destination, he wants to make sure that his message contains the tools to guide them.

The recent passing of a popular professor has highlighted the trend in universities to invite an admired educator to offer a lecture on what wisdom they would impart if they knew it was their last chance. In the case of Randy Pausch, the Last Lecture provided lessons learned from someone who was actually in the final stages of his life. In a moving session, he openly shared his bargaining with G-d and doctors, his eventual acceptance of his limitations, and his confrontation with his future. Making peace with the inevitable, he crafts his message for his student audience, but intentionally designed for his own children. This was a legacy to serve as their blueprint for living, for solving future issues, for grounding themselves as they become responsible adults. These were words of inspiration to last a lifetime.

It is this Last Lecture that provides the framework for my reading of Parashat V’etchanan. Moshe pleads with G-d to allow him to remain long enough to enter the Land. His request is refused. He then puts his energies into preparing his message for the future of the people he has nurtured as his own. Moshe Rabeinu, the admired teacher to the end, gives his last lecture.

One can almost imagine the admonitions of a present day zaydie: Obey the commandments. Don’t fall into idolatry. You know you have a tendency to be rebellious. Be good. Don’t marry the wrong people. Be a great nation. Sh’ma ‘ listen. Remember you are beloved.

How fitting that the Sh’ma is contained in this parashah. Rabbi Jacob ben Isaac Askenazi of Yanof compares the reciting of the Sh’ma to receiving a cherished love letter, written today to you only, to which you listen to each and every word. In this case, it is as if you have received a letter from the King, as transmitted by his faithful servant. Moshe teaches us to love with all our heart and all our might. An active loving. It is the kind of love that causes others to observe and say, ‘look at the ethical behavior and the caring of this nation.’ It is the kind of love that causes others to love G-d.

Moshe reviews the highpoints of their journey together ‘ the revelation at Sinai, the Asseret Hadibrot, He reminds them of all these wonders to reassure them so that they don’t backslide. He remembers too well the actions of the people when they thought he would not return to them from Har Sinai. Vulnerable and afraid, they created the Golden Calf. His review of their time together serves to strengthen and reinforce the experiences and encounters that made them a generation of pioneers and the foundation of a nation.

Am Yisrae would now have the responsibility to transmit the essence of that wonder anew in each generation so that we would never lose the connection to the events and faith that shape us.

Being in proximity to people who are wise and lead exemplary lives teaches us how to lead our own lives. The people of the desert were the beneficiaries of a leader who yearned to achieve even more spiritual heights, even to the end of his days. Like Moshe, we should never stop yearning for the growth we want in life. Even if denied, we should instill that desire in others. As enablers for spiritual growth, we have obligations not just to lead and to transmit, but to be a force for the future. That is our comfort . . . nachamu, nachamu, ami.

The last lecture is an eternal one.


Sandra Kilstein is Dean of Students and Director of Placement at AJR.