“For I know that after my death, you will surely become corrupted, and deviate from the way which I had commanded you” Deuteronomy 31:29


 Moses’s declaration that the nation will eventually fall into sin after his death is confusing. Presented as a fait accompli, the inherent pessimism can be disheartening.

But let’s spin it another way: Moses is coaching the people in how to deal with failure in a life that, inevitably, will be full of peaks and troughs. His coping strategy? “Choose life,” Moses exhorts, in what converts the apparent pessimism to supreme optimism. It is a priming for the challenges of life awaiting us all as we negotiate failure and recovery, straying and return through a route called teshuvah.

Moreover, there is a broader lesson for us to extract from Moses’s approach here. Allowing for failure can ultimately be our greatest tool, as in good business practice, military tactic and financial planning. By predicting grim descent, we are better placed to overcome and plan for a better outcome.

The previous sidrah of Ki Tavo is similar in content to this week’s first portion Nitzaavim — both contain a stark presentation of the essential elements of Judaism and do not hide from the dark details of sin and punishment. But whereas last week the blessings and curses are stood — literally and figuratively — opposite one another (recall the vision of the two mountains), this week’s double portion presents a composite life experience made up of ascents and descents, of falling and rising, of abandonment and return.

A key difference in mood between this and last week’s readings is the introduction of the theme of teshuvah. At this point in the yearly cycle we are set up for the focus of Rosh Hashanah.

We may have failed in a way that was practically inevitable but, primed as we were by Moses for the cycle of failure and return, this comes as no surprise. We stray, of course, but we can draw close again. We can “choose life”.


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