About ten years ago, I was asked to come into a seventh grade Bible class at Solomon Schechter Day School in Northbrook to lead a Bibliodrama session. The students were finishing a unit on Moses, following the arc of his leadership. I'm reminded of this when I read from the parasha (portion) of Pinchas in Bamidbar. God said, "Ascend these heights of Mount Ha'avarim and view the land that I have given to the Israelite people. When you have seen it, you too shall be gathered to your kin, just as your brother Aaron was." (Bamidbar 27:12-13)
I had the kids clear away the chairs, except for one which I placed in the center of the room. I asked them one question: "You are Moses. You just found out you will die when you come to this very spot. Within the confines of this classroom, where would you stand in relation to this spot?"
The students wandered a bit around the room until they landed where their thoughts took them. There were a few who stood on top of the chair/mountain. Others got as far away from the chair as they could; one even put a foot out the door. One student, however, slowly walked from the door toward the chair. I asked the students to share why they chose their spots. The student who was walking very slowly toward "Mt. Ha'avarim" said, "I wanted to spend my last time before I die thinking about how I am getting there."
I've rarely heard a more profound perspective on how to live our lives, since none of us knows how far or how close we are to our own Mt. Ha'Aravim, the Mountain of Crossing Over (the root of "ha'avarim" is avar, crossing over.)
Our modern medical capabilities are astounding. We are able to cure more childhood diseases than ever before, almost eradicating the life-threatening illnesses (as long as parents continue to use the miracle vaccinations.) Even treatment for AIDS has progressed to a remarkable point, although we all know too many people for whom medical miracles didn't work.
But this student was referring to something else. It's not about how or when we die, it's about how we live our lives until that point. Our health is measured by so much more than a listing of vital signs. Our health is measured by the signs of our vitality.
Vitality isn't just another word for non-stop living. It's being a crucial part of something. Vitality is a capacity for survival, for continuing a meaningful, purposeful, passionate existence. I look around and see models of true vitality-my mother comes to mind first. She's amazing. She always says she feels healthy until she lists all the things wrong with her. But she keeps going, and feels pretty darned good most days, knows her limits, pushes them, and continually adds to the beauty and goodness of the world. My friends who have struggled with cancer have presented true models of vitality, as they bring poison into their bodies to battle the poison that's already there. They accommodate the bad days, and revel in the better ones.
Certainly, Moses lived a vital life. He was vital to the survival of the Israelites, and vital to God, too. As he stood on the top of his Crossing Over Mountain, I hope he took a moment to realize that, before being consumed by disappointment or sadness. I hope we all take some time to determine how we are getting to our own Crossing Over Mountains, making sure each step is filled with vitality, joy, passion, and purpose.
Anita Silvert is a freelance teacher and writer, living in Northbrook. You can read more of her weekly Torah musings on her blog, Jewish Gems, www.anitasilvert.wordpress.com.