He was, at the time, well over eighty years old. He faithfully attended services twice a day and read the New York Review of Books from cover to cover. He had a heavy Austrian accent and spoke with great dignity. When asked, he described himself as a composer, so, I invited myself to his home to listen to some of his compositions.
As expected, the front room of his tiny apartment was filled with musical instruments and piles of books and notes. The piles hid pictures of his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren that covered the walls. He cleared a chair for me and asked if I was ready for his compositions. I certainly was, so he began to clear the piles that blocked the pictures. He pointed to his descendants and declared, "They are my composition." I was shocked. I came ready to listen to some heavy Austrian compositions and instead the "Composer" would point only at pictures as his compositions.
"I am a composer," he insisted. "A Composer of Life." He explained that his past, his siblings, parents, aunts and uncles, leaders of his community, numerous traditions, and much of his history had been wiped out in the Holocaust. When liberated, he realized that the only way for him to continue without carrying the burden of his pain on his back was to compose a new life. He was certainly a Composer of Life.
Last week's portion introduced Moses, originally a man who spoke with difficulty, as a man of words. This week's portion, Va'etchanan, introduces Moses, "The Voice of God," as a composer who discovered his own voice. We are taught that the numerical value of the word Va'etchanan is 515, indicating that Moses prayed 515 times for God to rescind His decree that Moses could not enter Israel. They were not 515 repetitions of the same prayer, but 515 unique prayers. Moses is informing Israel that in this, the final stage of his life and mission, he had become a composer. Moses is not describing 515 failed prayers, but 515 successful steps in becoming a composer. Moses was not focused on whether his prayers were accepted, but on the process of real prayer, which is, becoming a composer.
Moses wanted the Children of Israel to learn that if they were to succeed in building the Land of Israel they could not do only what they had been taught to do until now, but they would have to become Composers of Life. The people would have to learn how to find new ways to apply the laws, teachings, and prayers they had been taught. Each new application would be a new composition. People who will pray only as they always have been praying, who observe the Commandments only as they have always observed, who will study Torah only as they have studied all their lives, will not become composers, but will remain stuck in the past. They will remain connected only to the past, which had failed; the earlier generation had been sentenced to die out in the desert and never enter Israel. Only composers could create a future and live with hope.
The Ramchal wrote a book, "515 Prayers." He composed 515 prayers to be used before performing different mitzvot. I suspect that his intention was not that we recite his prayers, but that we follow his example and compose our own prayers based on the lessons he taught in his compositions.
There were people who came to comfort me as I was mourning the death of my mother who spoke only of the past. They did their best to change my perspective, the true definition of Nechama, or comfort. However, it was the people who spoke to me of how I could use the lessons of my mother's life and find ways to incorporate them in my own, to compose my way of following her example, who offered Nechama, a change in perspective of the future not only the past, who were the ones who most succeeded in comforting me.
There is the Nechama of the past, and the Nechama of the future; the idea that the best way to change my perspective of my pain is to compose a future based on the best of the past. This is why the prophet Isaiah begins his words of comfort, Nechama, by repeating himself, "Nachamu, Nachamu," "Be comforted, be comforted, my people." Isaiah not only wanted to change their perspective of the past, he wanted them to apply the lesson of Moses's 515 prayers, and become Composers of Life.
Rabbi Simcha L. Weinberg
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