D’var Devarim 5781
Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22
Imagine the common Jeopardy! category, “14-Letter Words.” The clue is: “Summarizes the Past.” The correct answer is, “What is recapitulation?” In many of the romantic symphonies, such as those by my favorite composer, Tchaikovsky, the last movement brings together motifs or themes heard in the earlier movements and tries to tie them all together. Then, our challenge is to ask ourselves, “What does this all mean? What really matters?” That’s why those symphonies are called “Absolute Music,” as compared to “Program Music,” because we need to read between the lines and ask ourselves, “What is this composer telling us?” In this week’s parsha, “Devarim,” we need to ask that of Moses.
This analogy takes us directly into Devarim, “these are the words.” It is the opening reading in the fifth of the Five Books of Moses, known as Deuteronomy from the Greek, or Devarim from the Hebrew. The name of the first parsha is also the name of the entire book.
This is the beginning of Moses’ final speech, an oration that lasted for an unimaginable 37 days, where Moses recaps for the people the forty-year journey from Egypt to Sinai. In the first four books, we hear over and over v’daber Adonai El Mosheh, or, “And G-D spoke to Moses.” Now, at the end, we hear, “And this is Moses speaking to the people.”
The Jewish Standard, in 2011, wrote on this parsha, “At its core, Parshat Devarim teaches us how to arrange our lives. The seder [It] demonstrates that we cannot move forward without being mindful of the lessons of the past.”
In retelling the story of the past 40 years, Moses makes two slight changes in the history. He does not say why. Moses does not even say if he is aware of these changes, that is, if he did them intentionally. It is said that history belongs to the victors and to those who write or narrate the history. They are both instructive. We can only speculate.
URJ’s 2008 Women’s Commentary on the Torah describes it this way: “As he recalls their journey, trying to make sense of the past 40 years, he rewrites history, blaming the people for proposing that he send scouts to the land (an action actually commanded by G-D in Numbers 13:2) and for provoking him into declaring judicial authority (an idea actually suggested by his father-in-law, Jethro, in Exodus 18:17-23).
Worst of all, Moses blames the children for the sins of their parents. Although it is the slave generation who has disappointed him, it is the next generation who now suffers Moses’ rancor and regret.”
Moses has subtly changed the narrative of four books. Why? Possibly, Moses is using anger as a teaching tool.
Moses is at the end of his days. Moses will not enter the Promised Land. We go from an “I and Thou” dialogue to an “I and You” dialogue. The word YOU is said by Moses 100 times in just over 100 verses in just this parsha.
Later, in our liturgies, we will see the power of the I-You phrasing in the retelling of the Exodus story at Pesach, where the wicked child asks, “What is this service to you?”
A clue to this anger or disappointment comes in Deuteronomy 1:9, close to the beginning of the parsha, beautifully translated by TorahCircle.com as “I cannot carry you alone,” L’vado,”alone,” and its variations. Here we are again, “Alone.” When Jacob paused his journey to sleep on a bed of rocks, he was “alone.” When Balam, in a recent parsha, described the future of our people, Balam described a people who would be alone. “Alone” is an extremely powerful word because it has a fact component, physical isolation, and because it has an emotional component, that of being lonely. Rabbi Richard Address wrote of this beautifully on JewishSacredAging.com , Dec. 17, 2015, where Rabbi Address called it “Only the Lonely: the ‘L’vado’ Conundrum.’”
As the COVID-19 pandemic recedes, Baruch HaShem, the preexisting trifecta pandemic of loneliness, isolation and despair, is rising to the surface again. Do not be fooled by the evening news pictures of crowded highways and airports. Look at the crowded Emergency Rooms.
In Devarim 1:12, Moshe appears to vent his anger at loneliness with the powerful question, as translated in torah.org, “How can I myself bear your trouble, and your burden, and your strife?” Moses begins this sentence with the volatile and powerful Eichah in Hebrew, the ultimate “How?” question.
Rabbi Pinchas Winston commented on this by speculating that Moses was actually saying, “HOW can I Myself bear your burden? HOW could this have happened to you? HOW could you have let this happen to yourselves? You had it so good. HOW could you have been so blind that you wantonly transgressed and pushed G-D to abandon you, when all He wanted was closeness with you? HOW could you have been such fools?”
The commentators appear to be mixed on whether Moses is rebuking and angry or teaching and motivating, probably an understandable mixture of both. Despite the ranting here, despite talking nonstop for 37 days, Moses still comes down to us as Mosheh Rabeinu, “Moses Our Teacher.”
Because this is also the Shabbat before Tisha B’av, it is also called Shabbat Chazon, or the Sabbath of Vision. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev taught that every Jew is shown a vision on this Shabbat. Even though Moses’ speech here is way before we needed a Tisha B’av, it is acceptable to ignore the order of events in the Tanach, our canon, in the search for meaning. Midrash is an excellent example of doing this.
Therefore, it is reasonable to ask, “Does Moses have a vision in his recapitulation of the last 40 years?” In chaplaincy, we would refer to this speech as a “Life Review and Legacy,” but, and here is the BUT, Moses presents the review, but he does not present the legacy directly. It is like absolute music We have to find it.
As Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (z”l) taught in his commentary on Lech Lecha, when Avram leaves his home, a big question of life is, “If you were not you, if you saw yourself from the eyes of another, how would you see your journeys through life?”
This is your legacy. Why did Moses not tell his people how he would like to be remembered? Why did Moses not pause for questions and answers? What might Moses have said?
This is the essence of the Ethical Will, a gift from our Jewish heritage that many other peoples have now adopted. It is a letter or essay or perhaps a transcribed speech, where you present the essence of how you would like to be remembered. For example, “Please return the borrowed books in my possession,” an appropriate Ethical Instruction from “The People of the Book,” appears in several Rabbinic Ethical Wills. Hannah Senesh wrote in her Ethical Will, “There are events without which one’s life becomes unimportant.” William Lewis Abromowitz, a Massachusetts scientist and industrial leader, wrote from Jerusalem in 1963, “Never turn away from anyone who comes to you for help. …Let your word be your bond.”
Moses, our great teacher, what is the legacy you would like us to take from the 40 years in the desert? What would it be if Devarim was your life review and your legacy as you saw it?
I will pose a hypothesis. Look at the similarities of what happened in the 40 years and just before it.
It took 10 plagues to get out of Egypt, but we, in a partnership with HaShem, did not give up after the first plague, nor after the second plague, nor after the third plague.
The people returned to idol worship by melting the gold when they thought Moses should have been descending the mountain and they did not see him, but then Moses came down, and they repented.
Ten spies said not to go ahead, but two said we can do it and we had the faith in the two who said we could do it. The sea did part, although not when we reached it, but when, in Midrash, Nachshon walked in until the water touched his nose. Nachshon had faith.
The legacy of Moses might be the advice to squeeze out just one more milliliter, just one more ounce, of faith, instead of giving up. We got out of Egypt with Moses’ help and G-D’s help, but it took a full 10 plagues, and we were tempted to give up. Moses descended, and we had given up. and then realized we should not have given up. Remember Nachshon.
As Don Quixote teaches in “Man of La Mancha,” strive with your last ounce of courage. As Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught, “The world is (indeed) a narrow bridge And The Important Thing Is To Not Be Afraid.”