Who Are We? Lessons from D'varim for Now
August 05, 2022
"אֵ֣לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־כּל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּעֵ֖בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן…"
"These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan..." (Deut. 1:1)
Photograph by Munir Alawi, 1839: the banks of the Jordan.
These are the opening words of this week's Torah portion, and the opening words of the book of D'varim, Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is the last of the Five Books. If we're starting Deuteronomy, then the Days of Awe must be just around the corner.
This is the moment in our ancestral story when we pause and take stock. The children of Israel have been wandering in the wilderness for forty years -- in Torah's language, a lifetime.
So we encamp by the river, and Moshe tells the story of the wilderness wandering. He's speaking to the generation born in the wilderness -- those who experienced the Exodus are now gone. When he's done retelling the story, he will cross over into whatever comes after this life. The people will cross over into the next chapter of their journey. And we will cross over into 5783, a new year full of unknowns.
For Moshe and the children of Israel, this is a moment to pause and take stock of where we've been, who we've been, and what we want to carry forward. Of course, the same is true for us every year when we reach this point in our story.
It's a little bit like the moment in Disney's cartoon Amphibia where the protagonist Anne looks at the blank page inscribed, "Who am I?"
Asking the question of herself helps her realize that she chooses to be someone who does the right thing. As Jews, we ask ourselves that question all the time. Some of us nightly before the bedtime shema. Some of us weekly, before Shabbat. All of us annually, before the Days of Awe. Which is to say... now.
In the midst of this, here comes Moshe in this week's Torah portion, retelling the story of the scouts.
Remember Shlach? The giant grapes? Mirror illustration by Steve Silbert.
Remember, twelve men went into the Land. They retrieved giant grapes. They said they felt like grasshoppers compared to the giants they saw there. When they came back, ten of them said "we can't do this," and only two said "sure we can." And the people believed the ten who despaired.
So God said, if the people don't have faith, they won't enter the land. This whole generation that knew slavery is going to die in the wilderness, except for Joshua and Caleb.
Moshe tells that story more or less the way we heard it the first time. But he makes one significant change. "Because of you," he says, "יהו''ה was incensed with me too, saying: You shall not enter it either."
Hold up. That's not the reason Torah gave for why Moshe won't enter the land!
An artist's rendering of what actually kept Moshe out of the Land of Promise.
God makes that call when Moshe angrily hits a rock to make it produce water, instead of speaking to it as God instructed him. We might quibble with that decision-making. Was it really fair for God to punish Moshe that much for one moment of anger? But fair or not, that's definitely how the story went.
And now Moshe's changing it up. He's conveniently forgetting that the reason he won't live to enter the Land is because he chose violence instead of speech. It's because of his own actions and choices -- not because the people lost faith.
As our ancestral story pauses on the banks of the Jordan, we're at the edge of a new year. Because it's human nature, maybe we're tempted to do what Moshe just did: to retell the story of the last year in a way that avoids taking responsibility.
Where do we want to pretend away our own poor choices? How often do we want to say, "it's their fault," pointing a finger at someone else because that feels more comfortable than admitting that we messed up?
It's okay to feel the impulse to do what Moshe did. It's not okay to actually follow in his footsteps here. Our spiritual tradition asks us to do better than that.
This is the inner work of teshuvah -- repentance; return; turning our lives around. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg writes that there are five specific steps to repentance work:
(I can't wait for her new book on this subject, On Repentance and Repair, due just before Rosh Hashanah.)
Unfortunately we don't get to see Moshe doing this kind of repentance work. He blames his misfortune on somebody else -- the scouts who brought back a negative report. Tradition teaches that the scouts returned with that negative report on Tisha b'Av, which begins tonight -- though it's Shabbat, so we'll observe the day on Sunday instead.
Tisha b'Av is a day of mourning. In addition to being the anniversary of the scouts' screw-up, Tisha b'Av is the date when Babylon destroyed the first Temple, the date when Rome destroyed the second Temple, the date when the first Crusade began in 1096. Also the date of many other tragedies visited on the Jewish people through our history.
Tradition also teaches that the 9th of Av is the day when moshiach will be born -- the messiah, redemption, ultimate hope, or maybe the age or era when the work of healing creation will be complete. It's as though recognizing that wow, the world is really broken can be the first step toward repair.
On Sunday we'll take first steps toward the repair inherent in a new year, full of new possibility. We'll begin the reverse Omer count -- 49 days until Rosh Hashanah. In the spring, after Pesach, we count seven weeks of the Omer as we prepare ourselves to receive Torah anew at Sinai on Shavuot. Now, as fall approaches, we count seven weeks as we prepare ourselves to enter a new year.
So much has happened in the last year that it may feel like a lifetime.
Who have we been, over the lifetime of the last year? When were we hopeful, and when did we despair? What do we feel proud of, and what do we wish we could pretend never happened (or wish we could blame on someone else)? What's the inner work we need to do, in order to do the outer relational and healing work that others can see?
Rosh Hashanah begins seven weeks from Sunday night. Who have we been this year, and who will we choose to become?
This is the d'varling that Rabbi Rachel offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog at the new CBI website.)