Dvar Torah - Devarim - Kathryn Teale
We are the People of the Book. We are a nation of storytellers. We know the power of words to construct and illuminate, even as God used words to create light from darkness. We write midrashim about the stories we inherit, turning the words over and over to find new meaning. We read in the Torah about using words to bless and to curse. Do we still believe in blessings and curses? I remember as a child learning a rhyme in the playground: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. I didn’t understand at that time, how much pain and lasting damage could be done by words. Anti-Semitic and homophobic slurs, racist taunts and verbal sexual harassment, internet trolling and fake news are curses of the modern age. At the same time, words give us the power to teach and share, to connect us to our origins and with our tribe, to heal division and give comfort. If we cannot communicate, if we do not have a voice, if we cannot share our words, then we are powerless.
This week, we start reading the fifth and final book of the Torah, known in English as Deuteronomy. In Hebrew, this book is called Devarim, which means words. The four books that precede Devarim tell our story from the creation of the world to the point where we are about to enter our Promised Land. Devarim is a sort of edited highlights and lowlights edition of the previous two books, a re-telling and a commentary as Moses recounts our journey through the wilderness, the challenges encountered and the outcomes of encounters with other tribes and peoples along the way.
Something that makes this book stand out as different is that Moses speaks to us directly. He says things like “The Eternal our God spoke to us at Horeb (which is the name given to Mt Sinai in Devarim)” “We set out from Horeb” “When we reached Kadesh-barnea, and so on. The emphasis on these words is mine, but my point is – we know that the people who stood at Horeb (or Mt Sinai) were part of the generation who perished in the desert. Presumably Moses is speaking to the next generation, who did not stand at Sinai; and were not at Kadesh-barnea. But Moses knew the importance of a shared history, and he takes this opportunity, before he dies and we cross over the river Jordan, to bring us together. And we are still together now. Yes, we stood together at Sinai and received the Torah, all of us. Yes, like the wise child in the Passover Haggadah, we say “It is because of what the Eternal did for me when I came out of Egypt.” This really is our story, and not just a dusty collection of ancient names and places or something that happened to our ancestors.
Picture yourself there now. We, the Israelites - are just outside the land we are told we will inhabit. The generation before us who left Egypt has passed away, and our leader and teacher Moses knows that he will soon die too. We have been travelling as one people, with the Mishkan in our midst, and now we are going to spread out and settle down in our tribes. We need to be reminded of where we came from, how we are connected to each other, and how we’re going to retain and maintain our laws and heritage and build a just and cohesive society moving forward.
In short, we are in a place and time of transition. And as we all know, transitions can be very difficult. When we were out in the desert, we wanted to go back to Egypt, even to slavery, because the known was less frightening than the unknown. Change is scary. When the scouts who were sent to survey the promised land came back to us, they reported a land flowing with milk and honey – but also shared their doubts about our ability to settle the land that God had promised us. The risks seemed to outweigh the benefits, even after all our grumbling in the desert. No wonder Moses got cranky with us from time to time! Sometimes it just seems easier to focus on the hole than on the bagel, on what we might lose rather than what we might gain in the future.
Moses must surely have been aware of all of that, and he takes this opportunity to review all that we have achieved, and how our victories were delivered when we trusted in God. By telling this story – our story – in the way that he does, Moses is building a relationship with us, one of shared beliefs and shared vision. He talks about what happened, why it happened and why it is worth remembering. He imbues the dry facts with meaning, and links the past with the present, and the present to the future. He reminds us that we have already endured much and survived, and gives us confidence in ourselves to face the challenges which lie ahead, knowing that God remains with us even when the path is rough or the best way forward is unclear, and God’s presence is not obvious.
What Moses doesn’t say explicitly, but I think could easily be implied, is that our victories are delivered when we are united in our desire to achieve a common goal. Moses never lost sight of his ultimate goal – leading us, the stiff-necked, argumentative, fickle Israelites towards the Promised Land, and sharing with us all that God had imparted to him, all the laws and teachings which bind and transform a bunch of slaves into a nation, and which continue, thousands of years later, to shape our ethics, beliefs and traditions.
Each of us is blessed in many ways, and each of us faces struggles and challenges in our lives. We have good days and days when we encounter self-doubt or despair, or feel vulnerable to attack. Like Moses, we can look back and consider our journey before we move forward. We can remember and identify the many ways we have grown, spiritually, emotionally and intellectually, as individuals, as a community, and as a nation. We are the People of the Book and a nation of storytellers. We know the power of words to construct and illuminate, to harm and to heal. Let us use them wisely. May we choose to tell and retell our story in ways that remind us that we are not alone, and that we have the power to move forward, together, from strength to strength.