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Jewish learning Listening on the Edge of a New Future

By Jayce Koester

Parashat Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22)

It is the first day of the eleventh month of the fortieth year in the desert. We have stopped on the edge of the river, and on the other side is the land G!d has promised us. Instead of shouldering our packs and making bittersweet goodbyes between those who will stay and those who will go, we stop. We gather around Moshe and he begins to tell us a story. It’s familiar in many ways, often a direct account of what we’ve experienced together. In other moments, he tells it differently this time. Things we learned the hard way are reintegrated into the story. After all this time, on the edge of a new future, we sit together and we listen.

Moshe, I can imagine, is exhausted and heartbroken. He will be one of the many who does not pass across the river, and he knows that his death is approaching soon. But still, amidst everything he is holding, his story starts from the beginning with intention, the narrative voice saying:

הוֹאִיל מֹשֶׁה בֵּאֵר אֶת־הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת

Moshe [took] it upon [himself] to understand this Torah completely (Deuteronomy 1:5).

We’re struck immediately, that this word תּוֹרָה Torah, often translated as, “The Five Books of Moses,” or more generally as, “instruction,” seems out of place. Which instruction? What Torah? Everett Fox notes in his commentary that the word Torah here, “has broader significance, and seems to refer to a good part of the book of Deuteronomy.” Before Moshe begins to speak, we see the verb בֵּאֵר be’er, and while often translated as, “explain,” it can also mean, “to make clear to oneself or to understand completely.” To integrate both meanings, the act of explaining to the Israelite people is simultaneously an act of understanding the journey. For Moshe, the process of sharing with others helps him understand more completely within himself. In this moment of massive transition and change Moshe pauses. Perhaps, taking a deep breath. He gathers himself and his story up in his hands and then begins to make sense of it by speaking it. This act of understanding becomes tied to the story, the Torah, that is to come.

The process of telling stories and interpreting our own lives and experiences often means we tell things a little differently than how they happened. The story is not just the facts, it’s the way it has transformed us: the lessons we’ve learned and how we respond to the world differently as a result. Here too, we see Moshe’s interpretive voice as he makes sense of what he’s learned, by telling it a little bit differently than what we saw a few books ago. Moshe says, in Deuteronomy 1:9:

וָאֹמַר אֲלֵכֶם בָּעֵת הַהִוא לֵאמֹר לֹא־אוּכַל לְבַדִּי שְׂאֵת אֶתְכֶם׃

And I spoke to you at that time [implied from previous verses, the time they were at Sinai] saying, “I am not able to carry you by myself.”

You, like Rambam, may be looking around a little confused, because Moshe did not say that at Mount Sinai. Flipping back in your TaNaKh will not reveal Moshe coming, by himself, to the realization that he cannot do this alone. So, Rambam goes looking for where Moshe got that line from, and directs our attention to a conversation had with his father-in-law Jethro, who says in Exodus 8:18:

נָבֹל תִּבֹּל גַּם־אַתָּה גַּם־הָעָם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר עִמָּךְ כִּֽי־כָבֵד מִמְּךָ הַדָּבָר לֹא־תוּכַל עֲשֹׂהוּ לְבַדֶּךָ׃

“You, and this community that is with you, will surely be worn out because this thing is too heavy for you, and you are not able to do it by yourself.”

Moshe has integrated his father-in-law’s advice, and now recounts a similar message coming from himself. He has fully understood Jethro’s Torah, and through rearticulating his story he is able to say it in his own words. He is able to admit I can’t do this alone. This message is reflected in the unfolding of the storytelling. His process of complete understanding implicates the audience of the community; this act of Torah-telling cannot be a solo experience.

A series of memories welled up as I read Moshe’s reflections, transforming the story he has lived into a text rich with meaning. I remember sitting on the floor of an old living room with a group of activists debriefing a challenging action the night before. We passed out lemonade, went around the circle, and began to recount—each of us—what happened. Each person that night told the story slightly differently, even people who were standing next to each other. Our learning refracted back through our recollections of the event, and by listening we each understood more deeply what had happened, and what it meant for us. As a result, we become closer. Loneliness and worry transformed into connection and mutual support. When we walked out, we felt different.

Another memory, a moment of sustained crisis in a community organizing project during the Covid-19 pandemic. We got on the phone and eschewed the millions of logistics that we could have been talking about and simply went around, each person retelling their whole history with the collective. It took a lot of time, but each time someone new spoke we softened further. Arguments began to ring hollow, we turned to appreciate one another. The logistical struggles remained, but when storytelling came first, new possibilities were able to show themselves, and what came afterwards was easier.

Moshe invites us into a radical order of operations when faced with grief and change. Instead of charging across the river with hurried urgency, we stop and tell a story. We make it clear that it takes all of us and there is something to be learned by slowing down and listening. It is not the act of wading across the river, but rather the story we tell about it, that matters.

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Jayce Koester (they/them) is a teacher, chaplain-in-progress, and Hebrew College rabbinical student currently living on Wampanoag and Massachusetts land. Jayce loves learning Torah with all ages and is an enthusiastic niggun singer, text nerd, and lover of all things that grow (people included). They’re always excited to talk about Jewish ritual, science fiction, what they’re cooking this week, and how cute their two cats are.

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