Deuteronomy Looking Back, Looking Forward
Parashat Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1–3:22)
I never get tired of saying this: the Torah is always right on time. Last Shabbat we came to what felt like a stopping place at the end of Bamidbar (the Book of Numbers). With the journey to the Promised Land seemingly about to be realized, God spoke through Moshe one last time, summarizing the laws and commandments that the Israelites should follow for eternity. Cities of refuge were established, each tribal chief learned of his allocation of land, the issue of the daughters of Tselophechad inheriting their father’s land was resolved. It seemed like everything was winding down nicely, and things could settle into a groove for a while. And if there were only four books of the Torah, that might be a plausible read.
But this week we pick up the thread with Dvarim (Deuteronomy) and make the transition from living the story to telling the story. In the book of Dvarim, Moshe sifts through the tumultuous events of those 40 years of wandering and turns it into narrative. He enacts the universal human impulse to make meaning by telling what happened, shaping it into a story. Moshe’s version differs from the version we got in the first four books. For example, he takes credit for Yitro’s idea to set up the legal system that enabled him to share the burden of judicial authority. He also places the blame for his being barred from entering the Holy Land on the people rather than on himself. You might assume Moshe is using this retelling to burnish his own reputation, as people often do when they recount a tale, making themselves the hero of their own story.
I see it differently and am inclined to offer Moshe a little grace. Here he is, bereaved of his brother and sister and quite alone; stripped of his position and forced to watch, as the people he struggled with and led are permitted to cross over into the Land while he himself is consigned to watching from across the Jordan River. In the face of such loss—the loss of his family and of his dream—the fact that Moshe stands tall, keeps going, and strives to make meaning of his life is actually quite extraordinary.
Last week, as we finished the book of Bamidbar, we chanted these words together:
חֲזַק חֲזַק וְנִתְּחַזֵּק (Chazak chazak v’nitchazek.)
Be strong, hold fast, and let us strengthen one another.
I love this tradition we have, of entering into the transition between books of the Torah with a reminder that we are traveling this road together and can strengthen one another.
And this in-between place in particular, between Numbers and Deuteronomy, where the story begins to become myth, feels very resonant right now. The worst of the COVID-19 pandemic is, God willing, ending. Now, we move from the experience of living it to the process of telling the story. We are emerging from our isolation and beginning to re-enter the world of being together. Synagogues are returning to in-person worship, Shabbat dinners are moving off zoom and into real dining rooms, chesed meals can now be delivered with a side helping of smiles—perhaps even hugs. It is an incredible blessing to be able to resume relationships in three dimensions, and to share our lives after so much time making do with virtual spaces and the rare occasional letter in the mail. We read in the parsha:
רַב־לָכֶם סֹב אֶת־הָהָר הַזֶּה פְּנוּ לָכֶם צָפֹנָה׃ (Rav lachem sov et ha-har hazeh; p’nu lachem tsafonah.)
You have circled long enough about this mountain; turn yourselves northward. (Dvarim 2:3)
Those words landed on my heart as I was studying the parsha this week. Thinking about the stagnation that has settled in during these past sixteen months, the isolation and panic that became part of the wallpaper, I was moved by the prospect of turning in a new direction. The word צָפֹנָה (tsafonah)—to the north—comes from the same root as צָפוּן (tsafun)—hidden. How many places have become hidden to us in this bewildering time? How often have we been hidden even to ourselves, titrating our dread in order to just get through? The same root —tsadi, fey, nun—also gives us the word מַצְפֵּן (matspen)—compass. That which is hidden from us contains within it both the direction we ought to travel, and the potential for finding our way. We have circled long enough around this particular mountain; God willing, we can now turn our attention to picking up the pieces and (re)setting our course.
This weekend we also observe Tisha b’Av, the date associated with the destruction of both the First and Second Temples, along with other historical disasters for the Jewish people. Many Jews around the world will gather on Saturday night, sitting on the floor in darkened rooms, to chant the Book of Lamentations, to recall and recount the calamities of our people. We bring to this observance a heightened sense of frailty this year, an awareness of just how much can be lost. Our hearts have broken, collectively and individually, throughout our history and in this long, difficult year. Yet our tradition also teaches that the Messiah will be born on Tisha b’Av. The metaphor is irresistible: even when our hearts are broken, something new can still happen. As we move forward, out into the world again, forging new paths and reckoning with all that has happened, we do so with the capacity to look both backward and forward. Looking backward, we sift through, we tell the story of what this year has been, and looking forward, we move on. The parsha teaches us to keep going, even with tears in our eyes from all that has been lost.
Rebbe Menachem Mendel, known as the Kotsker Rebbe, taught that there is nothing so complete as a broken heart.
We are all broken.
We are all complete.
Be strong, hold fast, let us strengthen one another.
Naomi Gurt Lind has been an opera singer, a synagogue executive and a stay-at-home mother, and is currently a student in Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. In addition to her studies, Naomi sings with the Zamir Chorale, serves on the LimmudBoston Board of Directors, and volunteers at JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School. When she has a free moment, she enjoys solving crossword puzzles (in pencil!), writing divrei Torah on her blog Jewish Themes, and spending time with her hilarious and delightful children.