Deuteronomy Responding to Failure with Perseverance
Parashat Dvarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22)
As we begin the Book of Deuteronomy this week, the fifth and final book of the Torah, we greet the Israelites triumphant. After 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, they are finally on the threshold of entering the Promised Land.
It is an extraordinary moment of accomplishment.
And yet, as Moses begins his final, book length soliloquy to prepare the people for their new lives in the Land of Israel, he does not begin with the momentous nature of the occasion. He begins with a story of tragedy and failure.
As the Israelites camp in the very same location where their parents had been 40 years earlier, Moses opens by reminding them that these decades of wandering did not need to happen. As we learned a few weeks ago in Parashat Shelach Licha, the generation who had been freed from Egypt had the opportunity to enter the land; but out of fear, they refused and rebelled against God and Moses. In that moment, God seems to realize that though the Israelites had physically left Egypt, this generation could never emotionally and spiritually leave slavery enough to start a new life as God’s people in the Land of Israel. God condemns them to die in the wilderness while their children would be given the chance to go in.
It is not an obvious choice to begin the retelling of their story by reminding the children of their parents’ failure. One could imagine that it could provoke feelings children often have of their parents — anger, resentment, and shame for their choices, their actions, for who they were, and for who they were not. Maybe such an experience is a useful leadership strategy — a challenge not to be like those people, to be different, to individuate. Yet, I am drawn to a different possibility: that the purpose of reminding the children of their parents’ failure is implicitly to remind them of their parents’ response to failure.
Upon receiving the devastating news that they would die in the wilderness and never enter the Promised Land, the Israelites responded, understandably, with despair and further rebellion against God and Moses. Much of the subsequent sections of the Book of Numbers is consumed with this ongoing descent. It would have been entirely reasonable for them to continue down this path, to surrender to despair, and to abdicate the project of being a special people in relationship with God. However, though the Torah never tells us what happens, during the following, silent decades that constitute the vast majority of time they were in the wilderness, the generation who could never really leave Egypt, managed to raise children who were free and could enter the land.
This story is a heroic one. In telling it, Moses reminds the children that they inherit an extraordinary legacy of failure and, more importantly, of perseverance, resilience, and determination.
And it is a fitting way to begin the preparation for a new life in the Promised Land. It is easy to romanticize the longed for destination — to think that once we get “there,” wherever or whatever there is — life will be better, easier, complete. But in reality, when we get to that destination, we just face another “now,” another moment full of challenge and opportunity. While conquering the land is an accomplishment, it also marks the beginning of a nascent life with new challenges and opportunities, one that inevitably includes failures and setbacks. The children will go astray, as their parents did. In fact, much of the Book of Deuteronomy consists of Moses warning the people of this possibility and to guard against it.
But as they sit in the very same spot their parents had been 40 years ago, about to accomplish what their parents could not, Moses begins with their parents’ failure to remind them that even though they had fallen short, they persevered. They did not give up, but rather worked to transform themselves to be the kind of people who could raise children to accomplish what they could not. In essence, as much as Moses wants them to behave differently in responding to the particular challenge of entering the land of Israel, he wants to teach them that their parents’ model of responding to challenge and failure with resilience and steadfast commitment is quite a legacy to inherit. It is not one to spurn, but to celebrate and emulate.
This week in the Jewish calendar, in addition to being the opening parasha of the Book of Deuteronomy, is the 9th of Av. It is the day on the Jewish calendar that we commemorate the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, and other calamities in Jewish history. It is a day to recognize, and mourn, that we live in a broken world, far from the ideal. As we confront this reality and all the emotions it evokes, may we take inspiration from the Israelite parents who wandered endlessly in the wilderness, responding to their failure and what could not be with perseverance, striving to make a better reality for their children to inhabit. And may we take inspiration from their children who had to forgive their parent’s failure, accept the brokenness they inherited, so they could also receive the gifts of their ancestors and continue the work of repair.
Rabbi Daniel Klein is the Dean of Students at Hebrew College. A lifelong seeker, Rabbi Klein lived, studied and worked in Chicago, San Francisco and New York before finding his way back home to Boston as a student in the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. Rabbi Klein was ordained by Hebrew College in 2010 and now lives in his hometown of Newton, MA with his wife Jen and their two children, Micah and Nora.
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