The Passover Haggadah famously distinguishes between the wise and wicked children by the singular choice of the wise child to identify with the story: "It is because of what the Eternal did for us [me] when I came out of Egypt." At the very core of the Jewish enterprise is the willingness to take the story of our people as our own personal story.
The decision to frame the people's narrative as our very own is the way the Book of Deuteronomy opens. The Torah speaks through the voice of Moses: "The Eternal our God spoke to us at Horeb" (Deuteronomy 1:6); "We set out from Horeb" (1:19); "When we reached Kadesh-barnea (1:20), and so on. Were we to read the text on its surface (p'shat) level, we would have a problem here. We already learned that the people who stood at Horeb (Sinai) perished in the desert. Those who escaped from Egypt, who stood at Mt. Sinai, who traveled to Kadesh-barnea, who complained day and night, and who finally decided to go back to Egypt following the doom and gloom testimony of ten of the twelve scouts—that generation died out in the desert (1:34-36). To whom is Moses speaking? Presumably, he is speaking to the next generation. This generation did not stand at Sinai; they were not at Kadesh-barnea. The Book of Deuteronomy has taken the fantastic leap into Jewish storytelling: Yes! We did stand at Horeb. Yes! We were at Kadesh-barnea! Yes, yes, yes! This story is ours.
At one and the same moment, we read the Book of Deuteronomy on more than one level. On the surface, Moses is speaking to the generation of Israelites born in the desert as they prepare to enter the Promised Land. On its eternal level, the text is speaking to us—all of us. The book closes with this reminder in Nitzavim: "You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God . . . I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us today before the Eternal our God and with those who are not with us here this day" (29:9, 13-14).
D'varim. Words. "These are the words (d'varim) that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan" (1:1). When God first addressed Moses at the Burning Bush, sending him on his life's mission, to speak to Pharaoh and to liberate the Israelite slaves, Moses balked, saying, Lo ish d'varim anochi . . . , "I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue" (Exodus 4:10). And now, at the end of his life, Moses has become a man of words; he has become the master storyteller.
The master storyteller must tell us not only what happened, but also what it all means, why it's worth remembering. The story that Moses tells (though likely written and finalized centuries later), is one of chastisements and rebuke—of tochecha—the "deuteronomic" voice of reward and punishment. This bothered the Chasidic sage, HaSaba miSlobodka (Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, a disciple of Rabbi Israel Salanter), who wrote, (liberal translation my own),
"When the words of Torah have condemnation and rebuke in them, the Holy One of Blessing does not attach the Divine Name to them, for the Holy One and violence do not mix. See what the Sages have noted [Yalkut Shoftim remez 62] about Jeremiah: at the moment he prophesied words of comfort, the Holy One's name is united with them, as it is written, "Thus said the Eternal, 'I accounted to your favor the devotion of your youth" [Jeremiah 2:2]. But with words of chastisement, it is written, "The words of Jeremiah [Jeremiah 1:1]. And so it is with Moses . . . "These are the words that Moses spoke." It is true that words of chastisement stem from a prophetic source, and they are part of Torah, and there is a great purpose in them - to bring about repentance and good deeds. But even with this great purpose, God does not desire them, and does not attach the Divine Name to them, because they cause sorrow and anguish of the soul; there is no complete joy in them" (Iturei Torah, Deuteronomy 1:1).1
That will be our task as well, as we journey through the Book of Deuteronomy—to find the places where Divine wisdom speaks to us and to have the courage to name the places where it doesn't.
1. Translated by Rabbi Shira Milgrom from Hebrew, Iturei Torah, D'varim, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, copyright, Y. Orenstein, 1995) p. 9
Rabbi Shira Milgrom is a rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, New York. She is part of a unique rabbinic partnership of two co-senior rabbis. She is the author of articles about Jewish spirituality, education, healing, and women in Judaism and is the editor of a unique siddur used now for two decades in settings across the continent. She is blessed to learn continually about loving from her husband, children, and grandchildren.
There is great power in language, in our words. It draws us in. Every time we recite the words, Adonai Eloheinu, "the Eternal our God," we write ourselves into the Jewish story. Yet, the very same language that writes us in, the very same stories that draw us in, also write others out. There can only be an "us" if there is also a "them." This is the implication of the portion's words, "The Eternal our God spoke to us at Horeb . . ."
There remain some for whom these words are foreign, who are cast aside by them. Hidden within this concept of us are the words "not them"—and the even more painful "not you."
It is these thoughts that continue to haunt me after officiating at a particularly tragic funeral. A young couple asked me to help them bury their child. Because one parent is Jewish and the other Christian, only half the mourners were Jewish. I wondered, was I helping the mourners with the words I recited, especially those said in Hebrew? Were the tradition's words that are our inheritance and bring our people so much comfort instead making half of those present feel excluded?
As we turned to the ritual of placing the shovels full of earth into the grave, I invited all to participate. Some quietly asked me if it would be OK for them to take part given that they are not Jewish. I answered with an emphatic, "Yes, of course." Everyone took turns: parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins; friends, rabbis, and pastors; Jews and Christians. No one stopped until the task was completed and the mitzvah fulfilled.
I smoothed over the earth that now reached the edges of the grass. I thanked all for participating. We were united by the work of our hands.
An ordinary shovel had become an instrument of holiness. A minyan of sorrow had been formed. Perhaps tragedy makes us one. Suffering and pain can draw us together. In that moment, standing at that grave, I discovered that there are moments when there is only us and no them. Such was the gift and teaching of a child now gone.
Words might exclude. Actions unite.
Rabbi Steven Moskowitz is the rabbi of the Jewish Congregation of Brookville on Long Island's North Shore. He blogs at: www.rabbimoskowitz.com .
D'varim, Deuteronomy 1:1–3:22
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,312–1,333; Revised Edition, pp. 1,161–1,173;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,037–1,062