It’s An Old Song, But We Sing It Anyway

D'varim, Deuteronomy 1:1−3:22

D'Var Torah By: Cantor Evan Kent

When I prepare the Torah scroll for the upcoming Shabbat and come to that white space dividing the end of the Book of Numbers from the beginning of Deuteronomy, I feel a moment of exhilaration. Just as the words of Torah are open to many interpretations, so too is this space between the two books, which anthropologist Victor Turner describes as “liminal space” in his book, The Ritual Process (1969). These are the places of transition, “betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial.”  But it is here in this space that we find wonder, inspiration, personal and communal change, and often the power to move forward, to encounter the unknown. In the Torah, it is where we begin to leave the desert and make our way to the Promised Land.

For me, the encounter with this liminal space is a calendrical alarm clock, reminding me that the Jewish New Year is approaching. In the Torah it is like a sign in the desert that announces: “Welcome to California,” or the moment when you cross the George Washington Bridge and the sign reads: “Welcome to New York.” Here the white space says: “Welcome to Deuteronomy.” It reminds us that we are quickly coming to the end of the Torah’s yearly journey. But that space also sings and whispers to me the familiar narrative of the Jewish people: “You are on your journey home…you’ve come so far…let’s finish this expedition together…and we will soon sing our High Holiday tune: Hashiveinu v’nashuva…Return us back to You, so we can return…”

We feel both the excitement and trepidation of Moses’ stirring words, knowing that eventually, we will mourn his death at the conclusion of Deuternomy. When I enter that place between the books, I often wonder what would have happened if the story had a different outcome this time? What if Moses had been forgiven by God? What if Moses had led the people into the Land of Israel?

In February 2020, just a few weeks before Covid-19 overwhelmed our lives, I traveled from Israel to the United States to visit my family on Long Island, and also to catch up with faculty and students at HUC-JIR, meet up with college friends, and take in in a few Broadway shows. That’s when I had this insight:  Entering the theater, finding your seat, settling in, and waiting for the lights to dim is like that blank space in the Torah between what happens on stage and the “real” world on the other side of the theater’s exits sign.

The last show I saw before the Broadway theaters went dark was “Hadestown.” It is a contemporary retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice story. If you recall your Greek mythology, you will remember that Eurydice is sent to Hades and only Orpheus can lead her back to Earth, but he is warned not to turn around to see if Eurydice is still following. As myths would have it, Orpheus does look back and his beloved is banished forever back to Hades.

So-what does this “Hadestown” have to do with D’varim, this week’s Torah portion? In both, we know the outcome. At the end of Deuteronomy, we know that Moses  is telling the Israelites to obey God, not to stray from the path God has set before them, to remember that they were once slaves in Egypt – all in anticipation of his impending death, as revealed in the final verses of Deuteronomy.

As Moses blesses each of the Israelite tribes, his  tone changes from that of a sometimes angry parent to that of a loving father. Before ascending Mount Nebo to die, he offers both a remembrance of the past and hope for the future.

At the conclusion of “Hadestown,” the narrator looks directly at the audience and sings:

It’s an old song…it’s an old tale from way back when…

It’s an old song, and that’s how it ends…

The song was written long ago, and that’s how it goes.

It’s a sad song, it’s a tragedy…

But we sing it anyway…

‘Cause here’s the thing - to know how it ends and still begin to sing it again.

(Hadestown, Anais Mitchell, 2019)

These final lyrics remind us how even though we may know the outcome of the story, we read it and retell it again and again. When we hear the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, we hope that maybe, just maybe this time, Orpheus will not turn around and the couple will enter the world of the living together. When we read Torah, we can hope against hope that maybe, just maybe this time Moses will enter the Promised Land hand in hand with his successor, Joshua, instead of dying alone on Mount Nebo.

But every time we tell the story, Orpheus does turn around. And every time we finish the book of Deuteronomy, Moses does die. And every time we will finish the Book of Deuteronomy and immediately read anew the beginning of the Torah --  the Creation story -- we already know what will happen. But that is the gift of storytelling: For a brief moment we can suspend our knowledge of the revealed plot, as if we are hearing the story for the first time.

As we are told in “Hadestown”: We’re gonna sing it again and again…

And as we are told in Pirkei Avot 5:22:

“Ben Bag Bag would say: Turn it and turn it again, for all is in it; see through it; grow old and worn in it; do not budge from it, for there is nothing that works better than it.”

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