Last week, after getting a glimpse of the Promised Land, but finding out that he would not enter it, Moses began his farewell address. What does he choose for his parting words? A story . . . the story of the lives of many of his listeners. Why does he tell it? Didn't they know their own story? Hadn't they themselves lived it?
While the content of Moses's message may seem strange, choosing to tell it was actually very clever. The people are approaching a new stage in their collective existence, however, it's unclear if their group identity has fully solidified. Moreover, if the older generation won't enter the Land, it's uncertain what aspects of the past will be remembered and retained.
These concerns dominate this week's and last week's parashiyot, as Moses imagines how the people will be after they settle in the Promised Land. Will they forget that God delivered them from Egyptian bondage and brought them to the Land once they are enjoying its bounty? Will they believe that the bounty is a reflection only of their own work and not realize that what they enjoy is due to God, Creator of everything and the One who cares for them?
In last week's parashah, we found a passage familiar to many us from the Haggadah. Addressing the generation that left Egypt, Moses warns, "When, in time to come, your children ask you, 'What mean the decrees, laws, and rules that the Eternal our God has enjoined upon you?' you shall say to your children, 'We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Eternalfreed us from Egypt with a mighty hand. The Eternal wrought before our eyes marvelous and destructive signs and portents in Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household; and us [God] freed from there, in order to take us and give us the land promised on oath to our fathers. Then the Eternal commanded us to observe all these laws, to revere the Eternal our God, for our lasting good and for our survival, as is now the case'"(Deuteronomy 6:20-24).
This week, Moses addresses the same group, but the focus shifts. Not only is there a concern that the next generation will fail to uphold the laws and statutes, but there is also a concern that the generation that actually left Egypt itself will fail to uphold them. This reality leads Moses to offer a detailed review of specific moments that this generation has lived. Step-by-step, they are reminded of their journey from slavery to freedom to Sinai to the edge of the Promised Land. All of this is followed by the coda: ". . . it was you who saw with your own eyes all the marvelous deeds that the Eternal performed. Keep, therefore, all the Instruction that I enjoin upon you today, so that you may have the strength to enter and take possession of the land that you are about to cross into and possess, and that you may long endure upon the soil that the Eternal swore to your fathers to assign to them and to their heirs, a land flowing with milk and honey"(Deuteronomy 11:7-9).
Perhaps upon hearing Moses's recap of ancient and recent history, the next generation will question its veracity. And if they question its veracity, they might question the enduring relationship between Israel and God that resulted in their inhabiting the Land. In contrast, those who lived that history, those who saw it with their own eyes, will not be able to deny it. But will their recollections be shared? Will they highlight the same moments? Will each ascribe his or her own meaning to the life-altering experiences that the community and the individuals within it lived? Will there be as many stories as there were people? Or will they come to share a master narrative with some individualized moments? Will the people see themselves as having both a common past and a common future? Moses seems to be aware of the risks that are involved; he sees all that's at stake if the story doesn't take on some fixed form embedded with specific meanings and messages that it is meant to convey.
And so, Moses tells the people their story: the steps along the way, the moments of joy and distress, the moments of belief and doubt. He punctuates the story with the reminder of God's presence at every step along the way, with each step offering a sign of God's love and concern for the people. Those who saw all of these moments that are now a shared history are thus enabled to pass on two things to their children: their own recollections and the official story of their people, replete with an officially endorsed collective interpretation. And even when the details of the stories begin to fade, the message will carry on. In this case, Moses suggests, members of the next generation will be able, like their parents, to see with their own eyes how real the enduring message is, as they enjoy the fruits of God's love and care, figuratively and literally, once they settle in the Land. But that will only happen if they have the opportunity to hear it and learn it and then own it. And they, in turn, may be able to tell their own stories, and those that they remember from their parents and grandparents, to their own children and grandchildren, passing on moments and anecdotes that are ever changing in order to inculcate the enduring message of their people.
The stories and their message will endure only if they produce behaviors that demonstrate the veracity of the message-only if those who believe the message see it as the basis for their lives. Anyone can be kind to a stranger. But it's far more powerful to have a story that reminds us that we were strangers, and then slaves, in Egypt, a story that demonstrates that when we are kind to strangers it's because we remember who we are and where we've been. Only then will we understand "kindness to strangers"as a fundamental part of our identity. Everyone can enjoy rest, a break from work. But when we rest because we remember that we are part of Creation and that rest is a holy act, we approach it in a different spirit-a spirit that reinforces our sense of belonging to a larger whole. It's on this reality that Moses focuses the attention of the elders perched on the edge of the Promised Land. Yes, the story matters, but only inasmuch as it informs their daily lives, so that they and their children can see that God's Presence, as the official story teaches, is real.
Rabbi Nancy H. Wiener, D.Min., is clinical director of the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling and adjunct professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. She is also the rabbi of the Pound Ridge Jewish Community, a Reform chavurah, in Pound Ridge, New York.