5771 — Devarim — “Reading a Familiar Story, Rendering it Unfamiliar”

03/09/2011 at 21:27 Leave a comment

“Reading a Familiar Story, Rendering It Unfamiliar”

 

Parashat Devarim

Neil F. Blumofe

6 August 2011

 

I have often wondered why we always begin our renewed study and exploration of this last book of Torah – Sefer Devarim – on the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av.  Certainly there is a linguistic parallel – the word Eicha, which can be translated as, “how can this be” – introduces the Book of Lamentations and is found in the opening verses of Deuteronomy; and also, the codes of our halachic literature maintain that Devarim precedes Tisha b’Av because Moshe’s rebuke to the Israelites is appropriate for introducing this day of mourning.

 

However, I maintain that Tisha b’Av is not an end unto itself – it is not just a day of feeling sad and diminished. What can we do with the power of this day – where do we go from here – how can we go forward knowing that acknowledging such grief is a part of our life? Thinking about the relationship between Devarim and Tisha b’Av gives us added insight in how masterfully our tradition guides us. When the floor is opened beneath us – as we move through Tisha b’Av, we are encouraged to reset our priorities and address our assumptions.

 

What is Sefer Devarim? Besides being known as the Book of Deuteronomy, our sages also call this last book of the Torah, the Mishneh Torah, or the review of the Torah. It tells the story of the people again – much like one would when catching up with a friend that you haven’t seen in a while. Our tradition is asking us how we tell our stories. When we review something for someone – what are the familiar paths that we go down in relating the events – what do we embellish?  What do we leave out? What details are changed for our benefit? The ways that our Torah retells our experiences in the wilderness can give us important lessons of how we think about our own lives – especially in this time, in these seven weeks before Rosh haShanah and the turning of the New Year.

 

As you may know, on the High Holydays, we are encouraged to review our actions and strive to improve as we walk a path toward teshuvah. We are encouraged to leaven the good from the bad – to gently shift our experiences, not to come to any dire conclusions about our general worth of character. Indeed, the image that we hold during these Days of Awe is setting our dealings out for a review in plain sight, so God can see them and look at the relative merits of what we have said or accomplished. Perhaps we acknowledge that there are many truths and complexities in our deeds and rarely is something all good or bad.

 

In setting out the Mishneh Torah before us as we begin this process of opening ourselves up through Tisha b’Av and in the weeks that follow, we begin to review our own stories, in all of their grandeur and pettiness – and we relearn to tell ourselves better truths that what we might normally admit.

 

In our relationships with each other, especially our loved ones, it would be easy to qualify deficiencies and strengths in two separate columns, rationalizing why we may be better off alone or with someone else – yet we know that our relationships are not that absolute – we make compromises and choices, deciding what we can live with, and what is inadmissible – what crosses our red line.

 

So, in our review of our Torah – in retelling our story, this too is a deeper connection – beginning Deuteronomy just before Tisha b’Av. As we study this narrative as related by Moses to the people, gathered on the shores of the Jordan, prepared to enter into the Promised Land, we take to heart the subtle lessons of our larger story as we come to terms with our own – and also, we know the ending. We know that God had a red line that Moses crossed, that prevented Moses from entering into the land – namely, if we follow the commentary of Rashi, striking the rock instead of speaking to it. We know that for whatever reason, and our traditions do exegetical gymnastics to try and explain it – God did not want Moses in the new land, no matter what he said.

 

In our review of our own stories – for who do we also have a red line? Who do we also banish to the farthest reaches of our access – and we know that there may not be a clear or rational reason for what we feel so. In Judaism, that some describe as a tent – who fits underneath it, and who must go to another campsite? Do we have people in our lives that no matter what, teshuvah is not going to happen? Are there people in our community whose beliefs, politics, or practices are just not consistent with what we consider to be appropriate? Further, do we have a red line in what we think is appropriate in advocacy for Israel? Is there a way in our minds for someone to separate themselves from what is acceptable?

 

We begin telling the Book of Deuteronomy as we begin to review our own – as we create our own Mishneh Torah in these important weeks. We begin by separating out the larger, most obvious pieces – what we are willing to live with and what we are not – and by Rosh haShanah we are examining the finer grades of shale that exist in our lives – and perhaps, our tradition is guiding us, that what we think are the biggest, easiest pieces, are really more intricate and involved and less obviously good or bad, and the biggest pieces especially need to be reexamined.

 

In this Book of Devarim, we are given the gift of many practical mitzvot – ways that would help govern our everyday life and our shared relationships as we create a responsible society together. We are given a blueprint that helpfully expands and adapts our story as we retell it. May we receive this guidance as we assess our own narrative – and not just tell our stories by rote – rather, may we continue to learn lessons from them, recognizing that things are not always as they seem, and that the validations that we give for why we made certain decisions should be turned over and over again in our scrutiny. Also, we should consider whom we don’t embrace in our lives for whatever reason, and freshly inspect whether those reasons still hold.

 

May this entry into Tisha b’Av and into these weeks that follow give us honesty and also, give us comfort and reassurance as we do this hard and necessary work of reading and then rereading again, our lives.

 

Shabbat Shalom.

 

 

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