The stories in the Torah speak to people at every level of intellect and education. For those who love to delve into its mysteries, there is no end. For those who love to study human psychology, its characters are rife with personalities of every type. We can all find a person in its pages with whom we can relate and from whom we can learn. I remember how our rabbi would tell me how much he could relate to Moshe as the leader of his community.
In Devarim, Moshe would be retelling the story of their 40 years in the desert, but now in his own words whereas in the first four books, it was the Bore Olam who dictated what to write. Many have questioned whether Moshe really did write Devarim known in the Greek as Deuteros Nomos, meaning “second law”. Others say it would have made more sense for the fifth book to have been the book of Joshua. Wikipedia says, most scholars have accepted that the core of Deuteronomy was composed in Jerusalem in the 7th century BCE during the reign of King Josiah between 641–609 BCE.’ Whenever it was written or whoever wrote it, to me this is secondary to seeking how we can apply its teachings to our lives today.
Each of us was born in a home in which the atmosphere was the soil for our development and would set the stage for the paths that we would take later in life. Psychologists today say that the most important years in the development of our characters are up to the age of 6. If we look at Moshe’s early years, we might say that it was a bit dysfunctional. It began with him being abandoned by his mother who couldn’t take care of him. It was not that she didn’t want to but because they were murdering Hebrew boys in Egypt in those days. He was left to float in a basket down the river until he was found and adopted by a princess. What are the odds of that? He was then brought up in a palace in which he was immersed in a culture that worshipped many gods and above all, the cult of death. Despite all this, he managed to rise about it and would become a great leader in our history. How? We read in the second chapter of Exodus, that Miriam said to Pharaoh’s daughter, ‘Shall I go and call a nurse from the Hebrew women for you, so that she may nurse the child for you?’ And Pharaoh’s daughter replied to Yocheved, his mother, ‘Take this child away, and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages. And the woman took the child and nursed it.’ Was this a stroke of luck or Divine intervention?
It was customary at that time that a child could be nursed to at least 5 years of age. We saw that with Samuel whose father Elkanah brought him to the Temple to Eli at an age that he could serve him. Moshe would certainly have been taught by family that he was a Hebrew and most probably told to keep his heritage a secret inside the palace, very much like when Mordechai told Esther not to say that she was a Jew. In both cases, what would speak most highly of who they were, was their behavior, not their outward appearance. This also reminds me of Joseph; all of them found favor in their foreign environments for a purpose. It serves as a reminder for us who live in environments surrounded by people who do not think as we do; may our behavior speak louder than our words.
In his early days, Moshe had tried to fight for his people, but he did it by himself and had to learn the hard way until his experiences humbled him enough so that he could allow God to take the lead; Esther, on the other hand was obedient to her uncle Mordecai; she prayed and then used godly wisdom and strategy to win the battle. Joseph’s pride also had to be crushed before the Creator could use him to save his people from starvation. Moshe would spend many years in the desert learning the skills that he would need to fulfill his calling. Few of us have a calling as far reaching as Joseph, Moshe and Esther had, but we are all called. And I’m sure if we look back upon our lives, we can see the reason we had to go through certain things before God could use us. I remember loving Spanish in school. I studied it for five years not knowing how useful it would be for me today in this community.
As we begin the book of Devarim, Moshe is standing at the border of the Promised Land knowing that he won’t be able to enter with his people. He was telling them that he hadn’t been able to handle the burden of them alone and said to them “So I took the chiefs of your tribes, wise men who were known, and made them chiefs over you, captains over thousands, over hundreds, and over fifties, and over tens, as well as officers among your tribes.” Some of us are given the responsibility over ten people, and some more, some less, but we are all responsible for someone. That responsibility can become too heavy to bear at times. Moshe would keep repeating, “do not be afraid.” In fact, this parashah ends with “You shall not fear them; for the LORD your God, it is He who fights for you.’ When we become so paralyzed with fear, we lose the ability to bear any burden of responsibility, and by so doing, we lose the blessings of our calling and the joy of our journey.
Moshe was at the culmination of his journey and was desperately trying to remind the second generation to never forget all that they had learned. I keep trying to picture what Moshe would have felt, knowing that he was not going on with the people whom he had led for 40 years. He knew what they needed to do but he also knew that they would not listen or obey what they had been taught even after seeing all that their parents had suffered. It seems that every generation must repeat this process of choosing life over death. In my generation everyone was choosing life because we had just survived the Holocaust. We had a reason to live because we had to fight for our very existence. This generation is choosing death, but they don’t know it yet. They think that they are more advanced and that everything is improving because they are so much more technologically advanced or can fly to Mars.
How was Moshe feeling in those days? I’ll never forget the first day I took my first baby girl to school for the very first time. I suffered the whole day. Had I prepared her for what she would have to face? Perhaps Moshe wrote this book out of quiet desperation. Now he would blurt out so many things in sequence, out of sequence… whatever came to his head. When I spend time with people in my family who are secular, I feel so desperate inside because I want to protect them from what I believe is coming but I feel so helpless. In my desperation, I cannot always be myself and I may do and say things which come out wrong and then lose credibility. That feeling of desperation is real but then I realize it’s not my job to change their hearts; it’s God’s job.
Moshe was obedient to the voice of the Creator because he was blessed to have spoken to Him face to face. Can any of us imagine what it is like to speak to the Creator face to face? By reminding ourselves of that and of how God was with the Hebrews every step of the way, it helps us to find that place within where we “know” that we can trust Him. He never let the Israelites down and He has never let us down. We need to remember that every single day, especially in those moments when we experience something that triggers in us, sorrow, shame, regret, fear, anger, feelings of not being safe, of not being good enough. Those are the emotions that characterized the journey of Israel to the Promised Land.
What does the Promised Land look like for us? Well for me, it represents the “land of promises”. God would always keep His promises to us. Our part is to be obedient. Moshe was not afraid to face God. Are we? We may walk away from Him, He does not walk away from us and when we do, we are turning our back on Him. That’s a huge sign of disrespect. Has anyone ever done that to you? You may want to speak to them about something important, but they just walk away. That is so painful. We may not realize that we don’t want to face Him. We may be too lost in shame, fear, regret, or something of which He might not approve, so we turn from the land of promises and remain on this side of the Jordan. We know how that turned out for the three tribes who chose that. Let’s not allow it to happen to us. We are on the journey toward our Promised Land and as our rabbi said last week, it’s not the goal that counts; what counts is the journey in which there are many battles and struggles, but they serve to make us stronger.
God’s plan will go ahead with or without us. Isn’t it better for us that we allow Him to be our cloud by day and fire by night? What does that look like? It looks like TRUST. That’s what Joshua and Caleb had. That’s why they would be the ones to continue the journey. But no one said it would be easy; it would be a battleground and they would need to learn to walk in trust every step of the way. Moshe was reminding the people about all the times they had complained instead of trusting the Creator. And they had the perfect Father. He had clearly laid out all the rules. They didn’t have to second guess Him but still, the children of Israel didn’t trust Him. That should help us as parents to know that if our perfect Father in heaven had children who failed, who are we to think that we and our children will do better. We will fail every day. Moshe, who spoke face to face with God, failed and didn’t enter the Promised Land but his journey was filled with stories that are meant to help guide us in our lives. Let’s not be too hard on ourselves but remember that our God is a “God of Beginning Again”. Let’s learn from these stories and continuously ask God to help us to trust Him. He will always meet us halfway, but we need to take the first steps to do what we never thought we could… one day at a time, one hour at a time, one minute at a time…and the most important thing to remember is that we are not walking this journey alone.