D’var Torah for Dvarim: Sealing the story in: a Watsonian reading

Here’s the d’var Torah I offered for last week’s Torah portion yesterday at my shul. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)


Devarim-FlickrThe book of Dvarim, also known as Deuteronomy, begins on the far side of the Jordan River. Most of us don’t speak Greek, so the Greek name Deuteronomy doesn’t mean anything to us beyond being the name of this book of the Torah. But it comes from the Greek Deuteronomion, which means “second law.” This book of Torah is called Deuteronomy because it is largely a retelling. The Hebrew name Dvarim can mean either “words” or “things.” The opening line of the book reads, “These are the words (or things) which Moshe said to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.” Over the course of this book, Moshe will remind the Israelites of the journey they’ve undergone.

In this week’s portion, which is also called D’varim, Moshe reminds them of a few choice incidents. Notably, the moment when he realized he couldn’t do everything himself, so he appointed magistrates and judges to share the burden of leadership — and the the time when they sent twelve scouts into the promised land, and ten of the scouts lost faith in God, which doomed the whole generation to wander in the wilderness. And then Moshe reminds them of some of the battles they’ve experienced. Both the hard stories, times when God warned them that She was angry and wasn’t going into battle with them — but the people failed to listen, and went into battle anyway, and lost grievously… and the proud stories, times when they defeated powerful rival kings and nations, because they had God on their side.

Leaving aside for the moment how we respond to the theology which said that God went with us when we won, and God was angry at us when we lost — what is going on in this parsha? Place yourself in the sandals of the children of Israel. They’ve just spent forty years in the wilderness. They’ve encamped on the banks of the river which is the final boundary between them and the nation they intend to conquer. Why are they listening to the retelling of a story they just lived?

From a historico-critical point of view, one could make the case that this is a visible seam between two different stories, written down at different times. For those who are serious Sherlock Holmes fans, this is called the Doylist perspective: looking at the story with awareness of the circumstances of its authorship.  But from a Watsonian point of view — looking at the story from the perspective of someone who is inside the story — there’s a different way to make sense of this retelling. Moshe is retelling the story they’ve all just lived through because it’s a way to sanctify their memories and seal those memories into their hearts.

It’s like this. Imagine you throw a big party — a wedding, or a b’nei mitzvah celebration, or a fiftieth anniversary shindig — and when it’s almost over, you find yourself sitting around a table with people you love, talking about what went well and what you might do differently next time. You reprise the event you’ve just experienced: wasn’t that a fabulous dress on Aunt Shirley, how about those cigars Uncle Jay brought in his vest pocket, did you hear that story Grandma told about the time when… (And so on.)  In retelling the story of what you’ve just experienced, you stretch out the pleasure of the experience a little bit longer. You don’t have to let it end quite yet, because in telling the story, you’re making it last longer.

Moshe and the children of Israel have just lived through forty years in the wilderness. And it must be clear to Moshe that this is an inflection point, a moment of transition between what has been and what’s about to be. His sister Miriam is long gone. His brother Aaron is long gone. Most of that generation which experienced slavery in Mitzrayim has passed on. Moshe is at the end of an era. When he finishes retelling their story, he will be gathered up to God; that’s how the book of Dvarim ends. But before he says his final farewells, he pauses to remind everyone of everything they’ve just experienced, the bitter and the sweet.

We read this parsha as we’re beginning to approach the end of 5773. Tisha b’Av is this coming Monday night and Tuesday; from Tisha b’Av, it’s seven weeks — a mere forty-nine days — until Rosh Hashanah. What would it be like to pause now and reflect on the year now ending — the bitter and the sweet — before we cross the river into the unknown future which awaits us? How might our new year change if we paused now to remember the old year from start to finish, if we paused now to make teshuvah for the places where we missed the mark?

Of course, every retelling is different. My retelling of 5773 will be different from yours. My memories of this year are my own; the places where I feel proud, the places where I feel chagrined, are my own. And by that same token, the story Moshe tells as the children of Israel are encamped by the river is the story as he remembers it — shaped by his own memories, his places of frustration and his places of joy and pride. We don’t know what story each of the other Israelites would have told about their generation of wandering: about eating manna, welcoming Shabbat week after week in the wilderness, the scouts and the battles. But even if we would tell the story of this journey, the story of this year, differently, there is common ground. All of us could benefit from pausing to tell the story of who and where we’ve been. All of us will experience a different transition into the promised land, into the new year, if we stop to recount how we got here and what we learned along the way.

Image source: Devarim | Flickr.

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