Actually, Words , plural. Dvarim. We begin the end, the last book of the Torah, (Deuteronomy.) Most of the book is Moses talking to the people. For a guy who started out slow of tongue in
Exodus, he certainly found his stride.
Dvarim is a recap. Previously on “Travels with the Israelites…..”
Have you ever thought about what you would actually say to someone if you knew you weren’t going to see them ever again? What if you’d been their leader, their focus for a long and perilous journey, and now it’s over? Think about how people leave behind wills both ethical and material, offer death-bed statements, grand farewells, or whispered goodbyes. How do you pick out which of the thousands of words you know will be the ones to say, the ones that will carry the most weight, and have the most lasting effect? Which of your words that will make a difference?
This is Moses’ task. So, he begins with a review of their travels since Mt. Sinai, but it’s not an exact repetition. In fact, throughout this last book of Torah, there are several different versions of major moments in the shared experience since leaving Exodus, including Sinai itself.
So what if there are discrepancies in the retelling. Does it matter? Is it just bad memory? After all, Moses is pretty old now, and maybe his recall is sketchy. But maybe he leaves out parts and adds others to make his point more clearly. This is, after all, the end, and he has one shot left. He’s thinking about how many times the people have messed up, disobeyed God, and how he’d always talked God down from wanting to call off the whole covenant thing. Now they’ll have to handle this God relationship by themselves, with no Moses to intervene.
Moses’ words really matter here, and if he has to change the stories a little, it’s more important that the stories hit home.
It’s as if the reinterpretation of Torah has already begun, and Moses is the first to do it. The ongoing, re-explanation, re-presentation, re-application of Torah text isn’t so radical after all.I think that’s the connection between this text and the calendar. This parasha is read the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, (9th day of Av) the national day of mourning, which commemorates, among other disasters, the destruction of the First ( 586 BCE) and Second Temple (70 CE) in Jerusalem. When the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, esteemed Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai smuggled himself out of Jerusalem and established a center of learning outside the city. For the first time, rabbis started to contemplate what life without the Temple would be like, and how Jews would go about continuing being Jews. No more priests? Can’t sacrifice animals anymore? Can’t make pilgrimage to Jerusalem? Ok, let’s see what else we can do…. It was a not-so-subtle shift of power away from the priests, to the rabbis.
Rabbi Yochanan and his followers began to write down their thoughts, their words, and those words became what we know today as the Talmud, a compendium of conversations, quarrels, and questions. It was the Congressional Record of their day. We continue to read and study and grapple with the words they left behind, and if we’re lucky, we can join in the conversation today through our own study. In some ways, our lives as modern Jews began at that point, when the physical center of our ritual universe disappeared. From then till now, we practice Judaism according to how those exiled scholars began to interpret and apply the Torah to new situations, not the way the way Biblical Israelites practiced. Judaism became portable. Judaism survived and flourished.
We can mourn the destruction of the Temple and what it meant to the community, up to a point. But in Jewish tradition, there is an end to mourning. We put away our pain, so we can focus on who and what is still alive. Every year, we mark the passing of our beloved one, or in this case, our beloved place. But we have grown so far beyond where we were back then, that I don’t want to go back to that Temple time. We emerged as a community from sadness and destruction to something stronger, more vital, more diverse; yes, more challenging, but certainly alive.
We owe it all to words, dvarim. Words of history and faith. Words of challenges and words of commitment. Moses’ dvarim and those of all the rabbis and seekers since, echo down to us today, and it’s our sacred duty to see that they aren’t forgotten.