I was up at the Great Lakes Naval Recruit Center again this weekend. As part of a clergy/lay rotation, I occasionally go to the Base to lead Friday night services, and again on Sunday mornings to teach a class. This last weekend, I was fortunate enough to be at the Base for both Shabbat and Sunday, and the same recruit was at both gatherings. He’s a little older than many of the recruits; he’s married, has one child, and another due in winter. He was born Jewish, identifies as Jewish, and he himself has been away from any regular, ritual Jewish life. But he found us on Friday night, and came again on Sunday morning to learn.
During our brief conversations, he mentioned a story his grandmother used to tell him, something about Solomon and a ring and “This too shall pass”, but couldn’t remember any more. It was a simple Google search to find the story: King Solomon seeks to humble one of his ministers, and sends him on a quest for a magical ring that will make happy men cry, and sad men rejoice, just by looking at it. Never imagining that such a ring exists, the minister surprises the King by coming back with a ring on which three Hebrew letters are engraved: G-Z-Y : Gam Zeh Ya’avor –This too shall pass”. The King understands that his minister has indeed, found the magical ring.
I think of this regarding this week’s parasha, Dvarim. We are starting the book of Devarim, Deuteronomy, for which I think the term “revisionist history” was invented (more on that in the coming weeks.) Here, the previously described “slow of tongue” Moses talks almost non-stop for 34 chapters. He’s re-telling the saga of the last 40 years to the Israelites, none of whom (save Joshua and Caleb) actually experienced Egypt, the Exodus, Sinai or anything but wandering in the wilderness.
In “The Women’s Torah Commentary” (Ed. Rabbi Elyse Goldstein), Rabbi Analia Burtz writes about the root word “a-v-r” oft-repeated in this parasha. Its meaning is cross over, go past, go ahead, and indeed, the Israelites are standing at a tipping point, on a hill, ready to become “ivrim”, those who cross over into the Land. (Abraham was known as an “ivri”, one who crossed over a river in his wanderings…The Hebrews are known as “ivrim”; the Hebrew language is ivrit, and yes, it’s all connected) They are on the east side of the Jordan, and can see the Land from where they stand. Other phrases in the parasha use this word, describing how the Israelites had “passed through” the territories of other peoples. Avar also means “in the past, ago”, as in grammatically opposite from future tense. The Israelites are at the very spot between their past and their future.
Moses will not be one who crosses over. His punishment from the wilderness is that he will
never step foot across the river, into the Land that has been his sole goal for the past 40 years. The people will go ahead without him. This is truly his last chance to impress upon them all he can about God, the Torah the laws, the community, the goals and values, everything. Maybe he’s saying to the people, “Gam Zeh Yaavor”, this moment, this almost physical feeling of possibility – such a vision of the future, a foot in both places – this will pass and it’s up to you to keep trying to stay on course, in line with the teachings and the guidance of those who came before you.
My young recruit friend is passing through a challenging part of his life; boot camp isn’t fun, but he has his eyes on where he’s going, and what he’s building for himself, his family, and his country. Much like the Israelites, perhaps, he is standing at the verge of crossing over. His moment is palpable. Ours? Maybe not so much. Maybe we are experiencing “crossing over” moments every day, but we don’t have a Moses to say to us, “This! Remember this! This is Important! Now”. Why not take a few minutes to be your own Moses, reminding yourself that each day we’re on a hill, poised to be ivrim, to take the next step over into our futures.