Parshat Devarim: Who Are You?
This week we begin the fifth and final book of the Torah, Sefer Devarim – The Book of Deuteronomy. Devarim is unique amongst the rest of the books of the Torah as it is primarily a speech that Moshe gives before his passing. It takes place at the end of their 40-year desert trek as the Israelites are poised to enter into the Promised Land.
After hearing of their geographical location, the Torah narrates that, Moshe began to explain this Torah, saying… But the oddity here is that at this point of the narrative we don’t really get any explanation of the Torah. You would think that maybe now would be an opportune time to remind the Israelites of the 10 Commandments – clearly the highlight and goal of their Exodus from Egypt. Or maybe introduce them to the Shema Yisrael, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” – which has become the credo of our nation. But Moshe doesn’t mention either of these until later on in his speech and there doesn’t appear to be any explaining of the Torah here.
Instead Moshe gives them a brief history lesson of events that transpired in the last number of years and how they got to where they are now. He recounts the story of the twelve spies and their intimidating report of Canaan that led to the mass rebellion by the people who didn’t want to go into Eretz Yisrael and the resulting 40-year desert wandering. He also recounts other events that happened afterwards.
It seems to be a bit of a non-sequitur. We are told that Moshe is about to begin explaining the Torah, but instead he reminds them of their recent history and how they reached this point in time and place. It doesn’t really seem to fit. Unless that is precisely the point that Moshe is trying to get across.
Moshe began to explain this Torah is not just about the do’s and don’ts of Judaism. Before we can get to any of that we need a context of how we reached where we are. Before The 10 Commandments, before the Shema and the myriad of mitzvot recounted in Deuteronomy – all very important and crucial in their own right – we need to recall our history and what brought us here.
A sense of history and of the past is necessary before we can delve into the nitty-gritty of Torah.
I know this is how it was for me and countless others in their journey back to Judaism. It starts with a connection to our history, to our heritage, to our people and to the thousands of years of drama, pain and glory of the Jewish nation over countless places throughout time.
When I was about 15 years old and came across novels by Chaim Potok who described the rich world of Jewish life, Torah and Mitzvot, I felt a disconnect to this world that I knew was a huge part of my own personal family history. And that disconnect, that detachment was the beginning of a series of events that motivated me to find out more about who I was as a Jew.
Before Moshe can begin to tell the Jewish people the meaning of the Mitzvot, he needs to remind them of the meaning of their history. And by doing so, Moshe establishes a precedent for us in offering an effective way to engage any Jewish person. They need to be made aware of who they are and from whence they came. Before we can discuss the details of being a Jew, we need to tell the story of being a Jew.
This is why Israel trips like Birthright, Momentum and the like are so crucial. They give people a starting point and context of their identity. They bring them to a place where they can touch and feel and smell and taste and see so much of our history. They get to experience 3500 years of our people in the layers of stones at the Kotel, in the spiritual air of Tsfat, in the soupy buoyant waters of the Dead Sea, in the pain and horrors at Yad VaShem, in the glorious fortress of Massada and in the teaming life of every type of Jew at Machane Yehuda on Friday afternoon and at the Kotel on Friday night. By connecting to our land, to its history and to its people we gain a better sense of who we are.
To illustrate, here’s just one example a woman wrote upon her return from a Momentum trip:
I’ve been home for 24 hours now and I continue to reflect on my journey to Israel with my 21 sistaz and so thankful for the friendships I made. The entire journey was incredible including (no special order but all important): the food and lots of it, the many many laughs, the understanding of Israeli culture, the land, the people, inspirational leaders that were beyond amazing. I’ve learned so much and thankful to Karen for selecting me for this once in lifetime journey. I can’t wait to see what the future holds.
This connection to our people and history is a crucial component alongside the great wisdom of Torah and Mitzvot in having someone become a more involved Jew. One needs to see the larger context and history and how it’s special and unique to each person in particular, so they get a sense of their place in it. As Rav Noah used to say, “You cannot love what you don’t know”.
And once a Jew has experienced that, then, just as Moshe got the Jewish people ready for their journey into the land of Israel, they too are ready to continue on their lifelong journey into our Torah, the beauty of our Mitzvot and the special place that Israel has for us all.
Moshe began to explain this Torah starts with knowing about our magnificent people, land and history.
I know there’s a place you walked
Where love falls from the trees…
Well, who are you?
Who are you? Who, who, who, who?
I really wanna know
Who are you? Who, who, who, who?