The Hardest Part of Life
This week we begin the fifth and final book of the Torah, Devarim/Deuteronomy. It is a very different book than the other four as we are now at the end of the historical narrative of Moshe and the Israelites. It is 40 years since they left the wretched existence of slavery. Devarim is pretty much a very lengthy speech that Moshe delivers before he passes on, as the nation is poised to enter into the Promised Land.
This being Moshe’s final words we need to pay close attention to how he chooses to begin his magnum opus. A lot has transpired over these past years and Moshe has quite a menu of dramatic things to choose from to begin his speech. Does he start with the amazing and miraculous Ten Plagues? No he does not. The phenomenally dramatic splitting of the sea? Nope. Ah, then it must be The 10 Commandments – the highlight and purpose of their freedom where every Jew got to experience prophecy at this world-changing national event? No, Moshe doesn’t bring that up until later on; chapter five according to our chapter counting and not even in this week’s reading.
Five verses in, the Torah writes, “Moshe began to explain this Torah and said…” Let’s pay attention to the first three things he chose to “explain this Torah”:
#1: “The Lord our God spoke to us at Chorev (another name for Mount Sinai) and said, ‘You have hung out at this mountain long enough. Turn and start travelling… Look, I have given you the land. Go and posses the land that God promised to your forefathers, to Avraham, to Yitzchak and to Yaakov.’”
#2: At that point Moshe then recounts to them that he could no longer do everything himself since the people were too numerous and had too many issues and arguments for him to deal with alone. He needed a system of courts and judges.
And finally #3: He recounts the whole sad episode of the spies going to Canaan/Israel and botching God’s plans as they turn the hearts of the Israelites away from going into the Promised Land which led to their 40-year wandering.
And here they are again, back where they started.
So why did Moshe begin his talk with these specific incidents of the past and not others? What is Moshe trying to impart to his people at the outset of this talk? Obviously one simple way to look at it is that it is a logical place to begin because they are now back to square one from whence they left. Once again they are about to enter Israel.
But there is more to this. Moshe is telling them that the time has come for them to take responsibility for themselves. Miracle time is over. No more manna falling from the sky to feed them. They will have to plant, hoe, irrigate and harvest or raise sheep and cattle to slaughter. No more Superman God swooping in and saving the day every time they are stuck between a rock and hard place like at the Red Sea. No more plagues that will take care of any conflict with enemies; they will have to go to war themselves. No more national meetings face to face with God at Mount Sinai or anywhere else for that matter. And no more Moshe to get an instant resolution from God every time a difficulty arose. He is about to take leave of them and they will be on their own.
And the hardest part
Was letting go, not taking part
Was the hardest part
No, God is not abandoning them altogether and miraculous things will still happen, but it won’t be as instantaneous and obvious as it has been up to now.
Moshe purposely did not begin his talk with the highlight of the Torah being given at Sinai, but right afterwards. He begins with post-Sinai when they were supposed to become independent but missed that opportunity, as he recounts in the spy saga. He reminds them that he, nor any leader, can do it alone and take care of all their problems but that they need to choose able leaders from among themselves. A benevolent father-like figure fixing everything is over. Now society’s ills will be addressed via courts, judges, committees and leaders, all chosen from among the people. Moshe began his talk by focusing on what they need to do for themselves. On how they had to learn to become self-governing and self-determining.
What Moshe saw and tried to impart is repeated throughout history and every day. One of the hardest things for anyone to do is to take responsibility for themselves. It’s always much easier to hope and believe someone else is taking care of it, whatever it might be. Too often people think that I am not responsible for my actions, good and welfare but someone else is. Who that someone else is I don’t know, but someone is.
People will go to all kinds of lengths to avoid personal responsibility. “The Devil made me do it”. The government should have taken care of it. My parents messed me up in my childhood. The dog ate my homework. The excuses are endless.
Worse, people will go along and commit the greatest evils, as long as someone else is to blame. What was the tired and well-worn refrain that every German used when confronted with the horrible acts they committed? “We were just following orders.” We were duty bound to listen and not question. My superior told me. I had to do it. I am not to blame. I am not responsible for myself.
And today we daily watch people getting caught up in the mob mentality and looting stores and businesses. Worse is that politicians, supposed leaders, excuse the behavior and thereby sanction it with claims of “Oh, it’s understandable, they are frustrated by the injustices.” How exactly stealing a large screen TV and defacing a city fixes racial inequality I am not sure. But, hey, they are not to blame.
One of the greatest difficulties in life is taking responsibility for our actions. For growing up. For not playing the blame game. It is the difference between being a child and being an adult. It confronted the Jewish nation thousands of years ago and still challenges us today. This is why Moshe begins his speech the way he did. Before anything, he tells them: Take Responsibility For Yourself. He knew this was the most important lesson to pass on to his people – then and now.
Everything I know is wrong
Everything I do, it just comes undone
And everything is torn apart
Oh and that’s the hardest part
That’s the hardest part