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 they are poised to go into the Promised Land.
After hearing of their geographical location, the Torah narrates that “Moshe began to explain this Torah, saying…” You would think at this point it 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 became the credo of our people. But Moshe does not bring either of those things up until later on in his speech.
No, he does none of this but instead gives them a brief history lesson of how they got to where they are now. He recounts the story of the twelve spies and their intimidating report of Israel 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.
It seems to be a non-sequitur. We are being 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 make sense… unless that is precisely the point that the Torah and Moshe are 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. The 10 Commandments, the Shema and the myriad of mitzvot recounted in Deuteronomy are all very important. But we cannot begin to look at them until we look at our history and what brought us here.
I have experienced this personally and have seen it countless times with people who have made Judaism a bigger part of their lives. 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 read novels by Chaim Potok, I felt a disconnect to the world he was describing but that I knew was a huge part of my family history. It was one of a series of events that got me to where I am today.
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. Moshe establishes a precedent for us as to the most effective way to engage any Jewish person. They need to be made aware of who we are and from whence we came. Before we can discuss the details of being a Jew, we need to clarify the narrative of being a Jew. This is why Israel trips like Birthright, JWRP and the like are so crucial. They give people a starting point and context of their identity. By connecting to our land, to its history and to its people we can now have a better sense of who we are in the world.
Here is just one small example posted on facebook a few days ago by a woman who returned this week from Karen’s JWRP trip that just completed:
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 is the challenge that must be first met before we can engage a person about the details of Torah and Mitzvot and being a more involved Jew. One first needs to see the larger context and history of why it is special and unique to them in particular, so that they get a sense of their place in it. Once they have 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 experiencing 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?