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Dvar Torah

Posted on 2008.08.10 at 21:40
Current Music: Ramones - We Want The Airwaves (Remastered Album Version )
My debut at giving a dvar Torah at my shul seemed to go pretty well. People were appreciative and complimentary, anyway. One of the rabbis said that she thought it was the best joke she had ever heard in a dvar, which is kinda sad when you think about it.

Anyway, I thought I would put up the intro that they did for me, and the dvar, which is pretty short, but which I will put under a cut nevertheless, just in case anyone was interested. I like to write things out in full and then deviate from them as I see fit on the spur of the moment, so my notes are in prose form.

The intro:
Jonathan Reich came to Temple Emunah a few years ago as part of his efforts in courting Stefanie London. His wooing endeavors were successful. They were married here at Emunah and celebrated their one year anniversary in July. In the short time he has been part of the Temple Emunah community, Jonathan has shared his background in the academic study of the Bible as a Darshan mentor, and teaching at Synaplex. His commitment was recently put to the test when he volunteered to teach a 3:45 AM study session this past Shavuot.
Jonathan received a Masters of Theological Studies from the Harvard Divinity School, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Hebrew Bible at Harvard University. He has worked as a teaching fellow in both Bible and Jewish Studies courses at Harvard Divinity School and Harvard College, and taught at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, the Cambridge Ancient Studies Center, and Hebrew College.
He is available to individuals and groups for Biblical Interpretation and Theological Consultation at reasonable rates.

The dvar:

This week, on the 14th of Av, is the yahrtzeit of my grandfather, Dr. Samuel Reich, so I think that it’s fitting that I start with a rememberance of him. My grandfather spent his teenage years and early adulthood in Vienna, but during the summers would go back to the Galician shtetl where he was born and where during his early years he received a traditional Jewish education.

While my grandfather was not religious (to say the least), his time in heder served him well, and to the end of his life he and I were able to discuss details of Torah, with him citing passages from memory. One thing he did puzzled me. When talking about the book of Deuteronomy, or “Sefer Devarim” in Hebrew, he often referred to it as “Sefer Ha’azinu.” When I would ask him if he meant Devarim, he would quickly correct himself, and never said anything more about it.
This strange habit of his has, for some reason, always stuck in my mind. I have been unable to find any tradition of using this name for Deuteronomy. But I have never been able to shake the feeling that there is something to it.

Ha’azinu is, in fact, a parasha within the book of Deuteronomy. It is the second-to-last section of the entire Torah. The word ‘Ha’azinu’ means ‘listen,’ but it’s actually stronger than that. It’s a causative conjugation, from the root meaning ‘ear.’ A better translation might be ‘listen completely,’ or ‘make sure this is heard.’ This actually is a pretty good name for the book of Devarim.

The other books of the Torah have much more action in them. We listen to the stories of what the patriarchs and the Israelites did. Deuteronomy is different. Deuteronomy consists almost entirely of Moses speaking to Israel, re-telling the national history laid out in the previous books. Israel basically sits there and listens to him. Unlike the other books (happily so, in many cases) we can do exactly the same thing, have exactly the same experience as our ancestors. We don’t literally re-enact the deeds of Abraham, or of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, or of the Temple priesthood offering sacrifices when the other books are read, but we are re-enacting what the Israelites did at this point. We listen to the words and the teachings of Moshe.

So what is all this listening about? Why does Israel need a recap of what has gone before? Why do we need one? Why can’t we have a tetrateuch instead of a pentateuch, 4 books of Moses instead of 5, and get Simhat Torah early? Taking the perspective of the narrative, we can see why Moses’ speech might be necessary. He is not speaking to the same group of Israelites that he took out of Egypt. They have almost entirely died off. Instead, Moses is speaking to a new generation of Israelites, who have had a very different life and set of experiences than their predecessors. This new generation, the generation of the wilderness, hadn’t experienced the miraculous redemption from Egypt, but they had been raised on the manna and quails falling from the sky, and drank from Miriam’s travelling well. They hadn’t experienced the harshness of Egyptian slavery, but they had become proven themselves in war, establishing themselves as a power in the region and were poised to do something that no generation of Jews had yet done, enter into the land of Israel and inherit it as their own.
It may be this new undertaking that spurs Moses to recount everything that has happened so far. If Israel is to be successful, the Israelites must know and understand their history. Not just the history which is a recitation of facts, places, and names, but the history which acts as a vehicle for transmitting the wisdom of the past to those who hear it.

The importance of history hasn’t always been a universally held position. Henry Ford, noted industrialist and hater of Jews, said “I don’t know much about history, and I wouldn’t give a nickel for all the history in the world. History is more or less bunk.” As with so many things, Ford was wrong. Moses’ insistence that the Israelites listen to him as he tells them their history shows us that history and an understanding of history is a vital part of understanding how to live in the present.

But that still doesn’t answer the question; why do we need Deuteronomy? Why can’t we just use the accounts in the other books? Well, I have an answer. When Moshe asks Israel to listen to his repetition of their history, he isn’t just reciting facts; he is teaching. He is not just repeating their history, he is using it to offer wisdom that they will need. In Moshe’s hands, history becomes a vehicle for transmission of wisdom from one generation to the next.
This brings us to Moses’ history lesson. One of the first things that Moses recounts to them, one of the first lessons that he wants to give, is not about what you might think; it isn’t about the ten plagues, or the splitting of the red sea. Instead, he talks about the spies. This incident is first described in chapter 13 of the book of Numbers. With the people finally on the borders of the land of Israel, It is God who tells Moses to appoint spies to go and investigate the land, and bring the people back a report of what it is like, and also some examples of the plants growing there. My wife has pointed out to me that this is also the plot of the Pixar children’s movie Wall-e, which I recommend. But anyway. Back to the book of Numbers. The spies return, and report that while the land itself is wonderful, the inhabitants are powerful giants, and there is no way that they will ever be able to conquer the land. The people, naturally, are perturbed about this news, and, believing the spies’ reports, lose heart, deciding that there was no way that they could enter the land, and maybe they should just go back to Egypt. God, decrees that this generation is not ready or worthy of entering the land, and that they must wander in the desert for forty years. In giving this history lesson, Moses is not interested in the transmission of historical facts for their own sake. Here, with his audience poised to enter the land, Moses gives the history of what happened to the last generation when they were at this point, and tries to explain what went wrong. How do we know this? Because he didn’t just repeat the story, he retold it.

Moses could have just told them the story verbatim from Numbers, but that wouldn’t have really done the job that he wanted to do. Oscar Wilde said that “The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.” Moses would have agreed, and that is what he does in his teaching, as recorded in our parashah. Listen to how Moshe re-envisions the story in order to suit this audience. Starting in Deuteronomy 1:22, Moses immediately makes some changes; I’ll point out two. The first is the origin of the whole idea of sending spies. Instead of the idea coming from God, in this second version, the idea originates with the people. In the Numbers version of the story, the spies bring back a bad report, which, somewhat understandably, upsets and disheartens the people. In the version told in Deuteronomy, the report brought back by the spies is wholly favorable! The people manage to lose heart without a bad report, although they do seem to blame the spies anyway.

So what is going on here? Why did Moses change things? Why did he tell the stories this way? Moses is trying to instill certain lessons and wisdom in the Israelites both by telling the cautionary tale of the spies- how a lack of faith in the Divine promise and giving in to fear and despair can lead to disaster- and by telling it in a certain way, by emphasizing and even changing certain details in order to convey a subtler message. Here, Moses is teaching the Israelites about responsibility and the interdependent nature of society, even on a generational level. Far from history being ‘bunk,’ with no effect on the present, the Israelites desperately need to learn from the mistakes of the previous generation. Moses tells the story in such a way that a measure of responsibility for the disaster of the spies falls upon everyone there. No one can say that their ancestors didn’t have anything to do with it, that the people were led astray by bad intelligence. Moses makes them accountable for the actions that led to 40 years of wandering. Did these people do anything wrong? No. The previous generation did. But what Moses is showing them, by expanding the accountability for the transgression, is that it is impossible for this generation to lay the blame at the feet of a small number of people who are no longer around. They cannot escape the situation of the community, and they cannot entirely escape responsibility for the actions of their community. Communal aid, communal support, communal responsibility are vital lessons that the Israelites need to learn.
But besides the lesson itself, the way that Moshe transmits his wisdom is very important. Moshe uses the people’s history, subtly altered and with changed emphasis, as the vehicle for conveying not only facts of their past, but wisdom and teachings that can be used for their future. History becomes not merely a set of facts and names and dates, but a method of teaching, of transmitting wisdom from one generation to another, from teacher to student. Another sense is added to the plain sense of Moses’ speech, thus, in a sense, beginning the entire project of Jewish biblical interpretation.
The method that Moshe is using is fairly subtle. It would be easy to miss it, to listen to him and not get anything out of it but a repetition of history that we have already heard once. In the coming weeks, as we read the book of Deuteronomy, we have to listen, and not just listen, but listen carefully, set our ears to it and give it our full attention. And with that in mind, maybe my grandfather wasn’t making a mistake at all when he called it ‘Sefer Ha’azinu.’

        Oh- and why is reading Deuteronomy like working on a car? Because you have to understand about transmission.

Shabbat Shalom.

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