Devarim: Lessons from Moses in his last days

Devarim: Lessons from Moses in his last days

Each year on Simchat Torah a good friend of mine shouts out, “Maybe this is the year that Moses will make it into the Promised Land!” This Shabbat we commence our approach to Simchat Torah as we begin reading Sefer Devarim, the book of Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah. Some might characterize the book of Deuteronomy and this week’s Torah reading, Devarim, as the beginning of the end of the Torah. How simple it would be to think of the Torah as a John Grisham novel, with a beginning, middle, and an end. Depending on one’s views, the Torah can be seen as a work of simplicity or of great complexity. How else to explain the repetitive nature of so many of the passages and narratives? The Torah, one of the most-read books year in and year out, is the only book that we complete and then almost in the same breath start all over again. The stories and very nature of the Torah don’t simply guide our lives; they transform us as individuals and as a community. Our understanding of words, verses, and the accounts change as we evolve as people. The Torah remains the same year after year; it is we who are the variables as our lives grow and change.

At its core Parshat Devarim teaches us how to arrange our lives. The sedra demonstrates that we cannot move forward without being mindful of the lessons of the past. Moses begins the sedra by addressing the Israelites and recounting their history. Rather than describing actual incidents, Moses provides a list of places from the Israelites travels. What is common to those locations is that they all represent places where the Israelites transgressed against God. In doing so, Moses is able to remind the Israelites of the lessons of their experience without chastising them repeatedly. The strength of this pedagogy is an attribute of Moses’s vision and leadership. His audience, the next generation born to those who experienced slavery and who heard first-hand of Pharaoh’s evil and God’s might, require this recounting by Moses so they can understand their role in the development of their society. They don’t simply live for themselves; they live as students of the past.

The past lays the framework and foundation for the present. Moses reminds not only the people but also himself that when he began this journey as the leader he undertook too many responsibilities and was almost crushed under the weight of the burden. Moses teaches a lesson to the Israelites and to us:

“And I spoke unto you at that time, saying: ‘I am not able to bear you myself alone; the Lord your God has multiplied you, and, behold, you are this day as the stars of heaven for multitude. How can I myself alone bear your cumbrance, and your burden, and your strife?” (Deuteronomy 1:9-12)

How humbling it must have been for Moses, a leader hand-picked by God, to have to admit that he could not bear all the responsibilities. Many times our own world places demands on our daily time and energy. We cavalierly take on too many projects and raise expectations about our abilities to unrealistic proportions. Some people feel strongly that to regrettably pass when offered a role or task could be seen as weakness or a cause for demotion. Instead of being honest and realistic, many of us would rather try and perhaps catastrophically fail instead of admitting up-front what we feel to be true.

Moses reminds us of his own predicament and the solution to the problem:

“Pick from each one of your tribes, wise men, full of knowledge, and I will make them heads over you. And you answered me, and said: ‘The thing which you have spoken is good for us to do.’ So I took the heads of your tribes, wise men, and full of knowledge, and made them heads over you, captains of thousands, and captains of hundreds, and captains of fifties, and captains of tens, and officers, tribe by tribe. And I charged your judges at that time, saying: ‘Hear the causes between your brethren, and judge righteously between a man and his brother, and the stranger that is with him. You shall not be partial in judgment; you shall hear the small and the great alike; you shall not be afraid of any man; for the judgment is God’s; and the cause that is too hard for you, you shall bring to me, and I will hear it'” (Deuteronomy 1:13-17).

Moses’s words here are important. Moses foresees a time when even those appointed to help others will themselves feel overwhelmed by the burdens of society. In his own subtle way Moses demonstrates that if he had to, at one time, make concessions and re-define his role, so too must leaders in future generations.

We are not duty bound solely to the present; we can no more make decisions that disregard the lessons of the past than we can dismiss the effects of our judgments for future generations. The generation that left Egypt saw God’s power first-hand and experienced God’s revelation. But what comes of their children and their children’s children? We too ask these very questions in our society today. Whether it is the generation of the Holocaust or the pioneers who established the State of Israel, their struggles and experiences take on historical perspective for future generations rather than being personal tragedy or triumph.

This idea of ownership was what Moses struggled with in his last weeks as he addressed the people. How simple it would have been for him to stand before the people and explain their role moving forward. How easy it would have been for Moses to review the damaging episodes of their parents and tell them to avoid the same pitfalls. Instead he demands their attention and recounts the victories in battle. He reminds them of where they come from – not from Egypt, but from trying times in the desert, where faith in God waned and tempers flared.

Moses does not blame; that would be too easy. He teaches lessons of history, for in these messages the Israelites receive the ultimate prize: Have faith in God and things will work themselves out: “Do not fear them, for it is the Lord your God who will battle for you” (Deuteronomy 3:22). This quote is attributed to future battles where God will fight with the Israelites and defeat their enemies. There is a much larger lesson though: By having faith in God, everything will work itself out.

How simple a statement; how daunting a task. Challenges present themselves daily. It is our responsibility to work toward resolutions; no matter our effort, success or failure, our faith that everything lies in God’s hands gives us the ability to live our lives with peace of mind. Life is about relationship -relationship to those around us; relationship to the past; and relationship to the future. Those relationships ebb and flow. Even our relationship with God may evolve, but God’s presence and reliability is constant.