In the first portion of the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses begins a series of farewell addresses to the Israelites.
The task before Moses is an enormous one: he wants to remind the Israelites of what came before—interpreted now through his perspective—and he wants to give them a vision for the future. He is entirely aware that the way he structures time in his presentation is extremely important in passing on the faith. He must help the Israelites place all they have experienced, all they expect to experience, and all they will actually experience within the framework of a story—the story of God’s relationship to them.
Like a parent parting from his adult children, Moses knows that things will not always be easy for them. How can he forewarn them of the vicissitudes ahead without destroying their faith? The only tool Moses has at this moment is story, but story is a powerful instrument for overcoming despair, unifying a people, and offering hope. Just like Moses, we pass on the tale of our people— our story—to our children. And the generations before us have passed it along so that in every time and location—and at every trial—we have the story of our people and our relationship to God to help us make sense of what we must face and to give us the strength to do that.
Moses begins his recounting, explaining the division into tribes and tribal leaders because, he tells them, “I cannot bear the burden of you by myself” (Deuteronomy 1:9). He begins with an example of his own limitations as a leader and then reminds the people of the solution that enables them to function despite his shortcomings. Thus right from the start, Moses prepares the people for his death: he cannot bear the burden of managing them all by himself but offers assurance that God will provide guidance and a way for them to thrive with legitimate leadership.
The passing on of leadership and power is always a frightening event in the story of any group. How will they avoid factionalism? How can they maintain the unity forged in these forty years in the wilderness? Moses reminds the people of the time they thought that dividing the group into units of thousands, hundreds, and tens, with a chief for each, was a good idea. They consented then and will retain the division agreed upon at the dawn of their liberation.
The people, through Moses’s leadership, had a legal code that was not distinct from their religious code. They had ritual observances and ethical jurisdictions; they had plans for operating as a unified military force and plans for division of the land and property they would acquire during its conquest.
They had come out of Egypt “a huge throng of astonished human beings” (W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary , rev. ed. [New York: URJ Press, 2005], p. 431). Over time, in the wilderness, they were shaped and transformed into a people whose identity has persisted for three millennia.
When we try to enter into the full experience of D’varim , we think of the many forces that have shaped our own children (a throng of astonished human beings) and how we hope our values will be predominant. How much can we actually say they have absorbed? And how much must we simply hope is already implanted in the marrow of their bones? We know that lectures won’t do it—but stories might. Children like to hear stories about themselves and their ancestors. If told well, the story may be all we need to enable them to face the promised, but as yet unconquered, land that we ourselves cannot enter.
We remind them of their strengths, their faithfulness, their genuine gifts. We also remind them that they make mistakes and will, from time to time, face the consequences. And we remind them that even when we cannot be there, our love is enduring. Yes, that sounds a lot like what Moses is doing. We feel within ourselves his anxiety over what has taken a lifetime to build and his hope that it will last.
The frightening moment comes when we realize we have said all we can say. Now we must bless and release. We turn back to our portion and find that Moses is ahead of us showing us how: “Do not fear them, for it is the Eternal your God who will battle for you” (Deuteronomy 3:22).
It is not up to us to complete the task, and so, with trust that we have made a good beginning, we and Moses bless and release.
The Book of Deuteronomy presents Moses’s retelling of the Israelites’ journeys, all having led up to their current position: poised on the border of the Promised Land, about to enter an uncertain communal future together. Those who closely study these texts learn that occasionally the details of the stories seem to change from the events recorded earlier in the Torah and Moses’s recounting of them in Deuteronomy. Far from presenting theological difficulties for us, however, these variations reveal the marvelous fractal properties of Deuteronomy: it is essentially a story about a story about a story. And as we add our own stories, the narratives continue to curl in upon each other, coiling like a nautilus.
Dr. Ochs comments astutely on the awesome power that hearing these stories can hold for us and for our children. When the Jewish story functions optimally, none of us encounters its wisdom and power as mere listeners. The greatest wisdom of our narrative legacy may be that it trains us all as storytellers. The more we willingly bind ourselves to these texts, the more we realize that we are the ones writing them.
The challenges facing Moses are the same ones that confront all Jewish leaders: how can we inspire our community with confidence and engender leadership within it? Moses’s solution is the same one seized upon by all effective leaders in our own day: to demonstrate that our stories matter, that we are all instrumental to the creation of the wild and sprawling, glorious history called Torah. The God who spoke the world into being reassures us that our stories matter too, that the things we say to ourselves—about ourselves—are what will ultimately escort us into our communal future together, into the Promised Land of truth, meaning, and limitless happy endings.
D'varim, Deuteronomy 1:1–3:22
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,312–1,333; Revised Edition, pp. 1,161–1,173;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,037–1,062