D’var Torah from July 21, 2023
by Debi Lewis
This week’s parsha is D’varim, in which Moses speaks to all the wandering Jews he’s led through the desert before they enter the land of Israel. Moses, a lifetime earlier, had said to God, “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words…I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” Well, you’d never believe it to read D’varim –translated literally as “words”– which is Moses’ detailed retelling of pretty much everything that had happened to the Jewish people since their time near Mount Sinai. It is not a short story. What’s more, everyone standing there had either lived through some portions of it, or their parents or grandparents had. On the brink of finally getting to go “home,” to the land they were promised, they had to stop and listen to their own history.
Picture yourself there. We’ve probably all experienced something like this. This is the interminable storytelling around the table over coffee and kichel, where, if you’re a teenager, your great-great uncle spends forty-five minutes telling everyone how his grandfather came to America and worked in some store and saved his money to bring over his family and then eventually became the president of a lovely synagogue on Long Island but he always carried the blah blah blah inside his left coat pocket and yadda yadda yadda, you’ve heard this story at the end of every Erev Rosh Hashanah dinner for the last decade, and can’t we go home yet? Uncle Morty is annoying and his ear hair creeps you out.
If you are the parent of young children, you are probably barely listening to this story. One of them is asleep on your lap, and the other is literally under the table with one of those awful dry cookies from the kosher bakery, which you know she’s smearing into Great Uncle Morty and Great Aunt Gert’s white carpet, and who the heck puts white carpet in the dining room, but anyway you have been hearing this story at Erev Rosh Hashanah dinner since YOU were six, and it’s way past time to get the kids home to sleep, but also, did Great Uncle Morty tell the part about the way your mom used to sit and wait for your great-grandfather to finish davening every morning so she could fold his tallis for him? That’s your favorite part.
If you are Morty’s sister, you’re listening for where he tells the story wrong so you can correct him. Your grandfather carried the immigration papers in the right coat pocket, not the left. It’s important the children should know the truth!
If you are Morty’s middle-aged niece, you have also heard this story since you were six, but now it has somehow become very, very important. You are seriously debating taking notes or making a voice recording. Maybe you should subscribe Morty to one of those services that send him questions to answer every month and they make a family history book? Morty is somewhere around a zillion years old and can barely hear anymore, and he and his sister are the last people alive in their generation. Your kids didn’t even come home for Rosh Hashanah this year– and you just realized it’s not going to be long before this story is your responsibility. You’re trying to make sure you remember all of it as he tells it, but perimenopause is scrambling your brain and also, you just remembered something else you need to tell your daughter about that kugel recipe she’s making her boyfriend. And your brother is secretly scrolling Twitter under the table, so you kick him.
If you are Morty’s son, maybe you have completely tuned him out. Not only do he and your mother continue insisting on this dinner every year which you and your husband have to basically do for them and let them take the credit, but also, Morty wasn’t a very good father. He never listened to you, he only barely tolerates your husband, and you’re not sure he even likes you. You’re just waiting for the night to end, frankly.
If you are Morty, you’re looking down the table at the family your grandfather couldn’t have even imagined. And when you tell them this story, you’re really telling your grandfather thank you. You can remember him, still, the way he smiled when you said you’d take over his shop, the handwritten ledgers, the rules he had for where everything went, the little things that made him meshugah but couldn’t ever make him unlovable. No one knew him like you. You have to tell the kids.
When I read D’varim, I like to picture the crowd of people standing on the banks of the Jordan River, listening to Moses tell the story of their community. Maybe he didn’t get every detail correct – or maybe there was, as there so often is, no correct version of the story because everyone had a unique vantage point for the battles and negotiations Moses describes. Maybe there was grumbling in the crowd –that was the Amorites, not the Moabites– or maybe some people there tuned him out and did their best to keep the children from interrupting. Maybe some thought he was a rotten leader. Maybe some are hoping they remember this because they are realizing that he’s not coming with them.
But also: someone wrote it down, because the Jewish people are a people of words, of d’varim. We have that person’s version of Moses’ version of what happened to our ancestors on their journey to the promised land.
At almost every service when one of our teenagers becomes a Jewish adult, Rabbi Weiss tells us that we read the Torah every year not because it changes, but because we change. We interpret it differently and even have different capacities to absorb and prioritize it at different stages of our lives. Anyone who knows me knows that stories are what drive me, so it’s no surprise that one of the most meaningful things I do at JRC is take part in monthly meetings of the JRC Writers Group, in which the love of words and stories is sacrosanct. Many of the writers in that group are writing their own family stories for their children and grandchildren, a holy act of love I appreciate more than I can describe. I have no doubt that some of their families will disagree on the details. Some family members will not be interested yet. Some family members will roll their eyes. And some family members will hang on every word of these stories, grateful to the core.
A lot of Moses’ storytelling is a long-winded way of saying, “you were all so worried, but I told you it would be ok, and look: here we are. We’re ok.” Family stories are often like that: this thing we did was hard, but we made it. Maybe not every single one of us, but us, as a family, us as a people, we made it. We’re ok.
And those words, those d’varim, are the real story of the Jewish people and of all people. We made it. We’re ok.