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Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22

The Power of Spiritual Transmission                       

There is a powerful story that comes to us from the Native American tradition. It used to be that after the fall hunting season, the tribe would spend the winter months working with the skins of the animals they had killed in order to make clothing, covers and other artifacts. In those days, the tools they used to prepare the skins were mostly sharpened stones. This meant that they had to work on these skins month after month through the winter and early spring. The entire village would participate, young and old, sitting together through the darkest months, working slowly with those sharpened stones while listening to the ancient stories of the elders. Every year that passed, the same old stories, the same old foundational tribal myths were told, the deepest spiritual teachings shared. Eventually, the white man came and some of the skins were traded for knives. Knives were more efficient. There was no need to work as hard on each skin. With knives the work could be done in a matter of days instead of months. Productivity had never been higher, but now the stories and the teachings were lost. In time, the tribe lost not only the roots of its identity, but the spiritual wisdom gleaned from generations of transmission.

The challenges that Native tribes face are akin to ours. How does one stay connected to what’s important about who one is and what one is about, when central rituals, places, land, communities, etc… shift; when modern life destabilizes and decentralizes what was once central? This week’s Torah portion is the first in the Book of Deuteronomy. It begins with

Eleh HaDevarim – These are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel...” [Deut.1:1]

In this fifth Book of the Torah, Moses retells the foundational myth of the Hebrew people. This is our story; the story to be told year after year, generation after generation, Shabbat after Shabbat. “These are the words,” the words of Moses that have reached us across thousands of years through the darkest times and the brightest days of our people. And so we gather together to hear the tales that are the seeds of our unique identity, to delight in the depth of spiritual wisdom harvested from twenty five hundred years of transmission. Our Torah was never meant to be read as a history book or a novel, but rather as an unfolding teaching.

Our portion opens with: “These are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel…” but significantly goes on to say: “[and] Moses undertook to expound this Teaching/this Torah.” [Deut. 1:5] From the start, as Moses demonstrates, the words were meant to be unpacked, expanded upon, so that the innermost essence of their meaning could be perceived at the soul level. The Hebrew word translated here as “expound” makes this point abundantly clear. “Moses undertook to expound this Teaching – Mosheh be’er et haTorah.” Some rabbis read the word be’er/expound to mean “a well,” and teach that Moses made the Torah into “a well” of spiritual learning, the depth of which knows no end, and from which each generation is to drink and be sustained. But the reason it is here translated as “expound” is because the word “be’er” is also connect to the Hebrew word “or” meaning “light.” The translator wanted to convey that Moses shared this Teaching “with light,” i.e. brought light or clarity to it. But following this thread, we can go one step further and read be’er not as “with light” but as “in-light.” Moses’ purpose was to in-lighten all of Israel through sharing this Torah, this spiritual Teaching. The stories he shared, the myths, were a means through which all of Israel was to be in-lightened, to awaken from within. And when Torah addresses all of Israel then and there, we hear the call here and now addressing us as well. We are not to leave it to the rabbis or the scholars; we are the ones to “be’er” the Torah to reflect the concerns, the issues, and the consciousness of our times. This Teaching is not a static document. It can’t in-lighten us unless we unpack it for ourselves in each generation.

Eleh ha-Devarimthese are the words we read year after year in order to preserve the roots of our unique identity, and continue to explore through them the pathways to deeper spiritual awakening. Like our brothers and sisters of the Native American tribes, we have been tempted by many great civilizations through many eras to “enhance” our way of life by adopting theirs. But in our struggle between acceptance and continuity we have been blessed with a written tradition that has been the guiding beacon of our communities the world over. May we never cease to reach into the well of Torah as deeply as we can, open ourselves to receiving the depth of spiritual transmission available in its Teaching, and persist in expounding its stories from generation to generation.