Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22
“Eleh ha-D’arim—These are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel….” (Deut.1:1)
With these words we begin the fifth and final book of the Torah, in which Moses both retells and explains the foundational myth of the Hebrew people. This is our story—the story to be shared year after year, generation after generation, Shabbat after Shabbat.
The crucial importance of repeating the words of Moses over and over again as generations are born, mature, and pass away is powerfully illustrated by a story 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. Using primitive tools of sharpened stone, they made slow progress with the skins and had to keep at it all 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 the same stories, the same foundational tribal myths were told, the deepest spiritual teachings shared. But then the white man arrived and began trading knives for skins. The knives were more efficient than stones, and the skins could be processed in a matter of days instead of months. Productivity had never been higher. But without the intense tribal togetherness required by the more primitive technology, opportunities to transmit tribal teachings and values were few and far between. In time, the tribe lost not only the roots of its identity, but the spiritual wisdom gleaned from generations of transmission.
The challenges that the Native tribe faces in this story are akin to ours. Through generations of displacement, exile, and migration all over the globe, how did our tribe, the Tribe of Israel, stay connected to what’s central to who we are and what we are about? Two words: The Torah. And so we read, “These are the words that Moses spoke”—words that have reached us across thousands of years through the darkest times and the brightest days of our people. Like the Israelites of an ancient mythical wilderness we, too, gather together around the Torah 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.
Of even more value than the words that Moses spoke is the fact that “Moses undertook to expound this Teaching—Mosheh be’er et ha-Torah” (Deut. 1:5). Our Torah was never meant to be read as a history book or a novel, but rather as an unfolding teaching. From the start, as Moses demonstrates, the words were meant to be unpacked and expanded upon, so that the innermost essence of their meaning could be perceived at the soul level. The Hebrew word be’er, translated here as “expound,” makes this point abundantly clear. Some rabbis read the word be’er 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. Be’er is also connected to the Hebrew word or, meaning “light,” and that is why it’s translated as “expound” in this passage: the translator wanted to convey that Moses shared this Teaching “with light,” i.e., brought light or clarity to it. Following this thread, we can go a 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 and myths he shared were a means through which all of Israel was to be in-lightened, awakened 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-D’varim—these 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 siblings of the Native American tribes, we have been forced by many great civilizations through many eras to “enhance” our way of life by adopting theirs. But in our struggle between acceptance and continuity, in our struggle for survival, 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.