A few weeks ago, the group of residents who come together to welcome Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath, discussed ethical wills. Are you familiar with them? These are documents that can be described as the legacy of our moral and ethical assets, rather than our financial assets. They can serve as an instructive account of the ideals and character traits closest to our hearts. Over the centuries, ethical will writers have tried to transmit personal reflections on their lives as spiritual/ religious beings and on the motivating values and events in their experience.
As I prepared for today, I was reminded once again, that in many ways, the entire book of Deuteronomy, the last of the Five Books of Moses, is his ethical will to the Jewish people, given right before his death, before we entered the Promised Land.
The story about the scouts from the Book of Numbers (13:1-14:10), and then from the text Jews all over the world study this week at the beginning of the book of Deuteronomy (1:22-37), recount the same story. Yet they are different. In the first version, in Numbers, we have the omniscient narrator, who describes the events as they happen. In the second version, Moses gives his accounting of the events.
Here is the gist of the story:
God tells Moses to send people to check out the land being given to them. Moses chooses a representative from each tribe. He instructs them to scout out important information to conquer the land, and to show whether it does indeed flow with milk and honey. They return 40 days later carrying an enormous load of produce, and ten of the twelve say, “Yes, milk and honey flow. HOWEVER, giants occupy the land and we cannot conquer it. We saw ourselves as grasshoppers and so must they have seen us.” The people break into hysterics, moaning, groaning and wailing. Moses and Aaron are at a loss, and Caleb, one of the two who went up to land and came back confident that they could conquer it, tries unsuccessfully to reassure them. God’s wrath spills down on the people, and threatens to destroy us, until he is talked down by Moses. Nevertheless, God condemns the adults who had been liberated from slavery to die in the wilderness, everyone but Caleb and Joshua, the only two who had shown enough faith. End of that version.
We jump ahead to this week’s reading, and Moses begins the first of his discourses, his ethical will to the people. Think about his audience:
These are the people born after the Israelite escape from slavery. What was life like for them? They hadn’t lived through the ten plagues. They hadn’t escaped across the Red Sea and watched their oppressors drown. They had never had to cook a meal, nor even tasted a home cooked meal, because manna fell from heaven every day, with two helpings on Friday before Shabbat. Their clothes and their shoes never wore out—no need to shop or worry about fashion or the money to pay for it.
Their parents were the last slave generation, the ones who HAD seen the wonders and miracles and had still built the infamous Golden Calf. Their parents had heard about the fertile land, and seen the giant grapes, but could not believe that they could conquer giants.
The Israelites had spent these years in the wilderness, the ownerless no-person’s land, the land of transition. And yet, within this wilderness, their lives had structure. From the beginning of Numbers, they were counted and ordered and assigned positions around the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. They moved by tribe in a specific order. Everyone knew their place. Everyone had a place.
And still, chaos had periodically reigned. All that kvetching or complaining we did: no food, boring food, no water, Moses is too bossy. You brought us here to die in the wilderness. Better we should have died in Egypt. (Really, you can hear the beginning of Jewish humor leap off these pages. They may have spoken Hebrew, but they did it with a New York Yiddish accent.)
The Israelites about to enter the land—finally—had lived with parents who lived in fear, and relied, with incomplete security, on God and Moses, and later, Joshua. All the deaths from plague, from building the calf of gold, from siding with rebels, from idolatry… all of those must have had an effect.
Just this week, NPR ran a story on ACES—adverse childhood exposure to stress. Think of violence, abuse, abandonment, exile, extreme poverty, powerlessness. This story claimed that ACES are responsible for the rate of alarming rate expulsion from preschool—at a substantially higher rate than expulsion from K-12. ACES are also linked to high rates of chronic diseases and shortened life spans. And the more ACES one has (living in a violent home and living in a violent neighborhood and experiencing abuse and watching people die around you), the worse all these effects are. The children of the slave generation probably experienced a relatively high number of ACES.
Think of children of Holocaust survivors, who experience trauma, albeit in a different way from their parents. Studies have shown repeatedly that the second-generation has a heightened fear about harm being caused to their parents, and are more easily triggered by traumatic experiences and more worried about survival than other groups of Jews.
So the Israelites standing on the east side of the Jordan, listening to Moses, were a complex group, not unlike many of us today, including the many people with many ACES or post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is the group Moses was addressing: the ones who hadn’t seen the big signs and wonders. I imagine they had heard the stories. But is hearing the stories the same as experiencing it?
I doubt it.
So Moses, knowing that his death is near, tried to cram his last lessons into this generation’s consciousness, to make them understand the stakes, the rules, the ways life would change and not change when they crossed the river to the Promised Land. They would have to face down giants, giants that terrified their parents, but they would conquer them, because they were a united people with common faith and common responsibilities to each other.
This is one of the main points of Deuteronomy: to remind that generation, and each generation afterwards, that we are a people with commitments, shared history, and responsibilities.
Moses started with a discussion of the journey that had led to this moment. I am sure the generation knew this story well, had heard it over campfires their whole lives. But Moses used this telling to offer a context they could understand. This is where we’ve been, this is what happened, as you must remember, so that you will understand where you are going.
This will culminate, I believe, in the torah portion Jews read on Yom Kippur morning (Deut. 30): everything you need to know is already in your heart and on your lips, so choose life, so that you, and your children and your children’s children can live with meaning and purpose and dedication to what is good in the world. But to get there, Moses had to start with the retelling of the journey.
The two versions of the story—as told by the omniscent narrator and then by Moses—conflict in some places.
- Moses attributes the desire to send scouts to the Israelites—but it was God who spoke the idea.
- Moses claimed Caleb’s words as his own.
- And he blamed the people for his own inability to enter the land, but that decision was made long after, when he hit a rock rather than speaking to it.
You have to ask: why these discrepancies?
I want to offer two possibilities—that are not mutually exclusive.
The first is memory. After all, this is supposed to be about 38 years after the event, and Moses was now 120. How detailed is YOUR memory of events that happened in 1976? How well does it conform to others who shared those experiences? How do your kids or your siblings remember the same events? And what was your perspective: were you the leader? An “innocent bystander”? And if it was a traumatic experience, how much did the trauma color your memory?
The other possibility is that Moses was trying to make a point—his ethical will—to us.
I think he was making a couple of essential points that have been vital to Jews since that day. First, that we are responsible for our actions and to each other. We have an expression in Jewish tradition – Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la’zeh – All Israel is responsible for each other. That value starts here.
He was trying to teach us that our actions matter, and have consequences. Not just for ourselves, but for the others around us. And if we are not careful, we can become stuck in a pattern—or habit—that is too hard to get out of.
Since we are in such a horrifying time for the state of Israel, for the people living in Gaza, and for Jews all over the world who are experiencing a massive increase in antisemitism, I want to briefly apply these teachings to our current reality.
The roots of the conflict happening now are many and deep—I’m not going to get into them here. But a good description is the title of a book by historian Benny Morris that I read for a class I took on the Israeli Palestinian conflict. It was called Innocent Victims… on both sides. At this moment, too many people are dying. And while the numbers look disproportionate, I ask us all to keep a few things in mind.
Each side has its own narrative—just as Moses had his, and they are often mutually exclusive. One is that the occupation of the West Bank has been a major disaster in humanitarian and moral terms. Another is that Hamas has chosen to direct its limited resources to killing Jews, instead using them to support its own economy and protecting its own people.
Another is that its charter specifically calls for the destruction of Israel. That one is not a narrative so much as a fact.
So every Jew everywhere is a target. And being a target certainly adds to toxic stress in one’s life, stress that impairs health and social functioning. The Israelis then make decisions based on the constant threat to their people, which in turn leads to some very poor treatment of Palestinians, which then adds to their toxic stress that warps judgment and shortens life.
Jews have a long history of experiencing the threat—or actuality—of annihilation and a short history of successfully defending against it.
Nonetheless, the Israelis are taking steps that harken back to Moses’ ethical will: have faith in God, but remember our own responsibility, and remember our collective responsibility to take care of each other. Despite being in the midst of what they believe to be an existential war, they offer warning to Palestinian civilians before trying to remove rocket launchers, they set up field hospitals to care for the Palestinian wounded, they try to be more careful than the US military in its drone strikes. They are trying to heed Moses’ call to remember that our actions have consequences not just on ourselves, but on others.
Moses’ ethical will has served us over the millennia, to hold us together through thick and thin, through good times and disaster, through empire changes, and, as Elaine Stritch, may her memory be a blessing, might have sung, we’re still here.
So I ask you to consider for yourselves what are the moral and ethical gifts you want to leave to your children and grandchildren. Start writing them down, or speaking them into a recorder… Spend some time dwelling on what you have learned in your life, and share it with your loved ones.
And pray for peace.