Recently, I’ve been thinking about what it must have been like for the Torah’s wilderness generation in their time: the ones who lived through the latter half of the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, and the book of Deuteronomy/ Devarim, the ones born after our 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’d never had to cook a meal, nor even had a home cooked meal, because manna appeared every day, with two helpings on Friday before Shabbat. Their clothes and their shoes never wore out.
Their parents were the last slave generation, the ones who saw the wonders and miracles and still built a Molten, Golden Calf. Their parents had heard about the land flowing with milk and honey, and saw the giant grapes, but refused to believe that they could conquer the giants. And so it was decreed that they would die in the wilderness, where they moved periodically from oasis to oasis.
All of them—parents and children and grandchildren—spent these years in the wilderness, the ownerless no-person’s-land, of transition. And yet, they lived with quite a bit of structure. From the beginning of Bemidbar, they were counted and ordered and assigned positions around the Mishkan, the Tent of Meeting. They moved by tribe in a specific order. Everyone knew their place. Everyone had a place.
And yet, chaos had periodically reigned. All that kvetching 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, I am positive.)
The Israelites about to enter the land—finally—had lived with parents who lived in fear, and relied, with a somewhat incomplete security, on God and Moses, and later, Joshua. Slavery had traumatized them. All the deaths from plague, from building the calf of gold, from siding with Korach… all of those too must have had some effect. In our own time, we know that children of Holocaust survivors face their own issues, experience trauma in a different way from their parents, but still, they are affected. For example, 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, let alone the many people we know who have forms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is the group Moses was addressing: the ones who hadn’t seen the big signs and wonders, but had lived through smaller ones, almost everyday ones. (Imagine having food fall from heaven that tasted how you wanted it to taste: pretty miraculous, unless your mom or dad or wife or husband is an amazing cook.) I imagine they had heard the stories—the darkness, the frogs, the cattle dying, the sea parting and the mountain shaking and hearing God’s voice amidst the thunder. But is hearing the stories the same as experiencing it? We know it’s not.
So Moses, knowing that his death is near, spent some time trying to cram his last lessons into this generation’s consciousness, trying to make them understand the stakes, the rules, the way things would change and not change when they crossed the river to the Promised Land. They would have to face down the giants, the 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 the entire point of Deuteronomy/Devarim: to remind that generation, and each generation afterwards, that we are a people with commitments, shared history, and responsibilities, that we have a path to follow. In each generation, we balance tradition with relevance, tradition with what works today. So Moses gave them lots and lots of devarim: words, or things, or instructions (a useful noun, to be sure). Because words create and change reality: just as the sheva berakhot, the seven blessings at a Jewish wedding, transform two individuals into one married couple, so do Moses’ words setting out boundaries create realities.
Not only did Moses deliver lots and lots of devarim, but he started, in this first portion, 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 ground his message in a context they could understand. This is where we’ve been, this is what happened, as you remember, so that you will understand where you are going, Moses told them. This will culminate, I believe, in the torah portion we read on Yom Kippur: everything you need to know is already in your heart, on your lips, and choose life, so that you, and your children and your children’s children can live a life of meaning and purpose and dedication to what is good in the world. But it had to start with the retelling of the journey.
This week we observe Tisha B’Av, the national day of mourning for the destruction of the first and second temples. The rabbis laid the destruction of the second temple squarely at our own feet: our ancestors practiced sinat chinam, senseless, baseless hatred against each other, and so we lost our way from the path we had been given, we lost the Promised Land. In an attempt to prevent this, Moses gave the wilderness generation specific rules to see them through the profound changes they would experience. These rules painted a picture of complete certainty: do not move from the path to the left or the right – do not add or subtract one iota. This led, I believe inexorably, to sinat chinam in which the hater believed he was following the exact directions he had been given.
Today those rules often seem out of date or irrelevant to many of us: bacon on many Jewish plates, crab delighting many Jewish palates, the mixing wool and linen commonplace, and I don’t see every congregant here welcoming Shabbat together (oh, that I did!). But the basic rules—of caring for the vulnerable, having responsibilities to each other, pursuing justice, loving mercy, and practicing acts of lovingkindness—will, I pray, never go out of style.
I encourage everyone to spend some time this weekend not only basking in the joys of family, nature, and community, but thinking about what the responsibilities of Judaism mean to you, how you pass them on, how you instill them. If you have brilliant insights, please share them with me!
 Even, Dan. New Israeli study finds signs of trauma in grandchildren of Holocaust. survivorshttp://www.haaretz.com/news/national/new-israeli-study-finds-signs-of-trauma-in-grandchildren-of-holocaust-survivors-1.424480. Accessed 7/12/13.
 Baider, L, et.al. Transmission of response to trauma? Second-generation Holocaust survivors’ reaction to cancer. Am J Psychiatry. 2000 Jun;157(6):904-10. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10831469. Accessed 7/12/13.
Marian Blanton says
How you manage to continue generating thoughtful, upbeat drash, week after week, is miraculous, in and of itself, dear Meredith, considering the reality of a small engaged number of congregants. Maybe if only one person is moved to think more deeply about the issues you raise, week by week, that’s enough to justify your continued effort. Keep plugging…and praying.
Lots of love,
Meredith Cahn says