Parashat Devarim 5781

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Devarim
By Rabbi Michael Rothbaum (’06)

There’s a profound meaning in the practice of Yiddishkayt, a beauty and depth that’s hard to describe if you haven’t lived it. That beauty explains why rabbis and cantors do what we do. In the words of the old saying, nothing worth doing is easy.

Or, as we say in Yiddish, Shver tsu zayn a Yid. It’s hard to be a Jew.

In a 1973 review of the Sholom Aleichem play that took its title from that Yiddish saying, Richard P. Shepard wrote that “ ‘It’s Hard to Be a Jew’ is a phrase that may not quite go back to Moses’ scaling of Mount Sinai, but it is venerable and often verifiable.”[1]

Recent events have only served to help that verification process. We’re still Jews, and it’s still hard.

The challenge of Jewish life starts, of course, with the first Jews. Back then, Abraham and Sarah were called “Hebrews.” Ivrim.[2] Border-crossers. Boundary-transgressors. Category-violators. Crossing out of Haran and into destiny.

Again, in this week’s parashah, Devarim, the Israelites find themselves at a border. But this border is different. It leads to the Promised Land. This time, the Israelites will be crossing a border of self-determination.

Moses reports God’s telling the Israelites: Hey folks. It’s time. Rav lakhem sov et ha-har ha-zeh.[3] Enough already with running around in circles. 38 years in the desert? Grab your carry-on. Atem ovrim.[4] You, Ivrim, are now ovrim. Crossing over. Not running from. Going to. Time to move forward.

In fact, Moses has great news. As they enter the Promised Land, the first people the Israelites will encounter are the descendants of Esau in a land called Seir. And get this Jews — they will be afraid of you!

Afraid? Of us? A random group of misfits? How can they be afraid of us when we’re afraid of everyone else? Amazing!

But the next instruction is even more amazing, amazing not just in light of everything the Israelites had been through. But amazing in light of everything generations of their children would go through.

V’nishmartem me’od. “Be very careful.” Al tit’garu bam.[5] “Don’t provoke” the children of Esau. Remember Esau? The guy who tried to kill Jacob? Leave his descendants alone. And again, four verses later, about the Moabites: Don’t oppress them. Don’t provoke them. And still again, about the Ammonites: Don’t oppress them. Don’t provoke them.

What’s this, Moses? I thought you said they’re afraid of us! Let’s go get us a Promised Land! What are we waiting for?

What’s going on here?

“Your ancestors had to deal with feelings of weakness and inadequacy,” writes the legendary 20th Century Torah commentator Nechama Leibowitz in response to these verses. “You,” she continues, “will have to deal with the moral challenge of not abusing your superior power in dealing with weaker peoples.”

Living on the precipice, living a precarious life of vulnerability, a thousand generations at the mercy of the ruling authority, could leave us timid and afraid. Or, more tragically, it could have the opposite effect. It could harden us, make us heartless, cruel, bloodless.

The challenge of the first four books of Torah, the challenge still of the Jew living among those who may disrespect us — or worse — is to get what we need without forgetting who we are. But the challenge of living in our own space, the challenge of the end of the Torah? It’s the challenge of power. The challenge of creating a society without forgetting our values. It is the challenge for any of us who are used to being on the outside, and find ourselves with authority. Can we create a Promised Land worthy of the Promise?

We’ve noted that Moses’ command to the Israelites to get-up-and-go begins rav lakhem. Before, I translated that as “it’s enough already!” Enough with the waiting around.

But, literally, rav lakhem means “you possess greatness.” Does that greatness come from our numbers? Obviously not. Being a Jew is about a something deeper, a bigger idea, repeated dozens of times in Torah: “don’t oppress the outsider,” because you know what it was like to be that guy when you were in Egypt.

This idea, taught to us by Moses, has inspired the world. Imagine the chutzpah of a tiny slave people telling the whole world that they’re created in God’s image. That a people, even if it’s mighty, should still be just. That an eternal family, scarred by Pharaoh and pogrom and death camp, must speak for universal morality. That a prophet’s dream, the dream of a slave who’s realized redemption, the dream of heaven fused with earth, must still be made real.

Moses will never live the fulfillment of this dream. The teacher will die, like all teachers do, alone on Mount Nebo, watching his people walk into a fantasy. His burial place is unknown.

What we do know is that, today, Moses’ promise lives in us, a secret hidden in the soul of every Jew. Of course, it even took Moses a while to discover that secret. This man who stands before the crowd, demanding the Israelites march forward, was seemingly ill-suited for the job. After all, as he said himself, he had a speech impediment.

In Yiddish, the phrase to describe this condition is a shvere tsung — a “difficult tongue.” Shvere, like the phrase shver tsu zein a Yid. It’s often difficult to speak the truth, for our tongues to form the words that others would rather not hear. No wonder it’s also often difficult to be a Jew.

But if I’m right, if the promise that lived in Moses’ difficult tongue is now part of us, do we dare shrink from the challenge? Standing on the edge of a land of promise, isn’t it up to us to discuss and debate its meaning, to create a world not only safe for Jews but safe for Jewish values and ethics? As the descendants of our ancestors — themselves descendants of slaves, maligned and marginalized — what else can we do but, at long last, march forward into honor, dignity, justice, freedom, for all of God’s creation?

[1] Shepard, Richard, “Theater: Aleichem’s ‘Hard to Be a Jew,’” New York Times, October 30, 1973, p. 37

[2] Genesis 14:13, among others

[3] Deuteronomy 2:3

[4] Ibid. 2:4

[5] Ibid. 2:4-5

Rabbi Michael Rothbaum (’06) is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Elohim in Acton, Mass. He serves on the advisory boards of the Jewish Alliance of Law and Social Action (JALSA) and the New England Jewish Labor Committee, and is a member of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. He lives in Acton with his husband, Yiddish singer Anthony Russell.