The long goodbye as a teaching moment

Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Devarim, 1:1-3:22.

This Shabbat we begin the final book of the Torah, Devarim, in which Moshe begins his several-week-long farewell speech to the children of Israel.

One explanation can be found in the Greek name of this book, Deuteronomy, or “Second Law.” While this translation is incorrect, in essence there is truth to it. We do not receive the law, the Torah, the Ten Commandments, a second time. What we do receive is a retelling of the experiences that our people have been through since leaving Egypt and receiving the Torah.

Once before, Moses had stood at the edge of the River Jordan, hoping to enter the Promised Land, yet that time the people were not ready. We had the incident with the spies and the punishment of wandering in the desert for 40 years until that generation died off. Fast forward 40 years and we are standing once again by the River Jordan. Moshe might be remembering the last time he stood there, with the current crowd’s parents and grandparents. He now stands with a group of people who were not slaves in Egypt, a group of people who did not receive the Torah at Sinai.

Moshe takes this time to bei’air et ha’Torah ha’zot (1:5), or to expound on or illuminate this teaching. In other words, Moshe decided to take his last moments on earth to leave an ethical will of sorts to his adopted children, the Children of Israel. Instead of sitting around and being bitter that he had led his people to the edge of a land that he was not allowed to enter, he chose to end his life with dignity by using his last moments as a gift, as teachable moments.

He begins by teaching that the new life that they are about to begin in the land of Israel — which includes obedience to God’s commandments — starts with accepting responsibility for the Jewish past. That is why his first story is that of the spies — the parents of his listeners, the ones from whom they inherit the responsibility of being the Jewish people. He reviews the Ten Commandments and all the battles that were fought, both military and spiritual.

This parsha, Devarim, is always read upon the Shabbat preceding Tisha B’av – which begins Monday night. On Tisha B’av, the ninth day of the month of Av, we mourn a series of sorrowful events that happened to our people throughout history, beginning with the destruction of the Temple, going on the tragic ending of the Bar Kochba rebellion and, to more modern times, when Tisha B’av is said to be the date of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and the beginning of World War I. Tisha B’av is also the date upon which the spies told their lies about the goodness of the land of Israel.

I am always a bit sad when I begin the book of Devarim and must begin anew the process of saying farewell to Moshe. But I take heart in the example he sets of how to leave this world with dignity. Moshe leaves us with Devarim, the words of Torah that, as Ibn Ezra writes, ensure the future of the Jewish people, and in the words of Hosea, have the ability to return us to God.

Rabbah Arlene Berger is the rabbi of the Olney Kehila and a community chaplain.

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