D’varim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:21)

“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” says, Moses in Exodus (3:11).

When do we like Moses say to ourselves, “Who am I to…?” When do we anticipate how we think others will respond to us and let that influence our behaviors? How much human potential are we withholding because we doubt ourselves and our qualifications?

This week’s Torah reading opens with, “V’elu ha d’varim asher diber Moshe….” These are the words that Moses spoke…” The plural noun d’varim, words, things that have been spoken and the verb, diber, spoke, are related to each other sharing the same root although the ‘v’ sounds changes to a ‘b’ sound for grammatical reasons.

As the journey through the wilderness nears its end, Moses has thoughts, reflections and advice to share with the Israelites. In some ways it is like the long version of a parent sharing parting words with children as they head out for an evening.   It’s an elaboration of the phrase, “Be good, and behave.”

How ironic to have a the book D’varim (Deuteronomy) in the Hebrew, named for the many words Moses speaks in these chapters when it was Moses who forty years earlier said, “lo ish d’varim ani,” “I have never been a man of words…” (Exodus 4:10). Moses has grown from being a man of a few words to being an accomplished leader sermonizing his people before he sends them forward into the world without him.

Reading Moses in D’varim, one might wonder: why did Moses initially hesitate to be the leader of the people? Why did he question his value or qualifications?

I wonder if it was because he thought being a leader meant something different that the leader he would be.

Perhaps growing up in Pharaoh’s palace, he thought a leader needed to be someone who stood with confidence, spoke loudly and with authority. He didn’t anticipate when he would turn to God and invoke maternal imagery as a metaphor for his leadership, the burden of carrying the Israelites (Numbers 11:12-13) “Did I conceive all this people, did I bear them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries an infant’….”

Moses couldn’t foresee how much time he’d spend saving the Israelites from God’s wrath by appealing to God’s compassionate side. Nor could he have imagined a leader who could calm God’s anger.  He couldn’t imagine a powerful leadership that different from the power of the Pharaoh.

Maybe when God chose a shepherd who cared for each of his flock, a man who demonstrated caring and nurturing, God also taught us that an open heart is more powerful that any of the other characteristics that we tend to associate with leaders.

Maybe, when we hear Moses speak after 40 years of wandering, maybe we are also invited to find inspiration in the story of someone who didn’t think he could, but did.

 

 

 

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Matot- Masei

In this week’s Torah portion, (Numbers 30:2-36:13), the Israelites go to war.  Moses sends them to war with the Midianites to take revenge for that group’s seductive ways, leading Israelites astray from their way of being, and leading them to an immoral way of living.

Why a war? I kept asking myself as I read this Torah portion.  Why killing people?  In fact it is a massacre!  Moses commands them to kill all the men and all the women who had relationships with men.

Why such violence?  What role does this story play at the end of the book of Numbers, at the end of the journey through the wilderness just as the Israelites are about to cross the Jordan and reach a place that will become home?

Maybe this new generation of Israelites who didn’t know Egypt have a capacity that the older generation didn’t.  Maybe this war has a symbolic meaning.

Earlier in the book of Numbers we don’t see the Israelites struggle at all.  We see them ready to give up. “Why did you take us out of Egypt only to die in the wilderness?” is the consistent refrain.  They fearfully resign themselves to their perceived dismal fate and can’t even envision a struggle of any kind.  They have no will for struggle.  They are spiritually empty.

The change that we see later in the book of Numbers is that the people are ready to step forward for what they believe. Two weeks ago, (Numbers 25:1-8) Pinchas took a stand against the Israelites who were defaming God’s name in the way that they cavorted with the Midianite women.  Last week the daughters of Tzelophchad came forward to ask that a law be adjusted to allow them to inherit their father’s land.

The Biblical narrative, filled with verbs, tells us what people or groups did, but rarely how they felt or how they perceived their world.  For example, back in Genesis, the evening before Jacob will reunite with Esau, he struggles with a stranger.  Many commentaries interpret this confrontation as an externalization of Jacob’s internal struggle with himself.

Is it possible that wars and confrontations with other nations aren’t only a historical narrative, but like Jacob’s struggle is a  metaphor for the Israelite nation’s internal life? Maybe fighting the Midianites is a way of externalizing the spiritual conflict of being seduced by other ways of living that are not part of one’s true self.

The Midianite way of life has been presented as counter to God’s commandments.  Maybe this last war that precedes crossing the Jordan into the promised land, crossing the threshold into a new beginning, a new way of being, represents the Israelites redeeming themselves from all the times they doubted God’s capacity to assist them and their own strength. Maybe an Israelite people ready to fight in order to follow God’s way is the act that tells us:  It’s time. They are ready.

Perhaps, just as the chapters that follow will delineate physical boundaries for the tribes and the nation, the people are ready to delineate their spiritual boundaries what it means to be God’s people.

So, I wonder what this means for us:  Where in our own lives are we feeling like the Israelites who came from Egypt, spiritually empty, weary and not able to see a better future ahead of us?  Where are we like the Israelites at the end of the book of Numbers, ready to define our sense of self, what we believe, and to expand spiritually?