Even in the age of American Idol and putting ourselves on YouTube, it's astounding to me that young teenagers are expected to get up in front of people and SING! In another LANGUAGE! All by YOURSELF! And then give a SPEECH! Yet that's what we do, to a greater or lesser extent, week after week, parsha after parsha, in congregations large and small, all over the world, in a ritual known to us as the bar/bat mitzvah. There's a little bit of, "Hey, I did it when I was a kid, and I lived—you will, too" and a little bit of "Look, everyone here loves you, they're all pulling for you…" and a whole lot of "How exactly did you get to be this old so quick?"
The passage of time is one of the great mysteries in life. Time drags so quickly. It hurries by so slowly. We don't even notice, until that's all we can see. I wonder if it felt like that to Moses. How quickly did those forty years in the wilderness go by? Here we are in the last book of the Torah, D'varim (Deuteronomy), and Moses is talking (and talking and talking…) to the Israelites, reminding them of all they've been through together. What gets through? What gets retained? What gets heard?
Did the Israelites react the way our kids react when we start talking (and talking and talking…) about the past? Was there a collective, communal eye-roll? Or were they really listening, focused on the tale, re-living it even though they weren't there to live it in the first place. An entire generation had died out in the wilderness, so except for Joshua and Caleb, no one—including Moses—who was present at Sinai would be crossing over into the Land. Yet these were stories about their parents and grandparents, so Moses must have hoped they felt at least some connection, just the way we hope our kids feel a connection to stories about the faces hanging close to them on the family tree.
Moses spends a lot of time in D'varim, going over the past. That's a risky technique—one can get stuck. A songwriter friend of mine, Dave Roth, once wrote a lyric: "There's nothing wrong with looking at the past, as long as you don't stare." I think Moses avoided "staring at the past" by reminding the people often that they were about to move into a new Land, cross over into a new life. "Hear O Israel! You are about to cross the Jordan…" (Deut. 9:1)
The memories weren't just for memory's sake. They were to be the mold for the future's clay. If Sinai was about standing at the base of a mountain, looking up to receive something new, then D'varim is about standing on top of a hill, looking down to embark on something new. Sinai was about absorbing, filling the sponge with what God gave, inhaling a big breath. D'varim is about being ready to spill over into the land of the new, squeezing out the sponge to water the new, finally exhaling. What stays? What spills? What is to be reabsorbed, re-breathed?
When we read that "Hear O Israel", we immediately think of the Shema, of course. But what we find in D'varim isn't the beginning of the Shema. It's actually that second paragraph, the one that is pretty long, that is harder to say, and most people just mumble through: "If then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving your God and serving God will all your heart and soul….." (Deut. 11:13 - 17) The text goes on to promise good rain, good crops, good fields and filled bellies, if you love God. If you are lured away to serve other gods, life gets worse—no rain, no flourishing fields, no future.
Whether they're the eye-rollers or the rapt listeners, Moses is telling the people that their future will depend on remembering the past in order to stay focused on the future. That's a lesson our young almost-adults need, too. Remember all the lessons that got you up on that bimah (pulpit), so you have a context for what you'll do next. Don't get lured away to the things that will sap your souls. Instead, find something that fills them up. You may not know what it is yet, but stay open, standing on a hill overlooking the new land, ready to cross over, and begin the next part of the journey.
Anita Silvert is a freelance teacher and writer, living in Northbrook. You can read more of her weekly Torah musings on her blog, Jewish Gems, www.anitasilvert.wordpress.com.