The Latest from BZBI

Where have we been and what are we carrying?

D'varim 5778 / 21 July 2018

July 23, 2018

Shabbat Shalom!

The man was too tall for our small space.  I knew it when the nurse opened the door and motioned for him to come inside.  The room was cluttered with the medically trained and the medically training – an attending, two residents, and two other medical students.  The man slipped between us and sat in the empty chair, his knees pushing outwards many inches beyond the edge of his seat. He looked at us.

I introduced myself and said it was nice to meet him.  He told me his name. He said he was doing well, or as well as anyone can be doing in a psychiatric ward.  He said it hadn’t been his idea to come.

“How did you get here?” I asked.

“Well,” the man started.  He tipped his head back, so his white hair fell away from his face and towards the back of his head.  He leaned back in the chair. “I just got back from the moon,” he said.

I blushed and fiddled with my pen.  Without missing a beat, the attending said, “Well…did you at least plant a flag?”

The portion this morning likewise starts out by asking “how did we get here?”

אֵ֣לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּעֵ֖בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן בַּמִּדְבָּ֡ר בָּֽעֲרָבָה֩ מ֨וֹל ס֜וּף בֵּֽין־פָּארָ֧ן וּבֵֽין־תֹּ֛פֶל וְלָבָ֥ן וַחֲצֵרֹ֖ת וְדִ֥י זָהָֽב׃

These are the words Moses spoke to all of Israel on the other side of the Jordan River, in the Desert, in the Aravah, opposite Suf, between Paran, Tofel, Lavan, Chatzerot, and Di Zahav.

On the surface, the opening line of the book of Deuteronomy reads like a map.  It comes off as a biblical latitude and longitude – a little north of this, a little east of that.  You can almost imagine, cinematically, a view that starts off with the entire earth and slowly zooms in to the exact place where Moses is speaking.

Yet Rashi points out two factual complications.  First, while the sentence says that the people are in the desert, we know from the end of Numbers that they are actually in the plains of Moav, near Jericho.  Second, we’ve never heard of the places Lavan or Tophel before in the Bible. In short – the geography is all wrong.

Rashi explains that the sentence is not meant to locate the people in space, but rather to locate them in history.  Each of the areas mentioned is a placeholder for a time when Israel provoked God’s anger. The sentence is meant not to explain where Moses’s speech was given, but rather when it was given.  It reminds the Israelites of how their relationship with God had evolved over time.

The place “Aravah” refers to “Aravat Moab,” Rashi explains, an allusion to the story from Numbers where Israelite men began marrying Moabite women and worshiping their gods.  “Suf” refers to Yam Suf, when the people reached the Red Sea and turned on God, complaining, “did you bring us here because there were not enough graves in Egypt?” The place “Chatzerot” is a reminder of Korach’s rebellion, and “Di Zahav” recalls the sin of the golden calf.

For the Israelites, there was nothing on the shores of the Jordan to remind them of their years of doubting God.  They were closer to the promised land than ever before. Just a few sentences later, God will tell them to go and inherit the land in front of them.  They are geographically remote from the sites of Korach’s rebellion, the Golden Calf, and the Red Sea. Yet Moses begins his epoch review by reminding the Israelites of their tumultuous relationship with God.  The Israelites’ sordid history is resurrected.

The tradition of naming events after places is easily familiar in modern times.  Watergate was named not after the president involved, but after the building where the Democratic National Committee was headquartered.  “Columbine” evokes the memory of the first days of school shootings, when they were still something that shocked us. “Tuskegee” recalls the unethical treatment of Black people.  

The problem with naming events after places is that there is no recurrent reminder of them.  Most of us haven’t thought about Watergate or Tuskegee in a long time. When events are named after places, we only have to confront them if we see a sign on the road or if someone happens to mention them in conversation.  In contrast, when we name events after dates – July 4th, September 11th – we re-experience them every year. July 4th not only recalls the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but also barbeques, beaches, and heat. We think of the joy of finishing a school year and the freedom of summer – or the chaos of finishing the school year and and the difficulty of finding things for kids to do over the summer.  When September 11th comes this fall, we will each think of where we were in 2001 when news of the attacks first broke.

Tisha Ba’av – the 9th of Av – recalls the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians and the Second Temple by the Romans.  The date rolls into each summer, a day of mourning amidst the slowness of mid-summer’s humidity. If not for Tisha Ba’av, most of us would hardly take the time to remember the destruction of the Temples, an event that’s difficult to relate to in modern times.  Yet the 9th of Av comes, without fail, every year. We remember.

This year, groups across the country will mobilize to connect the destruction of the Temple to the degradation of the principles of our own country.  Organizers of the gathering in Boston wrote “On the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, when we fast in remembrance of destruction and exile, we come together at the local ICE office to mourn the brokenness of our American immigration system. As children are separated from parents—not just on the southern border, but every time a parent is put in detention for months on end—we lament. As people who seek asylum from violence and economic devastation are denied refuge, we lament. As Muslims are denied access to their family members in the U.S. simply because of their national origin, we lament. In the face of the fear and uncertainty plaguing our immigrant communities, we lament.”

Naming events after dates encourages us to reinterpret their meaning each year.  The event transforms from a singular instance in time to an evolving experience.

Moving back to this morning’s portion: Rashi and other rabbis point out a second factual complication in the first sentence.  Two of the places – Tofel and Lavan – are not mentioned anywhere else in the bible. Ibn Ezra, a Spanish commentator from the Middle Ages, explains that Tofel and Lavan may be alternative names of places that are referred to elsewhere in the bible.

Rashi instead imbues the names Tofel and Lavan with historical implications, in-keeping with his interpretation of the rest of the verse.  Quoting Rabbi Johanan, Rashi explains that Tofel and Lavan refers to the time when the Israelites complained about manna, which was reportedly white (“lavan”).  For Rashi, this is yet another example of a time when the Israelites strayed.

Perhaps Tofel and Lavan instead represent the memories that are simply too difficult to remember.  They are the places we’ve been that we can never go back to, the ones that change us, scare us, confuse us.  By including Tofel and Lavan, Moses is saying that the Israelites are to reach back into the farthest recesses and recall even things that they had repressed.  In the long and winding review that comprises Deuteronomy, a preparation for entering Israel and becoming a people with a land, no stone should be left unturned.

Yet once we have recalled the most difficult parts of our past, we are free to leave them behind.  We do not need to bring Tofel and Lavan with us into Israel; they can stay on the other side of the Jordan.  Indeed, they are never mentioned again for the rest of the Bible.

Perhaps what we should learn is that we can be forgiving of our own transgressions.  There are some memories we should remember every year, other memories we should think of every once in a while, and still others that we are allowed to forget.  Jewish guilt is not mandatory. It is OK to let go of things, to discard experiences that made us feel inadequate, shameful, and wrong. Without the weight of these memories, our shoulders sit higher, our back straighter, our tread lighter.  We become more mobile. Suddenly, we are able to enter the holy land.

This morning, let us all ask ourselves: Where have we been?  What are we carrying? And what can we let go of?

Shabbat Shalom.