Yom Sheini, 22 Iyyar 5779
Monday, 27 May 2019
Parashat Devarim 2012

Parashat Devarim by Rabbi Janet Darley
27 July 2012

“Tell me a story grandma—tell me about when you were young.· Tell me about when you were a little girl.”

That was my most frequent request of both my grandmothers.· And that is how I learned that one of my grandmothers campaigned long and hard for women’s suffrage.· And how I discovered that the other one became a horse thief in order to pursue her education. I even learned that one of my great- grandmothers came close to being sold for livestock one cold winter to the Blackhawk brave who fell in love with her red hair.· These were some of the core narratives of my childhood.· I learned important values from them.· I always vote—if nothing else it is the duty I owe my grandmother.· I value education—my grandmother gave up her family to further hers, how could I not respect that.· And I learned that being poor and hungry can lead you to contemplate possibilities you wouldn’t otherwise, like seriously considering selling your child.· This reminds me to not judge others’ actions too harshly; sometimes what is visible on the surface does not tell the whole story.

And just as families have narratives, so do peoples.· Among the items I brought with me to England from the States many years ago is a statue of a seated figure holding two children.· Its mouth is open. It is a story teller.· The Navajo nation places great emphasis on telling its stories to its young people.· Every generation has its story tellers—their job is to pass on the stories of diné “the people” as they call themselves-- to the next generation.

And in that respect we are very like them. Just as does the Navajo storyteller, we also pass on our communal stories to the next generation.

This week we begin a long, long story, the final book of Torah. This book, Devarim, is cast as Moses’s final words to Israel. It begins: ·“These are the words which Moses spoke.” ·.

Picture this: the Israelites are on the plain of Moab. They are poised to enter the land of Canaan.· The generation that left Egypt is dead.· Moses is understandably concerned. ·Will succeeding generations forget--well, probably if left to their own devices.· But what to do?· Tell the story again, remind them of their past, of the deeds of their ancestors, of the coming out of Egypt, of the words of the covenant, of their responsibility to carry on.

And Devarim attempts to ensure the process continues.· Almost at the very end, in Ha-azinu (Deut. 32:7) we are told: “Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations; ask your father and he will show you; your elders and they will tell you.”

Aggadah, or narrative is a central feature of Jewish writing stretching from Torah as we can see, through various midrashic collections, to legends and even to contemporary Jewish fiction. This aggadah has a number of functions.

Kepnes in his article “A Narrative Jewish Theology” argues that narrative is the primary tool for developing theological ideas in Judaism. “God is told about through stories of men and women, through thoroughly human earthly events.” He suggests several reasons why aggadah is so useful for theological development.· One is that it allows the expression “of a hidden God, a God hidden in human events.”· Another is because it allows “mediating the tradition of the past to the present.”

Rami Shapiro in “Our Stories, Ourselves” ·suggests “We are the stories we tell.·If there were no Jewish stories, there would be no Jews.” He argues that when our stories fail us or we neglect them, we must invent new stories or die.·Though our ancestors may have accepted these stories as historical facts, we probably do not.· But that does not invalidate their power and importance.

But it is not only to remember the Exodus that we tell its story to our children.·The memory by itself is not enough.· Our goal should be to help our children to feel their Jewishness.· Mishnah (Pesahim 10:5) interprets· the verse, “For that which the Eternal did for me when I went out of Egypt” to tell us: “In each and every generation a man must see himself as if he came out of Egypt.”

Rabbi David Hartman, in his introduction to the Haggadah, A Different Night, emphasizes the importance of the role of parents as storytellers in ensuring Jewish continuity and Jewish identity. There is an obligation to bring children into contact with their roots, and with a world other than themselves. Learning a communal narrative also has another purpose; a child needs to be exposed to a history and a memory in order to realize that there is a dimension beyond the self.· “In many ways, Hartman says, “ we are human beings in search of a narrative who may find our personal story by reconnecting with our people’s great story of wandering and homecoming, of oppression and liberation, and of near annihilation and rescue.” In retelling the Exodus, we learn both to commemorate the moments of family and national crisis and to celebrate with gratitude our emergence into a better life.

It is not enough just to remember. Instead we must direct our memory to interpret the past in a way that it will properly impact our future. We remember our enslavement in Egypt, but only because of how it fits into our exodus from Egypt.· Learning about the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to Canaan should remind us that we are and can be a part of something greater than our individual selves.· It helps us to see ourselves as a link from the past to the future.· While we may reject some of the original theological underpinnings of this narrative, it certainly teaches us important values and concepts. If we value freedom for ourselves.we are more likely to value it for others.· And if we remember that the word mitzrayim which we translate as Egypt actually means “narrow place”, perhaps even a confinement that is self-imposed, we can also see the Exodus story’s relevance to many aspects of our lives.

It is not the details of the narratives that are important, so much as the identity they engender and the teachings that grow from them.· Now how do we help pass this identity and teachings on to the next generation?· How do we help them to find their own place in our people’s stories?· This is the challenge we face not only as parents and grandparents but as friends, Rabbis and congregants.· Certainly the first step in accepting the challenge is to make sure we recognise and embrace our own place in the ongoing story of the Jewish journey.