DEVARIM / SHABBAT CHAZON
Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild
Each year I read the book ‘Devarim’ – which we begin this Shabbat – differently. The reason is simple; Each year I am a little older and Devarim is an Old Man’s Book. When I was a younger rabbi it seemed very repetitive; as I get older I realise how important it is to keep repeating again and again what people need to hear, on the basis that they don’t listen half of the time in any case! This is, after all, a major reason why we read the Torah constantly through the cycle – whichever cycle we use – because just to hear it read once is NOT enough.
When you get older you start thinking about for the future in different ways, and your plans will be influenced by your experiences in the past.
You will start planning for Yourself – as you face questions like: ”What will become of Me? Or my body? What will it be like being dead? Will I enjoy it? Will I suffer? Will it just be very monotonous? Will I be born again? Will I meet people I want to meet again? Will I perhaps meet people I DON’T want to meet again?”
And, like Moses, you start planning also for those whom you will have to leave behind. ”Oh, how will they manage without me? I must make sure I give them all the right advice right now, while I still have time and energy. I had better sort out the succession, ensure the rules are written down and understood, warn people against repeating the same mistakes yet again. I must write my Memoirs so they can read them and be inspired, by my wisdom, my courage, my generosity, my patience, my endurance and – of course – my modesty. After all, the People (‘the People’ is often written with a capital ‘P’ when one thinks like this) are so much younger than I and they do not have the same experience, they never had the chances I had, to argue with a Pharaoh, to climb up that mountain and to meet God. They were not even there, not even born, when so many important things happened – or maybe they were there, but too young to understand the significance. After all these decades out in the wilderness, with only two other ‘Eye Witnesses’ here left apart from myself – Joshua and Caleb – I must take steps to ensure that the story of our wanderings is not forgotten, also the story of the People’s foolishness and mistakes and rebellions and all the times I had to sort out the mess, to pick up the pieces, to plead with God on their behalfs…. I argued with Pharaoh for them, I led them out when the Egyptians finally lost patience, I led them safely through the Sea, I held up my arm to ensure the Amalekites were defeated, I went up that mountain on their behalfs and brought them the rules of personal and communal existence; I had to sort out sanitary arrangements and water supply, I had to get a camp and then a Sanctuary organised and financed by a fund-raising campaign and built by some qualified experts. I had to stand up for them, and I had to stand up against them. And now, I don’t want them to blame me for leaving them still out here in the desert – after all, it is largely THEIR fault that I lost my temper that one time…. ”
So or so is the message going through Moses’ mind at this point in his career. He has done his best, he has even done more than his best, but even he couldn’t manage to do even better than that. No-one can.
When you don’t have so far to look forward any more, it is only natural to turn to look further and deeper into the past. You become a sort of representative of an entire generation. I personally can recall meeting the last survivor of a specific army unit from the First World War; I meet now with the few, elderly surviving representatives of the Second World War, or of the Holocaust, or of their Children. You say ”I think, I suggest, I propose” less and ”I remember…” more, but at the same time you develop a sense of urgency, because whatever you don’t say or write Now, may never get said. What will the next generation make of what our generation has achieved? Ironically – although not for the first time – it seems that a proportion of the next generation already has some pretty good ideas how they would do things differently and better. Taking, for example, more consideration for long-term climatic change. At the same time there are those in the next generation who seem uninterested in the lessons to be learned from the period of extreme nationalism or of dictatorship and oppression and ‘hard borders’. Then there are those who seem to see technology as something always positive, always useful, and do not wish to learn of the potential dangers when technology is misused. I do not wish to go into more and more detail because each person has their own experiences and each of us is at a different point along Life’s journey (even if we are not always aware of that). All I wish is to point out that one’s attitude to certain biblical texts is bound to change as one changes oneself. It is said that a Pessimist is ”an Optimist with Life Experience”. One gathers more and more Life Experience and the challenge then is to retain some optimism, some idealism, some hope for the future, in spite of it.
Which brings me to the other theme for this Shabbat. Instead of a ‘standard’ Haftarah which follows the same theme as the Sidra, we have the ”Chazon” reading from the prophet Isaiah in which he sees a vision. What is the content? ”This is what God says: I have reared children, but they have rebelled against me!” ”The next generation, so to speak, has not learned, has not followed the rules and guidance I have laid down for them, and so they deserve punishment!” He gives examples of immoral and hypocritical behaviour, of self-righteousness and arrogance and self-justification. To some extent one could say that the Haftarah DOES follow the same theme as the sidra, Devarim – it is just that it shows that Moses had failed and so his concerns, his fears had been proved justified. He worked so hard for so long to teach the Israelites to respect each other, to observe the ethical and moral laws of mutual respect, to keep their faith in God, to build a sanctuary, to deserve the Land they had been promised. Now, in the times of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, it has proved necessary to send a prophet to warn that they should turn back to these observances, God is just as capable of revoking the promise, of destroying the sanctuary, of exiling the people out of the Land again…. because this is what they have deserved.
Does it work? Well, we approach now Tisha B’Av, the commemoration of the catastrophes which befell both Temples of Jerusalem, and the destruction of the city, and the exile of its inhabitants, and many other disasters as well. Which indicates pretty clearly that, No, it did NOT work. The people did not listen, or at least not enough of them, or not hard enough. On the other hand, we are here still, able to read these texts and to pass on their message to the next generation, those who will come after us and who will hopefully not make the same mistakes, follow the same impulses, give in to the same weaknesses. Presumably Isaiah decided at some point to write down, later, what he had experienced and what he had said over the reigns of four kings of Judah, so that others could read his words and his warnings long after he himself had died. Probably by then he had learned how difficult it was to be heard by those in power and how fruitless all his work seemed to be – yet he did not wish to give up or to be silenced.
Neither Moses nor Isaiah sought out the status of a Prophet, but each had a lot to say for the future and the extent to which the generations to come could influence their own fates. And those of the generations following them in turn. Each sought in their way to ensure Continuity, to ensure that those coming after them would maintain a sense of self-criticism combined with a sense of hope, a sense of future for themselves and for those coming after them, too.
This has to be our duty too.