On Devarim, for Simchat Torah

Every time I experience a major shift in my life, I see my entire history with new eyes. I understand the events of my past as precursors to this moment, in ways I couldn’t have done before this moment, and so I tweak the story of my life, just a little.

Over the course of the past few years, the story of my life as a seminary student went like this: I’m here to get credentialed as a religious professional. I’m here to unlearn the damaging theologies of my childhood. I’m here to learn how to be a scholar. Erm, I actually have no idea what I’m doing here.

It’s only now that I’ve graduated that I can look back on the entire arc of my experience and tell you a new story I didn’t know before: I went to a Christian seminary in order to discover and ultimately convert to Judaism.

This new story doesn’t overwrite the others—I’m still going to do some kind of religious or scholarly work, probably—but it gives the old stories new flavor and more nuance.

The book of Deuteronomy is a similar kind of re-telling from a new and wider perspective. The Israelites had a story about their experiences wandering through the desert following Moses and God, but now that Moses is on the brink of death, they need to reexamine those experiences and tell a slightly different story that will help them in this new era.

On another level, the authors and editors of Deuteronomy lived in a time when empire was threatening their cultural and religious integrity, and they, too needed to reimagine some of the stories they’d been handing down for generations in order to survive.

And now, today, we are also living in a time of radical change as Jews, renegotiating our relationship with this religion and tradition we’ve inherited from our mothers’ mothers’ mothers, trying to make it work for this moment.

In chapter 30 of Deuteronomy, Moses stands before the people offering final proclamations that somehow speak across time to all of these transitional generations.

He says:

“I’ve told you all the truths I know. But my time is ending, and now it’s going to be up to you.

לא בשמים הוא: the instructions for living are not in heaven anymore, and no one else is going to climb a mountain and come down with the answers.

Torah lives inside of you now: all our people’s history
of life and goodness, and also our history death and evil.
All that we’ve learned and all that we know...

It’s in your heart-- It is your responsibility to choose that which is life-giving, in relationship with God and one another.

And it’s in your mouth--You must tell your children this story and how the story changed because of you. Teach them all the truths you know, just as I did for you, and teach them to take it inside of their hearts and to make it new with their mouths and to pass it to their children in the same way.

If you do, then the story of our life will never end, and we will live forever.”

And they did.
And we are.
And we will.