Are we being a good example for the next generation?

Our parashah begins with “Ehle ha Devarim – These are the Words”. The subject “Who wrote Devarim?” (Words), the last of the five books of the Torah, is much debated by our sages.  Some believe that it was written by Moshe alone but these types of issues are less important to me. As your rabbi, my desire for you is that you develop a strong relationship with the Creator rather than spending too much time nit-picking about details or becoming religious.

We might say that this book is similar to a letter written by a desperate father who knows that he will soon leave his children on their own and wants to reinforce what he had taught them – a so-called refresher course for after he is gone. Our sages say that this book was written one month before Moshe died and that he felt pressured to help this second generation, who were like his grandchildren to him. He wanted them to learn from the mistakes that their parents had made during their 40-year journey in the wilderness and hopefully not repeat them. Instead of accusing them or describing each incident along the way, he simply told them the name of each place to remind them of that special experience; for example, Lavan means white; the color represents the time they complained about the manna and Di-Zahav opposite Yam Suf, the Sea of Reeds means gold, representing where they worshipped the golden calf.

Our sages have named this book the Mishnei Torah, the second Torah or the repetition of the Torah since we read in chapter 17:18-19 that Moshe is telling the future kings that they would need to write a Torah for themselves. They would keep it close and read it every day of their lives to that they may learn to fear the LORD his God and to keep all the words and do them. In Latin, it was called Deutero-Nomos, from which we get Deuteronomy, the Second Law. Sadly, Nomos was translated as Law but Torah means instruction and here it is a repetition with some things added and others left out from the first 4 books.

It is better understood as a “renewal” of the teachings in these other books. Our prophet Jeremiah in chapter 31:30 said that the LORD would make a “new covenant בְּרִית חֲדָשָׁה” with the house of Israel and the house of Judah because our fathers had broken this older one. The covenant itself would not change, rather He would place this brit, His covenant within our hearts so that we could live them. It was not new; it was simply presented in a new way – it was renewed.

When Moshe said in Deut. 1: 22 – 23 that it was their idea to send out scouts, he was showing us just how human he was. He blamed the people for him not being able to enter the Promised Land (Deut. 1: 37). When we are confronted with something that we did wrong, how many of us, instead of admitting it, tend to justify our actions and blame them on someone else? Moshe had wanted to prevent this younger generation from doing just that, but immediately, he fell into the trap himself. That’s one of the reasons I love the Scriptures because, unlike most other religious books, they don’t whitewash our heroes.

The Creator is also showing us that we, made in His image, are neither robots nor slaves. He gave us the gift of free will, i.e., the right to make our own decisions and for that reason, we are responsible for the consequences. The Torah teaches us that no one else, not any person, not any animal sacrifice, can take on the consequences for our wrongdoings. If we did it, we pay for it. The basic message in the Torah is that when we fail, and we all fail, we need to acknowledge what we did, make teshuva, which means to return to God, not to a religion, and then make restitution. There were no jails in the Scriptures and no Korbanot, no offerings for intentional sin. If our great prophet and leader, Moshe blamed the people, who do we think we are not to do the same? There is an expression “Do what I say, don’t do what I do!” That doesn’t work. Our children watch our behavior and when they are young they may be afraid to question us but later our hypocrisy can cause them to rebel. That is why we need to be so careful.

Most of those who entered the Promised Land after wandering 40 years in the wilderness were 58 years old because all those over 20 years of age from the first generation had died in the desert. This second generation had never experienced being slaves and would now be taught to form a unified community.

This portion has a lot of psychological aspects. We may not realize just how much we are affected and molded by our upbringing. Moshe understood what this generation had to go through due to the behavior or shall I say, misbehavior of their parents. We as parents carry the responsibility of raising our children but there are no perfect parents. We do the best we can and because we love them, we want the best for them.

Some parents are strict disciplinarians while others are very permissive. The best path lies in the middle, but it is not easy. When our children become adults, we can see the results of how we have trained them. It is up to us to teach our children to have respect, have manners, to be polite and their behavior reflects upon us as parents. If they were not taught these things, it will make it more difficult for them to succeed in life. We must teach them the Fifth Commandment which tells them to honor father and mother who gave us life in the same way that the Creator does.  It is for their good and long life.

The verse in Devarim 1:5 “…Moses took it upon himself to expound this Torah, saying…” explains that Moshe would teach them the Word of God so that they would know the right thing to do. We know our children and we need to treat each child according to his personality like the Creator does with us. We are unique; no two of us are the same and so He will treat each of us in a way that we can understand and do whatever it takes to get our attention. He wants us to “ Shema – שְׁמַע”  “listen” which implies obey, to put His words into action.

How often do we do something without thinking in advance about the consequences?

We each have a conscience; we know how to behave in a proper and decent way, but we don’t always listen to that inner voice even though the truth resonates within our hearts. In general, Moshe was speaking to the entire congregation of Israel, but they didn’t all take it to heart. In our own families, some children respond well to our instructions as parents, while others are more stubborn and prefer to do things their own way. We usually have to invest more time with children who are troublemakers while the ones who are good, tend to get less attention. It has nothing to do with them being less important. Likewise, the Torah pays more attention to the troublemakers because they simply need it. Let’s be careful when we interpret the Scriptures that we know to whom the message was directed and why. Psychologists tell us that not everyone accepts basic truths for what they are. People have varying capacities to process information. Moshe needed to speak to people of every level of understanding.

Next week, in Parashat Vaetchanan – וָאֶתְחַנַּן Moshe will repeat the Ten Commandments. They were never meant to be kept solely for Israel; rather they are universal and hold the principles for all of humanity to live in harmony. Whether you are rightist or leftist, progressive liberal or conservative, there can be no argument about their validity. How we apply these commandments is the issue.  When I think about my parents, I realize how steady and faithful they were to their responsibility toward me throughout all my rebellious years and I am so grateful that they never abandoned me. When I had moved far away from them, they were even more concerned about my well-being.  Not everyone had good parents, but now they can make better decisions not only for themselves but about how they will be with their own children. Let us, as parents, acknowledge the areas that we have failed and admit that although we are not perfect, whatever we did, we did out of love for our children.

Let us begin this fifth book of the Torah thinking about how we want to move forward in our lives, like the children of Israel who were ready to move forward into the Promised Land.

From Ranebi’s message  Av 4 5780