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Cantor's Comments - Parshat Devarim                                 July 25, 2020 - 4 Av 5780

07/24/2020 09:47:32 AM


Hello and welcome to another video d’var Torah.  It’s been a very busy week at Beth Radom, and when I say at Beth Radom, I guess I’m really saying that it’s been a busy week for me at home.  If you haven’t seen it yet, I encourage you to watch the 4 minute video message that we released earlier this week about our exciting plans for an incredibly innovative, socially distanced High Holyday experience that, with the music you love, the people you’ve been missing, and the same prayers in our machzor that move our hearts, promises to be the absolute next best thing to being with us in person.  We certainly hope you’ll be joining us for an especially meaningful season.


But speaking of long-winded High Holyday sermons… this week’s parsha is D’varim, and it kicks off the final book of the Torah.  As sermons go, this one is the biggest doozy of them all, because it lasted about 3 weeks.  In fact, it takes up the entire book of Dvarim.  But we do have to indulge Moses this one last time, because after this speech, both his mission and his life will be over.  The Israelites have finished their 40 years of wandering, they are on the banks of the Jordan river ready to cross over into the land that will soon become the Kingdom of Israel.  But when they do, they will be led by Joshua, not Moses.  Moses, as we remember, must account for his one transgression against God when he struck the rock to bring forth water, as opposed to what God had instructed which was just to speak to it.  For this, Moses will not cross over the river with the Israelites, but at the ripe old age of 120, Moses will die in the wilderness on Mount Navo, but not before at least watching from afar as the Israelites safely cross to the other side.


As with any good sermon, this one has a lot of instructions, some reminiscing, some beautiful theological and philosophical ideas, and of course, some exciting drama.  But we’ll save some of that for another video.  Today, I’d like to focus on one important idea that Moses communicates at the end of this parsha, the first segment of his long speech.  It is an idea that has been claimed by many people from different cultures and different religions over many generations, but from our modern perspective, causes us to be a bit disturbed.  When the Israelites cross the river, they will be going to war against the local kingdoms in their campaign to conquer the land for their own.  When they do, Moses reminds the Israelites, “Lo tira’um ki Adonai Eloheichem  hu hanilcham lachem” - “do not fear them, for it is the Lord your God who is fighting for you” (Deut. 3:22).


This phrase, or at least this idea, has been used as a war cry for thousands of years, and to justify many great atrocities, but with one important distinction.  We understand to a great extent that when we feel that our fight is just, we want to believe that God is fighting on our side.  But upon a closer inspection of the verse, we see that the Torah clearly states that God is fighting FOR us, not WITH us.  Now, it may seem like an inconsequential distinction, but the Hebrew word the Torah uses, “lachem” is most accurately translated as “for you”, as in, “instead of you”.  And when we consider this and read the verse again, it means something completely different, and perhaps even more problematic!  “Do not fear them, for it is the Lord your God who is fighting FOR you”… as in, “you just sit back and relax, God is doing it FOR you”.


In 1973 Egypt and Syria launched a joint surprise attack on Israel which sparked what we call today, the Yom Kippur War – so called because the attack began on Yom Kippur – a deliberate strategy by the Arab coalition who imagined fighting Israelis weakened by the fast, but who were, of course, met instead with a fully functional and enraged IDF that quickly defeated both armies on both fronts.  But it might not have turned out that way had an ultra right wing voice within the Israeli Knesset been given more consideration.  This voice counseled the Knesset not to mobilize the IDF on Yom Kippur, as it would be a violation of Torah.  Rather, they should instead trust that on Yom Kippur of all days, God would surely fight FOR them.


We would like to mock this approach, but to do so would seem to mean mocking the Torah itself.  But then, how do we read this verse in a meaningful way?  Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson of the Ziegler School posits that Moses is playing a bit of a mind game with the Israelites, helping to mentally condition them to be resilient to life’s impediments.  We do this sort of trick on ourselves all the time, like if we’ve been preparing for a big presentation, or studying for a big exam.  We’ve been working and preparing for weeks, and then in that moment before the exam begins, we tell ourselves that the work is already over.  Whatever happens next will simply reflect the work we’ve already done, but of course, that will depend on what questions are on the exam, or whether we trip over our own shoelace as we stand up to begin the presentation.  Some might call it fate, but one Jewish approach might be to say, “the rest is up to God”.


But actually, I think the Torah’s message goes even deeper.  The first pulpit position that I served after graduating was the New North London Synagogue, in London, England.  If any of my New North Londoners are watching this video… hello!  I miss you all!  During my time there, I did a lot of singing with a lot of absolutely adorable kids, who are all probably in their twenties by now.  But I remember a fair number of them coming to me saying that they couldn’t be in a choir because they couldn’t sing.  Now, there are certainly a lot of different people out there with varying degrees of singing abilities, but some of these kids I knew, definitely COULD sing.  I knew because I heard them singing along in shul all the time.  When I asked why they thought they couldn’t, the answer was almost always because a teacher when they were really little once told them so, and they believed it ever since.  Every time I heard this answer, my heart broke.  Because of one comment, by one teacher, years ago, a child has been deprived of the joy of singing.  I find it amazing how these kinds of ideas can get into our heads when we’re young, or even when we’re not that young!  But they still weasel their way into our minds and change the way we think and feel about ourselves.  They can even alter our personalities in a big way.


In modern education theory, we learn to be extremely careful about labeling students in any way, particularly those students who are regularly misbehaving and causing disruptions.  We know that when disciplining students, we tell them that their behaviour was bad, but not that they ARE bad.  We make that important distinction because we can easily see how a child who is repeatedly told they ARE bad, comes to believe it.  And when child believes it, they become justified in continuing to demonstrate bad behaviour, because it is now a part of who they are.


When we consider the Israelite people, having just completed 40 years of wandering in the desert, we can understand their need to believe that the hard part was over, that they had finished studying for the exam, and that the rest was well in Gods hands.  I don’t think for a moment that this idea was intended to convey that God would be doing all of the fighting for them.  The Israelites were already battled-hardened.  The already knew what war would be like.  But they needed to be able to believe in themselves, that all of their suffering had been for the purpose of preparing them for this moment.


There is a reason we refer to Moses in Hebrew as Moshe Rabeinu, Moses our teacher, and not Moshe the conqueror.  Instead of being the teacher that told his student they couldn’t sing, he was the teacher who told his student who always thought he was a slave that he was actually God’s chosen.  When we read the verse “Do not fear them, for it is the Lord your God who is fighting for you”, let us not read it as a commandment to believe in God.  Judaism has plenty of those.  Let us instead read it as a commandment to believe in ourselves, that we are worth of having God fight for us.”  That way, we can enjoy a lifetime of singing.


Shabbat Shalom,

Mon, July 4 2022 5 Tammuz 5782