Revisionist History: Parashat Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22)

My grandmother loved to tell family stories in which key details were changed. Sometimes she swapped out one time period or location for another. Sometimes key characters were replaced or motivations recast. More than slips of memory, these alterations were her way of putting the past into perspective, of teaching lessons and of casting a favorable light on the generations gone by. I lovingly called this trait “Nana’s revisionist history.”

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Devarim, Moses presents his own case of revisionist history. As he stands before the Israelites and recalls many of the events that took place during their wandering years, he includes the retelling of how, as the people grew in number, his task of serving as judge over all of their disputes proved to be too burdensome. As a result, he explains, he began delegating his authority to other able leaders. In the retelling, Moses says, “Thereupon I said to you, ‘I cannot bear the burden of you by myself’ ” (Deuteronomy 1:9). From Moses’ point of view, this was a story about him relieving himself of certain arduous tasks in order to become a more effective leader.

But when we compare Moses’ recollection of this experience to its first recounting in Exodus, it becomes evident that Moses skipped over some key elements of the narrative. First, according to the book of Exodus, Moses was not the one to realize that he was overwhelmed in his position of judge. It was his father-in-law, the Midianite priest Yitro, who took notice of his plight, inquired about his judging process and suggested a new way of managing the situation (Exodus 18:13-27). It was Yitro who said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” (Exodus 18:14). Second, from Yitro’s words, we realize that what Moses experienced as his own overburdened schedule was actually a much bigger issue. Moses may have been overburdened, but the people were also without justice — waiting all day to be heard.

In his retelling, Moses falls into two of the common pitfalls of people engaged in self-reflection: He fails to recall the significant input of others, and he places his own experiences at the center of a much larger narrative. Essentially, either way you slice it, Moses presents the past as being all about him.

And I wonder: What can we learn from Moses’ process of introspection? How might it inform our own soul-searching in the weeks ahead?

Parashat Devarim is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, the day on which we commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. In this sense, Devarim serves as one of the gateways into the period of reflection preceding the High Holy Days.

The ancient rabbis teach that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, senseless hatred that existed between people (Yoma 9b). In the wake of destruction, people were asked to reconsider their place within their own societal narrative. In that generation, people failed to realize that their individual actions had very real repercussions on a more global level. In contrast to Moses, they failed to see that they were, in fact, at the center of a much larger narrative. In this case, the situation had everything to do with them.

And so, this week, we are presented with two moral lessons, which seemingly lead us to opposite conclusions. Both Moses and our Second Temple period ancestors remind us that, when looking backward, it is important for us to keep a sense of perspective regarding our own place in history. On the one hand, we are cautioned not to see our own stories and actions to the exclusion of others. On the other, we are reminded not to cede a sense of responsibility so completely that we fail to see the broader ramifications of our actions.

The real work of teshuvah comes when we are able to understand the difference between that in our past which was about us (mistakes made, hurts inflicted, etc.) and that which was not (actions taken by others, decisions made that affected us, the random and natural course of the universe, etc.). Our real learning lies in being able to differentiate between that which we could have changed and that which we could not.

At different points in our lives, each of us will be a Moses or a Second Temple-ite. Meaningful introspection comes when we are able to rise above these polarities. As the Serenity Prayer so wisely intones, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

Taking time for yourself

Camp ended not long ago. Children and counselors went home, and after months of jumping, screaming, singing, crying, dancing and laughing, now there is
stillness and quiet.

The dining room echoes as my feet step across a wide, empty floor once filled with tables and benches. Outside, I listen to wind blow through the trees. Clotheslines sit empty. The pool deck is dry and clean.

After nine weeks of living with almost 900 people, I enjoy a simple walk through camp uninterrupted by questions, or greetings. Soon I will return to my crowded Jewish neighborhood filled with shuls, restaurants and grocery stores. For now, I am content to drink in the silence and the solitude, welcome and unfamiliar.

Jewish life is noisy. We talk in our study halls and sing at our dinner tables. Jewish hermits are, well, oxymoronic. Our community measures success in affiliation. But communal life can be smothering. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “It is as individuals, not as members of a mass-kind that we are asked to observe mitzvot…. The social aspect plays a very great role in Jewish life, but we cannot allow it to eclipse the individual.”

The parsha begins: “See [re’eh, singular] I place before you [lifnei’chem, plural] today blessing and curse” (Devarim 11:26). Why begin in the singular and finish in the plural? To explain, two commentators — Rabbi Shlomo Efraim of Luntchitz and Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin — both quote the Talmud (Kiddushin 40b) where it is taught that a person should always see himself as half innocent and half guilty, and the world as half righteous and half evil. Why? So that when one person does one mitzvah, he will tilt himself, and with him, the fate of the world toward good, or, if he sins — God forbid — toward evil. The fate of the world rests in the hands of what one person will do the very next moment.

How would your life change if you lived this way? How would the Jewish community look if we took each individual so seriously?

I think a lot about why Jewish camps succeed. Much is rightly made of the “thick” sense of community that is present in camp communities. We eat, learn, wake up, fall asleep, play, mourn, cry, sing, dance and grow up together. But kids don’t just love camp for community; camps succeed because counselors and campers feel known at camp, not as “members of a mass-kind” but as people, as individuals. Camps typically have one counselor for every four to six campers. Good counselors sit outside the dining room with a child who is having a tough time, and stay up late talking with a camper and listening to what excites him or worries her.

I have often thought that if I were the rabbi of a shul, I would try to initiate an individual meeting with each person in the synagogue, not on the occasion of a bar mitzvah or a wedding or a funeral, but just to sit and talk, to get to know the individual persons that comprise a community. (With many synagogues having hundreds — and sometimes thousands — of members, the project might take years, even decades, to complete.)

On a communal level, too often we forget that the world is changed one person at a time. Our programs aim to reach many people but at what cost to the individual Jew? Speaking to a group of Jewish educators, Heschel declared, “When the Bible calls upon us to open the heart [see Deuteronomy 10:16], it is appealing to the religion of the individual…. We teachers face the pupil as an individual: We have to take into consideration his rights and his tasks. To respect these rights and to think of these tasks is the great duty of educators, for to educate means to meet the inner needs, to respond to the inner goals of the child. We dare not commit human sacrifice by immolating the individual child upon the altar of the group.”

On a spiritual level, too often the “I” is lost in the sea of Jewish community. Even before God we forget to stand alone. We mindlessly recite the words of the siddur but fail to offer our own hopes and fears and dreams to God. We forget or neglect to carve out time for solitude. Why? Too often we tell ourselves that our obligations to our family, jobs or community, are too important for us to “indulge” ourselves. Solitude is no indulgence. It is the seed from which relationships can grow.

“See,” God says to each single person. The fate of the world hangs in the balance; the task begins with you alone.

Rabbi Daniel Greyber is the executive director of Camp Ramah in California and the Zimmer Conference Center of the American Jewish University.