Devarim. Words. This is the human tool I’m about to use, and it’s also the name of our parashah. But Devarim also means “things,” and there are things behind the words, things before the words. The book of Deuteronomy or Devarim is the first midrash, the first interpretation. It is a retelling of much of the Torah, and it adds and takes away and changes, just as midrash does. As our parashah begins, Moses is giving a speech to the new Israelites, the ones born during the forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Moses is telling history, and, like any historian, Moses is changing history as he tells it. The Exodus and the revelation at Sinai that Moses relates in Devarim are not the same as they were a few books before. This is why the book is called in Greek Deuteronomy, second telling: that’s what it is. In Hebrew, the book is called devarim, words. History is words, with all the beauty and all the possibility for omission that words have.
Moses begins his story not with the Exodus and not with Sinai, but with what happens after Sinai, with the wilderness and the command to enter the land—in some ways, the most relevant beginning for a people about to enter their homeland. Moses reminds the people of an incident in which Moses appointed judges to help govern the people, because, he says, “lo uchal levadi laset etchem, I cannot carry you myself. How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, the burden, and the bickering? Therefore pick from your tribes people who are wise and discerning and knowing, and I will put them at your head.”
It makes sense that Moses is talking about tribal government here, since they will need government, and it makes sense that he is kvetching since it’s been a long forty years. But Moses is leaving something out. Moses implies that he proposed this system of tribal government, but he didn’t. It was Jethro, father of Moses’ wife Tziporah, a Midianite priest, who told Moses to appoint this tribal hierarchy. He proposed it not only because Moses was fed up, but because the people were not being well-served by being judged by only one person. The people were exhausted because Moses was trying to deal with all their issues. And Moses was exhausted, and probably ignoring his wife and kids. So Jethro said to Moses: “The thing you are doing is not good,” and suggested the possibility of sharing leadership with others. “ This is a part of the story Moses completely ignores in the retelling. It seems to have slipped his mind.
Maimonides, the Jewish philosopher of 12th century Cairo, notices this, and says the following:
“It seems to me that [Moshe] did not wish to make mention of [Yitro] before the entire nation of Israel – [either] out of modesty, or because this generation would not view in a positive light the fact that he had taken an Cushite wife, or perhaps the reason is because he was anointed by the Shekhina, and it was by God’s word that this matter was decided.”
In other words, there are three possibilities for Moses repressing Jethro’s advice: 1) he didn’t want to elevate Jethro and make him proud, 2) he didn’t want his people to remember that he had taken a wife from Jethro’s fanily (so it was damage control), or 3) it was all really God’s idea anyway, so Jethro didn’t need the credit. Jethro was just confirming what the Shekhinah had already said to Moses.
There is another possibility that Maimonides doesn’t suggest, which is that after forty years, Moses has forgotten what happened and thinks it really was his idea. Or maybe, since Jethro has gone home to Midian, and was a father figure for Moses who Moses will not see again, maybe it is just too painful to think of him at this moment.
Later Jewish sources frown on the idea of not quoting one’s teachers. In Pirkei Avot it is written: “A person who quotes a source brings deliverance to the world.” The rabbinic enterprise is based on the quoting of sources. Probably a quarter of the Talmud consists of “Rabbi x said in the name of Rabbi y.” The student-teacher relationship is at the heart of our tradition. Recently I had the opportunity to ordain some of my beloved rabbinical students at the Academy for Jewish Religion, to put my hands on their heads and bless them with the tradition with which I have been blessed, and that moment is always one of the best moments. It is so full, so pregnant with meaning, to pass on the mystery you have received from your teacher to someone who will treasure it. So why the irony that our first teacher, Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our master, forgets his own teacher?
Perhaps this is to remind us that the loss of our first teachers can be so painful that we want to forget them. We are now approaching Tisha b’Av, the commemoration of the Temple’s destruction. These events, the destruction of the First and Second Temples, were not only devastating catastrophes for our people that meant terrible loss of life, loss of land, and loss of meaning. They were also the birth of the Judaism we know. The destruction of the First temple led to the canonization of the Bible. As for the Second Temple, there is a legend that Yochanan ben Zakkai, a great sage, was carried out of Jerusalem as the city was burning, in a coffin as if he were dead, in order to save him. That sage went to a small town called Yavneh and started a school, and began rabbinic Judaism. They conceived the genius idea to make their sacred space portable: a scroll about this big.
The scroll is words, but there are things behind the words. The Temple was our first teacher, a sacred place we could bring our bodies as well as our souls. When we went into exile, we not only lost that teacher, we forgot it. We even deprecated it— we said, well, we had a Temple because we weren’t evolved enough yet to live only in the world of ideas. Now we can exist purely in the world of Torah. We came to believe that the only truth lies outside the physical world, because the physical world is so full of helplessness and suffering. And we let go of our connection to body, and land. The Talmud says that the physical world is only a corridor to the world to come. Jewish teachers, even kabbalists, encouraged people to ignore the body, to the point that the Vilna Gaon studied Torah all night with his feet in a bucket of ice water to keep him awake. I do appreciate this dedication, but the message that the body should be ignored is maybe one we might want to shift.
Especially when ignoring the body also means that we work too hard, don’t sleep enough, don’t know where our clothes and food come from or if our food is really food, or whether our cell phones are being made by slaves. Especially when ignoring the body can mean ignoring the bodies of people we are hurting, in this land, in Israel, in Syria, in Tibet, all over the world. The body is the real, and it’s so easy to repress, because it’s so painful and vivid to feel. Yet ignoring the body can mean blithely going along in our SUV while the climate becomes more and more extreme, or blithely along in our lives while missing connections with our loved ones— just as for the kabbalists, let’s be honest, it meant getting high on meditation and study while ignoring that their wives were full human beings. Ideas are powerful, but we shouldn’t live in the world of ideas. The body may be the most carnal element of our soul material, but when we ignore it, we always pay the price.
This generation of ecotheologians and yogis and yoginis and Shekhinah devotees and Jewish farmers, reminds us of our early teachers, the body and the world, which our ancestors believed to be holy. But there are other teachers we’ve repressed. We repressed so much of our folk culture in Eastern Europe, many of our legends and beliefs including our beliefs as Jews with people who have died, and our ongoing relationship with them, and our traditions about the soul—because the Holocaust was so traumatic we could not longer think in those terms. Whole movements gave up on those teachings, which had been with us for a thousand years. And, for generations, we repressed the teachings of kabbalah because so many masters and teachers of kabbalah had been lost. It has taken till this generation of Jews to begin to undo this repression. We must begin to learn again from these teachers whom we repressed for so long. We must always return to the teachers we lost, because they are the foundation for who we are.
Hard as it is to embrace, crises are often flowers opening what we refuse to open by ourselves.