Many of us have nicknames or phrases attached to our names that are often right on target as they define us. My favorite, for me personally, is Mama Bear – always with a watchful eye, not only for my own grandchildren, but for all my Temple Jeremiah kiddos. A close second is “cheerleader,” always ‘perky,’ Mary Poppins in disguise for the kids, letting them know that they’re doing just great! I find that I need to continue my cheerleading skills, even now, outside of temple, during this pandemic. Many of us are finding ourselves sharing stories of difficult times we experienced in the past, times when we were unable to find a ray of sunshine, and then feeling such a sense of relief and joy when we made it to the other side. We speak to our children with the assurance that “this too shall pass.”
We, as a people, have been telling stories for the purpose of guiding our children for centuries. We have looked to our Judaism for our own strength during difficult times. In the first portion of the Book of Deuteronomy, D’varim, Moses begins a series of farewell addresses to guide his “children,” the Israelites. Messages in these farewell addresses speak directly to us and connect generations.
We are taught a lesson about personal growth. Moses’ role as the speaker reminds us that people change and grow. Forty years in the desert leading an unruly, cranky bunch of Israelites would take a toll on anybody. Yet even given the difficulties of leadership and prophecy, Moses manages to cultivate and deepen his skills. Even through the personal tragedies of mourning his siblings, Miriam and Aaron, he found a well of resilience within himself, and he turns his weakness with words into a profound way with them. We need to find that same well of resilience within ourselves as we face the challenges today, and we must have faith that we can do that.
We also learn that in order to move forward, we sometimes must start by reviewing where we’ve been. Moses reminds the people of his own challenges and his need to delegate and maintain order. He recounts the deep uncertainty and fear the Israelites expressed, leading to the episode with the spies and eventually to God’s decree that the people would remain in the wilderness for an entire generation. It may not have been Covid, but 40 more years in the desert…I’d call that stress! Finally, Moses turns his attention to review the recent military history of the Israelites’ wanderings. He recounts for the people both the defeats and the victories in their encounters with neighboring tribes and peoples over the course of their trek through the desert. And in all of this retelling, Moses never fails to lose sight of what comes next: a vision – crossing the Jordan and entering the Promised Land.
I’m struck but by the way Moses retells the story to the people as they prepare for the march forward. Their trust in themselves, like their trust in God, grows as Moses helps them gain an appreciation for all that they have already experienced. He accomplishes his goal of girding the Israelites spiritually for the challenges to come by reminding them of all that they have already endured and survived.
This can be a powerful lesson for us, too. While we hopefully do not find ourselves fighting literal battles, each of us faces struggles and challenges in our lives. Each of us will encounter self-doubt or despair, or feel vulnerable to attack; many are likely feeling that now. We have endured difficulties in our past and we have survived. We will survive this as well.
And like our Israelite ancestors, we must try not to fear. Instead, we can try to follow Moses’ lead. As he grew to overcome his fear of words, we too can remember and identify ways we have grown, particularly in these past months. Like Moses, we too can look back and consider our journey before we advance. We can choose to retell our story in ways that remind us and our children that we are not alone; we too have the power to move forward from strength to strength.
I read a beautiful commentary by Carol Ochs and her description of Moses and his farewell address spoke to me. Like a parent parting from his adult children, Moses knows that things will not always be easy for them. How can he forewarn them of the difficulties ahead without destroying their faith? The tool that Moses has at this moment is story, and story is a powerful instrument for overcoming despair, unifying a people, and offering hope. Just like Moses, we pass on the tale of our people— our story—to our children. And the generations before us have passed it along so that in every time and place—and at every trial—we have the story of our people and our relationship to God to help us try and make sense of what we must face and to give us the strength to do that.
When we try to enter into the full experience of D’varim, we think of the many forces that have shaped our own children and how we hope our values will be predominant. How much can we actually know they have absorbed? And how much must we simply hope is already implanted in the depths of their souls? We know that lectures won’t do it—but stories might. Children like to hear stories about themselves and their ancestors. If told well, the story may be all we need to enable them to face the promised, but as yet unconquered, land that lies ahead.
We remind them of their strengths, their faithfulness, their genuine gifts of resilience, empathy, and mencshlichkite. We also remind them that they will make mistakes and will, from time to time, face the consequences. And we remind them that even when we cannot be there, our love is enduring. Yes, that sounds a lot like what Moses is doing. We feel within ourselves his anxiety over what has taken a lifetime to build and his hope that it will last.
The frightening moment comes when we realize we have said all we can say. We need to trust that we have created a lovingly strong foundation. Now we must, as Moses did for the Israelite children, bless them and have the faith that they can fly.
Let us remember that we can choose to retell our story in ways that remind us and our children that we are not alone; we too have the power to move forward from strength to strength.