2014-08-06 / Religion Column

The importance of remembering our spiritual triumphs

Community Chaplain
Parashat Vaetchanan Deut. 3:23-7:11.

In its literary setting, the Book of Deuteronomy presents the final orations of Moses to the generation that came of age in the Wilderness, some 40 years after the Exodus from Egypt, as they were encamped on the plains of Moab, across from Jericho, about to enter into Canaan. Standing before him were those who were children at the time of the Exodus as well as those born during the wandering through the desert. It was a generation that knew firsthand the challenges of freedom. While the obstacles their parents overcame were in the past, they had met their own challenges to their faith in God, their loyalty to the covenant and their devotion to each other. They were the witnesses and the survivors. (Deut. 4:4)

As Moses prepares them for the next step in their pilgrimage, he implores them to observe faithfully the rules and regulations God gave them for life as a free people in their new homeland. He instructs them that if they do so, all will acknowledge their wisdom and discernment because not even the greatest of nations have such wellconsidered laws and rules as Israel’s. (Deut. 4:6-8)

Then Moses shifts his focus. He tells the tired and tried Israelites that they are not only to be faithful to the covenant, but they need to take special care to transmit the memory of the great moments of their past to future generations. Loyalty to God and God’s covenant entails more than faithful practice. Cherishing and transmitting the memory of Israel’s spiritual triumphs, particularly the encounter with God at Sinai, is essential. (Deut. 4:9-10)

This message is of upmost importance this time in the Jewish year. The Torah portion Vaetchanan always occurs on the Shabbat after the Fast of Tisha B’Av, the climax of a three-week period of mourning that commemorates the great tragedies that befell the Jewish people. Moses’ message, which appears at the beginning of the reading, is the healthy antidote to the inevitable sense of victimhood evoked by the story of our people’s sufferings. It is the message of serenity, hope, strength, courage and love that counteracts the feelings of anger, frustration, weakness, fear and resentment that may emerge at this season.

Moses understands that the foundation of Israel’s dedication to the covenant—its rules, regulations, teachings and instructions— is a positive self-image. Israel needs to know that on a spiritual level, they have a unique relationship with God, and on an historical level, they have overcome the forces of nations and nature. They are not the poor people enslaved by Pharaoh. They are Israel, the people whose march to freedom marked God’s triumph over the forces of oppression. They are Israel, the people who stood at the foot of Sinai and experienced the Divine Presence. They are Israel, the people who survived the desert, defeated their enemies, and have the courage to enter into a new and unknown land.

Yet, Moses tempers these feelings, knowing that arrogance is as dangerous as selfpity. Israel’s success is not Israel’s own doing. It arises out of Israel’s engagement with God and dedication to the high principles inherent in the covenant. As we see in the Book of Deuteronomy, Israel is to mark its loyalty to God through proper worship and its loyalty to the covenant by building a social system based on mutual trust, love and support.

Moses’ exhortation that we cherish the memory of our people’s triumphal history has enduring value. The obstacles that face every generation can lead us into despair, resentment and self-pity. In frustration, we turn in anger at our foes, our friends, and ourselves. Selfdoubt, fear, and the consequential, hasty, ill-considered action weaken us.

Our challenges are real, but it is equally real that we are Israel, the people who succeed in the struggle with beings—human and divine. Moses’ words still speak to us today. Our future is ensured if we adhere to our spiritual tradition grounded in love and respect for God and humanity and if we remember the spiritual triumphs of our past. .

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