Creating memories for the future: Parashat Devarim

Moshe has a major project in the Book of Devarim. As Ibn Ezra explains:

Moshe started to explain this Torah on the east side of the Jordanian the land of Moav (Devarim 1:5) …Moshe started to convey to the people who were born in the wilderness the events that happened to their ancestors. The mitzvot and the 10 commandments that their ancestors heard from God, Moshe relays to them, so that they should hear from a trustworthy emissary. (Ibn Ezra)

These comments set the stage for the entire book of Devarim. Moshe has a daunting, educational project. How can a group of people with no direct experiences of the past, create and hold memories to inform their identity? What are they to remember? Furthermore, what does it mean to “remember” an event? It certainly means more than to “recall” that it happened. Memories bring back the feelings of the original experience. Memory is emotional. It affects our bodies and our hearts. That is why fragrances, or colors, or the tactile feel of an object, or the way the wind blows through the leaves of the trees just so all trigger memories that immediately flow through our bodies. We feel the moment from the past as our memory brings it up into the present. Memory also induces anticipation. When someone enters a house late Friday afternoon, the house “can smell like Shabbat.” You start to salivate and relax, anticipating the evening: its music, its rhythms, its feeling. Memory, then, is not merely a recollection of the past. Memory is that powerful, spiritual moment that collapses time, in which the past enters the present and projects anticipation for the future. Memories from yesterday guide how we might behave tomorrow.

This is Moshe Rabbenu’s task in Sefer Devrim. “How can an entire society know who they are, project an identity for themselves, gain a sense of purpose, identify with their values, without memory?” These people, the generation of the midbar, did not experience the oppression and the miracles of Egypt. They were not at Mt. Sinai. They did not taste the sweetened waters of Mara. They were not confounded by Korach, nor did they witness the beriah chadasha that swallowed the rebels alive. They know only a journey of 38 years, without a clear destination. Maybe some of them remember the drying of Miriam’s well. This journey has been pointless and endless. It includes only the loss of leaders: the death of Aharon, the death of Miriam, and the punishment of Moshe, and altercations with foreign nations like Arad, Moav, Midian, Sichon, and Og.

Ultimately, memory is a fabrication of our imaginations. I mean, “fabrication,” in the sense of designing a piece of fabric, on which we weave a tapestry of images, shapes, colors, tones, and textures. We lend meaning to events. We interpret what those events mean to us. We decide which events to recall and to interpret, and which ones to forget. We decide how events move us, and what those interpreted memories inspire us to do. Our memories inform our beliefs, and our beliefs and assumptions inform how we interpret those events.

To give a current, timely example: America is struggling with this very issue today, around the meaning of past events. Everyone living in America today is like the generation of the midbar. Nobody today has any direct experience of the physical enslavement of African peoples brought to these shores, bought and sold as chattel. The question today is: how should this society remember those events, and how have the memory of those events shaped and influenced, perpetuated or directed subsequent decisions over time? Furthermore, when one looks at a statue that some group of people decided was meaningful to erect at some moment in time in some particular place, what should that statue mean today? What memories and feelings does it represent? As we see daily, memory is powerful. How to interpret its meaning has unleashed anger, violence, demonstrations, attacks and counter attacks, abuses, and the appropriation/misappropriation of political power. Moshe Rabbenu, our teacher, Moshe, understood all of these things. He understood that for Benei Yisrael to become the Jewish people, he would have to create, ie.,select and  interpret, the set of memories that could nourish our identity as a people. He speaks to this generation about selected past events as if they experienced those events directly. Moshe generates a kind of phenomenological language by saying, “Then you did this, and you did that,” when in actuality they never experienced any of those events themselves; they happened to their parents.

With these thoughts in mind, I would like to make two points. The first is to notice the events that Moshe chooses to recall in this introduction: the journey through the wilderness, Ma’amad Har Sinai, the establishing of a system of judges to execute justice, the disastrous scouting expedition, nations whose territories must be respected and nations with whom Israel should do battle, and the settlement of Reuven, Gad and part of Menashe. This is a fascinating set of memories. Moshe, perhaps, is saying: Jewish identity is nourished by the following remembrances: life is a journey, leaders must be just, the encounter with other cultures is nuanced and complex, and different tribes will settle and build life differently. To me, this list suggests two foundational values: just leadership is non-negotiable, and life’s journey requires discernment and flexibility because you never know who or what you will encounter–but the Torah will always provide you with guidance.

The second point relates to the scouts and to Ibn Ezra’s phrase, “trustworthy emissary.”  This parasha introduces the Book of Devarim. Moshe’s speeches continue, teaching new laws and mitzvot. This time, however, revelation comes from him, from Moshe Rabbenu, our rabbi and teacher. The dor hamidbar will experience Moshe as the source of memories and mitzvot, not Hashem. In this regard, the person or persons invested with the authority and responsibility to interpret memories, must be trustworthy. That is exactly the phrase that Ibn Ezra uses: the people need to hear the 10 commandments, as well as mitzvot, from a tzir ne’eman, a “trustworthy emissary.” This young generation will have vision, will be able to imagine their future as an independent nation with a sense of purpose in the world, only if they believe that their leaders, and God, are trustworthy. This points to Moshe’s second goal for Devarim. A nation needs memory, and trust. Our ancestors struggled to trust God and Moshe. How does one gain another’s trust, or lose it? Without feeling that leaders, people, and even God are trustworthy, one cannot build an identity with vision and purpose. Moshe Rabbenu, in this regard, was not speaking only to the generation of the wilderness. We are also that generation. With regard to both memory and trust, Moshe is speaking to us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dov

About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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