If you missed our live-streamed service at Temple Israel of Columbus, Georgia, below are some of my written words for Parshat Devarim.
We just completed our Torah readings from Numbers last week. Our final chapters of Numbers begin on the heels of a set of traumatic experiences we spoke about in just the one or two past weeks. Apart from the most recent of these, the plague that destroys 3-4% of the Israelites just before entering the Promised Land, the traumas extend beyond our most recent Torah readings and all the way back to our story of the Exodus from Egypt, from slavery to wandering the desert, and forsaking G-d by worshiping the Golden Calf.
Following these sets of traumatic experiences was the promise of the redemption of the arrival in the Land of Israel, and this is where we left off in our Torah readings from last week. Last week’s Torah portion left us at a cliffhanger in our story. The people of Israel stand poised to enter the Holy Land. As each of the tribes sharpens their spears in one hand and their plowshares in the other, three of the twelve tribes of Israel—Manasseh, Gad, and Rueben—decide to settle in the land just outside the Promised Land, on the eastern banks of the River Jordan. Moses reaches an agreement with the three tribes that the tribes will work side by side with the nine other tribes of Israel to take the Promised Land from its inhabitants, thus ensuring the Land of Israel for the people of Israel.
However, this week’s portion of the Torah is the dramatic first part to our final book of the five books of Moses: Deuteronomy. For all the build up to this moment in our previous chapters you would imagine that the first thing to happen in this week’s portion is that we finally enter the Land of Israel. You would think our weapons and plowshares are sharp enough. After all, we stand poised to enter the Promised Land, and as we have waited on the mountains overlooking Israel in our moment of suspended migration into the land of Israel, three of our tribes are becoming comfortable and choose to settle in the Land outside Israel.
Instead, this week, after an immense build, once again we are being stalled from actually entering the Land of Israel. Instead of describing the invasion in an active voice, Moses recounts in a passive narrative a full-length summary of Exodus and Numbers. However, the final sentences of this week’s portion reveal exactly why. Recall or read from the final sentences of this week’s portion in Deuteronomy 3:21-22. In the verses describing the Israelites’ hostile encounters with various tribes during their wanderings from Egypt through the wilderness, Moses reassures them of G-d’s might: “(21) I have also charged Joshua at the time, saying, ‘You have seen with your own eyes all that the Eternal G-d has done to those kings; so shall the Eternal do to all the kingdoms into which you shall cross. (22) Do not fear them, for it is the Eternal G-d who will do battle for you.”
These two sentences are the closest thing we come to feeling the pulse of the Israelites in this week’s Torah reading. The words convey not such a subtle message about what the Israelites were feeling: fear. After all, the Israelites had until now survived catastrophe after catastrophe, and as they looked out upon the Promised Land, they knew it was already populated with inhabitants. War was imminent. Our descent into the Land of Israel is stalled, but the explanation revealed in these two sentences of our Torah reading make it clear why.
Fear is powerful. It can cripple us, depress us, make us anxious, and move us all at the same time. It is clear that as I began moving into Temple Israel, some members of our community have expressed various fears. They may stem from fears of COVID, or from fears of the continuity of Jewish life, from preserving either the classical or traditional-reform Judaism, to major demographic shifts occurring with religious engagement in America.
In speaking with a few of our congregants recently, I heard some fear in their voice, not per se of our future, but of the direction of religion in America or of Reform Judaism’s engagement. However, most pressing has been our fears of the imminent demographic shifts occurring today. To calm these fears, I turn to our liturgy of this week for guidance.
Recall how Joshua was imbued by Moses to lead the people of Israel with a vision. There was fear in Joshua’s day, just as we have fear today. Fear paralyzed a generation from departing the wilderness until Joshua’s day. Yet, without the impetus of fearing the loss of something great, something like the Promised Land for the wilderness, Joshua could not have led the people into the Land of Israel. It took Joshua to stand up to the people’s fears and assure them, “We will make it through this, we will endure, we will survive,” and that the Land of Israel was the dream they had envisioned.
We will have our fears at Temple Israel naturally and always. It is part of our nature as Jews, and probably as people. However, I wanted to take a moment in today’s sermon to reassure everyone of our bright future. We will endure, we will thrive, we will survive with a bright new vision of tomorrow. The impetus of much change in our future has in many ways been the dreaded plague that has impacted everyone in this country. On the other side of this pandemic will be a brighter, stronger congregation and community. I look forward to leading it.