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A Continuing Story With a Sustaining Goal
Picture the scene: The foreign minister of Israel, the very urbane and sophisticated Abba Eban, is taking a European counterpart on a tour of the Knesset. Upon entering the chamber, this staid and decorous diplomat is confronted with the tumult and cacophony that is the Israeli parliament.
People, wildly gesticulating, are also loudly speaking at the same time. Abba Eban explains: "You need to know a basic truth about the Knesset and, indeed, about Jewish life. Everything has been said; it's just that everyone wants their chance to say it."
Picture this scene: Standing on the plains of Moav on the eastern bank of the Jordan River 36 days before his passing, Moses assembles the community of Israel to speak final words. "Eileh ha d'varim asher diber Moshe el kol Yisrael" -- "These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel," begins this, our final book of Moses this week.
In Deuteronomy, we encounter a different voice. We do not hear the normal style of, "And God spoke to Moses"; rather, it is Moses' turn to speak. It is his, and not God's voice, that is thrust into the middle of the drama.
The eminent 19th-century exegete known to the Jewish world as the Malbim, Rabbi Meir Leibush, chief rabbi of Bucharest, has written: "These words (that is, much of Deuteronomy) were spoken by Moses on his own at various times in the history of the Jewish people.
"It is only now, before his passing, that he is authorized to write them down, thereby investing them with the sanctity of Torah." His words, his renditions and interpretations, receive an official imprimatur from God.
It's interesting that Moses, who was reluctant to accept the mantle of leadership because, as he himself said, "lo ish d'varim anokhi," "I am not eloquent of words," has his own words ratified with the full faith and credit of "The One Who Spoke and the world came to be" -- to invoke a splendid rabbinic phrase.
So what exactly did Moses choose to say at this moment?
Moses, ever our great teacher and preacher, ever the patron and parent par excellence of his people, begins "bei'eir ha Torah hazot" -- "to interpret and explain this Torah."
Rashi cites an intriguing rabbinic understanding which, upon reflection, offers a very compelling and contemporary agenda: Moses expounded the laws and values of Torah in the "70 languages of the world."
So why did Moses become his own United Nations session? After all, to whom was he speaking, if not the Jewish people? Why all the drama?
It could very well be that it was already understood that a day would come when the Jewish people would be scattered among the "70 nations of the world." Although Jews would be living, functioning and participating in these foreign lands, their Torah would never be foreign to them. In order that it would remain fresh, in order that it not be forgotten, it would have to be translated into the language of the day.
Moses is teaching that in order for the Jewish story to be vivid and relevant, it must be translated to this people, in this community, at this hour, in this time. This is still the challenge that we, as individuals, as families and as a community must accept.
The Jewish story is not merely a once-upon-a-time story. It is living and breathing. It sustains us with its purpose, and has the ability to enliven and ennoble our lives. Let's re-engage with it and actively converse.
As we learn Torah together, our brothers and sisters in the land of Israel sit in bomb shelters, still in peril. Even as we began with words, let us together conclude with words: "May the Rock of Israel protect the people of Israel and the people Israel. May our long sought after desire for peace be realized speedily, for this people, at this hour, in this time."
Rabbi David Gutterman is the executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.