Thursday, 15 Jul 2021

Written by Dr. Hannah M. Altorf


This week’s parashah is D’varim. We begin the last book of Torah, just before Tisha B’Av. Moses conveys the law one more time to the people, before his death. It may seem that we are starting to take leave of Moses in the very first verse, as we are told that Moses addresses the people on the other side of the Jordan – the river he would never cross.

It is hard not to experience sadness at the beginning of this book. For forty years Moses travelled with this stiff-necked people, out of slavery into the desert. And now that they are about to enter the land, he will not go with them. In the very last verses of D’varim he will be shown the land from the mountain Nebo, but he will remain on the other side.

Yet, there is also reason for joy. D’varim means words. ‘These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan…’. Back at the burning bush, Moses thought himself ill-qualified to lead, because he was ‘slow of speech and slow of tongue’ and Aaron was to speak for him. And now, after all those years in the wilderness, leading the people, he is a man of words. Indeed, many of the words he speaks in D’varim are central to our liturgy today, including the Sh’ma.

This week’s parashah, and D’varim in general, often display what I think of as a ‘therefore-structure’. In some translations, the word is used even when there is no obvious correlate in the Hebrew text. The therefore-structure appears in the retelling of the story. The people revolted and therefore they had to spend forty years in the wilderness. When they went into the country, God was not with them, therefore they were defeated.

This therefore-structure is a helpful way to make sense of our world, though it can also mislead. If the host of a party says: ‘I made enough food, therefore no one needs to go home hungry’, the structure makes sense. Yet, if one guests argues: ‘I forgot my umbrella, therefore it is raining’, we might accuse the speaker of magical thinking, because there is no relation between the act of forgetting and wet weather.

The therefore-construction becomes uncomfortable when it relates misfortune to misdeed, as in for instance the second paragraph of the Sh’ma: ‘if you obey my commandments … I will grant rain’. Our tradition questions the conclusion that rain is a reward for good behaviour and that drought is punishment for bad behaviour. For that reason, we rarely say the text out loud.

Yet, in a footnote the editors of the Reform Siddur explain why they decided not to move the second paragraph to the back of the book or take it out altogether. They write: ‘The Torah includes important laws about how to cultivate and respect the land itself, so that a failure to do so could lead to the ecological disaster predicted here.’ They suggest a way in which this therefore-construction makes sense again for contemporary ears. We have not taken care of the environment and therefore the climate is changing more rapidly than ever before and the poorer among us are the first to suffer the consequences.

Thus, therefore-constructions keep coming up in our liturgy, in D’varim or in scientific explanations. They play an important role in our understanding of the world. Yet, these constructions need to be handled with care. At times, they show us necessary consequences or the results of our deeds. At other times ,they mislead us to see connection when there is none. It seems, then, we could do worse than, in the coming weeks of teshuvah, simply reflect on our use of the word and ask ourselves: when is therefore appropriate and when not.

Then again, the therefore-construction, however prominent, is not the only way to make sense of the forty years in the desert. D’varim offers at least one important other way. For that we need to look once more at Moses – from the other side. Moses, who was not a man of words, is now speaking a book full. How did that happen? How did he get from the burning bush to the where he is now? I do not think there is an easy explanation or one that consists of a long list of therefore-constructions. Rather, it is important to acknowledge that sometimes things simply need time.

That sometimes all that is needed is time, is something which we recognise and perhaps we recognise more easily with age. We were unable to understand our parents until we were parents ourselves or until we buried them or until we had that conversation years after we left home. Such understanding can come also at less defined moments. Of course, it could be that we have children and therefore understand our parents better, but it does not need to be so.

It is not always easy to acknowledge that understanding needs time. It means that we are not fully in control. We cannot ensure the rain by our behaviour. We do not grasp understanding. Instead, we will have to wait until it comes to us. There are limits to what we can achieve and what we can understand.

Yet, once it is given to us, it can be a moment of greatness. To stand on the other side and to look at Moses and to see that he is now in a place where he can speak those words that will travel with us from Tisha B’Av to the New Year and beyond. ’And these are the words.’


Dr. Hannah M. Altorf LBC student rabbi


The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.