”These are the words which Moses told to the Grandchildren of Israel…..” No, the text doesn’t actually say this, but this is the reality. Moses is one of the very last ‘Eye Witnesses’ of the events that led to the liberation of the Israelites from their time of misery and suffering and oppression and massacre and forced labour in Egypt. He is the last survivor of the negotiations with Pharaoh. And he knows he is about to go. At the moment, living where I do in Germany, but I am sure it happens all over the Jewish world, elderly men and women are standing up at public events and explaining to schoolchildren about their childhood or reading from their memoirs; I cannot get to all such events, which is embarassing, because these are the last chances to hear the authentic accounts at first hand. These people (I am thinking now of people I met in the last three weeks) are now 89 or 93 or even 97 – until now I have not met one who was 120 but that doesn’t matter, it is the thought that counts and one admires their strength of character and purpose and their stamina as they go around various towns and schools and speak the History, conveying it as something live and lived, to another generation.
Of course there are those who say ”Haven’t we heard enough about all this?” and the only response can be: ”What does the word ‘enough’ mean?” So long as there are living persons who endured the suffering, the barbed wire, the hunger, the forced marches, or watching their loved ones be murdered – then it is hard to define ‘enough’. And even afterwards – should this be all forgotten?
The Israelites have seen some of their number die at the Golden Calf incident or at various plagues, some fell to the Amalekites right at the beginning of their epic journey, some were punished by God for their lack of faith, some were simply swallowed up by the earth… . Many, most, just died of old age – but in exile, in the wilderness. Now it is time for Moses to ‘wrap up’ the story, from his perspective. The people he is speaking to are, however, the next generation. Either they had not yet been born, or they had been just small children, when so much of this had happened.
Moses himself will not enter the Land of Israel, though with Joshua’s assistance he has led the people to victory over Emorites and Midianites and Moabites – and it will be left to his successor to continue the campaign against the Canaanites. Whatever God may have promised, this land is not going to be just handed over to the Israelites on a tray – they are going to have to fight for it and prove themselves worthy of it. There are many interesting parallels to the 1945-1948 period, perhaps theologically embarrassing to those who have personal difficulties with the idea of Jews fighting at all – and there is even the issue of whether Jews should also settle outside the stated boundaries (in this case, two and a half tribes in Trans- rather than Cis-Jordan.)
But the same observation can of course be said of the Vatikim, those pioneers who helped establish the State against opposition from the British and from the Arabs, both within and outside what eventually became the new State. They too are leaving the scene and with them goes the authentic memory of what it was like to help new illegal immigrants cross Europe or to wade ashore, to search for weapons, to fight for the Old City, to run the convoy gauntlet against Arab irregulars, to avoid checkposts – and to work at the negotiations at the new and still fresh and idealistic United Nations, and to gather in the exiles and provide Maabarot and then something better for them. Yishuvniks and new Olim and Machalniks fought together to create something that had not existed for almost two thousand years, something that recent events had proved to be enormously necessary for the survival of ANY Jews – and they succeeded, against the odds. And yet already so many Jews, so many Israelis are saying ”We don’t want to hear that any more, we don’t believe it, we are embarrassed by it, we reject it.” The authentic history of the period is fading – and we need to keep it fresh.
Maybe we should read each year in the synagogue – and not just on Yom Haatzma’ut – from diaries of the time, from newspaper accounts, from government minutes, and of course from the Declaration of Independence. Too many people deny already the reality, the history, the truth of the narrative – they seek to replace it with their own narrative of Occupation and Massacre and Expulsion, they seek to deny the legitimacy of all that was done to create Israel as a Jewish state – and once our Vatikim have gone, who will there be to stand up in the wilderness and, like Moses, ”say these words” to our own children and grandchildren?
Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild
Ordained at Leo Baeck College 1984
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.