The reading of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Devarim, indicates that we are in a time of change, in a time of transformation.
Moses gathers the Israelites before they enter the Holy Land. They have been in the wilderness for forty years. They have moved from slavery to freedom, from immaturity to a state of spiritual and personal growth. In the fortieth year, in the eleventh month, on the first day of the month… Moses reminds them about all that they have been through. Rashi points out that Moses rebukes them a short while before his death like Jacob did with his sons. He gathers all the Israelites… He doesn’t want to miss any of them. He wants to walk back their journey through words and remind them about those moments when they doubted, when they were insecure, when they even missed their slavery in Egypt. They need to understand why a journey which could take days, took them finally forty years. Their journey was worthy itself, it has transformed them into a people ready to embrace their future. This generation entering the land promised to their fathers is not the same which had crossed the Red Sea.
Moses has gone as well through a transformation process. He is not anymore the man who encountered God at the burning bush and said: I am not a man of words (Exodus 4:10). Now he is a man of words, devarim. He has had an experience of the Divinity; he has faced the challenges of human existence. He has felt God’s care during forty years, at the same time he has seen himself alone guiding his people in the wilderness. He has witnessed the best and the worst behaviour that every woman and man is capable of. Sometimes he was loved and in others he was betrayed. He felt the hardship and solitude of leadership. But now that man without words is a great orator. He is not just a leader anymore but rather a good leader. A leader has followers and a good leader makes leaders. Now when he is close to his final days… he awakes in the Israelites the responsibility for their own future.
The transformation experienced by Moses and the Israelites happened after living for forty years in the wilderness. This week’s parashah tells us that the journey from Egypt to Canaan takes only 11 days: “There are eleven days journey from Horeb by the way of mount Seir to Kadesh-Barnea”. (Deut 1:2). Why forty years? There is maybe a connection between the transformation that they have experienced and the time spent in the desert. In fact the Hebrew Devarim from the root dalet, bet, resh, meaning “words or things”, is closely connected to the Hebrew Midbar, “wilderness”. Both come from the same root davar. It is not random that the transformation we see in Parashat Devarim took place in the desert, Midbar.
Last Friday morning I was travelling with my family from Marrakesh to Essaouira in South Morocco. We were driving through a semi-desert area. Our driver Abdoul Ami is originally from Zagora, one of the gates to the Sahara desert. He loves the desert and he goes there every year to spend few days of retreat. My sister, a very urban girl based in Paris, was very curious about Abdoul’s ‘holidays’ in the Sahara. But is there anything to do in the desert? she asked. Abdoul’s reply was one of the most beautiful lessons I have received in my life: “Yes, there is a lot to do in the desert, the purification of the soul. But the purification of the soul needs time. When we come to the desert we bring a lot with us and we need time to transform it. And this is a hard work”. And he wisely added that “Yes there is a lot to do in the desert… where there is nothing, one can find a lot.”
Every year we read Parashat Devarim when we are about to commemorate Tisha B’Av, the loss of the Temple, a time of destruction which leads us later on into the month of Elul, a time for reflection and later on to the High Holy Days, a time of rebirth. We are right now immersed in a very powerful time for the transformation of the soul. We will experience destruction…we will feel loneliness and we may feel lost. But like the Israelites in the wilderness, like my Muslim-Berber friend Abdoul in the Sahara, we are about to go through the transformation of our soul, the rebirth of our spirit. May we find in our busy life 15 minutes every day of silence and solitude to discover that actually one can find a lot where it seems there is nothing.
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.