This week’s Torah portion is Va’etchanan, Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11.
As the people stand before him, Moses commands them: “Yisrael, shema — Israel, listen . . . to observe the laws and judgments.” Two physical senses: hearing and sight. “Israel, hear!” and “Your eyes behold.”
The Israelites had witnessed the devastating incident with Baal Peor, how 24,000 of their people had been killed in a plague. Of the remaining generation, “Only you, the ones who remained attached to God your Lord, are alive today.” There is a tremendous fear about the future of the Jewish people in the new land.
Moses speaks to the generation born in the desert as though they are the original generation, which had stood before Sinai when receiving the Torah. He gives a powerful account of the Theophany — God’s revelation to His people. In a real sense, the covenant is reestablished with this generation, which is about to inherit the land.
Moses complains, “I’m dying here in this land, I will not cross the Jordan, but you are crossing.” Moses here is as a grandfather bequeathing his ethical will before his death. Reemphasizing the brit, the covenant, Moses places the fear of God in their hearts. “God is a consuming fire and a jealous God.”
Then Moses lightens up, saying, “You see it, there’s no other God like ours . . . For God loved your ancestors and has chosen those who came after them.”
With this, Moses declares again what we know as the Ten Commandments. “God didn’t make this brit with our ancestors. God made it with us, the ones who are here, all of us who are alive this day.”
The language and imagery are powerful.
What’s the purpose of all this? This next generation wasn’t really at Sinai. The parents and grandparents are gone. This post-Exodus generation had not experienced slavery, the miracles in Egypt, the Exodus or the giving of the Torah.
Had they absorbed the momentous events of their day, to be able to ensure that following generations will maintain the covenant?
Moses, too, is on the last leg of his journey. With both his sister, Miriam, and brother, Aaron, dead and buried, it is now Moses’ turn to die.
Crucial here is passing down a precious heritage from one generation to the next.
The Jewish country duo Megama’s tune “My Zadie” speaks of the grandfather from Poland living in the grandchild’s home. How wondrous and Jewish was life growing up with Zadie, until Zadie’s death. Life changed after Zadie died “and all his books were packed and stored away. We just stopped being Jewish the way Zadie was.”
The singer asks, “Who will be the Zadies of our children, who will be their Zadies if not we?” Many have taken these words to heart. Living far from relatives, they have taken it upon themselves to act as their own zadies and bubbies.
But to be a real zayde or bubbe requires a life’s rich experience as a Jew, difficult, if not impossible to duplicate. If in some way we are going to be our own children’s zaydes and bubbes, we must not forget, nor turn away from the magnificence of our Jewish tradition and practice.
As the Torah is taken from the ark to be read, we sing a line from this week’s portion: “Only you, the ones who remained attached to God your Lord, are alive today.”
Rabbi Sanford H. Shudnow served 22 years as a Navy chaplain, with his last duty station the National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda.