Parshat Devarim: How Do I Ask How?

I’ve been thinking about the world that used to be and the person I was within it.  In fact, I’ve lived through a number of ‘worlds that used to be’. When I was growing up, there were distinct lines of casual and formal.  Casual was what happened at home and formal was anything outside.  At home, we could wear ‘play clothes’ and not worry about getting them dirty; school had a uniform; outings had party clothes.  If we went out for dinner as a family, I would have to wear a dress.  If I was invited to a birthday party, I would likely have to wear my party dress and if the party was my own birthday party then I got to wear the dress with the crinoline.  My party shoes were shiny and I could only wear ‘play clothes’ to…play.

There was most certainly the larger world outside filled with strangers, and the smaller circle of my world filled only with family and a few friends.  Any adult was called ‘Mr’ or ‘Mrs’ or Miss (Ms was introduced only later in my youth and was only for radical feminists who burned their bras – interesting fact, no one ever had that famous public bra burning event because apparently they couldn’t get a permit to ignite a public open fire – they cut their bras with scissors…it was a ‘bra scissor cutting’ event, which I guess doesn’t have the same impact as ‘burning’ and so we just decided to revise history (a lot of that going on these days)…but I digress…except I have had my moments, as an adult, trying to ignore the pain my bra is causing me and eyeing the scissors with longing – the radical feminist within us all!)

Back to my memories of worlds gone by.  The few times I took an airplane trip as a child, the dress with the crinoline came out with the shiny shoes.  My sister and I were often dressed the same for anything formal –she’s older, so I loved it and she very much did not, apparently in this ‘world gone by’ children were not meant to have autonomous identities, they were meant to show the world their parents knew how to dress them the same.  Oh yes, there was also no hint of any security measures needed for anything at any time.  Once when I was really little I remember we went to Israel and had to get a cholera vaccine to come home.  In hindsight, this is a memory remnant of an Israel with cholera, another world gone by.  We got the cholera vaccine and all I remember is the stewardess (not flight attendant) who kept banging into my vaccinated little girl arm every time she walked by.  I remember not sleeping on the plane because I had to track where she was at any given moment.  I was too little to understand cholera or vaccines but not too little to understand there are people in the world who carelessly hurt others so I tracked her with my eyes.

And then I think of the next world change I saw.  9/11 changed everything and now Covid 19 has changed things again.  Maybe there’s something about the ‘1’s and the ‘9’s, I’m sure Jewish kabbalists have endless layers of meaning to explore there – the 18s are great but the 19s…not so much.

And now I have shared with you the ‘stuff’ in my head that has all flashed in my mind within the last minute or two.  It’s what happens to all of us and it is the name of the new book in the Torah we are starting to read this Shabbat: Deuteronomy, which in Hebrew is titled Devarim, “Stuff”.  It is a book filled with the stuff in Moses’ head as he knows time is running out and he will die within weeks.

Moses starts speaking and within a few verses we hear him use an unusual word: ‘Eichah’, which literally means ‘how’, but it is always associated with the book of Lamentations, which in Hebrew is titled ‘Eichah’.  It is a book that describes the destruction of Jerusalem, the horror of our lowest historical moment.  The prophet, Jeremiah, writes the book Eichah as a lamentation where we look around and ask ‘how did that happen to the world’, but when Moses uses this same word, he is using it differently.  Moses remembers that he turned to God and asked ‘how am I supposed to bear these people?!’, a very different ‘eichah’.

So we enter our text through two different versions of ‘eichah’ –one used by Jeremiah and one used by Moses.  This Shabbat is the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, the day on which we mourn Jewish suffering and the loss of our Temples –the day we read the book of Eichah.  How interesting that we hear Moses utter this same unusual word in the parshah this week.  When we line up the two ‘eichah’s we notice the two perspectives of the question we should always ask.  The first question is from the book of Lamentations as it asks ‘How did Jerusalem lay so abandoned?’  In other words, how did the world around me get so unrecognizable, so steeped in trouble, so isolated?  

The second question comes from Moses asking God how he can bear these people.  It becomes my second ‘how’ question.  How can I bear the other person?  Do I hear their nuances and respond with an act of human kindness, or are they burdens that weigh me down?  Moses’ question to God is a genuine question from a man raised as royalty who must now bear the weight of a people incapable of anything.  How can I bear you?

But if we only focus on ‘eichah’ regardless of whether it’s Moses or Jeremiah saying it, we are left to lament a world gone by and the challenge we present for each other.  The key lies in the word immediately following ‘eichah’.  In the book of Lamentations, the prophet bemoans the city of Jerusalem and the verb that follows is in the past tense, “how Jerusalem had sat desolate and alone”.  In this week’s parshah, when Moses asks God about the people, he uses the word ‘eichah’ and the word right after it appears in the future tense, “how will I carry them?”.  When we ask ourselves the ‘how’ questions, we easily set up a pull into lamenting a world gone by, a world filled with ‘Mr’s and ‘Mrs’s and shiny shoes and crinolines.  But if I ask myself the question Moses asks, how can I help carry you forward, how can I bear you along with myself as we move into the future, ‘eichah’ becomes the question of opportunity.

And so we start reading the book of Devarim, the stuff in Moses’ head, the insights, the anger, the regret and the digressions.  And with it all, it never ceases to amaze me how he never fails to teach us something, no matter which world we’re in.

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