August 10, 2000
Parashat Vaetchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11)
As Jews, we are famous for repeating ourselves. Johnny, did you take out the garbage? Johnny, I wonder if the garbage is outside? Honey, did you give me the phone number of the place you're staying? Honey, I need the phone number of your hotel. Mom, please don't tell me to do my homework again. You just reminded me an hour ago.
Repetition makes us feel better. When we feel as if we're not being heard, we say something again and again, in different ways and with different intonations, as if to convince ourselves that our words are having a deeper effect with each repetition. In reality, repetition only gives us a false sense of power when we feel out of control.
Moses is no different. In this week's Torah portion, Moses admits to the entire Israelite community that he is going to repeat much of what he has already told them during the past 40 years. Why? He is not going to be able to go into the land of Israel with them, so he wants to make sure they remember their history and commandments. Moses will no longer be in control. He must let go and trust his people.
This is not easy for Moses. He spends the entire book of Deuteronomy trying to let go, and I must say that God is pretty patient. It seems that not only is Moses very concerned with Israel's commitment to upholding the commandments, but our own personal relationships with God are of the utmost importance. In Deuteronomy, Moses teaches, "But if you search there for the Lord your God, you will find God, if only you seek God with all your heart and soul." (Deut. 4:29) In other words, as Abraham Joshua Heschel suggests in his book "God in Search of Man," God is there, it's just up to us to seek God out. Mitzvot, celebrating holidays, Shabbat, home rituals and prayer are essential to the continuation of the Jewish people. But if that is where the buck stops, we will be left feeling empty. More is needed. God is needed. A personal relationship with God, beyond what our ancestors have taught us, is required if Judaism is to remain relevant and a necessary force in our lives. Moses knew this.
R ecently, I read that the reason we say the "God of our Mothers and Fathers" as well as the "God of the Universe" is to teach that it is important to remain a Jew in deference to our parents and ancestors, but that is not reason enough. If we just stop there, Judaism never comes close to our heart. It remains distant, connected to an outside reason. Therefore, we need to experience God for ourselves, in the universe, as a part of our own experience, so we can internalize our tradition and claim it for ourselves.
As a parent, I face the challenge of trying to instill my love of Judaism into my daughter while knowing that I, like Moses, will need to step back one day and give her the freedom to discover our wonderful tradition for herself. I risk that she may reject it - the hardest thing a parent may be forced to accept. Perhaps that is why God was so patient with Moses. Thirty-three whole chapters. Many, many verses of repetition. As if God is saying to each of us, "I raised Moses, I taught him how to go out on his own, raise a family, lead a nation and fight battles. In the end I let him speak his own words, tell his own story and find his own meaning. Now you too, my parents, must do the same. You must let go. You must listen and trust your children." Even if it means hearing them repeat their feelings over and over again.
Michelle Missaghieh is rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood.