Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on Shabbat, 21st Elul 5775, 5th September 2015
As Moshe inches closer to the end of his discourses and to his demise, we feel his increasing urgency. This is my last stand, he is saying, and I want you to listen well because – you won’t have me around much longer to tell it like it is. And so this parsha seesaws from the heights of joy to the depths of the tochecha, the warnings of devastation, in a manner that would make a bi-polar person proud.
Where does this joy that Moshe is harping on come from? It is not the life liberty and pursuit of happiness type of joy that today we seem to think is our due. This joy comes not from what we get but rather from what we give. We experience joy when we fulfill the mitzvoth, but in many cases the joy emerges from the essence of the mitzvah, which often enough entails giving of our own or of ourselves to others. Almost every time we read that we are to be happy in our holiday, the proviso is that we also make sure that the Levite (who has no land of his own) and the stranger and the convert and the widow and the poor also partake and enjoy. We have to provide for them. Their joy is our joy.
But there’s another element too which we can see in the very first part of the parsha, which, incidentally, forms the basis of our Pesach Haggadah text. Here we retell our story, of how our ancestors sojourned to Egypt and were enslaved, how we cried out to God who saved us and brought us here. And as a token of our thanks, we bring our first fruits to you, dear Cohen, to thank our Lord who has kept his promise to us and to our ancestors to give us a land of milk and honey. In other words, we look to the past and future while here in the present.
In other words, in addition to giving, we also recall and reiterate the stories of our history. This is the flip side of remember Amalek, with which we concluded last week’s reading. Here we look at the bright side of life. We are not flotsam and jetsam floating on a formless sea of ages but rather the progeny of our ancestors who worked hard to deserve what we have received.
Thus, not only giving is involved, but remembering and making connections with our past. Because in a world where we are here today and gone tomorrow, we need to know that something remains. We need to know where we came from, who our ancestors were and why we are here. This is the bedrock of our being. This is the message Moshe is trying to instill in the new generation of Israelites, the ones who do not know Egypt personally but will know the land that their parents were supposed to inherit but didn’t.
This reminds me of a magnificent short story by Arthur Miller, written in 1948, about two discharged GIs, Appelo an Italian and Bernstein a Jew (Miller himself). It’s after the war and they are touring Italy so that Appelo can find his roots. And everywhere they go, he just has to mention his name and he is treated like royalty. One relative was a Cardinal, another a mayor, a third a judge – his history is imprinted in the land. And with each new proof of his friend’s ties to the country, Bernstein feels more alienated and alone. He was from Austria and whatever family did not emigrate to the United States was obliterated in the Holocaust. He’s basically rootless.
Their last stop is Mont’ St. Angelo, a town atop a cliff, cut off from everything, and here Appelo has an old aunt and two relatives, monks, buried in a crypt. In the restaurant for lunch, Bernstein suddenly perks up when a man walks in who, Bernstein is sure, is a Jew. Maybe it’s the hat and jacket not usually seen there. More likely the deft way he unties his packages and folds the string – the care a Jew has for the materials he needs when he has to pack quickly and flee. He’s a cloth merchant and has come to the restaurant as he does every Friday to pick up a round bread. And Bernstein finds out he has to be home before sundown on Friday. That’s what his father did. And his name is Mauro di Benedetto – Maurice of the good word (Moses). Bernstein is ecstatic.
Why does this make him happy? After all, Mauro is Catholic, doesn’t know he has Jewish blood and observes customs passed down in his family without their having any meaning. But for Bernstein it has meaning. It says that with all the genocide and hatred, he and his people have survived. It is this connection with his general ancestral past that gives him joy and renewed confidence in life.
This was evidently as far as Arthur Miller, a cultural Jew, could go. But if such a tangential connection could have such an effect on an assimilated Jew, think of how much greater our connection is with our past, and how much comfort it can give us (even with all the pogroms and hideous events that have befallen us). We are all part of it.
And how much more we are part of it when the customs and commandments not only give us the comfort of old well-worn shoes but also some meaning in our lives.
There are two holidays that fill us with nostalgia and transport us to our past: Pesach and Rosh Hashana. Here we are, 10 days from Rosh Hashana, 20 days from Yom Kippur, a highly auspicious time for connecting with our past and our traditions. The words of the prayers we say and the melodies we sing evoke memories of holidays past, of people who helped to make these holidays and our lives what they are today. They bring us closer to our roots, where, with a bit of effort, we can tap into the wellspring of our tradition and Jewish lives. And give thanks for all we had and have.
I wish us all Shana Tova, Hatima tova, and Shabbat Shalom.