Rabbi Sessler D’var Torah

Know Before Whom You Stand

The Book of Deuteronomy, the fifth and final book of the Torah, which we start reading this Shabbat, is different from the previous books of the Torah. Its span is only 36 days, the last 36 days of Moses’s life. In it, Moses gives a series of speeches, before he returns his soul to the Creator, as the people prepare to move on, and finally enter Israel, under Joshua’s leadership.

The literary style of the Book of Deuteronomy is distinct, inasmuch as Moses addresses the people of Israel directly, and in the first person singular. In previous books, Moses only addressed the people through the familiar textual formula of “And G-d spoke to Moses saying..”, in which Moses would simply quote G-d’s message to the people verbatim, rather than articulate the Almighty’s message in his own unique voice. Why this dramatic change in rhetoric and oratory?

The answer lies in the nature and background of Moses’s audience. In previous books of the Torah, Moses was addressing the older generation which experienced slavery in Egypt. It was a different generation, with its own particular set of formative experiences, as well as spiritual and historical makeup. But in this final book of Deuteronomy, Moses is addressing an entirely new generation, the generation which was born in the desert, and is destined to soon enter the Promised Land. This new generation is different from the preceding generation, different in its experiences, needs and expectations. Moses is attuned and sensitized to this historical nuance, and hence his decision to adopt a different rhetorical style.

Our historical situation is similar to Moses’s situation. There is a vast difference between the generation of immigrants who came to America on an exodus from the old country, from the Middle East and Europe, and their children and grandchildren who were born in America.

This new generation, knowingly or unknowingly, also thirsts for Torah and spirituality, for meaning and for purpose and vitality, at least as much as the previous generations, if not more. What is required however, is a different, more refreshing and dynamic approach, a different language and style, in order to convey the salience and timeless wisdom of Torah, and to empower and ignite the souls of this new generation. The task of the contemporary Jewish educator is similar to the task which Moses encountered at the end of his life. Namely, how to articulate the timeless and the eternal in the language of the timely and the contemporary. With educational leaders in the caliber Rabbi Liat Yardeni-Funk and of course the honorable Hazan Mizrahi, we at Sephardic Temple are poised to achieve just that, Be’ezrat Hashem.

In addition to the inter-generational dimension, we all need to always be conscious, just like Moses, of whom we are addressing, not only generationally and collectively, but also individually and personally.

The issue of using different words in different contexts is not just a generational issue. Each individual has its own unique set of biographical, ethnic, socio-economic, cultural and linguistic particularities, as well as a unique personality and character, with strengths and weaknesses, sensitivities and peculiarities. When we address someone, be it a spouse, a child, a relative, a work colleague, a friend or an acquaintance, we need to be, just like Moses, cognizant of the specific makeup and needs of that particular soul.

Shabbat Shalom,

Tal Sessler

PS The Shabbat’s Torah article is dedicated to the honorable Hyman Jebb Levy, for his exemplary and impassioned dedication to transport  the eternity and truth of Torah to the young generation, thereby ensuring BH, the sacred task and imperative of Jewish continuity midor ledor, from generation to generation.

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