Let’s start by taking some questions that any of you might have… (silence). Anyone?… (more silence). Okay, I’ll start. Let’s say I had this friend who had a tough week. And he/she was feeling a little down on him/herself. Is there anything in this week’s Torah portion, Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22, that might encourage me — I mean my friend — to feel a little better about the prospects for a brighter tomorrow? And secondly, is it merely coincidence that the fifth book of the Torah shares its name with a wise old feline from the hit musical “Cats” (the lyrics for which I’m sure were stolen from T.S. Eliot)?
Let’s start with the first question. This week’s Torah portion begins with Moses rubbing his people’s noses in a retelling of their badly botched journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. A trip that should have taken two years winds up taking 40, and includes the death of almost everyone who started on the original quest. Then, as everyone’s finally poised to enter and lay claim to the land that God had promised for ages, Moses hauls off and lets ’em have it. Is this helpful?
I’ve been told countless times, if you have a disagreement with someone, don’t waste energy rehashing the sordid details of your various disappointments as though your opponent suddenly will be won over by the sheer force of your redundancy. As a good psychotherapist, experienced rabbi or even Dr. Phil will tell you, when it comes to relationship trouble, the facts are far less important than an understanding of each other’s feelings.
©2004 Me and my long-suffering, wonderful wife, trying to decide if we’re going to dinner. Reprinted with permission.
He said, she said, I said, you said.… It’s not very productive. And yet, here’s Moses, reminding his people of the myriad ways in which they have failed. Some of this flogging is direct.
And some (according to the notes in my Bible) is veiled in references to the names of places wherein the Children of Israel behaved very badly, indeed.
Why does Moses get to pummel the Children of Israel, when we are usually told there’s no future in it? Because usually, when we remind each other of how we’ve messed up in each other’s lives, we frequently have the ulterior — if imperceptible — motive of vindication. “See! It’s not just my fault. You did really want Chinese!”
All of us hopefully have some greatly respected soul in our lives who can give us “constructive criticism” without sending us into crazy land. How? Usually these “respected souls” are folks who make us believe they are speaking out of genuine concern for our well-being and are not just trying to avoid blame for the restaurant.
I like to think that God and Moses fall into this category. When they dredge up our past, it’s not to embarrass us, but rather to offer us a chance to find ways to take more of the good and less of the bad with us into whatever promised land God is offering for tomorrow.
Fitting that this Torah portion comes as we count the three weeks leading to Tisha B’Av (The Ninth of Av), our national day of mourning — a time when we Jews, as a nation, look back on some of our greatest shortcomings and the tragedies with which they are paired. Our sages say Tisha B’Av will be transformed in the future into a day of joy, because it will help us learn from the past to carve ourselves a better future.
Had a tough week? Hoping for a brighter tomorrow? Then look back on the dark patches of your life — with love and concern for your well-being — and see if there isn’t some small thing you can improve on as you ready to enter and lay claim to the promised land that God is preparing for your tomorrow.
Now, about that cat, Old Deuteronomy… “Memory, all alone in the moonlight.…”
David N. Weiss is the Emmy-nominated co-writer of “A Rugrats Chanukah.” He also co-wrote the screenplays of the Academy Award-nominated “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius,” and most recently, “Shrek 2.”