Devarim reminds us to look for pandemic’s positive impact

In the lives of many of our children, teens and college students, summer is a time of transformation. Camp, summer jobs, internships, and other activities challenge young people to put the learning they’ve done throughout the year to the test outside the classroom. Whether by developing social and emotional skills with their peers at camp or trying out new abilities in a job, young people grow by leaps and bounds in the short 10 weeks of summer break. Sometimes it seems that children mature even faster in the creative space of summer than in the routines of the school year — that’s because structures and expectations change.
In Chapter 1 of Parashat Devarim, the opening portion of our Torah’s final book, Moses reflects on the Israelites’ growth and development, recalling their successes and where they stumbled. Like a good mentor or camp counselor at a closing ceremony Moses articulates the number one goal, “God said, ‘I have set this land before you, go in and take possession of the land…’” He recounts the Israelites’ accomplishments and newfound independence, “I knew I could not alone carry your contentiousness…. So I told you to provide for yourselves wise men of your tribes.” And Moses brings up past errors to ensure the Israelites learned a lesson, “you did not want to go to the land and rebelled against the word of God. You incited one another in your tents…saying, ‘God brought us out of the land of Egypt … in order to destroy us.’”
The years of wilderness wanderings made room for trial and error, like a summer to spread your wings; the Israelites could get stuck, overcome challenges and one day evolve into a nation truly ready to fully affirm God’s covenant. In the wilderness they accomplished great things with God’s guidance by developing laws and a moral code, a political and judicial system, and grounding themselves spiritually through the mishkan, a centralized place and mode of worship. Moses’ actions in Devarim further amplify Israel’s transformation through his ironic turn —Moses now offers devarim (words). Here, our great teacher who was once slow to speak now has the gift of gab as a worthy prophet and leader.
We’re learning about large-scale change and transformation in our lives, too. This spring and summer of 2020 have been unexpectedly unusual for our lives and our community. Right now, we may feel as though life is unraveling rather than growing or improving in the ways we would prefer. Among other things, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to refocus on what’s most important in our lives and in the functioning of our community. In synagogues and community centers, nearly every program or ritual has required redevelopment or major new precautions. Our institutions’ leaders have sought clarity: What is most core to our mission? How do we accomplish our goals in a brand-new environment? We have begun to answer these questions by prioritizing education for our children; by doubling down on our care for the elderly, infirm and those most isolated or at-risk; and by renewing our values-driven pursuit of justice and compassion in society.
Moses’s first words to the Israelites in Devarim 1:6 are, “Much, are you dwelling at this mountain” (meaning at Sinai). Midrashic sources read this verse in two contrasting ways. On one hand, Sifre Devarim reads, “Much reward has accrued to you,” from dwelling at this place. In other words, look what all you’ve accomplished at the foot of Sinai. On the other hand, Midrash Tannaim interprets, “[it is] very bad your dwelling,” at this mountain. Meaning, you’ve stayed in one place too long and too close to God — it’s time to get moving!
Perhaps we find some good in our present situation through the Misdrashic reads of Devarim. Before COVID-19, we had certainly accomplished wonderful things as a Jewish community in a time of relative prosperity. Yet, had we not also become complacent, quarrelsome and self-serving at times? The unknowable challenge of this pandemic has brought clergy, Jewish professionals, lay leaders and community members in closer, more frequent collaboration than ever before. We’ve had to quickly move onward in our minds and in our practices from where we once resided. Yes, this change is painful, uncertain and even dangerous, but perhaps this “break” from our routine could also bring with it a valuable opportunity for longer term transformation and growth for our community, its institutions and most importantly, for us.
Rabbi Daniel Utley has served Temple Emanu-El since 2016. He is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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