D’var Torah: Will Any Road Do?

Rabbi Dale Schreiber


Beginning a new book of Torah is a bit like greeting an old friend. The Book of Deuteronomy always begins in the heat of the summer, at the end of a ritual three weeks of diminished joy, on the Sabbath just before Tisha B’Av. Interestingly, the rabbis call the Sabbath before Tisha B’Av the Sabbath of Vision. The entire Book of Deuteronomy, Devarim in Hebrew, is one long traveler’s prayer or vision on how to get to the Promised Land.

Deuteronomy begins with Moses reminding the Israelites about their time in the wilderness. He reminds them that life’s burdens are a direct result, at times, of their own beliefs and values. He offers, what the rabbis frame as a constructive critique of how they got to the edge of a new life in a new land. He reminds them about their arguing and bickering, their ethical and moral failures as he highlights where they came from and where they are going.

Devarim, our portion, is not just about learning how to cross a river, it’s about learning how to live with the promise the journey holds. Moses is offering a vision of what is possible and an equally compelling vision of what is probable if the Israelites continue to travel along the same path, suffering the same pitfalls, enduring the same diet of despair.

Lately, everyday living feels like a steady diet of discouraging economic news; a diet of perverse or corrupt behaviors on the part of people who should know better; a diet of devastating destruction, incomprehensible greed, and outrageous acts of individual violence. A diet of destruction and tragedy can affect our capacity to hope which is why Judaism builds a time for processing tragedy into the Jewish year. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809) taught there are two kinds of sorrow, a healthy sorrow and a sorrow that immobilizes all action, leaving one cowering in a corner feeling helpless and hopeless.

This year has been a painful one. Like the Israelites who wandered aimlessly for a significant period of time, we, too, seem to be struggling with what we can reasonably hope for when life seems so tragically unpredictable. Moses helps his community look at the context that contributed to their suffering. This is no small thing. Devarim says, “you have stayed too long in this place”   – it’s time to move forward. We too must find a way to move forward with our healthy sorrow about the many challenges facing our communities, nation, and earth. What we consciously leave behind is any sense of helplessness or apathy that affects our will to act compassionately and righteously.

The portion opens with the words, “eileh Devarim,” these are the God-things, the Words -“zeh hadavar asher tzivah”, this is the thing that is commanded after we’ve crossed the threshold of the familiar. There is a Yiddish aphorism that expresses the essence of Moses’ teaching: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will do.” Devarim holds the vision of finding the road that brings us to the Promised Land, that ideal for all creation. May you all find your courage to complete this holy trek.

Parashah Devarim

Rabbi Dale Schreiber is an oncology chaplain with Barnes-Jewish Hospital and she serves B’nai Torah Congregation; she is also a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.