Hope is a power you don’t have to relinquish

Rabbi Dale Schreiber

BY RABBI DALE SCHREIBER

The last book of the Torah is a multilayered narrative opening with an experienced Moses reminding a new generation of Israelites about the challenges their parents faced as they left a narrow place of ancient Egyptian servitude. The Book of Deuteronomy is called Devarim in Hebrew.  

Devarim can be interpreted as both “words” or “things.” The book can be described as a 37-day speech given by Moses as the Israelites camped at the shores of an uncrossed river propelling them into an uncertain future. This year, the story of those unsettled people resonates with where we all are: unsettled, crossing into uncharted territory, held captive in the face of serious communal, national and global challenges.     

Moses begins with eileh hadevarim, “these are the things” concerning the Wilderness, concerning the Flat Land, opposite the Sea of Reeds, between Paran and Tophel, and Lavan and Hazeroth, and Di-Zahav.  

The Sages, noting unique characteristics of the book, refer to Devarim as Mishnah Torah, the repetition of Torah. Rather than downloading the messages from the Divine Server and transmitting them verbatim as in earlier books, Moses is now the shaliach, “the messenger” who conveys the Divine sentiment in his own words.  Ever seeking new meaning, the rabbis ask: What’s with the geography lesson? Why did Moses take it upon himself to expound this Torah with these words?

Some commentators call his address a form of rebuke or admonishment for previous events occurring in stops along the way. Moses begins by reminding the Israelites about their extended journey through the wilderness. He reminds them that life’s burdens are, at times, a direct result of their beliefs and values.

Other voices thought Moses was worried that his own death would create more uncertainty and wanted to explicate the laws he had received and transmitted. 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. Moses highlights where they came from and what the future might hold.   

Other voices say Devarim is not a book of rebuke nor a book that introduces new legal doctrine. It is an exercise in clarification as Moses shares his unique perspective distilled from a lifetime of experience, suffering, success and failures.  This portion is always read just prior to the observance of Tisha B’Av, the Jewish memorial to historic, devastating loss and destruction. The portion Devarim is read on Shabbat Chazon, the Sabbath of Vision.  

Twice Moses admonishes the Israelites to turn themselves around. Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlov taught that memory was given to us to remember the future – where we are going and who we are becoming. Experience can cloud or expand one’s vision. Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our teacher, is offering his timeless vision to us. Vision about what is possible and an equally compelling vision of what is probable if we continue to travel along the same path, suffering the same pitfalls, enduring the same diet of despair.

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There is a Yiddish saying: If you don’t know where you are going, any road will do. The Talmud section on Brachot (Blessings) tells us to “never leave a person without words of promise, words of hope.” 

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. We have crossed the threshold of the familiar and have been living on a diet of fear, isolation, plague reports, unmet essential needs, acts of violence, and discouraging economic, social and political projections.   

Hope is a continuum.  

“Hope is not the belief that everything was, is or will be fine,”  author Rebecca Solnit writes. For her, hope is an “embrace of the unknown, a gift you don’t have to surrender, and a power you don’t have to relinquish.” 

My hope is that as we find our way through this new reality, we are able to choose a path fulfilling the promise and blessing of a good life with more heart, understanding, restraint, courage and care.  

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Dale Schreiber is a chaplain providing Jewish care coordination for Pathways Hospice and Palliative Care, and has a private practice, Renewal-in-Action, specializing in resiliency, spiritual development and compassion fatigue recovery. She is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.