This week’s Torah portion is short and sweet — just one chapter of the book of Deuteronomy — which suits me just fine. Who has time to be reading long portions of Torah during the first two weeks of Tishrei, anyway? We have plenty of extra readings on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur without worrying about too much extra text. Whoever was divvying up portions must have foreseen this exact need.
As we begin the new Jewish year (happy 5782, everyone!), the fifth book of Moses is coming to a close. Soon it’ll be Simchat Torah and we’ll be starting Genesis all over again. For now, though, we get to hear the last few words that God will be saying to Moses before he passes on. We also get to hear the last words that Moses says to his wayward Israelites before, quite literally, heading for the hills. This time, he won’t be returning.
It turns out that one of the last things that Moses utters isn’t a speech at all, though — it’s a poem. Next week we’ll be reading Ha’azinu (literally, listen up!), a portion that opens with a spectacular example of biblical poetry reminiscent of Exodus’ Song of the Sea. This week is the introduction to that poem; God instructs Moses and his successor, Yehoshua bin Nun, on what to do with the poem.
You’d think that this would be pretty straightforward. What do you do with a poem? You read it. To yourself alone, aloud with friends in a living room, or in a dimly lit bohemian cafe. Maybe you read it at a larger poetry reading, say, in a bookstore.
You’d be wrong. I certainly was, as is evidenced by the examples above.
“Every seventh year, the year set for remission, at the Feast of Booths [Sukkot], when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God in the place that He will choose, you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel,” God tells Moses and Yehoshua in Deuteronomy 3:10-11.
In other words, this is a major poetry reading. A dramatic reenactment, perhaps. With everyone present. And God does mean everyone. “Gather the people — men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities — that they may hear and so learn to revere the Lord your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching,” says the next verse.
Must be a pretty powerful poem, then.
Nearly everything about this plan makes sense to me. After all, words are very powerful (especially poetry, in my opinion), and there’s something about gathering everyone together to experience the wisdom together that surely increases their potency.
But why only every seven years? When I want my kid to learn something I don’t tell him once a week. I actually tend to repeat myself many, many more times than I’d like to over the course of a single day. “Are we inside or outside?” I ask my toddler, after he yells “AAAAHHH!” and then declares, “that’s funny.” My wife and I take a breath and say, for the bazillionth time, “Not so funny, love. That hurts Eema and Mama’s ears. How do you say that in your inside voice?”
If I tried to tell him this once a week, let alone every seven years, he would continue his noisy behavior. God, in His infinite wisdom, must know this, right?
Of course He does.
In fact, the next few verses tell us exactly what’s going to happen. “This people will […] go astray […] forsake Me and break My covenant that I made with them. Then My anger will flare up against them, and I will abandon them and hide My countenance from them […] many evils and troubles shall befall them. And they shall say on that day, ‘Surely it is because our God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us.’” (Deut. 31:16-17)
That, says God, is when you bring out the poem.
The Israelites are going to have to learn the hard way. The poem, beautiful though it may be, is a reminder of the straight and narrow. It’s to be used once you’ve strayed off the map, as a way of finding your footing once more.
Wouldn’t it be easier, then, to just give us the map ahead of time?
Sure it would. It would also be a whole lot easier (in some ways) if I just followed my kid around forever and told him what to do in every situation, always. But I can’t do that. And, truth be told, I don’t know the right answer to every situation, or even most of them. He’s sure to find far more creative solutions than I’d come up with anyway. What God is doing here, and what he’s calling Moses and Yehoshua to do, is the hardest thing a parent or leader can do — to let go. To trust. To have faith.
My kiddo is little and my wife and I will still help him navigate some situations (like not screaming indoors), but we’re going to have to relinquish our illusions of control in many others. We’re going to have to trust him to find his way — all the while knowing that he’ll stray off the map. That’s okay, says God, ’cause we can always show him the way back. The way back is always there, but sometimes it’s up to him to discover it on his own.
And, hey, maybe he’ll discover a whole new path, one that he’ll show to us. Wouldn’t that be something?