In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat D’varim, Moses, a man who described himself at the beginning of Exodus as, “slow of speech, and slow of tongue” starts to deliver a very long sermon, his farewell speech – the Book of Deuteronomy. Just as the Jewish people has been transformed through their passage through the wilderness, so too has Moses developed into a strong and dynamic leader. Having gone through these changes, they are finally ready for the next stage of their journey. For Moses, it is the final piece – imparting his last words of wisdom, a review of their time together, and his farewell. For the people, it is a taking stock in preparation for the battles to come.
I think there is some significance to the words that start this speech. Moses tells the people that G-d spoke to them at Horeb saying, “You have stayed long enough at this mountain.” Rabbi Rick Jacobs pointed out in his d’var Torah last year that these are challenging words to say to a religious group. “How often are we as communities of faith locked into, not only a place, but a way of being, a way of thinking, a way of practicing?” Old habits give us comfort and so much of faith is about comfort. The words, “but that is the way we have always done it,” have echoed with great frequency over the last few years, especially as we have transitioned from two congregations to one. Gradually, we are finding a new “how we do it” – a new minhag hamakom. It has been fascinating, beautiful, heartbreaking, and heartwarming all at once to watch and share in this transformation.
We read the Torah every year. Each year we cycle through the same stories, but if we pay attention, we see that they aren’t really the same after all because our changing perspectives color them in a different way. So too, I think it is good for us to say each year, “you have stayed long enough at this mountain,” to challenge ourselves to continue to redefine ourselves through social action, community building, prayer, song, and more. Each year we come to Sinai anew, and each year we seek to learn something novel about who we are as individuals, as Jews, as American citizens, and as members of a wider global community. We can’t do it the way we have always done it because the world is not the way it has always been.
Cantor Sally Neff