As Parashat Va’et’hanan opens, Moses is pleading for forgiveness, in order to be permitted to enter the promised land along with the rest of the Israelites. Moses’ request is unconditionally denied, but he is given a counter offer: he can look from a hilltop at the land he will never enter. Moses becomes a distant surveyor of the people’s relationship with God in the promised land, able to see but not experience their new reality.
At the end of the Torah portion, after God reminds Moses that he won’t get to enter into the promised land, and reminds Israelites of their promises to God, comes another reminder:
“For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God: of all the peoples on Earth, the lord your God chose you to be his treasured people.”
In part, this is a beautiful sentiment; but as Mordecai Kaplan says, “chosenness always means the superiority of the chosen over the rejected, from the viewpoint of the chooser.” When taken into practice, it has the potential to elevate us above the rest, deems our religion and practices more meaningful. I worry that it creates this binary of chosen versus the rest; of “us” versus “them.” There is merit in being connected to a community, but also hazards in disconnecting from (and worse, looking down on) the larger world.
So how are we to accept that our texts, over and over again, assert this idea of chosenness, without falling into the trap of collective superiority?
Kaplan rejects this reading of chosenness. Instead, he argues that the Jewish path is one among many ways to reach the same humanistic values that lay at the core of many religions. We may have a unique bond with God, but that doesn’t mean we have the only bond.
I think Va’et’hanan gives us an instruction manual for how to act in relationships- how not to fall into the trap of creating separateness with chosenness. I like to think about the relationship between God and the Israelites as a sort of model for deep, committed relationships between human beings… not just those like us, but all humans.
“If you search for the Lord your God, you will find him, seek him with all your heart and all your soul.”
We will find God only when we are open to the process of learning about God, and only if we seek with all our heart and all our soul. The word used for seeking is tidreshnu, which shares a root with the word drash, the term used to describe searching for layers of meaning in the Torah. Our search in this relationship is not surface level. We must delve deeper. When entering a relationship, this teaches us not only to have empathy, but also to go deeper, seeing others as they see themselves. To search the many layers that contribute to a person’s being, to enter into relationships with an open heart.
Remember Moses at the beginning of this portion? Sitting upon the hill, looking down at the promised land? Moses becomes an observer. When we enter into relationships with minimal awareness or concern for one another, I worry we may become that man in the distance, trying to understand but not able to fully experience.
Being an outsider is better than not being a part of the situation at all. But when we become outsiders looking in, we only glimpse a surface level understanding. More ideal is to enter into relationships that challenge us, that push us to trust others unlike ourselves, to experience life at its fullest. Only here can we experience all the diversity and wonders that the world has to offer. This informs my work here in the South, and my commitment to community engagement.
I want to close with a call to action of sorts- a poem that reminds me there is no better time to change the way we interact with people who are not like us than the present:
Before the gate has been closed,
before the last question is posed,
before I am transposed.
Before the weeds fill the gardens,
before there are no pardons,
before the concrete hardens.
Before all the flute-holes are covered,
before things are locked in the cupboard,
before the rules are discovered.
Before the conclusion is planned,
before God closes his hand,
before we have nowhere to stand.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
Do you know Mr. Moses? Mr. Bob Moses?
I’ve always associated Bob Moses’s name with civil rights and, specifically, his well-known initiative the “Algebra Project.” The Algebra Project, according to its mission statement, “uses mathematics as an organizing tool to ensure quality public school education for every child in America.”
The more I learn about Mr. Moses, the more impressed I become. Bob Moses was the man the press considered “the mastermind” behind Freedom Summer. He worked with Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Freedom Summer to bring over 1,000 college students from out of state to teach in Freedom Schools and register voters.
To many, his last name—Moses—seemed more than appropriate.
And so, as Passover continues, I thought I’d encourage people to learn the story of another Moses: Bob Moses. While he did not split the Red Sea, he led a mission to redeem people who had been prevented from exercising their right to vote and receiving a high quality education. Learning more about Freedom Summer, I have a greater understanding of this modern day Moses. This African American Spiritual has made it into many Haggadot and, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, it seems fit to recognize the heroism of Mr. (Bob) Moses:
When Israel was in Egypt’s land: Let my people go,
Oppress’d so hard they could not stand, Let my People go.
Go down( BOB) Moses,
Way down in Mississippi-land,
Tell old Pharaoh,
Let my people go.
50 years later, Bob Moses continues to do incredible work. He, along with many Freedom Summer volunteers will be in Mississippi from June 25 through June 29 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of this watershed event. The ISJL looks forward to welcoming people to Mississippi to participate in the commemoration, and particularly looks forward to welcoming today’s Jewish activists who can participate in a special summit to learn about the Jewish legacy of Freedom Summer and focus on Jewish social justice activism today. Learn more here!
In this final match-up, the game really came down to something simple: straight-up skills. So who was the ultimate player – underdog Devorah? Or long-time champ Moses? Let’s see how they measured up on the proverbial court:
Basket (ball): Moses has the one locked up. He started his life in a basket, y’all. That’s commitment. This one’s a slam dunk for Big M.
Flair: You have to bring some flair to the game, as any Harlem Globetrotter or Biblical Baller will tell you. In a battle of musical prowess, setting the tunes against each other, Devorah is particularly well-known for her victory song, sung after the Israelites defeated the Canaanites. This song is famously beautiful and is acknowledged as one of the oldest and most original sections of Tanakh. Although, Song of the Sea does put up a good fight… still, this one goes to Devorah!
Drive: Having skills takes you only so far. Taking your game to the next level requires massive confidence, the belief in yourself that you can go out on the floor and dominate, each and every game.The name Devorah is Hebrew for Bee. That’s probably why Devorah’s tenacity is similar to a swarm of attacking bees. As she summoned Barak to battle against an army of invaders, she is also putting a stinger into the idea that women do not deserve places of significance in Jewish liturgy. Score one more for Dark Horse– er, Bee– Devorah!
Posting Up: During half time, Moses was thirsty and struck his water bottle, and Devorah immediately got 15 points. Devorah stands out as one of the strongest female characters in the books of Judges. She was one of the many judges chosen by God, and led the nation of Israel at a time when they were struggling to conquer the land. Additionally, they were experiencing great spiritual uncertainty. She’s one of the only biblical females spoken about on her own merits. For example, Sarah is always referred to as Abraham’s wife or Miriam is qualified as Moses’s sister. She was patient in how she would sit beneath the palm tree where the Israelites could come and seek her advice. But Moses always comes back after adversity, so this one’s a draw.
Spontaneity: Lots of players over-think the game. Moses is quick to act in many ways. When he finds his people struggling beneath the oppression of Egyptian task masters, he is horrified. Witnessing one beating an Israelite slave, Moses strikes back and kills the Egyptian. When Moses sees that there was no one else to address the challenges of his generation, he rises to the occasion and does what is necessary, realizing that it would have far reaching implications for his life.
Final Scoring: Mensch means “a person of honor” and for us, the winner has got to be Moses, the ultimate team captain. As it says in Deuteronomy 34:10 – “Since that time no prophet has supported Israel like Moses, who Adonai knew face to face.” Devorah played well, came far, and her jersey will surely be retired, but in the end, there can be only one winner of Mensch Madness.
MAZEL TOV… MOSES, THE MENSCH MADNESS CHAMPION!
Thank you for playing along! How did your bracket match up with ours?