Telling Our Story
A Message for Parashat Re'eh 2017
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My family and I have mourned the deaths of two grandparents this past year. I have experienced several personal losses in their absence. I long for their warmth and love. I sense the holes left in their transmission of tradition and heritage. Most of all, I miss their stories.
Reflective of their different backgrounds and cultures, the stories that each of my grandparents would tell evoked opposite emotions. My grandmother reminisced about Bensonhurst and Bradley Beach. Her anecdotes made us laugh. My grandfather spoke about Romania and Auschwitz. His memories made us cry. Taken together, however, my grandparents’ stories provided the foundations of our family. Their stories wrote my family’s narrative.
Bruce Feiler, author of The Secrets of Happy Families, wrote: “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.” He cited a study which found that children’s knowledge of their family’s history directly affects their self-esteem and control over their lives. The researchers explained that children with the most self-confidence possess a strong “intergenerational self” – they know that they belong to something bigger than themselves.
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Beyond individuals and families, however, stories are critical for national endurance. R. Jonathan Sacks explained the Torah’s repeated command to retell the story of yessiat Missrayim by distinguishing between a traditional society and a covenantal society. He explained that in a tradition-based society, things are as they are because that is how they were “since time immemorial.” There exists an unspoken sense of understanding to those who “belong,” and there is no answer or story that can bring clarity to one who “does not belong.” Covenantal societies, in contrast, are born out of rebellion. They represent a conscious new beginning by a group of people dedicated to an ideal. Retelling the story of the past obstacles that were overcome through a strong sense of vision and ideals are fundamental to the ethos of such a society.
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Where should the history of a “national narrative” begin? Plato set forth his vision for an ideal state in The Republic. He wrote that the people’s education was of fundamental importance, and that it began with stories. Anecdotes that may strengthen the people’s morale must be told; those that cannot should be censored. He pointed to one specific tale that would lead to national strength. It was the story of how the homeland “gave birth” to its people. Plato claimed that if such a story is successfully instilled within the hearts and minds of the people it will inspire them to protect their “Mother Land” at all costs.
Israeli thinker Micah Goodman noted the contrast between Plato’s ideal national story and that of Am Yisrael. The Torah commanded that we tell “our story” upon bringing the bikkurim, our first fruits to the Mikdash every year:
And it shall be, when you come into the land that Hashem your God is about to give you in estate … you shall take from the first yield of all fruit of the soil … And you shall speak out and say … “My father was an Aramean about to perish, and he went down to Egypt, and he sojourned there with a few people, and he became there a great and mighty and multitudinous nation … And God brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm and with great terror and with signs and with portents…” (Devarim 26:1-6)
The national narrative of Am Yisrael does not begin with the land – by means of God’s relationship and promises to Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov – but rather with the nation’s experience in Egypt. Indeed, careful attention to the specific descriptions of Sefer Devarim, and particularly those of Parashat Re’eh, reveals a deliberate plan to place yessiat Missrayim as the cornerstone of our national narrative prior to the people’s entrance into the Land of Israel.
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Let us first consider the shift in the Fourth Commandment from its initial mention in Parashat Yitro to Moshe’s reminiscence of it in Parashat VaEthanan. Whereas Shabbat was first introduced as a commemoration of God’s rest on the seventh day of Creation (Shemot 20: 10), Moshe described it differently in Parashat VaEthanan:
Keep the day of Shabbat to hallow it … So that your male slave and your slavegirl may rest like you. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and God brought you out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore, God charged you to make the day of Shabbat.
Highlighting its function as a “slave’s day of rest,” Shabbat was then introduced as a commemoration of yessiat Missrayim.
Parashat Re’eh displays a similar phenomenon in two other contexts.
According to the Torah, slave owners may not enslave Israelite slaves for an extended period, and must instead free them at a specific juncture. When this law was first mentioned, the Torah coupled it with the religious conscience that lay at its core, teaching that since we are all slaves of God who redeemed us from Egypt we cannot conceivably enslave another person for life (Vayikra 25:42). Parashat Re’eh repeated the law, but added that one must provide his freed slave with the necessary provisions for self-sustenance, and further cautioning:
And you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and Hashem your Gad ransomed you. Therefore, I charge you with this thing today. (Devarim 15:15)
Apart from its religious conscience, the command was then termed as a remembrance of God’s actions during yessiat Missrayim and our mission to mimic them.
The novel function of yessiat Missrayim returned to the parashah again, in the context of the commandment to rejoice on the holidays. Whereas this missvah was mentioned earlier in the Torah as a celebration of agricultural success (Vayikra 23:40), Parashat Re’eh repeated it and added the obligation to include the poor and unfortunate in the celebration, explaining:
And you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and you shall keep and do these statutes.
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A life story is a “personal myth” about who we are deep down – where we come from, how we got this way, and what it all means. Our life stories are who we are. They are our identity. (Jonathan Gottschall)
As Moshe taught his final lesson on the laws of the Torah, he interspliced it with a carefully-crafted story. Its purpose was not to teach history. The people had already received the first four books of the Torah, which detailed their origins and most of them already knew the stories of their forefathers and nation. The purpose of this story, instead, was to create a national narrative.
In his classic work Zakhor, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi distinguished between the opposite objectives of history and collective memory (or “zekhirah”). Whereas history begins with the facts and searches for their meaning, memory begins with the meaning and searches for its facts. Yerushalmi’s distinction may aide in clarifying Moshe’s unique objectives in Sefer Devarim. The first four books of the Torah represent history. Their purpose was to teach Am Yisrael the facts regarding their origins. Sefer Devarim, however, represents memory. The stories and laws that Moshe taught at the end of his life were meant to engender within the people an appropriate sense of identity. They taught about what it means to be a member of the nation – the ideals, vision and ambitions that “are” Am Yisrael.
Moshe molded the national identity around the narrative of yessiat Missrayim. He time and again stressed the lessons of their redemption from slavery. In addition to the scripted narrative that was read upon bringing the bikkurim, Moshe now linked the laws of Shabbat, eved Ivri, and rejoicing on the festivals to yessiat Missrayim. He thereby added the critical dimensions of sympathy, empathy, compassion and inclusion of others to these various missvot. In the words of eminent Tanakh scholar Amnon Bazak: “The memory of the exodus from Egypt will accompany them as the basis of their commitment to behave morally and ethically towards the weak and vulnerable among them.”
Over the course of his final address in Sefer Devarim, and specifically in Parashat Re’eh, Moshe told the nation their story. The story prepared them for the challenges of self-sovereignty and independence that lay ahead. Moshe placed yessiat Missrayim at the center of Am Yisrael’s narrative, and fashioned their identity in its countenance. The emergent identity was one of kindness and care – the very traits necessary for their future lives of governance in the Land of Israel.
R. Jonathan Sacks, Essays on Ethics: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible (New Milford, CT, 2016), pg. 91-5. Rabbi Sacks revisited this theme upon receival of one of the Bradley Prizes in 2016 <http://rabbisacks.org/free-society-moral-achievement-read-rabbi-sacks-acceptance-speech-receiving-bradley-prize/>, and he mentioned it again during a subsequent TED Talks presentation – “How we can face the future without fear, together” <https://www.ted.com/talks/rabbi_lord_jonathan_sacks_how_we_can_face_the_future_without_fear_together>.