When the Past is the Present

When the Past is the Present

Though Moses says that he has “never been a man of words” (Ex. 4:10), this week’s Torah portion, Devarim, starts Moses’ book-long address to the Israelites before they enter into the land of Canaan. We’ll be reading it through September, as Moses recounts the journeys, travails, successes and challenges the Israelites faced in their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land.

Yet what’s always struck me is the use of the repeated word “you” in the book of Deuteronomy, especially in this week’s portion. “…[Y]ou refused to go up, and flouted the command of your God יהוה. You sulked in your tents and said, ‘It is out of hatred for us that יהוה brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to the Amorites to wipe us out…’” (Deuteronomy 1:26-27) 

The problem is that the “you” Moses is addressing is a different “you” than the people he’s talking about. The generation that’s about to conquer the land is an entirely new collection of people from those who had escaped slavery from Egypt (other than Joshua and Caleb). The generation of slaves were the ones who rebelled, so the “you” here is surprising – these Israelites weren’t the ones who flouted and sulked, it was their parents and grandparents. So why are the past and the present intermingled here?

Perhaps it’s because we tend to like to focus on the individual, and on the here and now, while the Torah has slightly different framing. For us in the present (and particularly in the United States), we mythologize the “self-made” success story, or look at massive challenges such as climate change and ask, “What can I do as one person?”  

Yet when we stop to think about it, we are more deeply connected to others than we might realize, especially to those who came before us. Perhaps my favorite example was when Barack Obama was called out for saying to business leaders, “You didn’t build that.” He was excoriated for denigrating all the hard working entrepreneurs, but what he really meant was that no one does anything without help from the past or their society in the present. More specifically, he was referring to the roads and bridges that helped  businesses move their goods, and were built years earlier. 

It’s almost like the wonderful story of Honi the Circle Drawer. While the details of the story are wonderful, the crux is at the beginning: 

One day Honi was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked, “How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit?” The man replied: “Seventy years.” Honi then further asked him: “Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?” The man replied: “I found [already grown] carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted those for me, so I too plant these for my children.” (Ta’anit 23a)

Our present selves don’t exist in a vacuum; we impact (and are impacted by) all those who came before and after us. So when Moses speaks to a group of Israelites and conflates the past and the present, it’s not a mistake – it’s a message.

That’s an idea that’s pounded into us over and over. At the end of the Torah, in Nitzvavim, Moses says, “You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God…” (Deuteronomy 29:9), which is read by commentators to mean that Moses is speaking not just to those physically standing there, but to those of us, here and now. On Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Torah, we view ourselves as all having stood at Sinai, thousands of years ago. It’s not just those who were there in body; those who came afterwards are there in spirit, as well.

That’s why this week’s portion starts, “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.” (Deuteronomy 1:1). By including “all Israel,” Moses is joining the past and the present, ensuring  history becomes part of daily life. And yet unlike the slave generation, this group of Israelites is able to hear the rebuke, internalize, and grow from it. As Rabbi Aviva Richman notes,

[A] midrash…states that the fact that Moshe delivered these words to all of Israel speaks highly of them. It indicates that they were all “masters of rebuke;” they knew how to receive feedback…

In Devarim, as Moshe gets ready to reenact the moment of revelation at Sinai for the next generation, he wants to ensure that history wonʼt repeat itself, that this time, when God connects with the people through Torah, their relationship wonʼt go awry. 

Judaism is not focused on history; it is focused on memory, and in the words of Professor Steve Joordens, while history lives in the past, memory is “any time when a past experience has an effect on current or future behavior.” (“Memory and the Human Lifespan,” The Teaching Company Coursebook, 6) History is what happened; memory is how it helps us now.

While the Israelites entering Canaan were different from those leaving Egypt, Moses superimposed the past into the present, similar to how we read the story of Passover to remind us to see ourselves “as if we ourselves went forth from Egypt.” When we remember the past – both the celebrations and the missteps – it can inform our present, which can guide our future. 

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