Thursday, August 4, 2011

Devarim

For some time after the start of text messaging between father and daughter I believed “LOL” meant “Lots Of Love” rather than “Laugh Out Loud.” To my mind “Lots Of Love” made far more sense. And so in this age of abbreviated slang I find myself lost and out of touch with my daughter. Perhaps that is part of the purpose. Youth always develop words and sayings that cast the older generation outside. Parents struggle to understand their children.

This week’s Torah portion is the first portion in the last book of the Torah, Devarim. It opens with the following statement: “These are the words (devarim) that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan…” (Deuteronomy 1:1) The setting for this final book is Moses’ last speech to the people. Moses is getting old and is about to die. The mantle of leadership will soon be handed over to Joshua. The people are about to enter the land of Israel.

The generation who was enslaved in Egypt has died in the wilderness. Moses’ audience is now the new generation, those people born in freedom. They are the youthful generation who has only known the wilderness and its freedoms. Moses retells the history of their people, the Jewish people. He recounts their successes and failures. He reminds the youth of their obligations and enumerates the laws given in the Torah’s prior books.

Moses reiterates these commandments—at least least that is how Deuteronomy couches his words. Yet of the hundred laws detailed in the Book of Deuteronomy only thirty are found in the Torah’s prior books. Why would Moses frame his words as though they were not new? Why would he think it better to cast new ideas in old garments?

In so doing Moses suggests that this situation in fact requires nothing new. It has been seen and heard before, he believes. But this young generation will live in its own land. They will no longer wander. The generation reared only in freedom, the generation who knew only the vastness of wandering the wilderness, will indeed require many new laws to live their lives in a sovereign land.

Moses believes that the new must be informed by the old. Still Moses struggles to communicate this truth with the youth. In every age we struggle to communicate, to teach, to impart to the younger generation. This very tension exists in our own day, in each of our homes, in each of our lives.

This was part of Larry David’s point in the recent “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Texting slang is not meant for grown ups. It is meant only for the youth who coin its words. Parents sound like tourists struggling to communicate in the country’s native language. It is as if we are not supposed to speak our children’s language. They of course believe that we can never be informed, native speakers. They think, theirs is the language of the freedoms of wilderness. Ours are the words of enslavement, of obligations and laws.

I am left with more questions. How can we communicate the truths that we learned through our own years of struggle and wandering? How can we beseech our children to abide by what we know to be important? I still believe that even the newest situation and circumstance can be informed by the old. How can the generations speak to each other? In Deuteronomy we witness Moses offering poems, to cajole his followers as well as losing his temper, struggling and stammering, to communicate essential truths with the future generation.

And there the problem of communicating between the generations becomes most apparent. The elders either sound like foreigners in their own native land, stammering to speak the words of a future generation or angry, unheeded outcasts, who appear to stubbornly cling to the past. I wish it were as simple as saying with Moses’ concluding words, “Remember the days of old. Consider the years of ages past. Ask your [parents], they will inform you. Your elders, they will tell you…” (Deuteronomy 32:7)

But the reader forgets. We do not know if the Israelite youth listened. Such is the framework for the Book of Deuteronomy.

This is as well the framework of our lives and our goals as parents and teachers. LYA!

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