Parshat V'etchanan

Dear Rabbi:

Before I became an attorney, I had to go to law school to learn the “tools of the trade”. When I graduated law school, I knew the “law”, and I was told what to do when in certain situations, but even though I passed the bar and was admitted in the practice of law, in reality I was not an “attorney” until I began to use what I was taught in law school. Another way of saying what I am trying to explain is that until, I actually faced what I was taught, I had no real idea of what the reality of the situation was all about.

One of the best examples I can give you is “eye witness testimony”. Allegedly someone who witnessed an event can describe what happened, and relay it to a jury so that those that sit in judgment can render a fair and impartial judgment of someone’s guilt or innocence. As I was taught in law school, for the most part, an eye witness’s account of what occurred is not very reliable and can be shown to be wrong in many instances. Understanding this can only come with experience. I can’t tell you how many times I heard testimony from someone who was at the scene, who under oath swore that what he or she stated was the truth but, with the proper questioning or with the advent of modern technology, what they said and what could be seen with such things as a video become two different events, and the result is that the testimony of the eye witness is destroyed. Most times the person testifying does not deliberately lie, but there is maybe some physical defect or personal bias that we all have, and subconsciously this interferes with what one actually saw or experienced.

Remember in the movie “My Cousin Vinny” when Joe Pesci who played an attorney defending his cousin played by Ralph Macchio, cross examined the “eye witness” that saw  Macchio at the scene of the crime, and when Pesci finished he proved that the woman who saw the event really needed better eye glasses than what she was using?

There was also a series on one of the cable channels a few years ago entitled “The Affair” that split the story lines in half by first getting “his” version of what occurred and then “hers”. If you watched the series, there were different takes on what happened or for that matter what he or she was wearing at the time of the incident.

Well what does any of this have to do with today’s parshah? We are now into the second parshah of the fifth book of Moses known as the Book of Deuteronomy. The oldest name of this Book is Mishna Sivra, which means the Repetition of the Torah. In essence this Book was “Moses’ Farewell Discourses” and the Song to Israel. The Lawgiver had brought his People to the borders of the Holy Land. He then recounts in three Discourses the events of the forty years’ wanderings; and warns against the temptations awaiting them in Canaan, with promise of Divine judgment for disobedience, and Divine blessing for faithful observance, of God’s commandments.”

To those that read the Torah every week, it becomes immediately evident that this Book is written differently than the others. Just look at the first sentence of last week’s parshah, which starts: “These are the words which Moses spoke unto all Israel…” It does not start as most other chapters do with “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying…”, which many believe is proof that this part of the Torah was written by Moses himself and was not the words of the Almighty.  

Now let me try to make the pieces fit as to how this connects to “eye witness” testimony. If it is true that Moses himself wrote this part, then what he conveyed to the Israelites has his taint on what he believed happened. In last week’s parshah Devarim, Moses recalls how he appointed judges to help him judge the people as it had become too hard and time consuming, to help everyone all alone. He leaves out the critical detail as shown in Exodus 18:13-23, that it was his father-in-law, Jethro, that saw that Moses was running himself ragged and suggested that he appoint judges to rule, leaving the big decisions to Moses.

This week in Vaetchanan, Moses goes on about how the Israelites he was speaking to should not forget the wonders that they saw such as what took place at Horeb (Exodus 17:6, when Moses strikes the rock the first time and draws water) and speaks of other things that the Israelites saw on their journey. What is wrong with the account is that the Israelites that he was speaking to were the decedents of those that saw most of the wonders that the Torah speaks of. The older generation had to die in the desert because of the incident of the “twelve spies”.  

To me, one of Moses’ most egregious slips of the tongue occurred in the Second Aliyah at Deuteronomy 4:21 when he states the following:

“And the Lord was angry with me because of you, and He swore that I would not cross the Jordan and that I would not come into the good land the Lord, your G-d, is giving you as an inheritance.”

If we just go back to Numbers at 20:9-11 we see a rather different account of why Moses could not “cross the Jordan” to get to the Promised Land. It is at Maribah that the Israelites are again without water and Moses asks G-d what he should do. We all know the “rest of the story”. Moses is told to talk to the rock and instead strikes it for which he is told by the Almighty that because of his transgression he cannot gain entry to the Promised Land.

Moses may have had a point that the people had caused him so much trouble that he lost his temper and struck the rock, but he was the proximate cause of his fate, and not that of the people he was admonishing.

All of the above being said, this congregation could take a lesson from our greatest teacher, Moses. In the First Aliyah at Deuteronomy 3:25-26 we read the following request from Moses to G-d: 

“Pray let me cross over and see the good land that is on the other side of the Jordan, this good mountain and the Lebanon."

But the Lord was angry with me because of you, and He did not listen to me, and the Lord said to me, "It is enough for you; speak to Me no more regarding this matter.”

Moses could have concluded that because he had been a loyal servant to the Lord for the past forty years that he should have been cut some slack. He could have then turned his back on the Almighty, but he goes on for the rest of the Parshah to repeat the words of the Lord and implores the Israelites to live up to what Moses has conveyed to them. Starting with Deuteronomy 4:1 we read the following:

“And now, O Israel, hearken to the statutes and to the judgments which I teach you to do, in order that you may live, and go in and possess the land which the Lord, God of your forefathers, is giving you.

Do not add to the word which I command you, nor diminish from it, to observe the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.”

Moses could have been petty and not implore the Israelites to worship and obey G-d because he was not given his ultimate wish of entering the Promised Land, but he saw the greater need of the people he had led for forty years.

Today, this assembly of the decedents of the Israelites has been urged by their leaders to pack up and move from a home that they have been very comfortable in for more than sixty years. Despite the facts that have been shown as to why the move from the JJC is needed, some cling to the hope that we can still stay. As a past president, I often heard suggestions from the congregants as to what could be done to improve one thing or another, but if I asked them to take charge of the suggestion, I was more often than not told that this person was too busy to do the work and that someone else should do it. What I heard the other night from some of those gathered to get an update of what is being done, was the suggestion of “we should find a way to stay here but someone else should find a way as to how this is to be accomplished.” One person asked if the eventual vote to move was turned down, what is our plan B. When the leaders stated that the only thing they could commit to at this point was the consolidation, the response from the person that asked about a ”Plan B”, was that in essence there was none.

To me that meant that this person could not understand that the powers that be at the JJC had been racking their brains to find a way to stay but that it had become futile and what was being proposed, was “Plan B”. No one wants to leave this home we have enjoyed for all of these years, but reality dictates that in order to save the memory of the JJC and what it stands for is to leave.

Moses’ “eye witness account” of what went on did not stop him from doing the “right thing” by not demanding that he get what he wanted before he would tell the Israelites to carry on the word of the Lord, and I would hope that the memory of what was the JJC does not block the reality of what is going on now and as Moses did way back when, the few have to sacrifice for the good of the majority.