Making Sense Of History

Making Sense Of History

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 8:01 p.m.
Torah: Deut. 1:1-3:22 (Sat.); Deut. 4:25-40; Exodus 32:11-14; 34:1-10 (Sun.)
Haftorah: Isaiah 1:1-27 (Sat.); Jeremiah 8:13-9:23; Isaiah 55:6-56:8 (Sun.)
Tisha B’av fast begins: 8:18 p.m. (Sat.)
Havdalah: 9:00 p.m. (Sat.); 9:04 p.m. (Sun.)

I recently heard on the radio, “I want kids to learn history the way it really  happened,” regarding a controversy in Texas over what should be recorded in history textbooks. The difficulty? No one is sure what really happened ever; interpretations vary greatly. That’s why Jews are fortunate to have the guidance of Moses and Devarim — the Book of Deuteronomy.  

Deuteronomy tells us not to be naïve and assume we can know what “really happened.” The entirety of the book, with its many discrepancies from material presented elsewhere in the Torah, comes to teach us that what we need to know is how to interpret the events with an expert teacher, Moses, the only prophet to speak face to face with God [Deut. 34:10] and whose strength and sight remained clear even when he was 120, at the end of his days [Deut. 34:7]. One famous discrepancy is when we’re told [Deut. 1:22]  that the Mira lime (the spies, or scouts) are sent into Canaan at the suggestion of the people, though earlier [Numbers 13:1-2] sending spies is God’s initiative.

What happens on earth, Moses wants his flock to know, must be owned and acknowledged by those who act, just as he later lets his flock know “it is not in Heaven” [Deut. 30:12].

Interpretation can’t be given without a thesis and a point of view. A look at a modern attempt at understanding history may give us a sense of what Moshe is doing. In his new novel, “Searching for Wallenberg,” Alan Lelchuk’s narrator attempts to reach the truth of what happened to Raoul Wallenberg, a Righteous Gentile who disappeared with hardly a trace after saving as many as 120,000 Jews in Nazi-occupied Budapest. The novelist’s scenes imagining the character of Wallenberg have more potency in gaining an understanding of that era than the research findings the narrator also shares with readers.

If one were ideally writing the story of a triumphant nation, successful in its quest to settle its sacred land while enhancing their relationship with God, then the Torah should end (Deuteronomy) with the people’s admittance to the Holy Land, grounding themselves in it, while making sure there is a means for continuity and teaching. An ongoing relationship with “the word” might occur by installing both the whole and broken Tablets into a  permanent home where kohanim (priests) could use both their understanding of the Tablets, as well as the Urim and Tummin to access the word and teaching of God, with certainty, for all times. The installation would signify a permanence, an end to the wanderings of the word, as a judge on the Israeli Supreme Court recently wrote about why the remaining works of Franz Kafka, taken by his executor Max Brod when fleeing the destruction of European Jewry deserve a  place in Israel’s National Library rather than an archive in Germany.

Yet, parshat Devarim always read the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av, commemorating the destruction of the two Holy Temples and the beginning of 2,000 years of Jewish exile. Far from beginning or ending in triumph, the timing of Devarim is telling us that, in fact, nothing will be permanent. We will be forced to use a different means, in every generation, to interpret the Torah, using Moses’ interpretive prism to develop our own lens and way of seeing history. Deuteronomy reviews the teachings of Moshe to demonstrate that the means of continuity does not lie in stones — either those of the Tablets, or the Urim and Thomism, but rather in words.

The  Torah ends on a note which forces us to accept that we shouldn’t try to understand “what really happened” but rather how to interpret it and put it into shira (song), as Moses does at Deuteronomy’s conclusion in the portions of  Haazinu and Ve’zot Habracha. The transformation of event and history into song, with many indications of how it should be interpreted, is the triumph of Moses as teacher, both in this portion as well as Deuteronomy as a whole.

We can grasp in song and interpretation what is not comprehensible in history alone. Devarim begins with explication and ends with song, since song/interpretation and imagination enable us to access what would otherwise be unclear. Devarim suggests that we need to use all means at our disposal to access the 70 aspects of its words.

Beth Kissileff  is the editor of the anthology “Reading Genesis” (Continuum),  and the author of a forthcoming novel “Questioning Return” (Mandel Vilar Press). She can be followed on Twitter @bethkissileff. 

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