Friday, July 20, 2018 /8 Av, 5778
Parashat D’varim Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22
Sometimes it is hard to square the impossible with the possible.
And, sometimes, we just have to suspend reason…
Take, for example, words spoken this week… to open our Torah portion. We find in Deuteronomy 1:1, the following verse: “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.” Seems innocuous enough, right? Let’s look again.
“To all Israel…” How did Moses speak to all the Israelites in his orations in Deuteronomy? There were a lot of them, and he was 120 years old, as were his vocal chords. This was before loudspeakers, and certainly before Twitter, and Moses had, by the census we completed in the Book of Numbers, 603,550 adult males to whom to speak, not including a similar number of females, elderly and children. Thus, how do we understand this little word in our verse, “all?”
Commonly, there are two answers – one which requires us to suspend reason, and a second which requires us to reconsider the meaning of “all.”
The first response: It was a miracle! Moses was able to fit everyone into earshot, and spoke to “all Israel” without any difficulty. God and Moses made it happen. Period. Clearly, we have to wink or smile, and defer to the unreasonable. Yet, sometimes that is just what we do. After all, in preseason, every team thinks it is going to the World Series, every ill patient is certain that they’ll receive a good diagnosis, and every high-schooler might be prom queen or king. We suspend reason, and rely on a miracle.
Or… we rethink the meaning of “all.” Perhaps, Moses actually only spoke to the tribal chiefs, and they spoke to their clan leaders, and it filtered down until “all” Israel heard the message. After all, isn’t that the theory behind representative democracy? We elect legislators, and they are empowered to do the bidding of all their constituents, because, we can’t all go to Sacramento or Washington. “All” implies by proxy, not in actuality.
Thus, we have two choices, and we can opt for one or the other. Essentially, in our choosing a meaning, we rewrite the message of Torah for ourselves. It is no longer a distant text, but our own, and up to us for its meaning. So, too, this is how we distill meaning in public life, and how we understand issues in family or synagogue life.
We must listen to the messages, and refine meanings according to our own prisms. That’s the genius of participating in Jewish life, in Torah, and in synagogue!
Rabbi Doug Kohn