How Does a Story Begin? Not Like You Think: D’varim, Deuteronomy 1:1−3:22 An Introduction to the Book of Deuteronomy
When does a story begin?
From the moment something or someone collapses and breaks.
Some of us were taught to think that a story begins with descriptions about the setting, but a story actually begins the moment that something smashes into pieces, collapses, or breaks. A beginning is never created from a subtle hint or gentle truth. A story begins by shattering reality and its defenses.
We see this idea illustrated in Deuteronomy, the final book of the Torah.
We might expect that the last book of the Torah would continue the story of the Israelites’ amazing desert journey to a new land with new battles, diseases, places, and miracles. Instead, Deuteronomy is a book about mourning. Moses knows his life is drawing to a close. His death will mark the start of a new story.
When a great bridge bears the weight of pedestrians for years, no one asks what will happen if it collapses one day. The questions arise only after the bridge fails. Suddenly, everyone’s asking questions: How will we reach our destination? Who will show us the way? Who will connect yesterday and tomorrow for us? Moses was that bridge for the Israelites. He represents a bridge between their lives as an enslaved people in a foreign land and as a free people in their homeland. Moses is a bridge about to fall.
Moses knows all too well that leading the Jewish people means carrying a tremendous burden. He was a bridge that didn’t collapse, despite numerous cracks. He also knows that he’s going to die soon, but a critical question remains unanswered: Who will replace him? Who will continue the extraordinary story of a people that lost their home, identity, freedom, and leadership?
No one knows the answers, except Moses, who tells the Israelites, “I cannot bear the burden of you by myself” (Deuteronomy 1:9).
His last words are the path to tomorrow for the Jewish people.
Genesis Rabbah (a collection of midrashim) gives us a clue about what to do when things shatter. It describes a society that lacks worthy leaders: “A man who was traveling from place to place saw a palace in flames. He said, ‘Is it possible that this palace is without an owner?'” (39:1).
Today, we’re seeing our own palace in flames. We’re looking for leaders who can carry our weight as a diverse nation that needs a wide, stable bridge. Our Judaism is on fire. Our Jewish state is in flames with fires set by extremists. Bridges we once had to the past are losing their ability to support the weight of Jewish life here and now – bridges between tradition and progress, between communities and worldviews, and between answers and questions.
However, as in the Genesis Rabbah commentary, if we ask God who is inside the palace being consumed by flames, God will have an answer: You. Us. I gave you this land, this Torah, this blessing, and this nation at this time.
As Moses says in Devarim to all of us:
“How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering! Pick from each of your tribes’ representatives who are wise, discerning and experienced, and I will appoint them as your heads” (Deuteronomy 1:12-13).
You are the path,
You are the bridge,
You are the leaders,
You are the future,
You are the promise.
We take wandering through this land upon ourselves.
With loving hands, God gave us the Torah and leadership.
Fires will continue to burn wherever there are thoughts, questions, and new interpretations. Fresh ideas always ignite previous worlds, but love and devotion will forever be in the middle of the fire, at the core of the story, in the place where new beginnings are formed. As long as people’s devotion outshines the blazing fire, our Torah will continue to exist.
We constantly share in this process. We add our voices to the history of those who salvaged theories and beliefs from the fire. People looked for those beliefs when they were lost, reviving them and passing them on from person to person. In our hearts, we sing an amazing prayer to the next generation to carry on.