Parshat Devarim: Our Stories

 
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As rabbi’s, we are often asked the same question: “How did you become a rabbi?” No matter the rabbi or the scenario (like when you’re shopping for groceries at Kroger), it’s invariably the same inquiry. However, depending on who is asking, my mood, and a slur of other variables, my answer seems to come out differently every time. Sometimes my experience in Israel is a crucial ingredient in the mix. Sometimes it’s my love of Jewish peoplehood and the relationships I've built that boils to the top. Other times, it’s simply Summer Camp shenanigans and never wanting to leave the Jewish world. Not to mention my enrollment at an Orthodox Yeshiva for several months, a battle with testicular cancer that pushed me to find a career path, or possibly my love of philosophy and Hebrew (also my hatred of math)

Honestly, I know I was physically present for all of these moments (mentally, I'm not so sure) - but depending on the day - my story seems to fluctuate. It’s as if the narrative inventory of events, people, places, and choices - all of it - are strewn about in my mind like scattered puzzle pieces on a coffee table. Yet, each time, the puzzle comes together differently. Like a movie that replays in my head for a particular audience, but sometimes one scene is longer than usual. Actors/actresses get cut from the plot altogether. The zoom-ins are on different objects, faces, and landscapes. Yet, while it’s a different movie every time, it always ends the same way...

This week, in parshat Devarim, the beginning of the very last book of Torah (Deuteronomy), I find that I am not alone in my piecemealing of relevant events to form a coherent storyline. Moses is tasked with the same. In fact, our sages commonly translated Deuteronomy as “Repetition or “Review” of the Torah, because most of it is Moses’ recapitulation of the first Four Books. But unlike the rest of the Four Books of the Torah…

“In this Book, the Torah records the parts of his teachings that were most relevant for Israel's new life in its Land.” Unlike most of the Torah where God does most of the talking - this time - “Moses was the speaker. In Deuteronomy, Moses chose the words and conveyed the commands as he understood them. In this sense...Moses is called our Teacher, for he not only was the conduit through which God’s words were transmitted verbatim to Israel, he was also the teacher, who explained those words.” [1]

As such, I believe we become teachers in our own right by telling and retelling our story. Like Moses, we’re not simply mouthpieces of our history, but interpreters and redactors. As I regularly explain to my Hebrew students: Even if you’ve translated something once, that doesn’t mean it’ll come out the exact same way again. Things change. Our perspective changes. Our outlooks evolve. However, our past remains intact. Immovable. Yet, by crafting the story of “How we became who we are,” we are given the opportunity to explain ourselves in a way that’s relevant and personal. When we map out the events that lead to our present moment, we define those moments that makes us, Us. We determine our understanding of our own history, finding new significance throughout our past.

When You Write the Story of Your Life, Don’t Let Anyone Else Hold the Pen
— unknown

[1] The Stone Edition Chumash, p. 938 (R’ Yosef Soloveitchik)

Aaron Sataloff