Parashat D’varim – Deut. 1:1 – 3:22

Only your wives, your children and your cattle … shall dwell in your cities than I have given to you. – D’varim/Deuteronomy 3:19

Now waiting in the plains of Moab, opposite Jericho, to cross into the Land, the Israelites have just been given a whistle-stop tour of their journey over the last forty years from Mt. Sinai to their current camp. Most of the people have only experienced part of this journey and were not present at Mt. Sinai when HaShem gave the Torah to our people, as they have been born during the time of the wilderness wanderings. Only those over the age of forty were alive – as children – during the Exodus from Egypt and witnessed the theophany at Mt. Sinai followed by the first part of the journey from Sinai to Kadesh Barnea and the disastrous episode of the twelve spies, ten of whom turned the people away from entering the Land leading to the time of forty years wandering in the desert so that all the adults in that generation perished and did not enter the Land. Now only three of the Exodus generation remain alive: Moshe, who is shortly to die as he has been forbidden to enter the Land because of his disobedience in hitting rather than speaking to the rock to bring forth water for the people at Meribah, Joshua and Caleb, the two of the twelve spies who had insisted forty years previously that the people could and should enter the Land.

This piece of the text, almost the last episode in the forty-year story, is very fresh in the hearers’ memory, having only happened within the last few months. The tribes of Reuben and Gad, with half the tribe of Manasseh, had asked permission – since they are the owners of great herds of cattle and the rolling acres of land on the east of the Jordan is ideal cattle country – for their allocation to be there on the east. With a deal of reluctance and after initially suggesting that this was as bad as the behaviour of the ten spies at Kadesh Barnea, Moshe gave the tribes permission to settle on the east of the Jordan provided that their fighting men crossed over into the Land and helped the other tribes take possession of their inheritance there before returning home. He allocated cities and blocks of land from the kingdoms of Sihon and Og the kings of the Amorites that we had defeated, then said, “Build towns for your children and sheepfolds for your flocks, but do what you have promised” (B’Midbar 32:24, JPS). Now that the cities and the pens and holding areas for the flocks and cattle have been built, Moshe is publicly reminding the tribes of their promise to cross over the Jordan, to stand and fight alongside their brothers and to clear the Land for their possession.

Five of the nine words in the text have the same ending, –chem, the 2mp pronoun. The first four are the possessive pronoun, ‘your’, the last one is the object pronoun ‘you’: your women, your children, your herds (of cattle and sheep), your cities and “to you”. Moshe wants to make very sure that those who have made the promise know exactly who they are and that everyone else knows it too.

So who is involved here? The word neshechem, “your women” includes all the wives as well as all the unmarried women and girls above the age of childhood. The tapchem comes from the delightful root tet-peh-peh, which means to trip or mince, a word beautifully illustrating the toddlers and young children, skipping and stumbling as they make their first steps learning to walk, to run and to skip along holding an adult hand lest they miss their footing and fall over. Finally, miknechem – from the root kof-nun-heh, “to buy, own” – describes wealth, most often in the form of livestock. All of these are to stay be’arechem, “in your cities” on the east of the Jordan while the fighting men cross over and help their brothers to take possession of the Land. There are two missing groups within the demographic profile of the tribes: the old men, beyond the age of military service, and the male youth, beyond childhood but not yet of military age. What are they to do? Since they are not in the fighting men explicitly required to cross the Jordan, they too will remain in the cities on the east; they must be prepared to defend the cities and make up the work-force looking after the herds – a job that the women are excluded from doing. Whether the clearing of the Land took a month, a year or many years, the animal husbandry could not just be abandoned and the cities and towns would need some defence against the neighbouring tribes and peoples. This was not women’s work!

On the other hand, all this the people knew this; it was (relatively speaking) very recent history. Why did Moshe need to remind them? And what was the point of the rest of the story? Why did they need to be reminded of the past forty years in the desert and all the family members they had buried and left there in the sands? The answer is that our past tells us who we are; we need the past to give us roots and anchor us in the soil of time. Without a past, we are not a people. Our traditions – whether Jewish or Gentile, church or synagogue – make no sense without the past. While we are not called to live in or to re-live the past, the past guides our feet and informs who we are and why we do the things we do.

Our Scriptures are full of advice and exhortation to remember the past. Moshe taught the people to “Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past; ask your father, he will inform you, your elders, they will tell you” (D’varim 32:7, JPS). Our connection with the past is through living memory – the people who can remember the past in their personal memories – and social memory: the narrated past of our people, our families and our nations. Fathers have a responsibility not only to preserve those memories but to transmit them to their own families. Similarly, elders have a responsibility to guard and preserve the social memory of a group and ensure that the stories are regularly shared and reviewed so that they are not forgotten.

Speaking in the last days of the kings in Jerusalem, when the city and the country were about to be swallowed up and sent into exile by the Babylonians, the prophet Jeremiah said, “Thus says the L-RD: ‘Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls'” (Jeremiah 6:16, ESV). You are at a cross-roads, he said, and there is no going back, but which way will you turn? Will you follow the current trend of idolatry and oppression, pretending that there is nothing wrong and that you can fix your own problems, or will you return to the L-rd your G-d, abandon your superstitions and your syncretisms, and so find the only way out of the pending calamity?

Our collective memory as the people of G-d is rooted in the stories and texts of the Bible; we neglect them at our peril. Rav Sha’ul told the Corinthians, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11, ESV) and Yeshua testified to the Jewish leadership that “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about Me” (John 5:39, ESV).

Jewish people today need to remember that we are not just the children of the diaspora, the last nearly two thousand years of exile from our homeland. We are the same people who came out of Egypt, who wandered in the desert, who entered the Land, who fought the Philistines, lived through the time of the kings and the Babylonian exile and returned to the Land to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple and only then were dispersed by the Romans. Yes, we misbehaved; we worshipped the pagan gods of the Land, we rebelled against G-d and refused to obey His words, we formed wrong relationships with neighbouring states and fell into idolatry and sin. But through it all, G-d never let go of us; despite our sins, we remained His chosen people and so we are to this day. Even though we abandoned and broke the covenant many times, G-d was and is faithful. As we say in the Shehehiyanu blessing, whenever we do, join in or see something that we haven’t done for some time: He has kept alive, preserved us and brought us to this time.

Gentile people today need to remember that they are not simply members of the latest generation of Pentecostal, Reformed or Evangelical church or revival movement. Believers stand on the shoulders of giants like Charles Spurgeon, John and Charles Wesley, George Whitfield, John Knox, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Thomas Aquinas and many others right back to the days of the apostles and the early church. The church has had its days of appalling behaviour both to its own members and to the wider world: crusades, burnings at the stake, persecutions, beating and torturing, forced baptisms. The church too has had moments of syncretism, apostacy and rank heresy. But G-d continued to work through the church, to hear the words and prayers of those crying out in the name of Yeshua. The church remains grafted in to the people of G-d; the wild olive branches, and so connected to the people of G-d as long ago as the patriarchs – as the Hebrews 11 chapter of faith makes clear.

Today, we must all learn to remember and rejoice in our shared past and cultural heritage as the people of G-d. For in the past we find ourselves and the path into the future!

Further Study: Psalm 44:1-3; Hebrews 11:32-40

Application: Do you rejoice in the past or are you embarrassed by it? Speak to the Great Historian about why it is His Story and how you can redeem and value the influence it has over you!