Va-et’chanan: The Stories We Tell

After my mother died in 2015, I moved the 76 years of accumulated memories she’d somehow fit in her small apartment to my house in Brooklyn. Since I lack her organizational skills, her stuff quickly took possession of a space far larger than its former home. I emptied a bureau to make room for hundreds of photos and the 40 years’ worth of greeting cards she’d exchanged with my father, including one for every month of their first year of marriage. I stashed her teenage diaries next to my own. (“I had a date with that boy Phil,” she wrote on a spring day in 1956. “I think he may be the One.”). Odd items like the receipt from Carson C. Peck Memorial Hospital (when she gave birth to me) and her Howdy Doody Club and Lincoln H.S. Senior buttons are in a box under my bed.

All these years later I still can’t seem to throw anything out, and I don’t feel at all bad about that. This is my family history. If I part with the evidence, what will become of the stories behind it?

I was thinking about family stories and the role they play in our lives when I was reading this week’s Torah portion, Va-et’chanan (meaning “I pleaded”), the second parsha in the book of Deuteronomy. This parsha continues Moses’ first-person speeches to the Israelites and includes the second recitation of the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments. (The first recitation is in Yitro in Exodus.) The Commandments deal not with the nuts and bolts of governance but with family dynamics: Honor your father and mother. Don’t steal. Don’t murder. Remember the God who brought you out of Egypt (and who won’t hesitate to punish you for the sins of your parents). These are hopeful instructions designed to engender a civilized and respectful community. They are at the core of who we are as people seeking to live harmoniously with other people. The Ten Commandments guide us on how to be human.

There were practical reasons for re-stating the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy; their precepts encourage the Israelites to sustain the family unit and uphold the law. Additionally, the Israelites hearing these words in Va-et’chanan had a different relationship with God than the generations that preceded them. They weren’t present at Sinai. They experienced neither the intense wrath of God nor the awe-inspiring moments that their forbears did. Their daily existence is focused on the mechanics of becoming a free people.

The oral history that this generation of Israelites is receiving from Moses throughout the entire book of Deuteronomy is brand-new to them, and they’re hearing it at exactly the point when they will benefit from it the most. Certainly, they face some challenging and frightening times ahead. Although they’ve been assured that they have God’s support, they are also well aware that the generations that perished in the desert was habitually disobedient and often unappreciative of its God-given blessings. This generation knows that they must do better if they’re going to succeed in governing themselves.

It’s during perilous times like these when we most need our family stories to give us stability and a sense of control over our circumstances. For the Israelites, and for us, our family stories remind us that we’re part of something greater than we are. We’re reminded of our interconnectedness and the strength that comes with being interconnected. There’s a real sense of comfort in knowing there’s a roadmap to guide us, especially when things get treacherous.

As the carriers of our family stories, we’re responsible to those who came before us. We’re the ones entrusted to carry the stories forward and add our own stories to the mix. Depending on the audience, we may choose to reinterpret the stories we tell, just as Moses tweaked the narrative that he gave the younger generation of Israelites. We may want to teach a lesson by telling a story, so that means shifting a perspective. We may want to edit out a behavior that we feel doesn’t need to be part of our family’s legacy.

Memory is notably imperfect. We all forget things. A few years ago, I watched a wonderful documentary called Obit, about the people who write obituaries for The New York Times. (For those who don’t read obituaries regularly, they contain some beautiful storytelling.) One of the obit writers spoke about the importance of double- and triple-checking the information that family members provide about a loved one. Someone’s son, for instance, will tell you that his father was a football hero in college — and you’ll find out that the father never left the bench. Stories tend to be embellished. Often we want to make events more interesting or make people seem more accomplished or heroic than they were.

Sometimes we also reinterpret our family stories to mitigate old hurts and eliminate painful episodes. Other times there may be hurts that can’t be mitigated — or we choose not to mitigate them — in our stories. This, too, serves a purpose. Just as Moses wanted the Israelites to stay on the right path as they made the leap to freedom, we don’t want the generations that follow us to repeat our mistakes. We want them to learn from our missteps. We want them to use what came before them as a foundation and build a life that is uniquely their own.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses tells the Israelites the following:

“See, I have imparted to you laws and rules, as my God has commanded me, for you to abide by in the land that you are about to enter and occupy.

“Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, “Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.

“For what great nation is there that has a god so close at hand as is our God whenever we call? Or what great nation has laws and rules as perfect as all this teaching that I set before you this day.

“But take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live. And make them known to your children — and to your children’s children…”

May we all appreciate the value of our own family stories. May we use our words to teach, to inspire, to bring people together, to connect our past with our future. May we have a safe week, and a week filled with contentment and experiences that bring us joy.

Shabbat Shalom.

D’varim: A Few Words About Listening

I deal in words. I start the day with words, usually Yiddish or Russian words on Duolingo, and I end the day with a five-letter word — Wordle fans will understand — and then a book. Every night my daughter and I scramble to see who can finish The New York Times crossword puzzle online first (she usually wins). I’ve also been lucky enough to write for a living ever since I graduated from college many years ago.

Perhaps it’s because I’m so word-driven that I’ve always had a special fondness for the fifth book of the Torah, which we begin reading this week. The book is Deuteronomy, which in Hebrew is D’varim, or “words.” In this parsha, which is also called D’varim, we begin to see that it’s not just the awesome power of God that’ll bring the Israelites over the river to freedom. It’s the awesome power of words.

Not much happens in the book of D’varim to propel the action forward, yet without D’varim the Israelites wouldn’t be able to move ahead at all. While the previous books of the Torah provided the Israelites with the specific tools they would need in order to survive as a free people — the commandments they had to follow, the constant reminders of their need to be obedient to God, the punishments that could rain down on them if they failed to be obedient — D’varim has a different role. Even without any real action, D’varim is the book that instills in the Israelites with the courage to take the final step toward freedom. The first four books gave them the ability and understanding they will need to be self-governing, but it’s D’varim that infuses them with spirit and confidence, which are equally essential life skills. Now, how is this accomplished?

We think of Deuteronomy as Moses’ first-person addresses, but from the Israelites’ point of view, they are uninterrupted listening sessions. The Israelites are the ideal audience: they’re not going anywhere (a truly captive audience) and nothing else is being required of them except to listen to Moses’ words. At this moment, they’re literally and figuratively on the precipice between being a wandering people and a free people. They face the enormous burden of trying to correct the history of misbehaviors that got their ancestors doomed to die in the desert, and, in addition, they must somehow figure out how to incorporate the vast amount of information they’ve learned (all orally) into a system of governance that will work for them. Try to imagine yourself in their position. It has to be terrifying. And overwhelming.

From Moses’ perspective, you have an audience that for the first time feels a real sense of urgency. The guidance the Israelites have received up to this point is no longer theoretical. They can see Canaan from where they are. It’s there for the taking, and they know that the leader from whom they are hearing these words of guidance won’t be the same leader they’ll have on the other side of the river. Joshua has already been chosen to succeed Moses. This sense of urgency makes the Israelites a more attentive and receptive audience. This is their last chance to hear Moses speak.

In parsha D’varim, and in the rest of Deuteronomy, the Israelites are not simply hearing Moses’ words — they’re listening. As we all know, hearing and listening are two very different things. One is passive (hearing) and the other requires active attention (listening). Hearing is involuntary and requires you to be no more than a receptacle for information. Listening is voluntary and makes you an equal participant. It establishes a connection with the person who is speaking.

In this parsha as well as in the entire book of D’varim, the Israelites’ future — and their lives — depend on having well-developed listening skills. But what happens when the situation is far less urgent? In our own lives, how often do we simply hear and not really listen?

When a spouse or a friend is speaking to us, how often are we looking at our phones, or thinking about the groceries we need to pick up later, or the bill we forgot to pay, and we find ourselves saying, “What? Were you just saying something?” And here’s another question: Have we allowed ourselves to become so distracted that we don’t even realize the difference between hearing and listening?

It should come as no surprise that the problems of distraction and overall inattention to people and surroundings have worsened considerably in recent years. Not coincidentally, these problems have intensified at the same time our dependence on phones and other devices has increased.

A couple of years ago, science journalist Casey Schwartz wrote a book called Attention that combined a story of her own addiction to Adderall with the phenomenon of what she called “splintered concentration.” She wrote about being in the playground with her baby in Brooklyn and noticing that all the fancy strollers were now equipped with cell phone holders, or being in restaurants with dining companions whose focus is on text messages coming in from people who don’t happen to be sitting at the table. “It struck me,” she wrote,” that this new pattern of splintered concentration and constant interruption made it seem that everyone around me had an attention disorder.”

I should note here that the issue of phone addiction is not unfamiliar to me. There’s a feature on iPhones that lets you view your seven-day average screen time. Last week my daily average was 13 hours, 46 minutes. (That’s down 9 percent from the previous week, but I’m not sure if this is cause for celebration.)

It’s inevitable that we’ve lost something by multitasking and having our attention pulled in too many directions. We can’t be consistently attentive to other people. We can’t appreciate our surroundings the way we should. Our brains simply are not capable of processing the sensory overload. There’s also plenty of evidence that inattention can cause us serious harm or much worse — that’s why texting while driving is illegal in most U.S. states. (Montana is the only state without any statewide ban. Missouri bans texting while driving only for drivers under the age of 21.) We’ve all read stories about someone on a cellphone falling into a fountain or into the path of oncoming cars and even a freight train. We may think we hear what’s going on around us. But in too many cases, we’re not really listening.

The parshas we’ll be reading in the next few weeks serve as the prelude for Elul, which is the time of year when many of us prioritize reflection and introspection in preparation for the High Holy Days. Our tradition instructs us to take a deep breath, to turn our thoughts inward, and to listen — truly listen — to the accounting we take of our lives. The hope is that we try to follow the path that our hearts know is right and do a better job of meeting the expectations we set for ourselves in the year ahead.

The Israelites knew how critical it was to listen to — and not just hear — Moses’ words as he began to prepare them for the challenges awaiting them. We all face our own challenges, both those we know and those that are unexpected, and these challenges demand that we listen fully so that we’re properly equipped to handle them.

May we all make a concerted effort to listen, to be present without distraction, and to give our full attention to those who deserve it. Let us have the strength to block out the noise that doesn’t merit our attention, and to have the wisdom to appreciate the words and sounds and music and beauty that surround us. Have a safe and satisfying week, and Shabbat Shalom.