This week’s Torah portion (parshat), Devarim (The Words), is the 44th parshat of the Torah and the beginning of the last book, the fifth book of the Torah, Deuteronomy.
Eleh ha-devarim asher diber Moshe el-kol Yisrael…
These are the words, which Moses spoke to all Israel…
Moses speaks, addressing the children of Israel 40 years after the Exodus from Egypt and 37 days before his death. Devarim is a retelling, in Moses’s words, of the story of the 40 years wandering in the desert, and the lessons imparted by G-d. He reminds the children of Israel of what they have endured and what their responsibilities are to themselves and to their tribe.
Instead of an omniscient narrative, Devarim is a human account of the stories of the Torah. It is a lyrical ode to perspective, to one person’s point of view.
This week, I watched a newly released documentary on PBS’s POV (Point of View) stream called Shalom Italia. The film tells the story of three brothers who, after 70 years, travel back to Italy, to find the cave where they hid during the Holocaust.
The three brothers have different recollections of their survival.
“I don’t remember being hungry at all,” the middle brother says.
“That was because you were a kid and I was a grown up before my time,” the oldest brother retorts.
They struggle to align their memories. The eldest brother tells the middle brother that he is wrong as they volley back and forth, each defending his own account, as accurate without a doubt.
Who is right?
Well, they both are. The willingness of each of us to listen to one another’s stories with an open mind and heart, accepting our authentic views as true, is the collective journey of the soul.
The youngest brother concludes the film with this insight:
Our memory is thousands of years old; it’s inside us. The present consists of memories of thousands of years so that the last memory [of the Holocaust and World War II] is a small fragment of a much greater memory, which creates our identity. We are made of memory.
Our birthright is our memory: the memories we inherit and the memories we create. The retelling of it, through our voices, from our lips, is our way to freedom, to the promised land of our true selves.
The acceptance of the dissonance of our personal accounts brings consonance to our relationships, to the trust we have in ourselves, and to our faith in the orchestrator of it all, G-d.
How do we reach this acceptance?
In the Book of Genesis, Parshat Va-Yishlah (32.18), Jacob is directed by G-d to travel back home to Canaan. To get there, he will have to pass through the land (Edom) of his estranged, antithetical twin brother, Esau, who disregards his birthright as first-born son [to live nobly, to study, to pave a righteous path], instead choosing a life as hunter. Jacob embodied all of the characteristics that Esau denounced, so Jacob stole Esau’s birthright. In retribution, Esau threatens to kill Jacob if he saw him again.
The night before meeting with Esau, Jacob is confronted by, an angel. It is unclear who the angel is, possibly the guardian angel of Esau:
And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he could not prevail against him, he touched the socket of his hip, and the socket of Jacob’s hip became dislocated as he wrestled with him. And he (the angel) said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking,” but he (Jacob) said, “I will not let you go unless you have blessed me. (Genesis 32: 25-27)
The angel blesses him, renaming him, Israel, meaning, “he who prevails over the Divine.” Jacob names the place upon which he struggled, Peniel, which means, “I have seen a divine being face-to-face, yet my life has been preserved.”
As the sun rises, Jacob is limping. He is physically weaker, yet spiritually enlivened and reaffirmed. And when he and Esau meet, Esau kisses and embraces him.
Why did Esau change his mind? Was it something Esau saw in Jacob that caused him to reconcile with his brother instead of murdering him?
It is both, I believe. They met each other with acceptance.
My interpretation is that the angel was Jacob’s shadow self. He was alone, with himself, the barbaric, primordial human way of being that exists in each of us. The shadow that hunts us down and wrestles our omniscient love and understanding to the ground, disabling us from giving and receiving unconditional love, acceptance.
In the struggle, he realizes that he is not unlike his brother, they share similarities: humanness and godliness.
Jacob exposes his humanness, his limp, as Esau exposes his righteousness, by forgiving Jacob.
And now, we meet Moses addressing the children of Israel, the children of Jacob, after they’ve limped through the desert of uncertainty, trying to find their way back home, searching for answers, direction, meaning and connection. They are quiet and still, prepared to listen — physically weaker and spiritually renewed, ready to hear what G-d has to say, through his humanness.
We are conduits of truth, many truths, as many as there are stars in the sky. We are each wrenched at the hip of humanity in different ways, limping through this world with a unique point of view, an interpretation of life that is our right to tell.
We are made of memories, thousands upon thousands of them. May we all find the words to share them, just like Moses, and listen, just like the children of Israel.