Truths of Our Sefer Torah and Our Personal Torah

Parashat Ha’Azinu

As Delivered at Temple Emanu-El on September 21, 2018

A few years back, when Rabbi Max and I married, his dad, Marc, came forward to give a short speech at our reception. He concluded his thoughts by saying, now everyone, please remember, “brown belt, brown shoes, black belt, black shoes.” For life eternal, I know that the rhythm of those words ring in my head each time I get ready: “brown belt, brown shoes, black belt, black shoes.”

Part of why this phrase stuck so well in my head — and by the way in the heads of our guests who still speak about that darn line — was due to the passion with which Marc faithfully declared his words, never to be forgotten again. Marc isn’t the only Jewish patriarch to be concerned about fashion and how his people should dress. Moses, our beloved biblical leader, also had his moments for particularism regarding wardrobe — consider the priestly class and the outfits they wore. 

They had specifics for their undergarments, tunics, sashes, turbans, robes, and even gemstone laden breastplates. Further, his declarations, of all kinds, were grounded in the faithfulness with which he shared them. In this week’s Parashah, HaAzinu, Moses begins his last few moments with the Israelites, faithfully singing a song to them. Moses sings of his love for God, he ridicules the Israelites a bit for their missteps, he recounts the blessings that God has given to the people, and he reminds the people of the tasks ahead. 

In the conclusion of his song, Moses sings out: 

“Take to heart all the words with which I have warned you this day. Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching” (Deut. 32:46). Moses asks the people, he implores, he begs, that they raise their children through the values, morals, and teachings that God brought to them during their journey through the wilderness.

Let us not forget the context of these particular words: This speech is the final message from Moses. Our portion concludes with his ascension to the top of Mount Nebo, where he will die. There he will have a view of the land of Canaan, he will gaze out as his people enter that land, a land he has so looked forward to, but one that he will never walk. 

Moses uses some of his final words to remind the Israelites to take all of these words from Torah, the values and the teachings, and to teach them to the next generation. That is the eternal nature of human life, to pass down teachings from one generation to the next. Looking at us today, the spirit of our people has continued to live through the annual teaching cycle of our Torah. What we do in this world only lasts for a moment, but we too join in the ranks of eternity when we pass our Sefer Torah and our Personal Torah on to the next generation.

Our Sefer Torah is full of eternal truths, truths that have survived into modernity because they are still relevant to our daily lives. Truths like:

פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ (p’ru u’r’vu): Be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:28) — the value of continuing our people;

כַּבֵּד אֶת־אָבִיךָ וְאֶת־אִמֶּךָ (Kabed et a’vicha v’et i’mecha): honoring our parents (Ex. 20:12) — and making sure we respect them even when we disagree;

וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ (v’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha): Remembering to love our neighbor as ourselves (Lev. 19:18) — because everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt;

וְהִתְוַדּוּ אֶת־חַטָּאתָם אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ וְהֵשִׁיב אֶת־אֲשָׁמוֹ (v’hit’vadu et chatatam asher asu v’heishiv et ashamo): repenting and confessing to our wrongdoings (Num. 5:7) — a practice we just deeply engaged in this Yom Kippur, but one that we continue throughout the year;

and perhaps one of the most prominent truths —

וְזָכַרְתָּ כִּי עֶבֶד הָיִיתָ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם (v’zacharta ki eh’ver ha’yitah b’eretz mitzrayim): Remembering and seeing ourselves as though we were the generation who had to leave the slavery of Egypt (Deut. 15:15) — so that when we see others who are fleeing, we reach out to them with compassion and understanding. 

Year after year we read the daily liturgy of our siddurim, our machzors for the High Holy Days, or our Haggadot for Pesach. In these texts are truths from Torah, quotes from Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy that have been passed down from generation to generation so that we could fulfill Moses’ command, to faithfully observe these Teachings.

In addition to the teachings of our historic Sefer Torah, as Moses begins his walk up to Mount Nebo, in the reflection of his tear-filled eyes, I think he also prays that the next generation will share their Personal Torah so that the generation after them may know their personal stories and the ways they have grown. In turn the next generation will share their truths to the next, and then the next, and then the next.

Our Personal Torah is composed of the sayings we grew up on from our parents. For example, my mom constantly preached: “What is right isn’t always popular, and what is popular isn’t always right. When you’re not sure what to do, remember to act with the best of your character.” We each have powerful lines from our Personal Torah to share with the world, ones that we hope the next generation will hear so that they can be better than we were in our own time. The legacy we leave is our eternal life.

Through the powerful teachings of our Sefer Torah and Personal Torah, may each of us find ways to improve our life in meaningful ways so that we may live the most beautiful, deepest, and impactful life in the time that we have.

“Take to heart all the words with which I have warned you this day. Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching.”

And remember, “Brown belt, brown shoes, black belt, black shoes.”