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In holding ourselves, others accountable, words matter

“These are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel on the banks of the Jordan River …”

The opening of the Book of Deuteronomy is a look back into the history of the Jewish People making their way through the wilderness. In it, Moses does not simply recount their story. He  pays particular attention to their failings and missteps, the times they ignored what God and Moses had told them, often to their own peril. 

The rabbis of our tradition see this entire retelling of our story as tochecha, often translated as a “loving rebuke,” but we might better translate here as a reckoning.

Let’s set the scene. The Jewish people are assembled on the banks of the Jordan River, just beyond the bounds of the land that was promised to their ancestors, a land flowing with milk and honey for which they have dreamed, longed and journeyed over the past 40 years. And now, on the cusp of realizing that long-held aspiration, Moshe Rabbeinu, their leader and teacher, has stopped them all to give them one final lesson.

You see, Moses is not journeying into the land with them. He knows this; God has shared it with him more than once and in no uncertain terms. Here is his last great lesson to the people he has spent four decades shepherding, instructing, helping and guiding toward this very moment. When we put it in that light, it seems as though this might be Moses’ most important teaching yet. So what does he have to teach them?

Simply this: Words matter. Moses here is not only reminding the Jewish people of their history. He is reminding them of the worst, most painful, most embarrassing ways they have failed. These are the episodes that we, as human beings and as a society, are least likely to talk about and most likely to erase from our minds. It hurts to think of ourselves as party to awful transgressions or the miscarriage of justice. It is shameful to admit that we have not lived up to doing what is right.

And yet, there is still hope. Moses sets that example here by not only replaying our past, but by demanding, with all the force of his wisdom and authority, that we own up to these failing and learn from them. Learn to do better, learn to be better.

In our own time, in our own nation, we, too, have moral failings. We have failed our brothers and sisters of color who have faced overpolicing, a school to prison pipeline and hate at every turn. 

We have failed our immigrant and refugee brothers and sisters who have been detained and dehumanized, who have even died while being separated from their families for the sin of seeking a better life for themselves here. 

We have failed our LGBTQ+ neighbors who are willfully excluded from the basic protections of society, from gainful employment, from celebrating their love as we each have a right to do. 

We have failed the women among us who, even in this #MeToo movement era, are still harassed, belittled and too often disbelieved, whose bodies and rights are so easily abused when it is not convenient for our leaders to show them respect. 

We have failed too many. But by his example, Moses shows us how we deal with these failings: We own up to them and pledge to do better. We don’t cover up our misdeeds or hide them away, thinking no one will know or remember. Instead, we’re called to loudly declare Al chet shechatanu, “THESE are the sins that WE have committed,” as we innumerate each one over the course of our most sacred holidays.

We must never shy away from using our words to both admit our own failings and to call to task those who wish to lead when their words and deeds endanger our lives, our liberties and our collective pursuit of happiness. 

These are the words that we each must speak in order to guide one another to the Promised Land, a place where all are cared for, all are respected, all are honored; a world in which we are all not only created equal, but where we are respected equally.

Rabbi Scott Shafrin is associate rabbi at Kol Rinah and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.