Bo 5782 – What Will Your Story Be?

By: Dr. Joel Roffman

Summer of 1940. Winston Churchill (paraphrasing):

 “What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over … (France was lost to the Germans) the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of our civilization. Upon it depends our British life, and the long continuity of our institutions . . . The whole fury and might of the enemy will very soon be turned on us.

Hitler knows that he will have to break us or risk losing the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward . . . But if we fail, then the whole world . . . will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age. . . Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and bear ourselves, so that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, (people) will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”

Churchill tried to inspire the British people by telling them to think about how their story would be remembered in future generations.

In today’s parashah, we read that just before their release to freedom, after over 200 years spent in exile, their enslavement, many of their male children killed, and after signs and wonders and plagues, the Children of Israel are about to go free. Moses is about to give them their marching orders. He addresses the people. What does he talk about? The battles that lay ahead? the hardship of a journey through the desert? The challenges of staying together as a people? Keeping their faith in Gd?

None of it! Moses talks about the distant future.  He asks them to envision themselves in their own land and of the chores of building the society they will have to build and the responsibilities of freedom. Of education and the duty of parents to their children. Tell your children, he repeats. Reenact the story of slavery and freedom, he tells hem. Make it yours.

Keep the story personal. Tell your children, “This is what happened to me.” You can almost hear him say, “My fellow Israelites, let us act in such a way that even if the story of the Jewish People lasts thousands of years, it will be said that this was their finest hour.”

Well, things got a bit messy in the desert. The Golden Calf, the Moabite women, you know the events. But 40 years is a long time to spend in a desert, so let’s cut them some slack.

I believe that Moses’s message was that freedom is the work of all of us in the Hebrew nation. We need our own specific identity; we need memory and the stories to encode it. We want our people to have a powerful link between generations, he might have said. And so it is for each of us now: stories of those who came before us, and hopefully, stories that will be told by those who will follow us.

We are truly blessed to have a story that then became ours – the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. And in the case of our enslavement and subsequent liberation, there is lots to be proud of. It is fascinating that we as a people not only tell of our enslavement as part of our people’s history, but are actually proud of it and relive it each year. Does any other people talk of their enslavement with pride? For we Jews this is who we were. And the question then becomes, what will we as a people now make of that history? What will we as individuals do as a result?

So to be specific: who, exactly, are we? And why are we here? How then shall we live? There are many possible answers. The Jewish ones? Easy. We are a member of a people who Gd rescued from slavery to freedom. We are here to help build a society that honors the freedom of others, not just our own. We must remember that freedom is a gift of Gd, and so we honor Gd by keeping Gd’s covenant of law and love.

And importantly, really importantly, this inspirational message applies to us as individuals as well as a people. Of course, we can be proud of our Jewish history, but what about us as individuals? Will we contributed to the story? How are we special? What have we done individually that we will be proud of as time goes by? What stories are we creating that we can pass on? In Today’s parashah, Moses said, “When your children ask you.” That is, when our children and grandchildren ask us! And maybe not only the Jewish history part, but our own contemporary story. What answers will we convey?

As Jews, of course, we have always put a premium on education. As a parent, education is one of the most sacred duties we have to our children. Maybe this will be our legacy. Our passion as Jews is study and academic pursuits. Egyptians built the pyramids, Romans the coliseum. Jews built schools. And won Nobel Prizes. As we all know, education transcends books. Educating our children might be our greatest legacy as parents and grandparents.

And of course, there’s a whole lot more we can do to favorably impact other people and society as a whole.

So we’re still here, alone among the other ancient civilizations. Still going strong, continuing our ancestors’ mission, heritage intact and undiminished. And in the end, we hopefully will have our own individual heritage that adds to the Jewish story we’re so proud of and that impacts the world as well as our family.

Three times in the parashah Moses instructs the children of Israel something akin to, “When your children ask you . . .” He wanted us to be able to teach our children a story.