A sublime autobiography

A sublime autobiography

Devarim | Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22

There is biography, and then there is autobiography. A biography is the way others see us; an autobiography is the way we see ourselves.

Some biographers can be boldly objective, confronting their subjects with facts about themselves they did not see. Other biographers have their own agendas and interpret their subjects’ lives to fit their perceptions.

Similarly, autobiographies can disclose all details accurately, hiding nothing. Or they can be gross distortions of our life stories, intentionally falsified or unconsciously mistaken.

This week, we read the Torah portion Devarim, beginning the Book of Devarim, or Deuteronomy, the fifth of the humashim. This book differs fundamentally from the preceding four, so much so that the rabbis call it “Mishneh Torah,” a “Second Torah,” a review of much that came before.

Something else makes Devarim astoundingly different from every other book in the entire Bible: It is an autobiography!

The other biblical books are invariably written in the third person, but Deuteronomy is written, or, more correctly, spoken, in his own voice by Moses, in the first person.

This transition into the first person gives us the opportunity to relate to Moses directly. This week, we hear Moses complain about the pressures of leadership, as he exclaims, “How can I alone bear your bothersome, burdensome, and petty squabbles?” And we eavesdrop upon him as he transcends his resentments and profusely blesses the people.

Next week, he will tell of his enthusiasm for the Land of Israel and how desperately he petitions the Almighty to allow him entrance into the Land. And he will intimately disclose to us his disappointment when his prayers are rebuffed.

As we proceed through the self-disclosures, we learn more and more about Moses the person. Devarim is the window into the mind and heart of Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our teacher. He does not hide his faults from us, but tells us his versions of events, and selects the mitzvot he deems important to introduce or to review.

This week’s portion is the opening to what may be the world’s oldest autobiography; and, like every good autobiography, it instructs, interests, and inspires us all.

It teaches us how to be honest with ourselves. Moses is humble, but he knows who he is. His self-image does not change in response to hostility from his detractors, nor does his head swell because of the flattery he receives. He never loses sight of his mission, no matter what is going on in his psyche. 

Reading the parsha offers a rare example of a leader who shares with us his inner doubts, fears, and hopes.

Devarim challenges us with the awareness that, in many ways, we are no different from Moses. We too have our frustrations, limitations, and unanswered prayers, and we too have the ability to cope, to overcome, and to graciously accept failure and disappointment.

Finally, it is inspiring to read of a leader who candidly and openly shares his innermost thoughts and emotions for all to know, and for all time, an inspiration for all who wish to learn, to strive, to hope, and persevere.

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