Parashat Devarim

Two Minutes of Torah with Rabbi Abbi Sharofsky

“I also charged Joshua at that time, saying, ‘You have seen with your own eyes all that the LORD your God has done to these two kings; so shall the LORD do to all the kingdoms into which you shall cross over. Do not fear them, for it is the LORD your God who will battle for you.” 

—Deuteronomy 3:21-22

“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

—Rep. John Lewis (Twitter, 2018)

United States House of Representatives for Georgia's 5th congressional district

On Friday, July 17, 2020, Representative John Lewis died from pancreatic cancer. John Lewis was a civil rights icon, a man who stood by Martin Luther King Jr and Abraham Joshua Heschel as they marched on Washington and stood by Barak Obama as he was sworn in as President of the United States. Lewis withstood beatings from police and derision from politicians, led protests throughout the South and a sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives. He was a leader, a trailblazer, a voice of conscience in an ever-changing world.

Lewis’ death adds another layer of sadness as we enter the somber Jewish month of Av, marked by a period of mourning culminating with Tisha B’Av, the saddest day in the Jewish year. It is a time for recalling many losses and painful moments in Jewish history while acknowledging that even in the most difficult times, there is room for hope.

This Shabbat, the Jewish community begins reading the book of Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah. It is an often sad and complicated retelling of the Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom, culminating in the death of Moses, just outside the Promised Land. Moses addresses the Israelites throughout this week’s Torah portion, reminding them of God’s presence and guidance even in difficult times. Moses knows he will not cross into the Promised Land. He knows he will not see the outcome of the long journey; yet has faith in the next generation of leaders and is optimistic for the future of the fledgling nation.

John Lewis had every reason not to be optimistic. A Black man, born in rural Alabama, severely beaten and arrested numerous times while seeking basic human rights, he saw his mentor and colleague Dr. King assassinated. Even as a Congressman, before the steps of the institution where he served his community and our country, he weathered racial slurs and insults. His perennial perseverance and optimism, even while facing terminal cancer, is remarkable. Lewis’ pain and endurance made it possible for a generation of Black leaders to rise up and reach the highest levels of government. His leadership inspired people of all races and colors to peacefully protest, to stand together in the ongoing struggle to recognize the humanity in all people. He rallied us to get in “good trouble,” pushing the limits to make our country – our world – better, safer, more just not only for us, but for generations to come.

Moses did not see the Promised Land. Dr. King did not see the Promised Land. Are we there yet? One thing is certain -- John Lewis never stopped working to bring our nation closer to that holy place. May his memory forever be a blessing and may his legacy endure throughout time.