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Parashat Va-et’chanan: How We Can Help Others Journey to the Promised Land

By Sarah Koffler

This week we read Parashat Va-et’chanan (Deuteronomy 3:23–7:11), which opens with Moses offering his final words to the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land. Moses reminds the Israelites—and all of us—to heed and obey God’s laws, first reminding us of the Ten Commandments then offering the words of the Sh’ma. These texts are of utmost significance and centrality in Judaism, and Moses shares them with us to guide us into the Promised Land, to inspire us along the journey. In this same parashah, we learn that Moses himself will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. Although he will not be accompanying our people along the last leg of the journey, he stressed the importance of keeping the commandments, reminding the Israelites of their promises to God and the responsibilities they must uphold.

Reminding our people of their promises and responsibilities, Moses states, “It was not with our fathers that God made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today.” (Deuteronomy 5:3) Commentary from Rashi emphasizes that it wasn’t our fathers alone but rather, our fathers and all of us here today. Perhaps this text illustrates one of the earliest examples of l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation. This covenant, these commandments, encompass all generations that have come before us—and continue to live and breathe through us—prompting us to ask: How do we, “the living, every one of us who is here today,” interpret and pass this covenant on to our children? How do we, as we are commanded to do yet again in this parashah: “[M]ake them known to [our] children and to [our] children’s children.” (Deuteronomy 4:9)

We can further ask: In what ways does the idea of “them,” the commandments, evolve from generation to generation? The idea of b’rit, or covenant, not only refers to the words in the commandments themselves but even more so to the relationships we have with each other, the ways the covenant lives within us, and the covenantal relationships that span from generation to generation.

As both an educator and a parent, I can inspire my students; question and wonder alongside educators and school leaders; and hold hands with my own children as they travel their individual paths. But I continually seek to balance my responsibility to impart our people’s stories, traditions, and values with my responsibility to encourage and guide others to define their own path forward, their own journey into the Promised Land. It is vital to undertake these dual responsibilities with compassion, wisdom, and faith, just as Moses did. It’s important, too, to recognize that fulfilling these great responsibilities prompt an even greater question: What, precisely, do we want to impart to our children that they will carry with them through their lives?

So often, we early childhood educators hear about academic demands to be fulfilled in our classrooms, and yet, who would put mastering the “ABCs and 123s” above our efforts to make our classrooms places where children learn to become kind, just, and fair human beings? Likewise, the “3 Rs” (reading, writing, and arithmetic) cannot begin to measure up against the “4 Cs” (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity), which are essential skills for success in our 21st-century world. Our success in life is not determined by the age at which we learn the alphabet but rather by who we are at our core, what we value, and how we move and interact with others throughout this world.

These meaningful connections do not happen only in classrooms or our homes but in every moment of our lives. This parashah offers another pivotal piece of text that reminds us of this idea. Today, we know the liturgy as part of the V’ahvata, the prayer that follows the Sh’ma and instructs us to “bind them as a sign upon your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:8-9) Although this text refers to tefillin and mezuzot, traditional ways to show our commitment to Jewish values in our lives and as we move through the world, there are endless ways we share our lives symbolically upon our hands and heads and on our doorposts and gates—often subconsciously. Our words, stories, and holy texts ground us and guide us, but our actions show who we truly are and what we believe about our world and the people with whom we share it.

By living our lives with intention—visibly and clearly demonstrating what’s most important to us and supporting those we know and love as they find their path forward—we elevate our covenantal beliefs and relationships and show our children and all “the living, every one of us who is here today” how to continue their journey to the Promised Land.

Sarah Koffler is the early childhood education specialist at JCC Association of North America.

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