Devarim: The Last Letter

What’s the last letter you’ve written?  I don’t mean the last email, post or tweet. I mean the last time you picked up a pen and sat down and composed a letter to someone?  In our day and age letters are rare. It used to be that getting an email was an exciting thing. Back then the idea of logging in and hearing that silk-smooth voice saying, “You’ve got mail” felt special. 

Today? Not so much. 

This morning alone, I woke to about two hundred emails all of which need a very prompt response. In the information age, communication is cheap and easy.  Now, instead of being excited over an email, I get excited over a hand-written letter. That’s because I know the time someone took to think of what to say and to write it down, address it and send it to me in the mail. Letters are now more important than ever.  When was the last time you slowed down enough to write one?

I ask every wedding couple I meet with to write a love letter to each other.  I tell them not to type it unless they have to. I tell them to date it. Most importantly, I tell them to write the kind of letter that their grandchildren will find in a shoe box in their closet.  Then I say to them that after the ceremony and before the big party to take a minute alone (In Hebrew we call this Yichud) and read their words out loud to each other. You have a whole lifetime to say I love you.  You have a whole evening to dance and sing and giggle. You only have one more moment alone as a bonded couple before that explosive energy comes pouring in.  Read your words. Speak from the heart. Say what really matters. Then we can all dance together. 

Emails are for communication.  Letters are for posterity.

There is something sacred about life that draws us closer to transcendence when we reach these sacred moments.  Whether it’s a wedding or a birth, or even when we we approach our own deaths, it’s in these moments when we winnow away the day-to-day struggles and think about what’s really important. As I’ve written before, the moment is the most basic unit of life.  In these special, sacred moments, a door opens for us into eternity when we can look into our souls and cast our lives upward to see what catches flight into the wind, and what remains for the next generation.

On Tuesday March 9, 1790, fourteen years after the Declaration of Independence, a dying Benjamin Franklin responded to a letter from Yale President Ezra Stiles.  Stiles, knowing that one of the last great founders was fast approaching his mortal turn, wanted to hear one last piece of wisdom. In one of his last letters, Franklin faithfully wrote,“Here is my Creed: I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his providence…. That the most acceptable service we can render to him is doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental principles of all sound religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever sect I meet with them.”

Knowing that his life was coming to an end, Franklin wrote a letter not just to President Stiles, but to everyone.  

These same questions permeate the final book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, or Devarim, which begins this week. This sacred writing is unique in the Torah for its style and composition.  There are no new stories to tell. There are no new adventures to be had. At most, there are memories and retellings of history when the previous generation, now gone, wandered the desert, testing each other and testing God. 

The only true narrative in Devarim is the final chapter. Moses reaches the end of his life, climbs the mountain overlooking the Promised Land and passes away. Moses’ death is the only new story and it therefore wraps the entire book in a single, holy moment. All the words he speaks and writes in Deuteronomy takes place on a single day – “On the first day of the eleventh month in the fortieth year” (Deut. 1:3) the day of Moses’s death.  

Deuteronomy is Moses’s last letter. 

This mighty prophet lifts his weary bones one last time to address the very people he liberated and bore across the desert in partnership with God. It is here in Devarim that Moses spends his last breaths begging this new generation to remember who they are and where they come from.  He was not only speaking to them, but to all of us. This book is his last letter, to me. His last letter to you. 

It is in Devarim, where Moses writes “Listen, O’Israel, The LORD is our God, the LORD is One.” (Deut 6:4)   It is in Devarim where Moses commands you to pursue justice at every moment. (Deut. 16:20) It is in Devarim where Moses dreams for you of a nation settled in the land. (Deut. 21:10ff).  It is in Devarim where Moses shows you that life is full of choices, and the most important thing is to choose life itself. (Deut. 30:19)

These are Moses’s last words, his last letter to me and you. According to legend, the Book of Deuteronomy was found tucked away in the Temple. Like a love letter in your grandparent’s closet, this sacred book shares the most intimate and important thoughts of our greatest teacher. This is a letter that was waiting to be found  and waiting to be read.

What will be your last letter?  What if you wrote that letter, the one you want found, to your loved ones now? What would it say?  What words would you use? 

The very last commandment, 613th mitzvah out of the 613 mitzvot, is to write your own Sefer Torah, a sacred scroll. Your own blueprint for life. Like the Torah itself your life has both aggadah and halacha – the story of what you’ve done and where you been and the values you hold dear. Every life is a Torah being written in real time, but it will blow away in the wind unless it is scribed and shared with the next generation.  We only have a few wonderfully short days together on this jewel of a planet. Write your Devarim, down. Share your love, purpose, and devotion with those for whom you care, you’ll be glad you did.

Shabbat Shalom

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