The Last of Deuteronomy
Yet they are Your very own people, who You freed with Your great might and Your outstretched arm. Deuteronomy 9:29
Back in 1993, there was a wonderful little movie called “Indian Summer.” The plot was predictable, the cast was remarkable and one moment has stuck out for me for all these years. The camp director (Alan Arkin) was renowned for knowing the name of every camper. How did he keep all those kids straight? He would put his hand on the back of the neck of anyone he was talking to and gently peek at the name stamped inside their tee-shirt.
Who knows whether that is or was a camp director trick? But the notion that someone in charge knows your name is exceptionally affirming.
Rabbi Yaakov Rosenberg, of blessed memory, was a man larger than life – quite literally. “Yonk,” as we all knew him, was a big bear of a man. When he was driving, his car of choice was the Checker, those oversized cars with room in the back for four on the bench and two jump seats. Just as there was room in a Checker cab for six or more passengers, there seemed to be room in Yonk’s head and heart for an infinite number of acquaintances. If he met you once, he knew your name. If you ever told him your birthday, you would get a call or a card every year. If you shared the name of your beloved aunt in Poughkeepsie, Yonk would ask you about her whenever he saw you.
I once saw him stand in the middle of the ballroom of the Concord Hotel in the Catskills surrounded by 400 rabbis, ranging in age from 25 to 80. In order to raise some money for a project in Israel, he called out each rabbi’s name to find out their pledge. It was the most remarkable display of recall I had ever seen. He didn’t even have to check the inside of their shirts.
There was a time when my mind was more agile that I had a version of that superpower. I spent a year working part-time running weekend programs at a Jewish camp for families. At the first gathering, I would ask each family to introduce its members, and those names were mine all weekend. Unlike Yonk, I did (what would today be called) a data-dump every Sunday to make room for the next week’s visitors. And I knew better than to try to peek inside anybody’s tee-shirt.
Most of us are not blessed with Rabbi Rosenberg’s remarkable recall and the camp director’s trick would probably have us calling each other Nordstrom or Eileen Fisher. Yet, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of trying to remember peoples’ names. The power of naming is one of the first gifts to humanity noted in the story of creation, an acknowledgment not merely of identity, nor even of importance, but also of place in the world.
Anyone who has spent any time in the public eye knows the challenge of such recall. In my case, my years as a rabbi in a synagogue and an occasional itinerant speaker brought me into contact with tens of thousands of people, the vast majority of them guests at some life-cycle event or audience members at a lecture or panel discussion. If I had the good fortune to have said something that touched them (or the poor fortune to insult them!) they may have sought me out afterward for a conversation. That interaction was unique for them, a chance to have a singular personal encounter. For me, it might have been one of a dozen or more such interactions in less than an hour’s time.
I have been on the other side of those interactions myself. I have stood on rope lines and met public figures, or been invited to conversations with thought leaders, or taken a class with scholars of renown. The power of the handshake, the exchange or the in-class question that earned praise and response is lasting for me. There is always hope, but never expectation, that the momentary encounter will take up residence in the other person’s front-line memory.
It is painful on both sides when I have to ask someone to remind me who they are. Inevitably, they are embarrassed that they placed more importance on our previous encounter that I did. Inevitably, I make some kind of apology about my own shortcomings in not remembering. At that moment I always remember Yonk and the gift he had to affirm every acquaintance.
This little verse teaches that lesson as Moses recounts his pleading for the backsliding people to an angry God. They aren’t merely ingrates; they believe themselves important, individually and collectively, because God did for them what God does. God just needed to be reminded of who they are.