Parashat Devarim – Devarim and Tisha B’Av

By: Alan Bach

Parashat Devarim is read the Shabbat before Tisha B’av, which begins Wednesday night of this upcoming week. Tisha B’av is a day of mourning including a full day fast with the same restrictions as Yom Kippur. We sit on the floor as if we are in the shiva period of mourning. We mourn the destruction of both Temples as well as Jews murdered during other periods of destruction including, the Spanish Inquisition, the pogroms, the Holocaust, and others. Rabbi Fried writes in his TJP column this week, we also “…mourn the lack of connection to our spiritual Source, our lack of clarity.”

Devarim begins with Moses giving a speech to the Israelites in which he recounts their journey through the wilderness, reminding them of past mistakes while describing the challenges that still lie ahead. We should remember, at this point, that Moses is not speaking to the adult Israelites who originally left Egypt, but to their children. The original adults of the Exodus had been sentenced to wander for 40 years and die in the desert because they had lost faith in G-d very early on, when 10 of the 12 spies returned from their reconnaissance of the land and declared the land and its inhabitants too frightening and dangerous to conquer.

Despite that fact, and despite the fact that G-d had decreed that the Israelites now poised to enter the land would inherit in their parents’ places, Moses speaks to the current generation as though they are old enough to remember the events he is recounting (although many of them are not) and as though they, too, bear the responsibility for the sins committed by their parents. Perhaps he does this so that this generation will understand the burden they carry to behave differently, to be more faithful to G-D than the generation before them had been.

Perhaps it is simply because Moses is exhausted from the burden of leading two million or more people out of slavery in Egypt and then journeying with them through the desert for 40 years instead of the much shorter journey he originally expected to take with them. Throughout those 40 years, Moses was responsible for inspiring that 1st generation of Israelites, who repeatedly lost faith in G-d, to fulfill their commitment, nonetheless, to their covenant with G-d.

It is not an easy job to lead and motivate a large group of people. After all, there was no Twitter or cable news for mass communications. Imagine how long it took each week to chisel the weekly newsletter into tablets of stone.

Moses was not unaware of the challenge posed by leading Israelites out of Egypt to the land of Canaan, even at the outset. In recounting the journey to the generation now ready to enter the land, he says, “Thereupon I said to you, ‘I cannot bear the burden of you by myself. The Lord your G-d has multiplied you until you are today as numerous as the stars in the sky . . . ‘ ” (Devarim 1:9-10) Whereupon G-d commands him to appoint judges over tens, and hundreds, and thousands, to help him in his task. Moses’ delegation of his responsibility to these judges helped both Moses and the Israelites to endure.

Somehow, through all the adversities we have faced as a people over the past thousands of years, we, too, have managed to endure. Rashi’s interpretation of these verses focuses on the image Moses invokes of “stars of the sky”. When Moses refers to the stars, he is talking about the Israelites growing in numbers, but Rashi focused on the stars in the heavens, sometimes burning brightly and sometimes faintly, but never disappearing, just as the Jewish people have continued to exist as a nation throughout thousands of years. While we have always been a minority compared to the far greater world population, we as a people have existed – and continue to exist – in order to bring light to the world.

We live in a time of division in our country and growing division in Israel. As we prepare for Tisha B’av we should reflect on improving our spiritual selves and how we can continue to spread our light both within our own people and in the rest of the world. In the coming days, a few thoughts to think about.

  1. Take time to examine your own life. Are you treating others with kindness and empathy? Do our words and actions uplift and support those around us? Each of us can make a difference.
  2. Today, we witness various forms of injustice, such as discrimination, poverty, and oppression. Make a commitment to work towards rectifying these inequalities against Jews and against others. Become an advocate for change and actively help those in need. Just as the Israelites were instructed in chapter 1:16-17, “Hear disputes between your brethren and judge righteously between every man and his brother and the one who has come from abroad. You shall not show favoritism in judgment. You must hear the small and the great alike.”
  3. There is no better time than this week to think of our environment and how our actions of the past and, more importantly, our actions going forward impact our environment – particularly with regard to climate change. Devarim teaches us to cherish and protect the land that sustains us. It is our responsibility to save our planet for future generations by advocating and participating in practices that will safeguard our planet.
  4. We must all strive to build bridges with those we may not politically or ethically agree with. Just as Moses stressed the importance of unity and solidarity among the Israelites, the biggest threat today facing the Jewish people is ourselves. We, in America, cannot afford to further divide ourselves either religiously, ethically, or politically. We must begin to build bridges instead of reinforcing our walls. It pains me to witness the increasing strife in the streets of Israel between Jews on the left and those on the right. Military reservists are protesting the recent vote removing Supreme Court Oversight of the Knesset by refusing to serve, putting the security of Israel at risk. CEOs of startups and managing directors of venture capital firms are taking steps to move their assets elsewhere, which could precipitate a financial crisis on top of the political. We Jews have enough enemies without spurring infighting amongst ourselves.

Whether or not you go to shul Wednesday night and/or Thursday spend the next few days reflecting on how we can continue to keep our star shining bright. Devarim marks the beginning of the last book of the Torah. We end our reading and then start over again. We continue to exist as a people because each apparent “ending” our people have faced has ended, almost miraculously, in a new beginning. The strife of our current time can end in a new beginning as well if we do the work to make it so. So, let’s use this time as we approach the High Holidays to reflect on how we can better ourselves, how we can better our community, how we can better the Jewish people, how we can better the world around us and how we can improve our spiritual relationship with G-d.

Shabbat Shalom.

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