Tonight begins the first Shabbat after the ninth on Av. It is called Shabbat Nakhamu -- the Shabbat of consolation. The reason for this name is that on this Shabbat we shall read the words of the prophet Isaiah, "Nakhamu nakhamu ami yomar eloheykhem; dabru al lev yerushala'yim vekir'u eleha ki mal'a tzeva'a ki nirtza avona ki lak'kha miyad adona'y kiflayim bekol khatoteha -- Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is ccomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord's hand double for all her sins." These are beautiful words, and we admire the lyrical quality of the text, and the sentiment of the prophet who spoke these words. But the words of the prophet are alway an addendum to the important reading from the scroll of the Torah.
This week we read the second portion in the Book of Devarim, Deuteronomy, from 3:23 to 7:11. The text continues the 'retelling' of the great events over which our liberator and Torah giver, Moshe Rabenu presided. He reminds the people that they must hold steadfastly to the Covenant of God. That covenant was not given to another generation in other circumstances. Though that generation is gone, the covenant is still in force, as we read, "The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horev. The Lord made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us, who are all of us here alive this day." [Deu. 5:2,3] This exhortation is followed by the actual words of the "statements of Sinai" -- Aseret hadibrot. These Aseret hadibrot, of course, are known by one and all, non-Jews and Jews alike, as the "Decalogue" or the Ten Commandments. The great commentators and Rabbis across the ages have insisted that we must not put too great an emphasis on the ten 'words' -- for we have six hundred and thirteen mitzvot! Also, while the sages insist that the "concept" of the ten statements is the same in Exodus and in Deuteronomy -- the actual word by word Hebrew text is most certainly not the same. This deviation of text is most evident in the fourth statement. In Sefer Shmot, Exodus, we read, "Zakhor et yom hashabat lkadsho." In Devarim, Deuteronomy, we read, "Shamor et yom hashabat lekadsho ka'asher tzivkha adona'y elohekha." Surely, even a person who has no knowledge of Hebrew can tell that there are differences: the first word is not the same, and the length of the two quotes is different, too.
Let me give you an actual translation of the text, direct from the Hebrew, in my own words, rather than a 'masoratic' translation. Ex 20:8 and Deu 5:12
Ex - Remember the Sabbath day to hallow it Deu - Guard the Sabbath day to hallow it
Ex - Six days shall you work and do all your Deu - Six days shall you work and do all your
Ex - labor. And the seventh day is a Sabbath Deu - labor. And the seventh day is a Sabbath
Ex - to the Lord your God, you shall not do Deu - to the Lord your God, you shall not do
Ex - any labor, you and your son and daughter Deu - any labor, you and your son and daughter
Ex - and your manservant and your maid- Deu - and your manservant and your maid-
Exo - servant and Deu - servant and your ox and your donkey
Ex - and the stranger that is in your midst. Deu - and the stranger that is in your midst
Ex - For the Lord your God made heaven Deu - So that your-man servant and maidservant
Ex - and earth, the sea and all that is in it Deu - shall rest like you. And you shall recall that
Ex - in six days, and He rested on the Deu - you were a slave in the land of Egypt and
Ex - seventh day -- therefore did God Deu - the Lord your God took you out from there
Ex - bless the seventh day and hallowed it. Deu - with a strong hand and an outstretched arm therefore did the Lord God command you to perform...
The differences in the text raise a question that has been asked by the sages of Judaism since the beginning of Torah interpretation: Who wrote the Torah, and are all its components written by the same hand. The Mishnah, which is also called the Oral Torah, in Avot, says: "Moshe received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the men of the great assembly." This passage expresses the basic Judaic belief that God spoke to Moshe, and Moshe wrote down the text in the Torah. The question the sages ask is, how much of what we read is God's word, and how much is Moshe's interpretation. The reason for asking this kind of a question is clear. You can argue with Moshe -- but you must carry out faithfully the words of God. There is no argument among the sages about the first four book of the Torah. They point out that the second, third and fourth books are connected with the preposition "and" in the Hebrew, "ve:" Exodus -- "Ve'ele shemot;" Leviticus -- "Va'yikrah;" Numbers -- "Vaydaber adona'y el Moshe bmidbar Sinai." The last book does not begin with the connective 'vav:' Ele hadevarim asher diber Moshe el bnai Yisrael..." Hence, the first four books are one unit, the last book is a different unit. The first four books were written at the expressed command of God -- the fifth is in dispute.
The great Sephardic Rabbi, Yitzkhak Abravanel, in his preface to the interpretation of the book of Devarim, states as follows: "I have asked and researched if the 'mishneh Torah, which Moshe place before the Children of Israel, which is to say the book "ele hadevarim," was from God in His heavens, and the words found therein were said by Moshe from the utterance of God Almighty like the rest of the words of Torah from "Beresheet" to "Le'eyney kol Yisrael," the one like the other the words of the Living God without there being any change or replacement. Or is this Mishne Torah the speech of Moshe, composed by himself, and spoken as an interpretation of what he understood to be the divine purpose as he interpreted the mitzvot.
Abravanel makes reference to another Sephardic sage, R' Moshe ben Nakhman, who divides the book in two: one part is the mitzvot that had not been mentioned before, and these Moshe was commanded, from the "mouth of God," to teach now, and their authorship is divine. The part of the book that contains the warnings against straying, and the curses upon those who stray, as well as interpretation of mitzvot given in earlier time, R' Moshe Ben Nakhman ascribes to Moshe himself, who wanted to repeat and state "of himself, without a command from God to do so."
Abravanel argues with his ancient teacher and states categorically that there is a difference between the source of the words and the manner in which they are presented. Moshe received the entire Torah, and he had to put it into words. The part, in Devarim, that seems personal is merely the way Moshe saw fit to explain it to Israel at this time. Thus Abravanel sums up, "this sacred book, in its entirety and in all its parts is the words of the Holy One Blessed be He, as commanded by the Blessed Lord in its entirety like all the other parts of the Torah." However, in must be noted that our sage says 'commanded' and not 'dictated,' so that Moshe has the flexibility and freedom to style the words in his own manner and based upon his understanding. All in all, the guiding proposition on authorship is, "Dibra Torah bilshon b'nai adam -- the Torah speaks in the tongue of humanity." What is the speech of the Living God, and what human ear can comprehend it? This capacity was given to humanity each in his or her vehicle of communication. As we communicate with others, so do we commune with God. That is why we were told about the teaching of God, "Torat Elohim" -- "Torah tzivah lanu moshe, morasha kehilat ya'akov -- the Torah commanded to us by Moshe is the heritage of the congregation of Israel." [Deu. 33:4] May we always be sensitive enough to study the words of our great teacher, Moshe, and may we be wise enough to hear within them the echo of the voice of God.
This week we begin reading the last of the Five Books of the Torah, Deuteronomy (which is Greek for 'The Second Law' -- which it is not!). The Hebrew name, 'dvarim,' means words' or things.' This book is the last words of Moshe Rabeinu, our great Rabbi and teacher, Moses, summarizing his years of leadership of Israel. These words were delivered to the people as a "last will and testament" before he would retire from the camp, to go into the hills where God would take his soul and he would die. Moshe reviews the history of the 40 years of wandering in the desert, and he admonishes the Israelites people, so that they will learn the lesson of their past mistakes.
The text sets up the circumstances, and says, "These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on this side of the Jordan in the wilderness, in the Aravah opposite the Red Sea, between Paran, and Tophel, and Lavan, and Khazerot, and Dizahav. . . Beyond the Jordan in the land of Moav, Moses undertook to expound this Torah as follows: The Lord spoke to us in Khorev..." [Deu. 1:1, 5, 6] Moshe recalls what happened at Mt. Sinai, the appointment of judges and administrators, the story of the spies, the prohibition to attack Edom and Moav, the defeat of the Kings Sikhon and Og, and how the land of Gilad was given to the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of the tribe of Menashe. It is interesting that two events get special attention in the account, one being the appointment of judges, the other being the spies incident. Concerning the judges Moshe expounds and explains, "I charged your judges at that time: "Give the members of your community a fair hearing, and judge rightly between one person and another, whether citizen or resident alien. You must not be partial in judging: hear out the small and the great alike; you shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God's." [Deu. 1:16,17] This matter of "giving a fair hearing" is a most important element of the ways of Torah -- and of justice. In the matter of the spies, Moshe suggests to the Israelites that they went wrong by not giving a "fair hearing" to the Land of the Promise, either in the report of the spies or in the reaction of the people who heard the report. Because of this transgression, God determined to give them a time-out for meditation and contemplative "listening" the forty years of wandering in the desert. The sages also teach that the date of this great sin of the people against God's Land of Promise was the ninth day of the Eleventh month of our calendar.
Wednesday evening, July 21st, at sunset, begins Tisha B'Av, the 9th day of the Jewish month of Av. It is, without a doubt, the saddest day in the Jewish year. On this same date, throughout our long history, many tragedies befell the Jewish people, including:
1) The incident of the spies (which is mentioned in this week's parsha) slandering the land of Israel with the subsequent decree to wander the desert for 40 years
2) The destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem by Nevuchadnetzar, King of Babylon
3) The destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E.
4) The fall of Betar and the end of the Bar Kokhva revolt against the Romans 52 years later
5) The Jews of England expelled in 1290
6) The Jews of Spain were expelled in 1492.
7) The "guns of August" begin WWI -- which in turn continues with WWII and the Holocaust.
Tisha B'av is a fast day (like Yom Kippur from one evening until the next evening) which culminates a three week mourning period by the Jewish people. One is forbidden to eat or drink, bathe, use moisturizing creams or oils, wear leather shoes or have marital relations. The idea is to minimize pleasure and to let the body feel the distress our soul should feel over these tragedies. Like all fast days, the object is introspection, making a spiritual accounting and correcting our ways what in Hebrew is called Teshuva, returning, to the path of good and righteousness.
This Shabbat, as every Shabbat, beside the Torah reading, we also read from the prophets, the "haftarah." This week we read from Isaiah, the first chapter. "Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for the Lord has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master's crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand. Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord, who have despised the Holy One of Israel, who are utterly estranged! Why do you seek further beatings? Why do you continue to rebel? The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint." The prophet Isaiah goes on for twenty more verses to chastise the Jews concerning their evil ways.' His words conclude with a moral promise: "Therefore says the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies, and avenge myself on my foes! I will turn my hand against you; I will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy. And I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning. Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city. Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness."
While Isaiah's message was given in his own days and was meant to be for his own times and for his people -- its ultimate truth and its essence transcend time and place and is a message for all times and for all people. The troubles we are experiencing at home and abroad, street crimes and violence, school shootings and road rage, wars and unrest in the former Soviet Union, brutal massacres of men, women and children in Africa, ethnic cleansing, rape, pillage, the destruction of homes and expulsion of people from their villages -- and other crimes against humanity committed in the former Yugoslavia, and particularly the vicious attacks on Albanians in Kosovo, the lack of consideration for the most basic of human rights in Moslem lands -- the only place on earth where slave markets still exist, all can be traced to the "people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord, who have despised the Holy One of Israel."
To be sure, there is in our age a facade, a pretense of "culture," of "religion" -- but it is quite obvious that this layer of civilized performance, this mask of good will towards man is skin-thin! Beneath this epidermal layer of enlightened, gentle, civilized behavior the law of the jungle -- eat or be eaten -- still functions as the "prime directive!" The only hope of humanity, the only possible solution to our world's problems is always to "be redeemed by justice, repentance, and righteousness." May the day when all God's children learn this lesson and follow it come soon in our days.
This Shabbat is a time of beginning: the first Shabbat in August, the first Shabbat in the month of Av, the eleventh month of the Jewish calendar, except in a leap year, which this is, when it is the twelfth of thirteen and we read the first portion in the last book of the Torah. We call this book Dvarim' - Words, from "Eleh Hadevarim asher diber Moshe" which are the first words of the book in the original tongue. It is interesting to note that the oldest known name of the book is "Mishne Torah," meaning the repetition of the teaching.' It is this name that was translated to the Greek "Deuteronomion" before the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70, and from the Greek we get the English Deuteronomy. This Shabbat is also a time of ending, as we come to the end of the three weeks' that began on the seventeenth of Tammuz, the time of the breech of the wall of Jerusalem that led to the fall of the city and the destruction of the Temple of God's Glory on the ninth of Av. It is the end of a tragedy that began in the wilderness of Sinai and that includes many a calamity, calumny, cataclysm and catastrophe, adversity and affliction for the Jewish people:
1) The first Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by Nevuchadnetzar, King of Babylon, more than 2,500 years ago, ending the reign of the House of David.
2) The Second Temple was destroyed by the Roman general Titus in the year 70, bringing to an end to Jewish sovereignty for the next two thousand years!
3) The last attempt at a revolt against the Romans, led by Bar Kokhva, 52 years after the fall of Jerusalem failed as the town of Beitar fell.
4) The Jews of England expelled in 1290.
5) The Jews of Spain were expelled in 1492.
6) The assassination of an Austrian archduke provoked the beginning of the First World War, which ended inconclusively, which, in turn, brought about World War II and the Holocaust.
It is interesting to note that Moshe, our great liberator and teacher of Torah, begins his retelling of his years at the helm of the ship of state by briefly reviewing events after the revelation at Sinai: "The Lord our God spoke to us in Horeb, saying, You have lived long enough in this mount; Turn, and take your journey, and go to the mount of the Amorites, and to all the places near there, to the Arabah, to the hills, and to the lowlands, and to the Negev, and by the sea side, to the land of the Canaanites, and to Lebanon, to the great river, the river Euphrates. Behold, I have set the land before you; go in and possess the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give to them and to their seed after them." [Deu. 1:6-9] We have here a "mission statement," as we would call it in our age. Next we are told of the establishing of the court system in Israel, to handle some of the work load that Moshe had to bear alone since the Israelites left Egypt, a task that Moshe admits was too great for him to bear alone. "Eikha esa levadi torkhakhem umasa'akhem verivkhem How can I myself alone bear your weight, and your burden, and your strife?" [Deu 1:12]
You will note that Moshe puts a slightly different spin on the story we have read before, where it was Yitro who proposed the judicial system to Moshe to prevent him from what we would call "meltdown." This slight difference is nothing compared to what comes next. Moshe claims that when they arrived at Kadesh Barne'a, on the edge of the promised Land, he proclaimed, "You have come to the mountain of the Amorites, which the Lord our God gives to us. Behold, the Lord your God has set the land before you; go up and possess it, as the Lord God of your fathers has said to you; fear not, nor be discouraged." [Deu 1:20,21] The great Moshe says that he exhorted the people to mount an attack upon the land right there and then, two years out of Egypt. They should do this without fear or discouragement, because the Lord said so. The people showed concern: "And you came near me every one of you, and said, We will send men before us, and they shall search us out the land, and bring us word again by which way we must go up, and to what cities we shall come." [Deu. 1:22] Moshe approved. "And the saying pleased me well; and I took twelve men of you, one from each tribe;" [Deu 1:23]
This account throws a whole new light on the story of the spies. Originally we read, "And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Send men, that they may spy the land of Canaan...'" [Num. 13:1,2] The Hebrew text read "Shlakh Lekha," which literally translates "send for yourself." This is taken to mean a more positive statement, like be sure and send' or you will be wise to send.' However, with the hindsight of this weeks text we may see an entirely different situation: the people, unsure of what lies ahead, want to send spies. Moshe goes along with their idea. God, on the other hand, does not think well of the plan, and when He hears of it he objects. "Shlakh If you send," he seems to say, "lekha you will do it for yourself, not for me. I already know what is there." Indeed, in this week's text we read that the spies came back, "And they took of the fruit of the land in their hands, and brought it down to us, and brought us word again, and said, It is a good land which the Lord our God does give us." [Deu 1:25] In this scenario it is the people who revolted against God's command to proceed up to Canaan out of fear. Moshe claims that he exhorted the people, "Dread not, nor be afraid of them. The Lord your God who goes before you, he shall fight for you, according to all what he did for you in Egypt before your eyes; And in the wilderness, where you have seen how the Lord your God carried you, like a man carries his son, in all the way that you went, until you came to this place." [Deu 1:29-31]
It was too late, though, for God's anger had been kindled, and he condemned that whole generation to die in the desert. Furthermore, the day of the spies return became the "bad news day" of the Jewish calendar. It is interesting to note the conclusion of Moshe's retelling of this incident: "Also the Lord was angry with me for your sakes, saying, You also shall not go in there. But Joshua the son of Nun, who stands before you, he shall go in there; encourage him; for he shall cause Israel to inherit it." [Deu. 1:37,38] Our great leader admits his culpability in the great transgression of this incident. The Israelites and their leadership missed a great chance to inherit the Land of the Promise in accord with God's plan - and avert future grief - as there would have been to tish'a b'Av.'
God, the Holy One, master of heaven and earth, the One that created all, that took Israel out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm He was going to defeat the enemy. He knew that the land was Israel's for the taking. Strike while the iron is hot, He said to the people, and they refused. They failed, and their leaders failed. "Shlakh lekha," send for yourself," God said to Moshe for He knew what to expect, and how the expectation will be fulfilled.
Nor is it the only time we have failed to follow Gods call to action. It was God inspired the early dreamers of Israel reborn at the turn of the twentieth century. These men were God driven, even as our forefathers who left Egypt. They came to a wilderness, called by no one but the Guardian of Israel. They rehabilitated the bare mountains and drained the disease-infested swamps. They built homes, villages and cities. The brought enlightenment and health to a land and a people that dwelled in ignorance and poverty. They reclaimed their ancient language and their nation's pride and honor. The carried the message of peace and good will. The met and overcame resistence and hatred, they learned to carry the plow and the sword to build and to defend. With God's help and blessing they performed miracles.
These days the spirit of the dedicated dreamers has given way to doubters and scoffers. They rewrite history, calling pioneers colonialists' in the worst possible connotation of that word. They claim the rights of all people to the detriment of the right of the Jews. They wish to shed their identity and become the people of the land' together with their mortal enemies. And their leaders are following them. Moshe knew, as he states in the beginning of his "confession and last will," the book of Dvarim, that he is about to die, before entering the land, because he failed to lead the people into the land at God's scheduled time! There is a message there for this year's leadership will they heed it?
This week we read in the Torah the first portion in the last of the Five Books of Moses, Deuteronomy (which means 'the second law'). The Hebrew name -- Devarim (which means 'words' or 'things') -- shares a first initial with the English, but, obviously, not much more - certainly not the meaning. The reason for the Hebrew name is that the word "dvarim" is the first noun in the book, which begins with "Ele hadevarim asher diber moshe el kol yisrael these are the words which Moshe spoke to all Israel..." The entire book is the last testament of Moshe Rabenu, a "review" of his years at the helm of the Jewish ship of state. We read from the first verse of the first chapter to the twenty third verse of the third chapter and in this opening segment of his "swan song," Moshe begins retelling the experience of Israel from Sinai to the succession of Joshua. The words fall fast and hard, as Moshe reminds the Israelites of the sin of the spies and the evil report they "sold" to the people. The words sear our conscience and bring us to the sadness of the experience and the time that has become our downfall and undoing, a nadir in our history. I am speaking of the ninth of Av, the time of destruction, devastation, defeat and desolation.
The Hebrew pioneer and Poet, Rakhel, wrote a lover's complaint, bemoaning the fact that the one she loved was not near her, nor was he communicating with her to comfort her:
Ze netel hashtika la'aretz medak'eni...
This burden of silence brings me down to the dust,
Zo kherev hashtika gozra et levavi...
This sword of silence tears my heart apart.
Ani odeni kan, umamtina odeni...
I am still here, and I am still waiting -
Vedam shiray paloot...
And the splattered blood of my songs
Od maadim svivi...
Still blushes red around me.
Death, indeed is speechless,
As we shall all be Silent -
When the end comes, in its time,
To our short and woeful journey.
However, life has a voice, a language,
And we have yearning for this voice -
A clear and wakeful resonance.
It [death] freezes me, with it the fear of the tomb
Opens its ugly wide mouth threateningly --
I am still here, still here, across -
Hit me with your words,
Only, please, do not be silent.
On Sunday we shall commemorate the times of Silence - the times when cities lay desolate and fields lay fallow and idle. We shall recall how the blessing of our God, in the land He had promised our fathers, was forgotten by generations of the Children of Israel who thought that they knew better the nature of man and of Gods earth than the Almighty Himself. In arrogance, impudence and self-delusion, our progenitors turned away from the Rock of our Salvation, putting their faith in men and horses and chariots of steel. They made covenants with their former captors, the Egyptians, to rebel and break free of their northern interlocutors, the Babylonians. Of course, it was all for naught, and our enemies overtook us and drove us into exile. Listen to the dirge we recite, allow its message to penetrate your very essence:
"By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, we also wept, when we remembered Zion. We hung our lyres on the willows in its midst. For there those who carried us away captive required of us a song; and those who tormented us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the Lord=s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember you, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy." [Psalms 137:1-6]
In every age, at every quarter, we were struck by the silence of death when we forgot the "devarim" the words of life. Who can prevent the silence from shouting to us across the ages, from long forgotten tombs of martyrs and innocents from burned synagogues and ravaged homes, from forsaken villages and towns razed to the ground, from plundered schools and nurseries and upturned and desecrated cemeteries. "Listen well," the silence wails, "listen, stiff-necked people, cursed by nature for turning away from the blessing of God."
"Eikha yashva badad ir rabati am... How lonely sits the city, that was full of people! She has become like a widow! She that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, has become a vassal! She weeps bitterly in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has none to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they are become her enemies. Judah has gone into exile because of affliction, and because of great servitude; she dwells among the nations, she finds no rest; all her pursuers overtook her in the midst of her distress. The roads to Zion mourn, because none come to the appointed feasts; all her gates are desolate; her priests sigh, her virgins are afflicted, and she is in bitterness." [Lamentations 1:1-4]
The heat of summer is forgotten, and our very soul feels the cold wind of death as the silence pervades our existence. We must not allow this to happen. We must not forget that we are the People of the Book, the very people who received the Words (Dibrot) of God at Sinai. We must go back to serve the Holy One, Blessed be He, with words and deeds, with the joyous sound of babies in their myrth, brides and grooms in their wedding feasts, the parents celebrating the happy milestones in the livese of their children. We must accumulate words and melodies, tales of great deeds, of miracles of survival and legends of healing and gathering. We must hear the rainbow of sound that is Gods covenant with His children His promise to sustain us in His grace, our pledge, "na'ase venishma" [Exodus 24:7] to be proactive, to lend our full support to the labor of Mitzvot, even while we keep an ear peeled to the sound of His harmonious Word.
Dvarim - Shabbat Khazon 5762
This week Jewish people throughout the world begin reading the last of the Five Books of Moses, whose Hebrew name is Dvarim (which means 'words' or 'things'), and is called in English Deuteronomy (which comes from the Greek 'deuteronomion' meaning 'the second law'). The two names shares a first initial but not the meaning. The reason for the Hebrew name is that the word 'dvarim' is the first noun in the book, which begins with "Ele hadevarim asher diber moshe el kol yisrael these are the words which Moshe spoke to all Israel.." In ancient times the Book was also called"mishne Torah," which means the repetition of the Torah -- because the text is reputed to be the words of Moshe Rabenu summarizing his years of leadership of Israel, delivered to the people as a "last will and testament" before he left the camp and died. Moshe reviews the history of the 40 years of wandering the desert and admonishes the people so that the Israelites will learn the lesson of their mistakes.
Of course, we also have to mention that this Shabbat is one of those special Shabbatot that have a "name" a special occasion that happened once in a while and not every week. This week is the last Shabbat before the "national disaster day" of the Jewish calendar Tish'a b'Av. You may recall that this is the day when the spies returned from Canaan and brought the scary news that the land is "inhabited by giants" that Israel could not overcome. In the past I have spoken about this, and I'm sure I will do so again in coming years. This time I choose to look at the name of the Shabbat: "Shabbat Khazon," so named for the haftarah we read on this day: the introduction of Isaiah into prophecy. "Khazon Y'sha'yahu ben Amotz asher khaza al Yehuda virushala'yim bimey uziyahu, yotam akhaz vkhizkiyahu malkey y'huda. Shim'u shama'yim vha'azini eretz ki adona'y diber. Banim gidalti vromamti vhem pash'u bi The vision of Isaiah the son of Amotz, which he saw concerning Yehudah and Yerushalayim in the days of Uzziah, Yotam, Akhaz, and Yekhizkiyahu, kings of Yehudah. Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the Lord has spoken, I have reared and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me. Yada shor konehu vakhamor evus b'alav; Yisrael lo yada ami lo hitbonan The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner's manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand." [1:1-3] These are very hard words of reproach that the prophet uses, words well-fitting the occasion on the Jewish calendar.
Why is God so angry with the Jewish people? Look to the Torah text - just the first two words of our portion: Eleh hadevarim these are the things, or words. We can go to the Oral tradition, (which is called the Mishnah and transcribed after the entire Tanakh was "closed.") and there we find a profound lesson on "Dvarim."
"Eleh Dvarim she'eyn lahem shi'ur - The following are the things for which no definite quantity is prescribed:1 The corners [of the field].2 First fruits,3 [The offerings brought] on appearing [before the Lord at the three Pilgrimage Festivals].4 The practice of "Gmilut Khasadim" lovingkindness,5 And the study of the Torah. The following are the things for which a man enjoys the fruits in this world while the principal remains for him in the world to come: the honoring of father and mother, the practice of "Gmilut Khasadim" acts of lovingkindness, and making peace between a man and his friend; but the study of Torah is equal to all of them." [Mishnah Pe'ah 1:1]
The mishnah here teaches us a most important lesson which connects Tish'a be'Av with the torah reading of this week, with the words of our prophet - and how to overcome our weakness to stray from the path God wishes for us to follow.
Why was God angry with the Israelites in the desert at that first ninth of the month of Av? The sages explain that it was a total failure of the system. The direction of travel of the people whom God took out of Egypt was never up for discussion. God had promised to Avraham, Yitzkhak and Ya'akov that their seed would inherit the Land of Canaan. God is master of all He created. God settles people down, and He uproots the ones who do not deserve a habitation. God performed miracles that cannot be explained or even believed - unless one has been there to see them, and took Israel out of the mightiest nation on earth. Could such a God be doubted? Yet, we have doubted him.
The men who went up to "spy the land" were supposed to go and return with praise of God on their tongues. The fact that they did not shows a failure of leadership. However, the fact that the people took their report to heart rather than listen to Joshua and Kaleb, shows a total breakdown of the moral fiber of the nation and hence God's wrath is kindled. When will His wrath be abated? When we live by God's teaching. The prophet Isaiah tells us, "Yada shor konehu vakhamor evus b'alav; The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner's manger." The message is very clear: if an ox and a donkey know "their proper place" the People Israel should know no less.
Israel's place is in the Habitation provided by God. It is the Land of the Promise, and it is any land that God blesses for the people. The prescription of the Mishnah is clear and unambiguous: one must live "the virtuous life" giving of one's earnings to the needy, the unfortunate, the stranger in our midst, and to God. One must love and respect parents, and deal with love and kindness with all one comes across in conducting one's journey through life. The conclusion of the lesson is seminal: "Vetalmud Torah keneged kulam but the study of Torah is equal to all of them." All we have learned in this lesson, and every other lesson worth learning and making a part of our very being is found in the torah. Hence, the study of Torah, learning the words, understanding their meaning, and making the message of Torah a part of our character is the way to achieve "the good life" a life close to God, a life which will find favor in His eyes, a life that will bring the age of peace and blessing ever nearer.
This Shabbat we
begin reading the fifth and last of the Book of the Torah, known in English
as Deuteronomy. This names is not, of course, English - it is Greek for 'The
Second Law' -- which, of course, it definitely is not! The Hebrew name, 'dvarim,'
means ‘words' or ‘things.' The book is the “last lesson”
of Moshe Rabeinu, our great teacher and liberator. These words were delivered
to the people as a "last will and testament" before he would retire
from the camp, to go into the hills where God would take his soul and he would
die. Moshe reviews the history of the 40 years of wandering in the desert, and
admonishes the Israelites to learn the lesson of their past mistakes.
The text begins with, “Ele hadevarim asher diber Moshe el kol yisrael – These are the words which Moshe spoke to all Israel...”[Deu. 1:1] Moshe recalls what happened at Mt. Sinai, the appointment of judges and administrators, and the story of the spies. The text reads, “And you came near me every one of you, and said, We will send men before us, and they shall search us out the land, and bring us word again by which way we must go up, and to what cities we shall come. And the saying pleased me well; and I took twelve men of you, one from each tribe; And they turned and went up into the mountain, and came to the valley of Eshkol, and searched it out.” [Deu. 1:22-24] In the appointment of the judges, Moshe directed them to “Give the members of your community a fair hearing, and judge rightly between one person and another, whether citizen or resident alien. You must not be partial in judging: hear out the small and the great alike; you shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God's.” [Deu. 1:16,17] – but when the spies came back the Israelites went wrong by not giving a "fair hearing" to the Land of the Promise Because of this transgression, God determined to give them a time-out for meditation and contemplative "listening" – the forty years of wandering in the desert. He also ordained that the day of the “debacle of the spies” shall be a day for Jews to regret throughout time. The date was the ninth day of the month of Av, known (from the Hebrew) as “tish’a b’Av.”
Let me remind you that on this day:
1) The destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem by Nevuchadnetzar, King of Babylon
2) The destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E.
3) The fall of Betar and the end of the Bar Kokhva revolt against the Romans 52 years later
4) The Jews of England expelled in 1290
5) The Jews of Spain were expelled in 1492.
6) The "Guns of August" begin WWI, with the killing of the archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo -- which in turn brings about the second world war and the Holocaust.
Tisha B'av is a fast day (like Yom Kippur from one evening until the next evening) which culminates a three week mourning period by the Jewish people. One is forbidden to eat or drink, bathe, use moisturizing creams or oils, wear leather shoes or have marital relations. The idea is to minimize pleasure and to let the body feel the distress our soul should feel over these tragedies. Like all fast days, the object is introspection, making a spiritual accounting and correcting our ways — what in Hebrew is called Teshuva, returning, to the path of good and righteousness. This fast will take place this year on Tuesday, July 27.
This Shabbat, as every Shabbat, beside the Torah reading, we also read from the prophets, the "haftarah." This week we read from Isaiah, the first chapter. “Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for the Lord has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master's crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand. Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord, who have despised the Holy One of Israel, who are utterly estranged! Why do you seek further beatings? Why do you continue to rebel? The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint.” [Isaiah 1:1-5] The prophet Isaiah goes on for twenty more verses to chastise the Jews concerning their ‘evil ways.' His words conclude with a moral promise: “Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city. Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness.” [Ibid. 1:26,27]
These, then, are the words, or “devarim” that this Shabbat deals with. There are other devarim, though, that we need to keep in mind, to recall God’s love for us, and our goal of restoring God’s sovereignty in this world. The experience in Sinai began with “And the Lord spoke all these ‘dvarim’ saying, I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt...” [Exodus 20:1,2] So God’s statements are “dvarim” – words of substance, promises made, a covenant undertaken by the Faithful One of Israel. “Shma yisrael, adona’y eloheynu, adona’y ekhad. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might. And these dvarim, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart...” [Deu. 6:5,6] So the “devarim” come from God and are directed to the heart, with love. Finally, in the Mishnah, the oral tradition, we read, “Elu dvarim sheyn lahem she’ur – These are the deeds for which there is no prescribed measure: Leaving crops at the corner of a field for the poor, offering first Fruits as a gift to the Temple, bringing special offering to the Temple on the three Festivals, doing deeds of lovingkindness, And studying Torah.” [Peah 1:1] – notice that the words/dvarim became deed/dvarim!
The more we study, and the more we become versed in Torah, the more we are to make our Torah a manual for our behavior. It is not right to “think good thoughts” – and not follow the thoughts with action. Faith is not faith until it has been tried in the marketplace. Theories are just pipe-dreams if we cannot make them into working models, followed by distribution to the widest possible public. The test of the believer is not in how sincere he or she is - but in how the faith is implemented for the greatest good. The Israelites in the desert, with their lack of conviction, brought about ages of sadness upon their progeny. Let us hope that we, with our strength of conviction, bring about eons of peace and felicity, prosperity and freedom for all.
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