Author's Note on Parshat Devarim

Author's Note on Parshat Devarim

Date: July 27, 2012
8 Menachem Av 5772

When we first met Moshe in the book of Shmot (Exodus) we heard him plead with G-d to choose another leader as he argued: “Lo Ish Devarim Anochi” – “I am not a man of Devarim (words)”.  Ironically, now that we are in Parshat Devarim, we see that Moshe has indeed become the man of Devarim.  The Parsha opens with the famous words “Eleh Ha’Devarim asher diber Moshe el kol Yisrael” – “These are the words (Devarim) that Moshe spoke to all the people of Israel.”  The entire Parsha, indeed the entire book, consists of Moshe’s oration to the people as they prepare to enter the land of Israel.

We read this particular Parsha specifically before the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, the fast day of Tisha B’Av (the 9th of Av).  Part of the reason for this is that Moshe used this opportunity to remind the people of their past sins during their desert travels and their need to consider how to change their attitude and approach if they were going to succeed in building a new world.  For example, Moshe reminded them of what happened when they lost faith after hearing the report from the spies who surveyed the land.  Why did he have to bring that up at this point?  Because they were about to enter the land once again and needed to learn from their last similar experience. 

In this sense, there is a clear connection between Parshat Devarim and Tisha B’Av.  Throughout our history, Tisha B’Av marked tragedies that affected the Jewish people and the entire world.  Of course, we mourn the destruction of the first and second Temples; but we also commemorate the expulsion of Jews from England and from Spain as well as the deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka in 1942.  We even mark the beginning of World War I when Germany declared war on Russia on August 1, 1914, which happened to be Tisha B’Av that year.  It seems that difficult times and tragic events never seem to stop.

But Tisha B’Av is not the Jewish equivalent of a bad luck day like Friday the 13th. Our tradition tells us that we use our fasting and mourning as a way to reconsider how we were before tragedy struck and how that might inform us as we look to the future.  In this sense, we are challenged to respond to Isaiah’s words in this week’s Haftorah – Isaiah asks in G-d’s name, “Why do I need your sacrifices?”  Similarly, in the Haftorah for Yom Kippur morning, Isaiah asks in the name of people who have not followed G-d’s commandments: “Why did you not see when we fasted?  We afflicted ourselves but You ignored it!” 

G-d then answers “Because on your fast day, you sought out personal desires and you oppressed all whom you aggrieved!  Because you fast with grievance and strife, and strike with a wicked fist; you do not fast as befits this day, to make your voice heard above.”

If our fasting becomes part of a quick diet, if we “bulk up” before a fast to make it easy, if we spend our afternoon wondering how and when we will break the fast, then what good is our fasting?  If we stop eating voluntarily on the 9th of Av and refuse to help those who involuntarily go hungry on the 10th of Av and thereafter, what did we learn from our abstinence? 

Through our fast and through our rituals, we voluntarily deprive ourselves physically to focus on spiritual matters.  We try to connect to G-d and what G-d wants from us in ways that are impossible when we are absorbed with our daily routines.  We are reminded that sometimes life is not all about us and what we need (or need to eat) right now.  We are supposed to be a light unto the nations and, in the words of a 1995 syndicated column, “You can’t be a beacon if your light don’t shine.”  So fasting is much more than not eating – it’s an opportunity to connect ourselves to something much greater than ourselves.

As Rabbi Irving Greenberg pointed out with respect to Tisha B’Av, “The very depth of the defeat [marked by Tisha B’Av] made it necessary to make a counter-statement of hope.”  As Jews, we learn to deal with tragedy not by ignoring it, not by resigning ourselves to its inevitability, and not by giving in to despair because the terrorists or other perpetrators of evil are in control of our fate.  No.  By incorporating the memory of tragic historical events into our present consciousness, by making that connection between ourselves and our past, we can make an affirmative statement to the world that we believe that Judaism’s message of Tikkun Olam – a better world created through a partnership of our own efforts and G-d’s hands – will not be dimmed by the seeming inevitability of tragedies.