You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Devarim.
From Rabbi Alan Lew
This is from his chapter on Tisha B’Av in his book, This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared
“Moses begins with a highly subjective retelling of the incident of the scouts we read about in the Book of Numbers. Why does he begin by repeating this material? Because that moment has clearly repeated itself. Once again Moses and the Children of Israel stand at a moment of transformation; once again they stand at the edge of the Promised Land with an opportunity to go up and take it. The last time they stood at this point, this moment of opportunity, they failed to seize it, and they became alienated from God and began a protracted period of exile as a consequence.
Now they are being given a second chance. Forty years before, they stood on exactly the same spot, facing exactly the same situation, and now it is time to see if they have learned anything, if they can move past this experience and get on with their lives. Or if they failed to learn, will this same calamity continue to replicate itself until they do? Will the unconscious, unresolved elements in their lives that brought them back to this moment continue to do so or will they finally get past them?”
From the Hebrew College
Responding to Failure with Perseverance
By Rabbi Daniel Klein
Parashat Dvarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22)
As we begin the Book of Deuteronomy this week, the fifth and final book of the Torah, we greet the Israelites triumphant. After 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, they are finally on the threshold of entering the Promised Land.
It is an extraordinary moment of accomplishment.
And yet, as Moses begins his final, book length soliloquy to prepare the people for their new lives in the Land of Israel, he does not begin with the momentous nature of the occasion. He begins with a story of tragedy and failure.
As the Israelites camp in the very same location where their parents had been 40 years earlier, Moses opens by reminding them that these decades of wandering did not need to happen. As we learned a few weeks ago in Parashat Shelach Licha, the generation who had been freed from Egypt had the opportunity to enter the land; but out of fear, they refused and rebelled against God and Moses. In that moment, God seems to realize that though the Israelites had physically left Egypt, this generation could never emotionally and spiritually leave slavery enough to start a new life as God’s people in the Land of Israel. God condemns them to die in the wilderness while their children would be given the chance to go in.
It is not an obvious choice to begin the retelling of their story by reminding the children of their parents’ failure. One could imagine that it could provoke feelings children often have of their parents — anger, resentment, and shame for their choices, their actions, for who they were, and for who they were not. Maybe such an experience is a useful leadership strategy — a challenge not to be like those people, to be different, to individuate. Yet, I am drawn to a different possibility: that the purpose of reminding the children of their parents’ failure is implicitly to remind them of their parents’ response to failure.
Upon receiving the devastating news that they would die in the wilderness and never enter the Promised Land, the Israelites responded, understandably, with despair and further rebellion against God and Moses. Much of the subsequent sections of the Book of Numbers is consumed with this ongoing descent. It would have been entirely reasonable for them to continue down this path, to surrender to despair, and to abdicate the project of being a special people in relationship with God. However, though the Torah never tells us what happens, during the following, silent decades that constitute the vast majority of time they were in the wilderness, the generation who could never really leave Egypt, managed to raise children who were free and could enter the land.
This story is a heroic one. In telling it, Moses reminds the children that they inherit an extraordinary legacy of failure and, more importantly, of perseverance, resilience, and determination.
And it is a fitting way to begin the preparation for a new life in the Promised Land. It is easy to romanticize the longed for destination — to think that once we get “there,” wherever or whatever there is — life will be better, easier, complete. But in reality, when we get to that destination, we just face another “now,” another moment full of challenge and opportunity. While conquering the land is an accomplishment, it also marks the beginning of a nascent life with new challenges and opportunities, one that inevitably includes failures and setbacks. The children will go astray, as their parents did. In fact, much of the Book of Deuteronomy consists of Moses warning the people of this possibility and to guard against it.
But as they sit in the very same spot their parents had been 40 years ago, about to accomplish what their parents could not, Moses begins with their parents’ failure to remind them that even though they had fallen short, they persevered. They did not give up, but rather worked to transform themselves to be the kind of people who could raise children to accomplish what they could not. In essence, as much as Moses wants them to behave differently in responding to the particular challenge of entering the land of Israel, he wants to teach them that their parents’ model of responding to challenge and failure with resilience and steadfast commitment is quite a legacy to inherit. It is not one to spurn, but to celebrate and emulate.
This week in the Jewish calendar, in addition to being the opening parasha of the Book of Deuteronomy, is the 9th of Av. It is the day on the Jewish calendar that we commemorate the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, and other calamities in Jewish history. It is a day to recognize, and mourn, that we live in a broken world, far from the ideal. As we confront this reality and all the emotions it evokes, may we take inspiration from the Israelite parents who wandered endlessly in the wilderness, responding to their failure and what could not be with perseverance, striving to make a better reality for their children to inhabit. And may we take inspiration from their children who had to forgive their parent’s failure, accept the brokenness they inherited, so they could also receive the gifts of their ancestors and continue the work of repair.
Rebuilding the Temple Within
BY EITAN FISHBANE PhD
With this parashah, we begin the book of Deuteronomy, the opening of a book of memory—a recalling of the forty years of desert wandering while simultaneously anticipating the entrance of the people into the Land of Israel.
Eleh hadevarim, “these are the words”; the words that recount the life and journey of a people, their entrance into covenant at Sinai. But as the Hasidic teachers frequently remind us, the Torah is eternal, reverberating anew for each individual Jew in every generation. And so, the guiding theme of remembering also takes place in the mind and heart of each person.
We are part of a people and a community, and we are also individual selves, bound up in our personal relationships and in self-examination. This is how we may understand the strong themes of justice and love that are expressed in Deuteronomy—wise discernment and compassionate care for the other, the urgency of love in devotion. These ethical and theological imperatives flow directly from the exclamations of Parashat Devarim—the introspection, self-examination, and turn to memory.
Indeed, if Deuteronomy as a whole may be understood as an exhortation to justice and care of the vulnerable as a precondition for proper love of God, then so are we to understand the rabbinic choice to make Parashat Devarim also Shabbat Ḥazon—the latter name deriving from the opening word of the haftarah linked to this occasion, Isaiah 1:1–27. This is a haftarah of harsh admonition and rebuke, an attempt by the prophet to awaken the urgency of repentance, the imperative of social justice in the form of care for the wronged and the vulnerable:
“Cease to do evil;
Learn to do good (limdu heitev).
Devote yourselves to justice (dirshu mishpat);
Aid the wronged.
Uphold the rights of the orphan;
Defend the cause of the widow . . .
Be your sins like crimson,
They can turn snow-white . . . ”
This is the essence of piety: not the external formalities of ritual performance alone, but animated by interpersonal acts of justice and compassion. “What need have I of all your sacrifices,” the prophet Isaiah says in the name of God.
“Who asked that of you?
Trample my courts no more;
Bringing oblations is futile,
Incense is offensive to Me . . .
Though you pray at length,
I will not listen.
Your hands are stained with crime—
Wash yourselves clean;
Put your evil doings
Away from My sight.”
Religious ritual and prayer without teshuvah (repentance) for moral transgressions, for evildoing and lack of care for the vulnerable, is useless and unwanted by God. Spiritual practice must be grounded in the moral imperative of compassion and care to achieve depth and authenticity.
Let it be in this spirit that we view the trajectory of time progressing toward the yamim noraim (High Holy Days), toward the aseret yemei teshuvah (Ten Days of Repentance). This time in which we find ourselves—the three weeks of collective mourning during the second half of the Hebrew month of Tammuz and the first part of Av—this is our reenactment of the brokenness that culminates in Tishah Be’Av (Ninth Day of Av), which commemorates the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and has also come to symbolize the many catastrophes that have befallen the Jewish people over more than two millennia.
I suggest that we understand the ruined House of God not just in its literal sense as the historical Beit Hamikdash, but as the sacred space of peace, balance, and kindness within each of us. Perhaps this is a figurative way to read the classical idea that the Temple was destroyed because of sin’at hinam—baseless hatred between people—a lack of compassion, kindness, and peace.
Read this way, the haftarah of Shabbat Ḥazon may remind us of the inner brokenness and the pain in others that is caused by our callousness and indifference to suffering. That is the deep wail of Eikhah (Lamentations) that we recite in reenacted despair on Tishah Be‘Av; a howl over the brokenness and ruin that has come about as a result of our actively destructive behavior and our apathy toward those in a state of vulnerability who need our intervention, our work of justice, compassion, and love.
The wail of lament and despair includes an introspective awareness of the ruined interior Temple of our hearts. Only through the breaking open of our hearts can we rediscover the compassion that is needed to work for the betterment of the wronged and the alleviation of suffering.
Interpersonal justice is itself a prayer come to life. It prepares our hearts—once hardened, judgmental, and indifferent, arrogant and angry—to be softened into compassion and care, to lift up the broken remnants of the Temple, transforming them into moral piety. Only then will our hearts be truly opened to sincere prayer, only then will we even have the right to speak our prayers before the One who spoke and the world came into being.
From Reform Judaism.org
It’s An Old Song, But We Sing It Anyway
D’varim, Deuteronomy 1:1−3:22
D’VAR TORAH BY: CANTOR EVAN KENT
When I prepare the Torah scroll for the upcoming Shabbat and come to that white space dividing the end of the Book of Numbers from the beginning of Deuteronomy, I feel a moment of exhilaration. Just as the words of Torah are open to many interpretations, so too is this space between the two books, which anthropologist Victor Turner describes as “liminal space” in his book, The Ritual Process (1969). These are the places of transition, “betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial.” But it is here in this space that we find wonder, inspiration, personal and communal change, and often the power to move forward, to encounter the unknown. In the Torah, it is where we begin to leave the desert and make our way to the Promised Land.
For me, the encounter with this liminal space is a calendrical alarm clock, reminding me that the Jewish New Year is approaching. In the Torah it is like a sign in the desert that announces: “Welcome to California,” or the moment when you cross the George Washington Bridge and the sign reads: “Welcome to New York.” Here the white space says: “Welcome to Deuteronomy.” It reminds us that we are quickly coming to the end of the Torah’s yearly journey. But that space also sings and whispers to me the familiar narrative of the Jewish people: “You are on your journey home…you’ve come so far…let’s finish this expedition together…and we will soon sing our High Holiday tune: Hashiveinu v’nashuva…Return us back to You, so we can return…”
We feel both the excitement and trepidation of Moses’ stirring words, knowing that eventually, we will mourn his death at the conclusion of Deuternomy. When I enter that place between the books, I often wonder what would have happened if the story had a different outcome this time? What if Moses had been forgiven by God? What if Moses had led the people into the Land of Israel?
In February 2020, just a few weeks before Covid-19 overwhelmed our lives, I traveled from Israel to the United States to visit my family on Long Island, and also to catch up with faculty and students at HUC-JIR, meet up with college friends, and take in in a few Broadway shows. That’s when I had this insight: Entering the theater, finding your seat, settling in, and waiting for the lights to dim is like that blank space in the Torah between what happens on stage and the “real” world on the other side of the theater’s exits sign.
The last show I saw before the Broadway theaters went dark was “Hadestown.” It is a contemporary retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice story. If you recall your Greek mythology, you will remember that Eurydice is sent to Hades and only Orpheus can lead her back to Earth, but he is warned not to turn around to see if Eurydice is still following. As myths would have it, Orpheus does look back and his beloved is banished forever back to Hades.
So-what does this “Hadestown” have to do with D’varim, this week’s Torah portion? In both, we know the outcome. At the end of Deuteronomy, we know that Moses is telling the Israelites to obey God, not to stray from the path God has set before them, to remember that they were once slaves in Egypt – all in anticipation of his impending death, as revealed in the final verses of Deuteronomy.
As Moses blesses each of the Israelite tribes, his tone changes from that of a sometimes angry parent to that of a loving father. Before ascending Mount Nebo to die, he offers both a remembrance of the past and hope for the future.
At the conclusion of “Hadestown,” the narrator looks directly at the audience and sings:
It’s an old song…it’s an old tale from way back when…
It’s an old song, and that’s how it ends…
The song was written long ago, and that’s how it goes.
It’s a sad song, it’s a tragedy…
But we sing it anyway…
‘Cause here’s the thing – to know how it ends and still begin to sing it again.
(Hadestown, Anais Mitchell, 2019)
These final lyrics remind us how even though we may know the outcome of the story, we read it and retell it again and again. When we hear the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, we hope that maybe, just maybe this time, Orpheus will not turn around and the couple will enter the world of the living together. When we read Torah, we can hope against hope that maybe, just maybe this time Moses will enter the Promised Land hand in hand with his successor, Joshua, instead of dying alone on Mount Nebo.
But every time we tell the story, Orpheus does turn around. And every time we finish the book of Deuteronomy, Moses does die. And every time we will finish the Book of Deuteronomy and immediately read anew the beginning of the Torah — the Creation story — we already know what will happen. But that is the gift of storytelling: For a brief moment we can suspend our knowledge of the revealed plot, as if we are hearing the story for the first time.
As we are told in “Hadestown”: We’re gonna sing it again and again…
And as we are told in Pirkei Avot 5:22:
“Ben Bag Bag would say: Turn it and turn it again, for all is in it; see through it; grow old and worn in it; do not budge from it, for there is nothing that works better than it.”
From Rabbi Simon Jacobson
From Rabbi Jacobson’s drash on Devarim: Dark Side of the Moon
The Power of Rejection
…This also coincides with the saddest part of the Jewish calendar. On the thirteenth day of Moses’ 40-day journey on Mt. Sinai, we enter the difficult month of Av.
This is the second segment of three 40-day periods that Moses will spend on the mountain. The first 40-day period (Sivan 6-Tammuz 17) is the time when Moses receives and is taught the entire Torah. He then descends, discovers the Golden Calf, destroys it, shatters the tablets, and then returns to the mountain for the second 40-day period (Tammuz 18-Av 29), beseeching G-d for forgiveness. Unsuccessful, he goes back for a third 40-day period (Av 30-Tishrei 10) and this time he succeeds and descends triumphantly on Yom Kippur with the Second Tablets in hand.
We know much about the first and third 40-day period. Both are well documented in the Torah: The first – when Moses receives the Torah; the last when G-d shows Moses “His ways” and reveals to him the Thirteen Divine Attributes of Compassion.
By contrast, we know precious little about the middle forty-day period. We know that they are called days of ‘wrath’ (Seder Olam ch. 6. Rashi Deuteronomy 10:10), because G-d is not receptive to Moses’ pleas (in contrast to the third 40-day period, which are called days of ‘compassion,’ when G-d welcomes the prayers of Moses).
As usual, human curiosity gravitates to the unknown and the mysterious. What happened in this middle 40-day period? How was Moses able to face an ‘angry’ G-d for 40 days on end? What did he say and what did he hear? Above all, what kept him going when he was not receiving any positive response? And how did he even venture to return a third time when he was rejected for 40 long days and nights?
What is so intriguing about it is that this is a true case study – perhaps the ultimate one – of human resilience and confidence. When faced with a formidable challenge, and the odds seem impossible, what are we people capable of? When do we give up and when do we persist? And above all, how do we hold on when everything is crumbling around us?
Had Moses succeeded in gaining G-d’s forgiveness with little or no effort, we would have been left with no lesson. Of course, the great Moses has G-d’s ear, so it’s no surprise that he can break through any door. But what about us ordinary people – what can we really expect to achieve when all seems lost?
–– This brings to mind a story, that either is or is not relevant here [but, hey, a good story is always timely…]: The Baal Shem Tov gathered ten great tzaddikim to pray for a very sick child, but to no avail. As a last resort, he went to the edge of town and gathered together ten thieves and asked them to pray for the child. Their prayers helped, and the child recovered. Later, when asked how is it that the thieves’ prayers could achieve that which the tzaddikim could not, the Baal Shem Tov replied with a smile: “I saw that all the gates in heaven were sealed, and I needed someone to break in”… ––
But Moses did not succeed easily in breaking through the gates of heaven. In this middle 40-day period all Moses’ efforts did not yield the results he wanted. And yet, it is precisely in this rejection that we can learn the most profound lessons in life.
In fact, this is the deeper message of the month we are now entering, the month of Av: On the surface, Av is the saddest month of the year, being the time when many tragic events took place in history, largest of which is the destruction of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem. The Nine Days (from Av1-9) is traditionally a period of mourning, when we avoid celebrations and entertainment. The sadness intensifies as we get closer to Tisha B’Av (9th of Av), until the ninth day that is a 25-hour fast day, when we dim the lights and sit ‘shiva’ – in mourning of the destroyed Temples.
What are we to make of these sad days?
The Arizal tells us that in the throes of Tisha B’Av afternoon, as the raging fires were consuming the Temple, Moshiach is born. Redemption is conceived from the ashes of destruction.
In the deepest darkness lies the strongest light. However, from our limited perspective we can only see one dimension at a time: either we see dark or we see light. Someone with deep eyesight and strong focus can see the light within the dark.
Moses was such a person. When G-d refused him during the second 40-day period, Moses did not see rejection; he saw opportunity. Where others saw ‘wrath,’ he saw challenge. Where others saw hopelessness, he saw potential.
Moses had this vision because he had unwavering faith in the essential goodness of G-d and absolute confidence that good will always prevail. Moses did not have the word “no” in his lexicon, nor the word “impossible” or “hopeless.” Armed with such confidence, nothing, absolutely nothing, could shake Moses. He didn’t even accept G-d telling him that his request was impossible. Moses was supremely resolute, persistent – absolutely sure that his cause was right, and that which is right will triumph.
Rabbi Akiva was another such man, when he laughed as he looked at the desolate Temple Mount. And so was the Arizal, when he saw redemption in the darkest moments.
Our eyesight may not be quite on the level of these great souls. Yet, we are blessed with the ability to look at life through their eyes. When we read the words of Moses, we are essentially being given the gift to see life through his eyes. The same with Rabbi Akiva, the Arizal and others of that caliber.
Ask yourself: How do you deal with rejection? With disappointments, with shattered dreams and broken promises? How do you look at the darker moments of life, at failures and losses?
Moses’ seemingly unsuccessful 40 day journey to Sinai in these days was actually very successful in that it allows us a deeper glimpse into a man of G-d under pressure; it empowers us with the ability to see the process, not just the results.
Above all: it gave birth to the compassion of the next 40 days, culminating with Yom Kippur. The Shaloh writes that Aryeh (the mazal/sign of the month of Av) is an acronym for: Elul, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Hoshana Rabba. The compassion of Elul; renewal of Rosh Hashana; forgiveness of Yom Kippur; and sealing of Hoshana Rabba – all are born out of the energy of Av.
It’s true that we are not satisfied with these 40 days of ‘wrath’ – and neither was Moses; what we want is to have compassion in our lives, and consciously feel the triumph of hope that was finally achieved on Yom Kippur. Yet, at the same time, Moses’ later success was determined by how he dealt earlier with rejection, better said: how it left him unperturbed, and more resolute than ever.
The saying goes: There are people who are like teabags. You don’t know strong they are until you put them in hot water…
When you think about it, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to say that this 40-day period carries the secret to life, the secret of Moses, the secret of eternity.
How you deal with crisis, with rejection, with failure will determine how successful you will ultimately be. One can say that success is actually born out of failure. Some people are demoralized and crushed when they fail. Others allow the failure to educate them and to motivate them, to build in them a deeper fortitude, which gives them the power to succeed in the future.
Yes, there are those who see this month as Av – the saddest month in the calendar. Some have even mastered the methods to mourn and grieve.
But there are others who see the Menachem (in) Av (the complete name of the month) – they see the comfort and the consolation within the pain.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev tells us that on Shabbat Chazon (the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av) each one of us is shown the Third Temple from afar, in order to evoke in us the desire to have the Temple with us. Hence, the name Shabbat Chazon – Shabbat of Vision.
There are those that see the vision of Isaiah (read in this week’s haftorah) which describes his vision of destruction; and there are those that see the rebuilt Third Temple.
We were given the power to choose our visions.
Why should you not be one of those that see the Menachem in Av?
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
In the last month of his life, Moses gathered the people. He instructed them about the laws they were to keep and reminded them of their history since the Exodus. That is the substance of the book of Devarim. Early in this process, he recalled the episode of the spies – the reason the people’s parents were denied the opportunity to enter the land. He wanted the next generation to learn the lesson of that episode and carry it with them always. They needed faith and courage. Perhaps that has always been part of what it means to be a Jew.
But the story of the spies as he tells it here is very different indeed from the version in Shelach Lecha (Num. 13-14), which describes the events as they happened at the time, almost 39 years earlier. The discrepancies between the two accounts are glaring and numerous. Here I want to focus only on two.
First: who proposed sending the spies? In Shelach, it was God who told Moses to do so. “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Send men…” In our parsha, it was the people who requested it: “Then all of you came to me and said, ‘Let us send men…” Who was it: God or the people? This makes a massive difference to how we understand the episode.
Second: what was their mission? In our parsha, the people said, “Let us send men to spy out [veyachperu] the land for us” (Deut. 1:22). The twelve men “made for the hill country, came to the wadi Eshcol, and spied it out [vayeraglu]” (Deut. 1:24). In other words, our parsha uses the two Hebrew verbs, lachpor and leragel, that mean to spy.
But as I pointed out in my Covenant & Conversation for Shelach Lecha, the account there conspicuously does not mention spying. Instead, thirteen times, it uses the verb latur, which means to tour, explore, travel, inspect. Even in our parsha, when Moses is talking, not about the spies but about God, he says He “goes before you on your journeys—to seek out (latur) the place where you are to encamp” (Deut. 1:33).
According to Malbim, latur means to seek out what is good about a place. Lachpor and leragel mean to seek out what is weak, vulnerable, exposed, defenceless. Touring and spying are completely different activities, so why does the account in our parsha present what happened as a spying mission, which the account in Shelach emphatically does not?
These two questions combine with a third, prompted by an extraordinary statement of Moses in our parsha. Having said that the spies and the people were punished by not living to enter the promised land, he then says:
Because of you, the Lord was incensed with me also, and He said: you shall not enter it either. Joshua son of Nun, who attends you, he shall enter it. Strengthen him, because he will lead Israel to inherit it. (Deut. 1:37-38)
This is very strange indeed. It is not like Moses to blame others for what seems to be his own failing. Besides which, it contradicts the testimony of the Torah itself, which tells us that Moses and Aaron were punished by not being permitted to enter the land because of what happened at Kadesh when the people complained about the lack of water. What they did wrong is debated by the commentators. Was it that Moses hit the rock? Or that he lost his temper? Or some other reason? Whichever it was, that was when God said: “Because you did not trust in Me enough to honour Me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them” (Num. 20:12). This was some 39 years after the episode of the spies.
As to the discrepancy between the two accounts of the spies, R. David Zvi Hoffman argued that the account in Shelach tells us what happened. The account in our parsha, a generation later, was meant not to inform but to warn. Shelach is a historical narrative; our parsha is a sermon. These are different literary genres with different purposes.
As to Moses’ remark, “Because of you, the Lord was incensed with me,” Ramban suggests that he was simply saying that like the spies and the people, he too was condemned to die in the wilderness. Alternatively, he was hinting that no one should be able to say that Moses avoided the fate of the generation he led.
However, Abarbanel offers a fascinating alternative. Perhaps the reason Moses and Aaron were not permitted to enter the land was not because of the episode of water and the rock at Kadesh. That is intended to distract attention from their real sins. Aaron’s real sin was the Golden Calf. Moses’ real sin was the episode of the spies. The hint that this was so is in Moses’ words here, “Because of you, the Lord was incensed with me also.”
How though could the episode of the spies have been Moses fault? It wasn’t he who proposed sending them. It was either God or the people. He did not go on the mission. He did not bring back a report. He did not demoralise the people. Where then was Moses at fault? Why was God angry with him?
The answer lies in the first two questions: who proposed sending the spies? And why is there a difference in the verbs between here and Shelach?
Following Rashi, the two accounts, here and in Shelach, are not two different versions of the same event. They are the same version of the same event, but split in two, half told there, half here. It was the people who requested spies (as stated here). Moses took their request to God. God acceded to the request, but as a concession, not a command: “You may send,” not “You must send” (as stated in Shelach).
However, in granting permission, God made a specific provision. The people had asked for spies: “Let us send men ahead to spy out [veyachperu] the land for us.” God did not give Moses permission to send spies. He specifically used the verb latur, meaning, He gave permission for the men to tour the land, come back and testify that it is a good and fertile land, flowing with milk and honey.
The people did not need spies. As Moses said, throughout the wilderness years God has been going “ahead of you on your journey, in fire by night and in a cloud by day, to search out places for you to camp and to show you the way you should go” (Deut. 1:33). They did however need eyewitness testimony of the beauty and fruitfulness of the land to which they had been travelling and for which they would have to fight.
Moses, however, did not make this distinction clear. He told the twelve men: “See what the land is like and whether the people who live there are strong or weak, few or many. What kind of land do they live in? Is it good or bad? What kind of towns do they live in? Are they unwalled or fortified?” This sounds dangerously like instructions for a spying mission.
When ten of the men came back with a demoralising report and the people panicked, at least part of the blame lay with Moses. The people had asked for spies. He should have made it clear that the men he was sending were not to act as spies.
How did Moses come to make such a mistake? Rashi suggests an answer. Our parsha says: “Then all of you came to me and said, ‘Let us send men ahead to spy out the land for us.” The English does not convey the sense of menace in the original. They came, says Rashi, “in a crowd,” without respect, protocol or order. They were a mob, and they were potentially dangerous. This mirrors the people’s behaviour at the beginning of the story of the Golden Calf: “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered against Aaron and said to him…”
Faced with an angry mob, a leader is not always in control of the situation. True leadership is impossible in the face of the madness of crowds. Moses’ mistake, if the analysis here is correct, was a very subtle one, the difference between a spying mission and a morale-boosting eyewitness account of the land. Even so, it must have been almost inevitable given the mood of the people.
That is what Moses meant when he said, “because of you the Lord was incensed with me too.” He meant that God was angry with me for not showing stronger leadership, but it was you – or rather, your parents – who made that leadership impossible.
This suggests a fundamental, counterintuitive truth. There is a fine TED talk about leadership. It takes less than 3 minutes to watch, and it asks, “What makes a leader?” It answers: “The first follower.”
There is a famous saying of the Sages: “Make for yourself a teacher and acquire for yourself a friend.” The order of the verbs seems wrong. You don’t make a teacher, you acquire one. You don’t acquire a friend, you make one. In fact, though, the statement is precisely right. You make a teacher by being willing to learn. You make a leader by being willing to follow. When people are unwilling to follow, even the greatest leader cannot lead. That is what happened to Aaron at the time of the Calf, and in a far more subtle way to Moses at the time of the spies.
That, I would argue, is one reason why Joshua was chosen to be Moses’ successor. There were other distinguished candidates, including Pinchas and Caleb. But Joshua, serving Moses throughout the wilderness years, was a role-model of what it is to be a follower. That, the Israelites needed to learn.
I believe that followership is the great neglected art. Followers and leaders form a partnership of mutual challenge and respect. To be a follower in Judaism is not to be submissive, uncritical, blindly accepting. Questioning and arguing are a part of the relationship. Too often, though, we decry a lack of leadership when we are really suffering from a lack of followership.
 Derek Sivers, ‘How to Start a Movement.’
 Mishnah, Avot 1:6.
From Reconstructing Judaism
Finding Your Voice
By Rabbi Jonathan Kligler
B’ever ha’Yarden b’eretz Moav ho’il Moshe be’er et hatorah hazot
בְּעֵ֥בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֖ן בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מוֹאָ֑ב הוֹאִ֣יל מֹשֶׁ֔ה בֵּאֵ֛ר אֶת־הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את
On the far side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to explain this Torah (Deuteronomy 1:5)
The English name of the fifth and final book of the Five Books of Moses is “Deuteronomy”. Deuteronomy is a Greek term that means “repetition of the law”. This is an appropriate name, as the entire book – save the very end that describes Moses’ passing – is a recounting by Moses of the previous books of the Torah. The book is in the form of a very long final oration by Moses, in which he recaps the journey of the Children of Israel under his leadership, and repeats and expands upon the mitzvot – the laws by which the Jewish People will live.
The Hebrew name of the book, Devarim, is also an appropriate title, and a more evocative one as well. Devarim means “words”. The book of Devarim is filled with Moses’ words. This is the same Moses who, when called decades earlier by YHVH at the burning bush, could only respond, “Bi, Adonai, lo ish devarim anochi” – “Please, my Lord, I am not a man of words – not now, not ever – I am heavy of speech and heavy of tongue.” (Exodus 4:10)
I am not the first to notice that Moses, who originally insists that he is not a man of words, is able at the end of his life to deliver a 33-chapter summation and explication of his life’s mission. What a transformation! How did Moses “find his voice”?
The Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (1847-1905), points us to the double meaning of the word be’er in the verse I cited above: “ho’il Moshe be’er et hatorah hazot.” The plain meaning of this verse is, “Moses undertook to explain this Torah.” The verb Be’er means “explain, expound, elucidate.” But the noun Be’er means “a well”. Thus a creative alternate meaning dances in the background: “Moses undertook to well up this Torah.”
Listen: “On the far side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, this Torah welled up in Moses.”
Where does inspiration dwell? Is it on some distant mountaintop, or is it deep within each of us? Perhaps Moses earlier in life did not yet know how to let words well up within his soul. The Sefat Emet continues the analogy, and compares those who mistakenly think of themselves as a cistern (bor בור in Hebrew) to those who correctly understand themselves to be a well (be’er באר). A cistern is a closed system; once its contents have been emptied, it is dry. A well is an open system; it taps into a rechargeable, invisible, ever-flowing water source, and siphons it to the surface. A good well brims over with water, and never runs dry. Therefore, if a person thinks of herself as a cistern, she mistakenly thinks that inspiration is a product of her own self. The wellsprings of creativity will not replenish this person. But one who sees oneself as a well comes to understand that he is not the source but rather a conduit for inspiration.
Playing further with the Hebrew, one can say that the difference between a bor בור and a be’er באר is the vivifying aleph א, the Voice of God, the soundless letter from which the remainder of the alphabet, and thus human communication, emerges. Without our connection to the deep, flowing silence of the aleph, our inspiration will run dry.
Prior to encountering the presence of YHVH, Life Unfolding, at the burning bush, Moses labored under the illusion that hampers so many of us in our search for a life of purpose – he thought that he was a closed system, limited to his own resources and resourcefulness. At the burning bush, Moses’ illusory aloneness was shattered, and he became a messenger, a channel, a vessel for a greater calling. He would find his voice by, paradoxically, allowing inspiration to flow through him. We find this understanding in YHVH’s response to Moses at the burning bush. When Moses stammers, “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue!” YHVH replies: “Who gives humans speech?…Now go, and I will be with you, in your mouth, and will teach you what to say.” (Exodus 4:11)
Perhaps over the course of the next forty years Moses learns how to allow God to speak through him, as it were. Is this what it means to be a prophet? Perhaps. I think it is what it means to be an artist, as well. And a lover. When we learn how to dig down in ourselves beyond our egos to the wellsprings of inspiration that flow for all creatures, when we tend our well so that we can water others from our particular channel to the Divine, we are liberated from the illusion of our separateness while simultaneously fulfilling our own unique role in the universe.
By the time Moses speaks Sefer Devarim, the Book of Words, he has mastered the subtle skill of allowing words to well up in him. He becomes the well. The teachings flow out from his lips, and he is no longer at a loss for words. Indeed, as his oration reaches its climax at the end of Deuteronomy, Moses does his utmost to imbue the Children of Israel with the understanding that they too are wells and not cisterns, and will be able to continue to connect with the Divine after Moses is gone:
[This teaching] is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may do it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us, and impart it to us, that we may do it?” No, the word is in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it. (Deut. 30:11-14)
Across a lifetime of struggle and service, Moses came to trust and to allow inspiration to flow through him. He thus found his voice, and his words still resound in the world to this day. He also left us with a charge, as all great teachers will do: Do not think that creative and moral inspiration is some limited resource, secreted in some external, inaccessible source. No, that source flows all around you and within you, waiting to be tapped, ready to well up in your being and flow out into the world.
From My Jewish Learning
Eichah: Where Are We Now?
We should respond to major historical events and to personal decisions with the question, “Where are we morally?”
BY RABBI JAMES R. MICHAELS
The yearly Torah reading cycle is almost as unpredictable as the Jewish calendar. It’s nearly impossible to predict the exact date a Torah portion will be read; sometimes two portions are read together, other times separately, just to make the puzzle even harder. But certain features of the yearly cycle are a constant. For example, on Shabbat before Tisha B’Av [the fast of the ninth of the month of Av] we always read the first Torah portion in Devarim, or Deuteronomy.
I have no way of proving it, but I believe this is no coincidence. On the contrary, I think it’s all based on one word found in Deuteronomy 1:12. The verse begins with the word “eicha“–the Hebrew name for the book of Lamentations, which is read on the eve of the fast. In fact, the tradition on this Shabbat is for the Torah reader to depart from the musical cantillation we normally chant, and to sing that one verse in the special melody for Lamentations. When Tisha B’Av begins on a Saturday night, at the conclusion of Shabbat Devarim as it does this year, evoking the mood of the coming fast when we read this verse is especially heartrending.
Verse 1:12 reads: “How can I bear unaided the trouble you cause, the burden and the bickering?” Its plaintive nature evokes the rhetorical nature of the question; there truly is no answer, only a moan, and a cry of despair.
The word “eichah” occurs only 18 times in the entire Bible. In each instance, it conveys this rhetorical complaint. But the same Hebrew letters, vocalized differently appear one other place, in the book of Genesis. After Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, God asks them, “Ayekah,” which means, “Where are you?” The traditional explanation for this question is not that God is asking the location of the first humans. Rather God is asking them, “Where are you morally? Have you grown, have you learned anything?”
Our sages have traditionally looked at the rhetorical question “eichah” and read it with the very real question “ayekah” in mind. Yes, we mourn for the tragedies of our people. Yes, we allow ourselves the luxury of anguish at the calamities that dot our peoples’ history. But where are we? What have we learned from that history? To ask the first question and not attempt to answer the second would be an exercise in shallowness. Not only that, it wouldn’t be the Jewish thing to do.
Each summer, Shabbat Devarim and Tisha B’Av occur close to the anniversary of the first atomic bomb at Hiroshima. Each year, there is a discussion about whether it was right to drop the bomb when and where we did. I always view this discussion as an exercise in futility. Dropping the bomb was an act of war; in war, armies are concerned with winning, not what is morally right.
Recent publications, however, have shown a deeper and more significant issue: the process that led to the decision to drop the bomb. In the high echelons of the U.S. military, there was very little discussion at all. The generals knew we had the weapon, and wanted to use it. Once the process was set in motion, no one stopped to ask whether the target was the correct one, whether it had military value, or if the A-bomb would usher in a new era in world history. In short, no one bothered to ask what the implications of using this horrifying new weapon would be.
The arguments about the justification for dropping the bomb won’t change past history. But we still have the obligation to ask “ayekah” — where are we? We can’t undo what was done more than 50 years ago, but we can hope that our leaders will be prudent in the present about decisions with catastrophic consequences.
We should also ask the same question on a personal level. So often, the major decisions we make are not made in dramatic circumstances, but rather on the spur of the moment: Whom can we help today? Are we influenced by that person’s race or ethnicity? Do we allow superficial distinctions to deter us from seeing the common humanity in all people? Perhaps most important, once we’ve started moving in one direction, do we ever stop to evaluate where we’re going, and whether we need a mid-course correction? Those are the questions that we should ask on Shabbat Devarim, as we read the first chapters of Deuteronomy.
Rabbinic Midrash , or interpretation, tells us that in the wilderness, our people would recount their sins each year on Tisha B’Av, realizing that they bore the punishment for their gravity. Each year, they would be given the message that they hadn’t been totally forgiven. Then, just before they entered the land, they knew that the time had come for a new beginning, as God had would finally answer, “I have forgiven.”
On Shabbat morning, when we hear the Torah reader intone the word “eicha” let us ask ourselves “ayekah” — Where are we? And if we can answer that we have indeed learned to question the little decisions that can lead to big calamities, then perhaps we will begin to sense a new dimension of God’s favor.
Reprinted with permission from SocialAction.com.
Taking Life’s Journey with Torah
BY RABBI ARNOLD M. EISEN
“Hear, O Israel,” the book of Deuteronomy proclaims over and over, the verb always in the second person singular. The Torah wants every one of us to listen carefully, whoever we are, at whatever stage of life. It knows that each person will hear its words somewhat differently—and will perhaps listen differently—this day than in the past.
When I was younger, the opening chapters of Devarim were among my favorites in all the Torah. A new generation of Israelites, assuming adult responsibility for the future of their people, stand across a narrow river from possibility greater than any the world has ever known. God has promised them a land flowing with milk and honey, and unprecedented access to God’s presence. As if that were not enough, God has granted them a blueprint for a society marked by both justice and compassion. Moses struggles to make his words (devarim) adequate to the reality (another sense of devarim) that his people have the opportunity to create with God’s help, but that he will not live to see. The Israelites for their part will soon have the task of living up to the promise of the devarim, word and deed, that Moses had imprinted on their memory.
The vision is thrilling to a person of any age, and is especially so to an individual or couple, standing with life’s spacious possibility about to unfold in front of them. It is more exciting still if, like me, your own youth corresponds with that of the new State of Israel just established in the Land that the Israelites of Moses’s day stood ready to enter.
Decades later, my children grown, I am still greatly moved by Deuteronomy’s vision of Life with a capital L opening up across a narrow river, if only one has the wisdom and courage to reach for it. But I find myself drawn more and more to the very different vision set forth at the end of the book. Picture this scene with me now: Moses is looking back upon his years, taking stock of both achievement and frustration. He is trying in the short amount of time he has left to formulate lessons that will endure among his people long after he is gone. What do you say—what devarim do you choose, what devarim do you recall or omit—when you know that the end of your speech will also mark the end of your days? What shall we hear in Moses’s words, you and I? What events in our lives shall we recall or omit as we look back—now that we are able to appreciate limit, failure, mortality, and love in a way we did not when we were younger?
I think the Torah wants its readers to engage in this sort of reflection. From the very first chapters of Genesis to the final verses of Deuteronomy, the Torah impels us to go deeper into the text with the help of personal life experience, even as we go deeper into life with the help of the text. I will follow the Torah’s lead and read Deuteronomy that way in this reflection on the book. Let’s begin by looking at the programmatic chapters near the start of Devarim—or better, by hearing them—through the eyes and ears of a new generation of adults about to set out on its way.
“Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is One,” Moses declares. The words have been recited morning and evening by faithful Jews for over two millennia, along with the passage, which follows at once, commanding every Israelite (in second person singular once more) to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your might” (Deut. 6:4–5). Read as a categorical statement of truth or duty, these verses arouse incomprehension, hesitation and doubt. Countless volumes of theology have been devoted over the centuries to the meaning of God’s oneness—and much blood has been spilled. How can love be commanded? Why would God demand a degree of wholeness from human beings that seems beyond our capacity to achieve?
Read the passage as instruction or invitation to a young individual or couple building a home or a family, and the words take on a different valence, abounding in significance. One desires nothing more fervently at that stage of life than to love one’s partner or child (or to have a partner or child to love) with this sort of devotion: nothing held back, no part of the self standing aside or removed from the love. The Torah lacks the words to tell us what it would mean to love God in this way. No religion or philosophy has the words, for we are mere mortals, and God is God. So the Torah summons us as best it can to the task of loving God, connecting that task to the experience in this world that we most savor, the love that makes us feel alive as nothing else can. These are the words, the facts—the devarim in both senses—that God commands each of us to keep “on your heart,” as we love one another and try to love God. This is the life lesson we are meant to teach our children in the house and on the way, lying down and rising up, shaping all we do and framing all we see.
There are few happier moments in a parent’s life (and few more weighted with responsibility and care) than those graced with the sound of children in the house. One so wants to protect these kids, your kids, and to raise them well! We promise ourselves daily that we will shield them, come what may, from the evils transpiring in the world beyond our doorsteps and our gates: the violence, the suffering, the cynicism and cruelty. We will try our best to fill them with purpose and joy, and to store up enough love in their hearts to last a lifetime. And behold: what we most want to do is precisely what God commands us to do in this paragraph of Torah, which in Jewish tradition is called, “And you shall love.”
I’ve come to believe in recent years that the allness of the love to which we are commanded or invited in this verse of the Torah is made possible by the oneness of the God who issues that charge. I read the word את (“et”) that follows “you shall love” and precedes “the Lord your God” not only as the particle that always accompanies a direct object in Hebrew but also in its other sense, “with”—a usage found as nearby as Deut. 5:3: “Not only with (את) our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant . . .” Read this way, we are commanded to “love with the Lord your God,” drawing, whenever we love, on the treasury of love that originates in our Creator and is transmitted by our family, and replenished whenever we love or are loved in turn. Loving with God, who is One, we too are equipped to aim at allness or wholeness.
The middle section of Deuteronomy sketches the project of imposing God’s legal blueprint on the Promised Land. Moses’s exposition of law is both methodical and repetitious; the vision set forth is ambitious, all-embracing, totalistic. It leaves no room for alternative ideals, beliefs, or practices, and expresses no doubt or hesitation whatever. “You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshipped their gods,” Moses declares at the very start of his law-giving (12:2). Seers and necromancers are not to be consulted in Israel’s new society. Prophets of other gods and other paths are not to be heeded. Anyone seeking to lead Israel astray must be killed. Sacrifices will henceforth be offered to the One God at one central place that the Lord will choose rather than at altars scattered throughout the country, as had been the case heretofore. “Justice, justice shall you pursue that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord is giving you” (16:20).
There is something grand about this part of the book of Deuteronomy—and there are elements that are not a little scary. Can a society or culture ever eliminate doubt and dissent as the book seems to intend and command? Why would it want to? Is the dream of a just society with God in its midst so fragile that it cannot brook the presence of naysayers? Is this the perspective on social and political life that stands behind the paradoxical instruction to “remember what Amalek did to you on your journey leaving Egypt . . . therefore . . . you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” (25:17–19). Remember not to forget to blot out the memory of all that stands opposed to the vision of justice that you shall pursue!
I hear a very different tone as Moses nears the end of his time on earth: quieter, humbler, partaking far less of planning, action, and decision—and far more of wisdom. Two passages from the final portion of our teacher’s final lecture are especially meaningful to me.
First: the recognition (29:28) that some of what we would most like to know before we die—“the concealed things”—belong to God, and not to us. We will never penetrate those secrets in this life, and perhaps not in any other life either. However, it is also true that “the revealed things are given to us and our children forever, to do all the words of this Torah” (ibid.). We cannot and will not have some of what we most want in this world—knowledge of what awaits us after death, for instance, and what is in store for the world; why the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper; why God keeps such a distance, even while commanding us to love. But we, and our children after us, have what we need to go on. Most importantly: we have the words of this Torah, and a family and community with whom to hear those words.
Second: God has set life and goodness before us, along with death and evil; “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your descendants will live” (30:15, 19). We are human: constrained by the limits of our years, our bodies and our imaginations. We do not always have the resources or capacity needed to accomplish what we want to do, should do, need to do. But within those limitations, there is goodness that can be chosen, blessing that can be ours—and there is life. No greater affirmation of the value of life and of the world has ever been declared by any religious tradition or philosophy. Moses dies, “his strength undimmed and his vigor unabated” (34:7), leaving behind a legacy of confidence that each of us matters and the world matters. The devarim we say and do matter more than we dare to know.
These final verses of Deuteronomy contain in equal measure a sense of completion and of new beginning. The story continues without Moses, as it had begun without him; our stories too will continue, even after we are gone. Our children, students, and successors will—as Joshua did—assume the mantle of responsibility and leadership. This is hard to imagine when a person is young, and hard to accept at any age. But sometimes—a life of achievement behind you, a child sleeping or playing on your knees, the Torah scroll rolled to start again at the beginning—you know that it is good.
From Rabbi David Kasher
THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS – Parshat Devarim
This land was once filled with giants. But they died out, slowly, over the centuries, until there was only one left – the great and mighty Og. And now he, too, is gone.
So we read in this week’s parsha, in the description of the battles that the Israelites fought as they approached the land of Canaan:
Only Og, King of Bashan was left of the remaining Rephaim. His bed, a bed of iron, is now in Rabbah of the Ammonites; it is nine cubits long and four cubits wide. (Deuteronomy 3:11)
כִּי רַק-עוֹג מֶלֶךְ הַבָּשָׁן, נִשְׁאַר מִיֶּתֶר הָרְפָאִים–הִנֵּה עַרְשׂוֹ עֶרֶשׂ בַּרְזֶל, הֲלֹה הִוא בְּרַבַּת בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן: תֵּשַׁע אַמּוֹת אָרְכָּהּ, וְאַרְבַּע אַמּוֹת רָחְבָּהּ
There are three words in the Torah that are sometimes translated as “giants” – Rephaim, Nephilim, and Anakim – and all of them will be relevant to our story eventually. But, for now, let’s stay with this verse.
This is the only place in the Torah that makes reference to Og’s size – though only indirectly, through this “bed.” The cubit measurement here would come out to approximately 14 feet by 6 feet; and if it was roughly proportional, then Og must have been at least 10 feet tall. Now that’s a big bed by anyone’s standards, but the Rashbam tells us that the unusual word for bed here – eres (ערש) – actually means crib! So if this was Og’s bed when he was a baby, there’s no telling how massive he became eventually! (Nachmanides adds that the bed had to be made of iron, and not the standard wood, so that it wouldn’t break under Og’s weight.)
These are the technical attempts to prove Og’s gigantic stature. But much more interesting are the many strange stories of Og the Giant recorded in the Talmud and Midrash. Taken together, they constitute one of the most fascinating legends in rabbinic literature. Og is a shadowy figure who seems to always have been around, and – according to the rabbis – keeps popping up at key moments in the Torah’s narrative.
Why are the rabbis so obsessed with Og? What does he represent? And where does the legend of Og begin?
To answer those questions, let’s start with the battle that Moses is describing in our parsha, and work our way back. This battle took place in the Book of Numbers, and while we hear about the start of the conflict – “King Og, of Bashan, with all his people, came out to Edrei to engage them in war” (21:33) – and its conclusion – “They defeated him and his sons and all his people, until no remnant was left of them and they took possession of his country” (21:35) – there is no detailed account of the battle itself. So the Talmud steps in to tell the story. And it is a wild one:
There is a legend about the rock that Og, King of Bashan, tried to throw at Israel. He said, “How large is the camp of Israel? Three parasangs (approx. 10 miles). I will go and uproot a mountain three parasangs wide and throw it on them and kill them!
He went and uprooted the mountain and hoisted it up over his head. But the Holy Blessed One sent ants, which dug holes in the the mountain, and it collapsed around Og’s neck. He tried tried to cast it off, and gnashed his teeth from side to side, but he could not get it off…
Then Moses, whose height was ten cubits, took an axe ten cubits long, and jumped ten cubits into the air, and struck Og in the ankle, and killed him. (Berachot 54b)
אבן שבקש עוג מלך הבשן לזרוק על ישראל גמרא גמירי לה אמר מחנה ישראל כמה הוי תלתא פרסי איזיל ואיעקר טורא בר תלתא פרסי ואישדי עלייהו ואיקטלינהו
אזל עקר טורא בר תלתא פרסי ואייתי על רישיה ואייתי קודשא בריך הוא עליה קמצי ונקבוה ונחית בצואריה הוה בעי למשלפה משכי שיניה להאי גיסא ולהאי גיסא ולא מצי למשלפה…
משה כמה הוה עשר אמות שקיל נרגא בר עשר אמין שוור עשר אמין ומחייה בקרסוליה וקטליה.
Mountain-tossing! Ants to the rescue! Wow. And how is Moses suddenly 10 cubits tall? That’s about 15 feet – looks like we’ve got another giant on our hands!
To make some sense of this fantastic tale, we’ll need more information. The only other thing we read in the Torah itself is that God said to Moses:
Do not fear him, for I will deliver him and all his people into your hands. (Num. 21:34)
אַל-תִּירָא אֹתוֹ–כִּי בְיָדְךָ נָתַתִּי אֹתוֹ וְאֶת-כָּל-עַמּוֹ, וְאֶת אַרְצוֹ
Why, the Midrash Tanchuma asks, is Moses particularly afraid and in need of reassurance? And they answer:
For no one mightier than him had ever stood in the world. For “Only Og, King of Bashan was left of the remaining Rephaim. (Deut. 3),” He remained from those mighty ones that Amraphel and his troops had killed. As it says, “They struck the Rephaim at Ashterot-karnaim.” (Gen. 14) But he was the survivor among them, like the pit of an olive, that survives the olive press. As it says, “And a survivor came and brought news to Abram the Hebrew.” (Gen. 14) (Tanchuma Chukat 55:1)
שלא עמד בעולם גבור קשה ממנו, שנאמר כי רק עוג מלך הבשן וגו’ (שם ג יא), והוא נשאר מהגבורים שהרגו אמרפל וחביריו, שנאמר ויכו את רפאים וגו’ (בראשית יד ה), וזה הפסולת שלהם, כפריצי זיתים שיוצאין ולפיטים מתחת הגפת, שנאמר ויבא הפליט וגו’ (שם שם יג)
So there was once a race of giant men, in the days of Abraham, and they were destroyed. But Og was too tough to kill – he survived as all his compatriots fell. He even came and told Abraham that his relative Lot had been captured in the war. So Moses is afraid of him not just because he seems invincible, but also – as Rashi explains – because his kindness to Abraham gave him extra merit in God’s eyes. Og is suddenly not just a monster. Yes, he is massive, and terrifying… but there is also something righteous in him.
Now, there is another tradition that also identifies Og as the “survivor” who brought news to Abraham. But in this version, what he had survived was not just the war. Take a look at this passage from the Talmud, again attempting to explain why Moses feared Og so much:
[Moses] thought, maybe the merit of our father Abraham will stand with him, for it says, “And a survivor came and brought news to Abram the Hebrew.” This is Og, who survived the generation of the flood. (Niddah 61a)
אמר שמא תעמוד לו זכות של אברהם אבינו שנאמר (בראשית יד) ויבא הפליט ויגד לאברם העברי ואמר רבי יוחנן זה עוג שפלט מדור המבול
The flood?! We thought only Noah and his family survived the flood. But no! Og managed to make it through somehow, even as the entire world was being destroyed. What did he do? Did he just swim for 40 days? Was he so tall that the water did not drown him? Another Midrash – this time Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer – gives an even stranger answer:
“All existence on earth was blotted out…” (Gen. 7:23) Except for Noah and all who were with him on the Ark, as it says, “Only Noah remained, and those with him on the Ark.” And except for Og, King of Bashan, who sat on a rung of one of the ladders on the Ark, and swore to Noah and his sons that he would be a servant to them forever. So what did Noah do? He drilled a hole in the Ark and would stick out food for Og every day. And so Og also remained, as it says, “Only Og, King of Bashan was left of the remaining Rephaim.” (Deut. 3:11) (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 23:8)
וימח את כל היקום אשר על פני האדמה, חוץ מנח וכל אשר אתו בתבה שנאמר וישאר אך נח ואשר אתו בתיבה, וחוץ מעוג מלך הבשן שישב לו על עץ אחד מן הסולמות של התיבה ונשבע לנח ולבניו שיהיה להם עבד עולם מה עשה נח נקב חור אח’ בתיבה והיה מושיט לו מזונו בכל יום ויום ונשאר גם הוא שנ’ כי רק עוג מלך הבשן וגו’.
So now, Og’s story goes back to the days before the flood. And not only was he connected to Abraham, but he forged some kind of eternal pact with Noah. Think of it: the whole point of that story was that only one righteous family survived – and now we learn that, of all people, Og was there, too!
But there is one piece of this account that doesn’t fit. In this version, what do we make of this last verse the Midrash quotes, the one we started with up top, that only Og was “left of the remaining Rephaim.” Earlier, we thought that meant he survived an attack against the Rephaim. But where were the Rephaim before the flood? Rashi answers that question for us, revealing the final piece of Og’s origin story:
“The remaining Rephaim,” refers back to what it says in Genesis: “And the Nephilim were upon the earth.” (Rashi on Gen. 14:13)
וְזֶהוּ מִיֶּתֶר הָרְפָאִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר הַנְּפִלִים הָיוּ בָאָרֶץ וְגוֹ’
Remember how there are three words for giants in the Torah? Well, the first one to appear is Nephilim, and it takes us to one of the strangest passages in Genesis:
It was then, and also afterwards, that the Nephilim were upon the earth – when divine beings came and cohabited with the daughters of men, who bore them offspring. They were the ancient mighty ones, the men of renown. (Gen. 6:4)
הַנְּפִלִים הָיוּ בָאָרֶץ, בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם, וְגַם אַחֲרֵי-כֵן אֲשֶׁר יָבֹאוּ בְּנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים אֶל-בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם, וְיָלְדוּ לָהֶם: הֵמָּה הַגִּבֹּרִים אֲשֶׁר מֵעוֹלָם, אַנְשֵׁי הַשֵּׁם.
These giants, it seems, were more than just enormous men. They were divine beings. In fact, the word,‘nephilim’ (נפילים), means ‘fallen,’ and many think that this refers to fallen angels. The Targum Yonatan, for example, says that among them was the fallen angel Shemchazai. And the Talmud – in the very last clue of our story – tells us that Og was the grandson of Shemchazai.
So Og was not just ancient; he was primordial. He goes all the way back, almost to the beginning. And he was not just a giant; he was partly divine. Partly, that is, but not all. Og may have had angelic parentage, but he was not himself an angel. He was some kind of blend: in some ways just like us, and in some ways otherworldly.
That is the long and twisted story of Og.
But we still have not answered any of the questions of what it all means? What is it about this giant that keeps him coming back? What role does the story of Og play in our own story?
The key to understanding all of this, I believe, can be found in one line from the Book of Numbers. It appears in the infamous story of The Spies, who are sent to scout out the Land of Canaan – that promised land that is supposed to flow with milk and honey. They are expected to bring good tidings. But when they come back, their report is… not so good.
They bring back some of the fruit of the land, which is gigantic. That seems like a good sign of abundance. But then, they tell of great dangers. The nations who dwell there are powerful. The cities are large and fortified. And, above all, they warn, “we saw the Anakim there.”
Remember ‘Anakim’? That was our third world for ‘giants,’ along with Rephaim and Nephilim. And the spies make this connection explicit:
All the people we saw there are men of great size. We saw the Nephilim there – the Anakim come from the Nephilim – and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we were in their eyes. (Numbers 13:32-33)
וְכָל-הָעָם אֲשֶׁר-רָאִינוּ בְתוֹכָהּ, אַנְשֵׁי מִדּוֹת. וְשָׁם רָאִינוּ, אֶת-הַנְּפִילִים בְּנֵי עֲנָק–מִן-הַנְּפִלִים; וַנְּהִי בְעֵינֵינוּ כַּחֲגָבִים, וְכֵן הָיִינוּ בְּעֵינֵיהֶם.
So the Anakim come from the Nephilim. These giants come from those mysterious giants in back Genesis, just as Og was descended from those same angelic beings. It seems that all the giants in the Torah are related.
But the strangest thing about this verse isn’t how the Anakim looked. It is the last phrase, about how the spies looked. For the spies don’t just say that “we looked like grasshoppers to them.” They say, “we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves… and so we were in their eyes.”
The fruit, the cities, the people – everything and everyone looked overwhelmingly big to the Israelites – primarily because in their own self-perception, they were so small. The Anakites may indeed have been people of great stature, but God certainly doesn’t think they are unbeatable. To the spies, however, they are simply giants. More, even – they are the legendary Nephilim, the kind of giants that possess supernatural powers, the kind of giants that take the daughters of men.
But then, when you feel like a tiny insect, every person you come across is a giant.
The persistence of Og in our collective story, then, is a testament to our persistent feeling of smallness. Giants haunt us because we fundamentally do not believe that we are big enough, or strong enough, to survive.
That is why, in the crazy story of Og and the mountain, God sends ants to save the day – as if to say, even the smallest creatures on earth have the power to defeat a giant. And that is why, perhaps, Moses is then suddenly 15 feet tall. At first he was afraid of Og, just as the spies were afraid of their giants. But when one arrives at a place of a confidence in one’s own stature in the world, then one walks tall like everyone else.
Og is gone, but there will always be giants in the world. So long as we are small in our own eyes, there will always be some new, oversized monster, threatening to annihilate us. To defeat giants, we must begin see ourselves as normal-sized. And then, remarkably, the giant begins to shrink.
Maimonides, the great rationalist, held that Og was:
Twice the size of most other people, or a little bit more. This is undoubtedly rare in the human race, but in no way impossible. (Guide to the Perplexed 2:47)
Yes, he was big. But he wasn’t inhuman.
That confusion has been with us from the start. All of the stories we’ve seen have this element of uncertainty in them. Is Og human, or not? Is he righteous, or evil? Is he our friend, or our enemy?
We remain suspicious, nervous, wary of everyone around us. We are always worried that the giant will come back. But the truth is, we are not really afraid of how big the giant is. We are afraid, have always been afraid, of how small we are.
The Book of the Covenant (Devarim 5777)
As we begin reading the fifth and final book of the Torah, I would like to discuss three questions. First, why does the book of Devarim have the structure it does: a mix of history, law, recollection and anticipation?
The sages knew that Devarim had a clear structure. Elsewhere in the Torah some rabbis used the principle of semikhut haparshiyot – that we can learn something from the fact that passage Y occurs immediately after passage X. Others however did not, because there is a rule, Ein Mukdam Umu’achar BaTorah, meaning, the Torah does not always follow a strict chronological sequence. So we cannot always attach significance to the fact that the passages are in the order they are. However, everyone agrees that there is precise order and structure in the book of Devarim (Berakhot 21b). But what is the order?
Second: the sages originally called Devarim Mishneh Torah, a “second law”. Hence the Latin name Deuteronomy, which means, the second law. But in what sense is Devarim a second law? Some of the laws Moses states in the book have appeared before, others have not. Is it a repetition of the laws Moses received at Sinai and the Tent of Meeting? Is it something new? What exactly is the meaning of Mishneh Torah?
Third: what is the book doing here? It represents the speeches Moses delivered in the last month of his life to the generation who would cross the Jordan and enter the Promised Land. Why is it included in the Torah at all? If the Torah is a history book, then we should proceed directly from the end of Bamidbar, the arrival of the Israelites at the banks of the river Jordan, to the book of Joshua, when they crossed the river and began their conquest of the land. If the Torah is a book of law, then Devarim should just be a collection of laws without all the historical reminiscence and prophecy it contains. What kind of book is Devarim and what is its significance to the Torah as a whole?
A number of relatively recent archeological discoveries have however thrown new light on all these questions. They are the engraved records of ancient treaties between neighbouring powers. Among them are the “Stele of the Vultures” commemorating the victory of Eannatum, ruler of Lagash in southern Mesopotamia, over the people of Umma, and that of Naram-Sin, king of Kish and Akkad, with the ruler of Elam. Both date from the third millennium BCE, that is to say, before the time of Abraham.
The treaties are of two kinds: between parties of roughly equal power (“parity treaties”) and those between a strong one (a precursor of the modern idea of a superpower) and a weak one. These latter are known as “suzerainty treaties”, suzerain meaning the dominant power in a particular region.
Another name for treaty is, of course, brit, or covenant, and we now see their significance for an understanding of Judaism. Covenant was the basic structure in the ancient Middle East of treaties between neighbouring powers. Abraham, for example, makes a brit with Avimelech, king of Gerar, at Beersheva (Gen. 21:27-32). So does Isaac (Gen. 26:28). Jacob does so with Laban (Gen. 31:44-54).
What the newly discovered treaties show is the precise form of ancient covenants. They had six parts.  They began with a preamble, establishing the identity of the person or power initiating the covenant. This was followed by  a historical prologue, reviewing the history of the relationship between the two parties to the covenant. Then came  the provisions of the covenant itself, the stipulations, which were often stated in two forms, [a] general principles, and [b] detailed provisions.
There then followed  a provision for the covenant to be deposited in a sacred place, and read on a regular basis. Next came  the sanctions associated with the covenant, namely the blessings that would follow if it was adhered to, and the curses that would occur if it is broken. Lastly there is  a statement of the witnesses to the agreement – usually the gods of the nations involved. The entire book of Devarim is structured as an extended covenant, on precisely these lines. This is how it works:
In other words, apart from Moses’ song and blessing of the tribes, with which the book and Moses’ life come to an end, the entire book of Devarim is a covenant on a monumental scale.
We now see the extraordinary nature of the book. It has taken an ancient political formula and used it for an entirely new purpose.
What is unique about the covenant in Judaism is, first, that one of the parties is God Himself. This would have been unintelligible to Israel’s neighbours, and remains extraordinary even today. The idea that God might bind himself to human beings, linking their destiny to His, making them His ambassadors – His “witnesses” – to the world, is still radical and challenging.
Second, the other party to the covenant is not, as it was in the ancient world, the king or ruler of the relevant nation, but the people as a whole. Every Israelite, as we saw in Exodus 19 and 24, and throughout Deuteronomy, is party to the covenant, and co-responsible with the people as a whole for its being kept.
From this flows the idea of Kol Yisrael Arevin Zeh Lazeh, “all Jews are responsible for one another”, as well as the much later American idea of “We, the people.” This transformation meant that every Jew had to know the law and teach it to his or her children. Every Jew had to know the story of his or her people, reciting it on Pesach and when bringing first-fruits to Jerusalem.
This is covenant politics, a unique form of political structure based not on a hierarchy of power but on a shared sense of history and destiny. It is a moral politics, dedicated to creating a just and gracious society that honours the dignity of all, especially the downtrodden, the poor, the powerless and the marginal: the widow, the orphan and the stranger.
The structure of the book is now clear. It follows precisely the structure of an ancient suzerainty treaty between a strong power, God, and a weak one, the Israelites. Politically, such treaties were well known in the ancient world, but religiously this is unique. For it means that God has taken an entire nation to be His “partners in the work of creation” by showing all humanity what it is to construct a society that honours each individual as the image of God.
We now understand what Mishneh Torah means. It means that this book is a “copy” of the covenant between God and the people, made at Sinai, renewed on the bank of the Jordan, and renewed again at significant moments of Jewish history. It is the written record of the agreement, just as a ketubah is a written record of the obligations undertaken by a husband toward his wife.
We now also understand the place of Devarim in Tanakh as a whole. It is the axis on which all Jewish history turns. Had the generation who left Egypt the faith and courage to enter the promised land, all Jewish history would turn on the revelation at Sinai. In fact, though, the episode of the spies showed that that generation lacked the spirit to do so. Therefore the critical moment came for the next generation, when Moses at the end of his life renewed the covenant with them as the condition of their inheritance of the land. The four previous books of the Torah lead up to this moment, and all the other books of Tanakh are a commentary to it – an account of how it worked out in the course of time.
Devarim is the book of the covenant, the centre-point of Jewish theology, and the project it defines is unique. For it aims at nothing less than the construction of a society that would moralise its members, inspire others, and serve as a role model of what might be achieved were humanity as a whole to worship the one God who made us all in His image.
THE ORIGINAL CHABAD – Parshat Devarim
This week, we take a journey into the realm of Jewish epistemology. That ten-dollar word, epistemology, refers to theories of knowledge – attempts to answer the fundamental questions of how we know things and what can be known at all.
But in the world of parshanut, even the most rarefied philosophical investigations begin, as Torah commentary always does, with a textual difficulty. So here’s the problem: when Moses is recounting the process by which he first selected judges to resolve disputes for the Israelites, he says he asked them to:
Bring, from each your tribes, men who are wise, understanding, and knowledgeable, and I will appoint them as your heads. (Deuteronomy 1:13)
הָבוּ לָכֶם אֲנָשִׁים חֲכָמִים וּנְבֹנִים, וִידֻעִים–לְשִׁבְטֵיכֶם; וַאֲשִׂימֵם, בְּרָאשֵׁיכֶם.
If you happen to have some familiarity with Jewish mystical literature, you may already be noticing three words which are related to key terms in Kabbalistic systems of thought: Chochmah (חכמה), Binah (בינה), and Da’at (דעת) – three types of cognition often translated as ‘wisdom,’ ‘understanding,’ and ‘knowledge.’
But let’s hold off on examining those concepts for just another moment, and finish with the textual dilemma, which comes two verses later, when Moses says:
So I took your tribal leaders, men who were wise and knowledgeable, and appointed them as heads over you. (Deuteronomy 1:15)
וָאֶקַּח אֶת-רָאשֵׁי שִׁבְטֵיכֶם, אֲנָשִׁים חֲכָמִים וִידֻעִים, וָאֶתֵּן אוֹתָם רָאשִׁים, עֲלֵיכֶם:
We have nearly the same phrasing here, but with one adjective missing: ‘understanding.’ Moses asked for men who were wise, understanding and knowledgeable; but he ends up recruiting men who are just wise and knowledgeable. So what happened to understanding?
Now, you might say, well, no big deal, they all basically mean the same thing. Moses was just a bit less wordy the second time. But, of course, the classical Jewish interpretive method doesn’t work that way. Rather, it operates on the assumption that every word in the Torah is distinct and significant. So if there were three versions of knowledge mentioned in one sentence, they must all mean different things; and if now there are only two, there must be some reason for one to have fallen off.
Rashi, quoting from the Sifrei, gives us an explanation of the discrepancy. He says Moses appointed:
men who were wise and knowledgeable – but men who were understanding [said Moses], I could not find.
אנשים חכמים וידועים – אבל נבונים לא מצאתי
This is the most obvious way to solve the textual problem, at least. Moses wanted judges with all three of the types of knowledge he listed. But when he went searching for them, he could only find men with two out of three. And Binah – understanding – was the quality that proved most difficult to track down.
But Rashi’s answer leads immediately to a more difficult question: What, exactly is Binah – as opposed to Chochmah, or Da’at – and why would it be so difficult to find?
In search of an answer, then, we now return to the classic tripling of those three qualities in the Kabbalistic framework. In the great mystic philosopher Rabbi Yizchak Luria’s version of the doctrine of the Ten Sefirot – that is, the ten aspects of God’s being, through which God creates the world – the top three are Chochmah, Binah, and Da’at.
Clearly, this trio is imported from their grouping in Tanach, for these three word-roots, in various forms, appear together several times throughout the Hebrew Bible. In fact, our verse here in Deuteronomy is not even the first place in the Torah where the full grouping is found. That would be back in the Book of Exodus, when God is tells Moses that Betzalel has been selected as the Master Builder of the Tabernacle. God says:
I have filled him with a divine spirit, with wisdom, with understanding, and with knowledge… (Exodus 31:3)
וָאֲמַלֵּא אֹתוֹ, רוּחַ אֱלֹקים, בְּחָכְמָה וּבִתְבוּנָה וּבְדַעַת…
They appear together again much later, in the prophetic Book of Hosea, which ends with this enigmatic verse:
One who is wise, will understand these things; One who is understanding will know them: That the paths of the Lord are straight; The righteous walk down them, while sinners stumble upon them. (Hosea 14:10)
מִי חָכָם וְיָבֵן אֵלֶּה, נָבוֹן וְיֵדָעֵם: כִּי-יְשָׁרִים דַּרְכֵי ה, וְצַדִּקִים יֵלְכוּ בָם, וּפֹשְׁעִים, יִכָּשְׁלוּ בָם.
And the terms are clustered once more in that wisdom-obsessed Book of Proverbs, where they are now given cosmological significance as well:
The Lord founded the earth with wisdom; prepared the heavens with understanding. And with His knowledge the depths were split open, and the clouds distilled dew. (Proverbs 3:19-20)
ה–בְּחָכְמָה יָסַד-אָרֶץ; כּוֹנֵן שָׁמַיִם, בִּתְבוּנָה. בְּדַעְתּוֹ, תְּהוֹמוֹת נִבְקָעוּ; וּשְׁחָקִים, יִרְעֲפוּ-טָל.
So we see that these terms are not just a poetic flurry of synonyms, but three distinct qualities that represent different kinds of awareness. We see also, from Hosea, that they seem to have a sequential relationship, such that one might build on the other. And we can imagine, given their context in Proverbs, how they could be understood as primal forces through which the universe was formed. All of these Biblical associations pave the way for the positioning of Chochmah, Binah, and Da’at as the first three of the Sefirot in the tenfold Kabbalistic system of divine attributes.
They then gain additional significance when they are adopted from that sefirotic ladder and used as the primary foundations for the philosophical system of the great intellectual powerhouse of Hassidic Judaism, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. Indeed his followers, the Lubavitcher Hassidim, even refer to their movement with a now-famous acronym formed from the first letters of CHochmah, Binah, and Da’at: “CHaBaD.”
So it is to Rabbi Schneur Zalman whom we turn for the most thoroughgoing explication of these three terms, given in the beginning of his philosophical opus, the Tanya (for which he is often referred to as the ‘Ba’al HaTanya’). He writes:
The intellect of the reasoning self, that apprehends any object, is called Chochmah – which refers to the potentiality of that which is (koach-mah; כח–מה). When one brings forth this potential into the actual – that is, when one cogitates with one’s intellect in order to understand all the richness and profundity of the object which was first grasped with Chochmah – that is called Binah… Then Da’at can be understood from the verse, “And Adam knew (yada’a) Eve,” (Gen. 4:1) which implies attachment and union. That is, when one binds one’s mind with a very firm and strong bond, and fixes one’s thoughts on [an object,] without any mental distraction.
השכל שבנפש המשכלת, שהוא המשכיל כל דבר, נקרא בשם חכמה – כ“ח מ”ה. וכשמוציא כחו אל הפועל, שמתבונן בשכלו להבין דבר לאשורו ולעמקו מתוך איזה דבר חכמה המושכל בשכלו, נקרא בינה…והדעת הוא מלשון (בראשית ד א): “והאדם ידע את חוה”, והוא לשון התקשרות והתחברות, שמקשר דעתו בקשר אמיץ וחזק מאוד, ויתקע מחשבתו בחוזק בגדולת אין סוף ברוך הוא, ואינו מסיח דעתו.
Here then, we have arrived an actual epistemology, a theory of the processes by which a thing comes to be truly known by conscious subject. I will certainly not pretend to understand the depth of what the Ba’al HaTanya is saying here. But on a surface level, at least, we have some definitions: Chochmah is the basic capacity to have awareness of a thing – knowledge that it is. Binah is the ability to extrapolate the properties and qualities of a thing, and to conceive of how it might be applied in the world – knowledge of what it is like. And Da’at is the coming into actual relationship with a thing, and applying it in the real world – focused, particular knowledge of how it works. We can also see how this process of knowing is progressive: one begins with Chochmah – becoming aware of something; moves to Binah – coming to understand the nature of that thing; and then arrives at Da’at – experiencing that thing and knowing it intimately.
Now, then, we can return to the difficulty that Moses faced when he went out to find authorities for the community. He found men who had wisdom and knowledge – Chochmah and Da’at – but lacked Binah, understanding. Following the Ba’al HaTanya’s system, that means they could identify a situation, and they knew how to apply the law to it. But they were missing a step. They skipped over the process of careful deliberation that revealed the full texture of the case and all of its possible implications. In other words, as judges, they were able to be technical problem-solvers, but they lacked an awareness of the nuances and complexity of the human condition that the circumstances of the case suggested. Like so many students of the law, they knew how to spot a issue, and what to do about it, but they did not fully appreciate why it mattered.
We might conclude that it is simply inevitable that our leaders will be lacking some important form of knowledge or another. These are said to be divine attributes, after all, so perhaps we can only expect them to be fully manifested when they emerge from the Godhead. Bezalel, in Exodus, remarkably seems to have possessed all three qualities. But if Moses cannot find any others who do, he will simply have to settle for two out of three. Such is the imperfect nature of human leadership.
But the 13th-century French commentator, Hezekiah ben Manoah, the “Hizkuni,” offers us a clue as to what else have gone wrong with Moses’ search. He begins by mentioning Rashi’s comment that Binah could not be found, and then reflects on the dilemma as follows:
[We seek those who are] Wise, Understanding, and Knowledgeable – but if we cannot find all three, we bring those who have two, and if we cannot find two, we bring those who have just one. For after all, it is written, “A woman of valor, who can find?”
חכמים ונבונים וידועים לא מצאו מג’ מביאים משנים לא מצאו משנים מביאים מאחד שכך כתיב אשת חיל מי ימצא.
That citation is striking. “A woman of valor,” is the opening phrase of the well-known passage at the end of the book of Proverbs that has been set to melody for the classic Shabbat song, Eishet Chayil. Now, I have no idea if the Hizkuni intended to emphasize the search for a “woman,” in particular. Perhaps he just meant that it is hard to find any person with all the strengths one seeks.
But with this particular prompt – “A woman of valor, who can find?” – the modern reader can hardly fail to recognize that it is precisely the “woman” who has been left out of Moses’ list of qualifications. He specifically mentions the search for men who are wise, understanding and knowledgeable. Then he is unable to turn up anyone who has understanding and must settle for men who are wise and knowledgeable. But he has left out half the population! Were there women who had Binah there in the community, who would have made excellent judges, if only they had been considered?
We shall never know the answer to that question. But an interesting statement in the Talmud gives us even more cause to wonder:
The Holy Blessed One gave extra Binah to women, more so than to men. (Niddah 45b)
נתן הקב“ה בינה יתירה באשה יותר מבאיש
The claim here seems to be that Binah is a particularly feminine quality, and that women have a greater capacity for certain kinds of understanding than do men.
Now, far be it from me to endorse the theory that men and women might have different kinds of intelligence, either by biological makeup or cultural programming. Those are murky waters to wade into, with all kinds of problematic religious and political implications. I leave that debate to responsible scientists and social theorists.
What is important, from the perspective of scriptural analysis, is to notice that the rabbis did – if only occasionally – recognize that women might bring particular forms insight to the table that men lacked. Whether those insights would be the product of natural tendencies, unique historical and cultural experiences, or simply the statistical increase resulting from greater numbers – including women in the pool of leadership candidates greatly increases the collective knowledge base, and so improves the chances of finding those rare souls who possess all of the ideal qualities we seek in our leaders.
This is a lesson Moses could have benefitted from greatly, back in those difficult days in the desert. Sadly enough, it is a lesson we need to learn yet again, in these difficult days, when wise, understanding, and knowledgeable leaders are still so very hard to find.
From Brian Yosef Schachter-Brooks
The Great River
From Rav Kook
Devarim: Elucidating the Torah
“On the east bank of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses began to elucidate (be’er) this Torah.” (Deut. 1:5)
Moses and Ezra
The fifth book of the Torah differs from the first four books. Deuteronomy is not a verbatim transmission of God’s word, but a prophetic work, on par with the writings of other prophets. The final book of the Torah is called Mishneh Torah (Deut. 17:18), for it is Moses’ review and elucidation of the Torah.
A second surge of Torah exegesis took place in the time of Ezra:
“They read in the book of God’s Torah, clarified (meforash); and they gave the sense, and explained the reading to them” (Nehemiah 8:8).
Both Moses and Ezra explained and elucidated the Torah. Their methods of interpretation, however, differed. Moses’ elucidation was a biur, while Ezra’s was a perush. What is the difference between these two methods?
Two Methods of Elucidation
From the time of Moses until Ezra, the Torah was clarified through the method of biur. This word comes from the root be’er, meaning a well of water. Like a well, the creative outpouring of learning flowed “like an overflowing spring and a river that never dries up” (Avot 6:1). This form of analysis begins by deducing the underlying principles; then, all of the details may be derived from these fundamental principles, the hidden foundations of the Torah.
Ezra, however, recognized that the innovative biur, with its subtle methods of induction and deduction, was not suitable for all periods. In a time of exile, this approach could prove to be dangerous. Political instability and social upheaval diminish the quality of scholarship and peace of mind, thus weakening the nation’s spiritual and intellectual capabilities. In such difficult conditions, the method of biur could be misused, leading to a subversion of the Torah’s true aims.
Therefore, Ezra promoted the approach of perush. This is an empirical method of analyzing a subject by examining all of its details. Details are compared to one another, without attempting to determine the underlying principles. The word perush comes from the root paras, “to spread forth” (see Isaiah 25:11). This form of analysis is less risky, since it limits itself to the material at hand.
Letterforms for the Times
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 21b) states that Ezra was a scholar of such stature that the Torah could have been given to Israel through him. While this did not occur, Ezra nonetheless made a revolutionary change in the Torah, by switching the writing in the Torah from the ancient Hebrew script to the square Assyrian script. Why did Ezra make this change in the letterforms?
The two scripts reflect different needs of the nation. During the First Temple period, there was little interaction with other nations, and the Torah did not openly influence the world. The Jewish people dwelled in their own land, and the kohanim and the Levites were available to inspect the text of the Torah scrolls and guard them from any scribal errors. When Moses gave the Torah to the Jewish people, a clear script not given to mistakes in transmission was not of paramount importance. The problem of similar-looking letterforms in the ancient Hebrew script was not an issue during the relatively stable era of the First Temple period.
Ezra lived at the beginning of the Second Temple period. This era was essentially a time for the Jewish people to prepare themselves for the long and difficult exile that would follow. Retaining the difficult ancient letterforms would have made it impossible to safeguard the accuracy of the Torah’s text. In the centuries of exile and wanderings from country to country, the original Hebrew script would have lead to many mistakes and uncertainties. The sages of the beginning of the Second Temple period, aware of the long exile to come, worked to fortify the spiritual state of the people, despite the future loss of the nation’s unifying institutions, such as the Temple, the Sanhedrin, and the monarchy. One of the initiatives of that era was Ezra’s decision to switch the script to the clear Assyrian script, whose unambiguous letters would prevent confusing similar letters in the text of the Torah.
A Fence for the Torah
The sages of that era made other preparations for the future exile, establishing protective decrees to guard the Torah’s laws. “Make a fence for the Torah” (Avot 1:1) was the motto of the Great Assembly.
Even though these changes came about due to the needs of the hour, the Jewish people recognized the value and benefits of these decrees. As the nation adopted these holy paths, pure deeds and worthy customs, a net of eternal love spread over them, and they acquired a permanent place in the spiritual life of the nation.
(Gold from the Land of Israel, pp. 291-293. Adapted from the Introduction to Ein Eyah vol. I, pp. 14-17)
THE MISSING YEARS – Parshat Devarim
How did it take forty years to walk from Egypt to Israel?
It’s just not that far. I mean, it’s far. But it’s not that far. Even if they were moving slowly, it shouldn’t have taken more than a year.
Well, there were many twists and turns, and stops along the way. But it seems that the major holdup was in a place called ‘Kadesh.’ Last week, we got a long rundown of all forty-two encampments the people set up during the journey through the desert – and the thirty-third of them was Kadesh:
They encamped in the wilderness of Tzin, which was Kadesh. Then they travelled from Kadesh and encamped at Mount Hor, on the edge of the land of Edom. (Num. 33:36-37)
וַיַּחֲנוּ בְמִדְבַּר-צִן, הִוא קָדֵשׁ. וַיִּסְעוּ, מִקָּדֵשׁ; וַיַּחֲנוּ בְּהֹר הָהָר, בִּקְצֵה אֶרֶץ אֱדוֹם.
That’s it. Nothing special about Kadesh mentioned here. Mount Hor, actually, is described as a notable stop, because Aaron the priest died there. But Kadesh seems unremarkable.
Until we get to this week’s parsha, the opening of the book of Deuteronomy which has Moses recollecting the journey from Mount Sinai onward. And as he closes the first chapter, following a lengthy description of the sin of the spies, Moses says a rather mysterious thing:
You remained in Kadesh for many days, like the days that you remained. And we turned and travelled back into the wilderness by way of the Sea of Reeds, as the Lord had spoken to me, and we skirted Mount Seir for many days. (Deut. 1:46-2:1)
וַתֵּשְׁבוּ בְקָדֵשׁ, יָמִים רַבִּים, כַּיָּמִים, אֲשֶׁר יְשַׁבְתֶּם.וַנֵּפֶן וַנִּסַּע הַמִּדְבָּרָה, דֶּרֶךְ יַם-סוּף, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר ה, אֵלָי; וַנָּסָב אֶת-הַר-שֵׂעִיר, יָמִים רַבִּים.
“Many days…many days,” he says twice. But just how many days did they remain there in Kadesh? Rashi answers, in more than just a number of days:
Nineteen years, as it says,“as the days that you dwelled” in the other stations. They totaled thirty-eight years; nineteen of them were spent at Kadesh, and for nineteen years they were continually wandering about, and returning to Kadesh.
י”ט שנה, שנאמר כימים אשר ישבתם בשאר המסעות והם היו ל”ח שנה, י”ט מהם עשו בקדש וי”ט שנה הולכים ומטורפים וחזרו לקדש
Nineteen years! Out of thirty-eight! So fully half the time they were out there in the desert they were in Kadesh. What were they doing there all that time?!
Well the verses here tell us that they “skirted Mount Seir,” also for many days. So it is as if they spend the whole time in Kadesh, all nineteen years, just looking out toward Seir, going up and circling around it, but trying to avoid it.
And, in fact, that is exactly what the next verse indicates – that they were stalling, and that God had to intervene to get them moving:
Then the Lord said to me: Enough of your skirting around this mountain! Turn north, and command the people as follows: You will be passing through the border of your brothers, the children of Esau, who live in Seir. (Deut. 2:2-4)
וַיֹּאמֶר ה, אֵלַי לֵאמֹר. רַב-לָכֶם, סֹב אֶת-הָהָר הַזֶּה; פְּנוּ לָכֶם, צָפֹנָה. וְאֶת-הָעָם, צַו לֵאמֹר, אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים בִּגְבוּל אֲחֵיכֶם בְּנֵי-עֵשָׂו, הַיֹּשְׁבִים בְּשֵׂעִיר
Ah – so it’s the Children of Esau we’d been avoiding! The Children of Esau who are, the verse says, “our brothers.” The midrashim pick up on this language immediately and suggest, in various ways, that the hesitation to move forward here was a product of the historic tension between Jacob and his brother Esau. Perhaps Esau’s descendants were still angry that Jacob had stolen the birthright blessing from them. Or, one midrash highlights Esau’s respect for his father Isaac, and gives that as the reason that God now protects the children of Esau and gave them the land of Seir. (see v. 5)
But the most illuminating midrashic connection I found brings us back to the last time Israel was traveling toward Esau, on Jacob’s journey home after 20 years in Haran. Jacob then received word that Esau was coming toward him, and he was terrified. So Jacob sent ahead gifts, as a tribute, to pacify his brother. But when Esau sees them, he declines, saying:
I have enough, my brother. Let what you have remain yours. (Gen. 33:9)
וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו, יֶשׁ-לִי רָב, אָחִי, יְהִי לְךָ אֲשֶׁר-לָךְ.
That word for ‘enough’ – רב (rav) – the rabbis hear echoed again in our parsha when God says
Enough of your skirting around this mountain! (Deut. 2:3)
רַב-לָכֶם, סֹב אֶת-הָהָר הַזֶּה
Esau declined the gift back then, and so, says the midrash:
Rabbi Shmuel son of Rabbi Gedaliah said that The Holy Blessed One said: I pay back kindnesses. Because Esau said, “I have enough,” do not trouble yourself, so The Holy Blessed One said, “With this language he honored his brother, and so with the same language I say, turn before him, ‘Enough of your skirting.’” (Devarim Rabbah 1:17)
אמר רבי שמואל בר רבי גדליה: אמר הקב”ה: גמולות אני פורע. בשעה שנתן יעקב דורון לעשו, מה עשו אמר לו? יש לי רב, לא תצטער. אמר הקב”ה: בלשון הזה כבדו, בלשון הזה אני אומר לו פנו מלפניו, רב לכם סב
The linguistic connection the midrash is making is clear enough. And certainly the encounter between these two brothers mirrors the later confrontation between their descendants. But what is the “payback” Rabbi Shmuel says is being offered? What does God give Esau in return for his “kindness”?
Well, let’s look at what Esau actually wanted back then, if not the gifts. What he says to his brother, whom he once hated, after twenty years apart, is this:
Let us start on our journey, and I will go with you. (Gen. 33:12)
וַיֹּאמֶר, נִסְעָה וְנֵלֵכָה; וְאֵלְכָה, לְנֶגְדֶּךָ
Esau wanted to travel with Jacob, to begin a new journey together. Could it be that he also wanted to start over, and begin a new chapter in their relationship? But Jacob declines, excusing himself by saying that he has to go slower because the children are frail and the animals are hard to manage. Instead, Jacob said:
Let my lord go on ahead of his servant, while I travel slowly… until I come to my lord in Seir. (Gen 33:14)
יַעֲבָר-נָא אֲדֹנִי, לִפְנֵי עַבְדּוֹ; וַאֲנִי אֶתְנָהֲלָה לְאִטִּי…עַד אֲשֶׁר-אָבֹא אֶל-אֲדֹנִי, שֵׂעִירָה
I will see you in Seir, says Jacob. You go, and I promise to meet you there. There we will talk more. There, after decades of hatred and pain, we will begin again. This was the moment, perhaps, when the possibility of reconciliation hung in the air.
But then what do we read next?
So Esau started back that day on his way to Seir. But Jacob journeyed on to Sukkot, and built a house for himself there… (Gen. 33:16-17)
וַיָּשָׁב בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא עֵשָׂו לְדַרְכּוֹ, שֵׂעִירָה. וְיַעֲקֹב נָסַע סֻכֹּתָה, וַיִּבֶן לוֹ בָּיִת
Jacob never showed up. He sent Esau on ahead to Seir, and then turned and went the other way. Esau, who had extended his hand in brotherhood, was left again, all alone. And, says another midrash, “we do not find that Jacob ever went to Esau at Mount Seir for the rest of his life.” (Gen. Rabbah 78:14)
And now, hundreds of years later, the children of Jacob are once again skirting Mount Seir. They are still avoiding this encounter. For nineteen years they dithered in the desert, going around in circles, unable to move forward, unable to go home. Because they could not bear to pass through the land of Seir, and to face their brothers, the Children of Esau.
Of the forty-two encampments listed in the journey from Egypt to Israel, the first of them is called, ‘Sukkot.’ That is, of course, the place Jacob went when he turned away from his brother. Now he must turn back, northward, and finally head into the land of Seir.
At the end of the book of Genesis, Joseph and his brothers, so long at odds, have reconciled and become the Nation of Israel. But their father, Jacob, had never done the same with his own brother. This final confrontation, it seems, is what remains before they can enter the Land of Israel. And they have been avoiding it for nearly forty years.
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Reb Mimi Feigelson
Lecturer of Rabbinic Studies
Welcome to “Heaven” and “Hell”
Torah Reading: Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22
Haftarah Reading: Isaiah 1:1 – 27
American Ecological-Anthropologist Roy Rappaport (1926-1997) taught me today that “The linguistic capacity that is central to human adaptation makes it possible to give birth to concepts that come to possess those who have conceived them, concepts like… heaven and hell.” This understanding made me smile and gave academic language to that which I heard years ago from my teacher, Reb Shlomo Carlebach (1925-1994; hard not to see the close parallels the years they were both granted life). It is a true gift for me when multiple voices of who I am in the world can find a language to converse with. For today Prof. Rappaport and Reb Shlomo, both of blessed memory, are conversing…
Reb Shlomo suggests that the Olam Ha’bah (the Coming World) is a big movie theater. In one eye we see every moment of our life and how we lived it. In the other eye we see how we were meant to live each and every moment. When we see the same movie in both eyes, he explains, we are living in Heaven; and when we see two different movies simultaneously, we are living for a moment in Hell. As you know me, I had two immediate reactions when hearing this teaching. The first: “Stop watching ‘The Sound of Music’ immediately! You’ve seen it over twenty times (growing up Mariah Van Trapp was my hero, and everything I wanted for myself), and when you get up There, you’ll see it over twenty times again… that should be enough for two lifetimes!” The second thought, a bit more reverent: “Reb Shlomo, one doesn’t have to die to inherit Heaven or Hell. There are moments in my life that I’m in the right place at the right time, with the right people, doing the right thing, and it feels like “Heaven”… and there are moments in my life that I’m with the right person but the wrong time or situation in my life, or in the right place but not the right situation, and that clearly bears with it a distinct feeling of “Hell”. I have a sense that you can empathize with these feelings, yes?
This Shabbat feels to me as a moment of Heaven and Hell converging, as I simultaneously embrace a distinct teaching that I always hold in my heart and is drawn from the Ishbitzer rebbe (the Mei Ha’Shiloach, R’ Mordechai Yosef Lainer of Ishbitza, 1800-1854) on this week’s Torah portion, and because this year Tisha b’Av falls on Shabbat.
Moshe Rabeinu, while retelling the story of his leadership recounts in chapter 1 verses 9-13 ‘I can’t do this alone, I shall appoint from among you wise, understanding and known leaders’ but when he appointed them he does not mention that they were understanding, only that they were wise and known. Quoting the Talmud (Nedarim 20b) the Ishbitzer rebbe says that they were not gifted with the gift of Bina / intuitional understanding. For the Ishbitzer rebbe, Moshe, when saying “I can’t do this alone” is really saying, “I can’t do this… but you can…. I can’t beseech God to let me in the Land, but if you ask, if you tell God that you won’t enter the Land of Israel without me, perhaps your prayers will help!” But, based on the Talmud, he teaches that they didn’t understand what Moshe was saying and therefore Moshe leaves out the word “understanding.” What is so tragic about this teaching, for me, is the magnitude of their deafness. For the Ishbitzer rebbe this is almost inconceivable, for in his interpretation of Shalch Lecha, only a few portions back, he explains that the original motive of the Spies was to keep Moshe in their midst. For they had knowledge of what would be taught in the Talmud (Avodah Zara 5b) that a student needs forty years to comprehend the depth of their teacher’s knowledge, and knowing, then, that Moshe was their leader in the desert meant that they had to find a way to stay in the desert with him for forty years… The tragedy, and hence the “Hell” in this moment of our parasha is how the Princes of the tribes undertake all that it will take to have Moshe, their teacher, with them for forty years, but at the last moment, here, while standing on the outskirts of the Land of Israel, when he is trying to tell them that he needs them, their prayer on his behalf, they are not able to hear him! They cannot truly understand what he is saying to them! The greatest moment of “Hell” for a teacher… at the end of your journey with your students, to experience how they still don’t understand what you are really asking of them.
The “Heaven” of this Shabbat is that it is Tisha b’Av… as the ninth day of the month of Menachem-Av falls on Shabbat. This year we have the divine gift of being able to celebrate Tisha b’Av with blessings over wine and challah! We have the gift of reciting the Musaf prayer, as appropriate for Shabbat and holydays! And with the truth that much of the destruction happened on the tenth of Av (it began on the ninth and then proceeded into the tenth) we will actually be fasting this year when the Temples were actually going up in flames. This year we are blessed with a taste of ‘Olam Ha’Bah’ – the Coming World – we are blessed with the gift of Shabbat and community, and elements of celebration that are aligned with the promise of the Holyday Tisha b’Av will look like in the future.
This year we don’t have to wait for that future which at times seems so distant and impossible to attain. The gift of the cycle of our divine Mother Moon is that we have a taste of “Heaven” in the form of Tisha b’Av descending upon Shabbat.
I write these words on the night of the ‘Shloshim’ (the completion of the initial thirty days of mourning) for my soul-brother, the loved and brilliant Educator, Rami Wernik. Rami was blessed to learn from Moshe Rabeinu – he made sure to not leave his students side till he knew that they understood what it was that he was saying to them. And for me, while identical to relationships between birth-siblings, there were moments of “Hell” when waiting for him to return a call or email. Beyond that there was not a moment with him, when face-to-face, that wasn’t true “Heaven”. I walk in gratitude for those endless visits to “Heaven” together, and return to them on a night like tonight to share with him again, even though separated by a veil between our worlds.
I pray that this Shabbat we create that “Heaven” for and with each other. I pray we sit at a Shabbat table where we feel and experience being understood, and able to express our needs in a manner that can be comprehended. I pray we dwell in God’s House-of-Prayer in true celebration of the Coming-World. I so believe that we can do this for each other!
Shabbat shalom and Chag Sameach!
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
This week’s portion: listening to the holy space between
Here’s the d’var Torah I offered this morning at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)
שָׁמֹ֤עַ בֵּין־אֲחֵיכֶם֙ וּשְׁפַטְתֶ֣ם צֶ֔דֶק בֵּין־אִ֥ישׁ וּבֵין־אָחִ֖יו וּבֵ֥ין גֵּרוֹ
Hear out your fellow man, and decide justly between any man and a fellow Israelite or a stranger.
This line leapt out at me this year. Literally the first phrase means “Listen between your brothers.” Listen to the different perspectives of your brothers, your kinsfolk, those who are part of your tribe. Because even your kinsfolk will have diverse opinions and perspectives. And it’s important to listen not only to “each side,” but also to the Torah of the in-between, the space between their perspectives in which is held the truth that multiple truths can coexist, that “you don’t have to be wrong for me to be right.”
Our mystics teach that each letter of Torah is holy, and even more holy is the white space of the parchment which contains the letters and the infinite possibilities between them. The lived Torah of every human experience is holy, and even more holy is the space between us, the space in which we can choose to interact with lovindkindness and compassion, even when we disagree. Maybe especially when we disagree. It’s easy to relate in an I/Thou manner which acknowledges the full dignity of every human being when we’re on the same side. That becomes a lot harder when our disagreements are impassioned and heartfelt.
Listen between your brothers, and bring justice and righteousness to bear on how you respond. Bring tzedek to interactions between your kinsfolk, and also to interactions between your kin and those who are different from you. If someone of our community is in a disagreement with an outsider, an “other,” we’re still called to treat both parties with tzedek, justice and righteousness. Imagine the ultimate “other,” the kind of person who are you naturally inclined to mistrust and to doubt. Now imagine one of “those people” disagreeing with one of “us.” Now imagine what it would mean to respond to that disagreement with justice and righteousness, instead of with anger and fear.
The space between us is holy, like the parchment surrounding the letters of Torah. Because on white space, anything can be inscribed. It’s infinite possibility. The Torah, midrash says, is written in black fire on white fire. The white fire is the blank parchment; the white fire is the endless universe of our interpretations and commentaries. The white fire is the space between us, and the space between us is holy. But how often do we fill the space between us with the stubborn insistence that one party is right and the other party is misguided? That one party knows the truth, and the other party is deluded?
As we approach Tisha b’Av, that day when we commemorate calamities from the shattering of the first tablets of the covenant, to the destruction of both Temples, to the expulsion from Spain, to the Chmielnicki massacres, to the expulsion from the Warsaw Ghetto, to every brokenness we experience in the world even now… As we approach Tisha b’Av, knowing that the fear, suffering, and devastation in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza are at an extreme… As we approach Tisha b’Av, it is our job to remember the holiness of the space between us. To treat one another with justice and righteousness, and give each other the benefit of the doubt, even when our perspectives differ.
From the Maqam Project
From Rabbi Jill Hammer
Devarim: Our Forgotten Teachers
Devarim. Words. This is the human tool I’m about to use, and it’s also the name of our parashah. But Devarim also means “things,” and there are things behind the words, things before the words. The book of Deuteronomy or Devarim is the first midrash, the first interpretation. It is a retelling of much of the Torah, and it adds and takes away and changes, just as midrash does. As our parashah begins, Moses is giving a speech to the new Israelites, the ones born during the forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Moses is telling history, and, like any historian, Moses is changing history as he tells it. The Exodus and the revelation at Sinai that Moses relates in Devarim are not the same as they were a few books before. This is why the book is called in Greek Deuteronomy, second telling: that’s what it is. In Hebrew, the book is called devarim, words. History is words, with all the beauty and all the possibility for omission that words have.
Moses begins his story not with the Exodus and not with Sinai, but with what happens after Sinai, with the wilderness and the command to enter the land—in some ways, the most relevant beginning for a people about to enter their homeland. Moses reminds the people of an incident in which Moses appointed judges to help govern the people, because, he says, “lo uchal levadi laset etchem, I cannot carry you myself. How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, the burden, and the bickering? Therefore pick from your tribes people who are wise and discerning and knowing, and I will put them at your head.”
It makes sense that Moses is talking about tribal government here, since they will need government, and it makes sense that he is kvetching since it’s been a long forty years. But Moses is leaving something out. Moses implies that he proposed this system of tribal government, but he didn’t. It was Jethro, father of Moses’ wife Tziporah, a Midianite priest, who told Moses to appoint this tribal hierarchy. He proposed it not only because Moses was fed up, but because the people were not being well-served by being judged by only one person. The people were exhausted because Moses was trying to deal with all their issues. And Moses was exhausted, and probably ignoring his wife and kids. So Jethro said to Moses: “The thing you are doing is not good,” and suggested the possibility of sharing leadership with others. “ This is a part of the story Moses completely ignores in the retelling. It seems to have slipped his mind.
Maimonides, the Jewish philosopher of 12th century Cairo, notices this, and says the following:
“It seems to me that [Moshe] did not wish to make mention of [Yitro] before the entire nation of Israel – [either] out of modesty, or because this generation would not view in a positive light the fact that he had taken an Cushite wife, or perhaps the reason is because he was anointed by the Shekhina, and it was by God’s word that this matter was decided.”
In other words, there are three possibilities for Moses repressing Jethro’s advice: 1) he didn’t want to elevate Jethro and make him proud, 2) he didn’t want his people to remember that he had taken a wife from Jethro’s fanily (so it was damage control), or 3) it was all really God’s idea anyway, so Jethro didn’t need the credit. Jethro was just confirming what the Shekhinah had already said to Moses.
There is another possibility that Maimonides doesn’t suggest, which is that after forty years, Moses has forgotten what happened and thinks it really was his idea. Or maybe, since Jethro has gone home to Midian, and was a father figure for Moses who Moses will not see again, maybe it is just too painful to think of him at this moment.
Later Jewish sources frown on the idea of not quoting one’s teachers. In Pirkei Avot it is written: “A person who quotes a source brings deliverance to the world.” The rabbinic enterprise is based on the quoting of sources. Probably a quarter of the Talmud consists of “Rabbi x said in the name of Rabbi y.” The student-teacher relationship is at the heart of our tradition. Recently I had the opportunity to ordain some of my beloved rabbinical students at the Academy for Jewish Religion, to put my hands on their heads and bless them with the tradition with which I have been blessed, and that moment is always one of the best moments. It is so full, so pregnant with meaning, to pass on the mystery you have received from your teacher to someone who will treasure it. So why the irony that our first teacher, Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our master, forgets his own teacher?
Perhaps this is to remind us that the loss of our first teachers can be so painful that we want to forget them. We are now approaching Tisha b’Av, the commemoration of the Temple’s destruction. These events, the destruction of the First and Second Temples, were not only devastating catastrophes for our people that meant terrible loss of life, loss of land, and loss of meaning. They were also the birth of the Judaism we know. The destruction of the First temple led to the canonization of the Bible. As for the Second Temple, there is a legend that Yochanan ben Zakkai, a great sage, was carried out of Jerusalem as the city was burning, in a coffin as if he were dead, in order to save him. That sage went to a small town called Yavneh and started a school, and began rabbinic Judaism. They conceived the genius idea to make their sacred space portable: a scroll about this big.
The scroll is words, but there are things behind the words. The Temple was our first teacher, a sacred place we could bring our bodies as well as our souls. When we went into exile, we not only lost that teacher, we forgot it. We even deprecated it— we said, well, we had a Temple because we weren’t evolved enough yet to live only in the world of ideas. Now we can exist purely in the world of Torah. We came to believe that the only truth lies outside the physical world, because the physical world is so full of helplessness and suffering. And we let go of our connection to body, and land. The Talmud says that the physical world is only a corridor to the world to come. Jewish teachers, even kabbalists, encouraged people to ignore the body, to the point that the Vilna Gaon studied Torah all night with his feet in a bucket of ice water to keep him awake. I do appreciate this dedication, but the message that the body should be ignored is maybe one we might want to shift.
Especially when ignoring the body also means that we work too hard, don’t sleep enough, don’t know where our clothes and food come from or if our food is really food, or whether our cell phones are being made by slaves. Especially when ignoring the body can mean ignoring the bodies of people we are hurting, in this land, in Israel, in Syria, in Tibet, all over the world. The body is the real, and it’s so easy to repress, because it’s so painful and vivid to feel. Yet ignoring the body can mean blithely going along in our SUV while the climate becomes more and more extreme, or blithely along in our lives while missing connections with our loved ones— just as for the kabbalists, let’s be honest, it meant getting high on meditation and study while ignoring that their wives were full human beings. Ideas are powerful, but we shouldn’t live in the world of ideas. The body may be the most carnal element of our soul material, but when we ignore it, we always pay the price.
This generation of ecotheologians and yogis and yoginis and Shekhinah devotees and Jewish farmers, reminds us of our early teachers, the body and the world, which our ancestors believed to be holy. But there are other teachers we’ve repressed. We repressed so much of our folk culture in Eastern Europe, many of our legends and beliefs including our beliefs as Jews with people who have died, and our ongoing relationship with them, and our traditions about the soul—because the Holocaust was so traumatic we could not longer think in those terms. Whole movements gave up on those teachings, which had been with us for a thousand years. And, for generations, we repressed the teachings of kabbalah because so many masters and teachers of kabbalah had been lost. It has taken till this generation of Jews to begin to undo this repression. We must begin to learn again from these teachers whom we repressed for so long. We must always return to the teachers we lost, because they are the foundation for who we are.
From Reb Zalman
Moshe Empowered You Too!
Since we left Sinai, we’ve been moving towards the Land. Moshe is near the end of his life. He begins his address which is the book of Devarim / Deuteronomy:
“On that side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab“, Moshe is outside of the Land.
From outside the Land, הואיל משה / hoil moshe / “Moshe commenced” (Deuteronomy 1:5).
And this phraseology, hoil Moshe is uncommon. The targum / Aramaic translation is sharei moshe which means that he gave his permission. He gave permission that the ones who come after him, after his passing, for all future time, could explain it each in his own way just as he’s about to do in Devarim. Moshe is explaining the Torah and as he does so, he’s setting an example and giving permission for the rest of us that we are welcome to explain it following his example so that it should be a source that will strengthen itself over time.
Just as God told it to Moses, and Moses is telling it to us, so we are empowered to tell others. We can tell it through the prism of each one’s own experience and each one’s own shoresh haneshama / soul rootings, and each one’s own personality and sense of what is the emet / truth. We are partners with God in creation and we’re partners with God in terms of empowerment to take the words of the wisdom tradition and to express them as they make sense according to each and every one of our intellects, sensibilities and smarts.
And as is explained in the book Mei Hashiloach, on the phrase (ibid 9), “And I said to you at that time saying ‘I cannot carry you alone’“, Moshe was saying, in effect, “you people know how important it is for me to be able to go into the Land. I really want to go into the Land. Please have it in your hearts to be compassionate and empathetic and to wish for me to join you, to be with you as you go into the Land, and I hope that you will pray to God on my behalf.” But Moshe did not find people who understood that this is what he wished. Here’s a paraphrase of what is stated in Mei Shiloach in this section:
“The role that Moses was given was to receive the Torah. The role that Joshua was given was to bring them into the Land. When they were told: ‘You’ve been here at the mountain for a long enough time’ and that they should turn and head toward the Land, at this moment Moses recognized the end of his tenure was imminent and his focus became weaker. This is when he started to say ‘I cannot carry… I don’t have the strength’.
“Then he said, ‘Let’s appoint a replacement for me to bring these people.’ The Israelites didn’t want a different leader. And Moshe knew that they were in favor of him being the leader. Although we find that afterwards, later on he asked directly of Hashem for his being able to enter the Land, (cf. Vaetchanan), and at that point, he prayed that he himself would be allowed to bring them to the Land, nonetheless, he told them about not having the strength now because he was trying to make them understand that he needed their prayers.
“Alas, they didn’t get it and they said, ‘fine, okay’, but they didn’t understand.
“That is why afterwards he said ‘and I gathered from among you’ leaving out the word for people of understanding, because he didn’t find anybody who understood that he wanted them to pray for him. He didn’t find people who could actually understand that he wanted them to pray for him. That’s why he said he didn’t find them. He couldn’t find anyone who could understand his real meaning because if they had understood his intention, perhaps he would have been successful petitioning Hashem.
“God compares the Israelites to stars. Why not to the sun and the moon which are bigger than the stars? Because a person’s chochmah one day will be null and void, but the stars represent that place where God illuminates and enlightens the eyes of a person; and this lasts forever.”
And it seems that “And I said to you at that time saying”, the time when they started going toward the Land, at that time he was telling them, “pray for me” just like, (Deuteronomy 3:23), “I entreated Hashem at that time saying,” i.e., it was a propitious time for receiving the Tefilah, and here’s the proof: It is written (ibid 10), “God has multiplied you as the stars of heaven in abundance,” which means that you’re going to have a lot of God’s illumination within you which will be a blessing. Also, if you had realized your role in this, and not isolated me as a lone prophet undertaking for yourself victim’s mentality, a mentality of powerlessness and irrelevance, then your prayer would likely have tipped the scale and I would have been able to enter the Land.
[The way it comes down in Torah is Moshe as a giant and he’s so separate from the chevre. The reality is that it’s a collaboration between Moshe and Israel. It’s not just Moshe doing it all by himself. What we really need is to have Moshe come into the chevra, for us to do our part, for him to do his part and then im yirz hashem, we’ll have yemot hamashiach.]
“How can I bear … all by myself,” (Deut 1:12). How could he possibly do it all by himself? “Trouble you make” with military raids ~ while in the Midbar. “The burden you cause“, the churban of the beit rishon and avodah zara becomes as a cloud of iniquity hanging over our heads. The cloud that bears iniquity is our burden, the churban of the beit rishon is our burden, avodah zara is our burden: We put a wedge between ourselves and God through these idols and that creates a burden to Moshe and to anybody who is connected to God. “and the strife you cause,” lack of peace, destruction of the second Temple, baseless hatred. All of these are the strife, so all of these are creating a burden for Moshe.
[So for us to come and sit back and wait for Moshe, as though like victims, is not getting us where we need to get. There are things that we can do. We can we can recognize the deep ecumenism that exists and work toward moving closer to our neighbors rather than looking at the ways we’re different; we can look at how we are the same. We can we can work hard on our inner life to get to a place where we have a connection to the Source of life, removing barriers between ourselves and God. Love your neighbor as yourself and deal with people who anger us and go against our wishes as an “other” from whom we feel separated, but instead of undertaking a victim mentality which keeps us isolated and apart, love your neighbor.
Bottom line is that all of these produced burdens for Moshe who is trying to work on our behalf.
And the reason why Moses was overwhelmed with the enormity of his task was because we weren’t doing our parts. He was out there reaching into our communities trying to get us to do our own work, but that gets lost in the translation over the ages, and what gets left is that we have a hierarchical religion and the leaders make all the decisions and then we start to feel like we’re disempowered. Iyh, this will help us to feel empowered. Good Shabbos]
From Melissa Carpenter
Devarim: What are these words?
Moses dedicates the last days of his life to a long speech: the book of Deuteronomy/ Devarim (“Words”). He tells the Israelites their history since they left Mount Sinai, and he repeats the laws and decrees God gave them during their 40 years in the wilderness. The Israelites are camped on the east bank of the Jordan River, right across from the “promised land” of Canaan.
The book begins:
These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan, in the wilderness, on the desert plain opposite Suf, between Paran and Tofel, and Lavan and Chatzerot and Di-Zahav. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 1:1)
Suf = reeds, water weeds; coming to an end
Paran = place of tree-branches, of beautifying with boughs
Tofel = probably an alternate spelling of tafeil = whitewash, whitewashing
Lavan = white; the name of Rebecca’s brother and Jacob’s uncle and father-in-law in the book of Genesis/Bereishit
Chatzerot = courtyards
Di-Zahav = enough gold
At first glance, the opening sentence seems to be giving coordinates for an actual geographic location. Yet the place-names are all either invented, or located far away from the east bank of the Jordan. Why are they mentioned here?
Commentary as early as Targum Onkelos, from the first century C.E., found an alternate meaning in the list of supposed place-names. According to Onkelos, the list is a reminder of the times the Israelites made God angry during their wanderings in the wilderness. A few centuries later, the Talmud agreed, and it became the traditional interpretation of the verse.
Which offenses do the six place-names refer to? In other parts of the Torah, the word Suf is a place-name only in the combination Yam Suf, the Sea of Reeds (known in the English tradition as the Red Sea). This is the sea the Israelites crossed to escape from the Egyptian army; it lay between Egypt and the Sinai peninsula, far away from the Jordan. When the Israelites came to the Red Sea, they asked Moses why God had brought them there to die; weren’t there enough graves in Egypt?
Paran was an unpopulated area just south of the Negev desert, south of the border of Canaan at the time. The Israelites were camped there when Moses sent twelve men to scout out the “promised land” to the north, and ten of the twelve who reported back said that the Israelites could never win a battle against the residents of the land. The people rebelled against entering Canaan. According to classic commentary, Moses mentions Paran at the start of his speech in Deuteronomy to remind the surviving children of Israel that their fathers’ lack of trust in God doomed the people to wander in the wilderness for another 38 years. Now that they have another chance to cross into Canaan, albeit from a different border, they had better not repeat the earlier generation’s mistake!
No location named Tofel is mentioned anywhere in the Jewish bible, except in this single sentence. With a shift in vowels, the word is tafeil, whitewashing or plastering over. First-century commentaries consider tafeil a metaphor for slander, and explain that the Israelites slandered the manna–which is described as white, lavan, in Exodus/Shemot 31.
Chatzerot (Courtyards) was the name of the place the Israelites went right after Kivrot Hata-avah, the camp where they complained that they wanted meat instead of manna, and God sent quail–along with a plague (Numbers 11:35). In Chatzerot, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses on account of his wife, and God punished Miriam.
The last place in the list is Di-Zahav, a variant of dai zahav, which means “enough gold”. Classic commentary pointed out that the Israelites brought so much gold out of Egypt, they could use it to make the golden calf at Mount Sinai. (Fortunately, they still had enough gold left over to make the furnishings for God’s sanctuary.)
Maybe the place-names in the first verse of Deuteronomy are indeed reminders of how the earlier generation of Israelites irritated God. Moses might begin his long speech with these reminders in the hope that the new generation would not repeat their parents’ mistakes. He knows he will die on the east side of the Jordan, so he will not be able to shepherd them.
On the other hand, in the original Hebrew there were no capital letters, no consistent way to indicate a word was a proper name. The letter nun, pronounce like our letter N, was only occasionally added to an ordinary word to make it a place-name. So the first sentence of Deuteronomy could be legitimately translated with all of the so-called place-names as common nouns or verbs:
These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan, in the wilderness, on the desert plain opposite coming to an end between beautifying and whitewashing, and then whiteness and courtyards and enough gold. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 1:1)
As Deuteronomy opens, Moses’ journey with the Israelites is coming to an end. Their end is on the opposite bank of the Jordan; his end is on the eastern side, where he will die. Should he give his people a glowing picture of Canaan, formerly described as the land of milk and honey, in order to increase their desire to cross over? Or would beautifying what lies ahead of them really be whitewashing it, covering up the hard reality that they will have to fight battles for the land? Should he describe the land as full of white milk, and courtyards, and gold?
No, Moses decides; it is better if the Israelites do not expect to walk into a life of luxury. Canaan is good land, but the people should not conquer it merely for the sake of its beauty, its food supply, its cities, its riches. They should conquer Canaan because God told them to.
And so after Moses hints at the beauty of the land across the Jordan, he begins his lengthy account of how the people angered God on their journey, and how God helped them to seize the land on the east bank of the Jordan anyway, and how they must nevertheless go on.
From Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum
UNIVERSAL TORAH: DEVARIM
By Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum
Torah Reading: DEVARIM, Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22
THE BOTTOM LINE
As always, we commence the reading of the book of DEVARIM (Deuteronomy), the
last of the Five Books of Moses, on the Shabbos preceding the fast of Tisha
Be’Av (9th Av) commemorating the destruction of the Holy Temple. Tisha Be’Av is
a call to Teshuvah (repentance), setting us on course for the season of Teshuvah
during the months of Av and especially Elul, in preparation for the coming New
Year and the Days of Awe. Our study of DEVARIM will continue for the whole of
this period, until we conclude the annual cycle of the Torah reading at the end
of the festival of Succos, on Simchas Torah.
The themes of DEVARIM are appropriate for this period. The Book of DEVARIM is
the Torah’s “mouth”, summarizing all that has gone before in the “main body” of
the Torah. DEVARIM calls to the inner ear of the soul of Israel to hear the
essential message of the Torah. Each of the twelve months of the year is
integrally connected with one of the twelve tribes and one of the twelve basic
human faculties (Sefer Yetzirah). The month of Av corresponds to the Tribe of
Shimon and the faculty of hearing (see Genesis 29:33). It is significant that
the phrase “SHEMA YISRAEL! Hear, O Israel” recurs in four key passages in the
book of DEVARIM. The message is that we must “Hear the words of the wise!”
(Proverbs 22:17). “These are the words (DEVARIM) which Moses spoke.” (Deut. 1:1)
— “SOF DAVAR, the last word, after everything has been heard: fear G-d”
We find in the opening verses of our parshah that Moses began the concluding
discourses of his career “in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month on the
first of the month” (Deut. 1:3). This was on the first day of the month of
Shevat (Jan.-Feb.), thirty-seven days before Moses ascended Mount Nevo to gaze
over the Land of Israel and leave the world on 7 Adar. Each of the six winter
months is thematically connected with its corresponding summer month. Just as
Shevat, fifth of the winter months, is the eleventh month of the year counting
from Nissan, so the month of Av, fifth of the summer months, is the eleventh
month of the year counting from Tishrei. The months of Shevat and Av are
particularly propitious for deeper understanding of the Torah, and it is
therefore fitting that Moses’ concluding discourses, delivered in the month of
Shevat, are the focus of our Torah study during the month of Av.
Moses’ concluding discourses constitute a Covenant which he struck between G-d
and Israel in the Plains of Moab, just as he had struck a Covenant between G-d
and Israel at Sinai forty years earlier (see Deut. 28:69). At the end of the
forty years wandering in the wilderness, Moses was now the undisputed leader of
Israel. The rebellious generation of the Exodus had all died in the wilderness,
to be replaced by the new generation that stood before him now, poised to enter
the land under Joshua. All the challenges to Moses leadership — the Golden
Calf, the sin of the Ten Spies, the rebellion of Korach, the sin of Baal Pe’or,
etc. — had been overcome and were now part of history. In DEVARIM, Moses again
and again returns to this history, in order to draw out its lessons for the
Thus the opening verse of our parshah of DEVARIM appears on the surface to give
the location in which Moses delivered his discourse. However, since the various
locations mentioned in the verse are all somewhat different, they are construed
by the Aramaic Targum and biblical commentators as being a series of allusions
to the various sins of the past and the lessons that were to be learned from
them (see Rashi on Deut. 1:1). It is with this veiled reproof to the nation that
Moses began his final task as leader: to forge the thousands and thousands of
Israel — who were “like the stars of the heavens for a multitude” (Deut. 1:10)
— into a single, unified, purposeful nation that would be worthy of entering
the land promised to Abraham and inheriting it for eternity. Thus it is that the
book of Deuteronomy begins with reproof but ends with blessing — “And this is
the blessing which Moses, man of G-d, blessed the Children of Israel before his
death. Happy are you, Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by HaShem? . Your
enemies will waste away for you, and you will tread upon their high places”
(Deut. ch. 33 v. 1 & v. 29).
Throughout Deuteronomy, Moses repeatedly addresses the people by the name of
Israel. Not only does the name Israel carry the connotation of victory, “for you
have struggled with G-d and with men, and you have prevailed” (Gen. 32:28). The
letters of the name Israel also include the word YASHAR, “straight”, “upright”.
This is even more explicit in the other biblical name for the Hosts of Israel –
YESHURUN (Deut. 32:15; 33:26). The names Israel and Yeshurun indicate that when
the people are united and purposeful under the sole, unchallenged leadership of
Moses, the archetypal Tzaddik, they are the epitome of order and rectification.
(Kabbalistically, YOSHER, the “upright” scheme of the Sefirot, indicates order
and repair, as opposed to IGULIM, the “circular” scheme, indicating repeated
cycles of disrepair and chaos.)
Since the issue of leadership is so crucial, it is the first raised by Moses in
his discourses, after recounting how G-d had told him to leave Mount Sinai and
begin the journey to the Land of Israel. It was far from easy to lead a people
as fractious and argumentative as this. In order for Moses’ leadership to
permeate to all levels of the people, it was necessary to establish a
hierarchical system of “captains of thousands and captains of hundreds, captains
of fifties and captains of tens, and police”. The verses in our parshah defining
the necessary qualities of the people’s leaders and judges and explaining how
they are to adjudicate (Deut. 1:13-17) constitute the main foundation of the
Torah laws of judges and judicial procedure. These deserve particular attention
today, when the absence of leadership of true integrity and caliber is the bane
of all our lives.
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Shabbat Parashat D’varim / Shabbat Hazon
By: Rabbi Cheryl Peretz,
Associate Dean Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
REPRINT FROM RABBI CHERYL PERETZ – 5767
Woe is Me – Where Am I?
Torah Reading: Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22
Haftarah Reading: Isaiah 1:1-27
Each Shabbat as we read the Haftorah, we can find a connecting theme that links it to that week’s Torah portion, illustrating why it was chosen to be read on that particular Shabbat. This Shabbat, in addition to reading to Parashat Devarim, we also read a special Haftarah for which the Shabbat is given a special name, Shabbat Hazon (Shabbat of Vision), named for Isaiah’s prophetic vision in foretelling the destruction of the Temple. There is an extra ordinary link between the two as they also share a commonality with the upcoming observance of Tisha B’Av – the Ninth of Av, on which we read from Megilat Eicha, the Book of Lamentations. According to the tradition, it was Tisha B’Av on which both the First and Second Temples were destroyed, sending our people into exile and completely changing the fabric of Jewish life.
In an amazing way, the link between Parashat Devarim, the Haftarah of Hazon and Tisha B’av, exists in one word – EICHA, – how could it be In the Torah Reading, Moses says “EICHA esah levadi – how can I bear the burden alone?” In the Haftorah, Isaiah says “EICHA haita l’zonah – How has the city become as a harlot?”, and in the book of Eicha, read on Tisha B’Av, the prophet Jeremiah says “EICHA yashva badad – How has she (Jerusalem) sat alone?”
In each case, EICHA comes as an echo of disappointment, sadness and lamentation. EICHA is both a question and exclamation, expressing the contrast between what was previously and what each one is currently witnessing. Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah all three serve the Jewish people as a prophet, seeking a better tomorrow for the collective community and people, but forced in the moment to acknowledge, in the short term, the failings of their people, and perhaps even their own leadership efforts. And in each, it is as if through their weeping, they wail “Woe unto me and to us for all that has gone bad…” How is it that we ended up here, and why is this happening to me and to us???? How is it that as the people traveled to the Promised Land, things went so awry that Moses can no longer manage on his own? And how is it that the city of Isaiah’s time, once a city of faithfulness is crumbling as people turn towards prostitution and harlotry? And, how is it that things fall apart to such an extreme that Jeremiah sees Jerusalem as desolate and empty of the Jews who once inhabited the beautiful city?
Three different sets of circumstances – each resulting in the same outcry – Eicha – how is it that we have ended up here? Yet, each is its own expression of grief and disbelief, resulting in very different reactions. After weeping, Moses responds pragmatically; he appoints representatives of each of the tribes to help him govern the people and restore justice amongst the people. Isaiah, in his weeping of EICHA, issues a loud wake up call to the people, warning them to take heed and change their ways to avoid destruction and catastrophe that will surely come from their actions. In his lamenting, he portrays a sense of optimism and encouragement that the situation can turn itself around if only the people find their way back. Jeremiah, on the other hand, stands defeated and devastated as he mourns the loss of Jerusalem, the city of Gold, the city of so much promise.. The loss is so monumental that all he can do is simply weep and cry out.
Our own experience is not so very different than that of the prophets of our past generations. At times, life’s challenges leave us crying out the lament of ‘Woe is to me/us – How did I/we end up in this place?’ Sometimes, we react practically, seeking solutions to solve the problem; other times, our challenging moments pierce through the our barriers, reminding us that the power is in our own hands to turn back – to act immediately to save ourselves from further heartache and disappointment; and still other times, our response is simply to cry – to mourn or grieve that which we have lost and lament over our own struggles. And, we know that when we really think about it, our own cries often come from a place of deep loneliness and isolation – when we feel separate from those around us, from the hope and prosperity that supposedly continues to exist. Is it possible, then, that Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah felt similar loneliness and isolation in their times?
Remarkably, however, the tradition includes a fourth use of the word made up of the same letters – aleph, yud, chaf, heh. In the beginning of the Book of Genesis, the Torah recounts the experience of human development through Adam and Eve. After eating from the Tree of Knowledge and hearing the divine decree that they shall live outside the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve run in an attempt to hide from God. God calls out to Adam using this same spelling, which we would assume is read EICHA – How could it be? Although it uses the same letters as the other three cases, in this case the pronunciation is AYEKA – where are you?
Of course God knows where Adam is, but God, like our three prophets is lamenting over what has become of the original plan for Adam and Eve. So, God asks Adam – where are you? Where are you morally? Is there a relationship between your present state and your actions? Is there anything you could have done to avoid this happening? Now that it has happened, what are you going to do with it? It is not simply a lamentation, but an invitation to accept responsibility, to grow and learn from one’s own actions.
Sometimes there is a connection between our choices/actions and that which happens to us. EICHA calls upon us to look in the mirror and accept responsibility for our actions. How will we answer the lamenting cries of the questions: How could this be? Where am I? Where was I as this was happening? What motivated me to act as I did? Are there ways I change my behavior to invite a different outcome? Sometimes, however, there may not be a direct connection between our actions and our suffering and the cry of EICHA truly is a cry of grief and despair. Hard pressed as we may be to rationalize the pain, when we have finished wailing, we still need to confront the challenges of moving on and finding meaning in our lives and even in our suffering.
Fortunately, we have Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and most importantly our faith in God to help us transcend adversity and help us answer the call of AYEKA – where are you?
Reb Sholom Brodt
Shabbos Chazon – DESCENT FOR THE SAKE OF ASCENT
This Shabbos is known by a special name – Shabbos Chazon – taken from the opening words of the Haftorah “Chazon Yeshayahu – the vision of destruction that was shown to the holy prophet Isaiah. (Isaiah 1:1)
However, according to a well known Chassidic explanation, this Shabbos is named ‘Shabbos Chazon’, because on this Shabbos the Future Temple ‘is shown’ to everyone. In a ‘sicha’ (Torah and Chassdus talk) given by the on Shabbos Chazon 5750 (1990) the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l explains the contrast between the understandings of Shabbos Chazon.
Chazon Yeshayahu is the third and last in a series of three Haftorah readings of retribution, known as ‘tlata d’puranuta’. Chazon Yeshayahu, is always read on the Shabbos before Tisha b’Av* – the fast of the 9th of menachem Av, when we mourn and lament the destruction of both the 1st and 2nd Temples which took place on the 9th of Av. This Haphtorah is filled with strong words of rebuke and warnings of impending destruction.
On the seven Shabbatot following Tisha b’Av, we read a series of seven Haphtorah portions known as ‘shivah d’nechamta’ – the seven (readings) of comfort- prophecies containing Hashem’s words of comfort to the Jewish people.
Thus the Chassidic teaching that it is particularly on Shabbos Chazon that every one of us is shown the future Beit Hamikdash is astounding. Would it not have been more appropriate, asks the Rebbe, that the vision of the future Beit Hamikdash should be shown after Tisha b’Av, when the Children of Israel are being comforted, rather than when they are being foretold of the coming destruction of the [first] Beit Hamikdash?
The explanation, says the Rebbe is based on the principle that the every ‘descent is for the sake of ascent’. Hashem is ‘the essential good’ and it is the nature of good, to do good to others. Therefore there really is no room for any true possibility of a negative ‘descent’ in His world for that would be the opposite of the good. And so it must be that the intent and ultimate purpose of the ‘descent’ is that it should bring about an ascent of a much higher caliber and order. Since the essence of everything is its intent and purpose, thus we understand that substance of the ‘descent’ is the consequential ‘ascent’ that it will bring about. And so, the ‘descent’ is actually the beginning and the stage for the ‘ascent’.
We need to see the ‘descent’ as a purposeful transition phase towards an even higher ‘ascent’. Suppose you want to throw a ball high into the air, so what do you do? You lower your hand and pull it back to get a lot more power behind the ball. Though you have ‘lowered’ your hand, you did it only for the sake of the greater ascent.
Chassidus thus emphasizes that we are shown the 3rd and ultimate Beis Hamikdash particularly on this Shabbos, before Tisha b’Av, before we go into deep mourning, so that we should not forget that the DESCENT is FOR THE SAKE OF ASCENT! Mourn? Yes. Be sad? No!
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
O holy Shabbes Inspiration Devarim 2007
We’ve entered the words now
these are the words
the words that Moses spoke to all Israel
beyond the Jordan
in the wilderness.
the book of Deuteronomy
begins with the evocative root word davar
appearing three times in the first verse
ha-de-var-im words, dibber spoke
it’s wilderness midbar that interests me most
sits me down on the desert floor
and insists I spend a quiet time figuring its place in our lives.
What happened to us in the midbar
and where is it
the wilderness of the word
the absence of words
the sense of the word
the sensitivity to the word
the word itself
the matter itself the thing itself the essence of the thing
All words –
when you have language
you have everything.
Someone asked me
is that what we are doing
just giving language to what we know?
Take the just out of that sentence I said
we are giving language to what we know.
We are coming to know the world
the power of blessing
to integrate what we know
to create seams where there may be no discernable seams
to make unity where there is separation
we are proceeding first
The Holy One engraved the world
through thirty two hidden paths of wisdom
– ten principles and twenty two holy letters
this from the Sefer Yetzirah the Book of Formation
what God wrote into the world for us to understand.
Shabbat Chazon the necessity to read the vision of Isaiah
on the Shabbes before Tisha B’Av
God gives us the remedy before the malady
it’s built in — this curative wisdom is built in before it’s prescribed
the vision before the fall
the hope before the destruction,
I can’t find the blessing in it
this always the problem in suffering
or in waiting even or in frustration
I can’t find the blessing in it.
On this the Shabbes before the 9th of Av
we recall the destruction of the Temples
even on Tisha B’Av there is a buried holiness and seed for hope.
This Shabbes is called Shabbat Chazon
because the chazon the vision of Isaiah is read as the haftarah
a vision of the future Jerusalem — rebuilt, strong,
built on the resolution of the mistakes of the past.
From R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev
on Shabbes Chazon the vision of rebuilding the Temple
this is the Shabbes of vision of the third Temple
you can see it.
Feel this: always on the Shabbes just before Tisha B’Av
the black fast, the saddest day of the Jewish year
always preceded by Shabbat Chazon
vision of the holy Temple rebuilt with the coming of the Messiah
the redemption we pray for daily.
Feel this: the proximity of what saves and what corrupts
Feel this: the vision of the future and the losses of the past
Feel this: the proximity of ascent and descent
Feel this: what purifies what defiles.
Something purifying out of exile
something pure emerging out of suffering
Shabbat Chazon: a vision of ascent out of descent.
I found the blessing in it
do you feel it?
R. Gamaliel, R. Eliezer b. Azariah, R. Yehoshua, and R. Akiva
came to the Temple Mount
they saw a fox coming out of the Holy of Holies
They all burst into tears, except Akiva
Akiva said, old men and old women shall dwell again
in the streets of Jerusalem
and the streets of the city shall be full of children
— I know the prophecy [Makkot 24b]
Akiva saw something his friends did not
Akiva saw the future
how dark the night, he said, how bright the day to come [Maharal]
The harder the fall, the higher the return
That’s why Akiva laughed.
The tradition tells us that in the future
when it is time for the Messiah to come
on what day do you suppose the Messiah will be born?
On the ninth of Av.
From Rabbi Miles Krassen
Parshat Devarim, “The Shabbat of Prophetic Vision,” 5770.
This Shabbat is called the “Shabbat of Prophetic Vision” and comes just a few days before the 9th of Av. Generally the 9th of Av is associated with the worst, most devastating calamities that ever happened within the sacred Jewish mythos of the old paradigm. In particular, the destruction of the two previous Temples has been associated with this challenging and potentially dangerous time. Yet, just as we approach, what from one perspective may be considered the low point of the year, we reach an unprecedentedly high level of Shabbat-consciousness from which prophetic vision can be attained. How do these seemingly irreconcilable “opposites” coincide during the “Shabbat of Prophetic Vision”? They coincide precisely through the mysterious emergence of the new paradigm, just as the old paradigm loses its viability and credibility.
The midrash teaches us that the 9th of Av is both the low point of the destruction of the Temple and the birthday of Mashiach—it marks both the collapse of the construction and focus of all that was sacred until now and, ironically, also discloses the early stages of the emerging consciousness of the new paradigm. From this perspective, we can see how 9th of Av is emblematic of paradigm shift, the limbic intermediate state in which neither the old nor the new paradigm can be completely relied upon. It teaches us incredibly deep, if painful, lessons, if only we can be open enough to receive them. An exemplar of paradigm shift itself, the 9th of Av prepares us, perhaps more than any other sacred time in the Jewish calendar, for the present situation in which all that we hold dear may be challenged, and may indeed collapse. To be sure, as the haftarah from Isaiah suggests, the systems that define the old paradigm should, in fact, collapse because they don’t work, are unsustainable, and have brought us to the brink of mutual destruction (Isaiah 1:1-27). And yet, just as our ability to have faith in the old systems and ways dissipates, if we bring prophetic vision to this unique moment and collective opportunity, we may discern precisely those elements that can lead us to the new paradigm, to which Isaiah alludes in his second chapter, “they shall transform the energy of contention into means for supporting life, nations will cooperate with each other and war will become unthinkable” (Isaiah 2:4-5). However, the 9th of Av teaches us that the radical transformation that occurs when paradigms shift is bitter-sweet. It does entail a tremendous amount of suffering just as it clears the way for the next evolutionary level. Thus, while we consciously step into the process of transformation, with its related tests and trials, we become dynamic components in the process of lifting and renewing the sparks.
The lessons mentioned above are encoded in this week’s parashah in which Moshe begins his reflections on the entire history of his relationship to the Tribes of Israel, recognizing that neither he nor his contemporaries will survive the transition into the new paradigm. Not only does all the conditioning and assumptions that characterize the obsolescent construction of reality and meaning have to depart, but even the form of the guide has to give way to a new mode of what it means to lead as well as to be led. When we reflect on our history, we can easily see how the Moshe of the Pentateuch gave way to the Moshe of the rabbis, and, in turn, the Moshe of the rabbis was then superseded by the Moshe of the philosophers and kabbalists, who was renewed by the Ba’al Shem Tov, etc. This is but a model of how superior forms emerge through the “destruction” of transformation and evolution. But even that beloved construction, the “Moshe” renewed by the Ba’al Shem Tov, must be relinquished—freed in the form of transmutation—in order to make room to begin envisioning the Moshe of the emerging paradigm of the future.
So, in our parashah , YHVH, the Spirit of All Life, brings Moshe to the Mountain of Telling the Future, where he says, “See from here how YHVH is setting out a new paradigm before you, go forward and don’t be too afraid and terrified by the paradigm that is collapsing all around you” (Deut. 1:21). And, although Moshe recognized that it was wise to look clearly and soberly into the future, most of the people were too terrified by what they would have to face and were only able to conceive of a “God” that had failed them. And what was Moshe’s answer? “Your fear is simply based on inadequacies of the ‘God’ of the past—‘it is the emerging form of YHVH that is revealed in the new paradigm who can and will sustain you just as the form of YHVH in the old paradigm sustained you as long as it was viable’” (Deut. 1:29-30). But, by believing that “God” can only be the construction of YHVH that now has to be transcended, we can only lose faith and fail to recognize and follow the “new” YHVH that is leading us ahead, lighting our way in the darkness of the present, while remaining mysterious in the cloud of the future (Deut. 1:33). The result is that anyone who is only looking backwards will never be able to see the emergence of the new paradigm. “Only a person like Caleb ben Yefuneh, a ‘heart-like being,’ who can empty herself of the comforts, constructions, and beliefs of the old paradigm, will see it, and I bestow it upon such a one who has already fearlessly stepped into the new paradigm and those that follow, they alone who are prepared to whole heartedly follow the YHVH of the emerging paradigm of the future” (Deut. 1:36).
May our encounter with the 9th of Av help us eliminate everything that binds us to a paradigm that is ending and prepare us for the birthing of a new and more evolved paradigm that will enable us to follow YHVH into the future—a future that is just being born…
Dedicated to the memory of my father, the Tzaddik and Ba’al Mitzvot, Yitzhak Aizik Dove Ber ben Shimon ha-Kohen, his memory is a blessing
G-d spoke to us in Horeb, saying: “You have long enough surrounded this mountain. Turn away, and take your journey…” (1:6-7)
The mountain we’re talking about is Mount Sinai, scene of the most monumental event in human history: G-d’s revelation of His wisdom and will to man. Still G-d says: “You’ve been hanging around this mountain long enough. Move on!”
In our lives, we also have moments, days or years of revelation, times when we learn and grow and are enriched. But the purpose most always be to move on, move away, and carry the enlightenment and enrichment to someplace else — some corner of creation that awaits redemption.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
Bring forth wise and understanding men, known among your tribes, and I will place them at your head (1:13)
When someone comes to a Rebbe and seeks his counsel and assistance in dealing with a spiritual malady, the Rebbe must first find the same blemish, if only in the most subtle of forms, in his own soul; only then can the Rebbe help him to refine and perfect his self and character. This is the deeper significance of that which our sages have said, “the faults of a generation rest with its heads and leaders”.
(Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok of Lubavitch)
Also with me was G-d angry for your sakes, saying: “You, too, shall not enter [the Land] (1:37)
G-d said to Moses: “With what face do you request to enter the Land?” This may be illustrated by a parable. It is like the case of a shepherd who went out to feed the king’s flock, and the flock was abducted. When the shepherd sought to enter the royal palace, the king said to him: “If you come in now, what will people say? That it was you who have caused the flock to be carried off!”
So, too, did G-d say to Moses: “Your greatness is that you have taken the 600,000 out of bondage. But you have buried them in the desert and will bring into the land a different generation! This being so, people will think that the generation of the desert have no share in the World to Come! No, better be beside them, and you shall in the time to come enter with them.”
From Rav DovBer Pinson
Energy of the Week: Parshas Devarim |
Bonding with a Tzaddik
This week we begin the fifth book of the Torah, Devarim, which is literally translated as ‘words.’
The book begins with “These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel on the east bank of the Jordan.”
Unlike the earlier books of the Torah where the Torah is written in third person, as in “And Hashem spoke to Moses..”, in this book it is Moses voice in first person, as in “These are the words of Moses.”
In the earlier books, although Moses wrote the books, he was not present as an individual. In the fifth book however, he is speaking “in his own words” (Megilah, 31b), he is present, speaking in his voice, though his words are spoken with Ruach Ha’Kodesh/ Holy Spirit. (Tosefos, ad loc.)
In the Zohar it is written; “the teachings… in the book of Devarim, were [written by] Moses himself. Is it possible that even one letter that Moses spoke came from himself? And the Zohar answers that not even one letter that emerged from the mouth of Moses was self-generated, each letter and sound completely precise and calculated. The words that came from the mouth of Moses was a Divine voice that posessed him. (Zohar V’eashanan 265a)
“The Shechinah was talking through the mouth of Moses.”
So Devarim is Divine Wisdom the way it is revealed and unpacked by Moses’s own individuality, his own voice. This book becomes the bridge between the Written dimension of Torah, which is the revelation, and the Oral dimension of Torah, which is the human innovation and creativity, that come from and are consistent with Sinaic revelation.
In each one of us there is an aspect of Moses. There are those who can fully realize their ‘inner Moses’ and are able to channel Divine wisdom, laying aside their ego so completely that they become a pure conduit of energy, a vessel receiving and giving the light in a continuous motion. This is the Tzaddik.
Energy of the Week:This week’s energy is our connection with the words and teachings of a Tzaddik. If there is a Tzaddik that you have connected with in your past, or know of one whose teachings you have felt connected to – this is a powerful time to study their words and reconnect yourself to the Tzaddik.
An additional energy this week connecting to the period of the Nine days which begins tonight:
In all of our dealings, especially with children,students or employees this week, we must be sure to lessen any forms of aggression. We need to be extra gentle and compassionate in our communications and disciplining methods during the Nine day period.
~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~
DEUTERONOMY 1:1 – 3:22
This portion begins Moses’ historical review of the long desert journey.
THE BEGINNING of the Book of Deuteronomy places us at the border of The Land of Promise after a lifetime of journeying. We pause now to look back at the path we have traveled thus far in order to understand its meaning, receive its lessons, and embrace the wisdom and love that we have received through grace and diligent practice. It is indeed a blessing to come to this place of such wide perspective and calm discernment.
The Torah tells us that by linear calculations our journey should have taken but eleven days. How did it take a lifetime – forty years – to arrive here? Our calculations must rely on a different kind of sense.
Our journey through the wilderness has not taken the form of a straight line, but rather a series of breath-taking spirals that drop us again and again at the same point in a cycle, each time at a new level, with an added dimension of awareness. The blessing of D’varim is the expanded awareness that comes from the attainment of a wide perspective – the ability to see our own lives from the vantage point of dispassionate clarity. From here we look back on our defeats and our victories, gleaning the blessings of both.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
AS WE SURVEY THE PATH WE HAVE TAKEN and remember our times of humiliating defeat as well as those of jubilant victory, we can look within and see how we have been shaped by these experiences. We carry our defeats and victories in our bodies and psyches. If we do not take opportunities to examine how these experiences have affected us, our defeats and victories will continue to exert their power over us and determine how we respond to each present moment. We will be enslaved to the past. This enslavement will prevent us from entering the Land of Promise that is before us.
The spiritual challenge of D’varim is to attain an expansive perspective on our lives in order to investigate the imprint of each defeat and each victory. It is then possible to learn from those experiences and turn them into wisdom for the journey.
IN RISING TO THIS CHALLENGE, we first remember our moments of disappointment, shame, loss or hopelessness that we have accumulated on our journey. How do we wear our defeats? Do they weigh us down? Embitter us? Armor us? Shame us? Immobilize us?
Or can we be pruned by them? Learn from them? Be humbled and lifted up? Find compassion for others and ourselves through them? Every defeat can be either a destructive force or a fertilizer for growth and heart-wisdom. The spiritual challenge is to mitigate the destructive force of our defeats through self-compassion and to turn that force instead towards ultimate goodness as we build the strength of our character.
In rising to the challenge of D’varim, we next turn to our moments of accomplishment, celebration, and fulfillment. How do we wear our victories? Do they make us arrogant? Do they separate us? Make us complacent? Dull? Judgmental? Forgetful of others’ suffering? Or can we learn instead to overflow in gratefulness, channeling that overflow into acts of compassion and justice?
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE OF SUCCESS is to give credit to the God- Source of all blessing and to respond to our abundance through expressions of generosity. The danger posed by victory is that its force may be seized by the false self to build itself up. The result is an expense of vital energy diverted to the ego in further protection of its defenses. Victory can offer both the possibility of expansion into the sweetness of knowing we are worthy; or contraction, in our compulsion to rigidly defend the turf we have conquered.
For Guidelines for Practice please click link to website.
Devarim: The Book that Moses Wrote
Already from its opening sentence, we see that the final book of the Pentateuch is different from the first four. Instead of the usual introductory statement, “God spoke to Moses, saying,” we read:
“These are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel on the far side of the Jordan River …” (Deut. 1:1)
Unlike the other four books, Deuteronomy is largely a record of speeches that Moses delivered to the people before his death. The Talmud (Megillah 31b) confirms that the prophetic nature of this book is qualitatively different than the others. While the other books of the Torah are a direct transmission of God’s word, Moses said Deuteronomy mipi atzmo — “on his own.”
However, we cannot take this statement — that Deuteronomy consists of Moses’ own words — at face value. Moses could not have literally composed this book on his own, for the Sages taught that a prophet is not allowed to say in God’s name what he did not hear from God (Shabbat 104a). So what does it mean that Moses wrote Deuteronomy mipi atzmo? In what way does this book differ from the previous four books of the Pentateuch?
Tadir versus Mekudash
The distinction between different levels of prophecy may be clarified by examining a Talmudic discussion in Zevachim 90b. The Talmud asks the following question: if we have before us two activities, one of which is holier (mekudash), but the second is more prevalent (tadir), which one should we perform first? The Sages concluded that the more prevalent activity takes precedence over the holier one, and should be discharged first.
One might infer from this ruling that the quality of prevalence is more important, and for this reason the more common activity is performed first. In fact, the exact opposite is true. If something is rare, this indicates that it belongs to a very high level of holiness — so high, in fact, that our limited world does not merit benefiting from this exceptional holiness on a permanent basis. Why then does the more common event take precedence? This is in recognition that we live in an imperfect world. We are naturally more receptive to and influenced by a lesser, more sustainable sanctity. In the future, however, the higher, transitory holiness will come first.
The First and Second Luchot
This distinction between mekudash and tadir illustrates the difference between the first and second set of luchot (tablets) that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. The first tablets were holier, a reflection of the singular unity of the Jewish people at that point in history. As the Midrash comments on Exodus 19:2, “The people encamped — as one person, with one heart — opposite the mountain” (Mechilta; Rashi ad loc).
After the sin of the Golden Calf, however, the Jewish people no longer deserved the special holiness of the first tablets. Tragically, the first luchot had to be broken; otherwise, the Jewish people would have warranted destruction. With the holy tablets shattered, the special unity of Israel also departed. This unity was later partially restored with the second covenant that they accepted upon themselves while encamped across the Jordan River on the plains of Moab. (The Hebrew name for this location, “Arvot Moav”, comes from the word arvut, meaning mutual responsibility.)
The exceptional holiness of the first tablets, and the special unity of the people at Mount Sinai, were simply too holy to maintain over time. They were replaced by less holy but more attainable substitutes — the second set of tablets, and the covenant at Arvot Moav.
Moses and the Other Prophets
After the sin of the Golden Calf, God offered to rebuild the Jewish people solely from Moses. Moses was unsullied by the sin of the Golden Calf; he still belonged to the transient realm of elevated holiness. Nonetheless, Moses rejected God’s offer. He decided to include himself within the constant holiness of Israel. This is the meaning of the Talmudic statement that Moses wrote Deuteronomy “on his own.” On his own accord, Moses decided to join the spiritual level of the Jewish people, and help prepare the people for the more sustainable holiness through the renewed covenant of “Arvot Moav”.
Moses consciously limited the prophetic level of Deuteronomy so that it would correspond to that of other prophets. He withdrew from his unique prophetic status, a state where “No other prophet arose in Israel like Moses” (Deut. 34:10). With the book of Deuteronomy, he initiated the lower but more constant form of prophecy that would suit future generations. He led the way for the other prophets, and fortold that “God will establish for you a prophet from your midst like me” (Deut. 18:15).
In the future, however, the first set of tablets, which now appear to be broken, will be restored. The Jewish people will be ready for a higher, loftier holiness, and the mekudash will take precedent over the tadir. For this reason, the Holy Ark held both sets of tablets; each set was kept for its appropriate time.
(Gold from the Land of Israel, pp. 287-290. Adapted from Shemuot HaRe’iyah, Devarim (1929))
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
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