DEVARIM – 2005
Today we read the
first parshah of Deuteronomy
(Devarim) and we read a portion of Isaiah. Both are connected to the fast day of Tisha b’Av by the word Aicha (BOOK
OF LAMENTATIONS). “How” – How
did this happen and how can we cope?
Devarim is Moses’ book.
He is the speaker, not God. The
traditionalists say he spoke these words in the last five weeks of his
life. The modern scholars say the book
was written in the time of Josiah.
No miracles happen in this book. This book includes about 100 laws, but
seventy are new. Moses begins by reminding the young people who are
about to enter the land of Israel that the distance from Horeb to Kadesh-Barnea could
be traveled in 11 days, but it took forty years for the people to reach this
point because of their distrust, and infidelity to God. He tells them he had to appoint judges
because of their contention and strife.
“Aicha,” how could he judge them on his
He speaks to them
using the second person, even though he was describing acts of their parents
who have been wiped out. He says you
asked to send spies, etc. He is
concerned that when the young people enter the land they will be even more
tempted to do evil than their parents had been.
During the exodus, the parents had witnessed miracles and still lost
faith. And so they could not enter the Promised Land. What will happen when these young people are
not witnessing miracles?
The haftarah from Isaiah also includes warning of the
desolation that will come because the people do not act properly. God detests their empty rituals but demands
human justice instead. This is one of the three readings scheduled to lead up
to Tisha b’Av which begins
In the parasha and the haftarah
we are told that the disasters that befall the people of
Even though these
explanations are difficult for most of us to accept, one commentator says that
these explanations may have been necessary or even helpful for the survival of
the Jewish people. By demanding that
the people respond to crisis by examining themselves internally, our teachers
asked us to focus on our uniqueness. By
blaming ourselves, we could focus on improving ourselves. This might make sense when we were too weak
to retaliate against stronger enemies.
As a social worker,
I studied disaster and trauma relief.
Not easy topics.
I learned that how
we respond to events is determined by our individual characteristics, our
culture, and other environmental factors.
Our responses are influenced by our belief systems, values, and by the
symbolic meanings we put on the events.
At an early stage in
my training I was taught to try and help abuse victims give up their
self-blame. Women did not deserve to be
beaten because they burned the toast, etc.
This was really hard work. When
people feel too weak to defend themselves, it is easier to try to “be
good”. Disasters become traumatic when
they disrupt the beliefs that enable us to function on a day to day basis. When we wake up in the morning we need to
believe certain things in order to get out of bed. We need to believe the world is reasonably
safe.. We need to feel: Secure, Confident, Competent. We need a sense of Control, of Power, of
Mastery, and of Trust.
Good disaster relief
does not only provide food and blankets and other physical resources. It also focuses on helping people regain
these beliefs as soon as possible. I learned that it was very wise that after
9/11 George Bush spoke of what could be done to improve American preparedness. By admitting the
Let us go back to
all the times in our history when we were attacked. Often we were a small group in the face of
greater enemies. Whether the answer was
historically accurate or not, the concept of deserving punishment, may have
helped us cling to some kind of hope that we could avert future
calamities. If we are good enough, we
will be protected. If I don’t burn the
toast, maybe I will not be hit.
Most of us are not
willing to accept this theology any more.
But we do accept the definitions of what is moral behavior, and to
varying degrees we accept the halakhah.
Rabbi Schorsch wrote that “precariousness remains the inescapable
condition of Jewish existence, but that Tisha b’Av reminds us not
to lose our soul. Rabbi Richard Hirsh,
suggests that “the key to understanding Jewish history is not in accepting the
explanations of why, but in studying the ways of how: how following disaster
after disaster, the Jewish people found the courage to start anew, to recommit
to Torah, and to reaffirm that life had, or at least could have – meaning….
Perhaps we may not
be able to save the world, but we can try to make a better world by listening
to the words of Moses and the words of Isaiah – to walk justly in the ways of