DEVARIM – 2005

By Carol Steinberg


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 own?

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 tonight.

In the parasha and the haftarah we are told that the disasters that befall the people of Israel result from our sinfulness.  The rabbis also explain the destruction of the first and second temples on the basis of the people’s sinful behavior.   The first Temple was destroyed because of the sins of idolatry, sexual immorality and murder.  The second Temple was destroyed because of the sin of baseless hatred.

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 US was not all-powerful, he was helping the country focus on something they could do to prepare for the future.   Again, when the tsunamis struck, or there is draught, or floods, people nowadays focus on global warming, rather than God’s punishment.  We do not want to think the natural disasters are purely random acts of nature, but that mankind could eventually control all these events if we only used our scientific knowledge properly. By appealing to the Londoner’s pride in their resistance to the Blitz, Tony Blair was restoring his people’s sense of competence and mastery, even though he could not guarantee their security.  By describing what needs to be done to increase security, by admitting that there are problems to fix, leaders help restore the people’s sense of Control.  

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 the Lord.