Parsha Devarim

AUGUST 13th, 2016


Deuteronomy 1:1 — 3:22
Deuteronomy 2:31 — 3:22


Isaiah 1:1 — 1:27


This week’s Torah reading, Devarim, is always read on the Shabbat immediately preceding the observance of Tisha B’av, which begins as Shabbat ends on August 13. On this day we mourn the destruction of both of our holy temples and other calamities that have befallen the Jewish people throughout history. Reading this – or being in shul – in the US in 2016, it might be hard to imagine what life must have been like back in 586 BCE and 70 CE, two dates that live in infamy.

Destruction is never a good thing, but perhaps the loss of our central place of worship, for the altar on which we were required to offer our animal and other sacrifices, wasn’t such a bad thing. In fact, a rabbi I know once commented that had the Temple cult continued, Judaism might have become extinct. Exile gave way to the rise of the rabbis, people who were wise enough to realize that times were changing and that the old ways were no longer working.

It almost seems paradoxical that the right before the fast day in observance of two exiles from the Land of Israel, we read about the preparations for entering that land. In some respects, it’s a foreshadowing of what will happen in the future, because Moses begins by rebuking the people and telling them about the sins they committed during the 40 years in the desert.

However, the people to whom Moses is speaking were young, or not even born, so what good does this do? According to Rabbi Abraham Twersky, in an introduction to the book of Devarim, which means, “words,” Moses went through a litany of the peoples’ prior sins and chastised them because he was “very apprehensive that they would deviate from the Divine commandments and lose the Holy Land” once he was gone. He had good reason to be concerned, and his concerns were accurate; once the land was conquered the people did find ways to misbehave.

There are people who believe that when bad things happen to good Jews it’s because we’re not keeping the mitzvoth; we’re not behaving the way Hashem would like us to. I don’t agree with that theology; it smacks of blaming the victim, and that’s not ok individually or collectively.

I believe that God gave humans free will knowing that we wouldn’t always make the best choices or behave in the most exemplary ways, and there’s no question that during the 40 years in the wilderness, the Israelites’ behavior drove God up the proverbial wall, and God threatened to destroy the people more than once. Good thing Moses was there to advocate on the peoples’ behalf, or we wouldn’t be here today getting ready to read about preparations for entering the Promised Land.

For many modern Jews, Tisha B’av has no relevance or meaning. There may no longer be a Holy Temple, but Jerusalem today – thank God – is a thriving, vibrant city and Israel has a strong economy. Should we be celebrating instead of mourning? Good question.

Once the fast is over tomorrow night, we begin the 7 weeks of comfort that lead up to Rosh Hashanah, so in a sense, we’re moving from sorrow to celebration and pray for blessing in the new year. Like the Israelites perched at the edge of the Jordan River, we look forward to happy days and times in the future.

This Saturday evening, like every erev Tisha B’av for the past several years, I’ll be sitting in a darkened room reading and chanting the haunting melody of Eicha, the Book of Lamentations, along with millions of Jews around the world. Some of them will go out for ice cream afterwards, and that’s fine. Whether the day, or the observance of Tisha B’av have meaning for us, or feel like an archaic practice that should have been dropped a long time ago doesn’t matter. What does matter is that we make a conscious decision to connect with Israel and with other Jews, and remember that exile from one’s homeland isn’t just ancient history, it’s still happening today. And this year, for the first time, a team of refugees is competing in the Olympic Games. (

May you have a restful Shabbat and meaningful Tisha B’Av observance, however you choose to spend the day.

Rabbi Susan Elkodsi