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Torah Sparks

July 29, 2006 – 4 Av 5766

Annual: Deuteronomy 1:1 - 3:22 (Etz Hayim, p. 981; Hertz p. 736)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 2:2 – 2:30 (Etz Hayim, p. 990; Hertz p. 743)
Haftarah: Isaiah 1:1 – 27 (Etz Hayim, p. 1000; Hertz p. 750)

Prepared by Rabbi Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director


The fifth and final book of the Torah, the book of Deuteronomy, is sometimes called Mishneh Torah, literally “the second teaching of the Torah.” It consists of a series of speeches Moses delivers to the people Israel shortly before they enter the Promised Land. These words follow 40 years of wandering through the wilderness, when the older generation dies off and a new generation grows up. Most of this opening portion of the book contains a repetition of the history of the Israelites during their wanderings. It is Moses’ last opportunity to repeat the wisdom of the Torah to the people Israel.

Moses begins his retelling of the Israelites’ history when they are still encamped at Horeb. God told the Israelites to go forward and capture the land of the Canaanites. Moses complained about the burden of the people and picked leaders from the various tribes to act as judges. Moses then retells the story of the 12 scouts who went into the land. The story differs slightly from the original in the book of Numbers. In Deuteronomy, the Israelites asked God for permission to send spies into the land; in Numbers God commands the Israelites to send the spies. In both versions, 10 spies speak evil about the land and two speak positively. God punishes the entire generation, telling them that they will wander for 40 years until the current generation dies off.

The portion continues with the story of history of the Israelites during the last year of their wandering. It includes the conquering of the two great kings - Sihon king of the Amorites who lived in Heshbon and Og king of Bashan. After conquering the kings the Israelites are encamped on the eastern shore of the Jordan. They can look out into the Holy Land.

This portion is read every year on Shabbat Hazon, the Sabbath before the fast of Tisha B’Av. It is the saddest period of the Jewish year. This is a portion about history. But history is not a series of random events; history has a purpose. The prayer book teaches, “because of our sins were we thrown off our land.” The reading of this portion becomes a time of soul searching over past sins and future redemption.

Issue #1 - From Destruction to Creativity

“Then you retreated and wept before the Lord, but the Lord did not listen to your voice and He did not hearken to you” (Deuteronomy 1:45)


  1. Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry in their book The Universe Story wrote that destruction is a component built into the universe. “Violence and destruction are dimensions of the universe. They are present at every level of existence: the elemental, the geological, the organic, the human. Chaos and disruption characterize every era of the universe, whether we speak of the fireball, the galactic emergence, the later generations of stars, or the planet earth” (pp. 51 - 52). They make a strong case when they claim, “out of destruction comes creativity.”
  2. Is it true that creativity comes from destruction? It is possible to accept that idea, given some examples from the natural world around us. The explosion of a supernova leads to the manufacture of matter necessary for life. The destruction of hydrogen at the heart of the sun causes the creation of energy which sustains that life. Volcanic and geological activity releases the chemicals necessary for life. New higher forms of life emerge from the death of lower forms. From destruction comes creativity.
  3. What is true on the cosmic level is true on the human level as well. Some of the most creative periods of human history grew out of some the most destructive. Throughout history, war and tragedy has led to creativity and growth. Perhaps Nietzsche was right in his famous statement that has become a cliché, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”
  4. This week’s portion is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish year. Tradition teaches that both the first and the second Temple in Jerusalem were destroyed on the ninth of Av. It was a day of destruction the like of which the Jewish people had never known. Yet out of destruction grew creativity. A wise rabbi, Yochanan ben Zakkai, was able to escape Jerusalem by hiding in a casket. He approached the Roman general leading the siege and asked for permission to set up a center of learning in Yavneh. The general gave permission, and out of this center grew Talmudic Judaism, one of the most creative periods of Jewish history. Through the Talmud, Judaism survived. Can you think of other examples of Jewish creativity that grew out of Jewish tragedy?

Issue #2 – Looking at History

“These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on this side of the Jordan in the wilderness” (Deuteronomy 1:1)


  1. Looking at history is the major theme of this portion. Moses, facing the end of his life, reviewed the history of the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering. He shared memories of the spies who spoke out against the land, and of the punishment that followed - 40 years of wandering until the old generation died off. He recounted the sins of the people, and the hope that they would now be worthy to enter the land.
  2. There are two ways to understand history. We can see history as a series of disconnected events, leading nowhere and meaning nothing. Or we can see history as heading in a particular direction, leading somewhere. The former often is called “random history.” The latter perhaps is best called “redemptive history.”
  3. Tradition has held that the Biblical book Ecclesiastes was written by King Solomon in his old age. The text sees life as futile and history as meaningless. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What real value is there for man in all the gains he makes beneath the sun? One generation goes, another comes, but the earth remains the same forever. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full; to the place from which they flow the streams flow back again. Only that shall happen which has happened, only that occurs which has occurred; there is nothing new beneath the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:2-9). It is a vision of history as a series of random and meaningless events. What a depressing vision.
  4. There is another way to look at history. This view suggests history has a direction and purpose. The future builds on the past. This view of history is best represented by a chain, with each generation a new link. That is why the Bible so carefully recorded the “begats,” memorializing the connections between the generations. Each generation builds and adds to the previous link. Each new generation sees itself as closer to the perfect messianic age still to come. Human beings experience a link between generations, an appreciation of the past and a vision of the future, that animals can never know.
  5. Which vision of history do you prefer?

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