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Torah Sparks

August 6, 2011- 6 Av 5771

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

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
Baldwin, New York

Both its Greek name – Deuteronomy – and its classical Hebrew designation – Mishneh Torah (a repetition of the Torah) – aptly describe both the fifth book of the Pentateuch and this, its opening parashah. In his first oration, or discourse to the Israelite nation, Moses recaps much of the people’s earlier experiences and the lessons that have come from that 40-year journey. This begins with God’s command to the Israelites at Horeb to make their way to Canaan and to take possession of the Land. Moses recalls the burden of leadership and his resulting appointment of judges and chieftains to share in the day-to-day leadership of the nation.

Moses further recalls the journey from Horeb through Amorite territory to Kadesh, where spies were dispatched into the Promised Land, only to return with a faithless and pessimistic majority report. The two dissenting optimists among the spies – Joshua and Caleb – are duly rewarded. They, alone of their generation, are to be permitted entry to the Land, where Caleb will receive an allotment and Joshua will assume national leadership. Moses, too, is denied entry to Canaan. This divine decree requires the Israelites to follow a tortuous, circuitous route through the wilderness, involving confrontations with Edom, Ammon, and Moab.

The crushing Amorite defeat of the Israelites at Hormah is recalled. Other encounters with hostile, foreign powers include those with Sichon and Og. Sichon refuses Israel permission to traverse his territory, despite Israel’s friendly, diplomatic request. Israel is compelled to battle both the Amorite, Sichon, and Og of Bashan, conquering each and seizing their lands.

The beginning of the allotment of tribal portions in conjunction with the conquest is recapped: Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh are apportioned conquered territory – as earlier explained – in the Transjordan. Their territorial grant is conditioned upon their participation in the national military defense as shock troops, the vanguard of the conquest.

Parashat Devarim concludes with Moses retelling his appointment of Joshua as his successor, and his charge to his protégé not to fear the kings, powers, and forces he encounters in bringing about the conquest, “for it is the Lord your God who will battle for you.”

Theme #1: “…Nobody knows but Moses”

“How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering!” (Deuteronomy 1:12)

Study: Derash

“The Hebrew does not use the ordinary form for ‘how,’ eikh, but the elongated form eikhah, which often marks the beginning of laments.” (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses)

“It goes without saying that it is unbearable for me to see the brave and loyal fighting men of Japan disarmed. It is equally unbearable that others who have rendered me devoted service should now be punished as instigators of the war. Nevertheless, the time has come to bear the unbearable.” Emperor Hirohito, announcing the surrender of Japan to the Allied forces in World War II “Television has made dictatorship impossible but democracy unbearable.” (Shimon Peres)

“Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know if you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me.” (Harry S Truman, after succeeding to the U.S. presidency upon Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death)

“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” (Friedrich Nietzsche)

“Here is the rule to remember in the future, when anything tempts you to be bitter: not, ‘This is a misfortune’ but ‘To bear this worthily is good fortune.’” (Marcus Aurelius)

“Although you see me goin’ on so, oh yes I have my trials, here below, oh yes, Lord!” (Louis Armstrong, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”)

Questions for Discussion

Deuteronomy 1:12, due in part to its unusual Hebrew vocabulary, as well as to the fact that parashat Devarim always falls on Shabbat Chazon (the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av) –customarily is chanted to the melody for Lamentations, the trope for Eichah. How is Moses’ “dilemma” analogous to the tragedies recalled on Tishah B’Av?

As indicated in the Historic Note below, Shabbat Chazon 5771 is also the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, to which Emperor Hirohito’s remark, above, is a direct response. How does the emperor’s famous comment (the first comment he ever made in public) speak to the experience of Tishah B’Av, and to Jewish history in general? How does it compare to Moses’ brief lament?

Compare the statements of Moses and Harry Truman (who also, it should be noted, played a pivotal role in the relationship between the Jewish people and the land and sState of Israel). Might we understand Moses’ dictum not as a desperate lament but as an invitation to his countrymen (not unlike Truman’s) to share in his burden – to share in his daunting task – to provide him with emotional, spiritual, and practical support?

Shimon Peres, prime minister and later president of Israel, alludes to the difficulties inherent in a modern democracy. To which of these was he referring, and which did Moses, millennia earlier, experience in his leadership of the Jewish people? Is it true that dictatorship is impossible today? How might Peres and Moses have debated the relative merits of democracy and autocracy?

Imagine Nietzsche and Marcus Aurelius analyzing Moses’ statement abou his personal burdens. How might they have judged his character? His forbearance? His spiritual state?

We all have personal burdens and troubles. When do they become particularly onerous? What, at times, makes them seemingly unbearable?

Theme #2: “What makes a king out of a slave…?”

“I also charged Joshua at that time, saying, ‘You have seen with your own eyes all that the Lord your God has done to these two kings; so shall the Lord do to all the kingdoms into which you shall cross over. Do not fear them, for it is the Lord your God who will battle for you.’” (Deuteronomy 3:21-22)

Study: Derash

“Moses repeats his assurance that the people have nothing to fear, explaining that the Lord will do the fighting for them. This assurance is reminiscent of his words encouraging the people at the Sea of Reeds (Exodus 14:29-30) and is a prototype for the priest’s exhortation to the Israelite army before future wars (Deuteronomy 20:3- 4). Moses reminds the people that their own experience demonstrates the Lord’s capacity to meet all their needs, and that they are ignoring what their experience teaches. This experience became the basis of Israelite faith in God.” (Jeffrey Tigay, JPS Commentary)

“Israel’s army needs faith in God more than tanks.” (Israel Defense Force Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Naveh; February 2011)

“Courage is a special kind of knowledge: The knowledge of how to fear what ought to be feared and how not to fear what ought not to be feared.” David Ben-Gurion “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.” (Abraham Lincoln)

“The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.” (George W. Bush, September 23, 2001)

“From the Jewish point of view the fatal flaw in the ‘just war’ concept is the illusion of the war-initiating side that it knows its purpose to be so absolutely right and pure as to justify the obliteration of the opposing society.” (Rabbi Jacob Agus)

Questions for Discussion

To what extent is it a blessing – is it desirable – not to fear war? How might David Ben-Gurion and President Bush have differed on this question? What makes their respective views “religious” in nature?

Though arguably America’s most theologically sensitive and articulate president, Lincoln was far from a fundamentalist, or even a conventionally religious man. How do we strive to be “on God’s side” – especially in matters of national governance and the conduct of war – without falling into theocracy, religious crusades, or holy war?

The wars described in the Torah are justified by the direct, revealed commands of God. How do twenty-first century leaders – to whom such absolute understanding of right and wrong is not readily available – determine the moral merits of armed conflict and, especially, of pre-emptive war?

In light of Professor Tigay’s commentary, how are we properly to balance faith in God, fear for the future of our people (or nation or community or family), and personal responsibility for the national defense? How might Israelis and diaspora Jews approach this quandary differently?

Is fear, by definition, faithlessness? What do you fear most? In what do you have the deepest faith?

Israeli Deputy Chief of Staff Naveh, made his comment at a meeting of the chief rabbis of Israel with the chief rabbi of the I.D.F. What did he mean?! How does the strategic value of faith reflect on the question of yeshiva students’ exemption from military service? How does Naveh’s statement translate into the activities of supporters of the state of Israel, and into Israel education programming for our young people and our congregation?

Historic Note

On Shabbat Chazon, observed on August 6, 2011, we anticipate the observance of Tisha B’Av, commemorating the destruction and burning of the Temple, the devastation of Jerusalem, and a variety of other tragedies that befell the Jewish people over the course of our history. On Shabbat Chazon 5771, we also recall that it was on August 6, 1945, that the atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima. 2011’s widespread destruction in Japan, in the wake of an earthquake, tsunami, and damaged nuclear reactors – with the resultant release of radiation – makes this historic anniversary particularly painful and evocative.

Halachah L’Maaseh

On Tisha B’Av, both worshipers and the Torah itself – as it were – dress in mourning. It is customary to remove our shoes when Eichah (the Book of Lamentations) is read, and, indeed, to refrain from wearing leather shoes (as on Yom Kippur) throughout the day. At Shacharit, following the custom of the 13th-century Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, we wear neither tallit nor tefillin – this is the only weekday of the year on which this occurs – they both are considered “adornments” inappropriate to the day’s solemn spirit. Both, however, are worn at Minchah. Beginning with Arvit on the eve of Tisha B’Av, the decorative curtain (parochet) – also an adornment – is removed from the ark in the synagogue. Some similarly have the custom of not using a silver or decorative yad (pointer) for the Torah reading on Tishah B’Av, substituting (if anything) a simple wooden pointer or reed. See Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 553:1; 554:16; 17, Rema ad loc; 559:2, Rema ad loc.

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