August 6, 2022: Parashat Devarim – Turning Mourning into Celebration
This week’s parashah is taken from Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22. Listen as David teaches from the first Torah portion in the Book of Deuteronomy (Devarim), about Moses' words of admonishment for the people, recounting one day in particular that they should reflect upon before entering the Land. That day is known today as Tisha B'Av.
Follow along in the AUDIO PODCAST, by clicking on the play button below, and reading along with the notes, as you listen to today's Parashat:
This week’s parashah opens up a new book, the book of Devarim (or Deuteronomy), the last of the five books of the Torah. Unlike the books that come before it, Devarim is not so much a continuation of the previous four books, but rather more of a review.
“Devarim” means “words”. Whose words? The words of Moses. To borrow the term from one of my Biblical Hebrew teachers, this is Moses’ great sermon. It is also the last sermon of his life, as this “sermon” comes 36 days before his death. As such, as you read through the book, you will notice that it is written in the first person – that of Moses. This is the only book in the Torah where it is written in such a way.
While a large bulk of the book is a review of the rest of the Torah, Moses does elaborate on some additional commandments that were not brought down in the previous books; for instance, such as levirate marriage, divorce of a wife, and conspiring witnesses. It is not exactly clear as to why this is the case, but perhaps it is because these are less common laws, and Moses spoke them only to the children of those who died in the Wilderness, the same children who were about to take possession of the Land.
And so we open up the parashah to these words in Deuteronomy 1:1-2:
אֵ֣לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּעֵ֖בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן בַּמִּדְבָּ֡ר בָּֽעֲרָבָה֩ מ֨וֹל ס֜וּף בֵּֽין־פָּארָ֧ן וּבֵֽין־תֹּ֛פֶל וְלָבָ֥ן וַחֲצֵרֹ֖ת וְדִ֥י זָהָֽב׃
אַחַ֨ד עָשָׂ֥ר יוֹם֙ מֵֽחֹרֵ֔ב דֶּ֖רֶךְ הַר־שֵׂעִ֑יר עַ֖ד קָדֵ֥שׁ בַּרְנֵֽעַ׃
“These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel, across the Jordan, in the Wilderness, in the Plain, opposite [the Sea of] Reeds, between Paran and Tophel and Laban, and Hazeroth and Di-zahab; eleven days from Horeb, by way of Mount Seir to Kadesh-barnea.”
On the surface, these two verses highlight 11 unique places in the Wilderness that the Children of Israel visited. Yet, what is not clearly stated here is that these 11 unique places were where the fathers of the people standing before Moses had committed grave sins. Why mention all of these various places? As you go through the list of places, you will identify that they are unique but not exhaustive of all the places they visited, with some of them not even being mentioned previously in the Torah, and with no clear correlation between them. We won’t dwell too long on the verses, but for instance, “in the plain” refers to the Plain of Moab and the sinning regarding Baal Peor and the Midianite women; “opposite [the Sea of] Reeds” refers to the complaining at the Sea of Reeds prior to the Parting of the Sea; “Hazeroth” refers to the dispute of Korach and his followers; and “Di-Zahav” refers to the sinning of the Golden Calf.
Moreover, why the mention of “eleven days from Horeb”? Because… this is how long it should have taken the Israelites to travel from Mount Horeb to Kadesh-barnea (where they presently were)! Rather, it took them 40 years because of their sinning to reach the edge of the Promised Land!
So, here, Moses summed up some of the great ordeals he faced with the Children of Israel over the previous 40 years. It was a reminder of why Hashem commanded that the fathers were to die in the Wilderness. And here the children were being prepped before entering and conquering the Land. They were being reminded on the eve of such an anticipated occasion – that of entering the Land that was promised to their forefather Abraham, and for which they and their fathers set out from under the bondage of Egypt 40 years earlier. However, it would not be under the leadership of Moses, as Hashem had vowed after Moses struck rather than spoke to the rock to bring forth water. Thus, Moses was giving his final sermon… that of admonition.
Moses goes on to speak specifically to one event in particular that served as a major turning point in the Wilderness. In Deuteronomy 1:19, Moses recounts the details surrounding the sending of the 12 spies to evaluate the Land, and the bad report that the ten spies brought back – the report that injected poison into the hearts and minds of the Israelites.
“But you did not wish to ascend, and you rebelled against the word of Hashem, your God. And you slandered in your tents…” (Deuteronomy 1:26-27)
“Then I said to you, ‘Do not break down and do not fear them! Hashem, your God, Who goes before you, He shall do battle for you, like everything He did for you in Egypt, before your eyes, and in the Wilderness, as you have seen…’” (Deuteronomy 1:29-31)
“Hashem heard the sound of your words, and He was incensed and He swore, saying, ‘If even a man of these people, this evil generation, shall see the good land that I swore to give to your forefathers.’” (Deuteronomy 1:34-35)
What was so important about this particular event that led Moses to recount it? Why not recount the complaining before the parting of the Sea of Reeds, or the complaining for food or water throughout the Wilderness, or the sinning of the Golden Calf? The answer is that it was the sin of the ten spies that directly resulted in the 40 years of wandering in the Wilderness and Hashem’s ultimate decree that the entire older generation die in the Wilderness.
Or HaChaim comments: “In regard to the verse (Numbers 14:1): ‘The people wept that night’ – that by weeping upon hearing the report of the Spies, they caused that night to be established as a night of weeping for future generations, for that night was the night of the ninth of Av, when the Beit HaMikdash (the Temple) was ultimately destroyed.”
This is a very important insight from Or HaChaim. The sin of the ten spies is the origin of the saddest day in the Jewish calendar – the ninth of Av (Tish’a B’Av). As we have just learned, it was on this day that the ten spies brought back the bad report and turned the peoples’ hearts away from Hashem. That was the origin. Tish’a B’Av is also the very day that the first and second Temples were destroyed (in 587 BCE and in 70 CE, respectively). Other notable tragic events in the history of the Jewish people have also occurred on this day – the Jewish expulsions from England in 1290, from France in 1306, and from Spain in 1492, as well as others, including connections to the travesties of World War II. There is clear precedent for this day to be the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, and each and every year, Jews all around the world fast and mourn throughout the entire day.
This week’s Haftarah reading is from Isaiah 1, where the prophet Isaiah brought sharp reproofs down on the sinners of his time. Isaiah had a long career as a prophet, spanning 86 years through the reigns of kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. With no clear date provided, these admonitions by Isaiah were likely given over 100 years before the First Temple was destroyed.
Isaiah admonished the people who had turned away from Hashem (in Isaiah 1):
“For Hashem has spoken: ‘Children have I raised and exalted, but they have rebelled against Me.’ (Isaiah 1:2)
Woe! They are a sinful nation, a people weighed down by iniquity, evil offspring, corrupt children! They have forsaken Hashem; they have angered the Holy One of Israel, and they have turned their back on Him. (Isaiah 1:4)
Your country is desolate; your cities are burned with fire; as for your land – strangers consume its yield in your presence; it is as desolate as if overturned by foreigners” (Isaiah 1:7)
“Had not Hashem, Master of Legions, left us a trace of a remnant, we would have been like Sodom; we would have resembled Gomorrah!” (Isaiah 1:9)
But then, the words of Hashem through Isaiah turn from words of anger to words of guidance:
“Wash yourselves, purify yourselves, remove the evil of your deeds from before My eyes; cease doing evil. Learn to do good, seek, justice, vindicate the victim, render justice to the orphan, take up the grievance of the widow. (Isaiah 1:16-17)
‘Come now, let us reason together’, says Hashem. If your sins are like scarlet, they will become white as snow; if they have become red as crimson, they will become white as wool. If you are willing and obey, you will eat the goodness of the Land. But if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword – for the mouth of Hashem has spoken.” (Isaiah 1:18-20)
And finally, words of judgment are given, followed by redemption:
“I will turn My hand against you, until I refine your dross as with lye and I remove all your base metals. Then I will restore your judges as at first, and your counselors as at the beginning; after that you will be called ‘City of Righteousness’, ‘Faithful City.’ Zion will be redeemed through justice, and those who return to her through righteousness; but calamity awaits rebels and sinners together, and those who forsake Hashem will perish.” (Isaiah 1:25-28)
Sadly, the First Temple was destroyed more than 100 years later after Isaiah prophecied, and the Jews were exiled from Judah. But not before many words of admonishment, judgment, pleading, weeping, guidance and redemption from Isaiah and his prophetic counterparts like Ezekiel and Jeremiah that followed him.
Prior to the destruction of the Second Temple, our Master and Messiah Yeshua wept over Jerusalem and admonished the nation in his own words (Luke 19:41-44):
“When he drew near, he saw the city and wept over it, saying, ‘If only you yourself knew, while it was still your day, the way of shalom (peace). But now it is hidden from your eyes. For look, days are coming upon you when your enemies will pile up a siege mound around you and encircle you and assail you from all sides. They will tear down to the ground you and your children within you. Not one stone will remain on another stone, because you did not know the time of your punishment.”
Yeshua saw the days of the Roman conquest of Jerusalem, and the day (Tish’a B’Av) of the destruction of the Second Temple, and he wept; and, like Moses and Isaiah, he provided words of admonishment.
Tish’a B’Av is an important day in the Jewish calendar, yes, as a reminder of the tragedies that occurred on the day in the past going all the way back to its origin with the sin of the ten spies. There is certainly a reason to mourn on the day for what happened and for the Jewish lives lost, but it should not stop there. If we go back to the sin of the ten spies, we need to ask the question: What if this sin never happened? If the sin did not happen, the Israelites would have trusted the “good word” of the 12 spies, and would have marched into the Land right then and there. There would not have been 40 years of wandering in the Wilderness. The older generation would not have died off, and would have shared the great experience along with the younger generation. Even Moses, Aaron and Miriam would have entered. As such, Tish’a B’Av would not have been the saddest day in the Jewish calendar… a day of judgment, a day of mourning; rather, it would have been a day of celebration… a day of renewal… a day of victory… a day of redemption!
During the days that Yeshua walked the Land, there was yet another opportunity of redemption for the nation to draw back to Hashem. Alas, it did not come at this time either. The nation did not wake up from their blindness to the truth of Hashem, and ultimately, the Second Temple was destroyed and the people scattered across the Diaspora.
Remember back to Isaiah’s admonishment in Isaiah 1, that there was a remnant… that there was an opportunity to repent and return back to Hashem. These were active words for then, and they are active words today. Hashem would never and will never forget His Covenant people. Yet, we cannot continue to allow history to repeat itself. It cannot be the same thing over and over each and every year – that of mourning the past, and doing it again the following year... of building a Temple, just to watch it be torn down, just to rebuild it again. If redemption is to happen and if it is to stick once and for all, the foundation must be solid and secure.
We need to go back to the story of the sin of the ten spies and truly reflect. Trust and faith in Hashem wavered; fear turned into despair and halted any forward progression for the Children of Israel . This loss of focus on Hashem as their One and Only, their Rock and Shield, their Deliverer, established the day Tish’a B’Av as a day of mourning rather than a day of rejoicing. On the eve of entering the Land, Moses admonished the people not to repeat the transgressions of the previous generation. Then, the prophet Isaiah came along and admonished the people well in advance of the destruction of the First Temple and exile of the nation; the people could have listened, but chose not to, and the cycle continued. Yeshua came prior to the destruction of the Second Temple and the devastating events that ensued; he likewise admonished the people, and similarly they did not listen; and in similar fashion, the cycle rolled forward yet again.
How many more tragedies have to occur until we all finally wake up? And when I say “we”, I speak of everyone – Jews and non-Jews alike. Because even though the Biblical account emphasizes the actions of the Children of Israel exclusively, non-Jews who come into the knowledge of Hashem need to recognize that the Jewish nation plays a pivotal role in heralding in the return of the Messiah and the ultimate reigning in of the World to Come. As such, we need to come alongside them and support them to this end. Moreover, on a more introspective and personal level, we all need to look deeply within ourselves and identify any rebellious actions against Hashem in our lives, and eradicate them completely so that we may be in right standing with Him. How can we identify these rebellious actions? If our actions don’t line up with what is taught in the Word of God, those actions can be deemed rebellious. That simple.
Yet, do we really need admonishments every single time to remind us of our blindness to our Heavenly Father? When will we all finally wake up from our slumber and turn back to Hashem? Can this cycle continue ad infinitum or is there a discernible end? In short, there is a discernible end, as has been alluded to in the Torah and spoken by the prophets.
In Matthew 24, Yeshua spoke to his disciples about the End of Days – of the coming destruction, of the “birth pains”, the persecution and hatred, the desolating abomination, the false Messiahs and false prophets, and the ultimate coming of the “son of man” at an unexpected hour.
He said in Matthew 24:44: “Therefore, you be ready as well, for in an hour that you would not expect, the son of man will come.”
He went on to give a parable (Matthew 25:45-51): “Who, then, is the faithful and understanding servant whom his master has appointed over the servants to give them their food in its time? O, the gladness of the servant whom the master comes and finds doing this! Amen, I say to you that he will appoint him over all that is his. But if the evil servant says in his heart, ‘My master delays in coming,’ and beats his fellows and eats and drinks with the drunkards, the master of that servant will surely come on a day that he does not anticipate and in an hour he does not know. He will cut him apart and place his portion with the hypocrites, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”
Again, words of admonishment from Yeshua. Yet we know there is a discernible end to our time in this world before the World to Come that will be heralded in by the return of our Messiah Yeshua. And certainly the times that we presently live in carry all the signs that we are living in these End of Days. Nevertheless, as Yeshua said, no man knows when the son of man will come. All we can do is be ready, just like the parable of the faithful servant.
History has come and gone. The history of Tish’a B’Av has brought with it the pain and suffering due to the transgressions of past generations. But Hashem has not cast His ultimate judgment yet. Sure, we observe Tish’a B’Av year after year in a state of mourning, and this is warranted. However, why dwell on the pain and suffering from the past if it is likely to repeat itself through inaction? We have become lax and tired, groggy from the expectations that Hashem will always deliver us from our bondage (Amos 6). And remember, everyone – Jews and non-Jews – should take this opportunity to reflect on this day, not only in connection to the Jewish nation, but also in all of our personal lives, identifying any rebellion against Hashem that we may have in our lives, and eradicating it, so that we can serve Hashem wholeheartedly. All that Hashem has always desired is for all of us to raise our eyes to Him, to surrender to Him completely. To trust in Him with all of our beings – heart, soul and resources. The sooner we do this, the more we pursue Him, the sooner the sad day of Tish’a B’Av can be transformed into a day of celebration… a day of renewal… a day of victory… a day of redemption. And, oh, how that day is coming! May we go further than that and celebrate that future day of celebration, renewal, victory and redemption each and every day in spirit and in truth. Eagerly anticipating and awaiting the return of Messiah Yeshua!