July 17th, 2021: Parashat Devarim - Turning Mourning into Celebration

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:

Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22

This week’s parashat 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 my Biblical Hebrew teacher, 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.

As Ramban (R’ Moses ben Nachman) wrote in his introduction to his commentary on Devarim: “Moses elaborated for the generation entering the Land most of the commandments of the Torah that were necessary for Israel to know. Moses does not mention in it anything about the laws of the Kohanim – procedure of the sacrifices, nor purity laws nor their prescribed actions, because Scripture already elucidated them for the Kohanim previously, and ‘the Kohanim are diligent’ and do not require a second admonition after the original admonition. Regarding the ordinary Israelites, however, Moses repeats those commandments that apply to them an additional time in order to add elucidation to those commandments; and sometimes he mentions them only to caution Israel with numerous warnings, such as the many frequent warnings regarding idolatry that appear in this book, along with admonitions and ‘a terrifying voice’ with which Moses frightens them concerning all the punishments due for transgressions.”

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.

The parashat and book of Devarim open up with these words in Deuteronomy 1:1-2:

אֵ֣לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּעֵ֖בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן בַּמִּדְבָּ֡ר בָּֽעֲרָבָה֩ מ֨וֹל ס֜וּף

ֵּֽין־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.”

Or HaChaim (R’ Chaim ibn Attar) comments: “The Torah was concerned to suggest that just as Moses said these words on his own, so too, Moses said some things in the earlier teachings on his own. Thus, it says ‘these are the words that Moses spoke’, meaning: These alone are the words that Moses spoke on his own; but everything in the previous four Books he did not utter even one letter of his own accord. Rather, the words that emerged directly from the One Who commanded them, in their precise form, without any deviation, not even by way of one extra or missing letter. The reason the verse says, to ‘all’ of Israel, is that Moses’ words to the Jewish people in the course of the 36 days until his death had two components: 1) he reviewed the Torah for the Jewish people; and 2) he admonished them for the sins that they had committed in the past; and each necessitated having the words spoken to all of them.”

This second point by Or HaChaim sums up what was Moses’ intention in opening up with these first two verses – a high-level summary of 11 unique key places in the Wilderness 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); but 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 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.

Moses recounts:

“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 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 were likely given over 100 years before the First Temple was destroyed.

Isaiah admonished the people who had turned away from HaShem:

“For HaShem has spoken: ‘Children have I raised and exalted, but they have rebelled against Me.’ (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. (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” (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!” (1:9)

Then the words of HaShem 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. (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.” (1:18-20)

And finally words of judgment 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.” (1:25-28)

Sadly, the First Temple was destroyed more than 100 years later, and the Jews were exiled from Judah. But not before many words of judgment, admonishment, 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, probably around 40 years prior, 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 admonished.

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 now. 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 nation. 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. 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? 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, spoken by the prophets, and analyzed by the Sages.

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: “Therefore, you be ready as well, for in an hour that you would not expect, the son of man will come.” (Matthew 24:44) He went on to give a parable: “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.” (Matthew 25:45-51)

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 we believe 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 actions of the forefathers. 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). All that HaShem has always desired is for His people to raise their 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 we can begin to transform the sad day of Tish’a B’Av 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 each and every day in spirit and in truth. Eagerly anticipating and awaiting the return of Messiah! Amen.

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