Commentary for Devarim

12 Jul

The book of Deuteronomy, which we start this week, marks a change in perspective in the Torah. We switch from the standard third person narrator to long speeches given to the people by Moses. As in any change of perspective, this brings a slightly different interpretation of some of the events. The first of these comes in Deut. 1:12, during a retelling of the events of Exodus 18. During his conversation with Jethro there, the reason Moses gives for his apparent burnout as the mediator of the Israelite’s legal disputes seems to be nothing more than just the sheer workload, but Deut 1:12 attributes it to a frustration with the constant in-fighting and “bickering” between the Israelites.

This week’s parshah is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, and this verse, which starts with the word “Eichah” (which is also the Hebrew name for the book of Lamentations), along with most of this week’s haftarah, is not read with the regular Torah or haftarah cantillation, but rather with the cantillation used for Lamentations, which we read on Tisha B’Av. Tisha B’Av is a day of both physical and spiritual tragedies for the Jewish People; the destruction of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem, the plowing over of Jerusalem so that it could be rebuilt as a Roman city with a temple to Jupiter where the Holy Temples once stood, the fall of Betar and the end of the Bar Kochva Revolt, the expulsion from Spain, the outbreak of World War I, and the beginning of the mass deportations of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka all occurred on this day. While Tisha B’Av is about mourning these tragedies, when looking at a list of tragedies this long, one of the first spiritual questions that comes to mind is “what did we do wrong to deserve this?”

While it is a time of mourning, Tisha B’Av also serves as a wakeup call. The next nine weeks on the Jewish calendar are a time of repentance, and the tragedies of Tisha B’Av make us ask ourselves what we have done wrong in the past year and help us start down the path of repentance that culminates nine weeks from now on Yom Kippur. Tisha B’Av, the book of Deuteronomy, and Deut 1:12 in this week’s parshah are a message to us that we need to start doing as Moses does here; Take off our rose colored glasses and admit to ourselves that everything is not as perfect as we like to pretend that it is.

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