Commentary on Parashat Devarim, Deuteronomy 1:1 - 3:22
The yearly Torah reading cycle is almost as unpredictable as the Jewish calendar. It’s nearly impossible to predict the exact date a Torah portion will be read; sometimes two portions are read together, other times separately, just to make the puzzle even harder. But certain features of the yearly cycle are a constant. For example, on Shabbat before Tisha B’Av [the fast of the ninth of the month of Av] we always read the first Torah portion in Devarim, or Deuteronomy.
I have no way of proving it, but I believe this is no coincidence. On the contrary, I think it’s all based on one word found in Deuteronomy 1:12. The verse begins with the word “eicha“–the Hebrew name for the book of Lamentations, which is read on the eve of the fast. In fact, the tradition on this Shabbat is for the Torah reader to depart from the musical cantillation we normally chant, and to sing that one verse in the special melody for Lamentations. When Tisha B’Av begins on a Saturday night, at the conclusion of Shabbat Devarim as it does this year, evoking the mood of the coming fast when we read this verse is especially heartrending.
Verse 1:12 reads: “How can I bear unaided the trouble you cause, the burden and the bickering?” Its plaintive nature evokes the rhetorical nature of the question; there truly is no answer, only a moan, and a cry of despair.
The word “eichah” occurs only 18 times in the entire Bible. In each instance, it conveys this rhetorical complaint. But the same Hebrew letters, vocalized differently appear one other place, in the book of Genesis. After Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, God asks them, “Ayekah,” which means, “Where are you?” The traditional explanation for this question is not that God is asking the location of the first humans. Rather God is asking them, “Where are you morally? Have you grown, have you learned anything?”
Our sages have traditionally looked at the rhetorical question “eichah” and read it with the very real question “ayekah” in mind. Yes, we mourn for the tragedies of our people. Yes, we allow ourselves the luxury of anguish at the calamities that dot our peoples’ history. But where are we? What have we learned from that history? To ask the first question and not attempt to answer the second would be an exercise in shallowness. Not only that, it wouldn’t be the Jewish thing to do.
Each summer, Shabbat Devarim and Tisha B’Av occur close to the anniversary of the first atomic bomb at Hiroshima. Each year, there is a discussion about whether it was right to drop the bomb when and where we did. I always view this discussion as an exercise in futility. Dropping the bomb was an act of war; in war, armies are concerned with winning, not what is morally right.
Recent publications, however, have shown a deeper and more significant issue: the process that led to the decision to drop the bomb. In the high echelons of the U.S. military, there was very little discussion at all. The generals knew we had the weapon, and wanted to use it. Once the process was set in motion, no one stopped to ask whether the target was the correct one, whether it had military value, or if the A-bomb would usher in a new era in world history. In short, no one bothered to ask what the implications of using this horrifying new weapon would be.
The arguments about the justification for dropping the bomb won’t change past history. But we still have the obligation to ask “ayekah” — where are we? We can’t undo what was done more than 50 years ago, but we can hope that our leaders will be prudent in the present about decisions with catastrophic consequences.
We should also ask the same question on a personal level. So often, the major decisions we make are not made in dramatic circumstances, but rather on the spur of the moment: Whom can we help today? Are we influenced by that person’s race or ethnicity? Do we allow superficial distinctions to deter us from seeing the common humanity in all people? Perhaps most important, once we’ve started moving in one direction, do we ever stop to evaluate where we’re going, and whether we need a mid-course correction? Those are the questions that we should ask on Shabbat Devarim, as we read the first chapters of Deuteronomy.
Rabbinic Midrash, or interpretation, tells us that in the wilderness, our people would recount their sins each year on Tisha B’Av, realizing that they bore the punishment for their gravity. Each year, they would be given the message that they hadn’t been totally forgiven. Then, just before they entered the land, they knew that the time had come for a new beginning, as God had would finally answer, “I have forgiven.”
On Shabbat morning, when we hear the Torah reader intone the word “eicha” let us ask ourselves “ayekah” — Where are we? And if we can answer that we have indeed learned to question the little decisions that can lead to big calamities, then perhaps we will begin to sense a new dimension of God’s favor.
Reprinted with permission from SocialAction.com.
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.
Pronounced: MIDD-rash, Origin: Hebrew, the process of interpretation by which the rabbis filled in “gaps” found in the Torah.