Parashat Devarim: Anticipatory Grief

Commentary on Parashat Devarim, Deuteronomy 1:1 - 3:22

This week’s Torah portion, Devarim, is always read on the Shabbat prior to Tisha B’Av, the fast day commemorating the destruction of both ancient Temples in Jerusalem — the first in 586 BCE, and the second in 70 CE. Tisha B’Av is the culmination of a period in which grief is gradually intensified, starting with minor mourning practices during the three weeks prior to Tisha B’Av, followed by increased mourning practices during the nine days prior. On Tisha B’Av itself, it is traditional to sit on the floor, read the Book of Lamentations and abstain from food, drink, bathing and pleasurable activities.

This build up of mourning practices during the three weeks almost mirrors the mourning practices following the death of a loved one, yet in reverse. The most intense period of grief is typically in the immediate aftermath of the death of someone close to us. Even when death is anticipated, it still feels like a shock. But as we move through the traditional Jewish rituals of funeral and burial, through shiva, sheloshim and (in the case of the death of a parent) 11 months of reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish, the mourning practices decrease in their intensity. In contrast, mourning for the Temple in Jerusalem is a process that increases in intensity, from the 17th of the Hebrew month of Tammuz (which marks the moment when the walls of Jerusalem were breached) through to the fast of Tisha B’Av, when the Temple fell. 

Shabbat on which Devarim is read is called Shabbat Hazon, taken from the opening word of the haftarah, the section of prophets read alongside the weekly Torah portion. The word hazon means vision, and Parashat Devarim begins to offer a vision of the future without Moses. The Torah portion marks the beginning of a long address, one that will consume the entire book of Deuteronomy, the final of the Five Books of Moses. In its entirety, it can be read as Moses’ ethical will, in which he recounts the history of the Israelites and offers instruction to prepare the people for a future without him. 

What might the Israelites have been thinking and feeling as Moses prepares them for his death? They’re anticipating their chance to enter the land of Israel, but they are also anticipating the loss of their leader. They, and Moses, may very well have been experiencing anticipatory grief — the grief felt before someone dies by those people closest to them. 

Both the three-week period leading up to Tisha B’Av and Devarim can be seen as an experience of anticipatory grief. According to experts, there are four hallmarks of anticipatory grief: accepting that death is inevitable, feeling concern for the dying person, rehearsing the death and imagining the future. Anticipatory grief can help us to prepare for the impact of a significant loss, recognizing that death is inevitable and working through it toward imagining the future. 

In setting out a vision for the future, Moses is living fully in the face of his mortality, solidifying the foundation on which the people of Israel will continue to live beyond his lifetime. In helping the Israelites to acknowledge their impending loss, he enabled them to imagine the future. It’s a hard task to imagine the future without a loved one, but one that can help prepare us for the reality, as Moses models for the Israelites throughout Devarim. 

This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Reading Torah Through Grief newsletter on July 21st, 2023. To sign up to receive this newsletter each week in your inbox, click here.

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