Parshat Devarim / Shabbat Hazon (Deuteronomy 1:1-3.22)
By Cantor Ken Richmond
The Talmud says that when the month of Adar with its manic Purim holiday begins, joy increases, and conversely, when the current Hebrew month of Av arrives, with its impending ninth day, Tish’a B’av, which commemorates the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem, joy is diminished. I wonder annually how seriously to link my personal emotional fluctuations with our cycle of communal ones, and ponder what to do when one doesn’t feel in sync with the community. Traditional Ashkenazic observances help one prepare for Tish’a B’avby avoiding shaving, live music, and weddings for three weeks, and abstaining from meat, wine, and swimming for the final nine days, on top of the traditional fast of Tish’a B’av itself. How do we balance the joy of summer, with its outdoor concerts, BBQs, short haircuts, lakes and pools, with participation in communal mourning for tragedies that happened long ago and far away?
This Shabbat, Shabbat Hazon, the Sabbath of Vision, is named after the first words of the Haftarah, from the prophet Isaiah, which accompanies the Torah portion from the opening of Deuteronomy, Moses’ final, epic speech to the Jewish people before they enter the Promised Land. Both Torah and Haftarah are linked by word and melody to the holiday of Tish’a B’av that they anticipate. The word Eicha, the Hebrew name for the Book of Lamentations that we chant on Tish’a B’av, and its opening word (an exclamatory version of the word “how”), is found in both the Torah portion: “How can I bear unaided the trouble…” (Deuteronomy 1:12) and the Haftarah: “How [Jerusalem] has become a harlot.” (Isaiah 1:21) Both of these verses, along with much of the Haftarah, are chanted to the beautiful, melancholy melodies of Lamentations. The midrash (Eicha Raba) says that there are three who prophesied using the word “Eicha”: Moses, who saw Israel in her tranquility, Isaiah, who witnessed her recklessness, and Jeremiah, in Lamentations, who saw her abandoned.
The Piacezner Rebbe, Kalonymos Kalman Shapira (1889-1943), who perished in the Holocaust, but whose words of Torah from the Warsaw Ghetto survived the war in a buried canister, recorded his final words of Torah for Shabbat Hazon in July 1942, writing about Isaiah’s vision. He writes that the harshest form of prophecy is a vision in which one experiences someone’s pain: “When in Scripture and in the writings of our blessed sages we studied descriptions of the agony endured at the destruction of the Temple, we thought we had some notion of pain. At times we even cried while learning their teachings. But now, it is plain that hearing about sufferings is vastly different from seeing them, let alone enduring them, God forbid.” The Piacezner Rebbe, who witnessed and endured horrible atrocities, reminds us that empathy is difficult to achieve. How can we comprehend the suffering of others, and how much should we immerse ourselves in current calamities, locally or around the world, as well as the devastation chronicled in our history?
Our Torah portion helps us frame our answers in a variety of ways. On the one hand, Moses’ depiction of the forty years wandering in the desert reminds us of the importance of telling and retelling our stories, and of identifying with the travails of our ancestors. On the other hand, God tells us twice in this portion that it’s time to move on, that we’ve had too much sitting around or going around in circles. This teaches us to avoid becoming completely consumed by the sorrows of the past or paralyzed by the latest tragedy we read about in the news.
Finally, I would like to look at these issues through my favorite verse from this portion. Moses portrays the incident with the spies with images of God fighting for us and scouting out the land, and he then uses this striking language (Deut. 1:31): “in the desert, where you saw how your God carried you, as a person carries his [or her] child,” a metaphor I can relate to as I’ve been shlepping sleeping (and growing) children in from the car on recent summer evenings. The midrash in the Mekhilta of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai recounts God’s protective cloud at the Red Sea moving from in front of the Israelites to behind them, to protect them from the advancing Egyptian army, and likens this to a person walking in the desert with his son. If robbers approach in front to abduct him (the son), the father would place him behind. If a wolf approached from behind, he would carry him on his shoulders, as God did for us, metaphorically, in the desert.
According to Talmudic legend, the Second Temple was destroyed on Tish’a B’av 1,947 years ago because of sin’at chinam, baseless hatred. The description of Divine assistance above provides us with a model of how to treat not only our children but all people with love, by fighting for them, showing them the way, and when needed, lifting them up. Perhaps when we help each other, as the bumper sticker says, with “Senseless Acts of Love,” this can be an antidote to the baseless hatred that still lingers in the world and a counterweight to the sorrow of remembering communal adversity. The Hasidic Rebbe Chaim Elazar Spira (1861-1937) interprets the Talmudic saying, “When the month of Av begins, joy decreases (mema’atin besimcha),” by parsing it instead: “When the month of Av begins, decrease… with joy,” indicating that even our mourning should contain some element of happiness. So however we approach Tish’a B’av this year, may we be able to balance the empathic experience of the suffering of others with the joy generated by lifting each other up.
Ken Richmond has been the Cantor at Temple Israel of Natick since 2006, and serves as adjunct faculty at Hebrew College’s School of Jewish Music. He graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary’s cantorial school in 2004 as a Wexner Graduate Fellow, and was a member of the Lev Shalem Mahzor Committee. He and his wife, Rabbi Shira Shazeer (HCRS ‘10) are klezmer musicians and are raising their boys with Yiddish as their first language.
Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate or cantorate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson teaches history, oversees the professional development program, and serves as the placement director for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.