By Reb David
This post is part of a series culminating in Tisha b’Av, entrance gate to the High Holy Days. These weeks of Bein Metzarim (“between the straits”) represent a diminution of our usual spiritual voltage and joy as we approach Tisha b’Av, the lowest day of the Jewish spiritual year.
The Book of Deuteronomy and this week’s portion (Devarim) open with Moses’ second telling of Israel’s journey. The name Deuteronomy hails from the Greek for “second law,” which begs why Moses repeats himself at all. Another question: why begin a second telling during the week before Tisha b’Av, which became the lowest day of the Jewish year and a gateway to the High Holidays? Why indeed?
The whole Book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ swan song, a soliloquy before Moses’ death. Moses’ soliloquy comes after 40 years of leading a ragtag and often restive band of former slaves and their descendants through a forbidding desert, fending off attackers and wrestling with both God and his own people. Often along the way, the people defied God – the Golden Calf, faithless whining, fearfully refusing to go forward, outright rebellion – and Moses withheld many of the rebukes he might have offered.
Sifre, a medieval compendium of midrash halacha (rabbinic tales of Jewish law and life), offers that Moses waited until this week’s portion to rebuke the people, waiting until he approached his own death to deliver lasting words of wisdom and warning (Sifre, Deut. 3:2). Maybe Moses had learned from Jacob, who waited until just before his own death to admonish his sons (Gen. 49). Maybe Moses’ pre-death rebuke, in turn, was the example that inspired Joshua to deliver his own (Josh. 24:15), as would Samuel (1 Sam. 12:34-35) and King David (1 Kings 2:1). Apparently a pre-death teaching of rebuke or warning was a tradition for Biblical leaders.
Moderns have somewhat different values. We want life’s end to be peaceful and gentle, like “removing a hair from milk” (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 8a). Sometimes difficult truths long suppressed need to be aired and cleared so they can be healed. Sometimes end of life inspires this vision and courage, and this dialogue among loved ones is possible safely and gently while still in body. Sometimes it’s not, and we seek healing in other ways.
Moses, for his part, warned his people not to defy God. The rest of Torah features Moses re-telling the story, re-telling the law, even re-telling the Ten Commandments, with the purpose of reminding his people (then and now) before Moses departs. His worry was that the people would cross into Israel, there defy God yet again, and face destruction. Many centuries later, at Tisha b’Av, that’s exactly what happened. At Tisha b’Av, which falls just after we read the start of Moses’ swan song, Romans destroyed the Second Temple, ended Jewish independence and exiled the Jews from Israel. Rabbis held that exile results from defying God (Mishnah Avot 5:8-9), and the Second Temple was destroyed because the people fell into senseless hatred (sinat chinam) (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 9a-b; Jerusalem Talmud Yoma 1:1).
Tisha b’Av thus represents both the grief of destruction and exile, and the call to return from defiance and bad behavior. In 49 days, the shofar will sound, Rosh Hashanah will come and the Days of Awe will be upon us.
Moses and Tisha b’Av. We hear and forget. We stray and return. We descend and rise again. That’s spiritual life, if we pay attention.
So for us moderns, Moses’ rebuke before Tisha b’Av takes on deep meaning. It comes now as a call to begin our journey back to ourselves, each other, spiritual truth and God. Rosh Hashanah is coming: will we be ready?