This coming week we not only usher in the reading of the Fifth Book of the Bible but we also begin the summer fast know as Tisha b’Av (9th day of the Biblical Month of Av). Sefer Dvarim, or as it is known in English translation, the Book of Deuteronomy, acts a summation of the other four books. There is much scholary debate as to its place in the Torah. Biblical scholars have long debated if this fifth book is an add-on or is the book part of the original text?
Tishah b’Av is not a Biblical holiday but a day created by the rabbis and at first it is not easy to find a connection between Parashat Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22) and Tisha b’Av. Yet a closer examination may show us that on a meta-level the two are more closely related than we might first imagine.
Tisha b’Av marks the destruction of both the First Temple in 586 BCE and of the Second Temple in the year 70CE. Others have connected the start of the Spanish Inquisition or the expulsion of the Spanish Jewish community with the holiday. These national disasters provoked a great deal of rabbinic commentary. Throughout their commentaries one theme emerges, that it does no good to become defensive and blame others.
Rather, no matter what the other may have done to us, it becomes our responsibility to learn from the calamity and modify one’s behavior so as to be able to better deal with the next problem to occur. This self-analysis does not mean that we blame to victim. Judaism long recognizes that often one is an innocent victim. It also recognizes that there is such a thing as: “Sinat chinam.” Sinat Chinam is a hard word to translate. Perhaps we can translate it best as a “decline in national morale due to idle gossip, loose hatred, the inability to say something nice, and the desire to put politics above the national good”. Sinat chinam is the act of complaining for complaining sake, of showing envy for one’s neighbor’s/colleague’s success and jealousy turned into negative social energy. Sinat chinam represents social disunity, and the arrogance of believing that only “I am right”.
The rabbis teach us that the fall of the first and second temples did not occur due to lack of national will but rather to sinat chinam, a social disease that slowly gnaws at the national conscientiousness.
Parashat Dvarim stands in contrast to sinat chinam. This week’s section is all about the importance of words. The section begins with the phrase: “Eleh ha’dvarim asher Mosheh dibber el col yisrael…/these are the words which Moses spoke to all of Israel (1:1). It premise is simple, words do matter; what we say has consequences.
The careful reader will ask him/herself why the word “col” (all of) is needed. Certainly the phrase makes equal sense without that word. The rabbinic answer is that “col/each and every one” refers to the body of individuals whom come together as a collective. In others words, we can become a society of sinat chinam (of spiteful chatter and political rancor) or we can focus on using our words to create a sense of comradeship and national purpose. Are the fast of Tisha b”Av and the week’s parashah teaching us that societies dominated by a sense of sinat chinam end in national calamitie? On the other hand, where words are chosen carefully and with the purpose of binding, the holiness of words turns to caring and national success.
Thus, the Fifth book of Hebrew scripture and the last book of the Torah is called Dvarim (“words that result in actions”). How we chose our words as both individuals and as a nation does matter. Both have much to teach us about the modern world in which we live. What do you think?
This year Tishah b’Av begins Monday sundown, July 31 and ends at sundown August 1st. It is traditional to read the Book of Lamentations. Many people fast or avoid the eating of meat on that day. It is traditional not to swim on Tishah b’Av.
Youtubes for the Week
Songs of tragedy and tears
“Tears in Heaven”
The song “Ani Ma’amim” interpreted by Rabbi Shlomo Charbach: