Parashat Devarim; Shabbat Hazon
July 17, 2021, 8 Av 5781
Torah: Deuteronomy 1-3:22; Triennial 2:2-30
Haftarah: Isaiah 1:1-27
In this week's Torah Sparks, you'll find a D'var Torah on the Parashah by Ilana Kurshan called "Not Just a Second Torah", Vered Hollander-Goldfarb poses questions titled "It´s Lonely at the Top" and Bex Stern Rosenblatt writes about "The Widow and the Whore" in the Haftarah.
Not Just a Second Torah
Ilana Kurshan

With this week’s parashah we begin Sefer Devarim, the final book of the Torah and the one referred to by the Talmudic rabbis as Mishneh Torah – a second Torah (see, for instance, Berakhot 21b, based on Deut 17:18). The Tosafot explain that the book of Devarim is referred to as such because “it reviews and repeats what came previously” (Tosafot on Gittin 2a). Most of the book consists of Moshe’s summation of the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the revelation at Sinai, and the Israelites’ desert wanderings. And yet as our parashah demonstrates, Sefer Devarim is more of an interpretation than a repetition, raising questions about the extent to which all memory is selective, all repetition is commentary, and, as William Faulkner famously put it, “the past is never truly past.”
Moshe begins his final address to the people by reviewing several episodes from the previous three books of the Bible, including the appointment of magistrates to help Moshe judge the people, the sending of spies to scout out the land of Canaan, and the journey through the lands belonging to the Moabites and Amorites. In each case, Moshe offers a slightly different take on these events than the one found earlier in the Torah. For instance, while in the book of Numbers it is God who tells Moshe to send out spies, here in Deuteronomy, Moshe states that it was the Israelites who had the idea to send out spies, implying that the people were to blame for the crisis of confidence that followed the spies’ return. Here as elsewhere, Moshe refracts the events of the past through the lens of his own perspective, commenting and critiquing rather than just repeating and reviewing. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise, then, that in introducing Moshe’s address, the Torah explicitly describes it as commentary rather than repetition: “On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound (ba’er) this teaching” (1:5). Moshe is not merely chronicling all that came before, but “expounding” a teaching, interpreting the past so as to glean lessons and insights from it.
Invoking this verse, the Talmud in Sotah (35b) teaches that Moshe reviewed the Torah by inscribing its words on stones in the land of Moab so as to teach them to the people – sort of like writing on a giant blackboard for all the people to see and learn. The midrashic rabbis explain that Moshe told the people that he was near death, and so this was their chance to make sure they had learned the entire Torah. Anyone who had not mastered a particular verse, he told them, should come forward so that he might repeat that verse for them. To the extent that Moshe repeated the Torah in his final address, it was a repetition tailored to the specific needs of each individual, filling in the gaps in his or her memory. As these sources suggest, Moshe’s goal was not merely to repeat what had come before, but to ensure that the people had internalized the Torah’s lessons.
The rabbinic understanding of Sefer Devarim as Moshe’s attempt to teach and comment on Torah is also evident from the way the midrash reads the opening verses of the parashah. In the Sifrei, an early midrash from the first couple of centuries of the Common Era, the rabbis note the abundance of place names invoked in introducing Moshe’s address: “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan, through the wilderness in the Aravah near Suf, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazerot, and Di Zahav” (1:1-2). They explain that the Torah mentions all these places because Moshe, in his address, was rebuking the people for their behavior in each location: “In the desert” they sinned by complaining to Moshe that they wished they had returned to Egypt; “in the Aravah” they whored with Moabite women; “near Suf” they rebelled at the Red Sea; “between Paran and Tophel” they complained about the manna, etc. According to this understanding, Moshe, in reviewing the Israelites’ itinerary, was also critiquing the people for their behavior, suggesting that what seems to be a mere litany was in fact laced with commentary and critique.
The very first words Moshe speaks to the people in our parashah—the words with which he opens his final address—also indicate that Moshe was offering an account of the past that reflected his own preoccupations. We might have expected him to start at the very beginning, with the inauguration of his own prophetic career at the burning bush, or with the story of the flight from Egypt. But instead, Moshe seems to start in media res: “The Lord our God spoke to us at Horeb saying: ‘You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Start out and make your way to the hill country” (1:7). Moshe begins his address by quoting God’s charge to the people to depart from Sinai, suggesting that this was a key moment in Moshe’s understanding of the events of the past. Perhaps for Moshe, the departure from Sinai represented the first time the people had to learn to take Torah with them. Having just received the Torah at Sinai, the people who traveled away from the mountain had to find a way to carry Torah inside of themselves and ensure that it became a part of them once the fiery experience of revelation was over. This is also the challenge that Moshe faces when he expounds on the Torah in Sefer Devarim: How can he review and teach Torah in a way that the people will remember it and will carry it around with them always?
As Moshe understood, when we interpret Torah from our perspective and through the lens of our experience, we ensure that it remains relevant and vital. When Moshe “expounds” on Torah in the book of Deuteronomy, he is not merely reviewing the past; he is also showing us how the past continues to shape us. As we learn from Moshe’s final address, the way we remember our history and the way we retell our stories determines the people we are today, and the people we will become.
It´s Lonely at the Top
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb
Deuteronomy: 1:9-13

9And I spoke to you… saying: ‘I am not able to bear you alone; 10the LORD your God has multiplied you, and, behold, you are… as the stars of heaven for multitude… 12How can I alone bear your cumbrance, and your burden, and your strife? 13Get you people who are wise, understanding, and known, from your tribes; and I will place them as heads over you.’

  • Why is Moshe unable to bear the people alone? Is this a positive or negative statement? 
  • Moshe lists three behaviors he is unable to bear alone. What are they and why do you think that they might break a leader?
  • In the book of Devarim Moshe retells the events that took place while they were in the desert. What episode might he be referring to here? How does the retelling differ from your perception of the earlier telling of the event? What might be the reason for those differences?
  • Who chooses and appoints the leaders according to v.13? What are the advantages of the system?
  • *Devarim is always read before Tisha B’Av. V.12 opens with the word “eichah” -how, and is read in the tune of Eichah. Eichah 1:1 reads “Eichah -how lonely sits the city…” Both speak of being alone. When does one feel lonely?

Commentary: Ramban Devarim 1:12

How can I alone bear your cumbrance, and your burden, and your strife? Moshe… eluded to them the three things which he told Jethro that he was doing for the people... He said “cumbrance” corresponding to "and I make known to them the statutes of God and His laws", for it was a cumbering task to teach those who had come forth from Egypt the statutes and the laws of God, their meanings, interpretations, and secrets. He mentioned “burden” corresponding to “the people come me to inquire of God”, a reference to prayer, for he used to pray on their behalf… “Your strife” [meaning]…— matters of judgments. He said: Get you people who are wise…, and known, from your tribes — referring only to [their qualities as] judges. But he said, “and I will make them heads over you” by way of humility.

  • Based on Moshe’s statement, what were the areas of leadership that Moshe covered?
  • According to Ramban, Moshe was referring to the role of judge when he said, “I will make them heads over you”. What might we have expected their role to be? What does Moshe seem to imply that it will be?
  • Ramban claims that Moshe called them “leaders” out of humility. How is this a sign of humility on Moshe’s part?
The Widow and the Whore
Bex Stern Rosenblatt

We map ourselves onto Jerusalem, using the city as a mirror to reflect what we see and want to see in our own souls. Jerusalem contains for us both an image of heaven on earth and of the loss of heaven. And the way we choose to portray Jerusalem is as a woman. We look to see the best of ourselves and the worst of ourselves as a woman in relationship with God. 

The prophetic books are full of these descriptions of Jerusalem, presenting her glory and her ruin. In this week’s haftarah from the Book of Isaiah, we find both. We read in Isaiah 1:21,

Alas, how can she have become a whore, the faithful city?
Full of justice, righteousness dwelt in her, 
Now murderers. 

She is both perfect and ruined, more ruined for the perfection that she once held. Her current state is unimaginable, remembering who and what she once was. This style is typical in laments such as this verse: starting with the word eikhah, “alas, how?!” they present the complete reversal of states, the bringing low of the high. It is a style perhaps most familiar to us from David’s lament over Jonathan and Saul “how the mighty have fallen!” which might be better translated as “alas, how could the mighty have fallen?!” 

Often, laments begin with the former good state and then bring up the current fallen state, contrasting it as nearly unbelievable, beyond imagination. Here, Isaiah does the opposite. He starts with her whoredom. Her whoredom is presented as not quite the lowest of states but rather as an explanation for how she could reach the lowest of states. As in so many of the prophetic books, we explain our wrongdoing, we justify being punished, by imagining ourselves as one of the most powerless members of society, the whore. In this metaphor, Jerusalem is in relationship with God. She whores by turning astray after other gods, after other nations. Therefore, any punishment is justified - the whore has no rights. 

There is another type of powerless woman who appears frequently in the Tanakh - the widow. Like the whore, the widow is defenseless. She has no man to protect her or to provide for her. But crucially, the Tanakh does not blame her for her existence. Rather, the Tanakh sees it as imperative that society should become her “husband,” should protect and provide for her. Our haftarah passage presents us with the image of the widow as well. She is presented to us not as Jerusalem, but rather as proof that we have done well. Verse 17 reads, “Learn good-doing, seek justice, righten the ruthless, judge for the orphan, argue for the widow.” If only we do these things, if only we form a society capable of taking care of our most vulnerable, then all good things will come to us. But Jerusalem is not included here. She is the harlot, the cause of our going astray, rather than someone in need of help. 

When we arrive at the Book of Lamentations this Tisha b’Av, we read Jerusalem as the defenseless one, the one who is suffering, rather than the one who causes suffering. In a complete reversal from Isaiah 1:21, the Book of Lamentations opens:

Alas, how can the city sit alone?
Once great with people, she has become like a widow.
Once great among nations, princess among provinces, she has become a slave.

We read first her greatness and her status which rose from us, from her being full of people. And then we encounter the most blood chilling line, we encounter Jerusalem as “like a widow.” She has lost her people and perhaps her God. We who are called upon to protect the rights of the widow in Isaiah are absent in Lamentations, unable to offer Jerusalem the support she needs. Yet we have taken an important first step. We are no longer reading Jerusalem as a whore, no longer reading her as the other, the part of ourselves we wish to punish. Rather we read her as the part of ourselves which has become distanced. As we proceed to read the Book of Lamentations, we can accept the invitation to hold up Jerusalem as a mirror to ourselves, choosing to read her as ourselves, capable of returning and full of the capacity to “learn good-doing.” 
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