Drash on Parashat Devarim, Chazon 2018
Cantor Michel Laloum
Temple Beth Israel, St Kilda, Victoria
Tisha B’Av commemorates all of the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people throughout history, and specifically the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Therefore, t.he weeks preceding the Ninth of Av, are traditionally weeks of introspection and soul searching.
The Temple was symbolic of our connection to God, and its destruction symbolized the loss of that connection. Interestingly, within the Tisha B’av liturgy, there is a line describing the day as a ‘festival’. The Talmud understands this to mean that, despite the sadness of the day, it still has the potential for joy. According to the sages, to transform the day from sadness, i.e. a lack of connection, to a day of joy, or connection, one needs to be aware that the real tragedy the Jewish Nation faces is our lack of unity. They believe the focus of this day needs to be on our attitude toward each other.
If we can see the good in others, acknowledge that they have the same rights that we do, and look after those who are less fortunate than us, then and only then will we merit a rebuilding of the metaphoric Temple, the temple in our hearts, and reconnect with God.
This week’s Parashah Devarim begins the final book and recapitulation of the Torah, as well as Moshe’s farewell discourse. Moshe reviews the events of the past forty years between the Exodus from Egypt and the much anticipated arrival in the Promised Land, rebuking the people for their shortcomings and enjoining them to observe the Torah on their arrival in Israel. Moshe and the generation of wandering Israelites, prohibited from entering the Promised Land, are also feeling a disconnect from God.
Moshe reflects on the burdens and feeling of isolation of leadership, “How can I bear your weight, your burden and your quarrel?” (deut 1:12) In appointing impartial judges from the wise, understanding and well-known leaders from the tribes, Moshe goes on to specify “you shall not show partiality in legal matters. Hear out the small and the great alike. Do not be influenced by anyone, for the judgment belongs to God” (Deut 1:17). In reflecting on the difficulties of making judgments, the sages compared this responsibility to dealing with fire: If we get too close we are burnt, but if we are too distant we do not benefit from the warmth. How remarkable that all of these Biblical / historical concerns continue to be just as relevant today in the context of how the appointment of judges in a politically charged environment, has the potential to erode the appearance of impartiality and make it more difficult to hear the small and great alike.
This week’s haftarah once again chastises the people of Judah and Jerusalem for having rebelled against God; criticizing them for repeating their errors and not abandoning their sinful ways. Isaiah compares the Jewish leaders to the rulers of Sodom and Gomorrah, stating God’s distaste for their sacrifices and offerings, tainted with pagan customs. “How has she become a harlot, a faithful city; it was once full of justice, in which righteousness would lodge, but now it is a city of murderers…" (Isaiah 1:21).
Isaiah encourages the people to repent sincerely and to perform acts of justice and kindness towards the needy, orphans and widows, promising them the best of the land in return for their obedience. The haftarah then reconnects with the Torah portion and the theme of judgment by concluding with a promise that God will eventually re-establish Israel's judges and leaders, when "Zion shall be redeemed through justice and her penitents through righteousness."
As we read this week’s Torah and Haftarah portions, and consider Tisha B’Av this Saturday night, may we too reflect on how we can return to a better connection with God whether through acts of social justice in recognizing the “needy, orphans and widows” may be more modern issues that need addressing or that require compassion. If the tragedy of the Jewish people was a lack of unity, let us turn tragedy into joy by countering laws that exacerbate this disunity, including the segregation law proposed in Israel and the changed definition of anti-Semitism by the Labour Party in the UK; recognizing we all have the right to share the same protections and privileges under law. The ironic tragedy is that this is one of the unique moments which has united over 60 rabbis from Reform, Liberal and Masorati movements in their opposition of the Labour parties anti-Semitic amendments. Having seen just a week ago the beauty of the best of humanity uniting for a common goal in rescuing a dozen school children in Thailand, what more could we achieve were we to turn our attention to other needs in our community and unite to address them?