Drash on Parashat Devarim "Chazon"
Rabbi Fred Morgan
Temple Beth Israel
St Kilda, Melbourne, Victoria
The Jewish calendar often appears to be a work of genius. This is certainly true for Shabbat Devarim. This portion is always read on the Shabbat prior to Tisha B’Av.
Tisha B’Av, the ninth day in the Hebrew month of Av, is the date in the calendar that has been set aside to mark several disasters which have befallen the Jewish people over the millennia, most dramatically the destruction of the first (586 BCE) and second (70 CE) Temples in Jerusalem. The day is marked in three major ways: by signs of mourning (avoiding pleasures and entertainments, for example, television), by fasting (in common with Yom Kippur, but for very different reasons, Tisha B’Av is a full, 25 hour fast), and by hearing the biblical Scroll of Lamentations, Megillat Eichah. The scroll is named after its opening word, eichah, meaning “How!” (expressed with a Jewish sigh, as in “How awful it is…!”), a word that provides a refrain through the scroll.
This year is a bit unusual, in that Shabbat Devarim actually coincides with the ninth of Av. Since the joy (oneg) of Shabbat overrides the sorrow associated with the fast of Tisha B’Av, the fast is actually observed on the following Jewish day, from Havdalah on Saturday night through Sunday.
So why do I say that Shabbat Devarim reveals the genius of the Jewish calendar? Because this portion, and only this portion from all of Torah, contains a verbal allusion to Tisha B’Av. Moses is telling the story of the Exodus years to the new generation who are about to enter the Promised Land. In explaining how he set up a system of justice on the advice of his father-in-law Jethro, he recalls himself thinking at the time, “How (eichah) shall I bear alone (l’baddi) your troubles, your burdens and your bickerings!” With the word eichah that opens this verse (Deuteronomy 1:12), the sound of Lamentations echoes in our ears. Indeed, it is customary when chanting the Torah to use the unique Lamentations melody for this verse.
Even more, the same word appears in the haftarah that accompanies Devarim and therefore also precedes Tisha B’Av. In the opening chapter of Isaiah, we read: “How (eichah) the faithful city [Jerusalem] has become a harlot!” (Isaiah 1:21). Once again, we hear echoes of Lamentations, “How (eichah) solitary (badad) sits the city [Jerusalem]!”
The word eichah alerts us to the heart-wrenching character of Tisha B’Av, its sorrow and anguish, which are to come after Shabbat. But it is another word in that phrase from Devarim, also found in the opening verse of Lamentations, which gives us Tisha B’Av’s inner meaning. That is the word badad, meaning alone or solitary. This is the ultimate quality of Tisha B’Av: the sense of being isolated, abandoned, without another to lean on or to love, when hope is in danger of being lost and we feel utterly alone.
That is what we hear on Shabbat Devarim, as we anticipate Tisha B’Av. But how wise were the rabbis not to dwell on such feelings. By observing that the delight (oneg) of Shabbat overrides or pushes aside the sorrow of Tisha B’Av, they ensured that our focus is on the hope that comes from sharing with others. When we join together in community, as we do on Shabbat, we are not abandoned. Love overcomes solitude.