Perashat Devarim

It feels a bit different to write about Perashat Devarim, akin to writing a review of a review. Perashat Devarim is the beginning of Moshe’s extended deathbed monologue, presented just as the people are preparing to enter the land, under a new leadership. In these perashiyot, we have a review by Moshe of the events of the Exodus, along with a repetition of many mitzvot and some theological statements, in a tone traditionally interpreted as critique or “tochacha”. This concept is one that deserves some elucidation, and towards the end will expound on the links between this concept and the tradition of reading this perasha at the time of Tisha B’av, the day commemorating the destruction of the Temple, the loss of life and loss of sovereignty that accompanied the failed rebellion against Roman hegemony.

In general, the Hassidic thinkers take a positive view of the concept of tochacha, which we might liberally translate as social criticism, particularly since it played so important a role in their own project. The Shem M’Shemuel quotes Psalm 51, which begins as a “Laminatzeach mizmor”, a musical work, as a reaction to the rebuke received by David from Natan the prophet after Batsheba-gate, as it might be called today. The Shem M’shmuel asks, is a musical piece the appropriate response to such a dark and serious situation? Perhaps, since as a result of this rebuke, David was moved to a critical moment of self examination, the process we call “teshuva”. The opportunity to transform one’s life and be brought to a closer relationship to Gd as a result is, to those with sensitive spiritual constitutions, a source for joy.

So here as well. There is less concern in the commentaries with the actual content of the critique contained within the perasha, which is primarily relayed in a cryptic fashion by a recitation of place names alone; there are some Kabbalistic attempts at decoding what those messages might mean for us today in the Degel Mahane Ephraim and the Noam Elimelech, but the predominant heuristic determinant is not the content of the tochacha so much as the way it is delivered. For example, R. Zadok, argues from the odd phrasing “These are the words that were spoken…” that the speech is still, as it were, being spoken today, and when one reads Devarim one is in a direct encounter with Moshe as if being spoken to directly. To the Kedushat Levi, sefer Devarim is Moshe’s straight talking, messages that do not need to be wrapped in metaphors nor stories requiring interpretation because there was a situation where the listeners, that is, the people of Israel about to enter the land, were at the appropriate level to understand him, (paradoxically, the Kedushat Levi explains, it is also the sign that the time of his leadership is over. When the leader is so clearly understood, or second guessed, then it is a sign that a new leadership, a new vanguard, must arise… On the brighter side, the Sefat Emet also adds that this speech was a sign that Moshe had evolved into his own highest spiritual point, because the loftier the spiritual achievement, the more it is palatable to the masses, that is, the greater the clarity of the spiritual conception, the more penetrating it is even to the common folk. It takes a great leader to reach “all Israel”.)

This recognition of the change of textual style, to one of less metaphorical complexity, prompts the Sefat Emet, in anticipation of Franz Rozenzweig, to insist that the route of the word “tochacha”, critique, is from the word “nocheach”, to be present. Contemporary theorists of language us several different terms to describe different types of speech acts (the word devarim means “sayings” or “speech acts”). The term “davar” used here is traditionally felt to represent the performative, a speech act which in itself brings about an action, as opposed to the constative “amirah”, a type of speech that serves more to relay information, to say something as opposed to the “davar’s” doing something. The Sefat Emet explains that the use of the davar form, which usually is linked to a command, is a first person form, that is, I command you, it is the most direct and thus intimate relationship possible in text; the speaker is most present in the command, response to the command one is a direct response to the speaker. Thus, Devarim, the tochacha, is the most “nocheach”, the most present relationship we have with Moshe, and Gd who spoke through him. Rozenzweig uses a similar approach, to respond to Kant’s charges of the heteronomous nature of the Jewish tradition, being based on commandments and laws, in a letter from 1924, (quoted in Mednes-Flohr’s “Law and Sacrament” found in Jewish Spirituality Vol. II edited by A. Green):

…”only in the commandment can the voice of Him who commands be heard…Not that doing necessarily results in hearing and understanding. But one hears differently when one hears in doing.” The mitzwot offer the Jew who embraces them in faith the possibility of experiencing through them God’s commanding address of love…

The Sefat Emet derives several other lessons pertaining to the relationship between leaders and their people from this perasha, which I will present roughly in chronological order. He notes that in Moshe’s narration of the spy episode here, the people brought this idea before him, and the approach found favor in Moshe’s eyes. So if the idea seemed positive to Moshe, why does he rebuke the people for the failed mission? It should be equally his fault! The Sefat Emet explains, that there is an inescapable dialectic between the leadership and the people. If the people nurture a certain conceptual framework, there is no way that even a leader like Moshe could escape being within that “matrix”. Much like the criminal claiming “society is to blame”, in a sense society can claim the criminal is to blame. This dynamic is quite clear in contemporary society as well, as we will see below.

This brings us to one of the links between this perasha and the fast of Tisha B’av. The Midrash on the book of Eicha read on Tisha B’av executes a similar link between the word “Eicha” and our word “tochacha”. There is something about the Tisha B’av experience that is concerned with the presencing function of tochacha, as we’ve been reading it, where tochecha is related to “nochechut”, of being present, of concern for one another, of community. The Midrash Rabba in Bereishit explains that tochacha brings to love, any love without tochacha is not a love; tochacha brings to peace; and any peace without tochacha is not peace. In fact, in BT Sabbath 119: it states that Jerusalem was destroyed because of lack of tochacha, as derived from Eicha 1:6. In this verse, the ram is used as a metaphor, which was appropriated by the Talmud in the following way: A ram is illustrative because sheep line up in a head to tail manner, that is, without eye contact, so too, in that society the people looked away from one another and did not offer each other tochacha, or in contemporary parlance, they were not linked by a community based on an existential concern for one another.

The Midrash Eicha 1:31 uses a stronger language, not only didn’t they look at one another but they actively turned their faces away from their neighbor’s plight (from the face-to-face, as it were), and so Gd related to their society in the same manner- by a turning away, hester panim. Apathy and contempt are close relatives, the looking away of apathy is not too far removed from the turning away of contempt; any society so fragmented by apathy is one that is doomed to mutual contempt and then disintegration. This is what is signified in the idea that the Temple was destroyed because of sin’at hinam, which literally means free hatred, but is clearly a sort of grass roots self contempt within a rotting society. The Rabbis signified this by a sort of national theological barometer, the keruvim, the angelic figures which adorned the Ark in the Holy of Holies in the Temple. The Talmud, Bava Bathra 99. teaches that when the people found favor in Gd’s eyes, the keruvim faced each other, when they did not, the keruvim turned away from one another. So we see this is a reciprocal function. When the people turn their faces from one another, with the rupture of community and the absence of personal presence, then Gd, as it were, does the same, in what is significantly titled “hester panim”, and this is signified by the literal turning away of the keruvim from one another above the Ark.

In thinking about the keruvim, then, it would be the natural conclusion that at the time of the destruction of the Temple, when we know Jewish society was utterly fragmented to the point of intersocietal violence (see under: Sicarii), the keruvim would be turned as far apart from one another as possible. Yet, R. Zadok Hacohen points out, according to the BT Yoma 54:, when the enemies entered the Temple, they held up to ridicule the keruvim- embracing one another!

Deep within this teaching lies a remarkable teaching of R. Zadok. He explains, that in fact, would one have peered into the Holy of Holies just prior to the destruction of the Temple, the keruvim would indeed have been turned away from one another reflecting the situation of the Judean society at the time. The society was horribly fragmented, everyone sanguinely believed their way was the divine and proper way, no one was present for the other, many killed one another, and this would have been reflected in the orientation of the keruvim. Perhaps, the people thought that society would continue as it always had and the Temple would never be destroyed. However, once the Temple was actually burning, there was a sudden mass recognition on the part of everyone that they were horribly wrong; in their divisiveness they had destroyed the Judean project and were condemned to the loss of normal existence until all could be rebuilt. This moment of utter loss brought about a cataclysmic wave of unity and then Teshuva in the hearts of all of Israel, signified by the turning of the keruvim back to a face to face position of love. Proof of this dramatic moment of repair is in another Tisha B’av phenomenon described by the Midrash- that at that same moment was the Mashiach born, the Messiah being the marker of personal, communal, universal salvation and liberation. R. Zadok continues that this process, this moment recurs in every generation.

How necessary is a transformation in thinking today! When I taught this particular shiur in Jerusalem a few years ago, I reflected how religious society had responded in the aftermath of the Rabin assassination. Up until that point, there was the well known rhetoric of the religious right, that was so popular in the Dati Leumi world, the whole terrible “Rabin Boged” and the “Rodef” bit. Very few had the desire to stand up and challenge this establishment; even in Katamon, among all the spiritual Jewish meditation types these ultra right sentiments were common, partly, I think, because no one really took the ramifications seriously. It was the kind of infantile raving we were all used to hearing from high school rebbeim, all of us knowing that deep down they are “good guys” (those of us from the NY yeshiva world know what that phrase usually means), and it didn’t really mean anything- bogus tough talk from the disempowered. Then Yigal Amir murdered Yitzhak Rabin. Suddenly at that moment, it seems, people woke up. The legitimacy of more left wing diversity among the erstwhile monolithic Dati Leumi world became apparent, as seen in the rise of Carlebach minyanim, the descent of the centrality of Mercaz Harav and Gush Emunim in religious discourse, etc. This, I hoped, was a contemporary parallel of R. Zadok’s teaching. The next week someone from the shiur related that as a result of this teaching he was moved to take the bus over to Har Herzl and visit Rabin’s grave. This was the moment of which I am most proud in my teaching life.

Unfortuately, there is still so much work to do. R. Ovadiah Yosef continues with his remarkable statements, and now, suddenly, there is a reawakening of violence from the religious right. Turning to other dark elements in religious society, I’m reminded of R. Avigdor Nebenzahl’s public shiur a year ago, which was printed up in its entirety in the Israeli press. He is a “revered figure”, thought of as a saint of the Dati Leumi (national religious) world, and his perashat hashavua book is very popular, found in many an educated Israeli dati home. In this speech, aside from the predictable wild eyed right wing polemic, he introduced some rabid racial statements, claiming that it is obvious to everyone that the Blacks are at the bottom of the human race, naturally justified by the curse of Noah to his son, Ham. I was, well, a bit stunned. When I commented on this to people at the Carlebach minyan (the full text of the sermon was posted on the wall of the synagogue) in Givat Shemuel, I got a lot of the old, well, you know, deep down he’s really a good person, and he didn’t really mean it like that, etc- the same justification so familiar from the pre-retzach Rabin days.

Perhaps at this time, just before perashat Devarim, at the time of Tisha B’av, we must demand from ourselves and our community a new kind of tochacha, a continued introspective presence. We must emerge out of thepersecuted position and take responsibility for our speech. We must learn to face each other, and the entire world, from a newly re-examined perspective, one which recognizes the intrinsic humanity of every human being, regardless of theological perspective, race, gender, or personal choices, de-emphasize socially problematic texts and perspectives, and re-emphasizes those that lead to solidarity with human suffering of all sorts among all peoples we come face to face with. I believe that this is the lesson of the book of Devarim; it was necessary at the birth of our nation just upon taking the responsibility of living in the Land, and it is no less relevant today. Perhaps, then, we will actualize the tochacha which leads to mutual respect, love, and the courage to strive for peace.

Mark H. Kirschbaum, MD, is a hematology and cancer specialist based in Duarte, CA.
tags: Torah Commentary   
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