Riding the bus through the Bronx on a cloudy errands’ day, I find myself instinctively getting up when an “older” person gets on, offering them my seat. The person I just got up for, might be around whatever age I am now, and looking at me quite confused. I can’t explain, but somehow, when I ride a bus, any bus, I immediately revert to being the Haifa girl of my youth. Above my head are verses in square little red letters — “rise before the elderly; show respect to the aged”, they say, quoting Leviticus (19:32).
It looks so normal; every kid in Israel knows the bus-riding routine. And yet, on the week of Tish’a Be’av it gets a special meaning: 2000 years after the harshest war against us, and after our almost compete destruction, somewhere in this world, there are little signs with quotes from the Torah in buses, stubbornly continuing to teach the next generation that very same way of life.
This week, we turn to the Book of Deuteronomy, the last of the Five Books. It is comprised of Moses last speech during the last month of his life (some say 36 days), and usually thought of as a “repetition” of what happened before and what was previously taught. Its other name is “Mishne Torah”, “Second Torah”, clearly, just the rambling on an old man who, after 40 years in the desert, is tired and bitter for missing out on his biggest dream, going with the People into The Land.
To add to this view of the elderly Moses, there is no obvious order in his reminiscing: if he wants to rebuke the people for their bad behavior, shouldn’t he start with the Sin of Golden Calf, which was the earliest, and then remind them of what transpired next, then next? The sins in his words appear just as they appear in his mind. He sounds almost confused, like when I sort through old photos, ‘wait, where was this? Is that…? Are you sure??
I always like Moses in the early parts of this Book of Dvarim, of ‘stuff’, like a parent walking his child to the bus stop – or airport – before they take off for a long time, on a journey the parent can’t join, as is the way of the world, and yet, no less painful. What to say? Some awkward joke? A last piece of advice? Like… eh… honey… ?
But Moses is not me. And although he is now 120 years old, he is as strong, sharp and fit as ever (Deuteronomy 34:7). So what’s going on here?
Moses, to the last moment, remains Moshe Rabeinu, Moses our teacher. His words are not meant for his own musing but for us. He never stops being an educator with a message to the people. As such, he can be selective with his facts. The purpose is not a history book of exact chronology, but a teaching which he edits and sets in front of his listeners as best suits the message.
The Sin of the Spies is the most critical one right now: As they are about to enter the Land, what if they “chicken out”? what if they send another set of spies? Will they miss the opportunity, or will the promise be fulfilled this time? Moses’ role is to remind them of the bad decisions of the past and encourage not to miss the mark this time.
And yet, even before the retelling of the Spies (1:22-42) we find that for Moses, first thing first: an orderly society with a structured, fair, just system of judges and courts (1:8-17 – quoted below). This emphasizes Moses’ preparations – that’s what he did, as opposed to what the people did – send spies, and check the physical qualities of the Land.
Is checking something’s – or someone’s – physical qualities to best way to know its essence? To know “how things will work out”? Obviously not. Further: if to judge from the later chapters (28:63-64), Moses knew that there might be times when we’ll be removed from the Land. If that was to be our one and only focus, how would we survive? Indeed, if our history was a “normal” story, it should have ended somewhere in the year 70-135 CE. But it’s not. And our focus have been – and should continue to be – much broader. Moses might be hinting us that even though the whole purpose of the journey was to go into the Land, and even though he is incredibly sad not to join, nevertheless, that is not what’s critical here. What’s most important is first what kind of people we are; what kind of society we have and what values we bring to the world.
Through a precise system, Tish’a Be’av – the day we commemorate the destruction of the Temple – and Pesach share the same day of the week (that is, whatever day of the week 1st day of Pesach is also the day of the week Tish’a Be’av), so if this year, 1st day of Pesach was Tuesday (April 11), Tish’a Be’av is coming up this Tuesday, August 1. Coincidence? Maybe. But what if not.
Despite more than 3500 years of learning, we still have no good explanation exactly, why Egypt? Why slavery? Why be exposed to such cruelty? We offer explanations and they are nice, but satisfy us in a most limited way.
Why was the Temple destroyed? Why the exile? Why… so many unanswered whys. Our wish is for easy, simple answers: this is because of that; if you do this, this will happen; these are nice people, these are not.
But turns out, life is not like that.
On Pesach we eat matzah and maror bound together: the sweet taste of freedom and the excruciating bitterness of slavery don’t show up in two neat separated packages so we can choose which one. On Tish’a Be’av we are exposed to horrific devastation. And yet, the sages teach us, that the messiah will be born davka on that day, and a week later, we celebrate “Tu Be’av”, an ancient “love holiday”.
Eastern religions advise us to “detach”, but Judaism invites us to feel, to struggle, to engage; to sit on the floor and cry for all the national and personal losses. And at the same time know there will be a tomorrow. And smiles. The Shabbat before Tish’a Be’av is called “Shabbat Chazon”, the Shabbat of Vision. Let us see the destruction but also, what’s beyond.
ח רְאֵה נָתַתִּי לִפְנֵיכֶם, אֶת-הָאָרֶץ; בֹּאוּ, וּרְשׁוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע יְהוָה לַאֲבֹתֵיכֶם לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיַעֲקֹב לָתֵת לָהֶם, וּלְזַרְעָם אַחֲרֵיהֶם. 8 Behold, I have set the land before you: go in and possess the land which the LORD swore unto your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give unto them and to their seed after them.’
ט וָאֹמַר אֲלֵכֶם, בָּעֵת הַהִוא לֵאמֹר: לֹא-אוּכַל לְבַדִּי, שְׂאֵת אֶתְכֶם. 9 And I spoke unto you at that time, saying: ‘I am not able to bear you myself alone;
י יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, הִרְבָּה אֶתְכֶם; וְהִנְּכֶם הַיּוֹם, כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם לָרֹב. 10 the LORD your God hath multiplied you, and, behold, ye are this day as the stars of heaven for multitude.–
יא יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵכֶם, יֹסֵף עֲלֵיכֶם כָּכֶם–אֶלֶף פְּעָמִים; וִיבָרֵךְ אֶתְכֶם, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לָכֶם. 11 The LORD, the God of your fathers, make you a thousand times so many more as ye are, and bless you, as He hath promised you!–
יב אֵיכָה אֶשָּׂא, לְבַדִּי, טָרְחֲכֶם וּמַשַּׂאֲכֶם, וְרִיבְכֶם. 12 How can I myself alone bear your cumbrance, and your burden, and your strife?
יג הָבוּ לָכֶם אֲנָשִׁים חֲכָמִים וּנְבֹנִים, וִידֻעִים–לְשִׁבְטֵיכֶם; וַאֲשִׂימֵם, בְּרָאשֵׁיכֶם. 13 Get you, from each one of your tribes, wise men, and understanding, and full of knowledge, and I will make them heads over you.’
טז וָאֲצַוֶּה, אֶת-שֹׁפְטֵיכֶם, בָּעֵת הַהִוא, לֵאמֹר: שָׁמֹעַ בֵּין-אֲחֵיכֶם וּשְׁפַטְתֶּם צֶדֶק, בֵּין-אִישׁ וּבֵין-אָחִיו וּבֵין גֵּרוֹ. 16 And I charged your judges at that time, saying: ‘Hear the causes between your brethren, and judge righteously between a man and his brother, and the stranger that is with him.
יז לֹא-תַכִּירוּ פָנִים בַּמִּשְׁפָּט, כַּקָּטֹן כַּגָּדֹל תִּשְׁמָעוּן–לֹא תָגוּרוּ מִפְּנֵי-אִישׁ, כִּי הַמִּשְׁפָּט לֵאלֹהִים הוּא; וְהַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר יִקְשֶׁה מִכֶּם, תַּקְרִבוּן אֵלַי וּשְׁמַעְתִּיו. 17 Ye shall not respect persons in judgment; ye shall hear the small and the great alike; ye shall not be afraid of the face of any man; for the judgment is God’s; and the cause that is too hard for you ye shall bring unto me, and I will hear it.’