For Tu Be’Av & Parashat Va’etchanan: A new Book, a famous verse and a holiday (or two)

The Hebrew name of each one of the five books of the Torah has to do with speech, but each one of the first four describes only partial speech. Then comes “Dvarim” – Deuteronomy – and opens by saying, “And these are The Things…” implying wholeness, closure. Moses, in the last month of his life, organizes the Torah for the People. If until now things might have showed up in an order only G-d can fully know and understand, here it is – some repeat, some “new”, some expanded – through a human’s farewell speech. Wait, human? Would that mean that this book is not “Divine”?? but if it’s not, how come it’s in the Torah? One way to understand this is to think of it as if Moshe started speaking and G-d said, that’s exactly what I was going to say!! Or maybe, vice-versa…

But, Moshe & Dvarim?? Moshe is the one who started out his mission saying – לא איש דברים אנכי – For I am not a man of dvarim, words (Exodus 4:10) and he ends his life with a whole book named Dvarim?! Initially when he could not speak, Hashem had Aaron, his older brother, speak for him, but now Aaron has already died. How did Moshe turn from someone who can’t speak to someone who, forty years later, can just say a whole book of Divine words? What happened over these years? The Sfat Emet (Yehuda Aryeh Leib Aletr, 1847-1905, Hasidic rabbi, named so after the title of his main work) says that this is proof that the Torah and particularly what our tradition calls being mit’asek baTorah (busy with the Torah) has healing powers, especially when it comes to the ability to use speech.


Tish’a Be’Av in India: people sitting on the floor, praying, reading, learning history and the stories of the churban (destruction), singing moving, emotional songs in a language many don’t understand for a Temple, none of us has seen, which stood thousands of miles away and thousands of years ago. How is this even possible? Who knows how many important buildings have been destroyed, collapsed, burned, damaged, disappeared throughout the world, throughout these years, and yet. Here we are. And I can’t help wondering. It’s 2019 – 5779, and people all over the world, Jews and non-Jews and not-yet-Jews are praying for the rebuilding of the Temple in a far away land; wishing for the peace and well-being of Jerusalem, Israel and her people. If this did not sound so…. I would say, we live in amazing times.


And then, there’s the transition from a day of tragedy, mourning and sadness to joy and gladness. This Friday is Tu Be’Av, often wrongly translated – or described – as Jewish Valentine Day, but here, Thursday, August 15, is India’s Independence Day. In preparations, the balcony is decorated with homemade flowers and streamers of orange, white and green. The women are dressed in fine, festive sarees, some in the flag’s colors but others in every pretty shade of blue, gold, purple, yellow and more. It seems like there is no end to colors and their careful combination here – houses in orange, yellow, purple, green, blue, maroon and on and on, giant wall paintings in the streets, the food, too, gets to be bright and orange, red, green, and of course, scarves must be carefully matched to tunic and pants. In honor of the day, the students prepare speeches and dances, as “should be” on such a day. Words (familiar words, I might add) of patriotism and love of this great country are expressed sincerely, and the flag is waved proudly. More and more dancing, and photo opportunities.

People (by that I mean, the women) take turns having their picture with me. The atmosphere is casual and friendly. Suddenly, one lady, begins to approach me in an official, slow marching walk. True, it is hard to make hasty steps in saree, but she is doing so deliberately, her hand tight to her forehead, saluting. She is a little older and heavy set which all stands in contrast to her movement, and from my other side, I can see the students unsure how to respond. As she comes near me, I notice her tears. In a chocked voice, she speaks about the bond between India and Israel in their joint history with the British, gaining independence within the same 12 months, and the current strong relationships between the two countries, sharing growth in agriculture, technology and more (though I am guessing she doesn’t know about the thousands of Israelis who make this country their place of pilgrimage, which deserves another conversation-). She then proceeds to bless the two countries with all good wishes. None of this is in English, and my ten and a half words in the local language don’t include any of those spoken. It seems that at times, the power of words comes through even without the words themselves being understood.


Shma Yisra’el, says Moshe in this week’s reading. Such famous, repeated, sung, prayed and yet, almost impossible to understand words. In order to command someone to listen (or do anything for that matter), to the commander has to be on the outside of the commanded. When Moshe says, “hear oh Israel”, is he implying he is not included in that? That he is on the “outside”? And what about the repetition of Hashem’s name twice within six words? Would it not be sufficient to say – ‘Hear Israel, Hashem our G-d is One’??

Rashi says that this verse conveys a dynamic statement: Hashem, the one who is our G-d, who is known by us, is going to be the One g-d known by all’. If so, it denotes progression and indeed, much later (than Moshe), this idea repeats in the book of Ezekiel (38:23) when the prophet says in Hashem’s name: “I will be exalted and known to many nations”.

There is a midrash that the first time this verse was uttered is by Jacob’s children, on his death bed: Hear Israel, they said to their father, we’re all in this together. At that time therefore, it meant unity of the people. During Moshe’s times, the verse came to mean – Oneness of Torah and the People: me, says Moshe, who might seem to you on the “outside”, who speaks with Hashem, who prays and attends to the Mishkan, who brings down the Torah, and you, the People, are all inside that same Oneness, a message still relevant today, when we have not yet figured out how to have less division between Torah and People. But one day, says the prophet, the whole world will see the Oneness of Hashem. This might sound foreign, crazy and oppressive in so many places, but it’s all over the place here. This is an incredibly religious country. In every corner there is a shrine, “idol”, temple, wreath of flowers around a statue, painting of an ancient mythology scene (colorful, did I mention?), and if it’s not Hindu, it’s a mosque, church, ashram and on and on. One day, say our prayers, we will all know, we are part of the same Oneness.

Shabbat Shalom.

To support my work here through Kulanu:

the market place – cell phone and advanced technology (even in flower basket)


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