Prayer is one of our most important spiritual instruments. Tefillah is just talking to God – but how do we know when we are really communicating with God, Who is one, infinite, eternal but hidden? We will work on the essential skills of contemplative prayer: to find our voice of truth, to attune our thoughts and words in kavanah, to listen as well as speak. We will explore the inspiring words of the Siddur and share our insights and experiences together. Our study will include guiding texts from the Jewish talmudic, philosophic, kabbalistic and hasidic traditions. In the process we hope to gain transformative insight into ourselves and our dynamic relationship with HaShem. Six sessions on Tuesdays from July 20—August 24, 2021.
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Parashat Devarim – Shabbat Chazon 5781
Rabbi Meir Sendor
There’s a custom in Ashkenazi synagogues on Shabbat Chazon before Tisha B’Av, that when the Torah reader gets to the verse in this week’s parashah “ אֵיכָ֥ה לְבַדִּ֑י טָרְחֲכֶ֥ם וּמַֽשַּׂאֲכֶ֖ם וְרִֽיבְכֶֽם — How can I alone bear your troubles, your burdens and your strife (Dt. 1:12)?”, he chants it with the mournful cantillation in which Megillat Eikhah is read on Tisha B’Av itself. The connection is the word אֵיכָ֥ה that begins both the verse in this parashah and the first verse in the Megillah. The custom is not just playing on the synchronicity of the word occurring in the Shabbat Torah reading before the fast day, it’s drawing our attention to the inner meaning of this connection.
The word אֵיכָ֥ה in both contexts is a question that expresses a rhetorical cry of the heart. The midrash Eikhah Rabbati notes that the word actually appears three times in Tanakh addressed to the condition of Am Yisrael. Here in our parashah Moshe cries out in exasperation at the internal discord of Am Yisrael. Later, the prophet Yeshayahu complains “ אֵיכָה֙ הָיְתָ֣ה לְזוֹנָ֔ה קִרְיָ֖ה נֶאֱמָנָ֑ה מְלֵאֲתִ֣י מִשְׁפָּ֗ט צֶ֛דֶק יָלִ֥ין בָּ֖הּ וְעַתָּ֥ה מְרַצְּחִֽים — How has the faithful city become a harlot, it was full of justice, righteousness was lodged in it, but now murderers (Is. 1:21).” Finally, the prophet Yirmiyahu laments: “אֵיכָ֣ה׀ יָשְׁבָ֣ה בָדָ֗ד הָעִיר֙ רַבָּ֣תִי עָ֔ם הָיְתָ֖ה כְּאַלְמָנָ֑ה רַבָּ֣תִי בַגּוֹיִ֗ם שָׂרָ֙תִי֙ בַּמְּדִינ֔וֹת הָיְתָ֖ה לָמַֽס – How does the city sit solitary, that was full of people, she has become like a widow, she that was great among nations, a princess among the provinces, has become a vassal.” The implication of the midrash is that these cries asking “how is this happening?” are all causally connected. The destruction of the city in the time of Yirmiyahu can be traced back to the moral decay of the time of Yeshayahu, which can be traced back to the seeds of internal strife that Moshe complains about.
In one of the Kinot, the liturgical poems of lamentation recited on Tisha B’Av, the author, Rabbi Eliezer HaKillir, traces the common word אֵיכָ֥ה and the causal principle back even further. When Adam and Eve commit their mysterious sin in the Garden of Eden and, realizing they are naked, they try to hide from God, God calls out to them “ אַיֶּֽכָּה – Where are you (Kinot, piyyut 14)?” The letters are the same, the vowels are different, shifting the meaning from “how” to “where?” God knew their physical location. He was asking a much deeper question, an existential question: have you distanced yourselves from Me? The implication is that this is the core question at the heart of the tragedies that have occurred in our history – to ask ourselves, yes, “how did we get here?” and “where are we?” morally, spiritually.
The power of a question is to shake us up, to disengage for a moment from being in the midst of a situation, step back, consider the greater context, and ask What is going on? Who is responsible? How did this happen? Why is it happening? Where are we holding? By asking a question we no longer simply accept the situation, we critically assess it, and this displacement is the beginning of the freedom to fix and to improve it. By questioning we step out of the narrative or status quo we’ve gotten stuck in, to open up to new possibilities and embrace new opportunities.
This is the essential theme of this parashah, as Moshe begins to recap for Am Yisrael their history and their mission. He addresses how they got to the point they were at, on the plains of Moav, facing Yericho, poised to enter the Land of Israel, and in the rest of the book of Devarim he details the mitzvot and halakhot for which they would be responsible as they inhabit the Land. It’s significant that Moshe begins his explicit historical review not with the exodus from Egypt nor the revelation at Mount Sinai, but rather:
(ו)דברים פרק א
יְקֹוָ֧ק אֱלֹהֵ֛ינוּ דִּבֶּ֥ר אֵלֵ֖ינוּ בְּחֹרֵ֣ב לֵאמֹ֑ר רַב־לָכֶ֥ם שֶׁ֖בֶת בָּהָ֥ר הַזֶּֽה:
(ז) פְּנ֣וּ׀ וּסְע֣וּ לָכֶ֗ם וּבֹ֨אוּ הַ֥ר הָֽאֱמֹרִי֘ וְאֶל־כָּל־שְׁכֵנָיו֒ בָּעֲרָבָ֥ה בָהָ֛ר וּבַשְּׁפֵלָ֥ה וּבַנֶּ֖גֶב וּבְח֣וֹף הַיָּ֑ם אֶ֤רֶץ הַֽכְּנַעֲנִי֙ וְהַלְּבָנ֔וֹן עַד־הַנָּהָ֥ר הַגָּדֹ֖ל נְהַר־פְּרָֽת:
HaShem our God spoke to us at Horev saying “long enough you have dwelled at this mountain. Turn and get yourselves travelling and come to the mountain of the Emori and all its neighboring places, on the plain and on the mountain and in the lowland and the Negev and the shore of the sea, the land of the Kena’ani and the Levanon, unto the great river, the river Euphrates.
Moshe begins his review not with the great past accomplishments but with a moment of displacement, with God’s command to Israel to leave their situation, their long stay at Mount Sinai, however fruitful it has been.
Rabbi Moshe Alsheikh, the great Torah commentator of Tzfat, explains:
אלשיך על דברים פרשת דברים פרק א פסוק ו
על כן לבל יאמרו כדברים האלה, הקדים ואמר, על הראשונה, רב לכם שבת כו’ פנו כו’. לומר, הן אמת ידעתי כי רב ודבר גדול יש לכם על ידי שבת בהר הזה, כי הוא מקום שנתנה בו תורה זה פעמים, וגם פה שכינה מרחפת עליכם כעל ארבע מחנות שכינה:(ז) אך דעו לכם כי גדולה מזו תהיה לכם בארץ, כי עתה אתם רחוקים משורשיכם. ועתה פנו וסעו לכם ובאו כו’. והוא אשר כתבנו בפרשת לך לך מארצך כו’ כאשר הארכנו במקומו, כי למה ששורש נפש כל חי דבקה בשכינה אשר היא למעלה כנגד ארץ ישראל. ועל כן בהיות איש הישראלי בחוץ לארץ הוא נפרד משרשו, אך בבואו אל הארץ רוחו בקרבו תקרב אל שורשו. נמצא, כי בלכתו ארצה כנען הוא כהולך ומתקרב אל עצמו ושורשו ועיקרו, מה שאין כן עודנו בחוץ לארץ שהוא כנפרד קצתו מקצתו. ועל כן אמר הוא יתברך לאברהם לך לך, לומר, אל עצמך לך, והתקרב אל עיקרך, כי פה הוא כאילו אתה רחוק ממך כמפורש אצלנו במקומו. וזה הדבר רצה הוא יתברך לומר פה, באומרו רב לכם פנו וסעו לכם. כלומר, לכם אל עצמכם אתם נוסעים והולכים, כי שם שרשיכם. ועל כן לא אמר ולכו כי אם ובאו, כמי שבא אל ביתו ועיקרו, כי לביאה תתייחס ולא להליכה. ושיעור הכתוב פנו וסעו, שתהיה פנייתכם ונסיעתכם אל היות פונים ונוסעים אל עצמיכם ולכם, שהוא לידבק אל שרשיכם:
[HaShem] prefaced by saying, first of all, that it’s true, I know that a great thing happened to you by dwelling at this mountain, for it was the place the Torah was given to you, and here the divine Presence hovers over you… But you should know that it will be even greater for you in the Land, for now you are far from your roots. So now “turn and get yourselves traveling and come…” For the root of the soul of the living adheres in the divine Presence, which is above, facing the Land of Israel. So if an Israelite person is outside the Land they are separated from their root, but when they come into the Land their spirit is within and near their root… This is what He meant, blessed be He, saying “long enough… turn and get yourselves travelling [lit. “travel to yourselves].” That is, to your selves you are travelling, for there is where your root is. Therefore he did not say “go” but “come,” for one who comes to his home and root relates to it as coming, not going… to adhere to your roots.
Rabbi Moshe Alsheikh’s point is that the thrust of this parashah and the book of Devarim as a whole is to shake Israel out of what had been its status quo situation, their time in the wilderness, a time of divine revelation and divine care, but a static situation. It’s time to get moving, and prepare to enter the Land, to embrace new and greater opportunities for realizing their true destiny, their true selves, their true mission to forge a new kind of nation in the world, a nation that actualizes the ethical and spiritual vision God has for humanity.
This is also the message of Tisha B’Av, which slams home the questions, אֵיכָ֥ה how did we get into this situation, אַיֶּֽכָּה where are we – and where are we going? Tisha B’Av itself is a displacement, shaking us out of our status quo mentality, to question the situations we find ourselves in, whether in the dangerously deteriorating Diaspora or in challenged and struggling Israel. We’re closer to the root of our souls here in Israel, but there’s still plenty to question and plenty to fix. We are still plagued by the troubles, burdens and internal strife that Moshe complained about, that led to the crises we’ve experienced through our long history. And many are still stuck in modes of exile-mentality here in this country. Traditionally we frame Tisha B’Av as mourning for the destroyed Holy Temple and longing for its restoration. As Rava says in the Gemara Sanhedrin (96b, cf. Eikhah Rabbati 1:43), Nevuchadnezzar didn’t really destroy the First Temple, and similarly Titus didn’t really destroy the Second Temple. God says to them “קמחא טחינא טחינת — you ground flour that was already ground.” We, Am Yisrael, by our own actions, had already destroyed the Temples by immoral and divisive behavior, degrading the meaning of the Temple and the services performed there. We have much work to do morally and spiritually before we are ready for the true vision of the real Holy Temple that HaShem has in store for us.
Tishba B’Av is a time to take stock – to ask where we are, how we got here, where we are going? By these questions that displace us from the status quo, with HaShem’s help, may we really come home to the roots of our souls, build a truly Holy Temple and be the Kingdom of Priests, Holy Nation and Light of the Nations HaShem intends us to be.