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Parashat Devarim: Tisha B’Av’s Parshiot by Yaakov Bieler

July 25, 2012 by  
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Jewish tradition associates certain Parashiot with certain times of year.

R. Yosef Karo, in Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 428:4, lists the various Parashiot of the Tora that are read in association with some of the holidays and commemorations of the Jewish year:

Parashat Tzav is always read prior to Pesach during a normal year, and Parashat Metzora during most leap years…,

BaMidbar before Shavuot,

Tisha B’Av always precedes Parashat VaEtchanan,

Nitzavim before Rosh HaShana…

The passage in the Shulchan Aruch might be no more than prosaic, i.e., simply establishing criteria by which to measure whether the Parashiot of the Tora have been allocated evenly so that the book of Devarim will be completed by Simchat Tora.[1] However, intrinsic connections between these particular Tora readings and the occasions with which they are being associated can also be sought after.

A Talmudic basis for the Tora reading connected to Tisha B’Av.

It is possible that the Shulchan Aruch’s formulation regarding the Parasha associated with Tisha B’Av could be based upon the following Talmudic passage:

Ta’anit 31b

On the 9th of Av itself…what is the Tora reading?

It has been taught:

Others say, (VaYikra 26:14 ff.) “But if you will listen to Me.”

R. Natan bar Yosef says, (BaMidbar 14:11) “How long will this people despise Me?”

And some say, (Ibid. 27) “How long shall I bear with this evil congregation?”

Abaye said, “Nowadays, the custom has been accepted to read (Devarim 4:25-40) ‘When you shall bear children…’ and for the Haftora (Yirmiyahu 8:13) “I will utterly Consume them”.

The section mentioned by Abaye is found in Parashat VaEtchanan, and therefore establishes the link between the overall Parasha and the day commemorating the destruction of the Temples. When reflecting upon why specifically Devarim 4:25-40 has become the custom for the Tisha B’Av public Tora reading, the obvious connection is the predictions found in 4:26-28.[2] These verses describe how if the Jews engage in idolatry, their presence in the land of Israel will come to an end, they will be scattered among the nations of the world and they will be exposed to the forces of assimilation and the worship of additional false gods, accurate depictions of the Jewish experience following the destructions of the Temples.

An alternate hypothesis for why this particular portion of the Tora is chosen for reading on Tisha B’Av.

According to R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, ZaTzaL,[3] Tisha B’Av includes elements associated with both mourning and public fast days. Whereas the manifestations of mourning are equated with the recitation of Eicha, Kinot and the Haftora of Yirmiyahu, the public Tora reading follows the pattern of public fast days. Such days emphasize repentance rather than sadness, and the portion of VaEtchanan that is read on Tisha B’Av describes a scenario for the repentance process.

Devarim 4:30-31

When you are in distress and all of these things have come upon you in the end of days, and you turn to the Lord your God, and listen to His Voice.

For the Lord your God is a Merciful God; He will not Forsake you nor Destroy you, nor Forget the Covenant with your fathers that He Swore to them.

Tisha B’Av as an example of fast days in general.

Communal fast days in general are designed to utilize the refraining from the pleasures of eating and drinking as a means of engendering personal introspection that will hopefully lead to repentance from the types of sins that may have at least in part led to the tragedies which we sadly commemorate on these days. This is the essence of exhortation to the community on a fast day declared because of a drought.

Ta’anit 16a

(Mishna) The elder amongst them addresses them with words designed to humble them. (Gemora) The Rabbis taught:… “Our brothers! The sackcloth and the fasting are not the keys to changing our difficult situation, but rather only repentance and good deeds. For so we find regarding the people of Nineveh, about whom it is not said, ‘And God Saw their sackcloth and their fasting,’ but rather (Yona 3:10) ‘And God Saw their actions, that they had repented from their evil ways, and God Altered His Plan concerning the evil that He has Spoken to do to them, and He did not Do it.’”

A third rationale for this Parasha being chosen for reading on Tisha B’Ab.

Another link between the Parasha mentioned by the Shulchan Aruch and Tisha B’Av could be the specific theme of idolatry. Parashat VaEtchanan contains several references, including one as part of the Ten Commandments, to HaShem’s harsh Reaction to any infidelity on the part of His People:

Devarim 4:23-4

Guard yourselves carefully lest you forget the covenant of the Lord your God that He Undertook with you, and you make for yourselves an idol or a picture of anything that HaShem has Commanded you (not to make).

Because the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.

Devarim 5:7-9 (the Second[4] of the Ten Commandments)

You shall not have/believe in other gods before My Face.

You shall not make for yourselves an idol, any picture of an entity that might be in the Heavens above or on the earth below or that is in the water beneath the earth.

Do not bow down to them and do not serve them because I am the Lord your God, a jealous God, Who Visits the iniquities of the fathers on the sons to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me.

Devarim 6:14-5

Do not follow in the paths of other gods from among the gods of the nations that are around you.

Because the Lord your God is a jealous God in your midst, lest you cause anger in the Lord your God against you and He Destroys you from upon the face of the earth.

Idolatry, which is the context for these three sections of VaEtchanan and the catalyst for HaShem’s Anger, is listed as one of the three major sins that led up to the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE.

Yoma 9b

The First Temple, why was it destroyed?

Because of three things that were associated with Jewish society at that time: idolatry, sexual misconduct, and murder…

But as for the Second Temple, whose contemporaries were engaged in Tora study, the fulfillment of Commandments and the performance of good deeds, why was it destroyed?

Because there was connected to its time needless hatred.

The common fate of the Two Temples comes to teach you that needless hatred is equivalent to the other three sins, idolatry, sexual misconduct and murder.

Continuing to focus on the Ten Commandments as the possible reason for connecting Parashat VaEtchanan to Tisha B’Av, we note in addition to explicit prohibitions against murder[5] and sexual misconduct,[6] the very fundamental sin of not coveting the possessions of another[7], a most common root cause of needless hatred.  Consequently, it is possible that the Temples were destroyed as a result of the Jewish people’s overlooking fundamental principles of the Jewish religion as articulated in the Ten Commandments, and revisiting the Decalogue via the reading of Parashat VaEtchanan following the period of intense mourning over the destructions of the Temple would hopefully galvanize future conformity with Tora law.

Was the Shulchan Aruch focusing upon Parashat VaEtchanan, or perhaps Parashat Devarim?

However, Bi’ur Halacha, commenting upon Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 428:4   cited above, appears to retool the simple understanding of what R.Yosef Karo originally stated, i.e., the Tora reading that the Rabbis intended to associate with Tisha B’Av is in fact the Parasha preceding VaEtchanan:

And the reason (for “Tisha B’Av always preceding Parashat VaEtchanan”) is in order that they read Parashat Devarim, which consists of the rebukes of Moshe, before Tisha B’Av, so that the Haftora read on that Shabbat is “Chazon” (Yeshayahu 1:1-27) which is made up of the rebukes of Yeshayahu concerning the destruction of the Temple, as well as Nitzavim before Rosh HaShana since it contains within it themes of repentance.

Bi’ur Halacha maintains that not only must correct action, in the form of the Ten Commandments be undertaken going forward in order to avoid a repetition of the harsh Divine Punishments that the Jewish people have experienced in the past, but rebukes against wrongdoing must also be given and hopefully taken to heart. While post-“Churban” (destruction) directives—VaEtchanan—face the future, pre-“Churban” warnings—Devarim—dredge up past shortcomings and iniquities in order to draw attention to them and thereby guarantee that they are not repeated.

Identifying the key rebukes in Parashat Devarim.

While commentators have accounted for the ostensibly redundant list of place names in Parashat Devarim 1:1 by interpreting them as veiled rebukes to the people, Moshe thereby reminding them of locations in which they acted poorly,[8] the most well-known rebuke in Parashat Devarim appears in 1:12.

“Eicha” (how) can I (Moshe) bear by myself your trouble, your burden and your disagreements?[9]

The obvious Gezeira Shava (lit. an equal utterance; when the same or similar word appears in two locations in the Biblical text and it is concluded that these two locations must share something in common indicated by the repetition of this particular word) is driven home even more sharply by the custom for the Ba’al Koreh (the congregation’s appointee to read the Parasha on their behalf during the Shabbat morning synagogue service) to cantillate the Tora reading of this word using the same melody employed for the reading of the Book of Eicha[10] on Tisha B’Av evening.[11] Furthermore, the very word Eicha[12] is a quintessential form of rebuke—“How could you have done…?”

Another pertinent rebuke in Parashat Devarim.

But an even more striking rebuke becomes apparent in Parashat Devarim when a well-known Rabbinical tradition is considered:

Ta’anit 26a-b

(Mishna)

Five misfortunes befell our ancestors on the 17th of Tammuz and five on the 9th of Av…

On the 9th of Av:

1) it was decreed that our ancestors should not enter the land,

2)+3) the Temples were destroyed the first and second times,

4) Bethar was captured,

and 5) Yerushalayim was ploughed under.

Ibid. 29a

(Gemora)

“On the 9th of Av it was decreed that our ancestors should not enter the land”

What is the basis for this?

For it is written, (BaMidbar 10:11) “And it came to pass in the second year, in the second month, on the 20th day of the month (i.e., Iyar 20), that the cloud lifted up from over the Tabernacle of testimony.”

And it is further written, (Ibid., 33) “And they traveled from the mountain of HaShem (Mt. Sinai) three days journey (Iyar 22),” and R. Chama bar Chanina explained this means that on this day they turned aside from following after HaShem. (The Amora’s conclusion is based upon not only understanding 10:33 literally, i.e., that they left the geographical location known as HaShem’s Mountain, but also figuratively, that they turned their backs and removed themselves from HaShem’s Instruction regarding their beliefs and lifestyle.)[13]

And it is further written, (Ibid. 11:4) “And the mixed multitude that was among them began to be filled with strong desire, and the children of Israel also wept with longing…”

And it is further written, (Ibid. 20) “But a whole month…”

That brings us up to the 22nd of Sivan.

And it is further written, (Ibid. 12;15) “Miriam was quarantined outside the camp for seven days.”

That brings us up to the 29th of Sivan.

And it is further written, (Ibid. 13:2) “Send for yourself men.”

And it is taught, “Moshe sent out spies on the 29th of Sivan.

And it is further written, (Ibid. 25) “And they returned from spying out the land after forty days.” (8th of Av)

But is this not thirty-nine days? Abaye replied: Tammuz of that year was a full month (thirty days), for it is written, (Eicha 1:15) “He has called a solemn assembly against me to crush my young men.”[14] (Therefore it is appropriate to assume that the spies returned on the 8th rather than the 9th of Av.)

And it is further written, (BaMidbar 14:1) “And all the congregation lifted up their voice and cried, and the people wept all night.”

Rabba said in the name of R. Yochanan: That night was the 9th of Av.

The Holy One, Blessed Be He Said: You have wept without cause, therefore will I Set this day aside for a weeping (with cause, i.e.. for something truly tragic as opposed to the imagined tragedy of the inability to conquer the Land of Israel) throughout the generations to come.

If we accept the Talmud’s derivation that the decree calling for the generation of the Exodus to die in the desert rather than enter the land of Israel occurred on the 9th of Av, then the appearance of strong references to the incident of the Spies in Parashat Devarim may be more than a coincidence from the perspective of those who see connections between Tisha B’Av and the contents of the Tora reading on the Shabbat before. Twenty-five of Parashat Devarim’s one hundred and five total verses (@24%) are devoted to the sin of the spies (Devarim 1:19-36). Moshe delineates with stark simplicity the nature of the sin that underlay the resistance of the people to enter the land once they heard the spies’ report:

Devarim 1:26-27, 29-32

Yet you would not go up, but rebelled against the Commandment of the Lord your God.

And you murmured in your tents, and said, “Because the Lord Hates us, He has Brought us out of the land of Egypt, to Deliver us into the hands of the Emori, to destroy us…

Then I said to you, “Dread not, neither be afraid of them.

The Lord your God Who Goes before you, He will Fight for you, in the same manner that He Did for you in Egypt before your eyes,

As well as in the desert, where you have seen how the Lord your God has Carried you, as a man bears a son, in all of your travels, until you have come to this place.

Yet you did not believe the Lord your God, Who Went in the way before you, to Search out a place for you to pitch your tents, in fire by night, to Show you the way where to go, and in a cloud by day.

Is there more than chronology that ties Parashat Devarim to Tisha B’Av?

But what might the objective of associating Parashat Devarim with Tisha B’Av and thereby suggesting that the sin of the spies on the one hand, and the sins leading to the destructions of the two Temples on the other, have something in common, other than being major tragedies in Jewish history? MaHaRaL MiPrague[15] presents an intriguing approach to explaining how these sins are interrelated. The commentator contends that had the Jewish people proceeded to enter the land of Israel without hesitation, thereby fulfilling God’s stated purpose in taking them out of Egypt in the first place—

Shemot 3:8, 17

And I will Go down to Save him (the Jewish people) from the hand of Egypt and to Bring him up from that land to a good and wide land, a land flowing with milk and honey…

And He Said: I will Bring you (the Jewish people) up from the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Emorite, the Prizite, the Chivite and the Yevusite, to a land flowing with milk and honey—

they would never have suffered exile. However, because of their strong reluctance when the opportunity to cross the Jordan first presented itself, the bond between the people and the land became and remained only tentative, and subject to disruption when they would prove spiritually and morally undeserving. Consequently, it could be argued that the exiles that followed on the heels of the destructions of the two Temples were outgrowths of the Jews’ original refusal to realize their Devine Destiny and take up residence in Israel. According to MaHaRaL, the lesson of Parashat Devarim combined with Tisha B’Av becomes a cautionary tale with regard to our general ability to recognize and seize once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, as well as our specific relationship with the land of Israel. It goes without saying that the direct cause of our exiles has been evil-doers and powerful empires. But by means of the juxtaposition between Parashat Devarim and Tisha B’Av we are being instructed to believe that these evil forces would not have been able to gain the upper hand against us, had we been living up to HaShem’s Expectations in terms of Mitzva fulfillment, and love of Eretz Yisrael.  Once our commitment, our lifestyle, and our devotion turn egocentrically inwards, as they did regarding the sin of the spies as well as the destructions of the two Temples, when we clearly worry more about our personal comfort, and success and acceptance within a greater non-Jewish society in which we might find ourselves, than the need to unabashedly act as God’s Nation in accordance with His Tora, we become vulnerable to disaster and exile. Parashat Devarim’s association with Tisha B’Av reminds us that as terrible as the loss of the Temples have proven for our spiritual welfare, even more devastating has been our inability to remain in our Jewish homeland, a situation that happily today we can do a great deal to rectify, if we only have the will and resolve.


[1] The whole discussion is of course rendered moot both with respect to properly spacing the Parashiot in order to complete them annually, as well as seeking out connections between the Parsahiot and the time of the year in which they are read, if a tri-annual cycle of Tora readings indicated in Megilla 29b with respect to the Israeli Jewish community during the Talmudic period was being followed.

[2] I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that ye shall soon utterly perish from off the land whereunto ye go over the Jordan to possess it; ye shall not prolong your days upon it, but shall utterly be destroyed. And the LORD shall Scatter you among the peoples, and ye shall be left few in number among the nations, whither the LORD shall Lead you away. And there ye shall serve gods, the work of men’s hands, wood and stone, which neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell.

[3] Part I of a taped presentation dealing with Tisha B’Av given in Boston in 1979.

[4] The prohibition against idolatry might in fact be the First of the Ten Commandments if Devarim 5:6 “I am the Lord your God Who Took you out of Egypt, the house of slavery…” is considered a postulate upon which all other Commandments are based, rather than a Commandment to believe in HaShem in its own right. See e.g., the worksheet of Nechama Leibowitz, Parashat Yitro 5711, the views of Chasdai Kreskas, Abrabanel, and Mendelsohn http://www.nechama.org.il/pages/945.html

[5] Devarim 5:17.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 18.

[8] See http://www.kmsynagogue.org/Masei5765.html

[9] For a fuller discussion of this verse, see http://www.kmsynagogue.org/Devarim.html

[10] “Eicha” is not only the name of the entire Megilla, but it appears an additional three times besides in the quite short book’s opening verse, for which the Megilla is named: 1:1; 2:1; 4:1,2.

[11] Sections of the Haftora for Parashat Devarim are also read with the melody of Eicha, further solidifying the connection between the Parasha and Tisha B’Av.

[12] The letters spelling the word “Eicha”– “Alef” “Yud” “Chuf” “Heh”, could also be pronounced  “Ayeka” (Where are you?), the first question/implicit rebuke that God posed to Adam in the Garden of Eden following his eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil—Beraishit 3:9.

[13] A similar point of view underlies the comment in Yalkut Shimoni, Parashat BeHa’alotcha, #529:

The Jews were only told to travel the journey of a single day, and they traveled a journey of three days. They were fleeing Mt. Sinai because they had been there eleven days short of an entire year. Each day they were given additional Commandments. Therefore when Moshe said to travel away from there the distance of a single day’s journey, they went a distance of three days and one night, like a young child who gets out of school and runs.

R. Baruch HaLevy Epstein, in Tora Temima, explains that since Sinai is never referred to as “Har HaShem” anywhere else in the Tora, the unique name appearing here was intended to convey the impression that they were not only leaving the mountain, but also HaShem Himself, so to speak.

[14] The “solemn assembly” is a reference to the public commemoration of the destroyed Temples that was deliberately orchestrated to take place on the same day that HaShem Decreed that the Generation of the Exodus would die in the desert.

[15] Netzach Yisrael, Chapt. 8.

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