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Cantorial Comment - Parshat Devarim                             August 10, 2019 - 16 Av 5779

08/09/2019 02:17:47 PM


“Kol ha’olam kulo, gesher tzar m’od, vahyikar lo lefached klal.” – “The entire world is a very narrow bridge, but the important thing is not to be afraid.”

 – Rabbi Nachman of Breslav (1772-1810),

father of the Breslovor chassidic dynasty


This week we begin the final book of the Torah with Parshat Devarim.  The biblical narrative has concluded, and the book of Devarim documents Moses final speeches to the fledgling Israelite nation.  Aware that God will not allow him to cross the Jordan river into what will become the land of Israel, Moses offers his speeches to the people on the East bank of the Jordan over a 36 day period, after which, Moses knows he will die and Joshua will lead the people on a campaign to conquer Canaan.  The literary style in which the book of Devarim is very different than the rest of the Torah, so much so that most academic scholars believe that this part of the Torah was written much later than the rest, and added to the Torah cannon around the 6thand 7thcenturies BCE.  The speeches are something of a recapitulation of the entire Torah, intended to remind the Israelites of their history, what they have been through, what they have learned, and what will be expected of them in the time to come.


The Shabbat experience this week is mixed with the very pungent flavour of Tisha B’Av.  This Sunday, we mark the 9thday of the Hebrew month of Av as the day of the year on which both Temples were destroyed, the first in 586 BCE, and the second in 70 CE.  It is a day of ‘bad luck’ for Judaism, similar to a Friday The 13thin popular culture.  Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning, where prayers are led in a quite undertone, we sit on the floor rather than our comfortable chairs, and we fast for a full day.  During the time of the Temple, Judaism was observed much differently than it is today; the Temple was our primary focus of worship and Jewish existence revolved around the sacrificial cult.  Traditional Jewish teaching tells us that on both occasions, the destruction of the Temple was God’s punishment to the Jews for not following Torah.  At the same time, we also acknowledge that the destruction of the Temples forced the Jewish people to reinvent Jewish existence in a much more decentralized way, giving birth to rabbinic Judaism, the manner of Jewish observance that has sustained Jewish life for the last two thousand years, which we continue to practice today.



Tisha B’Av and the beginning of the book of Devarim is a serendipitous pairing.  In each, we reflect on a liminal moment in Jewish history when the future felt frightening and unclear, and both are punctuated with a profound sense of fear over the loss of God’s allegiance.  While in the case of Tisha B’Av, this is perceived more overtly with the destruction of the Temple, we cannot overestimate what must have been a similar sense of loss for the Israelites at the end of their wandering in the desert – they are losing Moses, God’s pillars of smoke and fire that guided them by day and night, and of course the mana that fell from heaven – all of the physical reminders that made them feel divinely protected.  Our nusach encourages a bit of blurring of the lines between Shabbat and Tisha B’Av so that the themes from each spill into the experiences of one another.  As a cantor, it is my responsibility to weave Tisha B’Av melodies into the Shabbat service in order to help facilitate that blending of themes.  Even though it may bring notes of sadness and mourning in to the experience of Shabbat, it also means that some of the strength and beauty of Shabbat is brought into our experience of Tisha B’Av. 


Twice in Moses’ speech in Devarim he says, “Fear not, and be not dismayed”, “Have no dread or fear of them”.  Why? “For I have already delivered them into your hands”.  Moses is reminding the Israelites that even though they may not have those physical signs of God presence anymore, the hard work has already been done for them – they simply have to claim what God has already provided.  And this, in a way, is a nice way to think of life – do your best, but at the end of the day, if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.  So too, the tragedy of Tisha B’Av is preordained, if this what God intends, than this is what God intends.  But Moses also reminds us that we still need to do our job which is to have faith, live by the law of Torah, treat each other with dignity and respect.  Moses reminds us that those times when we lived up to our agreement with God, things went well for us, and only when we forgot to keep our agreement, did we ever see hard days.  And even out of the ashes of the Temple, Judaism can be reborn into a new era, equipped with the infrastructure to evolve and adapt, making it the only ancient civilization that continues to survive to this day. It is true that the world does not always work out in perfect equity, and sometimes God’s answer to our prayers is “no”. But as we read the rest of



the book of Devarim, we will continue to see how Moses drives one central point home, and that is that our agreement with God states that we have a priority relationship with Him, and whether He answers our prayers “yes” or “no”, the critical thing to remember is that He answers.


Shabbat Shalom,


Wed, August 12 2020 22 Av 5780