|It is not coincidental that we read a section of Parshat Vaetchanan as the Torah reading for Tisha B’Av and a few days later read the entire parasha on Shabbat. On Tisha B’Av, we are reminded of the “illness” which brought about the tragedy and on Shabbat, its cure.
The Talmud records the following debate over which passage from the Torah should be read on Tisha b’Av:
What is the section from the Torah [which should be read on Tisha b’Av]? — It has been taught [in a Baraita – a teaching from the period of the Mishnah]: Others say: ‘But if you will not hearken unto me’ (Leviticus 26:14-46); Rabbi Natan bar Yosef says: ‘How long will this people despise me’ (Numbers 14:11-25); and some say: ‘How long shall I bear with this evil congregation’ (Numbers 14:26-46). Abaye said: Nowadays the custom has been adopted of reading [from the Torah] ‘When thou shalt beget children’ (Deuteronomy 4:25-40)
During the period of the Mishnah, there was a debate among the sages over what to read on Tisha B’Av. One group argued that a passage recounting the curses which would be brought upon those who were disloyal to God should be read, while others chose passages related to the story of the m’raglim – the spies, who caused the people to remain in the desert for forty years. This later choice should be no surprise since the Mishnah itself associates the story of the spies with the destruction of the Temples. (See Mishnah Taanit 4:6)
These choices from the period of the Mishnah were rejected by Abaye, one of the most renowned Babylonian sages from the period of the Talmud, in favor of a passage (Deuteronomy 4:25-40) from the parashah read on the Shabbat which follows after Tisha b’Av as well.
What made Abaye’s choice more appropriate for Tisha b’Av than those of the sages from the period of the Mishnah? The passages chosen by the earlier sages focus exclusively on sinful deeds and their consequences. Their emphasis brings the nation to a tragic dead end. Contrast that with the Torah reading chosen by Abaye. In brief, Moshe warns:
After several generations in the land, the story of the redemption from Egypt and the covenant with God will have been forgotten, leading the people to corruption and idolatry. As a result of this disloyalty, God will disperse of the people among the nations where they will lose their identity and blend into the nations of their exile. However, at some point, the exiles will rediscover their relationship with God and develop a sincere desire for reconciliation with God, who will willingly accept their return.
As tragic as this passage sounds, it offers something critical which is lacking in the rejected readings – hope for the future. Abaye, apparently felt that even on the day which marks the nation’s greatest tragedies, the recollection of those tragedies was insufficient because it does not allow for building a future.
Abaye’s choice of Torah reading for Tisha b’Av, along with the fact that Parshat Vaethanan with its recollection of the revelation of the Ten Commandments and the commitments taught in the Shma Yisrael and V’ahavta on the Shabbat which follows it, is exactly the message of hope needed.