‘Victims’ Parashat Devarim 5779

Welcome back, Thornhill! We’ve missed you, Caulfield! Good to see you again, Glenhazel! For the first time in more than three months, Jews in the Diaspora and Jews in Israel will all be reading the very same parasha, Parashat Devarim, just in time for the fast of Tisha b’Av (the ninth of Av), the day on which we mourn the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash and the onset of an exile in which we still find ourselves. In fact, Parashat Devarim is always read the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av, each and  every year. Is there a connection between the two[1]?

Many people will likely answer that Parashat Devarim is reminiscent of Tisha b’Av in that it contains a verse that is read in the tune usually reserved for the Book of Lamentations (Eichah), which is read on Tisha b’Av. Moses is chastising the Jewish People for their cantankerous behaviour and he tells them [Devarim 1:12] “How can I alone bear your cumbrance and your burden and your strife?” The connection between their argumentative behaviour in the desert and their behaviour that twice caused the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash is unmistakeable. Indeed, the verse begins with the very same word that begins the Book of Lamentations – “Eichah?” – “How could you?”

Nevertheless, the verse in Parashat Devarim is only indirectly reminiscent of Tisha b’Av. Moses is chastising the Jewish People over a personality trait, not over a specific incident. Parashat Devarim contains a much more direct reference to Tisha b’Av: The first three parshiot in the Book of Devarim serve as a recap of the forty years the Jewish People spent in the Sinai Desert. The differences between the episodes as told in Parashat Devarim and as they appear in their original versions can lend a great deal of insight[2]. The episode directly connected with Tisha b’Av is the story of the spies. The original version appears in the Book of Bemidbar [13:1 – 14:45]. To briefly recap, Moses sends twelve spies to the Land of Israel to “scout out” the land in preparation for battle against its Canaanite occupants. The spies return with two pieces of news: [1] The land is just as beautiful and lush as G-d said it is, and [2] trying to forcefully pry the land from the Canaanites is a suicide mission. They are bigger than us, they are stronger than us, and they have tactical nuclear weapons. Caleb and Joshua, two of the spies, attempt to refute the report of the other ten spies but they are nearly lynched. The Jewish People are distraught [Bemidbar 14:1]: “The people wept that night”. When they suggest replacing Moses with someone who will take them back to Egypt, G-d has had enough. He kills the spies and banishes the Jewish People to forty years of wandering in the Sinai Desert, where they will all eventually die.

The Talmud in Tractate Ta’anit [29a] performs some back-of-the-envelope calculations and proves that the return of the spies and the subsequent forty-year death sentence occurred on the night of Tisha b’Av. Referring to the verse that describes the people crying, the Talmud teaches, “You cried tears for no reason – I will give you an eternal reason to cry (bechiya l’dorot) on this very night”. Just wait a couple of thousand years for the Babylonians and the Romans. QED: We have found our connection between Parashat Devarim and Tisha b’Av.

Not so fast. The verse that tells of the wasted tears appears only the original version of the episode but not in the version that appears in Parashat Devarim. Wouldn’t it have been a better idea if we were explicitly reminded of the reason the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed specifically on the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av? Now that you mention it, the wasted tears are not the only things that do not appear in the second version of the episode. In Parashat Devarim, the spies are NPR’s – actors with a non-playing role. Their report is condensed into one short sentence [Devarim 1:25]: “The land that G-d has given us is very good”. What about the second part of their report, about the big bad Canaanites and their high-tech weaponry? If this would happen today, the media would be all over Moses, accusing him of using half-truths to clear the names of the spies, perhaps as a sinister cover-up for some financial misconduct. And who does Moses blame? He blames the Jewish People [Devarim 1:26]: “Yet you would not go up”. Excuse me? Of course they did not want to “go up”! After hearing the report of the spies – the spies that you sent – no sane person would want to “go up”. Moses seems to be turning the wrong people into the victims[3].

Actually, Moses is being crystal clear as to who is to blame and why. The Ramban,  Nachmanides, who lived in Spain and in Israel in the thirteenth century, asks why G-d punished the Jewish People for disregarding the (true) report of Caleb and Joshua. After all, there were ten other spies who vociferously disagreed with them. Caleb and Joshua were the minority and the Torah teaches us [Shemot 23:2] that we must rule according to the majority, all the more so when our lives depend on it. Rabbi Chaim ben Atar, known as the “Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh”, who lived in Morocco in the early eighteenth century, addresses the Ramban’s question: In the original version of the episode, when G-d commands Moses to send spies, He tells him [Bemidbar 13:1] “Send for yourself spies to scout out the Land of Israel that I am giving to the Jewish People as an inheritance…” As soon as G-d said that He is giving the land to the Jews, the subsequent report of the spies was irrelevant. The Jewish People had an explicit Divine promise that they would be victorious over the Canaanites. The game was over before it began. The Jewish People were trying to play a blame game. They claimed that they had trusted the expert opinion. Weren’t the spies seasoned warriors? They knew what could and what couldn’t be accomplished on the battlefield. Why should the Jewish People be punished for listening to the experts? Moses answers this question in his version of the episode with five words: “You would not go up”. It was you who did not want to go. You were never the victims. You knew that G-d would be giving us all the firepower we needed. You knew that you could not lose. And yet you cried like children. Children cannot face the Canaanites. So you will die here in the desert until your own children are old enough to fight – and win – the battle that you would not.

While preparing this lesson, I came to a conclusion. If, one day in the future, I am the Torah reader for Parashat Devarim, I will read[4] not one, but, two verses in the tune reserved for the Book of Lamentations. I will, of course read the verse “How can I…” but I will also add another verse: “Yet you would not go up – V’lo avitem la’alot”. The reason that we were punished for the sin of the spies is because we did not accept responsibility, because we blamed our own fears on others, because we did not want to stop acting like victims. The reason that we read this verse on the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av is a stark reminder that until we accept responsibility for our actions and control of our destiny, we will continue to cry “on this very night”.

Rabbi Daniel Gordis has been writing recently about the rift between American and Israeli Jews. His theory, in brief, states the following: Young American Jews typically identify with Progressive Left. One of the issues that defines Progressives is their tendency to tend to seek out and support “the victim”. According to Rabbi Gordis, the rift is caused because one side supports a “currency of victimhood” while the other side celebrates the fact that we are no longer victims. It doesn’t look promising, but maybe if we understand the cause, we can somehow figure out how to fix it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5779

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Meir Shimon ben Shirka.

[1] This question is slightly disingenuous. The reason that Jews in the Diaspora and Jews in Israel synchronise Torah readings this week is because last week’s parasha – Matto-Masai – is the last potential double parasha of the year, the last chance for the Diaspora to catch up. And the reason that we read Parashat Devarim before Tisha b’Av is so that we will eventually read Parashat Nitzavim before Rosh HaShanah, see our lesson from Parashat Naso 5779. In this lesson, we’re looking for some deeper meaning (drosh).

[2] Rabbi J.B. Soloveichik teaches that the Book of Devarim is actually Moses’ interpretation of the Torah.

[3] While Moses does mention that the Jewish People say [Devarim 1:28] “Our brothers have melted our hearts by telling us of a bigger and stronger enemy with cities in the heavens”, their accusation comes almost as an afterthought and it comes only after Moses’ accusation of “You would not go up”.

[4] B’li neder

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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