Devarim: Shabbat Chazon:- Both Vision and Words to understand how we got to this position and how we stand with God.

On the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av the liturgical calendar demands that we begin to read the book of Deuteronomy – Devarim, and for the haftarah we read the vision of Isaiah, the reading which unusually gives the Shabbat its special name – Chazon, vision. This haftarah is the third of a set of three haftarot that do not match up with the torah reading, but rather with the three weeks before the ninth of Av, and are called the haftarot of rebuke.  (In this case while today is the 9th of Av, it serves as the Shabbat before as we do not fast on Shabbat, and Tisha b’Av observance will begin tonight)

All sorts of cycles of Jewish history and philosophy come together in the readings for this week, focussing us for the task ahead as we become aware of the nearness of Ellul, and the need for serious introspection.  And the words, the language of the readings, give us a number of hints, guiding our thought patterns gently but certainly, as we enter this time.

On Tisha b’Av by tradition we read the Megillah of Lamentations, known by its first exclamation of desperation and sorrow – Eicha. The word, meaning “How can this be?” or simply “Alas” is not particularly common in bible, yet it appears in both the torah reading and the haftarah today.  It is as if the exclamation is being used as a prompt to our subconscious –“How can we have arrived at this state once more after all our good intentions last year?”

The word is uncommon.  It is used only by three prophets – Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah (here in Lamentations).  But there is another word which looks exactly the same in the unpointed torah text and the Midrash notes this with interest:  After Adam and Eve had eaten of the tree of knowledge of good and evil they hid themselves away from God when God came looking for them in the garden.  And God called out to them “Ayeka” – Where are you?

The words Eicha? And Ayeka? look the same in the unvowelled text.

The Midrash suggest that in that call God was showing all the despair that would later be the Jewish experience at the destruction of Jerusalem – “How lonely sits the city once great with people”. (Lam1:1)

The link is obvious – that it is the choices we make that bring about ill fortune, it is our own behaviour that is the progenitor of our despair.

But there is another way to look at this similarity of consonants – in the passage in Genesis God calls out to human beings “Where are you”, but we might as easily call out to God the same question.  As we survey the destruction of our worlds again and again, we must ask of God – “where are You?”

Some years ago I had a long conversation with a woman congregant who had been brought out of Germany as a child in the kinderstransport, but who had then had to live with the terrible pain of knowing that her family had not survived the camps, had written letters to her begging her to help them out of that hell, had died wondering if she would be able to save them.  She told me that she was not going to fast on Yom Kippur any more.  I said I thought that was reasonable – she was ill and on a great deal of medication, but that wasn’t her point.  “No” she said, “it isn’t the medication, it is just that for nearly 80 years I have been saying sorry to God every Yom Kippur, and now I feel I have done it.  Now it is time for God to begin to say sorry to me”.

Her life had been long and filled with all sorts of pain, emotional, spiritual and physical.  But she had come to the last stretch and she had a problem for God.  It was both the exclamation “Eicha” and the question “Ayeka” – “How could this happen? Where were You?”

The list of the calamities that are said to have occurred on Tisha b’Av is extensive.  The day that the spies reported back that the land was wonderful but would not be easy to take – and the people rejected Moses and Joshua’s urging to go into battle for it – was said to have been Tisha b’Av for example.  And as we consider the violent history of the Jewish people, surviving terrible destructions again and again, we are left with the questions – “How could it have happened again?  Eicha?  And: Where were You? Ayeka?”

As the pain of the Jewish people reverberates down the centuries, so do those two words.

Which brings us to Devarim – and Chazon.

God creates the world in the very beginning of Torah with words – God speaks and the world as we know it emerges.  The huge bulk of Torah takes place in the midbar, the place where the action of speech and the words spoken create a space in which God can be encountered.  Wilderness, unstructured and unowned land – the dimension where ideas can be embodied not only in our usual use of language but in our very existence.  And at the end of the book of Numbers, known as Bemidbar, the narration leaves us poised on the edge of the land, with Moses about to die and told to anoint Joshua, the only other survivor of the midbar experience, as his successor.  Moses passes on his authority of leadership, he climbs a mountain so as to see the midbar where he has spent most of his life, and the land of Canaan which he will never enter, and then he begins to speak. Devarim. Words pour from him in a torrent. His memories, his meaning, his purpose – his very soul. Facing his end he chooses to mirror the actions of God at the creation of the world – he uses words to bring into being the most important things he knows.  He answers the questions “Eicha” – how can these situations happen?”  And “Ayeka – where are You?”

The situations happen because we contribute again and again to them happening.  Where is God?– God is right here.  Moses wants us to know these answers. He puts an enormous amount of energy into reminding us, calling heaven and earth as witness. He rehearses our history – and our complicity in it.  He offers blessings and curses and repeats the simple rule – what we choose to do always has consequences.  And he tells us again and again how God is waiting for us, is close to us, is never far away and only waiting for our call.  Poor Moses – it is learning he can never quite pass on to us, for each of us has to learn it for ourselves.

Today is Shabbat Devarim. It marks the beginning of the book of Moses’ final and more distilled teachings to go with us into the future when Moses cannot.  It is the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av, a day of almost resigned and patient waiting for the worst after almost three weeks of semi mourning.  Words seem to be useless now. They cannot change the future.  We arealmost weighed down by the number of them being prayed and read, exclaimed or muttered.

Words are everywhere – we cannot get away from them. And they begin to lose their power to reach us, so many words surround us.

And so Isaiah brings us something else along to help us with all these words – he brings a vision, a different sense of how to interpret and understand the world.

The vision of Isaiah son of Amotz….  Isaiah’s vision projects onto the harsh reality around him and establishes a different kind of perspective. Isaiah reminds us that at the Creation God spoke, and God saw.  Sometimes, when the words aren’t enough any more, it is important to draw back and to see. To notice, to observe and perceive, to witness.

We Jews are a people of words, and we can use words in so many clever ways. We are sometimes able to block out our reality for a time with a judicious use of language.  We are sometimes able to confuse ourselves or others about the truth of our lives.  We can construct so many different worlds, from the minutiae of our legal system to the legends chronicled in our midrashim.  By declaring time sacred, we can make it so for the period of Shabbat.  By asserting our scriptural narrative we can make order in the universe.  But sometimes we need not to declare or proclaim, but to look, and to really see.  We may have a prayer called “Shema” – Listen!  which we expect others as well as ourselves to hear as we recite it, but we also have a torah reading “Re’eh” – see!

Moses, our greatest prophet, said of himself that he was not so good with words.  He had instead the experience, the encounter, the vision, to take him and our people through the wilderness and to the edge of the promised land. Our prophets were also men – and women – of vision, something we occasionally choose to forget.

But this Shabbat we are reminded – Chazon as well as Devarim – Vision as well as words, to look as well as to speak and listen.

As we enter Tisha b’Av we will need both of these senses fully honed.  And in the run up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur which these liturgical events signal to us, we are reminded- use words to understand the world and explain it to ourselves and to God, use words to pray, to ask, to meet each other – but never forget the other sense – stand back and really take a long hard look at our world and our place in it.  Watch ourselves and perceive our own contribution to where we now are.  Forget our clever use of words just for once, and instead, use our sight our foresight, our imagination, our revelation – get in touch once more with our own vision.

Devarim: religious reform has a long and honourable history, even Moses did it.

deuteronomy scroll qumran2

The book of Deuteronomy is quite different in style, language and focus from the earlier books of Torah.  It is much more concerned with the practicalities of living in the land of Israel, and it focuses on opposing the idolatry of the surrounding cultures and peoples,  It has been posited that this is the book that was found in the Temple in the time of King Josiah, and which enabled him to create the major religious reforms in 622 BCE, reminding the people of the covenant they had with the one God, and emphasising the importance of a centralized Temple in Jerusalem, rather than the use of many local hilltop shrines.

 Rabbi Yehudah Shaviv calls this book “the book of second chances”. He writes :”If we seek some unique feature of this Sefer we shall discover that one of its characteristics – if not the crux of its whole message – is the concept of a “second chance”. In other words, even if one has failed and sinned, there is always an opening for repair and improvement, for change and renewal.” Thus, for Shaviv, the book of Deuteronomy is primarily a book about Teshuvah, about repentance and  about return to relationship with God, to do what God really wants us to doing.  The calendar of Readings is always arranged for this portion to be read on the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av, as if in reminder that even though cataclysm faces the Jewish people and their land, there will always be a way back to God.

I like the idea of there being a book of second chances. A mechanism to wipe away all the distracting accretions and false starts of living and get us back to the real purpose of our lives. Judaism has a whole series of such mechanisms – from the Teshuvah process that begins in a few weeks in Ellul and takes us to Yom Kippur, or the cyclical reading of Torah so we come back to the same texts every year and are able to understand them afresh. And one of the most powerful mechanisms is the way that Judaism continues to reinvent itself, so we are no longer like any of the various expressions of religion of the extended biblical period, nor that of Temple times; nor of the Mishnaic or later Talmudic period, nor Pale of Settlement. Judaism has always accepted the past but framed it into an understanding suitable for the present. Be it the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides (for which he was nearly put under a ban) or the Shulchan Aruch of Joseph Caro, Jews have clarified Judaism for their own times. This process begins right in the sidra of Devarim: in verse 5 of chapter one we are told “ho’eel Moshe bay’air et hatorah hazot – Moses began to clarify this Torah.

 The midrash (Tanchuma) says that it is “inconceivable that Moses would have allowed the Torah to remain unclear to the Israelites” and Rashi suggests that the phrase teaches that Moses translated the Torah into the seventy languages of the world in order to allow the Jewish people to always have access to it. Whatever was the intention of the text, what it gives us is a proof text that Torah is to be clarified and understood by the Jewish people in their own times. 

 This weekend (2010) we are celebrating the 200th Anniversary of the service in Seesen, Germany, which marks the beginning of Reform Judaism. It was a service deliberately created to be accessible to the Jewish community of the time, with some of the (shortened) service and the sermon in the vernacular. The Judaism of Israel Jacobson who created the Seesen Temple and this dedication service was greatly influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, with reason and rational scientific principles applied to both Jewish texts and their  interpretation  and understanding. The old system of believing ideas unconditionally and reading the commentators uncritically no longer worked in the face of academic freedom in other areas. Judaism could be held up to rational systems of thought and its riches presented in a modern way.

 Reform Judaism is one more punctuation in the journey of Judaism from biblical times until now. Just as in the midrash which tells the story of Moses sitting in the study house of Rabbi Akiva and finding his teaching unfamiliar and even incomprehensible, but he is reassured when Akiva speaks of the roots of his teaching in the chain of tradition that goes all the way back to Moses, so too does our understanding sometimes look distant from the context of the biblical or Talmudic world, yet it is rooted in the principles of Judaism – the principles of covenant relationship with God, our shared task with God to complete and perfect the world, in the relationship we have with the Land of Israel, and the close and binding relationship we have with Torah.

 Since Moses began to clarify Torah for the benefit of the people who would go into the land without him, the tradition of clarifying and making sense of Torah for each generation and its needs has continued. This too is part of our tradition, and we fail to follow it at our peril, creating Judaism  as a fixed and immutable thing to conserve a past that is no longer with us. In 200 years Reform Judaism has moved a long way, and it continues to change with each generation. We follow the model of Moses, never completing the journey but never letting go of what is important.

(First written 2010 on the 200th anniversary of Reform Judaism with the service in Seesen. Picture of the Deuteronomy Scroll found in Qumran)

From MiDBaR to DVRim – the life learning of Moses in Devarim

When Moses first encountered God at the burning bush he told God ‘lo Ish Devarim anochi’ – I am not a man of words (Ex 4:10).  Yet here we are towards the end of Moses’ life with a book that begins ‘eleh hadevarim asher dibber Moshe el kol Yisrael – these are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel.’ 

What has happened to turn this man who had no confidence in his ability to speak, into one of the greatest orators?  What processes did he pass through to become a man of words?

            The word Devarim comes from a root dalet, bet, resh – davar.  So, curiously, does the word which names the previous book – Bemidbar, in the desert.  There is a connection between the word we use for ‘words’ and the word we use for ‘wilderness’ – both emanate from the same Hebrew root ‘davar’, a root which implies substance and meaning.  Bemidbar is a book about growth and chaos – it is in the wilderness, the midbar, that the Israelites rebel, that they challenge Moses and even God’s authority.  It is in the wilderness that Moses negotiates and manipulates, that he demonstrates enormous fluctuations of confidence and despair, of temper and temperament.  Moses is a tortured soul, alone and frightened, filled with anger and with insecurity, with self doubt and with some arrogance.  And it is this mixture of fury and passion, of neurosis and obsession, which eventually cause him to lose everything he holds dear.  Moses’ words in the wilderness alternate between despair and compassion, between fixation and thoughtfulness, between a hope for the future and a concern for the meaning of that future.

            By the time we come to the book of Devarim however, Moses has worked through much of his pain and has undergone a radical transformation. The Moses we see in Devarim understands that his days are numbered, and the self pity of the earlier years has given way to self awareness. As he coaches and cajoles and chastises his people, he realises that every moment and every word counts.  He has moved through the ordinary and everyday relationship of interaction and transaction and is more comfortable within his skin, and so more able to make the connections that enrich and affirm his life. In Devarim he teaches us about relationship with each other and with God that is far removed from the self based needs experienced so far.

            This week, as every year when reading Devarim, we are in the week commemorating the events of Tisha b’Av, the blackest and bleakest day of the calendar. We remember disaster and calamity in great measure, including the destruction of both Jerusalem Temples. Traditionally a day of mourning and fasting, the mourning of the Jewish world has been growing for three weeks, gaining in intensity since the 17th Tammuz and its fast. 

            The tradition of mourning attached to the calendar at this period, is one that we Reform Jews have ambivalence about, but there is still a lot we can learn from it.  The laws of mourning were instituted to help us get through the tragic and difficult experiences in our lives.  But they were also established so as to help us find the opportunity to re-examine our lives and create the time and the focus to enable us to transform everyday existence and see our lives in the perspective of relationship with God.  The mourning period is the equivalent of the Bemidbar, the wilderness and chaos through which we grow and transform ourselves from self-centredness to self-awareness.    

The period of Jewish mourning is a time when the mourner isolates themselves from society and from the clamour of the world.  It provides a time for introspection and evaluation.  By tradition much of the material and trivial pre-occupations – haircuts, new clothing, physical appearance etc are sloughed off during mourning, as are the anxieties about how we are doing in the world in terms of wealth or success, reputation or achievement.  Suddenly we are faced with an awareness of what really matters in life, and given the time to consider ourselves and our activities.  There is a tradition in some parts of the Jewish world to demonstrate our lack of interest in the external and material appearances of things by covering the mirrors, a tradition I have always found folkloristic and uncomfortable, but there is a genuine message within it – that to really experience ourselves at this time we don’t look outwards but inwards, don’t use the silver glass of a mirror but the instead look into the mirrors of our own souls.

            There is a real connection between Devarim and the mourning period that is Tisha b’Av.  We begin reading a book where Moses has taken the davar that is within the midbar and transformed it into Devarim – he has taken the chaos and anxiety and self doubt within the wilderness and transformed the self same substance into matters of weight and meaning and of importance.   Here just before the black fast of the ninth day of Av we are taking the mourning and the introspection and transforming ourselves and our lives through what we find.  It is no coincidence that next week we will begin on the haftarot of consolation which are prescribed for reading immediately after Tisha b’Av and which will lead us liturgically on to Rosh Hashanah, the time for self examination and the trigger once again for renewal and redemption.  Just as Moses was able to leave the midbar and form the Devarim, so we too should be able to travel through our own midbar, and to understand our own role in life and grow in the depth of our humanity.

            Some of us never quite leave the midbar, for it can trap us into staying there, never emerging into the Devarim, the ability to see our lives more clearly, to experience the connection with God and each other as it truly is.  Most of us fluctuate most of the time between the two realms of the everyday transaction and the life-changing connection.  We shift between the higher and lower domains of consciousness and connection, intermittently aware that there are no wasted words, that all davar can become Devarim.

            During this week the calendar commemorates a terrible series of catastrophes by creating a period of mourning.  Whatever our theology or our political orientation, it provides us with the space for reflection, for the sense of our being in the chaos and loneliness of wilderness, and gives  us a time to become conscious of ourselves, our lives, our pain.  It is an opportunity for us to begin the process of radically transforming ourselves as we begin the run-up to Rosh Hashanah.  It gives us the opportunity to make connections and to see words differently, so as to experience the holiness that is all around us..