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)
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..