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Changing Our Inner Compass

This Shabbat, also known as Shabbat Chazon (from the first word in this week’s Haftorah, Isaiah chapter 1), we begin to read Sefer Devarim, the 5th and final book of the Torah. The entire Sefer Devarim was said by Moshe over the last five weeks of his life. At that time The Children of Israel were poised to enter the promised land of Canaan. This specific Torah reading, Parshat Devarim, always precedes Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the Hebrew calendar month, Av. What messages are contained in this portion that caused the Sages to establish the yearly Torah reading cycle to coincide with this tragic day?

One clear connection to Tisha B’Av is that in this parsha Moshe repeats in vivid detail an event that happened 40 years earlier, the incident of the 12 spies. He recounts as well the tragic consequences of this event so all future generations can study it, learn from it and never again fall prey to this serious defect. In fact in last week’s parsha, the Torah recounts how Moshe assessed the request of the tribes of Reuben and Gad to settle and live on land conquered on the east side of the Jordan. He was fearful that their desire not to cross the Jordan and settle in Canaan, but rather to settle east of the river, would precipitate another calamity to the nation further delaying the fulfillment of God’s promise.

The emotion of fear was at the heart of the matter concerning the incident of the spies. This feeling was so powerful that it overrode all rational thinking by the nation’s leaders not to mention that of the general populace. The fact that these same people were first hand witnesses to spectacular miracles and wonders in Egypt, participated in the exodus from Egypt, saw their enemy drown in the sea, were fed food from heaven, and received the Torah directly from God, meant nothing to them at the moment the nation was positioned to enter the land of Canaan. The powerful fear and negative feelings each individual had was reinforced by the collective group. “If everyone feels this way,” goes the thinking, “then we can’t all be wrong!” But they were all wrong! Their decision not to go into Canaan, based on an irrational feeling, could only be remedied by the dire consequences that followed their decision.

However, there is a more subtle connection between this parsha and Tisha B’Av to be made. Sefer Devarim opens with a very cryptic verse. In this verse Moshe names various places the people traversed,” the Wilderness, the Aravah, opposite the Sea of Reeds, between Paran and Tofel, and Lavan, and Chazerot, and Di-zahav.” The only problem with this verse is that these are not actual geographic locations. This verse, consequentially, is the source of many who criticize and ridicule our Torah. However, our Torah scholars have a “mesorah” (an oral transmission directly from Moshe) about this verse. They and their students always knew this verse is not literal. What is going on here, then, at the very outset of Sefer Devarim? The Sages point out that these terms are expressions that contain a veiled rebuke. They apply not only to the people who lived then but to us today as well.

Moshe made use of the mechanism of rebuke. Rebuke, when done properly, should cause self-reflection and an internal change to our life’s guiding compass. This change, if it occurs, will be reflected by improved behavior. Rebuke can take two forms, direct and indirect rebuke. Recalling the incident of the 12 spies to the people in plain and clear words is an example of direct rebuke. However, the terms used by Moshe in this opening verse of Devarim are an example of indirect rebuke. They hint at other but more subtle imperfections. Sometimes a more indirect approach is needed to get a person to look at the true motivations behind their behavior. While direct confrontation may lead to the setting up defense mechanisms that are often impenetrable, indirect rebuke can bypass those obstacles. These more subtle expressions find their way into the recesses of the mind.

Our Torah scholars tell us that Moshe was pointing out ethical references or locations in our personalities. To quote my teacher and mentor Rabbi Yisroel Chait, this verse is a map of “ethical danger zones.” Moshe is telling that generation and us as well to be aware of our inner psychology. With that knowledge we can make the necessary changes that prevent us from attaining the “good life” the Torah constantly mentions that naturally accrues to an individual and the nation as a whole by keeping the mitzvot.

So it is not a coincidence that Parshat Devarim always precedes Tisha B’Av. But as the first verse of the parsha suggests, we must look deeply into ourselves. If we do and are honest investigators, we will discover that their shortcomings are really our own as well. What caused their mistakes, ethical slip-ups, and banishment from the land causes us to act today just as inappropriately. Time does not permit us to explore each word in this verse but if we study it with the guidance and comments of Rashi, Ramban and others, we will see fantastic .insights into human personality. Then we can begin to make those necessary changes to our internal compass that produce proper behavior not only toward God but particularly between man and man.

Our Sages tell us that any generation that does not rebuild the Holy Temple in Jerusalem is guilty of the same flaws as the generation of the destruction. At the same time, the Sages tell us that all who mourn for the destruction of the Temple, recognize what its loss means in so far as the opportunity for our own personal and national perfection, are worthy to see it rebuilt. May that day come speedily in our lifetime.

This year Tisha B’Av falls out on Shabbat. Unlike when Yom Kippur falls out on Shabbat and is fully observed on Shabbat, some of the special laws and customs for Tisha B’Av begin at sunset even before Shabbat is technically over. This Saturday night, the 10th of Av, following the evening prayer, we read the Book of Lamentations, איכה, written by the prophet Jeremiah. It describes in vivid detail the extent of the destruction of the first Holy Temple and the nation of Israel. Sunday after the regular morning prayers we read special elegies, קינות. They amplify the destruction of the Temple and its loss to us as Jews. The Kinot also include compositions written at the time of pogroms and massacres that occurred to us in Europe and elsewhere over the past 2000 years including the Holocaust. All of these tragic events are the direct result of our exile from Israel following the destruction of the 2nd Temple in Jerusalem.

Aside from not eating or drinking from sundown on Shabbat until Sunday night when the stars come out, on Tisha B’Av we also refrain from washing our bodies other than to remove dirt, wearing leather shoes, sexual contact, anointing for pleasure, conducting business, greeting people in the usual way, and other forms of entertainment or pleasure. In short, Tisha B’Av is a national day of “Shiva.” We conduct ourselves on this day as we would during the first week of mourning for the death of a loved one.

May Hashem continue His protecting care over Israel and grant us both individually and as a nation a meaningful Tisha B’Av.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan