Hebraic Studies - Parashat Davarim

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Parashat Davarim


Devarim - Deuteronomy 1:1 to 3:22.


With Rabbi Reuven Ben-Avraham.

This Parashah is of course the beginning of the book of Davarim - Deuteronomy, being very much the opening of a book full of memories, as it contains the recalling of the forty years of wandering in the wilderness, while simultaneously anticipating arriving and entering the Promised Land.

Eleh Ha’Devarim-  - “These are the words”; the words that recount the life and journey of a people, their entrance into covenant at Sinai. But as we rabbis will frequently remind us, the Torah is eternal, reverberating anew for each individual Jew in every generation. And thus the guiding theme of remembering also takes place in the mind and heart of each person.

We are part of a people and a community, but we are also our individual selves, bound up in our personal relationships and in self-examination. This is how we may understand the strong themes of justice and love that are expressed in Davarim’s wise discernment and compassionate care for the other, the urgency of love in devotion. These ethical and theological imperatives flow directly from the exclamations of Parashat Devarim, the introspection, self-examination, and turn to memory.

Indeed, if Davarim as a whole may be understood as an exhortation to justice and care of the vulnerable as a precondition for proper love of  Elohim, blessed be His Sanctified Name, then are we to understand the rabbinic choice to have made this the Parashat to be read on Shabbat Chazon (the Sabbath preceding the Ninth of Av), the latter word deriving from the opening word “Chazon” - (“The Vision”) of the Haftarah linked to this occasion, Yeshayahu - Isaiah 1:1-27. This is a Haftarah of harsh admonition and rebuke, an attempt by the prophet to awaken the urgency of repentance, the imperative of social justice in the form of care for the wronged and the vulnerable:

“… cease to do evil … Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow … Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow … though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” Yeshayahu - Isaiah 1:16-18 (JPS - Jewish Publication Society version of the Tanakh).

This is the essence of piety: not the external formalities of ritual performance alone, but animated by interpersonal acts of justice and compassion. “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me?” the prophet Yeshayahu (1:11 - JPS) he says in the Name of Elohim.

“Who hath required this at your hand, to trample My courts? Bring no more vain oblations; it is an offering of abomination unto Me … the holding of convocations, I cannot endure iniquity along with the solemn assembly …when ye make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before Mine eyes, cease to do evil” Yeshayahu - Isaiah 1:12-16 (JPS).

Religious ritual and prayer without teshuvah (repentance) for moral transgressions, for evildoing and lack of care for the vulnerable, is useless and unwanted by God. Spiritual practice must be grounded in the moral imperative of compassion and care to achieve depth and authenticity.

Let it be in this spirit that we view the trajectory of time progressing toward the - ‘Yamim Noraim (the “High Holy Days” or the “Days of Awe”), toward the  - “Aseret Yemei Teshuvah (Ten Days of Repentance). This time in which we find ourselves, the three weeks of collective mourning during the second half of the Hebrew month of Tammuz and the first part of Av, this is our re-enactment of the brokenness that culminates in Tishah Be’Av (Ninth Day of Av), which commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and has also come to symbolize the many catastrophes that have befallen us the Jewish people for so long.

I suggest that we understand the ruined House of Elohim, blessed be He, not just in its literal sense as the historical - “Beit Hamikdesh”, but as the sacred space of peace, balance, and kindness within each of us. Perhaps this is a figurative way to read the classical idea that the Temple that was destroyed because of sin'at chinam, when there was such baseless hatred between people, a lack of compassion, or kindness. There was groundless anger and rebellion to the point of even hatred.

“Yet ye would not go up, but rebelled against the commandment of  your Elohim; and ye murmured in your tents, and said: 'Because  hated us, He hath brought us forth out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us” Devarim - Deuteronomy 1:26-27 (JPS).

The Haftarah of Shabbat Chazon may remind us of the inner brokenness and the pain in others that is caused by our indifference to suffering. That is the deep wail of Eikhah (Lamentations) that we recite in re-enacted despair on Tishah Be’Av; a howl over the brokenness and ruin that has come about as a result of our actively destructive behaviour and our apathy toward those in a state of vulnerability who need our intervention, our work of justice, compassion, and love.

The wail of lament and despair includes an introspective awareness of the ruined interior temple of our hearts. Only through the breaking open of our hearts can we rediscover the compassion that is needed to work for the betterment of the wronged and the alleviation of suffering. 

Interpersonal justice is itself a prayer come to life. It prepares our hearts, once hardened, judgmental, and indifferent, arrogant and angry, to be softened into compassion and care, to lift up the broken remnants of the Temple, transforming them into moral piety. Only then will our hearts be truly opened to sincere prayer, only then will we even have the right to speak our prayers before the He who spoke and the world came into being, blessed be His Sanctified Name!

Always remember our motto seen on the logo at the top of this page: “The More Torah, the More Life”, for  Elohim, blessed be His Sanctified Name, is the one who gave us our Life!”

Rabbi Reuven Ben-Avraham.


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