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Dvar August 9 2019 and Sat August 17 2019/ D’varim and Tisha B’av

Dvar August 9 and 10:

D’varim

Eicha: Lonely sits the city once great with people! She that was great among nations is become like a widow; the princess among states is become a thrall. Bitterly she weeps in the night, her cheek wet with tears. There is none to comfort her of all her friends. All her allies have betrayed her; they have become her foes. Judah has gone into exile because of misery and harsh oppression. (Eicha chapter 1)

Sinat Chinam (baseless hatred), this, the Rabbis argue, is the reason for the destruction of the temple. Historically we understand the destruction of the second temple to be the Roman destruction and conquering of Jerusalem. But the Rabbis needed a theological reason as to why the temple was destroyed. In other words, the rabbis asked the age-old question: why do bad things happen to good people. And they come to understand that the reason for the destruction was the punishment for sinat chinam (baseless hatred). Tisha B’av and it’s message of rejecting sinat chinam is not unique this week but is supported by our torah and haftarah portions.

This week we begin the book of Deuteronomy with parshat D’varim. A unique book which I will talk about in the next few weeks. In sum, the book is considered a retelling, yet also unique telling of the history of the Israelites up to their entering the land of Israel. In this first speech of 3, Moses recounts a long list of encampments in which G-d dictated whether the Israelites should be peaceful guests or aggressive conquerors. This parsha shows us history through the eyes of the conquerors, the desire for power, the necessity of conquering for security and the drive to reach one’s own goals. 

Tisha B’av shows us history through the lens of the conquered. In juxtaposition to our first parsha in Deuteronomy, Tisha B’av recounts the conquering of Jerusalem and the destruction of not only the holy temple but the entire way of life of Judaism centered around the temple. My question is can we hold both: can we hold the conqueror’s view and the conquered view? I’m not sure we can, but this week’s texts appear to challenge us to do so.

Zooming in on Tisha B’av. A day of mourning marking the catastrophic losses in our history. Mourning the moments in which all felt lost and we had to rebuild, to start over. The destruction of the second temple was a deeply traumatic experience for the Jews because the entire way of life and Jewish practice was turned upside down. A religion which was centered on sacrifices and believing the beit hamikdash was the place where G-d resided, is destroyed, along with the foundation walls of the temple in 70 BC. Amidst the trauma, Jews had to reconstruct Jewish life, relevant to their current situation. We shift from the priesthood to Rabbis. We shift from literal sacrifices to prayer as representative of sacrifice. We shift from one, for the most part, united people, with one central place to come to year in and year out to a people scattered. Our biggest shift was seeing the temple as the center of our world and now experiencing the necessity of shifting this center elsewhere. Two traditions unfold in response to establishing a new center:

1: traditional communities shift their center from the temple to their unique communities/ movement as beit hamikdash. Everything radiates towards the sages within the community.

2: another, more recent tradition, is the beit hamikdash shifts from the literal temple to each of us individually. We each come to hold and regulate our own beit hamikdash. And in our holy temple resides our morality. When we experience or perpetuate injustice through sacrifice, prayer or atonement, does our temple remain holy.

And both of our interpretations of what a modern day temple is are threatened with the potential of their own destruction. Both can produce, and I argue do produce, sinat chinam. In the traditional communities this is seen as judgement by the outside world viewing their life as “outdated” practices and preferential treatment to the very religious; those within the community produce sinat chinam by stereotyping or making assumptions about other Jews because of a perceived threat that their traditions will be lost. Both reactions stem from sinat chinam, hatred that has no foundation, hatred that is based on ignorance and fear.

With the more recent tradition, sinat chinam is produced through our individual temples encountering other’s temples which may produce judgement of others. Sinat chinam is found in injustice and judgement and as injustices and judgement abound within and around us, our temples are slowly being destroyed.

This is a very challenging notion, to shift our understanding of the destruction of a temple from a visual demonstration/ historic moment of war to an individualized/ metaphorical representation of the temple. But both are threatened to be destroyed. What was destroyed by conquers in 70 BC is now being destroyed by injustice and judgement, both within us and around us. Let us learn from the destruction of the temple that destruction is traumatic and life changing. Let us learn from our modern day temples that injustice and sinat chinam is traumatic and life changing. Let us learn from the pain of the past and use it to push us to reestablish our foundation in today’s world. Let us build up the walls of our temples so that sinat chinam will never be able to lay siege.

Eicha: What I take as witness or like to you, O Fair Jerusalem? What can I match with you to console you, O Fair Maiden Zion? For your ruin is vast as the sea: Who can heal you?


Saturday August 17th:

We began the book of Deuteronomy/ d’varim last week. A complex book that many feel is a repeat of the four previous books. Today I want to talk about Deuteronomy in a historical context based on biblical criticism, therefore, I want to name that as this dvar will not speak to the belief that D’varim is divinely decreed directly to Moses and based down for centuries but rather analyzed from a scholarly perspective. 

What is biblical criticism: There are two major approaches to biblical criticism: source criticism “Source criticism is interested in the process that wove the different texts by different authors, together.” and literary criticism: “literary criticism sees texts as coherent wholes that create meaning through the integration of their element, irrespective of the authors and their intentions.”

That’s just to introduce you to the school of thought, we won’t go down that rabbit hole. But I want to use the theories of source and literary criticism to further elaborate on the unique book of D’varim. For centuries, theologians and scholars have tried to understand why the book of D’varim seems to be a repeat of the previous 4 books. D’varim is told through the voice of Moses, recounting the history of the Israelites journey and process up until the point they find themselves, at the threshold of entering the promised land. I imagine it being a mega storytelling, where there are thousands of people standing or sitting as Moses gives speeches recounting and elaborating of what they have just been through the last 40 years. On closer study while the book recounts the journey and the laws dictated by G-d, the book is quite different from the previous four. 

Take for example the texts dictating how we should eat meat (how it should be slaughtered and consuming blood): Leviticus 17:1-4 and Deuteronomy 12:20-24

Leviticus says: the meat must be slaughtered and brought to the tent of meeting as an offering, if one doesn’t do this they will be cut off from the people.

Whereas Deuternomy says: If you find you have the urge to eat meat you may eat whenever you’d like, if you are too far from “the place where the Lord has chosen to establish his name” then you can slaughter wherever.

Very different rules for slaughtering. Notice Leviticus is based on a unified people, in one place, close to the tent of meeting (a predecessor to the temple). In Leviticus slaughtering meat is place bound. Whereas in Deuteronomy, there is a slight reference to “a place where Lord has chosen establish his name” (with no explanation of where or who lives there, etc) but if you find yourself far from this place you may slaughter up to your own desire. D’varim seems to speak from a perspective of exile, from a different reality then the time of living together as a people. This seems to resonate with Tisha B’av, does it not?

The Jewish Study Bible by JPS argues: “Deuteronomy may well be the first book to post the problem of modernity. It’s authors struggled with issues conventionally viewed as exclusively modern ones, such as the historical distance between past and present, the tension between tradition and the needs of the contemporary generation, and the distinction between divine revelation and human interpretation. Seen from this perspective, ancient Israel’s Deuteronomy becomes a remarkably contemporary text, one that challenges its readers to rethink their assumptions about time, about Scripture, and about religion. Of course, Deuteronomy is also a deeply traditional text that, more than any other book of the Bible, provides the foundation of Judaism.”

Therefore the JPS study bible is arguing from the biblical criticism perspective. They are arguing that because the book of Deuteronomy is seemingly so similar yet so greatly different from the different books it must be from a different time and/or author. 

Through biblical criticism, historical analysis, and archeology, there is belief that “Deuteronomy is likely not Mosaic in origin. More probably, the core of the book was written sometime during the 7th century BCE by educated scribes associated with Jerusalem’s royal court. It has long been recognized that there are very striking similarities between the distinctive religious and legal requirements of Deuteronomy and the account of the major religious reform carried out by King Josiah in 622 BCE. That reform has been inspired by the discovery in the Temple of a “scroll of the Teaching” (as explained in 2 Kings). 

What does this matter other then it’s interesting? Well for me it points to the permission to and the acknowledgement of, in Judaism, we are always retelling/ reinterpreting and applying our tradition to our current times. The book of Deuteronomy, if believed to be written as in the time of King Josiah in the 7th century, teaches us that even within our holiest cannon, our tradition is told and retold and also made relevant for our lives, whether it’s the 7th century or today. I point out the uniqueness of Deuteronomy when discussing with those who claim that Judaism is an unchanging tradition in which we cannot deviate. But, it means that one must accept biblical criticism, which is accepted by many throughout all movements of Judaism. Deuteronomy also speaks to the belief that our tradition is sacred and that it is the word of G-d but through it’s retelling it can morph and be reinterpreted. It supports the idea that our texts are divinely inspired and that through humans, who are imperfect beings, different interpretations and recountings emerge, all being truth because it is that person’s truth. And this is not foreign or frowned upon in traditional Judaism. This is what Mishnah and Talmud are based on and all the commentaries up until today. A retelling of something with an interpretation of what it means to us, to today. Therefore, Deuteronomy speaks directly to the notion that our Torah is a living, breathing document. And that in our own way we continue to add to our holy Torah, even today.