Devarim 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Devarim

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22)


The Book of Deuteronomy, or D’varim, is set as an extended speech that Moshe gives just as the Israelites are about to cross the Jordan and possess the Land. Moshe will not be going with them, so he reviews the history of the Exodus, the travels, the rebellions, and the battles, along with restatements of many laws, and some new ones. The first portion of D’varim is a retelling of the history of the Israelites since they left Sinai, with special attention paid to the promise of the Land.


“But how can I bear your troubles and your burdens and your disputes all by myself?” (Deuteronomy 1:12)


Moshe recalls how the problems of the people overwhelmed him after the Exodus from Egypt. He couldn’t handle the volume of complaints and disputes that he had to judge, so with upon his father in law’s advice, he appointed local leaders to which people could bring their problems. These passages recall Exodus chapter 18, but only now do we learn of the personal anguish Moshe felt; in the Exodus version, it is Yitro, his father in law, who assesses the need for an organized system of adjudication.


Many synagogues (but not all) make a musical midrash on the verse above: rather than reading it with the normal trope, or melody, for Shabbat and weekdays, they read the above verse with the mournful trope reserved for the book of Lamentations, or Eicha, read on Tisha B’Av. Tisha B’Av, some may recall, is a day of mourning for the Jewish people: on it we recall the destruction of our ancient sovereignty and our exile from Jerusalem, as well as many other national disasters that have befallen our people.

Furthermore, the parasha of D’varim is always read just before Tisha B’Av. So it’s appropriate to sneak in a little bit of Tisha B’Av melody in order to get the congregation prepared for the somber holy day approaching. But why is this verse particularly relevant to Tisha B’Av?

Rashi says that Moshe is recalling how the Israelites fought with each other, refusing to submit to proper judicial proceedings, speaking slander and gossip maliciously, and being generally negative and quarrelsome. This would fit well with a well known midrash, often taught on Tisha B’Av, that the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed because of causeless hatred among the Jewish people.

So emphasizing this verse before Tisha B’Av is a way of pointing out that the problems of hostility and divisions among the Jewish people is very old indeed, going back to the time of Moshe and continuing up to our day. (See any Jewish newspaper for confirmation of this.) The mournful tune which characterises the reading of the book of Lamentations helps us understand that any incident of causeless hatred and strife is an occasion for mourning, even if it was as ancient at the generation of the Exodus.

Another way of understanding this musical midrash is proposed by R. Yosef Yozel Horowitz, a 19th century teacher of mussar [the development of holy character traits.] He connects the verse above to the very first verse of the book of Lamentations, pointing out that they both contain the word eicha, or “how:”

    Traditionally, this verse is read to the melody of [the book of ] Eicha, to teach us that if a person refuses to assume the responsibility for communal needs and thinks that by doing so he makes things easier for himself, he will in the end find out that matters will be worse for him and he will remain alone and isolated – “How- eicha– she sits all alone. . . ” (Lamentations 1:1) [quoted in Itturei Torah]

R. Horowitz says that the “how” of “how can I bear your troubles” is indicative of an attitude of being aloof from communal needs; such an attitude will eventually turn into the “how” of “how she sits all alone. . .” R. Horowitz turns the mournfulness around: instead of emphasizing the sadness of the Jewish people being split apart by contentiousness, he emphasizes the sadness of a person thinking that they don’t want to get involved with the inevitable problems in the life of a community. A person who doesn’t want to get her hands dirty with the social needs is a cause for mourning, for such a person is missing out on what makes us human.

Perhaps that’s the hint we’re supposed to get before Tisha B’Av: that the way through the memory of our pain and suffering is by joining together and giving to others. Taking the “easy way out” is ultimately self-defeating, for only by reaching out to form caring communities can we grow, give, and love. Only by growing, giving, and loving can we fully appreciate life, in both its sad and its glorious moments.

*In the book of Lamentations, the “she” is Jerusalem; the image of the destroyed city is compared to a weeping widow.

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