Devarim 5778

Call for Spiritual Rebirth
A Dvar Torah for Devarim
By Len Levin

“How [eikhah] can I bear alone your trouble, your burden, your quarrel?” (Deut. 1:12)

A paradox. Deuteronomy is the sunniest, most radiant and optimistic book of the Torah. “And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Lord your God, to walk only in His paths, to love him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul” (10:12). “The Lord your God is bringing you into a good land…where you will lack nothing” (8:7-8). “The Lord your God will bless you in all you do” (15:18). “For you will do what is good and right in the eyes of the Lord your God (12:28).

But it also contains dark passages. There is the historical recollection of the Golden Calf (9:8-21). There are the dire punishments for idol worship (13:2-19). There is the chapter of curses that the people will suffer if they forsake God’s ways (28:15-69).

The book starts on an upbeat note, recapitulating the journey of the Israelites through the wilderness and Moses’s appointing judges to assist in governing them. The cited verse seems innocent enough in context, mentioning the complaints of the people as are the occasion for appointing judges. Yet the rabbis detected an ominous note in it, like the cloud on the horizon that will mushroom into a thunderstorm. Liturgical tradition schedules the reading of this portion on the Sabbath before Tisha B’Av, the darkest day on the Jewish calendar. The opening word of the verse [eikhah] is identical to the opening word of the scroll of Lamentations, which we read to mourn the destruction of Jerusalem, and with the initial word of Isaiah 1:21 (“How has she become a harlot, the faithful city that was filled with justice” – part of the Haftarah for this Shabbat). All three are traditionally chanted to the same dirge-like melody.

Tradition tells that Deuteronomy was Moses’s farewell address, delivered in the final months of the fortieth year in the wilderness, shortly before his death. Modern scholars place its composition in the transitional period between the awful reign of King Manasseh (697–642 BCE), a spiritual nadir in ancient Israelite history, and the reform of his grandson Josiah (640–609 BCE).

Either way, Deuteronomy reads today as when it was first delivered or composed, a stirring, inspirational call for spiritual and ethical rebirth. It discourses on the ongoing love relationship between God and the Israelite people, lasting from the birth of the nation to the present. The purpose of that relationship is to inspire the people to love and revere God, to take God’s teachings to heart, and to put them into practice, to live exemplary lives on the individual and group level.

I lean toward the modern scholarly view, which only increases for me the miracle that such an inspirational book could be composed in a time of such wretched spiritual decline. The story of King Manasseh’s reign is recorded in II Kings, Chapter 21. The catalog of his sins in that chapter is mind-boggling; it includes idolatry, divination, child sacrifice, and shedding so much innocent blood that it “filled Jerusalem end to end” (II Kings 21:16). According to the chronicler, he outdid in wickedness all that the Amorites had done before his time” (21:11). Moreover, he reigned for over fifty years, long enough to relegate the golden years of Hezekiah and Isaiah to the remote, barely remembered past.

Yet in that time, the flickering embers of spiritual regeneration continued to burn until they burst into a flame that has illuminated the course of Jewish history ever since. The spiritual treasures of Deuteronomy are too many to recount in this brief summary. They include the Shema, the injunction to love the Lord your God, to teach Torah to one’s children, and to be mindful of God’s teachings at all times, morning and evening. They include the injunction to feel gratitude for God’s blessings and to bless God for the bounty that God has given us. They include the command of generosity, to share one’s wealth with the needy and tend to the needs of all members of the community. They include the reminder to experience joy, at all times but especially during the festivals of the year, and to recount the history of the people’s redemption on those sacred occasions.

In the dark moments of Jewish history, whether during Israel’s moments of disobedience in the wilderness (traditional version) or during the half-century of corruption and depredation (modern version), the light did not go out. Someone (whether Moses or an anonymous prophet) persisted and refused to give in to despair. Someone kept the vision alive and magnified it tenfold. And we have been living by that light ever since.
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Rabbi Len Levin teaches Jewish philosophy and pluralism at AJR.