Yom Chamishi, 18 Iyyar 5779
Lag B Omer Thursday, 23 May 2019
Parashat Devarim & Tish B'Av 2013

Parashat Devarim & Tish B'Av
Cantor Gershon Silins

12th July 2013

This week’s portion is Devarim, also called Deuteronomy, the beginning of the Biblical book of the same name.· It is the first reading in the fifth book of the Hebrew Bible, the last book in the Torah. Tradition considers it to be the last words of Moses, delivered contemporaneously with the earlier books, but modern scholarship suggests that it was a product of nationalist reform in the time of King Josiah in the late 7th Century BCE, with its final form emerging after the end of the Babylonian exile in the 6th Century BCE. A large majority of the laws we find in Deuteronomy appear only in this book, and the new laws that appear here deal mostly with arrangements for living in the Land and with the emphasis on the central sanctuary to be designated by God. To the modern reader, it gives an impression of having been written with nationalist ideas in mind.·

Another important feature of this book is that is the source of the concept that religious life should be based on a sacred book and the study of that book.

All told, these features do indeed point to a much later source for the book than the books that precede it. As mentioned, traditional Judaism stresses the contemporaneous nature of Devarim with the rest of the Torah; for the traditional reader, the book’s authority would be undermined by any other reading. But focusing on what is true should not undermine the greater truth, and that is what is at stake here.

The New Yorker magazine recently (24th June) published a profile by Malcolm Gladwell, of the economist Albert O. Hirschman, who died last December. He was a planner of grand projects, but he had a remarkable restraint about our ability actually to succeed in such planning. He told the story of a paper mill in what was then East Pakistan, which was built to exploit the vast bamboo forests nearby. But the bamboo crop flowered and died, which is now known to occur every fifty years or so, but was not foreseen then. This new, multi-million dollar industrial plant was suddenly without raw materials. But in response to this catastrophic development, the operators found ways to bring in bamboo from villages throughout the area, building a new supply chain and new resources; without the crisis, the plant would never have been as valuable as it ultimately became. Hirschman derived a principal from this and other stories: “the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity as it will turn out to be.”

Seen in the light of Hirschman’s understanding, the Book of Deuteronomy appears to have been written to advance a nationalistic enterprise, to centralize the worship in the Temple and the authority around the King, but Jewish history ultimately took an unforeseen path, the Diaspora, in which the other central concept in Deuteronomy, that religious life should be based on the study of Torah, became crucial. This became the focus of the creativity demanded by the circumstances in which the Jewish people found themselves. When Jewish life and religious devotion could no longer be centralized around the Temple or the King, the primacy of the written text enabled Judaism to become an international, universal religion that could twice survive the destruction of the Temple.

As we approach Tisha B’Av, we see the results of this development, which could not have been planned by any human agency. Progressive Judaism does not long for the restoration of the sacrificial cult or a Temple-centered Jewish life. The terrible devastation that destroyed the Temple also ultimately created the traditions we inherit, traditions of engagement with the non-Jewish world, humanistic values and a willingness to live within contemporary society. We would not wish to have the Temple re-built and resume the worship of God through sacrifice. Some have questioned whether we should continue to mourn the destruction of the Temple. But it would be as inauthentic to ignore the tragedy of the Temple’s destruction as it would be to call for its rebuilding. As Liberal Jews, we recognize the tragedy that occurred in our people’s history, but we also recognize that this very real tragedy led to an the creation of modern Judaism. And indeed, it is not just Progressive Judaism that resulted, but even the most Orthodox forms of Judaism, which are equally a product of the tragedies of our history. Like Albert O. Hirschman, we recognize that we must plan, but we must have the humility not to imagine that our plans will easily come to fruition as we hope. We also must have the optimism to hope that our creativity in crisis will bring an even greater future than our plans envisioned.