Torah Portion: D’varim (Deut) 1:1-3:22
Haftorah Reading: Isaiah 1:1-27
This week we read the first Torah portion of D’Varim, known in English as Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is a Greek word meaning Second Torah. This meaning is misleading since there are many commandments that do not appear here but are found in other books of Torah. The name in Hebrew, however, has a much deeper meaning. In Hebrew the root of the word, d’var, can mean both thing and word. It was by the Word of G-d that all things came into being.
In our own life words are significant. Words have power and affect our reality. This book of D’Varim is actually Moshe’s last words before he dies. His message in this book constitutes his legacy to his people, his final opportunity to communicate G-d’s word to them that will lead them on their next step of actually entering and possessing the Promise Land. As we go through this book it should speak to us about our words. Faced with death, what would we say to our family and friends? Would our words bring life or death? My weekly question was about words that Moshe spoke to his people. However, before we get to that I want to spend a few minutes on some other words that should give us a clearer spiritual and practical insight into this book.
I also want to take a moment to talk about Tisha B’Av. This observance begins at sundown on Monday. This day is also concerned with words spoken and written. Both the first and second Temple were destroyed on this day. The first temple was destroyed in 580 BCE and the second on 70 CE. According to Jewish sources both were destroyed by the senseless hatred between the Jewish people. Groups that spoke evil words about each other divided the people so that destruction of the city and Temple was an easy task for the invading armies.
Historically many other disasters befell the Jewish people on this day, Two of the most famous were the beginning of the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 and The Night of Broken Glass in the days leading up to the Holocaust. Many of the worse massacres occurring during the Crusades were done on Tisha B’Av. All of these were begun and carried out by words of hatred both spoken and written down.
From the Torah we find words that have deep meaning but some, through ignorance, have been misused. In the book of D’Varim the Hebrew word Tzedek is used 18 times. It is usually translated as justice, as in D’Varim 16:20, “Justice, justice, shall you pursue.” This word appears 16 times in Genesis, 4 times in Exodus, and in Leviticus 5 times, all in chapter 19 of Leviticus. Clearly this is an important word in Torah. Here in our portion we read the same word used in D’Varim 1:14-18.
So what does the word that we know as justice really mean? If you look at our offering box you will see written on it, the Hebrew word, tzadaka. Here the same root word that we see so often translated justice is used to mean charity. It can also mean righteousness, integrity, fairness or innocence. So this word carries the sense of more than black and white justice. A good example is found in D’Varim 24:12-13 where the issue of a poor man who used his cloak as a pledge on a loan. The giver of the loan is instructed to return it to him at sundown each day so he can stay warm from the cold night air. This act of the giver of the loan will be counted as righteousness “before the L-rd your G-d.” This should speak to us as to how G-d sees us and in fact a picture of His mercy toward us. It also should speak to us about how we are to interact with the world. Justice must also be tempered with righteousness and love. Many times we get caught up in the black and white of a situation. G-d calls us to go further than that. Justice may be called for but we have to be able to go further than that. G-d went further than that with each of us. Final judgment belongs to G-d.
Now to my question, in D’Varim 1:1 we read the opening introduction of Moshe’s words to the people. In this verse we read Moshe list a number of places where Israel had stopped over the past 40 years of wandering. When we look at the names of the places each can be identified as a place where Israel sinned, complained and spoke evil against G-d and Moshe.
$11. Wilderness – Israel complained because of no water.
$12. Aravah – Where Israel sinned with the daughter of Moav.
$13. Suph – Reed Sea – where Israel cried out against Moshe because Pharaoh’s army was in pursuit.
$14. Paran – where Israel believed the bad report of the spies.
$15. Tophel – Lavan where Israel complained about the manna.
$16. Hazeroth – Korach’s rebellion
$17. Di Zahav – sin of the golden calf.
My point here is how Moshe delivered these words. Rather than harshly rebuking the people he gently reminded them of their sins hoping to caution them to avoid these pitfalls when they cross over into the Land. He did not want them to make the same mistakes again.
Again the point is words. How they can be used to tear down and to build up. Moshe was being gentle here. The people knew full well they had sinned. He spoke, and so must we, in a way that helps a person see their error but also to know that there is a way forward. G-d still is with us.