By Rabbi Bernard Gerson
The Portion of Devarim, which also opens the Book of Devarim, always precedes the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, the Fast of the Ninth of Av, on which we mourn for the destruction of the Temples. Moreover, we begin to read this week the fifth and final Book of the Torah, which begins:
“These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel just over the Jordan…”
Here we find, more than any other book of the Torah, a palpable anticipation of finally entering the Promised Land and leaving behind the travail that went before. Here we have the graphic image of Moses’ valedictory address to the nation at a point of imminent change and great hope – and in this place so near to the Holy Land.
Like so many forms of physical and spiritual displacement, there is often only a thin line – in this case represented by the river Jordan – between exile and redemption, despair and hope. This, in itself, is a powerful and timely allusion to the way in which the sadness of the Ninth of Av can easily give way to future triumph.
Rashi, the Biblical commentator par excellence, says the that statements of Moses which follow the opening verse and recapitulate historical events and place names are meant to be in the manner of a mild reproach to Israel. Before his own demise, Moses retraces the past, exhorting the Children of Israel to act with wisdom and obedience once he is gone. His concern is to admonish them for their previous sins in order that lessons are learned and they be spared God’s discipline in the future. Here, too, we have a contrast between a past full of problems and the possibility of an imminent future that would be free them.
Later, in verse 10, Moses switches to a seemingly more positive note: “The Lord, your God, has multiplied you and behold you are today as the stars of heaven…”
Here again Rashi reinterprets the verse in an opposite vein by suggesting that the Almighty has now multiplied the responsibility of the Jewish people such that, if, going forward, they stray from the true path, then this will be seen as all the more severe.
In the Talmud, it is related that a man once travelled in the desert. When he became hungry, thirsty and tired, he miraculously found a tree affording luscious fruit, plenty of shade and with a spring of water running below. When he was about to depart, he turned to the tree and said, “May all the future trees planted from your seed be as successful as you are.”
So, too, Moses blesses the Children of Israel at a time of high hope and robust spiritual health that the future be at least as bright as that very moment – characterized by living up to the responsibility of the Torah, learning the lessons of the past, and ultimately, remaining on the right side of the thin line between despair and hope.
Rabbi Bernard Gerson is the spiritual leader of Congregation Rodef Shalom in Denver.