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Recalling the Past

The Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) features the last moments before B’nai Yisrael enters the land and becomes a nation in its own land. It is the most compelling statement of what Judaism is about, and it is no less relevant today than it was then. Devarim helps us understand why G-d wants us to behave in certain ways. It’s truly for our own sake. Moshe’s words in Devarim alter his role a bit from our leader to our teacher. Therefore, we call him Moshe Rabbeinu (Moshe, our teacher).

Moshe’s words in Devarim teach us that G-d wants us to be holy. He reviews the events that happened to B’nai Yisrael: slavery in Egypt without rights, without dignity, or hope, leaving Egypt, receiving the Torah, building the Golden Calf, the sin of the spies, the battles they won. The Rambam (Maimonides) tell us that Judaism is directed towards perfection of the body and soul. The latter, though higher in value, cannot be achieved without the former. The well-being of the soul can only be obtained after the body has been secured. People cannot reach spiritual heights if they lack the most basic necessities (Guide for the Perplexed, 3:27).

Moshe reminded B’nai Yisrael that Yitro suggested he appoint leaders; men who were wise, and they would be chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens (Devarim 1:16).

וָאֶקַּ֞ח אֶת־רָאשֵׁ֣י שִׁבְטֵיכֶ֗ם אֲנָשִׁ֤ים חֲכָמִים֙ וִֽידֻעִ֔ים וָאֶתֵּ֥ן אוֹתָ֛ם רָאשִׁ֖ים עֲלֵיכֶ֑ם שָׂרֵ֨י אֲלָפִ֜ים וְשָׂרֵ֣י מֵא֗וֹת וְשָׂרֵ֤י חֲמִשִּׁים֙

וְשָׂרֵ֣י עֲשָׂרֹ֔ת וְשֹׁטְרִ֖ים לְשִׁבְטֵיכֶֽם

Devarim is about the creation of a good society based on collective responsibility. A society based on justice and Tzedakah (righteousness). We need freedom and order. Freedom comes with responsibility, and this is what the whole Torah teaches us. The book of Devarim marks the shift from Divine initiative to human responsibility. Once B’nai Yisrael enters the land, they will cultivate it, fight battles, build a justice system, continue teaching their children, and essentially become partners in the work of redemption.

Freedom requires engagement from each of us as a collective, not the governments or any other body politic. Rabbi Sacks writes that “a free society is a moral achievement, and without active citizenship exercised for the common good, we will lose that freedom which is G-d’s greatest gift to us.”

In parallel to what is happening in the Western World, we are losing our freedoms rapidly. It is very interesting that citizens of socialist and communist countries, like Cuba, for example, are fighting for less government control and more freedom. Whereas, in the West, especially America, a country founded on freedom, our citizens take our freedoms for granted and want more government control.

Parashat Devarim will be read this year prior to Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av which begins on Saturday night. Tisha B’Av is the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. There are a few events that occurred on Tisha B’Av: the return of the spies with a negative report of the Land of Israel, the Bar Kochba revolt which resulted in the butchering of the Jews of Beitar, both Holy Temples were destroyed, The Jews of England and Spain were expelled in 1290 and 1492, respectively, and both World Wars began on Tisha B’Av. It is a day on which we mourn, we fast, pray, do not wear leather shoes, bathe or wash ourselves, or engage in pleasurable activities. On Tisha B’Av we remember the destruction of both of our Holy Temples and the other negative events that occurred on this day.

Sometimes it is better to be reminded than taught. This is what the book of Devarim teaches us. We review the past in order to remember and learn from it. Freedom requires us to be involved and active citizens working together for the common good. May we all learn from this and move forward towards a more positive, and brighter future and achieve our full redemption.


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