Sunday, July 26, 2015

Torah Readings for Saturday, August 1, 2015 Va-etchanan

Torah Readings for Saturday, August 1, 2015

Va-etchanan (And I pleaded)
3:23-7:11 Devarim (Deuteronomy)

Va-etchanan is the second sedrah in the book of Devarim or Deuteronomy.  It takes its name from the first Hebrew word in the weekly reading.  “And I pleaded (Va-etchanan) with the Lord at that time, saying,” (3:23).  According to some commentators, this is one of the richest weekly readings in the entire Torah.  There is enough here to study for an entire year and still not have dealt with it all.  The sedrah opens with the last part of the First Discourse (3:23-4:43) and continues with the opening section of the Second Discourse (4:44-7:11).  Broadly speaking, the First Discourse is historical in nature.  In reminding the Israelites of events of the past forty years, Moshe is providing a historical backdrop for the introduction of the material to follow.  The Second Discourse begins with that material and includes the Ten Commandments (5:6-18), the Shema (6:4-9) and instructions on how to behave when confronting the current inhabitants of the land west of the Jordan.  But the sedrah includes so much more that it is almost impossible to cover it all.  So what follows are just some of the highlights.  The overriding messages of the sedrah are the concept of the oneness of God, the need to accept God and reject all other gods and that all blessings flow from following the laws and ordinances of God.

Moshe Entering the Promised Land (3:23-3:26; 4:21).  The sedrah starts with what might be the most poignant, the most soul-searing of expressions, “Va-etchanan,”  “And I pleaded.”  Here we find Moshe recounting how he begged God to let him enter the Promised Land and how God turned him down.  He did not just say no.  He dismissed him with a stinging rebuke, “Enough!  Never speak to Me of this matter again.”  What is worse, the fact that Moshe must show his shame by telling of this rejection or the fact that nobody was there to plead on Moshe’s behalf?  From Shemot through Bamidbar we read of the times when Moshe interceded on behalf of the Israelites, pleading with God to spare them.  But who can plead with God on Moshe’s behalf?  This is a play on that old question of “Who hears the confession of the Pope’s confessor?”  What would have happened if, when the Israelites heard that Moshe was not to enter the Promised Land, they had pleaded his case with God?  Would it have changed the Divine Decree?  We will never know.  The idea of the Israelites challenging a Divine decree is not beyond the realm of possibility.  The tales of the Second Pesach and the Five Daughters show that the Israelites were willing to question what God had commanded.  More importantly, God was willing to listen and modify His words.  But one lesson of this Sedrah might be that everybody, high and low alike, needs somebody to intercede on his or her behalf at some time.  From the point of view of modern day management, the sedrah reminds us that everybody has a boss.  And sometimes your job is to keep your boss' boss off of your boss’ back.  At any rate, Moshe will not enter the Promised Land.  And while God may have told Moshe not to mention it to Him again, Moshe is not finished with the subject.  Later he reminds the Israelites again (4:21-22) that he is to die on the plains of Moab because “the Lord was angry with me on your account.”

Peroration (4:1-40).  This section of the First Discourse might be viewed as a summary of basic Jewish concepts and history that are intended to provide the philosophic background for the revelation of the most important elements of the sedrah that will be introduced in chapters five and six.  What follows are just a few of the highlights.

Obey Chukim and Mishpatim (4:1, 5, 8, 21; 5:2, 20, 28; 6:1; 7:11).  The sedrah uses the phrase Chukim and Mishpatim or Laws and Rules at least nine times.  Chukim are commandments for which there is not an obvious reason.  These include the Dietary Laws and the Law of the Red Heifer.  Mishpatim are commandments with what we would call a rational explanation.  These might include the prohibition against murder or stealing or the injunctions to keep an honest set of weights and measures.  Together they form what Moshe calls the “Instruction.”  It is what was given to us at Sinai (5:28).  Obeying it is the key to our success and survival (7:11).  We should try and understand the law.  But our inability to comprehend it is not a reason for disobedience.

Observe the Law (4:2).  “You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it.…”  Judaism has survived because its leaders have known how to interpret the law without doing away with it.  At the same time, Moshe is reminding us that it is difficult to obey the law as is and there is no reason to create additional burdens and demands.  Some commentators feel that this is a quantitative injunction.  For example, we are told about the four species at Sukkoth.  That means four species.  We are not allowed to drop it down to three or increase it to make five.  Such a view brings consistency to a later injunction in the sedrah concerning observance, “Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord…” (6:18).

Worship God, Not Nature or Idols (4:15-19).  Moshe reminds the Israelites that since they saw no shape at the giving of the Ten Commandments, the Israelites should never create and/or worship the likeness of a man or woman.  At the same time, the Israelites are never to confuse God with His natural manifestations such as the Sun or the Moon.

Prophecy - Exile and Redemption (4:25-31).  This section is especially appropriate for reading at the time of Tisha B’Av.  Moshe predicts that once the Israelites enjoy material prosperity, they will forget about God.  The penalty will be exile.  But God will not forget the Israelites and eventually we will be redeemed and brought back to the Promised Land.

The Existence and Greatness of God (4:32-39).  Moshe does not offer one of those philosophic proofs of the existence God, the kind that are so popular in Freshman Philosophy courses.  Instead, he tells the Israelites to examine their own history.  For in the events that they and their parents have experienced, the Exodus from Egypt and the Revelation at Sinai, the Jew has empirical evidence of the existence of God and His greatness.

The Start of the Second Discourse (5:1-7:11).  Different commentators provide different divisions for Devarim.  According to some, this marks the start of a second discourse, which includes a compendium of laws concerning human behavior and the on-going reminder to obey them because they are the word of God.

The Giving of the Ten Commandments (5:1-29).  Moshe recreates the scene at the mountain, which he calls Horab this time instead of Sinai.  Before reciting the Decalogue, he tells the Israelites to study them.  And why do we study them?  We study so that we may observe them (5:1).  Study is not a form of mental gymnastics.  It is a way to draw God into the universe; a way to elevate the mundane.

The Recitation of the Decalogue (5:6-18).  The commandments in Shemot and Devarim are very similar.  The biggest difference comes with the Fourth Commandment, which covers Shabbat.  In Devarim the commandment begins “Observe” (Shamor) while in Shemot it begins “Remember” (Zachor).  In Devarim, we observe Shabbat to remember the Exodus, while in Shemot we remember Shabbat because of creation.  In the typically Jewish attempt to harmonize what appears to be conflicting views, we include both of these concepts in the Kiddush on Shabbat.  In the spirit of putting first things first, the Decalogue begins with a statement of the primacy of God and the ban on other forms of worship.  Some say the first five commandments buttress the relationship between the individual and God, while the second five commandments concern themselves with the relationship between individuals.  Others say that the first five are applicable to the unique relationship between the Israelites and God, while the second are applicable to the general society as well as the Israelites.  Obviously this guide is too brief a document to delve into all of the nuances of each of the commandments.

Establishing the Authorship of the Law (5:24, 28).  We have heard several conflicting views about the authorship of the Torah.  As can be seen from these two verses, the Torah states that God is the author of the Law.  This concept of divine authorship is critical to the concept of obeying the Instruction, be it Chukim or Mishpatim.

Presenting the Shema (6:4).  “Hear O Israel!  The Lord Our God, The Lord is One!”  In one simple sentence, which then becomes a prayer, Moshe calls the Israelites to bear witness to the basic belief of their faith.  The Shema, this one sentence, is so basic that it is usually the first line of Hebrew a child learns and the final utterance of the dying, including those who have perished as martyrs.  It is found in the Morning Supplications, in the Shacharit and Ma’ariv (with additional paragraphs), in the Torah Service, in the Musaf and at the very close of the Yom Kippur liturgy.  There is even a Bedtime Shema.  This simple statement has too many meanings and implications to cover in what is supposed to a summary document.  This declaration of “Oneness” is the core of monotheism.  It is a statement that denies the validity of idolatry, pantheism and the Trinitarians.  It is a statement that dictates a common origin for the universe and all mankind.  It is a statement that means that all people are equal before the law and that all people must follow a certain basic moral code.  This one simple statement means ever so much more than this.  You should seek out any one of a myriad of resources including the Siddur and Chumash of Rabbi Hertz, Etz Hayim, The Stone Chumash, and The Plaut Chumash.  Other sources to consult include To Pray As A Jew, The Synagogue Survival Kit, Jewish Prayer, My Prayer, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practices, the writings of Rabbi Telushkin and the commentaries in the Artscroll prayer book.  And that is just the tip of the intellectual iceberg.  There are more, many, many more.

Presenting the V’ahavta (6:5-9).  The Shema is actually made up of three paragraphs known as the “Kriat Shema” or The Reading of the Shema.  The V’ahavta is the first of those three paragraphs.  Specifically, it commands us to love God totally and completely.  And in interpreting the text we find the commandments about the tefillin and the mezuzah.  We also find the injunction for teaching our children, which means establishing schools.  And last but not least, we find the command to continue our education as adults.  How do we express this total love of God?  As Moshe points out, we express it by following His commandments.  Once again, there is too much commentary to summarize.  This is the sort of thing that keeps people studying year in and year out.

Behavior upon Entering the Promised Land (7:1-11).  The source of what will seem to be military success is really God (7:1-2).  In a command that rings harsh in our modern ears, the Israelites are to destroy the inhabitants giving no terms and no quarter.  As we know from Neviim, the Israelites did not carry out this command since the natives continued to live among us, serving as enemies and tempters.  The reason for this harsh decree can be seen in the following instruction to destroy all manifestation of the pagan religion and the injunction against inter-marriage lest it weaken the bond with God.  In a world of idolatry, Israel was to be the one haven for the monotheism and the worship of God.  Moshe ends this part of the oration by reminding the Israelites that God is taking them into the land as a sign of His greatness, not theirs.  And all that He asks in return for his manifold blessings is that the Israelites “…observe faithfully the Instruction…” i.e. all of the Chukim and Mishpatim.

416.         The prohibition against desiring what belongs to one’s neighbor (5:18).
417.         The obligation to acknowledge that God is One (6:4).
418.         The commandment to Love God (6:5).
419.         The obligation to teach Torah to one’s children (6:7).
420.         The obligation to study Torah both day and night (6:7).
421.         The commandment to put tefillin on one’s arm (6:8).
422.         The commandment to put tefillin on one’s head (6:8).
423.         The obligation to place a mezuzah on one’s doorpost (6:9).
424.         The prohibition against testing God (6:16).

Shabbat Nachamu
The Shabbat following Tisha B’Av is known as Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Comfort.  The Temple has been destroyed just as the prophets had predicted.  But instead of “hitting the children of Israel when they are down” and beating their collective prophetic breasts in triumph (see you should have listened to us), the prophetic message is one of comfort.  (For more details, see the Haftarah below).  The Israelites have suffered enough with the destruction.  They are going to suffer even more while in exile.  So God offers a message of comfort and consolation to the people.  There is a message in this from which we all could benefit in terms of how to deal with suffering, even when the suffering is of the victim’s own making.

This Shabbat always makes me smile and not because of the comfort offered at Tisha B’Av.  Decades ago, this was the portion of my brother David.  He was a joy to behold that day and he still is a “sweet singer of song” in the House of Israel.

Sinai - The Edited Version
In Exodus, the story of the Ten Commandments is a long, rambling one that wanders over several weeks’ worth of reading.  The actual recitation of the Decalogue begins with “all these words” not the term “Ten Commandments.”  By comparison the version in Deuteronomy is neat and tidy including the use of the term Ten Commandments to describe the Decalogue. The version in Deuteronomy lacks the pageantry and does not have the sense of a theophany that is found in Exodus.  But it really is the one that most people know.  Why the difference?  One might be the fact that Moses was pressed for time and he did not want to dabble in the details.  Or maybe he wanted his audience focused on the laws themselves and not all of the extraneous issues that consume the version in Exodus.  It would be consistent with the concept of Deuteronomy being a summary.

The Chosen People
Moses tells the people that God chose the Israelites because of the promises He made to their forefathers and because He loves the Israelites.  For some this begs the question because it does not tell us why God decided to love the Israelites or why he chose to make the promises to our forefathers.  Is this one of those questions, like the Red Heifer, that will only be answered when the Moshiach arrives?

Jewish Education
There are many who feel that the command to “teach them to your children” is fulfilled by supporting Jewish education.  This is only partially true.  While making financial contributions to Jewish schools and sending children to these schools is important, it is only half the job.  Real Jewish education requires an active Jewish home life.  In America, we have seen the consequences when there is a lack of connection between what are youngsters are taught and what they experience.  We cannot expect our Jewish educators, no matter how dedicated and competent, to be a substitute for Jewish practices in the home - both in terms of ethics and customs and ceremonies.  For those who do not feel competent to teach their children, it is up to them to educate themselves.  One of the on-going themes of Devarim is that Judaism is not a spectator sport.

The Haggadah
This sedrah provides some of the language used in the Haggadah.  Look at 4:32 and 5:20 and subsequent verses for specific examples.

The Difference Between the Written Law and the Oral Law
“The Written Torah does not elaborate on the detailed laws concerning the performance of the commandments.  On the mitzvah of tefillin, for example, the Written Torah merely states ‘You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand; they shall serve as frontlets between your eyes.’  It is not at all clear exactly what shall be bound, how it shall serve as a sign, and precisely where it shall be placed ‘between your eyes.’  All these particulars are elaborated in the Oral Law.”  (From Lessons in Tanya, Vol. IV, by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi)  This sedrah provides an excellent example of how and why the Oral Law developed.  How do you write the commandments on the doorposts of your house?  How do you wear commandments on your arm or on your head?  How do you observe what are really brief injunctions?  In the Kitzur Shulchan Orach (an abbreviated code of Jewish Law), the laws pertaining to Tefillin take up eleven pages.  The laws pertaining to the Mezuzah cover seven pages.  The laws pertaining to the recitation of the Shema cover four pages.  And the laws pertaining to various aspects covering Shabbat cover 25 chapters of varying lengths.  The scary part of this for some people is that these examples are from a code of law that is called “abbreviated.”  How much more is there in the longer versions of the Oral Law that is not included?  The good news is that a lot of people have spent a lot of time trying to flesh out the spare text of the Torah.  It speaks to the vitality of the Jewish people that we constantly examine and re-examine our laws and traditions to ensure that they are helping us to fulfill some of our ultimate responsibilities including making us a nation of priests, elevating the mundane and repairing the universe.  The Oral Law is not a case of making law just for the sake of making law. In fact the creation of the Oral Law and the on-going commentary of the sages is a way of obeying the injunction, “Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord” found in this sedrah.  According to the commentators, this was an admission that the Torah could not deal specifically with every issue that might arise.  Therefore it was incumbent to keep the law fresh to meet the needs of the time and yet consistent with the teachings of the Torah.

An Etiological View
Those who see the Torah as a collection of stories might have a different view for explaining current customs by creating ancient origins for them.  For example, our ancestors may have been placing some sort of amulet containing “holy words” on the doorposts to ward off evil spirits.  When somebody asked why this was done, the writers of Deuteronomy included the words about "And you shall inscribe these words upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates."  In other words, we really don’t know where the custom came from, but now that we do it, we have words from God to provide an origin for the custom.  Remember, nobody knows who hung the first mezuzah any more than they know who put on the first pair of tefillin.  I am not saying I like this approach to Torah study, but it is one that some commentators use.

The “Prayer” of the Lord
After the revelation at Sinai, the Israelites asked Moshe to serve as an intermediary between them and God i.e., he should hear the teachings and convey them to the people (5:24).  According to the commentary, the Israelites were so in awe of God’s teachings and so afraid of violating the law that they sought guidance from Moses to insure full compliance.  In what some commentators describe as a bit of anthropomorphism, God responds with the prayerful utterance, “Oh, that they had such a heart as this always, to fear Me, and keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and their children forever!” (5:26).  According to the classical commentator Nachmanides, this is a reminder that “everything is in the power of God except the ability of inspiring man with the fear of Him.”  Fear of the Lord, making the choice between Good and Evil, falls into the realm of free will.

The Extra Word
The sedrah begins, “And I pleaded with the Lord at that time, saying….” (3:23).  Most commentators focus on the word “Va-etchanan.”  Rabbi Artson calls our attention to the last word of the phrase “laymor” (saying).  Since no word in the Torah is superfluous, why tack on “saying” to this phrase?  Rabbi Artson cites the Midrash on Devarim that this term “saying” was Moshe’s way of asking God to list any other reasons for his not going into the Promised Land other than that he had struck the rock and not spoken to it.  Since Moshe knew this was the only reason, he was taking responsibility for what he had done wrong.  At the same time, he was protecting the sanctity of his teachings against any future charges that he had somehow fudged the word of God and that somehow the Torah was Moshe’s and not God’s.  This certainly runs contrary to all of those commentators who keep looking for some other, unmentionable transgression which kept Moshe from crossing over the Jordan.

The Six Remembrances
According to some sages’ interpretation of the Torah, there are six occurrences that we are to remember at all times.  In an effort to comply with this injunction, following the Morning Service, many Jews recite the Six Remembrances.  Five of them come from Devarim and one from Shemot.  The Second of the Six Remembrances is found in this week’s sedrah (4:9-10).  It has to do with remembering the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.  Interestingly, it is the only one of the six that does not use a variant of the Hebrew word Zachor (Remember).  Instead of saying we should remember “the things that your eyes have seen” the text says, “Beware…lest you forget that your eyes have seen.”  Apparently in the eyes of the Torah there is no difference between a positive injunction to remember and a negative injunction not to forget.

“And you shall love the Lord” (6:5)
“I hear that you have a Segula for a great variety of needs, and these spiritual remedies and talismans that you dispense actual bring results,” said a certain non-Chassidic rav to Reb Avraham of Stretyn.  “In fact I would like you to give me a Segulah for being God-fearing.”  Rev Avraham replied, “I am afraid that for the fear of heaven I do not have a Segulah but for the love of heaven I do.”  “That’s fine with, said the visitor, “for is not the love of heaven a loftier thing than the fear of heaven?  Let me have such a Segulah, please.”  “A great Segulah for the love of heaven,” said Reb Avraham, “is the love of one’s fellow Jew.  Whoever has attained this can readily arrive at the love of heaven.”  (A Treasury of Chassidic Tales)

In the world of the Kabbalah, a Segula was mystic sign or amulet imbued with spiritual powers.  But a Segulah can also refer to an “action that is reputed to lead to a change in one’s fortunes.”  The word segulah might be translated as a spiritual remedy or an auspicious tradition.”  In this week’s Torah portion we find the term “Am Segula” meaning “a treasured nation.” (7:6) which refers to the special relationship God has with the Jewish people.  Perhaps then, a segulah might be understood to be an action that demonstrates a treasured relationship with God by doing something extra which brings people joy and draws them closer to God.  (Based on readings from “Jewish Treats:  Juicy Bits of Judaism.”)

40:1-26 Isaiah

The Man and the Book:  The book of Isaiah consists of 66 chapters.  There seems to be a consensus among many scholars and commentators that that the first 39 chapters were written by the historic figure described in the opening of the book.  According to this, he would have lived in Judah (the Southern Kingdom) at the end of the eighth century B.C.E., more than one hundred years before the destruction of the First Temple.  Based on internal literary evidence, Chapters forty through sixty-six (the last part of the Book of Isaiah) were written by an unknown author who lived at the end of the sixth Century B.C.E.  Besides a difference in style and tone there are two specific mention of Cyrus, the Persian King who defeated the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem.  We have no idea who this anonymous preacher was or why he attached his writings to those of Isaiah.  We do not even know if “he” was a “he.”  There are those who contend that that these chapters were added to the original works of Isaiah to make the book as long as those of Jeremiah and Ezekiel.  Of course, there are those who still contend that the whole book is the work of one author; that the references to Cyrus are merely evidence of great prophetic insight.

The Message:  The reading opens with the classic words, “Nachamu, nachamu, ami, or Comfort ye, comfort ye, My people.”  In words that would have been consistent with victories of Cyrus, the prophet announces that the Exile is over and the time for Return and Redemption is at hand.  The prophet reminds the people of the greatness of God.  In what might be a reference to the transgression that brought on the exile, Idolatry, the prophet reminds the people that God is greater than any idol or make of idols (40:18-20).  Men are like “grass which withers and flowers that fade.”  The “rulers of the earth” are like “straw” that can be blown away by the storm.  All strength lies with the Lord, who is the protector and shepherd of the Israelites.

Theme-link:  The link is with the calendar, not the sedrah.  The Shabbat following Tisha B’Av is called Shabbat Nachamu.  It takes its name from the first words of the haftarah, “Nachamu, nachamu ami…”  “Comfort, comfort My people says your God.”  This is the first of the seven Haftarot of Consolation.  They all come from the book of Isaiah and are intended to offer hope to the Israelites facing the destruction of the Temple and exile.  Yes, the prophets warned the people that this would be their punishment if they did not obey the law.  But in a lesson that we should all learn, the prophets do not rub it in.  Rather, they reach down to help their brethren who have stumbled regain their footing; in this case by providing a message of ultimate redemption and return.

Personal Note: This was my brother’s Bar Mitzvah portion. It was the first time the adults of our congregation were treated to the lilting sound of his voice.  All these years later, he is still going strong as he leads the davening with joy and knowledge at his “neighborhood” synagogue.

Copyright; July, 2015; Mitchell A. Levin

Monday, July 20, 2015

Torah Readings for Saturday, July 25 and Sunday, July 26, 2015 Shabbat Chazon Devarim Tisha B’Av

Torah Readings for Saturday, July 25, 2015
Shabbat Chazon

Devarim (Words)
1:1-3:22 Devarim (Deuteronomy)

Devarim (Deuteronomy) is the name of the fifth book of the Torah.  It is also the name of the first sedrah or weekly reading.  The Hebrew word Devarim means “words.”  Devarim takes its name from the first significant word in the reading, “These are the words (Devarim) that Moshe spoke to all Israel.”  Deuteronomy, the English name for this book, is a term meaning “the second telling or repetition of the law.”  This English name is actually consistent with an older Hebrew name for this book - Mishneh Torah or a “Recapitulation of the Torah.”  Traditionally, Devarim is viewed as Moshe’s last will and testament to the Jewish People.  Picture the aged leader, with only five weeks to live, standing on the plains of Moab reviewing the past forty years in the Wilderness.  He has so much to tell these people.  He has new laws for them to follow once they cross the Jordan River.  Plus which, he is afraid they are going to louse things up.  After all, he knows how badly they behaved when he was alive.  What are they going to do once they get to Canaan, with all of its additional temptations and he is not around to lead them?  As has been said before, he probably had the same panic that parents do when their children leave home for the first time.  So you sit them down the night before they leave for college, or whatever, and you just tell them everything that they need to know that you are sure that you have not told them and that they will not figure out on their own.  If you have ever been through that, you can probably appreciate what Moshe was going through at a human level.

From a presentation point of view, Devarim can be divided into five parts - Three Discourses by Moshe, followed by a Song, and then, the Final Blessings of the Israelites.  The book actually ends with the death of Moshe.  According to Telushkin’s listing, two hundred of the six hundred thirteen commandments are found in this book.  Other commentators point out that these commandments are not all repetitions of previous themes since there are at least seventy that are “completely new.”  There is an undercurrent of rebuke in much that Moshe has to say.  The Israelites need to be reminded of their transgressions, not so that they can be ashamed, but so that they will understand how they got to where they are and so that they will not commit these transgressions again.  Devarim is unique among the books of the Torah because Moshe is speaking directly to the people.  It does not say, God spoke these words to Moshe saying speak to the Israelites.  Rather the text says, “These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Israel.”  This is a unique shift worthy of discussion at a Shabbat Kiddush.

The Book of Devarim plays a unique role in the history of the Jewish people.  Chapters 22 and 23 of the Second Book of Kings (one of the books in the second section of the TaNaCh) describe a religious reformation that took place under King Josiah.  Josiah was King of Judah, the Southern Kingdom, from 640 B.C.E. until his death in 608 B.C.E.  Workmen repairing the Temple found a book referred to as the Sefer Ha-Torah or The Book of the Teaching.  When Josiah read this book, he undertook sweeping religious reforms that brought the errant nation back to the path of God.  For a variety of reasons, including the nature of the some of the reforms he instituted, the Sefer Ha-Torah is assumed to be an early version of Devarim.  This story leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions, not the least of which was how the book came to be lost in the first place.  As you will see, the teachings in the Book of Devarim are the source for many customs and beliefs practiced, in whole or in part, by most Jews today.  According to the editors of Etz Hayim, these include the Shema which is the statement of the core belief in the Oneness of God; the weekly reading of the Torah; the recitation of the Grace After Meals; the chanting of Kiddush on Shabbat; the placement of the mezuzah on the doorpost; wearing tzitzit (and by extension the talit); laying tefillin and giving charity to the poor.  Additionally, Devarim provides us with five of the “Six Remembrances.”  We will discuss these in more detail as we encounter them in upcoming weekly readings.

Devarim is the sedrah that is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av.  The sedrah is basically a recapitulation of the events that occurred from the time the Israelites were at Mt. Sinai until they arrived at the Plains of Moab where Moshe agreed to let the two and one half tribes settle on the east bank of the Jordan.  Having just finished reading Bamidbar, you might find it interesting to compare that version of the story with Moshe’s summary.  There will be no attempt here to summarize a text that is already a summary.  However, there are a few salient points that are worth noting.

Criticism:  Commentators view the opening verses (1:1-5) as Moshe chastising the Israelites.  The references are oblique.  This is in keeping with the practice of not shaming people when mentioning what they have done wrong.

Divine Purpose:  Moshe clearly states the reason why they have made the journey.  God told the Israelites it was time to leave Mt. Sinai and take possession of the land He had promised to the Patriarchs (1:6-8).  In other words, they are not just a bunch of wandering nomads; they have a divine mission to perform.  At the same time, they cannot perform it by hanging around Mt. Sinai.  They must leave that holy place and take the Torah into the world.

Denial:  Moshe is told in Bamidbar that he will not be entering the Promised Land.  At that time, he accepted God’s judgment without comment.  But in a recurring theme of the book of Devarim, Moshe expresses his displeasure with this divine decision.  “With me, as well, the Lord became angry because of you, saying:  ‘You, too, shall not come there.’”  In other words, Moshe is blaming the Israelites for fact that he is not going to cross the Jordan.  Those who view Moshe as this mythic figure may find these words troubling.  But if you remember that Moshe is a human being, capable of expressing anger and disappointment, then you may find poignancy and a richer meaning to these angry words.

Leadership:  Moshe is vitally concerned about the orderly transfer of power.  He is constantly promoting Joshua as his successor.  But he also takes care to remind Joshua that his success will be tied to the Lord.  Moshe reminds Joshua that he does not have to base this trust on blind faith, but rather on the deeds he has already seen performed (3:21-22).

414.         The injunction to appoint competent judges (1:17).
415.         The judge’s obligation to act fairly and without fear of the litigants (1:17).
Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Words and Things
“Devarim” is usually translated to mean “words.”  “Devarim” may also be translated as “things,” “incidents,” or “occurrences.”  The opening line of the sedrah could then be translated as “These are the things (incidents or occurrences) that Moshe spoke about.”  The listing of the places in the next verse is a form of shorthand referring to episodes where the Israelites showed a lack of faith in God or otherwise did not measure up to the task at hand.  In other words, as Weisblum puts it, the opening verse should read, “These are things that you have done wrong.”

The Mouth of Moshe
When God called to Moshe at the Burning Bush, Moshe told God that he could not accept the job because he was not a man of words, “Ish Devarim.”  After all, he had a speech impediment.  Yet here we are, forty years later and Moshe’s book is called Devarim, words.  In fact, he has enough words in him that he will talk to the people for the last five weeks of his life.  What happened to our tongue-tied shepherd?  Could it be that the zeal for the Lord and knowledge of Torah overcame his speech impediment?  That is one question that I will leave to each of you to answer.

The Sedrah and the Calendar
This sedrah is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av.  Interestingly enough, the Hebrew word “Aycha” is used for the first time in the TaNaCh in this sedrah (1:12).  “Aycha” is translated variously as “Alas” or “How.”  “Aycha” appears for the third time as the first word in the Book of Lamentations, which is read on Tisha B’Av.  The Hebrew name for the Book of Lamentations is Aycha.  You will have to read the rest of this Guide to find when the word “Aycha” appears for the second time in the TaNaCh.

Judges and Justices
Judaism is a religion thick with laws.  The concepts of justice and a just society are themes that recur throughout Jewish writings.  Devarim places a special emphasis on this concept.  We see it for the first time in 1:13-15 when Moshe provides us with the characteristics of a good judge and the manner in which a case should be adjudicated.

Delegation of Authority
Moshe reminds the people of how he chose judges to hear their cases while they were still camped at Mt. Sinai.  Commentators usually hail this delegation of authority as a stroke of administrative genius.  Here in Devarim, Moshe may be seen to be rebuking the people for accepting the decision so willingly.  When he told them of the decision, “You answered me and said, ‘What you propose to do is good.’” (1:14)  Maybe he was hoping that the people would have expressed displeasure at losing their contact with Moshe, of not getting their Torah straight from the horse’s mouth so to speak.  In what might be seen as a chapter from a book on modern management techniques, Moshe saw the positives and pitfalls of delegation.

There are numerous explanations as to why ten is the minimum number of Jews for a quorum for public, communal worship.  This sedrah provides another.  In Devarim 1:15, ten is the smallest number over which a chieftain presided.  If Moshe stopped with ten, then it is assumed ten is the smallest number for communal prayer.  Moshe also references the ten spies who did not want to go into the land.  They were an “edah” or a congregation.  If ten could work for an evil purpose - thwarting God’s plan to go into the Promised Land - then in typical Jewish fashion, ten could also be an “edah” for good - communal prayer including the reading of the Torah.

Love and the Law
As Blu Greenberg points out in “Challenge to Convention,” her commentary on this week’s portion, Devarim is thick with laws.  According to her, the book contains 200 of the 613 mitzvoth.  At one point, the Talmud divides these laws into two categories:  laws that govern relations between humans and God and laws that govern relations between one person and another.  For those in need of a visual, think of the two tablets of the Ten Commandments.  On one side are the laws that begin “I am the Lord thy God” and on the other side are the laws that start, “Thou shalt not murder.”  But then the Rabbis double back on themselves by saying that violating laws that govern relationships between people really violate the covenant with God.  For example, we are told not keep a false set of weights.  This sounds like one of those human to human laws.  But the text tells us not to do this because it offends God.  In other words, the line of demarcation is not clear.  Since each person is God’s creation, hurting that person is really a manifestation of “hurting” God.  How do we show our love for God?  By treating each person with love.  How do we know what it means to love God?  He has given us the law so that, among other things, we can manifest that love.  Love does not replace the law.  Love is a feeling, an emotion.  The challenge is to find a venue for demonstrating that love.  In Judaism, “observance of the law is linked to love.  ‘And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you?  Only this, to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways, and to love Him and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul.’”(10:12).

The Antiquity of Devarim
A whole body of literature has developed over the last two centuries attacking the antiquity of the Book of Devarim.  I have neither the time, nor the space nor the expertise to do justice to this topic.  Some critics claim that the priests wrote Devarim during the reign of King Josiah, just before the workmen repairing the Temple miraculously found the supposedly ancient scroll.  According to this line of reasoning, Devarim was a power grab.  It was written to provide a theological and historic basis for centralizing the cult of the sacrifice in Jerusalem.  In other words, Devarim is not revelation.  It is a pious fraud.  It is the word of men, not God.  This line of reasoning would have been popular with those who were looking at the Bible as literature, not revealed teaching.  By accepting the view of Higher Biblical Criticism, they could then just discard any parts of the Torah that they found inoperative.  While nobody can provide a date certain for the writing of Devarim, there is a great deal of evidence for rejecting the revisionist view.  For example, why would a book that was written to ensure the centralization of sacrifice in Jerusalem not mention that city once by name?  Why would a book written after the split into two kingdoms contain references only to one Jewish nation?  Why would the Prophets who lived before the priests supposedly wrote the Book of Devarim make reference to laws and customs that are part of Devarim?  The Hertz Chumash has a brief, but very informative article on this topic starting on Page 937.  This is a topic which should hold your attention as we read this book over the next couple of months.

Echoes of Egypt
The description of the encounter with King Sihon of Heshbon (2:26- 2:35) raises the question of free will versus predestination that we dealt with in the story of the Exodus.  When Moses dealt with Pharaoh, God would “harden his heart.”  When Moses asked King Sihon for the right to pass through his land, the king “refused to let us pass through, because the Lord had stiffened his will and hardened his heart in order to deliver him in your power…”  Reading the text as written, God deliberately intervened to affect the course of history.  So, why does God intervene here and remain the absent bystander in other episodes?  If God could intervene with the King of Heshbon, why didn’t he intervene (I will leave it to supply the event which will finish the question)?  And now you have another item to discuss when you sit down to Shabbat Kiddush for I do not have an answer.

Devarim Quiz Time
1. What analogy did Moshe use to describe the current population of Israel? (1:2)
2. How did Moshe describe God’s advice about passing through the hill country of Esau? (1:14)
3. According to Moshe, who died in the 38 years from the time the Israelites left Kadesh Barnea until they crossed the Zared Valley? (2:1)
4. What possession that belonged to Og, King of Bashan, did Moshe find worthy of mention? (2:18)
5. According to Moshe, what was he not going to be allowed to do because God was angry with him? (3:4)
(Source: Nelson’s Amazing Bible Trivia)

1:1-27 Isaiah

The Man and The Book:  This is not the first time we have read about Isaiah, nor will it be the last.  Fifteen of the fifty-four haftarot read on Saturday mornings come from the Book of Isaiah.  In fact we will be reading about Isaiah for eight straight weeks, since the seven haftarot all come from the Book of Isaiah.  After a while, the challenge will be to tell you something you do not already know.  Therefore, I am going to deviate from the normal practice, and just provide you with direct material from various sites over the next several weeks.  By drawing directly on authors, you will not feel like you are getting nothing more than a re-hash of material you have already received.

Isaiah was a paramount shaper of the prophetic vision.  He was active over an extraordinarily lengthy period of time:  "The prophecies of Isaiah son of Amoz, who prophesied concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah" (Isaiah 1:1).  Isaiah was the most "political" of the prophets.  In the face of Assyrian expansionism he counseled a passive political and military approach.  He put his faith in divine salvation, which would certainly follow from a necessary change in the moral leadership and in the people's spiritual tenacity.  Every "earthly" attempt to alter the course of events was foredoomed, since the mighty Assyria was no more than a "rod" in God's hands with which to punish the sins of Jerusalem:  "Again the Lord spoke to me, thus:  'Because that people has spurned the gently flowing waters of Siloam assuredly, my Lord will bring up against them the mighty, massive waters of the Euphrates, the king of Assyria and all his multitude’" (8:6-7).  When the comprehensive religious reforms introduced by King Hezekiah seemed, at first, to justify the hopes held out for him by Isaiah, the prophet supported him in the difficult moments of the Assyrian siege:  "Assuredly, thus said the Lord concerning the king of Assyria:  He shall not enter this city; he shall not shoot an arrow at it, or advance upon it with a shield, or pile up a siege mound against us.  He shall go back by the way he came, he shall not enter this city declares the Lord" (37:33-34).  However, Isaiah took an unwaveringly dim view of Hezekiah’s attempts to forge alliances with Egypt and with the envoys of the Babylonian king Merodach-baladan, as a wedge against Assyrian expansionism.  Such efforts, he said, attested to insufficient faith in the Lord.  Isaiah is also considered the most universal of the prophets:  "In the days to come, the Mount of the Lord's House shall stand firm above the mountains....  And the many peoples shall go and shall say:  Come; let us go up to the Mount of the Lord..."(2:2-3).

From the “New Jerusalem Mosaic” Website sponsored by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The Message:  The haftarah comes from the first 27 verses of the Book of Isaiah.  The prophet opens by declaring that this is his “Chazon” or in English, his “Vision.”  In other words, what we are about to “hear” is prophecy in the truest sense of the word.  Please note, I said “hear.”  The language is majestic and must be read aloud if it is to be fully appreciated.

There is a three-part indictment.  The people have broken the covenant by turning their back on God.  “Children I have reared and brought up, And they have rebelled against me” (1:2).  The people have turned the religious practices into meaningless sham.  “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me?” (1:11).  “Bring no more vain oblations” (1:13).  Finally, they have perverted the very system of justice ordained by God.  “Everyone loves bribes, and follows after reward; They judge not the fatherless, Neither doth the cause of the widow come unto them” (1:23).  For this land will be laid waste and the transgressing Israelites will be punished.  “And the daughter of Zion is left as a booth in a vineyard” (1:8).  “Therefore saith the Lord…I will ease Me of Mine adversaries, And avenge Me of Mine enemies” (1:24).  But as is always the case, the haftarah ends on a positive note.  Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and they that return with righteousness” (1:27).

Theme-Link:  According to tradition, the link here is not with the content of the sedrah but with the calendar.  This is the third of three Haftarot of Rebuke read after the Seventeenth of Tammuz and before Tisha B’Av.  The Shabbat prior to Tisha B’Av is called Shabbat Chazon.  It takes its name from the first word of the haftarah.  Chazon literally means vision as in, “The vision (Chazon) of Isaiah son of Amoz which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem” (1:1).  The Vision is the vision of the destruction of the land and exile.  This is certainly an appropriate theme for the last Shabbat before commemorating the destruction of Temple and the exile from the Promised Land.  Modern translations such as Etz Hayim and Plaut translate Chazon to mean “prophecies.”  They may have the better of the linguistic case although the word “Chazon” does mean “vision.”   More to the point, their translation betrays the majesty of the sentence and the sense of the special Shabbat, which is the Sabbath of the Vision.  A second reason for reading this haftarah is that it uses the Hebrew word “Aycha” (1:21).  This word is translated as “how” or “alas.”  As we already know, the word “Aycha” appears only four times in the TaNaCh and it is the Hebrew name for the Book of Lamentations which is read on Tisha B’Av.  It may not be intentional, but there does appear to be a thematic link between the sedrah and the haftarah.  In the sedrah, Moshe sets out the requirements for justice including impartiality, hearing all cases, and avoiding bribes.  In the haftarah, Isaiah tells the people that violating these very admonitions about judicial fairness will lead to exile and destruction.

Lyndon Johnson and Isaiah:  As Senator or President, when Lyndon Johnson sought to reach a compromise on some thorny issue, he would open with “Come now, let us reason together” (1:18).  Johnson knew the words came from Isaiah; he often gave the prophet credit for the line.  But I wonder if Johnson knew the context in which they were uttered.  They certainly were not intended to be the opening gambit in political wheeling and dealing, no matter how noble the cause.  Instead, as Dr. I.W. Slotki points out in verses 18 - 20 (which are quoted in their entirety), God is reasoning with His people, offering pardon and prosperity to the pertinent and death and destruction to the rebellious:  “18 Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.  19 If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land; 20 But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword; for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken.”  Actually, this is a pretty unique concept of the God-Man relationship.  God is not commanding, He is not threatening with divine thunderbolts.  God is “reasoning” with Man to get him to follow in His path.

Tisha B’Av Fast begins at Sundown, Saturday, July 25, 2015
Recite Aycha (Lamentations)

Torah Readings for Sunday, July 26, 2015
Tisha B’Av (The Ninth Day of Av)

Tisha B’Av is a fast day that falls on the ninth day of Av.  In other words the observance takes its name literally from the day of the month on which it occurs.  (This year, on the secular calendar, it starts on the evening of Saturday, July 25 and lasts through Sunday, July 26.)  When the ninth day of Av falls on Shabbat, the observance is delayed until Saturday evening and Sunday.  Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples as well as other calamities that befell our people.  Bethar fell to the Romans on Tisha B’Av in 135 A.D.  Bethar was the stronghold of Bar Kochba.  The fall of Bethar marked the end of the third of the major rebellion against the Romans.  The edict banishing the Jews from England was signed on Tisha B’Av 1290.  The final expulsion of the Jews from Spain took place on Tisha B’Av 1492.  Several commentators also cite the fact the Talmud ties the Episode of the Spies to Tisha B’Av.  According to this, God delivered the statement of punishment (Bamidbar 14:29) on the ninth day of the fifth month.  There seems to be some question about The First Temple actually having been destroyed on the ninth day of Av.  According to Second Kings (25:18-19) the burning occurred “on the seventh day of the fifth month.”  Jeremiah reports it has having taken place “on the tenth day of the fifth month” (52:12-13).  According to Josephus, the historian who was alive at the time (and other contemporaries), the Second Temple was destroyed on the tenth of Av.  Apparently the Talmud resolves the conflict as follows.

The Babylonians entered the Temple grounds on the seventh, attacked the Temple on the eighth, started the fire on the ninth and watched it finally burn to the ground on the tenth.  Since the fire was started on the ninth, that became the day of fasting and mourning.  There are those who feel that Tisha B’Av should no longer be observed, especially with the founding of the modern state of Israel and the re-unification of Jerusalem.  In an earlier period the Reform Movement wanted to drop the observance since it was “an anachronism.”  Interestingly enough, Rabbi David Einhorn, a Reform Rabbi living in Baltimore in the 19th century, sought to maintain the observance of Tisha B’Av but with a different twist.  He saw the exile as a positive thing because it provided the impetus for the Jews to share the teachings of God with people throughout the world.  Regardless, Tisha B’Av has survived on our calendar.  In Israel, restaurants and places of public amusement are closed and Tisha B’Av is observed as a national day of mourning.  Years ago, a youngster attended Jacobs Camp, a camp run by the Reform Movement in Utica, Mississippi.  When he came home, he told how wonderful it had been - the Bible stories, Shabbat, singing Hebrew songs and of course all of the physical fun of summer camp.  He only had a problem with one day at camp.  Remember, this is an eight year old telling the story.  In the midst of all of this fun, one day they were told they had to be sad.  They had to think about the all the things that made them said.  He wasn’t sure why they had to do this.  And it was the hardest thing to do all summer because it is hard to be sad when you are having a good time.  Most of us do not see any reason to observe Tisha B’Av.  But maybe an eight-year-old has given us a reason.  Compared to others, Jews in America do live the good life.  It is hard to remember this.  Maybe a little such contemplation on Tisha B’Av would help us avoid “the spiritual sloth” described in the sedrah and the special Torah reading for Tisha B’Av; which leads to both physical and spiritual exile.

Customs and Ceremonies
On Tisha B’Av, traditional Jews follow the same rules of abstinence that are connected with Yom Kippur.  For twenty-four hours, they do not eat, drink, bath or engage in sexual relations.  The mourning motif begins with the Evening Service.  The Ark is draped with a black cloth.  The cover is removed from the bimah.  The lights are turned low and those attending the service refrain from greeting each other in the normal manner.  Many people refrain from wearing leather shoes and, like mourners, they sit on low stools or the floor.  Following the evening service, congregants chant the entire Book of Lamentations (Aycha) and poems of lament called Kinnot.  The tallit and tefillin are not worn in the morning service, but are worn in the afternoon service instead.  There are special Torah and Haftarah readings for the morning and afternoon services.

Memory versus History I
There are several different “versions” of the Destruction of the First Temple.  Beside the versions and references in Jeremiah and Lamentations, you might want to look at Chapter 36 in Chronicles II and for more information.

Memory versus History II
For centuries we have “remembered” the destruction of the Second Temple.  But memory is not the same as history.  Memory can be mushy, hazy; history, good history is more rigorous, hard edged and balanced.  It provides us with the information that will help us to understand our past and how to apply our past to the present and future.  We would all do well to go back and study the history of the period that marked the final decades of the Second Commonwealth that climaxed with the Great Revolt against Rome.  The Jewish War by Josephus is the most famous history covering these events.  Josephus was a Jewish general who participated in the revolt.  The work has two drawbacks.  First, it is long and difficult to read.  Secondly, it is tainted by the fact that he defected to the Romans which means the book is self-serving to say the least.  In some respects, his work is as reliable as a history of the American Revolution written by Benedict Arnold would be.  You can find brief articles about the event at;;

Rome and Jerusalem by Martin Goodman and The Ruing Class of Judaea by Martin Goodman provide interesting and unusual views of these events.  For those of you who read history for the lessons it can teach us, you might want to consider the impact on a Jewish commonwealth when political leaders fail to understand the behavior of the leading super-power of the day, when religious leaders become corrupt, when groups vie for power for the sake of power and forget the reasons for the existence of the Jewish people as exemplified by Micah, “It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, and what the LORD doth require of thee: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”  After you read Lamentations and remember the event, why not begin this year to read history, and understand what really happened.  Trust me, it is a real eye-opener.  Speaking for myself, the more I read about it, the less I really know and the more I realize that I need to know.

Memory versus History III
Betar fell almost two thousand years ago.  Thanks to recent archaeological discoveries we now know a lot more about this final of the three major rebellions against Roman rule.  You can find brief articles about this event at and  Or, you might want to read Bar Kochba: The rediscovery of the legendary hero of the second Jewish Revolt against Rome by Yigael Yadin.  When reading about the revolt and looking for lessons for modern times, you might consider the role of Rabbi Akiva and how he was able to see Bar Kochba as the Messiah.

Shacharit (Morning Service) Tisha B’Av Readings
4:25-40 Devarim (Deuteronomy)

This section is actually read twice in one week since it is part the sedrah of Va-etchanan.  The reading contains Moshe’s prophecy of the future exile and redemption of the Jewish people.  The specific cause of the exile will be idol worship.  Eventually, God will redeem the Israelites because of the Covenant and the people will follow the commandments that they had been given at Sinai.

8:13-9-23 Jeremiah

Jeremiah was the prophet who lived through the destruction of the Temple.  According to some, these verses are a prophecy written after the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem but before the actual destruction of the Temple in 586 B.C.E.  Jeremiah alludes to a variety of social evils prevalent at the time.  “Their tongues are deadly arrows, speaking deceitfully through their mouths; they speak cordially to their friends, while inwardly setting traps for them” (9:7).  But the ultimate reason for the exile is consistent with the words from Devarim.  “For what reason did the land perish…?  Because they forsook my Torah…They followed…after the Baal-idols as their fathers taught them” (9:11-13).  In other words, the sin of idol worship caused the exile.  Of course idol worship leads to turning ones back on all of the Torah.  According to some commentators God expressed a wish that the Israelites had turned their backs on Him but not on His Torah because the observing the teachings Torah would have brought them back to Him.

Mincha (Afternoon Service) Tisha B’Av Readings
32:11-14; 34:1-10 Shemot (Exodus)

The first part of the reading (chapter 32) portrays God’s anger at the Israelites for the Golden Calf.  The second and third parts of the reading (chapter 34) describe Moshe’s return to the mountaintop to receive the Ten Commandments for the second time.  As Rabbi Kolatch points out, this is a fitting reading for all four minor fast days including Tisha B’Av since it contains the reminder that “sin leads to tragedy and expressions of remorse lead to forgiveness.”

Haftarah (Ashkenazim)
55:6-56-8 Isaiah

This is the same haftarah read with Vayeilech, the ninth sedrah in Devarim.  In the haftarah, Isaiah calls upon the people to “Maintain justice and do what is right.”  The term for “right” in Hebrew is tzedakah.  On fast days, it is even more important than on other days to provide contributions for the poor (tzedakah).  In the waning hours of this Fast Day, when much of the readings have been about despair and punishment, the haftarah begins a shift towards the message of hope and redemption that will dominant the prophetic readings over the next seven weeks.  Not only will God redeem the Israelites, but He will redeem the “alien” who “observes My Sabbaths” and grasps “My covenant tightly.”

Haftarah (Sephardim)
Hosea 14:2-10 Micah 7:18-20

After almost twenty-fours of affliction come words of hope.  First comes the acknowledgement of the Israelites guilt followed by the way of redemption.  “Return O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have fallen because of your sin….Say to Him:  ‘Forgive all guilt…Instead of bulls we will pay the offering of our lips’ (this is one of the origins of substituting prayer for the sacrifices)…never ‘again will we call our handiwork our god…’” (Hosea 2-4).  “He will take us back in Love; He will cover up our iniquities…” (Micah 7:19) because of the covenant He made with our forefathers.  The prophet is invoking the Sinaitic experience mentioned in the Torah reading.

Aycha (Lamentations)

Aycha or The Book of Lamentations, which is one of the Five Scrolls found in the third section of the TaNaCh called Kethuvim, is read on this fast.  In Hebrew, this book is called Aycha, which means “how” and is the first word of the scroll.  Aycha is a series of five dirges or laments supposedly authored by Jeremiah, the last prophet to preach in Jerusalem before the destruction of the First Temple and the prophet who actually witnessed the destruction of the Temple.  Aycha is first read at the end of the Ma’ariv (Evening Service) and then again during Shacharit.  The melody is mournful in keeping with the image of the weeping prophet.  Amidst all of the imagery of destruction and devastation, some sages find a message of hope.  God is punishing the Children of Israel for their evil behavior.  In other words, how the Israelites act matters to God.  History is not a random crapshoot.  If He is mindful of our sins, He will be mindful of good deeds.  This means there is hope for tomorrow and an ultimate redemption.  To underscore this, the reading ends not with verse 22 of Chapter Five, but with a repetition of verse 21.

Copyright; July, 2015: Mitchell A. Levin