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Shabbat Parshat Devarim 5778

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Lessons for Redemption

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5771

Rav Abraham Yitzchak Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine at the time of the British Mandate, believed with all of his heart and in the depths of his soul that we were living in pre-messianic times and that the arrival of the Mashiach was imminent.

When Rabbi Yehuda Amital was asked why he did not feel as strongly about a definitive messianic era, seeing as he was a student of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, son of the former, he responded – Rav Kook died in 1935, he did not see the holocaust.

Rav Kook was so certain, yet history has proven him wrong. The redemption was not imminent.

On this morning, Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbat before Tisha B’av we face a similar question. We have seen more than Rav Kook ever did. We have a sovereign Jewish government and a Jewish army and nearly the majority of the world’s Jews in Israel. Yet we have ceded parts of the land and might cede more in the near future. Does this mean that the religious Zionist dream is squashed, or simply on hold? What impact do these events have on our worldview?

I think that the beginning of our parsha holds a clue and a lesson for us as we contemplate our messianic ideals.

Devarim opens with a rehash of military history from the book of Bamidbar that we just read. Some of the stories are told with additional and contradictory details but the same stories nonetheless.

To appreciate the parsha and its message for Tisha B’av we need to do two things:

We need to understand the nature of the book of Devarim and analyze the structure of the parsha itself.

Very briefly Sefer Devarim is Moshe’s farewell speech in which he attempts to prepare the people for their entry into the land of Israel to live as God’s people. Understandably the bulk of the speech details the commandments given to the Jews in the desert. After all, living as a Jew means living a life committed to keeping the mitzvoth. That is the ABC’s of Judaism, the basics.

Parshat Devarim contains three basic components:

  • Moshe‘s inability to deal with all of those Jews himself and the establishment of a fair and just judicial system.
  • The sin of the spies and its repercussions for that generation, and the failed attempt to enter the land of Israel then.
  • The more recent military episodes, which countries to avoid armed conflict with and the victories of Sichon and Og and their people.

The question I would then pose is not “why rehash old events in the beginning of Parshat Devarim” rather I would ask- why is the rehashing of those events the proper introduction to Moshe’s main “mitzvah focused” speech, as the Jews are about to enter the land of Israel?

The key for me to discovering the message of the parsha was the relatively untold and unknown attempt to enter the land of Israel immediately following the episode with the spies.

Imagine the scene- you are taken out of Egypt to receive the Torah and enter the Promised Land. You avoid death and thirst and hunger and can’t wait to enter the land of milk and honey and BAM- Moshe relays God’s message, you sinned and you are never going to make it in. You children will, but you will never reach the ultimate goal. So a group of Jews decided to take matters into their own hands and go anyways. Moshe warns them- don’t do it, you are not going to make it, God is not with you, but they go anyways and all die in battle.

This is a story, and it is the key to the Parsha’s message, about the process of redemption. This group of people wanted a smooth and quick redemption- they could not wait, they did not understand that the redemptive process is not straightforward and simple and thus they failed.

I think that the message is as follows: Yes the Mitzvoth are critical and form the building blocks of Jewish life, but they alone will not get you through a process of redemption. You need to have a perspective on the process. Thus as the Jews are about to embark on their journey they are given the mitzvoth but, additionally, as an intro they are given perspective on redemption.

Thus our parsha, the intro, contains a critical lesson for the people as they prepare to fulfill their destiny and complete that process.

The road to redemption is not a smooth and simple one. There are setbacks, some even taking years. There are battles won and battles lost. There are places to attack and places to avoid. That is why our parsha details the sin of the spies, the first setback that cost them 38 years and details places to avoid and reminds us of battles won. This is a lesson about salvation. Moshe reminds the people standing on the threshold of seeing their dreams fulfilled that even as you move forward things you might run into more bumps in the road and even a roadblock or two. And this historical recap says to them, don’t be discouraged. Know and understand that this is to be expected. Look at where you came from and where you are now. When you look at the larger picture you will appreciate just how far you have come and how redemption works. That is the purpose of this speech.

That very same message should resonate as loudly for us as it did for the generation entering Israel with Joshua. We too stand in the midst of a redemptive process. And we stand before Tisha B’av – that fast that serves as a continual reminder that that process is not yet complete. We too need to understand that redemption is a slow and grueling process. We win some battles and we lose some battles. There are for the moment places that are off-limits and places that are not. And we need to appreciate all of that with an eye to the larger picture, and an awareness of where we have come from and where we are today.

If we can get all of that and keep the mitzvoth than we will finally realize the prophets promise that Tisha B’av will become a holiday celebrating our final redemption.

At your Shabbat table – think about what the establishment of the judicial system is doing here. What lesson does that teach us?