8 Av 5775
Erev Shabbat Kodesh
Parashat Devarim and the 9th of Av: Looking forward with hope
by Daniel Pinner
Ever since the yearly cycle of Torah readings was standardised towards the end of the Second Temple era, and the fixed calendar as calculated by Hillel II (Hillel ben Yehudah, Nasi or head of the Sanhedrin) was adopted in 4119 (359 C.E.), Parashat D’varim is invariably the last Shabbat of the Nine Days of mourning for our lost Land and destroyed Holy Temple.
That is to say, we invariably begin to read the final Book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, on the Shabbat which immediately precedes the fast of the ninth of Av.
This year 5775, the connexion is closer yet: as happens on average about one year in four, this Shabbat is the 9th of Av itself (which is why the fast is postponed by a day to Sunday the 10th of Av).
That is to say, this year we begin to read the Book of Deuteronomy on the 9th of Av, the day that commemorates the worst disasters that ever befell our nation.
Each of the Five Books of the Torah has its special characteristic. “Rabbi Simon said: Five times the Torah uses the word ‘light’ [in the Creation narrative], corresponding to the five Books of the Torah. ‘God said, Let there be light’ (Genesis 1:3), corresponding to Genesis, in which God was involved in creating His world. ‘And there was light’ (ibid.), corresponding to Exodus, in which Israel went out from darkness to light. ‘And God saw the light that it was good’ (v. 4), corresponding to Leviticus, the whole of which is full of many halachot. ‘And God separated between the light and the darkness’ (ibid.), corresponding to Numbers, which separates between those who left Egypt and those who came to the Land. ‘And God called the light day’ (v. 5), corresponding to Deuteronomy, which is full of many halachot” (Bereishit Rabbah 3:5).
However, as the Midrash continues, Rabbi Simon’s colleagues challenged this: “Isn’t the Book of Leviticus also full of many halachot?”
To which Rabbi Simon responded: “Here, too, something has been repeated” (ibid.).
The Matanot Kehunah (commentary to Midrash Rabbah composed by Rabbi Yissachar Ber ha-Kohen Katz, Poland, 16th century) explains that the terms “light” and “day” have the same meaning, so calling the light “God called the light day” constitutes a repetition; thus it corresponds to the Book of Deuteronomy, in which so many previously-stated halachot are repeated.
I suggest an alternative understanding. The Hebrew phrase in the Midrash,אף הוא שנה בו דבר, which we translated as “Here, too, something has been repeated”, could also mean “Nevertheless, something here is different”. Rabbi Simon does not explain what it is that is different; he simply leaves it as an unexplained assertion.
I suggest that what is different about the Book of Deuteronomy is that it is “Torat Eretz Yisrael”, the Torah of the Land of Israel.
The Midrash tells us that “there is no Torah like the Torah of Eretz Yisrael” (Vayikra Rabbah 13:5; Yalkut Shimoni, Bereishit 22), which demands a definition of the concept of “Torat Eretz Yisrael”.
Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook z”l (Latvia, England, and Israel, 1865-1935) and his son Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook (Russian Empire and Israel, 1891-1982) were the greatest exponents of Torat Eretz Yisrael, and following their teachings, we can define “Torat Eretz Yisrael” as understanding the Torah as the national charter of the Nation of Israel living on the Land of Israel, rather than as merely a religion of individuals living under foreign governments.
The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain and Israel, 1195-c.1270), in his Introduction to the Book of Deuteronomy, says: “The subject of this Book is known to be a restatement of the Torah… In the plains of Moab nothing new was given, with the sole exception of the words of the Covenant [Deuteronomy 28:69], as is stated explicitly… These mitzvot had not been recorded in the earlier Books, when He had spoken with those who had left Egypt – maybe because these mitzvot [which were given earlier but recorded in Deuteronomy] apply solely in the Land of Israel”.
And so every year, we enter the week of most intensive mourning for our lost and plundered Land by beginning the reading of the Book which will lead us into our Land.
This perfectly encapsulates the dichotomy of the ninth of Av. It is simultaneously the day of greatest tragedy – and the day which is fore-ordained for redemption.
The Midrash recounts a most peculiar event that occurred on the day the Holy Temple was destroyed: “It happened that a certain man was ploughing, and one of his oxen lowed. An Arab was passing and said to him, What are you? He replied, I am a Jew. [The Arab] said to him: Unharness your ox and untie your plough [as a sign of mourning]. [The Jew] said to him: Why? [The Arab] said to him: Because the Holy Temple of the Jews has been destroyed! He asked him: How do you know? [The Arab] said: I know it from the lowing of your ox. While he was still talking to him, the ox lowed again, and [the Arab] said to [the Jew]: Harness your ox, tie up your plough, because the Jews’ redeemer has been born” (Eichah Rabbah 1:51).
That is to say, in the words of Midrash Abba Gurion, “From the day that the Holy Temple was destroyed, the Mashiach was born”.
This, indeed, has the status of practical halachah: the Chatam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Schreiber, Germany, Moravia, and Slovakia, 1762-1839) wrote in a halachic responsum: “From the day the Holy Temple was destroyed, immediately one who according to his righteousness could have been the redeemer was born. When the right time comes, God will reveal him and will send him, and then the spirit of the Mashiach, which is concealed and stored away on high until he comes, will be aroused within him” (Halachic Responsa of the Chatam Sofer, Part 6, Section 98, s.v. hareini nazir).
The origins of this dual nature of the 9th of Av go right back to the first disaster that happened on that day – the day 3,326 years ago that God decreed upon our ancestors in the Sinai Desert that they would not enter the Land of Israel (Numbers 13-14).
Though the Torah does not explicitly state the date that this happened, the Talmud (Ta’anit 29a) calculates the Torah’s chronology: on the 20th of Iyar we left Mount Sinai (Numbers 10:11); this was followed by a three-day journey (v.33) concluding on the 23rd of Iyar; a 30-day sojourn in Kibroth-Hata’avah (ibid. 11:20, 34) concluding on the 22nd of Sivan; and finally seven days in Hazeroth (11:35, 12:15-16) before reaching the Paran Desert (ibid. 12:16) on the 29th of Sivan.
Hence, Moshe sent out the twelve spies on the 29th of Sivan (compare Targum Yonatan to Numbers 13:20) on their 40-day mission.
The plan was for them to return forty days later on the 8th of Av and deliver their report of how to conquer the Land, and the next day, the 9th of Av, we would enter the Land and take possession of it.
The 9th of Av would then have been our national Independence Day, a day of celebration and laughter.
But instead, when the spies returned on the 8th of Av they delivered their evil report of the Land; and when night fell and the nation cried, it was the evening of the 9th of Av. Instead of the 9th of Av being the day of the redemption, it became a day of tragedy.
But its potential as the day of redemption is innate, and so remains even despite our sins which delay its potential from being actualised.
Let us return to Rabbi Simon’s midrashic exposition, according to which “…God called the light day” corresponds to Deuteronomy.
It is standard Talmudic and Midrashic imagery that “night” represents exile and “day” represents redemption. It is no idle happenstance that when the spies delivered their evil report slandering the Land of Israel, “the nation wept on that night” (Numbers 14:1) – at night, preparing the way into hundreds of generations of exile.
And following the same imagery, “…God called the light day” corresponds to Deuteronomy precisely because “day” represents redemption, return to the Land of Israel, the extirpation of the sin of the spies and of their generation. The Book of Deuteronomy is the Book of redemption, the Book that leads us into the Land of Israel, the Book that leads us out of the night of exile into the day of redemption.
It is singularly appropriate that on the Shabbat that seals this most tragic of weeks, we begin by looking forward to the redemption that the 9th of Av inherently contains.
The Haftarah (the reading from the Prophets) conveys the same message of consolation. The Haftarah usually echoes or reflects or continues one of the major themes of the week’s Torah-reading; but for the final ten Shabbatot of the year, this changes.
Starting with the first Shabbat of the Three Weeks (usually, as this year, Parashat Pinchas, sometimes Parashat Mattot) and until the final Shabbat of the year, Parashat Nitzavim (or Nitzvim-Vayeilech), the theme of the Haftarot is castigation and comfort.
The three Haftarot of the Three Weeks (of which this is the third and last) are the three Haftarot of Castigation, the prophetic warnings from Jeremiah and Isaiah of the punishments that God will inflict if the Jewish nation rebels against His decrees. The first two are from Jeremiah (1:1-2:3 and 2:4-28), the third, this week, from Isaiah (1:1-27).
And the next seven are the Haftarot of Consolation, prophecies of the wonderful and beautiful future that awaits us in the time when we will return to our Land.
All seven of the Haftarot of Consolation are taken from Isaiah, as though our Sages who instituted these Haftarot wanted to infuse the idea yet again that the 9th of Av is the pivot between disaster and redemption. Yes, the Haftarah for the Shabbat of the Nine Days is depressing and gloomy; yes, it castigates the nation of Israel for their backsliding; yes, it depicts a desolate Israel and destroyed cities and a plundered Jerusalem.
It is the climax of the Three Weeks of mourning.
Yet it is also the beginning of the readings from Isaiah – the same prophet whose Book will comfort and encourage us for the next seven weeks, until the year ends and we will start out anew, cleansed by Rosh Hashanah.