I gave the Dvar (sermon) at my shul last shabbat morning. This is only the third time I did it, and I posted the other two here, so I thought I'd post this one, too.
Shabbat Shalom. Today’s parsha is Dvarim. It’s the first parsha of the book by the same name, the fifth – last – book in the chumash, known as Deuteronomy in English.
When I told my daughter Zara I was going to do the dvar today she asked what I planned to talk about. Being recently bat mitzvahed she considers herself somewhat of a connoisseur of divrei torah. This was a couple of weeks ago and I didn’t really know what I was going to say, but I told her there were a number of options. Of course I could talk about the text of the parsha itself, and there’s lots of material in there worth probing. Or, since it’s the beginning of the book of Deuteronomy, I could talk about Deuteronomy as a whole – its history, what we know of its authorship, how it fits – or doesn’t - with the other books of the Torah, what we can glean from it today. Alternatively, I told her, since this Shabbat occurs right before Tisha B’Av, I could talk about Tisha B’Av and the destruction of the Temple.
Zara said, “I think you should talk about all of those things and connect them all together.” And do it, of course, in 11-14 minutes, everything being possible when you’re 13. Then last week Kate – in her lovely and moving talk about the strange love she has for the Temple – exhorted me to respond to her dvar. So I’m going to try to do a little of all that.
Let’s start with Deuteronomy. Dvarim, the Hebrew name of the book, means “words” – plural of dvar. It comes from the first line of the book, which we read today: Eleh hadvarim asher diber moshe el kol yisrael (I can't figure out how to do Hebrew here so I transliterated) - these are the words that Moses said to all of Israel. The entire book of Dvarim - except for the preamble and the last few lines (which describe Moses’ death) – is presented as the words of Moses himself. The traditional view is that he wrote the book except for those last eight lines talking about his death, which were written by Joshua. And there are a whole lot of words – dvarim – in there!
It’s kind of ironic, when you think back to our early view of Moses in the Torah, where he balks at being G-d’s messenger because as he says, he is not “ish dvarim” – a man of words. Well, over forty years he grew and changed and became one. Yes, the child is father to the man, but what I take from this contrast is that in their youth people don’t always recognize their own potential.
So Deuteronomy is traditionally viewed as Moses’ words to the Israelite people before they go into the Promised Land. It’s generally seen as being in three main thematic parts. The first part, which we read today, is kind of a summary of how they got to this point. It’s “Listen up guys – here’s what happened” – the disobedience of Israel, where they traveled, how they were organized and so forth. It recapitulates information in the book of Exodus.
The second – and largest – section is the Deuteronomic Law Code. Deuteronomy, by the way, means “second law” and this is the second version of the laws that are presented earlier in the Torah. Sometimes they are the same, sometimes slightly different or expansive, and in some cases they appear to be contradictory with law presented elsewhere and with law as practiced in other parts of the Tanakh. I’ll come back to that last point.
The third section of Dvarim is kind of Moses’ farewell to the troops. Basically, he's saying, "I’m not going where you are, make sure you follow the laws I just told you about, here are some blessings and curses to emphasize how important it all is." And the book closes with Moses’ death.
So that’s the basic structure. From a biblical scholarship point of view, as opposed to the traditional one, Deuteronomy is generally thought to have been written much later, during the reign of King Josiah, during the 7th Century BCE. Josiah instituted a number of religious reforms, in particular the centralization of worship in the Temple in Jerusalem. And those contradictions in the specifics of the law with other books of the Bible are generally those that support Josiah’s reforms. Remember, for example, in the Book of Samuel – the story of Hannah going to the temple with her husband for the festival and he offers sacrifices and she prays for a child? And how Eli the priest first thinks she’s drunk because her mouth’s moving but there’s no sound, only it’s really that she’s praying so fervently? Okay well where does all that occur? Where is the Temple? Right – it’s not in Jerusalem, it’s at Shiloh.
Yet in Deuteronomy we hear that sacrifices occur in one place – the place as Kate told us last week where G-d causes his name to dwell – identified as the Temple in Jerusalem. How did that happen? How did we get from a system that had multiple temples to a central place of worship? If Moses told us way back before we entered the land of Israel that there is one place to offer sacrifices, why were people offering them elsewhere and under the auspices of what sound like legitimate priests?
So basically, I’m asking - what was the basis of the reforms of Josiah? That story is told in second Kings. (I read from the text at this point. The part I read was in Chapter 22 of Second Kings. I'm too lazy to transliterate it all.) So there’s this book discovered in the Temple, and once it’s discovered it is brought to Josiah the king, who is described in the book of Kings as a really wonderful monarch, and Josiah’s basic response is “Oh no! We’ve been doing it all wrong!” And he realizes worship should be centralized in Jerusalem and disbands the other temples and lays off a bunch of priests.
So what was the mysterious book they found that led to all that change? Pretty much everyone, traditionalist and academic alike, agrees it was Deuteronomy.
Now how does a book get lost for hundreds of years and then found in the Temple? The text tells us that they were doing Temple renovations at the time, and that makes some sense – you break down a few walls, who knows what you’ll find? Still, the cynical among us might think that the finder had also put the book there. After all, here Hilkiah is, the high priest presiding over a temple. That’s before the book is found. Afterwards he is the high priest presiding over the Temple. Could he have had something to do with that book’s authorship?
Or perhaps Josiah wanted to centralize worship in Jerusalem and commissioned this book and had it hidden to be found during the renovations, our hypothetical cynic might guess.
Kate talked last week in extremely moving words about ancient Jerusalem as having an economy solely devoted to G-d, and that’s a lovely way of looking at it. On the other hand, one could - if one were cynical enough –look at it differently. You start off with a kind of pluralistic worship and worship-based economy with several centers. It’s not so hard to imagine a group in power in the capital who wants to convince the people that their economic bounty ought to go to the people in power in the capital and by doing so the people are doing G-d’s will. And they might want to convince everyone that if they devote some of their earnings – and really, goats and grain and so one were their earnings – elsewhere they’re not doing G-d’s will. Which makes Josiah sound like certain Republican administrations, so perhaps that’s a little too cynical.
Anyway, however it got into that hiding place, Deuteronomy represents the beginning of the Temple as the center of Jewish cultic worship. The beginning of the book is read – as we did today – on the Shabbat immediately preceding Tisha B’Av. Tisha B’Av which marks the end of the temple as our religious center, commemorating the destruction by the Romans of the second temple. So we have beginning and end in sharp relief this year in particular, as tonight is Tisha B’Av.
Now, I’d like to say a little bit about my personal experience of Tisha B’Av, of which I have none. My parents were secular Jews by practice and by lack of religious education. They were also people who felt that children should be raised with religion. So from the time I was seven, when we moved to Connecticut where there were other Jews, from North Dakota where there weren’t, we belonged to a Conservative shul and all of us kids went to Hebrew School. Not day school, but you know – serious Conservative Hebrew School: three times a week through high school. And bit by bit our family incorporated more religious practice into our home life because we’d come home and say, “Hey! You’re supposed to” do whatever we’d learned in Hebrew School, and sometimes our parents would agree. But neither of them ever learned to read Hebrew and neither of them got a Jewish education of their own. I feel I grew up in the Conservative movement, but all my Jewish education came from outside the home. So, for the longest time – really, well into young adulthood – my definition of a Jew who was “really religious” was one who celebrated summer holidays. You know, because Hebrew School was not in session. I didn’t know from Shavuos; I didn’t know from Tisha B’Av. I mean I knew what they were and I suppose I vaguely knew when they were. I certainly could have looked on a calendar and found out but there was nobody exhorting me to go to services, to eat cheesecake or fast (depending on whether it was Shavuos or Tisha B’Av), nobody talking to me about the holiday. So I never celebrated either.
But I’m going to be at services tonight. Why is that? Well partly because every time Elizabeth talks about the service it sounds very moving and like something that would help stretch my religious practice a bit, so I’d like to give it a try. And partly because I do have strong feelings about the Temple and its destruction and I’d like to do something with those feelings.
Mine aren’t the same feelings that Kate expressed in her “strange love” dvar.
I am not a particularly spiritual person – it has always been the intellectual side of Judaism that I’ve found more compelling and more attractive than the spirituality. I’m not what you’d call a True Believer. That hypothetical cynical person I mentioned before? I’m closely related to her – almost as close as I am to our family's Tooth Fairy.
But I’m also not completely lacking a spiritual side. I’ve had spiritual moments; I’ve experienced transcendental ecstasy and times of pure faith, even if only intermittently. And, in particular, what provides spiritual sustenance and a sense of “makom” – the divine presence – for me personally is a sense of connectedness. Connection with family, with friends, with our shul community, connection with Jews all over the world – connection with Jews throughout time. Coming to shul, saying words that are being said by Jews everywhere, that have been said by Jews at so many times in our history, feeds that sense of deep connection. And so, very much, did going to the Western Wall, the first time I did it, praying and putting a note in the wall. I had such a sense of belonging to the Jewish people and of connectedness with Jews throughout history praying there, connection way back to when there was a Temple. And in the morning prayers on Wednesday’s minyan when we sing the prayer that says to G-d “Shemor Sherit Yisrael”, (watch over the remnant of the people Israel) I think of the kotel – of the remnant of our people praying at the remnant of the Temple. The Temple as a symbol of connection to Jews throughout the world and throughout time is a powerful one to me, and all those notes in the wall that I saw there and see in every picture of the kotel really feel very symbolically and spiritually important even to old cynical me.
Which brings me to two stories of notes in the wall. The first concerns my baby sister Sharon, whom some of you know. Sharon lives in Minnesota with her wife Tina and their son Ian. Oh and in case you're wondering, she’s 37 years old and she will always be my baby sister. Now, some years back Sharon and Tina decided to have a child, and – just as in my family – they chose to conceive through insemination with purchased semen from a sperm bank. That’s an expensive way to have a baby and neither of them makes a lot of money, so they were happy that they had insurance that covered some of the cost of insemination – about half of it – for up to eight cycles. Only they were at their seventh cycle without a pregnancy and getting kind of discouraged. They decided that they’d keep trying if it didn’t work the next month, but only every other month, so they could save the money necessary for each insemination.
At that point Sharon’s rabbi (with whom she also worked) was going to Israel and asked Sharon if she’d like to give him a note to put in the Wall.
Now, to get this story you need to know that Sharon has two best friends – Laura who lives in the Twin Cities, and Tracy, who lives in Connecticut. Laura and her husband Jeff were also planning on having a baby, but using that no cost, direct deposit, conceive-while-having-fun method that is so popular among heterosexual couples. Sharon wrote a note asking G-d for a healthy baby for her and Tina, for Laura and Jeff and for Tracy and her husband Brian. And a month later – Tina and Laura were both pregnant. At which point Sharon called up Tracy and said, “Um, you and Brian are still planning on having kids, right?” And Tracy said, “Yes, in fact we’re going to start trying to conceive next year,” “But it would be okay if it happened a little earlier, right?” In any event, it’s been very nice for all three families to have kids the same age.
Sharon and the biblical Hannah notwithstanding, many petitions to G-d aren’t so measurable in whether or not they were answered as a prayer for a baby is. Which brings me to my other note-in-the-wall story, one that’s been in the news of late. Barack Obama went to the Western Wall and placed a note there. And – in what I consider a really shocking invasion of his privacy – a yeshiva student removed it and gave it to an Israeli newspaper, which printed a photograph and transcript of it. I truly believe that was a shameful thing to do and it is none of my or anyone else’s business what Obama’s note in the kotel said. And I still read it, because I’m incurably nosy and hey – I didn’t take it or publish it.
I was very moved by it, by seeing the handwritten note on hotel stationery, looking dashed off in a brief moment, not some prepared text. And I was moved by its contents, particularly by the fear of succumbing to both pride and to despair, especially coming from someone who has made “hope” his watchword. And mostly I was moved by a feeling of connection even beyond the Jewish people, a feeling that the kotel – this remnant of a long gone temple of a long gone cult – has power for people of our tribe and for those who aren’t. The temple’s physical loss is something to mourn. Its symbolic presence is something to celebrate. And that’s why I’ll be here tonight for Tisha B’Av. Shabbat shalom.
I’d like to add that this week marked my father’s first yahrtzeit and I’m sponsoring Kiddush in his memory and also as a thank you – on behalf of my sister Sharon as well as myself – to all in this community who were so helpful and kind to us at a very difficult time last year.
As with the other two, if you read it and there's anything that wasn't clear, I'd be glad to explain.