By Rabbi Reuven Hammer
Today is the Ninth of Av. Since this date falls on Shabbat, the fast is postponed. The only fast which supersedes Shabbat is Yom Kippur; all the rest are delayed because of the superior sanctity of Shabbat. It is particularly appropriate that we begin the reading of the book of Deuteronomy on the Ninth of Av since the rabbis considered this book to be a collection of rebukes to Israel for their misdeeds, misdeeds that brought about punishment. In the early midrashic work Sifre Deuteronomy the sages interpret the very word d’varim – ‘words’ – in the first verse as ‘… they were words of rebuke … Moses gathered all of them together, from the oldest to the youngest, and said to them, “I am about to rebuke you. If anyone has anything to say in rebuttal, come forward and speak!”’ They interpreted the list of places that follows in verse 1:1 not as places where Moses spoke to them but as a list of places where they had sinned for which he now rebuked them. Similarly the emphasis on the Ninth of Av has always been not on what we suffered, but on what we did that brought about the suffering.
The book of Deuteronomy is unique. It is the only one of the five books of the Torah that identifies its author. It claims to be almost entirely a record of speeches made by Moses to the Israelites as they prepared to cross over into Canaan. It is therefore his farewell oration, since he will not accompany them there. There is something ironic about the fact that Moses, who had said to God, ‘I am not a man of words – d’varim …’ (Exodus 4:10) – now recites all the words – d’varim – that make up the entire book of D’varim, Deuteronomy, surely one of the longest series of speeches in history. In Hebrew Deuteronomy was known as Mishneh Torah – a repetition of the Torah – which is the source of the Latin name Deuteronomy. Moses goes over the events already recorded in previous books. He reviews what happened to them during these years of his leadership. He also repeats some laws and adds others that are new. He does indeed rebuke them, but he also encourages them to remain true to the teachings about God that he has given them and to observe the commandments that they have received when they enter their new land.
Biblical scholars today identify Deuteronomy as the scroll found in the Temple by the High Priest Hilkiah in the 18th year of the reign of King Josiah. This event is described in 2 Kings 22. The king was dismayed because it contained things that had not been observed. He had the scroll read to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem and conducted a solemn ceremony of acceptance of its words and commands, followed by actions to put into practice the words of the book. In addition to destroying any places of idolatrous worship, he also abolished all the shrines and altars to the Lord outside of Jerusalem, totally centralizing the cult in that city at the site of the Temple, in accord with the laws of Deuteronomy that allow for only one sacrificial site. Such a demand is found nowhere else but in Deuteronomy and therefore required many changes in the way in which rituals were to be carried out. The reason for this change is not stated clearly, but it has been surmised that it was another step forward in purifying monotheistic belief, since a plethora of altars could more easily allow for deviations from pure monotheism, introducing pagan ways and even allowing for fetishistic practices.
In retelling the story of their journey from Egypt, Moses does not begin at the beginning. He does not even start with recounting their stay at Sinai and the revelation that took place there. He begins instead with a retelling of the story of the spies and the calamitous result of their negative report. As the Israelites stand ready to enter the land, he reminds them that had they listened to God and not been afraid, they would have been at this spot some 40 years earlier. Not only that, but Moses himself might then have been able to cross over the Jordan with them (Deut.1:37)! Perhaps this is his way of warning them that they must not repeat their rebelliousness as they enter the land, lest they be punished yet again. The people to whom he speaks now are not those who rebelled then; they have all perished. This new generation has a chance to be different and not to repeat the errors of the past. The portion concludes as Moses says to Joshua, ‘Do not fear them, for it is the Lord your God who will battle for you’ (Deut. 3:22).
This was the same message that King Josiah intended to convey to his people when he had Deuteronomy read to them. Obedience to God will bring them peace and prosperity. Disobedience will lead to calamity. Unfortunately it was not long after that that the Babylonians came and destroyed the Temple and sent the people into exile, the event that we commemorate on the Ninth of Av. It was the prophet Jeremiah, who lived through all these events, the finding of the book and the destruction of Jerusalem, who continually warned them that destruction was coming and urged them to repent and to change their ways, but to no avail. It is a message that we should remember when we observe the fast this evening.
Rabbi Dr Reuven Hammer, a past President of the International Rabbinical Assembly, served as interim rabbi at New London for two years. He is a well-known author and has been featured at the London Jewish Book Week.