The Sedra of Devarim is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av (9th Av) – the darkest day in the Jewish calendar, upon which both Temples were destroyed as well as a catalogue of other national calamities happening. In the opening words of this final book of the Torah, Moses alludes to the sins of the Jewish people during their 40-year sojourn in the desert, including worshipping the Golden Calf and the spies’ evil report.
Although his purpose was to rebuke the people and to induce them to repent, as the commentators note, he does it in such a way that avoids any unnecessary embarrassment to the people. Moses was sensitive to the principle that the dignity of every person is sacred and even constructive criticism has to be given in a way that avoids shaming others. This makes his choice of words later in the sedra even more shocking.
He reminds the nation of their contentiousness, their quarrels and slander, how they rebelled, were willful and did not listen and he even goes as far as to refer to them as an evil generation. Why is there such a contrast between Moses’ initial overview and his later analysis of this period of their national history?
If we turn to the Haphtarah – the vision of Isaiah following the destruction of the First Temple – we can understand Moses’ approach.
Rabbi Mendel Hirsch points out that Isaiah does not bemoan that the Temple was destroyed, but that instead the prophet laments the underlying causes of the destruction. Mourning over the loss is almost futile if it is not a spur to introspection and soul-searching in an attempt to understand the malaise at its root and rectify it.
At first, Moses gently reminds the people of the mistakes they made in the past, but, as a leader who is preparing them for the future, he cannot leave it at that. He feels compelled to highlight, in the strongest possible form, those aspects of our behaviour and nature that caused the damage. Ignore at your peril. It is a salutary lesson for all time.
As we continue to mourn the lack of the Temple and pray constantly for it to be rebuilt, we would do well to heed Moses’ words – on both a national and individual level, identify what is wrong and fix it.
• Rabbi Chapper is minister of Ilford Federation shul and the Children’s Rabbi