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Devarim 5773-2013

“The Price of Disunity”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

With this week’s parasha, parashat Devarim, the fifth book of the Bible, Deuteronomy, begins. Parashat Devarim is always read on Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbat that precedes the week in which the tragic day of Tisha B’Av is observed.

As previously noted (Devarim 5761-2001), there is an allusion to Tisha B’Av in parashat Devarim. In Deuteronomy 1:12, Moses, in reproof, cries out to the children of Israel, “Eicha eh’sah l’vah’dee tor’chah’chehm oo’mah’sah’ah’chehm, v’ree’v’chehm?” How can I alone carry your contentiousness, your burdens and your quarrels?!

Several commentators suggest that parashat Devarim is read on the Shabbat preceding Tisha B’Av because the word, “Eicha,” recalls the opening verse of the Book of Lamentations, “Eicha yahsh’vah vah’dahd?” Alas, how does the city [of Jerusalem] sit in solitude.

The Midrash Rabbah Eicha 1:1 states: Three prophets prophesied in the language of “Eicha,” Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah. Moses said, “Eicha,” How can I alone carry your contentiousness, etc. Isaiah 1:21 cried out, “Eicha,” How has she [Jerusalem] become a harlot? Jeremiah 1:1 declared, “Eicha,” Alas, how does the city [of Jerusalem] sit in solitude?

Rabbi Ben-Zion Firer, in his collected essays, “Heg’yonah Shel Torah,” asks: What is the common thread in these verses? Is it merely the presence of the word, “Eicha,” that appears in all three verses?

Rabbi Firer rejects that suggestion. He notes that the “Eicha” cited in Isaiah, speaks of the sin of the people that would result in the destruction of the city and the Temple. The “Eicha” of Jeremiah speaks of the punishment (the destruction of the city and the Temple). However, the third “Eicha,” pronounced by Moses, does not seem to relate at all to either the destruction of Jerusalem or the loss of the Temple.

What then is the relationship between the “Eicha” pronounced by Moses to the others pronounced by Isaiah and Jeremiah?

In parashat Devarim, Moses reproves the people, primarily for the sin of the scouts who returned from touring the land of Israel and caused the people to lose faith with their evil report. In fact, the entire first chapter of Deuteronomy speaks of this sin.

Another quandary arises from the fact that in the midst of his reproof of Israel for the sin of the scouts, Moses raises a seemingly unrelated issue concerning the appointment of judges. Moses mentions, in Deuteronomy 1:9-18, that he asked for the appointment of judges and the people agreed. In Deuteronomy 1:13, Moses specifically recalls that he asked the people to “Provide for yourselves distinguished men, who are wise, understanding and well-known to your tribes, and I shall appoint them as your heads.

The fact that Moses said that the leaders must be appointed according “to your tribes,” underscores the fact that Moses understood that no tribe would accept the authority of judges from any of the other tribes. Moses concluded, to his great chagrin, that the lack of unity, which had been the cause of many previous national problems, still prevailed. Perhaps Moses was testing the people, hoping that they would react differently. Instead, they responded (Deuteronomy 1:14), “Tov ha’davar ah’sher dee’bar’tah lah’ah’soht,” the thing that you have proposed to do is good. Not even for a moment did anyone think to suggest that communal judges could be appointed who would serve the entire nation. On the contrary, the people were determined to have their own local, tribal judges.

It is this lack of mutual faith, evidenced in the appointment of the tribal judges, and the walls of separation that existed between the tribes, that was the cause of the sin of the scouts as well.

As recorded in Deuteronomy 1:22-23, when the people approached Moses, they said, “Let us send men ahead of us, and let them spy out the land, and bring word back to us….and the idea was good in my eyes, and I took from you twelve men, one from each tribe.” Obviously, each tribe demanded its own representative and refused to trust emissaries from any of the other tribes.

Because of this disunity, requiring twelve separate representatives, the mission ended in failure. Each scout, not only represented a different political interest, they actually competed with one another, insisting that they alone were truly concerned with the communal benefit. They were not really interested in the mission, but in proving that they were the proper emissary, more worthy than any of the others.

Once a single scout expressed fear, saying (Numbers 13:31) “We cannot bring the nation up [to the land] because these people are more powerful than us,” it became impossible for any of the other scouts to disagree. After all, the dissenters would be seen as placing the nation in jeopardy. Certainly, it is easier and wiser to play it safe. With twelve disparate viewpoints and diverse personal interests, one single scout was in a position to influence and persuade the others. Had there been only two scouts, there would have been no competition. They would not have spoken evil about the land and would not have caused the people to sin so grievously.

The same lack of unity that caused the people to appoint separate judges for all tribes also led to the appointment of twelve individual scouts to tour the land. This very same disunity also brought about the destruction of the land and of the Temple. This same lack of unity resulted in the desolation of the city of Jerusalem. The city that was once filled with justice and righteousness was now filled with murderers, and had become a city of harlots.

When there is no trust, relationships between people break down. When there is no faith in others, there can be no faith in G-d. This leads to a complete collapse of society, an absence of moral awareness and concern, and, ultimately, utter destruction.

May you be blessed.

Please remember: Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month of Av, was observed on Sunday, July 7th and all day Monday, July 8th. It marked the beginning of the “Nine Days,” a period of intense mourning leading to the fast of Tisha B’Av. This Shabbat is called Shabbat Chazon–the Sabbath on which we read the prophetic vision of Isaiah (Chapter 1) and its foreboding message of impending destruction.

The observance of the fast of Tisha B’Av, marking the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples, starts on Monday night, July 15th and continues through Tuesday night, July 16th. Have a meaningful fast.