24 Jul 2015

Debarim/Hazon 5775: Into the Deep

Debarim/Hazon 5775: Into the Deep

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of those depths.”

— Elizabeth Kubler Ross

Along with Tisha BeAb come feelings that are, at the least, unpleasant. The manner in which we observe the day has us feeling that all is not well. We fast, refrain from bathing, sit on the floor and avoid friendly greetings. It is a national day of mourning.

Together with G-d we meditate on the losses and failures that we have suffered throughout the generations. As on our other festivals, this is a day on which we have an appointment with G-d. However, unlike Pesah, Succot, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we don’t contemplate freedom, happiness, justice, or atonement, but rather, it is a day to contemplate loss.

This is, and has been for the last two-thousand years, the truest day of our calendar. It is the one day in which we allow neither comforts nor compromises, and rather than speak encouragingly of what we do have, we come to terms with what we don’t or no longer have. We have recognised this as important because it keeps us focused on a vision of our people that rises beyond the local pride of ethnicity and culture and instead envisions a whole and sovereign nation as an ideal. On other days, we praise our synagogues and houses of learning, on Tisha BeAb we mourn our Holy Temple and the High Court of justice or Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. On other days we celebrate our communities and Jewish life that we have cultivated around the world, on Tisha BeAb we lament the loss of sound footing and citizenship upon the land of our forefathers. On other days we highlight what we are, on Tisha beAb we remind of ourselves of what we are not.

There is something to be said for a people who set aside time in the year to acknowledge loss and who refuse to assuage it with rationalisations. Our custom in London among the Spanish and Portuguese community is a sobering example of the seriousness with which our people have treated this day throughout the generations. The hekhal that is normally ornate and elegant is draped in black fabric. The regal silver rimonim with which we crown our sifre Torah are replaced with simple wooden ones, and instead of reading it majestically upon the teba we read humbly upon a simple reading desk. There are no comforts on this day, no pretending that all is well.

The conviction to bravely face realities no matter how bleak and difficult ties a people to truth. For in such conviction, they choose what is reality over what they might wish it to be. The great ones who have genuinely cared more for truth than for comfort are great because they are not afraid to lament ideas that have gone wrong, theories that have proven false, or projects that have gone awry. They know that in the lament they find liberation and in the mourning they find new openings that would have never been open to them had they insisted on holding onto realities that no longer existed.

The haftara that we read on the Shabbat before Tisha BeAb called Hazon or ‘Vision’, brings this out in strong Biblical narrative. It speaks to the people of Israel as having open wounds from head to toe but refusing to acknowledge them with even a bandage. It is a chapter in which Isaiah the prophet begs the people to pay attention and to acknowledge what has been lost:

From the sole of the foot up to the head, there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and festering sores: They have not been pressed, nor bound up, nor mollified with oil. Your country is desolate; your cities are burned with fire…Come now, let us reason together, says G-d; if your transgressions be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow….(Isaiah, 1:6-7,18)

As we read this haftara in preparation for the sombre day, it prompts us to ask ourselves the same sobering questions. What failures or losses have we yet to acknowledge? What broken windows in our lives might we still be avoiding?  With all of its discomfort, in many ways Tisha BeAb has been a saving grace for us across time. It has asked us to look into the eyes of failure and see through them into new and undiscovered futures. It may well be through this day, over all others in our calendar, that the Jewish people have stood the test of time.

Law and Lore

On Tisha BeAb a prayer is added to the Amida called Nahem  – ‘Console’. It asks G-d to console His people over the destruction of Jerusalem and ends with a special blessing: ‘Blessed is He Who consoles Zion with the building of Jerusalem”.

The source for saying this added prayer is in the Talmud Yerushalmi[1]. This is considered to be me’ein hame’ora – an integral prayer for the day, which is required in the same manner that Ya’aleh veYabowould be on Rosh Hodesh or the other festivals. Therefore, many of the rabbinic authorities rule that it should be said in every Amida said on the day. Saadia Gaon (b. 882 CE) wrote that it is only to be said at Minha.

Maran, R. Yosef Karo (b.1488), supported the custom to only say Nahem at Minha in his Bet Yoseph[2]. However, in his Shulhan Arukh he simply ruled that it should be said in every prayer on Tisha BeAb. R. Hizkiya de Silva (b. 1659) wrote in his Peri Hadash that this indeed is the custom in Jerusalem.

Many Oriental Sepahradim today therefore, say Nahem in every Amida.

The custom of the S&P community as well as the Syrian Jews from Aleppo is to only say Nahem at Minha.


[1] Berakhot, 4:3

[2] Orah Hayim, 557


Parasha Perspectives

I  Devarim

1a        Horev and spies  (1:1-2:1)

Introduction to Moshe’s speeches (1:1-5);

Leaving Horev (1:6-8); Assistants to Moshe (1:9-18)

Spies and the consequences   (1:19-2:1)

1b        Do not fight Esav tribes in Seir  (2:2-8)

1c         Do not fight Moav, cross brook of Zered  (2:9-16)

1d        Do not fight Ammon; fight Sichon, king of

Cheshbon  (2:17-30)

1e        Victories and allotments  (2:31-3:22)

Victory over Sichon   (2:31-37)

Victory over Og and his cities   (3:1-11)

Reuven, Gad and half the tribe of Menashe: land

allotments with conditions   (12-20)

Guidance for Yehoshua (21-22)

[1] Berakhot, 4:3

[2] Orah Hayim, 557