31 Jul 2014

Debarim/Hazon 5774: Have a Heart

The book of Devarim is different from the other books of the Torah in that rather than being G-d’s words, it is comprised mainly of Moshe’s own words[1]. It is his personal Mishne Torah (review of the Torah) that comes from the perspective of his own heart and mind.

‘These are the words that Moshe spoke to all of Israel…’ (1:1)

Devarim, therefore, is a tribute to the greatness that lies in human dignity, empathy, and integrity. It teaches us that Torah must be understood and performed by human beings who are of the earth and are flesh and blood. The Talmud[2] teaches that Moshe’s essential existential quality was that he was flesh.

‘Where do we find Moshe’s essence described in Torah? As it says: beshegam (בשגם) hu basar- for he too is flesh’. (Gen., 6:3)

The numerical equivalent of בשגם (345) is equal to that of Moshe (משה). (Rashi, ibid.)

Moshe’s Devarim is included as part of Torah to impart to us that divine teaching must be based in humanity in order for it to properly impact our lives. Destroying one’s humanity in the name of G-d, rejects G-d’s presence in the world and turns our hearts of flesh into hearts of stone.

It has been staggering over the past weeks to see just how many humans have lost their hearts. The world has watched Islamic militants and terrorists in Iraq, Syria, Gaza, France and Germany commit atrocities. The harrowing images and reports show an utter absence of empathy and humanity. When we wish, we can silence the brain’s innate propensity for altruism and empathy to the point that we act like demons rather than humans. Decapitations, mass murders, and other violent acts of hate and destruction have filled our daily news reports, but even more scary than the acts is that they have been reported without condemnation. Instead, the world’s silence deafens, while hundreds of thousands of people are brutally tortured and murdered. Worst of all, it is done under the banner of G-d and religion. As this goes on, we watch in shock and disbelief as these criminals carry on with perpetual immunity from retribution. It is as though we have awakened to an inverse world in which all that we know to be evil is portrayed as acceptable and virtuous.

At this time of year, as we approach the 9th of Av, we must strengthen our commitment to walk with G-d as empathetic and sensitive human beings. The Jewish people pursue holiness by filling our hearts with care that is uncompromising. Even in warfare our armed forces engage in dangerous combat while doing everything humanly possible to avoid unnecessary casualties and deaths[3].

I write to you this week from Jerusalem. The roads and shopping centres are quieter than I am used to seeing them, and the atmosphere is unsettled. But there is something uniquely beautiful I have noticed as well, that is enhanced now. The hearts of the nation have swelled and come together in this trying time. Strangers in the street see each other as brothers and sisters. Some in t-shirts and shorts, some in knitted kippot, others in black trousers and white shirts, look at the people they pass on the street as family. Signs on highways and in store windows read “we love our soldiers and pray for their return” and “we hug the Golani[4]”. The one silver lining in this terrible conflict is that it has reminded us that we are in this together, as we have been for 2,000 years. On Tisha BeAv we mourn that it continues, but we also commit to having hope and seeing it through to its peaceful end when we can live on our land securely, no matter how long it takes.

History has shown time and again that when pure religious conviction is stripped of its human heart, it becomes vicious and bloodthirsty. Blood is spilled callously in the pursuit of oppressive power under the flag of religion. The book of Devarim, that comes from the divinely inspired, human heart of Moshe teaches the Jewish people that our humanity is the key factor in our connection with G-d. For this reason, the last words of the last prophet, Malakhi, implore us to embrace our humanity and ‘Remember the Torah of Moshe my servant’.[5]

Shabbat Shalom to you all,
Rabbi Joseph Dweck

[1] G-d instructed Moshe to record the words as Torah and thus, it takes the status of Torah.
[2] Hulin, 139b
[3] http://youtu.be/iYaHKyn2bD8
[4] http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golani_Brigade
[5] Malachi, 3:22