Devarim: On Tisha BAv and remembering grandeur

Shabbat Chazon

Devarim

Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22

Isaiah 1:1-27

Devarim, the Hebrew name of the Book of Deuteronomy, recounts a potent reformation at the time of the Judean king, Josiah (c. 621 BCE), who initiated a crusade to restore moral and theological foundations of the kingdom. That reform did not last long, and merely 35 years later, the Babylonians ended Judean sovereignty and exiled the Judeans. It was a bitter exile that was to last for two millennia.

Also the name of the book's first Torah portion, Devarim is read on the Shabbat preceding Tisha B'Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, which falls on July 25 this year. This Shabbat, known as Shabbat Chazon, takes its name from the first word of the haftorah (Isaiah 1:1).

The distinctive prophetic readings for each of the seven Sabbaths that follow Tisha B'Av are known collectively as the haftarot of comfort. Tisha B'Av has traditionally been an occasion to fast, to recite the Book of Lamentations in a mournful chant, and to recite prayers in commemoration of the destruction of the First and Second Temples by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, and by the Romans in 70 C.E., respectively.

Some Jews viewed the holiday as a day of remorse, guilt and punishment for the community's rejection of God and His prophetic call. Thus, this season and its prophetic readings were designed not only to mourn the loss of former greatness and sovereignty, but also to provide comfort and hope — even at times when there seemed to be little reason to be hopeful.

For others, the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 eliminated the need to mourn the loss of the ancient temples and Jewish political independence. In addition, because Tisha B'Av falls during the summer months when activities in the Jewish community tend to be at an ebb, there is little to stimulate interest in this commemoration. Furthermore, modern-day Judaism is so far removed from the cultic, priestly, sacrificial Judaism of the Jerusalem Temples that lamenting the loss of animal sacrifice and priestly intervention seems irrelevant.

Few would welcome the re-establishment of the ancient Temple cult; to do so would mean untenable political challenges and the destruction of the beautiful mosque that now occupies the Temple mount. Nevertheless, this often-ignored holiday can provide an occasion for moral and spiritual reflection and renewal.

Looking at Jewish home and synagogue practices, it is possible to detect remnants of the ancient Temple in our worship and celebration.

The challah at Sabbath and festival celebrations recalls the archaic practice of displaying the unleavened ceremonial shewbread in Temple worship. Shabbat candle ceremonies incorporate practices associated with the Temple menorah. The entire Sabbath meal resembles the ancient sacrifice, Shabbat songs and worship are reminiscent of the ancient rituals, and the kiddush recalls worship at the Temple altar, where no sacrifice was brought without an accompanying offering of wine.

Just as we dress more formally for synagogue worship and home celebration, the Temple priests wore special clothing. In homes in which parents bless their children, the words used are those of the priestly benediction, words once uttered by the priests to bless the people. Finally, the Sabbath Torah reading itself corresponds to the ancient reading of Torah before worshippers in the Temple courtyard.

While present-day rituals contain some hint of the fanfare and grandeur of the ancient Temple, they cannot match its pomp and majesty. Tisha B'Av serves as a reminder of the past splendor of a once great, dramatic pageant that can never be recaptured. On Tisha B'Av, we remember that once our people had a king, a royal court, and a ceremonious priesthood, and that simple people made pilgrimages to Jerusalem with humble offerings. We reflect on our glorious past, hoping for a glimpse of that greatness just as the rabbis of the Talmud must have when they wrote: "Kol ha-mitavel ahl Yerushalayim zocheh v'roeh b'simchatah." "All who mourn over [the loss of] Jerusalem merit seeing her glory." (Talmud, Baba Batra 60b).