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Drash on Devarim 2023

Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio

Emanuel Synagogue

“Eleh ha’devarim,” “these are the words.” “These are the words that Moses spoke to the Children of Israel,” begins our portion this week, and with it, Moses’ last speech to the people he has nurtured and guided through the wilderness for 40 years. He has shepherded his flock, alongside God, with compassion, wisdom and sometimes words of rebuke. He has spurred them into action, he has defended them, saved them, and he has spoken tenderly to them. And now, he has the chance to guide them with his words for the very last time. What words does he choose? How does he speak with his people in these moments? Upon what parts of the journey does he focus, and which parts does he gloss over? Are his words ones of chastisement or encouragement, warning or hope? I imagine poor Moses, like many great leaders, agonising over what will perhaps be the most important speech of his life, the words which will comprise his legacy.

This portion is always read the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av which I believe is no co-incidence because this time in our calendar is one in which we, like Moses, consider our words and our actions, the story we want to tell, the one we have told. As Rabbi Roberts pointed out last week, in our haftarah readings leading to this day, we find passages of rebuke, enumerating our sins and our transgressions. We focus on our flaws and the ugliness of humanity. We remember the ways we defied God, but more than that, the ways we hurt each other. We are taught that the Temple was destroyed because of “sinat chinam,” baseless hatred amongst our own people. We turned away from one another and the few moments when we were turned towards our fellow human beings, we did so with hurtful intent and hatred in our hearts and in our words. We are reminded over and over again of the power of our speech, the ways in which our words can be a catalyst for good, or for tragedy, for healing or for hurt. And our Haftarah readings, like Moses’ final words, are a combination of both. We begin with rebuke, but we do not end there, we move forward into “hazon” the “vision” for what could be, what we could all become.

On Tisha B’Av we read about the city of Jerusalem weeping as she is abandoned by her people, we read about God, lamenting the fate of our people, and we read words of rebuke, directed at us by the prophets and God, for our behaviour. The assault upon us is unrelenting. The past weeks and this Shabbat the haftarot are filled with painful assertions about our wickedness, until we reach Tisha B’Av.

On that day the tone shifts, we pour out our grief and our pain at the tragedies we have suffered as a people. We mourn and cry for those we have lost, for the holes left in our lives by their absence. We cry for ourselves, for our people and for the suffering of humanity. And then, after our time of lament, we find the veil of grief and darkness lifting, we turn towards the future, the promise of a better tomorrow which we will find if we work for it, strive for it, reach for it and dream it.

In the last moments of Tisha B’Av, we are delivered a soothing balm, we wrest hope from the ashes and for the next four weeks, words of comfort pour from our haftarah texts. We are called back to life, inspired to return to the world and resume the work of repairing the brokenness. We are reminded that hope burns within our souls, is something which can never be taken from us. But the vision of tomorrow will not happen as an act of grace, we must all work and strive to bring it into being. Rabbi Mordecai has taught many of us a beautiful prayer whose words come from the tradition, “olam chesed yibaneh,” we will build a world of love, together. “eleh hadevarim” “these are the words” that we can bring into the world.

Find more Parashat Hashavua