5 Av 5774
Erev Shabbat Kodesh
Parashat Devarim/Shabbat Hazon: Wars, Justice, and Redemption
by Daniel Pinner
Ever since the yearly cycle of Torah readings was standardised towards the end of the Second Temple era, and the fixed calendar as calculated by Hillel II (Hillel ben Yehudah, Nasi or head of the Sanhedrin) was adopted in 4119 (359 C.E.), Parashat Devarim invariably falls on the Shabbat which either immediately precedes or which coincides with the 9th of Av, the day of mourning our beloved Land of Israel, Jerusalem, and Holy Temple which have been wrested from us, pillaged and plundered and laid waste.
Parashat Devarim, and therefore the Book of Deuteronomy, opens with Moshe giving the Children of Israel a brief history lesson, recapping the main evens of the previous 40 years of desert wandering. And his discourse – the Torah-reading which is the preliminary to Tisha be’Av – is full of love and yearning for the Land of Israel.
Moshe begins his discourse: “Hashem our God spoke to us in Horeb, saying: You have dwelt long enough by this Mountain; turn yourselves around and travel, and come to the mountain of the Amorite and all his neighbours, in the plain, on the mountain and in the lowland, and in the Negev and on the shore of the sea – the Land of the Canaanite and the Lebanon until the great River, the River Euphrates. Behold! – I have given the Land before you! Come and inherit the Land which Hashem swore to you fathers – to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob – to give to them to their children after them” (Deuteronomy 1:6-8).
Moshe then recounts two events. The first (vs. 9-18) is the episode when Moshe established a system of courts and appointed judges so that he would no longer have to adjudicate all the people’s grievances alone, which had wearied him from morning until evening (Exodus 18:13-26). The second (vs. 19-46) is the sin of the spies (Numbers 13:1-14:45).
I suggest that both of these are intimately connected with the Nine Days in general, and with the 9th of Av in particular.
To understand the relevance of the justice system to the 9th of Av we start by turning to this week’s haftarah which, atypically, is not related to this week’s Torah-reading; rather, it relates to the 9th of Av. Indeed, all three haftarot during the Three Weeks are prophecies of castigation, and then for the next seven weeks all the haftarot are prophecies of consolation (Tosafot, Megillah 31b s.v. Rosh Chodesh Av; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 428:8).
Haftarat Devarim is the opening words of Isaiah’s prophecy as recorded in his Book (Isaiah 1:1-27): “The prophetic vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he prophesied about Judah and Jerusalem” (v. 1).
(The first word of the Haftarah, Hazon [prophetic vision] inspires the name by which this Shabbat is traditionally called, Shabbat Hazon.)
The prophet castigates Israel for their faithlessness to God, and exhorts them to repent. “Alas! How has she become a harlot – the faithful City that was filled with justice! Righteousness was entrenched therein, but now murderers” (v. 21).
It was the injustice (relative, that is, to the Divine standards that the Torah demands of a Jewish society) that was rampant in the late First Temple era that led to the destruction of the first Jewish Commonwealth.
Commensurate with this, Isaiah continues by quoting God’s promise that in the glorious time to come, “I will restore your judges as at first, and your councillors as in the beginning; after this you will be called City of Righteousness” (v. 26). That is to say, the restoration of genuine Jewish justice is an integral component of the Return to Zion, of the Redemption, of the transformation of the 9th of Av from a day of exile and mourning to a day of redemption and rejoicing.
And the prophet continues, “Zion will be redeemed through justice, and those who return to her [or: her penitents] through righteousness” (v. 27).
So when Moshe, at the very beginning of his discourse, reminded the nation of how he had established the system of justice all those decades earlier, appointing “men of accomplishment, fearers of God, men of truth who hate corrupt gain” (Exodus 18:21), he was in effect telling them how to lead the nation to the Land of Israel and how to govern it therein.
And by extension, this reminds us today how to bring redemption to the nation and the Land. As the Talmud (Shabbat 139a) and the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Micah 551) say, “If you see a generation upon whom many troubles come – go out and check the judges of Israel; because all the suffering that comes into the world comes solely because of the judges of Israel, as the prophet said: ‘Hear this, now, O leaders of the House of Jacob, and officers of the House of Israel, who detest justice and distort all that is honest, who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with injustice: her leaders judge for bribery, and her priests instruct for pay, and her prophets divine for silver – yet they rely on Hashem’ (Micah3:9-11)… God will not infuse His Shekhina into Israel until the evil judges and policemen cease out of Israel (Isaiah 1:25-26)”.
As for the sin of the spies – the Talmud (Ta’anit 29a) calculates the Torah’s chronology clearly: on the 20th of Iyyar we left Mount Sinai (Numbers 10:11). This was followed by a 3-day journey (v.33) concluding on 23rd Iyyar, a 30-day sojourn in Kibroth-hata'avah (ibid. 11:20, 34) concluding on 22nd Sivan, and finally seven days in Hazeroth (11:35, 12:15-16) before reaching the Paran Desert (ibid. 12:16) on 29th Sivan. Hence Moshe sent out the twelve spies on the 29th of Sivan (compare Targum Yonatan to Numbers 13:20), and they returned forty days later on the 8th of Av. The original plan was that they would be debriefed, and the next day, the ninth of Av, Israel would enter its Land in joy and holiness and take possession of its inheritance. The ninth of Av would become a celebration for the generations, a festival of redemption.
But the plan went horribly, disastrously wrong. The spies indeed returned on the 8th of Av, but gave an evil report of the Land; and when night fell and the nation cried, it was the evening of the 9th of Av.
And as a consequence, “God said: You cried this night for no reason?! – I will yet give you a reason to cry on this night throughout the generations!” (Ta’anit 29a, Sotah 35a, Sanhedrin 104b, Bamidbar Rabbah 16:20 et. al.).
On this final Shabbat before the 9th of Av, Moshe reminds us, year by year, of the reason for this most calamitous of days.
And about 2,000 years ago, when our Sages divided up the Torah into the parashiot with which we are so familiar today, they decided to conclude this parashah – the parashah which constitutes the prelude to the 9th of Av – with Moshe’s words: “At that time [when telling the Tribes of Gad and Reuben and half the Tribe of Manasseh under what conditions they could settle in Transjordan, Numbers 32] I commanded Joshua, saying: Your eyes have seen everything that Hashem your God did to these two kings [Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan]; so too will Hashem do to all the kingdoms to where you are crossing. You shall not fear them, because Hashem your God – it is He Who fights for you” (Deuteronomy 3:21-22).
As the Midrash says: “When the judges execute justice, go out to war and you will win… God is exalted in the world only through justice, as it says ‘Hashem, Master of Legions, is elevated though justice’ (Isaiah 5:16)… The world exists through three things: through justice, through truth, and through peace…, and all depend on justice, because both peace and truth are formed by justice. Therefore when Israel carry out justice, God strikes down their enemies before them” (Tanhuma, Shoftim 15).
Note here the Jewish definition of justice and of peace. They do not entail coexisting with evil, or sharing the Land of Israel with murderous enemies of Israel. Rather, justice and peace entail the defeat and destruction of our enemies.
Our Sages decreed that on this Shabbat, as we hear the menacing echoes of the disasters of Tisha be-Av approaching, we would learn, year by year, the lesson of how to turn this gloomiest of days into the most joyous of festivals, how to bring justice and redemption into the world.