This coming Shabbat we begin chanting from Devarim — Deuteronomy, or Words/Things. The title of the book which comes from the Greek translation (Septuagint) highlights the second (deutero) appearance of the Ten Commandments (nomos – Law) within the Torah, while the Hebrew title simply scoops up the first ‘significant’ (as opposed to nondescript) word in the first verse of the text. Clearly, the ancient Greeks made much more out of a title than the ancient Hebrews. Whichever title you pick, Book #5 feels different from the rest. It’s something of a memoir, and we feel the poignancy of a leader who will not quite check all the boxes in terms of his greatest desire — entry into the promised land. It’s for this reason that I lean toward the He-brew title, Devarim דברים. Here is Moshe reflecting upon the triumphs and failures along his journey. Devarim — words, things. Memories that stay with us long after the event has unfolded…that is the stuff of Book #5.
The calendar adds another layer to our communal soundtrack. The Ninth of Av (this year: Monday evening 7/31), the date which commemorates the destruction of the First Temple (by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, just over 2600 years ago) and the Second Temple (by the Roman in 70 CE), always falls shortly after we begin chanting Book #5. This coming Shabbat is called Shabbat Hazon, the Shabbat of the vision of Isaiah. It takes its name from the opening words of the Haftarah. Isaiah shares a dire warning of destruction. Three haftarot, three weeks running – we’ve chanted words of warning, and then the Fast itself. On the heels of this fast, there will be seven Haftarot, seven weeks graced with words of comfort. The prophet reassures the people that life will continue, that the people will rebuild, the phoenix will arise from the ashes. The darkness of the months of Tammuz and Av yields to the introspection of Elul, a personal and communal opportunity to take inventory, to think about who we are, and where we’re heading.
And that journey takes us to the threshold of a new year.
This Shabbat, Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses, our teacher takes the long view, putting his own thoughts and feelings on the table. We’re still in the heat of it, the long, steamy summer days. It’s hard to imagine the leaves turning and falling, the cool nights returning — but all of that is not so far away. It will be time for us to take the meas-ure of things, to consider our own journey, all the Devarim, the words and the things.