This week we start reading from the book of Devarim. The book opens with Moses recalling in his own words the story of Sinai. He retells of his need for administrative help in his role as national leader. “At that time I said to you, ‘I am unable by myself to bear you/וָאֹמַר אֲלֵכֶם בָּעֵת הַהִוא לֵאמֹר: לֹא-אוּכַל לְבַדִּי שְׂאֵת אֶתְכֶם” (Deut. 1:9). The Izhbitzer Rebbe* has a different understanding of Moses’ recollection. He teaches (Mei HaShiloah, Devarim 1) that this was not merely a distant memory, but an opportunity for the people to learn from their past mistake. Avivah Zornberg writes that “...Moses is now appealing to his people to acknowledge a past failure. This was a failure in ‘emotional intelligence.’ Implicitly, in his past speech, he had wanted them to pray for him that he, and no one but he, should lead them into the Land...Without their prayer—alone, unaided—he would not be able to lead them to their destination. His speech at that time had performed his solitude, his helplessness, and his appeal for their prayers: ‘I can no longer bear you alone...’ He had wanted them to respond to his hint--’I need your prayers now!’ Moses had wished that the people would want to help him achieve his own desire” (Moses: A Human Life, pg. 149).
Moses worked tirelessly for the sake of the people. He has given his life so that they could become closer to God and eventually reach the Promised Land. Yet, he knows he will be left behind, alone. Now, as he is situated on the banks of the Jordan river, looking at what he cannot have, he is really telling the people that they have a second chance to pray to God for him. Of course, the people do not understand what he is getting at. They do not really hear what he is saying. They lack a certain level of understanding that leaves Moses alone.
This Monday night we will gather for Tisha B’Av, which commemorates, among many national tragedies, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is the custom to read the Scroll of Lamentations/Eikha on Tisha B’Av. The opening verse sets the day’s sad tone, “How lonely sits the city/אֵיכָה יָשְׁבָה בָדָד” (Lam 1:1). The Rabbis, in a midrash, explain the meaning of this verse. “‘God gives the solitary a home to live in’ (Ps. 68:7). You will find that until Israel was redeemed from Egypt, the people would dwell alone and the Divine presence/Shekhina would dwell alone. When they were redeemed, they became united. And when they were again exiled, the Shekhina was alone and the people were alone” (Eikha Rabbah, P:29). The Sfas Emes** (Devarim 5647) reminds us that we do not have a fully functioning reality in exile while lacking the Land of Israel and the Temple. And that is that meaning of ‘how lonely,’ that a Jew should not find a complete home in exile.
The Sfas Emes teaches that the Scroll of Eikha has in it the entirety of Torah. The verse in Psalms says, “He leads out the prisoners to prosperity/מוֹצִיא אֲסִירִים בַּכּוֹשָׁרוֹת” (Ps. 68:7). The Rabbis teach that “we should not read the verse as ‘into prosperity/bakkosharot’; rather, read it as: Crying and singing/bekhi veshirot” (BT Sanhedrin 22a). Just as The Song of Songs is the Torah through the lens of joy and dance, Eikha is the Torah through the lens of tears and mourning.
We can sense Moses’ tears and loneliness in our Parsha. It reminds us of how difficult it is to be heard, understood and seen as the people we are. How many of us, as individuals, have felt that our reputations or other people’s perceptions of us are missing the big picture, leaving us feeling alone? I know this feeling well. So, it pains me to hear it in Moses’ voice. And, as a people, we have a lot of work to do to unify ourselves in order to be ready for the reunion with the Shekhina. This week we are steeped in the Torah of tears. We pray for God to have mercy on us and dry our tears, so that we can once again, dance together in the streets of Jerusalem. May we hear the holy music that comes out of Zion soon, and in our days.
*Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica (Yiddish: איזשביצע, איזביצע Izhbitze, Izbitse, Ishbitze) (1801-1854) was a rabbinic Hasidic thinker and founder of the Izhbitza-Radzyn dynasty of Hasidic Judaism.
**Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (Hebrew יהודה אריה ליב אלתר, 15 April 1847 – 11 January 1905), also known by the title of his main work, the Sfas Emes (Yiddish) or Sefat Emet שפת אמת (Hebrew), was a Hasidic rabbi who succeeded his grandfather, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter, as the Av beis din (head of the rabbinical court) and Rav of Góra Kalwaria, Poland (known in Yiddish as the town of Ger), and succeeded Rabbi Chanokh Heynekh HaKohen Levin of Aleksander as Rebbe of the Gerrer Hasidim.
Rabbi Ezra Balser has been the rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom since July 1, 2016. He received his “smicha” (ordination) in June 2017 from Hebrew College while also earning a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies. He has also received the iCenter's Certification in Israel Education.