From Rebuke to Reconciliation

Parashat Devarim 
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

From Rebuke to Reconciliation 

After the parshiyot of the last few weeks talking about the failure of the spies to show courage and the conquest of Cana’an, the first parashah of Devarim (Deuteronomy) repeats much of the same theme and I’m inclined to move onto a new type of Torah. Some ‘Torat imi’ to paraphrase Proverbs, ‘Torah’ from my mother. 

When my older brothers and I were children and would devolve into the usual sibling conflict, we’d play every card of the blaming game. Rather than taking sides, my mother would always say, “you are responsible for your own actions, not for the actions of someone else.” This would inevitably be followed by our predictable protestations, to which she would answer, “thinking that you’re in the right is not the same thing as having your right acknowledged”. (It works better in Dutch!) 
My mother’s message was clear: don’t shift the blame, be critical of yourself and take ownership of your actions. She’s right of course, just don’t tell her I said so! 

In the weeks to come, we will see a similar theme in our liturgical calendar. Next Monday night, Tisha b’Av is upon us. As Progressive Jews, we have a checkered relationship with Tisha b’Av at best – not many of us pine for the Third Temple – but there’s a very powerful message to Tisha b’Av. Both the Biblical and the Rabbinic tradition self-reflect critically on what caused the destruction of our axis mundi, the sanctum of our people. Rather than shifting the blame to external forces, we turn to Eichah, the book of Lamentations which recounts our sin, and likewise the Rabbis turn to the idea of ‘sinat chinam’, baseless hatred. As the Gemara Yoma 9b from the Babylonian Talmud teaches: 

‘Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because  f three evils in it: idolatry, sexual immorality and bloodshed . . . But why was the Second Temple destroyed, seeing that during the time it stood people occupied themselves with Torah, with observance of precepts, and with the practice of charity? Because during the time it stood, hatred without rightful cause prevailed. This is to teach you that hatred without rightful cause is deemed as grave as all the three sins of idolatry, sexual immorality and bloodshed together.’ 

The Jewish tradition dwells extensively on sinat chinam, baseless hatred, citing conflicts with the disciples of Rabbi Akiva or the incident between Kamtza and bar Kamtza, two Jewish enemies who ended up betraying Jews to the Roman authorities, leading to the Bar Kochba Revolt. We often focus on the destructive consequences of baseless hatred but maybe we should also look at the psychology that precedes it. We hate without cause because we shift the blame, we fail to acknowledge our own shortcomings and to take responsibility for our actions. “You can’t control what others do”, my mother taught, “but you can control what you do.” Once you control your own actions, you can choose to move towards reconciliation. 

And so, it is that after Tisha b’Av, we read the Haftarot of Consolation and we enter the more inspiring territory of Deuteronomy, the ‘Mishneh Torah’, the fifth book of Moses that distils many of the rousing themes of the other four books. It is Deuteronomy that gives us the second Decalogue, that gives us the texts of the Shema and V’ahavta, the visions and blessings of Moses and that gives us the heart of ethical monotheism. In a sense, Devarim allows itself to return to it’s own essence, just as we return to ours during the High Holy Days. 

These themes blend beautifully as we follow the rhythms of the year. In a little more than seven weeks, Rosh haShanah is upon us (that fact fills many a pulpit rabbi with dread!) and we are held accountable to what we’ve done the past year. In a little under a month, it is Rosh Chodesh Elul, the month of greater spiritual intimacy, a time that we can use to reflect on how we can be better people and act upon our more noble inclinations. But suspended between the rebukes of Tisha b’Av and the reconciliation of Yom Kippur lies a moment to take honest stock. To do this requires an ability to embrace an expansive and compassionate morality and to unfold a vision that is at once humble and bold. It means embracing our vulnerability rather than our victimhood. Our Haftarah echoes this as Isaiah (1:10-18) speaks:

"Hear the word of the Eternal, you chieftains of Sodom; give ear to our God’s instruction, you folk of Gomorrah! What need have I of all your sacrifices? Says the Eternal. I am sated with burnt offerings of rams… that you appeared before me. Who asked that of you? …Wash yourselves clean; put your evil doings away from My sight. Cease to do evil; learn to do good, devote yourselves to justice, aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphans; defend the cause of the widow. Come let us reach an understanding, says the Eternal. Be your sins like crimson, they can turn snow-white…” 

What is remarkable about this passage is its transformative power. First, we are called to acknowledge our shortcomings. We are like the politicians and denizens of Sodom and Gomorrah, the twin cities of callousness, where legalised cruelty reigned supreme. We are told not to shift the blame through futile sacrifices. God doesn’t want glib excuses, God desires the heart and righteous acts. 

What is important to remember in all of this that none of this means that we aren’t wronged, that we haven't experienced injustice. But when we’re willing to move forward, then practicing a ‘tzimzum’ of the self to allow space for the other, can best guarantee change. The ability to say ‘I want to talk to you, and I am willing to acknowledge where I was wrong’, can often prompt the other party to take similar steps. 

Our tradition of critical self-reflection as a people is one of the things we should celebrate about being Jewish. Our Prophets and Rabbis created a model to move forward with justice and kindness. We should not hesitate to shelter under the wings of this wisdom and see where this redemptive path can take us, from Av to Tishrey and beyond. 

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