Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22), Shabbat Chazon, Tisha B’Av

 [Comments partly derived from 2009 TPH].

I love words.  I love their rhythm, their music, how they evolve, how they feel in my mouth.  I occasionally make a point of memorizing bits of text I find particularly vivid, from sources as disparate as Lord Kelvin and Sylvia Plath.   I love puns.  I love using unexpected verbal imagery to get a point across, like describing the structure of a plastic gas tank as resembling baklava, or invoking a reaction coordinate diagram to discuss romantic relationships.  A highlight of my early life was getting my very own library card as soon as I could print my name and using it to take 10 books out from two libraries weekly (15 from three on rare occasions).  So it’s not surprising that, even after so many years in the lab, I ended up in a language-oriented job in the library building. 

All of which is an introduction to this week’s Torah portion the first one of the final book of the Torah.  In The Book of Devarim and the Birth of Talmud Torah, Rabbi David Hoffman writes, “No form of the Hebrew root l-m-d (to learn, study, or teach) appears in any book of the Torah other than Devarim, where it appears seventeen times in thirty-four chapters. The experience of learning and teaching is central to the project of Devarim. This verb is used in connection to God teaching the Israelites, Moses teaching the nation and, perhaps most critically, the Israelites themselves teaching Torah… (Deut. 11:18–19).…(F)or the Jew, learning is an active process that is primarily about making meaning…. to develop a personal, rich, and nurturing relationship with God.   Study is the means by which we make meaning in our own lives.”

Rabbi Jeffrey Tigay explains (Etz Hayyim, page 980) that Deuteronomy “consists of five retrospective discourses and poems that Moses addressed to Israel in Moab shortly before his death, plus two narratives about his final acts.”  For someone who used to be slow of speech, that’s a lot of talking.  He begins with a quick and selective recap of the wanderings from the time the earlier generation had left Sinai (=Horeb here).  His selection of topics is not obvious: the command to leave Sinai, his implementation of a hierarchy of magistrates, the incident with the 12 spies and its disastrous result, and then he pretty much skips to the most recent months and their military victories and the apportionment of the land.  It’s actually not a bad introduction, since the recent events are of greatest interest to this new generation.  More history can come later. 

We are currently in the midst of the Nine Days, a semi-mourning period that culminates in Tisha B’Av (literally, 9th of Av) which starts next Monday night.  Tisha B’Av commemorates several disasters, particularly the destruction of the First and Second Temples.  It is a black fast (mourning), unlike the white fast (solemn) of Yom Kippur.  One site with links to laws, customs, etc. is .  I recommend the article,  “Lest We Forget – What do we get from Tisha B’Av?” by Rabbi Mendel Weinbach.    The Sabbath directly preceding Tisha B’Av is called Shabbat Chazon (Vision) after the vision of Isaiah, recounted in the haftarah, Isaiah 1:1-27.  The haftarah is traditionally chanted mostly using the mournful melody that will be used to chant the book of Lamentations (known in Hebrew as “Eichah,” literally, “How?!”) on Tisha B’Av.  

While the haftarot between the 17th of Tammuz and Rosh Hashanah are connected to the calendar rather than to the weekly Torah reading, there actually is a link between this haftarah and Devarim.  In Isaiah 1:21, we read “How is the faithful city become a harlot!” In Deut. 1:12, Moses says, “How am I able to bear your contentiousness, your burdens and your quarrels?!” Traditionally, this verse is also chanted using the Eichah melody. And the Book of Lamentations itself begins, “How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people!”  Each “How” is not a request for analysis, but an expression of mixed exasperation and mourning, mainly exasperation in Moses’ case.

What is most significant to me this year is the teaching that, while the First Temple was destroyed because of idolatry among the Israelites, the Second was destroyed on account of “sinat chinam,” which means “baseless hatred,” among the Jews.  I am troubled by a startling amount of what I consider sinat chinam among world Jewry, factions ever more separated and incommunicative.  And, while not limited to Jews of course, polarization and division (lots of hatred, a lot baseless) may be destroying our country.  We need to sit down, take a deep breath, and focus on the task at hand, which is to chart a viable future from a difficult present. 

Shabbat shalom, 


From the weekly Washington Post Style Invitational FLORA & FAUXNA: THE NEOLOGISMS OF WEEK 1227

The neologism challenge for Week 1227 was to coin a new life form whose name — in the spirit of genetic diversity — had no two of the same letter. (selected submissions)

Dogirafe: The only canine that can fetch a Frisbee stuck in a tree. (Shani Alexander, Wanneroo, Australia, a First Offender)

Kremling: A Russian weasel noted for its tiny paws and orange fur. (David Peckarsky, Tucson)

E. moji:A bacterium manifesting itself in poop, soft-serve ice cream, and a face with stuck-out tongue and winking eye. (Dave Matuskey, Sacramento)

Beaglu: A dog that never leaves your side. Literally. (Jeff Shirley, Richmond, Va.)

Ost-rich: A bird that buried its head in the sand and found oil. (John O’Byrne, Dublin)

Pseudoryx: A troublesome species of antelope, also known as fake gnus. (Kevin Dopart)

Peach mint: Some in Congress would like to send this herb over to the White House. (James Colten, Washington, a First Offender)

Sycolephant: Large animal with a long, brown nose (Larry Gray, Union Bridge, Md.; Tom Witte)

Tydebola: A virus that sterilizes itself. (Neal Starkman, Seattle)

Muhel: A rabbi who stubbornly refuses to perform circumcisions. (Roy Ashley. Washington)


Fifteen Things You’ll Never Hear a Teacher Say

  • “Our principal is soooooooooo smart. No wonder he’s in administration!”
  • “Thank goodness for these evaluations. They keep me focused.”
  • “I’d like to see Red Lobster offer a meal like this!”
  • “I can’t BELIEVE I get paid for this!!!!”
  • “Here class, just put all your gym shoes in this box next to my desk.”
  • “I bet all the people in our administration really miss teaching!!”
  • “Gosh, the bathroom smells so fresh and clean!”
  • “It must be true; the superintendent said so!”
  • “I think the discipline around here is just a LITTLE too strict!!”
  • “It’s Friday already???????”
  • I believe schools would run better if only a few more ex-coaches would go into administration.
  • This in-service training has just been fabulous.
  • I believe that athletics are not getting enough money.
  • We’d be able educate our children if they would let us teach through June, too.
  • Have you noticed that teachers drive better cars than the students?
  • From


     22/08/2014 11:19 | Updated 20 May 2015


    Quotes about Exasperation

    5. “We mothers of grown-up daughters tend to view them with a mixture of love, exasperation, irritation and awe.”
    Author: Anne Robinson

    7. “Exhaustion andexasperationare frequently the handmaidens of legislative decision.”
    Author: Barber Conable

    14. “…he arrived late at the office, perceived that his doing so made no difference whatever to any one, and was filled with suddenexasperation at the elaborate futility of his life”
    Author: Edith Wharton

    15. “Father, in those moments of utter exasperation, help me to want You as much as I need You!”
    Author: Evinda Lepins

    18. “I go from exasperation to a state of collapse, then I recover and go from prostration to Fury, so that my average state is one of being annoyed.”
    Author: Gustave Flaubert

    24. “Well what are you looking at me for? If this is a democratic process, I’ve been outvoted,” he said in exasperation. “This is why democracy doesn’t work. The crazy people always outnumber the sane people.”
    Author: Joseph R. Lallo


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