TORAH PORTION IN REAL TIME: DVARIM AND TISHA B’AV

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With the Biblical Portrait of Abraham completed, we are moving to Sarah and   will be starting her Biblical Portrait next time. Stay tuned, you will be surprised to see how many details we can discover in the Hebrew text of the Scriptures. But meanwhile, as often happens, I would like to stop and talk to you about one of the most  important Torah Portions—Dvarim, opening the last book of the Torah— the Book of Deuteronomy (and yes, that means we are approaching the end of the Jewish Year, and the High Holidays are around the corner).

 

Deuteronomy and the New Testament

Deuteronomy is one of the four books of the Hebrew Bible most often quoted in the NT (i.e. Exodus, Isaiah, Deuteronomy, Psalms). Deuteronomy must have been one of Jesus’ favorite books, as He quotes it on many occasions in the gospels.  Most of you probably know that Jesus quotes Deuteronomy during His temptation by Satan in the wilderness. What are the other occasions when Jesus refers to this book?

Jesus sums up the law and the prophets quoting from Deuteronomy (and also from Leviticus): love God, and love your neighbor as yourself (Mt.22:37, Mk.12:29-33, Luk.10:27 – Deut. 6:5).

The Ten Commandments are in both Exodus and Deuteronomy: thus, Jesus refers to both books when he cites the Commandments.

Jesus refers to Deuteronomy when he discusses divorce (Mt. 5:31, 19:7; Mk.10:4 –24:1-3)

There is an allusion to Deuteronomy when Jesus speaks about congregational discipline (Mt.18:16 – Deut.19:15).

Warning against Unbelief 

“See, I have set the land before you; go in and take possession of the land that I swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give to them and to their descendants after them… But you were unwilling to go up. You rebelled against the command of the Lord your God” (Deut. 1:26-27)

Although later in his speech Moses will repeatedly speak of idolatry, here in the first chapters of the book it is the sin of unbelief that he is mostly talking about. In this sense, the NT presents a strong continuation of Moses’ exposition: we can find significant parallels between Moses’ powerful speech and the New Testament epistles. For instance, the author of Hebrews speaks tirelessly of faith, encouraging his readers to believe, to trust God and His promises, and to live a life of faith and obedience. As Moses, leader of the people of God, confronts the people concerning the consequences of a lack of faithfulness to their covenant with God, in the same way, the author of Hebrews is also concerned with a lack of faithfulness and its consequences: “Take care, brothers and sisters, that none of you may have an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.”[1]  

As we have already seen many times, there is both continuity and discontinuity between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament situations. Even though the addressees of Hebrews are at another time and in another situation, they have the potential of following the same bad pattern of unbelief and unfaithfulness. The challenge to choose another path, the path of the faith and obedience, constitutes the exhortation in Hebrews: “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, as on the day of testing in the wilderness”[2] and this is the same exhortation that the words of Moses in our Torah Portion are permeated with.


The Consequences

God’s timing is always amazing – and the coincidence of our weekly Torah Portions readings with some other events of our lives is incredible indeed. This year, the Torah Portion Dvarim is being read on shabbat just before Tisha B’Av  –  the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. In Judaism, Tisha B’Av (Hebrew: תשעה באב ), “the Ninth of Av,” is an annual fast day. It is the ninth day (Tisha) of the month of Av – hence the name. Originally, the fast of Tisha B’Av commemorated the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem: both the First Temple and the Second Temple in Jerusalem were destroyed on the same date in the Hebrew calendar (about 500 years apart). The First Temple, built by King Solomon, was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE. Even though we read in 2 Kings 25:8 that the destruction of the First Temple began on the 7th of Av, according to the Talmud the actual destruction of the Temple began on the ninth of Av, and the Temple continued to burn throughout the Tenth of Av. The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, on Tisha BeAv. Over time, however, Tisha B’Av has become a Jewish day of mourning—not only for these events, but also for later calamities which occurred on this day or around this day (you can easily find the list of these calamities online).

Most of my readers may already know that – but what you probably don’t know is the link between Tisha B’Av and unbelief and fear of the Israelites to enter the Promised Land. This year, this link becomes even more prominent in the light of our Torah portion: this is one of the first things that Moses refers to. We read in Numbers, that because of the discouraging report of the spies, the people of Israel cried and panicked and refused to go into the Land. God was angry with the people; and even though He forgave them after Moses’ intercession, He punished them nevertheless: Then the LORD said: “I have pardoned, according to your word; but truly, as I liveall these men who have seen My glory and the signs which I did in Egypt and in the wilderness… and have not heeded My voice, they certainly shall not see the land.”[3]

Jewish tradition adds some details to this well-known and sad story. When we read: “So all the congregation lifted up their voices and cried, and the people wept that night,”[4] Talmud elaborates: “That night was the night of the Ninth of Av. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to them: you wept needlessly that night, and I will therefore establish for you a true tragedy over which there will be weeping in future generations.”[5]

It is a very sober reminder for all of us, isn’t it? (not only for those living in Israel). Often times, people say: What sins are you talking about? I am a good person, I don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery. Well, according to Jewish tradition, the spies were the best of the people—they certainly didn’t kill, didn’t steal and didn’t commit adultery. Yet, their sin of unbelief was such a terrible thing in God’s eyes that we are reminded of it every year, and this year even twice: when we read this week’s Torah Portion on shabbat – and when we fast on Sunday – on Tisha B’Av.

[1] Heb.3:12

[2] Heb.3:7,8

[3] Num. 14:20-23

[4] Num. 14:1

[5] Taanit, 29a

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