July 2018, Parshat Devarim

Dear Friends,

This week’s Parsha is Parshat Devarim where we begin reading the last book of the Torah. While previous books discuss laws, stories or lessons, the book of Devarim is different in the way it approaches its narrative. In this Book, Moshe is the speaker and Devarim retells the history of the Jewish people in the desert and also further explains many of the laws that were previously recorded in the Torah.

Rambam explains that Devarim symbolizes the new reality that the Jewish people would face upon entering the land of Israel, whereby they would no longer witness daily miracles and the open presence of G-d. These open displays of G-dliness were typical of the Jewish people’s daily experience in the desert up to that point.

Devarim retells the story of this period and encourages the people to establish their own systems to plow, plant and harvest the new land they are about to enter without relying solely on G-d’s presence to care for their needs. This was a way of empowering them for the difficult tasks that lay ahead.

In addition, Parshat Devarim is always read on Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbat that precedes Tisha Ba’av, which takes its’ name from the Haftorah from the Book of Yeshayahu (Isaiah). In this week’s Haftorah the prophet Yeshayahu foretells the doom and destruction of Jerusalem and the fall of the Temple. In many ways this week’s Shabbat is one of the most sombre of the year as we enter into the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, Tisha Ba’av.

While the three weeks and the nine days leading up to Tisha Ba’av have traditionally been a time of intense mourning for the Jewish people, this year the World Cup finals fell during this period. The French victory over Croatia resulted in wide spread celebrations across France and was a time of intense joy for many seeing the victors bring the world cup home for the French.

Juxtaposing this unparalleled joy is interesting, in light of the fact that this period of mourning in the Jewish calendar records many disastrous events that occurred to the Jewish people, including not so long ago in France.

This week in particular recalls the 76th anniversary of the rounding up of French Jews living in Paris for the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, a Nazi-directed raid and mass arrest of Jews in Paris by the French police. According to records of the Préfecture de Police, 13,152 Jews were arrested, including more than 4,000 children. They were held at the Vélodrome d’Hiver in extremely crowded conditions, almost without food and water, and with no sanitary facilities, and then five days later shipped in rail cattle cars to Auschwitz for their mass murder.

For many years this atrocity went unacknowledged by the government of France who refused to take responsibility for the actions of the French government at the time, claiming that the Vichy government did not represent the Republic of France. These efforts even went so far as to knock down the veledrome where this atrocity took place so that no living evidence remained. This atrocity has been brought back to light by book’s such as Sarah’s Key, which was subsequently made into a movie starring Kristin Scott Thomas.

Finally, in 1995 French President Jacques Chirac apologized for the complicit role that French policemen and civil servants served in the raid stating:

“These black hours will stain our history for ever and are an injury to our past and our traditions. Yes, the criminal madness of the occupant was assisted by the French, by the French state. Fifty-three years ago, on 16 July 1942, 4500 policemen and gendarmes, French, under the authority of their leaders, obeyed the demands of the Nazis.”

It is not for no reason that the Jewish people are known as the People of the Book. Our history and our books are always at the forefront of our day to day interactions. That the Book of Devarim retells our history is no coincidence, to the way in which the Jewish people recall their history and their purpose in the world particularly at such a gloomy time in Jewish history.

Mourning periods like Tisha Ba’av represent a time in which we reflect on our past to learn for our future. While the time period we are in symbolizes bleakness, the fact that we are still here against all odds is a source of hope. Our Jewish history is a source of pride and it is with this history, and sense of responsibility, communities around the world continue to thrive and flourish.

Wishing you and your families a meaningful Tisha Ba’av and a restful Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Gabi