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Parashat Devarim 5775 — 07/22/2015

Parashat Devarim 5775 — 07/22/2015

Devarim 1:1 – 3:22

Note: Since Devarim this year falls on Tisha B’Av, we do not read a chapter of Pirke Avot at Shabbat Minchah this week.  This is in line with the prohibition of almost all Torah study on Tisha B’Av, as Torah study is a delight to the soul, and therefore is incongruous with the nature of the day.  We defer the fast, however, to Sunday.  The last meal before the fast begins must be on Shabbat afternoon; since we eat the “third meal” around then, we just make it a real meal.  The fast begins at sunset, while it is still Shabbat.  We pray the evening service after dark, when Shabbat is over, and at that point we recite the Kinnot, dirges, of Tisha B’Av.  Havdalah is deferred to Sunday night and is the shortened Havdalah (no candle or spices) that we say after a holiday.

The Book of Deuteronomy (Greek for “second law” – this is a translation of Mishneh Torah, repetition of the Torah, as it is known in Rabbinic parlance) begins “These are the words that Moshe spoke…”  This immediately sets it off from the rest of the Torah.  In the rest of the Torah, Gd is the one doing the speaking; Moshe transmits to the nation what Gd said.  In Devarim, Moshe is speaking “on his own.”  The entire book is Moshe’s final charge to his people; his instructions for their life in the Land which he will never see, and for their life in the inevitable exiles to which we have been subject.  So how did this book get into the Torah?  Rav Kook explains:

[When considering whether a more common ritual takes precedence over one which is holier] The Sages concluded that the more prevalent activity takes precedence over the holier one …

   One might infer from this ruling that the quality of prevalence is more important… In fact, the exact opposite is true.  If something is rare, this indicates that it belongs to a very high level of holiness – so high, in fact, that our limited world does not merit benefiting from this exceptional holiness on a permanent basis.  Why then does the more common event take precedence?  This is in recognition that we live in an imperfect  world.  We are naturally more receptive to and influenced by a lesser, moroe sustainable sanctity.

This concept, that there are levels of holiness that are unsustainable for the present world, is reflected in other areas of Jewish thought.  Rav Kook points out that the first set of Tablets, which Moshe broke in response to the incident of the golden calf, was on a much higher level than the second set – the first set contained all of what was to become the Oral Law, which at the nation’s higher level of consciousness at the time of the Revelation, could be “written in stone” – the people had, at least momentarily, the ability to live up to that level.  After the calf incident, the writing on the Tablets was simplified, and much of Jewish law had to be taught orally.  Oral transmission of knowledge has the advantage that it is passed from one living mind and heart to another, and apparently we now needed that advantage.

In a similar fashion, in writing Devarim as an “ordinary” prophetic book, Moshe consciously brought his exalted understanding and awareness down to the level of the Jewish people, so that it would be a comprehensible guide for them.  In Rav Kook’s words:

Moses consciously limited the prophetic level of Deuteronomy so that it would correspond to that of other prophpets.  He withdrew from his unique prophetic status, a state where “No other prophet arose in Israel like Moses (Deut 34:10).  With the book of Deuteronomy, he initiated  the lower but more constant form of prophecy that would suit future generations…

   In the future, however, the first set of tablets, which now appear to be broken, will be restored.  The Jewish people will be ready for a higher, loftier holiness, and the “holier” will take precedence of the “common.”

In Western thought we base our thinking on the idea of evolution – the direction of the “arrow of time” is upwards, progressive.  Later generations are on a higher level than earlier ones.  No wonder we worship youth in the West.  Jewish thought appears to be in the opposite direction.  Each generation moves further and further away from the Revelation at Mt. Sinai.  Each generation learns from its teachers, but imperfectly – by definition the student is not at the same level as the teacher, and therefore does not pick up all the nuances that the teacher is conveying.  Therefore, each successive generation is at a lower level than its predecessors.  Jewish thought is more along the lines of the Law of Entropy (Second Law of Thermodynamics).

This idea that the generations decline is clearly tied in with Rav Kook’s description of what Moshe Rabbeinu did in Sefer Devarim.  Moshe had learned Torah directly from Gd, the perfect Teacher.  Since he was human, we would have to assume that even on his exalted level, he did not learn perfectly everything Gd had to teach, and indeed, we find several instances in Torah where Moshe had to ask Gd the answer to a specific question that had arisen (e.g. daughters of Tzelophechad’s request to inherit their father’s portion in the Land, what to do with people who are ritually impure on Pesach).  Having seen that the people were capable of going from the highest spiritual level, at the Revelation, to the lowest, at the golden calf, in the short span of 40 days, he must have been aware that he was going to have to leave a teaching that would continue to be comprehensible at progressively lower levels of awareness and intuition.  And indeed, the Oral Torah that he left us has been progressively written down as Mishnah, then Talmud, the the Codes and commentaries, until we are no longer really the People of the Book, but the People of the Vast Libraries!

Perhaps this descent is built into the structure of creation.  If creation is progressive radiation of structure out from the center, that is, away from Gd, then the temporal aspect of that will be successive generations that are more and more distant from Gd and from His teaching.  Nevertheless, there is a countervailing tendency, and that is the tendency for structures to become more highly integrated and more highly complex – and thus more reflective of Gd’s nature – that is, an evolutionary tendency.  I think this is what Rav Kook is referring to when he speaks of the (Messianic) future, when the integrative, evolutionary tendency will overtake the disintegrative tendency, and the First Tablets will be restored.  In our vision of Redemption, we integrate the Western, evolutionary view, into our own view of the loss of knowledge.  What is lost will be restored, what is broken will be repaired.  And in the words of the old country music song, “We’ll understand it all by and by.”

Pirke Avot

None this week.  May we all have an easy fast and may we see Jerusalem and the Holy Temple rebuilt speedily in our day!