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Toward Shabbat: Devarim

As we look toward Shabbat, we hold two essential narratives. The first is in this week’s parashah, Devarim: We hear Moshe retell and remember important yet challenging moments throughout the Israelites journey. He beseeches the Israelites to remember their longing for the Promised Land and their struggle to set up a system of judges to help better navigate their numerous issues. He reminds them of their fear when hearing the spies recount their visit to the land and the numerous battles fought with enemies. Why retell and remember these painful moments?

Moreover, while we stand shoulder to shoulder with the Israelites, listening to Moses recount our growing pains, we are asked to relive another painful moment in our collective history. As Shabbat comes to a close, we will move to mourning as we mark Tisha Be’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av. On Tisha Be’Av we retell and remember the destruction of both sacred temples in Jerusalem, in addition to countless other atrocities that have plagued our people; this is our day of weeping:

(במדבר יד, א (ותשא כל העדה ויתנו את קולם ויבכו אמר רבה אמר רבי יוחנן אותו היום [ערב] תשעה באב היה אמר הקב”ה הן בכו בכיה של חנם ואני אקבע להם בכיה לדורות

The verse states: “And all the congregation lifted up their voice and cried” (Numbers 14:1). Rabba says that Rabbi Yoḥanan says: That day was the eve of the Ninth of Av, and the Holy One, Blessed, said: On that day they wept a gratuitous weeping, so I will establish that day for them as a day of weeping for the future generations.
Sotah 35a:11

Why would our sacred texts want us to relive these harrowing moments? For the Israelites, they are reminded of their shameful behavior and their chaotic lack of communal norms. For generations of our people, we are asked to acknowledge the crushing blow of losing our most sacred space; the loss of ritual, the home to our sacred connection to the divine presence, the complete destruction of the only way we knew how to worship the One.

Our collective grief and our communal remembering serve a purpose: We are asked to retell. We painfully remember. And then we grow. Our scars can be our teachers.

Believe it or not, I have been reflecting on the destruction of the second temple for three years. For some time, experts in the field have all but prophesied the demise of congregational Jewish education. I leaned into their prophecy; “OK, what would happen if congregational life as we know it were to end tomorrow?” I began to understand the second temple rabbis as the world’s first “disrupters.” They were not going to allow themselves to mourn the faith itself—they would reinterpret, re-envision, and reinvent Judaism. They would learn from their scars.

Living through the Covid-19 pandemic was our own version of communal trauma and we too have suffered immeasurable pain. There were moments in the beginning of lockdown where I feared the worst. Did those experts unknowingly predict the destruction of our Jewish way of life? Would our community survive months and months of distance? Would we be able to teach, connect, and pray; each from our own home?

Like those second temple rabbis, we were forced to reinterpret, re-envision, and reinvent our educational norms. Our family services moved to an online platform and Kadima@BJ became a virtual school. We had to reimagine how we taught, how we prayed, how we forged connections with children and with families. Our teen leaders fostered opportunities to deliberate over some of the world’s most pressing issues. And while so much was new, we never strayed from those “old” core values: community, learning, prayer, and spirituality.

We will continue to retell and remember our most traumatic stories of the distant and recent past. Our missteps, mistakes, and, worse, our loss can inform a better and brighter future. So long as we carry in our hearts the hope that has sustained our people for generations, our people will go from strength to strength.

Mike Witman

Written By Mike Witman

Michael Witman currently serves as the Director of Family Life and Learning at B'nai Jeshurun in New York City. He previously served as the Director of Education at Temple Beth-El of Great Neck. Mi...

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