Parshat Devarim: Guest Darshan Jeanette Powell

This week we read Parshat Devarim. This evening we begin the observance of Tisha B’Av. Devarim is always read prior to the observance of Tisha B’Av. Both the Parashah and Tisha B’av call on us to remember our history. Devarim recalls the challenges of the Exodus and our time in the wilderness. Tisha B’Av calls on us to remember the destruction of our temples, our sorrows, tragedies and persecutions suffered through the years.

Both Tisha B’av and Devarim, each in different ways, remind us that we have choices to make when tragedy strikes. It is good to grieve, to give ourselves the time we need to cope and to feel our sorrow. That is when we need our loving community. Our friends provide support and hopefully good listening. They help us process what has happened and help us to give a tragedy some meaning or learning in our lives. At some point however, we face the difficult task of finding ways to put something positive and some action in place of that sorrow. We want our lives to go on without so much pain. We have to do this while we continue to remember and integrate our sorrow in more positive ways. If we are to choose life, we need take action to make that transition. This weekend provides us with a challenge to look at our lives and see if we are carrying too much sorrow that we need to transform in some way. Are we doing this as individuals, or are we contributing to a communal sorrow that has gone on too long?

How can transformation happen?

Often it takes a long time and, just as we need our friends and community to help us do that as individuals, we also need to remember that our community needs us when as a community we are attacked or persecuted in any way. We have read in the national news of different tragedies in the last few weeks and how people of all faiths assembled to help those in sorrow. Although those were not Jewish tragedies, they are a part of our American community. To the people in Charleston and the people in Chattanooga, loving-kindness and support has been abundant and helpful to those who are suffering. It will help them find the peace that they need to transition out of such deep sorrow to build up their lives once again.

How does looking at our world right now relate to our observance of Tisha B’Av and to our reading of Devarim?

We are seeing an abundance of hate of different groups or persons by different religious representatives. The tragedy in Charleston did not provoke the same kind of rebuke to Christians that the tragedy in Chattanooga did for Muslims. The murders were followed by a series of black churches being torched. In spite of being reviled by a Christian preacher because of the Chattanooga shootings, Muslims then came together to raise large amounts of money for the rebuilding of the burned black churches. Why does our hatred and bigotry spill out and paint entire groups for the actions of one person?

Devarim is the first chapter of the book of Deuteronomy. The Parashah contains the beginning of Moses’ first farewell address. Devarim means words. I want to urge us this weekend to focus on our words. Our Rabbi and our community leaders have been concerned that we foster respectful dialogue within our synagogue. It is incredibly important in so many ways that we listen to each other and respect each other without the necessity of having to agree with one another.

Moses words are directed to the immediate people he has led for so many years. In recounting the history of the Exodus, Moses is rebuking the people for their many mistakes and is urging them to accept responsibility and follow God’s law. The people are about to enter the Promised Land and Moses wants them to be ready. He does not want them repeating their mistakes that would have devastating consequences.

As we mourn the past and read of Moses concerns, let us examine whether or not we have left God out of our lives. Have we lost the sense of awe and gratitude for what we have? Have we allowed the hate and bigotry that we see each day in the press and in our electronic mail to influence how we feel about others? Can we mourn this bad influence and at the same time resolve to our part to counteract these kinds of hate? What does it take to find the courage to contribute to change? It does take courage when we often find a nasty or sarcastic response to voicing what we believe.

Rabbi Paul Citrin tells us, “Moses does not dwell only upon the people’s shortcomings. He is proud of their enlarged numbers and publicly prays that God increase them a thousand-fold. We are thus reminded that warnings and chastisements can have productive results when those who are to hear are first assured of their innate worth. Even as little as one sentence of affirmation by a parent, a teacher, or a leader can lift a head and strengthen resolve.”

Rabbi Citrin goes on to say, “Devarim, ‘words,’ are our share in the divine power to create or to devastate. With words we shape reality, construct meaning, and frame hope.” Heschel reminds us, “We shall never be able to understand that the spirit is revealed in the form of words unless we discover the vital truth that speech has power, that words are commitments.” (Man’s Quest for God, A.J. Heschel, p. 25) Sefer Devarim calls us to be ever mindful of the words we shape that, in turn, shape our world.

Yesterday, I read the incredible speech of Reuvin Rivlin, President of Israel. He is involved in bringing various religious factions together amidst gross lack of respect between different groups regarding Bar and Bat Mitzvahs in Israel.

Previously, the president’s office stated that the event’s goal was to “bring together the communities of the Jewish people in an atmosphere of mutual respect, and of learning and studying, to discuss the importance of Jewish unity and the need to work together to build understanding and respect.”

“This Talmudic proclamation must be considered fully. Does the Torah in Deuteronomy (16:20) not say, ‘Justice, Justice shall you pursue.’ Did Isaiah (1:27) not prophesy, ‘Zion shall be redeemed with justice’? Are not law and order foundations upon which the world stands? Yes, the world does stand upon justice and the law, though not upon them alone. The judicial system is vitally important to the building of a just society. It enables contracts and agreements to be made. The law enables cooperation and partnership. Trust. It is the vital contract for the building of society. Yet, society cannot exist without moral and ethical accepted norms, components of mutual trust and unity.”

We need to learn, not how to agree with each other but how to disagree with each other. We must disagree with each other with respect, fairness, with firmness, but without foregoing the other persons’ Jewish identity. We cannot predetermine that one opinion or another has no right to exist within contemporary Jewish discourse. Rabbinic Judaism, which was founded in Yavneh following the destruction of the Temple, witnessed firsthand the horrific danger of sectarianism. Thus the Rabbis understood that social and faith-based conflicts, important as they may be, cannot be decided by a total negation of the other. The greatness of the Torah teachings and learning of Yavneh became a major part in our common Judaism through its ability to turn debate itself into part of the core of Jewish law. The Jewish cultural debate does not erase the words of the minority or the opposing side-but gives it a place within the canon itself.

While we cannot always control what others do to us, we can control our reactions. We can learn from whatever mistakes we may have committed. In the midst of our grieving over the many sorrows we have endured we might also look at some great victories. As a people we have established a State. As a percentage of the general population we are high achievers. We have found the courage to act. We often act in spite of our fear. As long as we listen with respect, and see the divine in the other, even if their ideas are opposite to us, we can maintain unity as a Jewish people. Let us make over our mourning into our mitzvah.

Shabbat Shalom


Parshat Matot-Masei: Getting our Priorities Straight

I used to think that getting married was the single biggest change to someone’s social life. Once you were married, things would never be the same. You couldn’t make big decisions without consulting your partner-in-life. I used to think that…until I had children. Now I think that having children is a more substantial change to one’s life. Nothing is the same once you have children. Being responsible for the life of a person who is powerless to help themselves is an awesome responsibility, and that responsibility influences one’s priorities and the choices one makes in life. Or at least, they should be which brings us to this week’s double Torah portion.

Parshat Matot-Masei describes the final days at the end of the Israel’s forty years of wandering. The generation of slaves who left Egypt has all died. A people who emerged from Egypt as a ragtag bunch of escaped slaves has transformed into a strong and powerful nation. To illustrate that point, the beginning of Matot (which means “tribes”), describes a war of revenge on the Midianites, who had previously vexed Israel. The tribes quickly muster a military force of 12,000(!) troops, led by Pinchas the  Priest, Aharon’s grandson, and accompanied by the holy vessels from the Mishkan and the silver trumpets. The entire narrative of the war is over in two verses.  Two verses. This is a nation that can handle itself in times of war. (The remainder of the issues about this war center on how compassionate the troops should have been towards their female captives.) But how do they handle life after the war?

After the battle is over, the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menasheh notice that the land in which they are encamped is perfect for their needs as cattle farmers. So they ask Moshe a question:

“The land that God has conquered for the community of Israel is cattle country, and your servants have cattle. It would be a favor to us, if this land were given to your servants as a holding; do not move us across the Jordan.” (Bamidbar 32:4-5)

At first glance, the request seems reasonable. That piece of land has been conquered, and would be an ideal resource for their livelihood. What is more, this would leave far more land for the remaining tribes to divide among themselves! Is this not a generous offer? Of course it is! It’s a win-win.

But look at the request again, as Moshe does.

Are they suggesting that they would not cross the Jordan ever? What about the conquest of the land that lays ahead of them? What about the Sinai covenant? Will they not come to the Mishkan for national festivals? Are they turning their backs on God? On the people? Moshe lays all of this at their feet, and add one final psychological concern: “[The spies who brought the bad report about the land] turned the minds of the Israelites from invading the land that God had given them.” In other words, if even one tribe does not cross the Jordan, none of the others will either. History has borne this out in the past. This “generous” request has problematic implications for the entire nation.

As it turns out, this is not their actual intention at all! Immediately that tribe steps up and offer themselves as shock troops for the coming conquest of the land. But first they would like to “build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children.” (Bamidbar 32:16) Excellent! No problem. They just want to settle down first and then join the Israelite army, coming back home after the war is over. Moshe accepts these terms, and makes them vow to uphold their end of the bargain. But then he concludes with slightly different but crucially different language:

“Build towns for your children and sheepfolds for your flocks, but do what you have promised.” (Bamidbar 32:24)

The tribal leaders mentioned the sheep before the children; Moshe mentions the children before the sheep. Why does Moshe switch the order in which these tribes will settle down?

Moshe understands that these tribes have their priorities in the wrong order. What drove the initial request of this tribe was the allure of land, cattle, what we would call a career. They put their career before their families. At first. we thought that they were only putting career before their national allegiance, which would have been a serious enough issue. The truth was actually far more problematic than that. It was career before families. Their families were going to stay in their temporary tents until they had built the sheepfolds.

Moshe, having regained confidence in their national commitment, gently reminds them that as important, if not more important, than career is their commitment to their families. They must settle their families before they can do anything for their careers, in this case, their animals. These tribes understood Moshe’s message:

“Your servants will do as my Lord commands. Our children, our wives, our flocks, and all our other livestock will stay behind in the towns of Gilead, while your servants, all those recruited for war, cross over…to engage in battle…” (Bamidbar 32:26-27)

So too this is with us! How often do we make decisions that put career before family? Does that promotion mean more money at the expense of being with family? Is less time with family worth money? This week’s Torah portion asks us to consider how we balance work and family. Which do we put first? How do we make those decisions? Each situation being different, Moshe reminds us that we need to put the needs of our family front and center when we make decisions about our work.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Andrew Pepperstone


  1. Talk about how your work impacts your family, both in positive and negative ways. Discuss the balance between devoting one’s self to work and one’s self to family. How can putting in too much energy affect the other? How can putting in less energy into one affect the other?


  1. If a man makes a vow, can he get out of it or not?
  2. If a woman makes a vow, what are some ways that she is allowed to get out of that vow?
  3. How does Israel assembly its army to go to war against Midian?
  4. What is the connection between the war against Midian and last week’s Torah portion?
  5. What does Israel do with the spoils of war from the campaign against Midian?
  6. Which tribes want to live in the lands east of the Jordan?
  7. What are the problems with those tribes living east of the Jordan?
  8. What do those tribes promise to do for the nation of Israel?
  9. Find all of the locations where Israel camped during their forty years of wandering.
  10. What are the borders of the land of Israel, according to Bamidbar 34?
  11. How will Israel divide up the land among the twelve tribes?
  12. What is a city of refuge? Who can go there to get protection?
  13. Earlier in the Torah, the daughters of Tzelophchad change the laws of inheritance to inherit their father’s property (they have no brothers). What is the new limitation imposed upon on them at the end of Massei?