By Rabbi Raysh Weiss
The fifth and final book of the Torah, the Book of Deuteronomy (Devarim in Hebrew) is also referred to as the Mishneh Torah, which is the Hebrew equivalent of its English name that derives from the Greek deutero (second) and nomos (law).
The book is presented as an account of Moses’s restating of many of the laws and narratives that appeared in the previous four books of the Torah to the Israelites as they are on the brink of entering the Promised Land.
It is interesting — and not coincidental — that the opening Torah portion in the Book of Deuteronomy is read in synagogues every year on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, the solemn fast day that commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
There is a verbal connection between Moses’s troubled query (Deut. 1:12) “eicha essa levadi tarchekhem umasakhem v’rivekhem…” (“How can I bear unaided your trouble, your burden, and you bickering…”) and the opening words of the Book of Lamentations that is read in the synagogue on Tisha B’Av: “Eicha yashevah vadad ha’ir rabbati am” (“How the city once great with people sits alone”).
The unusual pairing of the word eicha, or “how,” with expressions of loneliness in both contexts is striking. However, unlike the wrenching despair that is reflected in the prophet Jeremiah’s expression when describing the destroyed city of Jerusalem in Lamentations, Moses’ eicha — while still coming from a place of loneliness at what seems an insurmountable burden set upon his shoulders — nevertheless is transformed by him into a force for positive change.
For Moses, this expression of lonely exasperation reflects his honest sense of deep frustration and even anger with the people. He is overwhelmed, and he is hurt. There is also something characteristically humble about Moshe’s cry for help — Moshe knows that he alone cannot solve everything. He cries out, “How can I bear this alone!” but rather than succumbing to his frustration and despair, he looks ahead and moves forward.
Moses’ words offer us an incredible psychospiritual insight into the nature of social crises: When faced with social forces that feel hostile and demoralizing, how can we feel but absolutely alone? If a figure as great as Moses is cowed by an overwhelming challenge, how much more so might any of us feel limited and threatened when confronting the trying circumstances of our present moment?
What Moses implicitly teaches us in this week’s Torah portion is how to transform and redirect such anxiety into a productive vehicle for improvement. Indeed, within a verse of expressing his anguish, Moses is already rolling out a blueprint for a new judicial system comprised of a hierarchy of judges and leaders. By thoughtfully delegating responsibility to qualified others, Moses answers his own question, as it were, responding constructively to his own source of frustration.
Moshe’s approach becomes all the more impressive when viewed alongside the sin of the spies, another episode recounted in this Torah portion. Whereas 10 of 12 spies also expressed fear (theirs being specifically about a military campaign against the seemingly formidable inhabitants of Canaan), their declamatory language offered little room for productive dialogue or alternative solutions, thus driving the people into unproductive despair.
Here again, Moses does not simply tell a story; he subtly offers a teachable moment for us to apply to our lives, especially as we face adversity.
In addressing the Israelites’ shattered confidence resulting from the spies’ negative report, the adjuration “fear not” recurs repeatedly throughout this week’s Torah portion. But what does it mean to tell the people of Israel not to fear? When someone tells you not to fear, that almost suggests there is something which we ought to fear. How can one be commanded not to react to a present threat or danger with the deep fear that would be expected in such a situation?
The question of fear, and how to deal with it, figures front and center as a prominent concern in this week’s Torah portion. Devarim offers us examples of real people in real situations who react in a variety of ways to fear. The portion’s leitmotif, “do not fear,” perhaps then refers not so much to repressing a very natural and understandable reaction to a perceived threat, but rather to how we respond to that fear.
Do we internalize that fear to the point of paralysis or do we acknowledge it, analyze it and address the problem before us, thereby standing as an example to those who follow us? Moses, who has dealt resolutely with his own feeling of loneliness and helplessness, urges his followers to overcome their fears and move forward with positivity and resolve,
Especially during this time of heightened isolation — whether as a result of lockdown or due to the increasingly hostile ideological and polemicized echo-chamber of social media — we have much to gain from considering how Moses handled his own sense of being scared and alone and his instruction to the people.
How can we draw upon the strengths and collective wisdom of those around us who might be able to help buoy us up? What is our strategy and vision for navigating these troubled times?
Moses teaches us how to respond communally in a constructive way and, thereby, reshape and redirect our stories in a positive direction.
Rabbi Raysh Weiss is the rabbi of Congregation Beth El of Bucks County. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not