Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Parashat Devarim and Tisha B'Av: On Rebuke and the Notion of Second Chances

Nobody likes to be rebuked or criticized.

So what do we do with the Torah’s rebuke, its tochachah? This is the week to talk about it, as rebuke is the theme of both the parsha, the beginning of the new book of Devarim, as well as the theme of the haftarah, Isaiah 1, a prophecy of extreme rebuke. This parsha and haftarah are always timed to coincide with one another and with the Shabbat prior to Tisha B’av, a fast that commemorates the destructions of the Temples and other calamities.

The rabbis say that the word devarim, “words,” was chosen to describe Moshe’s words in this parsha because the root implies harshness and rebuke. Indeed, Moshe speaks harshly to the people here, reminding them of their sins, of how they mistrusted God again and again during their years in the desert and were too fearful, after the spies' report, to enter the land at the first opportunity. Isaiah in the haftarah has his own poetic words of criticism, saying that the people have abandoned God, that their hands are full of blood, that they are evil like Sodom and Gomorrah.

How depressing! Maybe that is our destiny. Maybe, as God says after the flood, man is “evil from his youth (Gen 8:21),” doomed to a life full of mistakes and sins, without hope of ever being different.

Ah, but there is hope. And that is the whole point of rebuke – to inspire change, to make room for second chances. “Wash yourselves clean,” says Isaiah. “Learn to do good.” “Be your sins like crimson, they can turn snow-white; be they red as dyed wool, they can become like fleece.” Here is a strong belief in the possibility of complete self-transformation, of coloring yourself a new color. Rebuke is not meant as a life sentence, but as a call to change. It is an expression not of despair about the nature of humanity, but of faith in humanity’s infinite flexibility, the never-ending possibilities which lie in every human soul. Isaiah calls the heavens and the earth to witness this rebuke; they stand, still and silent, as unchanging, permanent witnesses to the human capability of being just the opposite, not still, but mobile, bending, turning from red to white.

Note that Moshe’s lengthy rebuke of the people does not occur immediately after their various sins, but rather during their 40th year, as the people stand on the border of the promised land, as they stand poised to take their second shot at entering that land. His rebuke is not meant to cause despair, to give the people a life sentence for their sins, but on the contrary, it is meant to inspire them to act differently this time, to embrace their second chance with both hands.

The Torah believes in second chances, as well as in third and fourth chances. That is why we need all the commandments in the first place, as a way of practicing good behaviors so that they become part of our nature. There is no assumption that our nature is automatically good and generous, but that we have the opportunity, again and again, to learn, by practice, to do better. Moshe reminds the people that they were fearful at their first opportunity to enter the land. Now they have been through 40 years of desert travel, 40 years in which God provided for them and fought their battles. Perhaps now they have had enough practice in trust and bravery to be ready to enter the land.

The book of Devarim is itself a kind of second chance. The rabbis call it the mishneh torah, which, like “Deuteronomy,” means the “Second Law,” as it is Moshe’s repetition of most of the laws that came earlier. People need to hear the laws more than once to learn to do them. They need not one opportunity, but many, as learning comes through repetition.

Sometimes the learning is inter-generational. The midrash suggests that rebuke is often done by those approaching death, like Moshe here, in his last year of life. To be a human being is to wake up each morning with the opportunity for a new beginning, for a second chance to live this day differently than the one that preceded it. But such is not the case for the dying. For them the second chances have almost worn out. And yet they do have another kind of second chance -- their children and grandchildren. Through them the possibilities are eternal. The generation that left Egypt was fearful and anxious at the thought of entering a new dangerous land. They died in the desert. But in his own dying days, Moshe looks at this new generation and rebukes them with the aim of repairing the mistakes of their ancestors, with the aim of creating an inter-generational second chance, an opportunity for the people of Israel, past and present, to enter the land with bravery and trust.