Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22), Shabbat Chazon, Tisha B’Av

We are now starting the fifth and final book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, from the Greek, Deuteronomion, literally “second law”.  In Hebrew, it is known as Devarim, דברים, “words.”  Words are such slippery things.  This past week, we were told that “would” was actually “wouldn’t,” bringing to mind a bit of legalistic parsing 20 years ago, “it depends on what ‘is’ is” (Trust me, after 11+ years of patent work, the latter phrase actually makes some sense.  So glad I’m retired!).  And remember teachers’ comments on report cards?  In our local school district, they replaced common phrases with 39 numerical codes.  For example, in place of “Irene is a pleasure to have in class,” (I usually was) you might see “1, 10, 18,” code for “shows enthusiasm for learning, contributes to class discussion, needs to improve handwriting.”  The verbal comment potentially has greater subtext – depending on the teacher, “a pleasure to have in class” might mean “always obeys me,” “so quiet I forget she’s there,” “always knows the answer” or “likes to sweep the classroom floor.”  

Deuteronomy is mainly a series of orations Moses gives to the Israelites during the last several weeks before they cross the Jordan: history, laws (whence the book’s Greek name), blessings and curses, and Moses’ song.  A lot will be familiar, so you may experience a sense of déjà vu.  But Deuteronomy is not like the other books in at least three ways.  First, many of the laws in it do not appear earlier in the Torah.  Second, there is a major emphasis on teaching and learning.  As I’ve noted here before, Rabbi David Hoffman has written in The Book of Devarim and the Birth of Talmud Torah,  “No form of the Hebrew root l-m-d (to learn, study, or teach) appears in any book of the Torah other than Devarim, where it appears seventeen times in thirty-four chapters(F)or the Jew, learning is an active process that is primarily about making meaning…to develop a personal, rich, and nurturing relationship with God.   Study is the means by which we make meaning in our own lives.”  Third, Moses speaks to the Israelites in his own voice, with his own words, not simply conveying what he’s been told to say.  Quite a change from the tongue-tied shepherd at the burning bush.

This week, Moses begins his history lesson.  Where does he start?  Creation? Ancient history? Their life in Egypt? The Exodus? Revelation?  No.  He gives a quick overview of their own journey.   Recent history, especially their own, is a useful hook to grab their attention. While most of his audience were born in the wilderness, people who were children or teens at the beginning are also present and remember some the incidents.  So, he tells of leaving Sinai (aka Horeb), the hierarchy of local magistrates and judges, and the disastrous incident with the 12 spies.  He then fast-forwards to recent months.  When they experienced military victories and the land was apportioned.

Beginning Saturday night, we observe the fast day, Tisha B’Av (literally 9th of Av, though this year we postpone its observance until the 10th, since we don’t fast on the Sabbath except on Yom Kippur).  This commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples and several subsequent disasters, like the expulsion from Spain in 1492. We chant the book of Lamentations and mournful poems called kinnot. This Shabbat, directly preceding Tisha B’Av, is called Shabbat Chazon (Vision) after the vision of Isaiah, recounted in the haftarah, Isaiah 1:1-27.  The haftarah is traditionally chanted mainly with the melody used to chant the book of Lamentations. Lamentations is called Eichah, אֵיכָה in Hebrew, meaning “How?!” Lamentations begins, “How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people!”  In the Torah reading, Moses says (Deut. 1:12), “How am I able to bear your contentiousness, your burdens and your quarrels?!” And in the haftarah (Isaiah 1:21), “How is the faithful city become a harlot!”  Traditionally, these Torah and haftarah verses are also chanted using the Eichah melody.  

I wrote the following paragraph last year.  I repeat it here because the situation has grown worse.

“What is most significant to me this year is the teaching that, while the First Temple was destroyed because of idolatry among the Israelites, the Second was destroyed on account of “sinat chinam,” which means “baseless hatred,” among the Jews.  I am troubled by a startling amount of what I consider sinat chinam among world Jewry, factions ever more separated and incommunicative.  And, while not limited to Jews of course, polarization and division (lots of hatred, a lot baseless) may be destroying our country.  We need to sit down, take a deep breath, and focus on the task at hand, which is to chart a viable future from a difficult present.” 

Shabbat shalom,


For Week 1259after hearing that staffers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had been advised not to use seven certain terms in budget documents, the Empress ran a contest for euphemisms, terms that make unpleasant concepts seem less so. Of course, most of the civilized world doesn’t need to disguise “science-based” or “diversity.”

4th place:  Imprisoned: Scouting locations for the next Harvey Weinstein movie. (Ben Aronin, Washington)

3rd place:  Starving: In the faminy way. (Jesse Frankovich, Grand Ledge, Mich.)

2nd place: Serial groper: Outreach engineer. (Ivars Kuskevics, Takoma Park, Md.)

And the winner: Excrement: Gross domestic product. (Melissa Balmain, Rochester, N.Y.)

Honorable mentions (a sampling):

Recession: Fun-size economy. (Bill FitzPatrick, Rochester, N.Y., a First Offender)

Climate change: Thermal advancement. (Mark Raffman, Reston, Va.)

Treason: Situational patriotism. (Drew Bennett, West Plains, Mo.)

Binge drinking: Imbibitional capacity determination. (Chris Doyle, Denton, Tex.)

Body fat: Core insulation. (Mark Raffman)

Collusion: Special opportunity for international cooperation. (Jesse Frankovich)

Corruption: Market-based governance. (Ben Aronin)

Rotten meat: E. coli sanctuary. (Melissa Balmain)

Death: Medical bill abatement process. (G. Smith, Vienna, Va.)

Electric chair: Power seating. (David Kleinbard, Mamaroneck, N.Y.)

Solitary confinement: Quiet time. (Davey FitzPatrick)

War: Future History Channel programming. (Melissa Balmain)

We also invited the opposite — dysphemisms, terms that cast concepts in a worse light:

Evidence-based: Disloyal. (Warren Tanabe, Annapolis, Md.)

Fry cook: Arteriosclerosis engineer. (Jesse Frankovich)


Twenty-first-century teaching

tph 21st century teaching


Déjà vu (selected) 

You’ve probably heard of “déjà vu,” the illusion of having previously experienced a situation that is happening now. Here are some related expressions

Feel like I’ve…
…smelled this bad odor before: déjà phew
…visited this menagerie before: déjà zoo
…scared this person away before: déjà boo
…read this mystery book before: déjà clue
…been in this courtroom before: déjà sue
…felt this sad before: déjà blue
…waited in line before: déjà queue
…eaten this dinner before: déjà stew
…pursued this person before: déjà woo
…had this feeling of déjà vu before: déjà too
…been on this airplane before: déjà flew
…sketched this portrait before: déjà drew
…ended this relationship before: déjà through

Gastro glossary: Eatymology is a cheeky compendium of modern food terms
Rebecca Tucker  November 11, 2015  12:25 PM EST  (excerpts)

Eatymology is a dictionary (by Josh Friedland), a 200-page compilation of food words recently added to the gastronomical lexicon, most of which have been minted since the year 2000. And in case you have any doubts regarding the veracity of these terms, Eatymology’s sources — ranging from The Wall Street Journal to scholarly articles — are thoroughly cited. In other words: it’s all real.

Friedland himself has coined one gastronomic term that doesn’t actually appear in Eatymology: it’s “borough-washing,” which makes reference to the tendency of certain products to emphasize having been manufactured in Brooklyn, NYC, in order to capitalize on the borough’s hipster cachet. It’s sort of an encapsulation of the whole book: a very real behaviour — and a very apt bit of terminology — with the underpinned suggestion that we’re occasionally a bit precious about this whole food thing.

How we talk now: (8 of) Fifteen new food terms, as defined by Eatymology
Arugulance (noun):
 A perceived attitude of superiority and snobbery manifested in a predilection for pricey—yet delicious—peppery greens.

Foodiot (noun): A fervent gastronome whose outsized obsession with food infuriates others.

Gastro-anomy (noun): Individual anxiety fueled by open-ended food choices and the lack of clear criteria for nutritional decision making.

Honey laundering (noun): Fraud involving trade in tainted honey to skirt U.S. taxes.

Nut rage (noun): An angry reaction to nuts served in an improper manner.

Selmelier (noun): A culinary professional who specializes in salt and its uses in cooking and pairing with food and wine.

Sourdough hotel (noun): A place of lodging for sourdough starters—live cultures of fermented flour, water, and wild yeasts—where they are looked after while their owners go on vacation.

Twecipes (noun): Extremely abbreviated recipes, published via Twitter, that provide cooking instructions in no more than 140 characters.


Quotes about Lamentations

Jerusalem is a festival and a lamentation. Its song is a sigh across the ages, a delicate, robust, mournful psalm at the great junction of spiritual cultures. David K. Shipler

If it were possible to cure evils by lamentation and to raise the dead with tears, then gold would be a less valuable thing than weeping. Sophocles

As long as there’s been poetry, there have been lamentations. Edward Hirsch

How Americans restore trust may be an existential question for their country, then, but it’s ultimately a practical one: What U.S. society needs to answer it in the coming years aren’t lamentations but practical measures, especially among the emerging generations that will define America’s future. Stanley A. McChrystal

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