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Parashat Devarim 5779

August 9, 2019

A D’var Torah for Parashat Devarim
By Rabbi Heidi Hoover (’11)

Devarim is the first significant word of this week’s Torah portion, and therefore it gives the Torah portion its name. Because this week is the first portion in the fifth book of the Torah, Devarim is also the name of the whole book, which is called Deuteronomy in English, from the Greek. Devarim means “words,” and it’s an appropriate name for the book, because Moses spends the whole book of Deuteronomy making his last speech to the Israelites. At the end of it he dies and they prepare to go forward into the Promised Land.

In Judaism, words are very important. We are called the “People of the Book”—a book (books, really) full of words that give us the best information we have about what God wants from us. Words can create and destroy reputations. According to our tradition, God used words to create the world, speaking the world into being.

Words also have limits. Do words that are ignored matter? We don’t control whether or not others pay attention to what we have to say. We don’t control how others understand the meaning of what we say.

Moses begins in Devarim by recounting the Israelites’ history. He’s preparing them to enter the Land, telling them everything he wants them to remember. He doesn’t want them to repeat their mistakes of the past. We say that those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it. The point of that saying is that if you remember the events of the past that were not good, you can take steps to prevent them from happening again.

I’m not sure this is true. We remember events of the past and repeat similar behaviors anyway. Maybe because we believe the outcome will be different, or because we’re not willing to do what it would take to set the future on a different course.

This week, the continuing gun violence in our country is very much in the news and on my mind. We’ve reached a new benchmark, a new record: two mass shootings in 24 hours. No past benchmarks in the horror of gun violence have moved us to make changes to the way guns are regulated (and not regulated) in this country. We are not only repeating history, we seem to be doubling down on it.

I attended a vigil in Brooklyn, NY this week, where many elected officials spoke: the lieutenant governor; members of the House of Representatives, the State Assembly, and City Council. Speaker after speaker said that they are sick of attending vigils like this, because people get killed, we gather, we talk about how awful it is, and nothing changes.

Words are powerful. They can calm, they can educate, they can incite. And there are times when words are not enough. They must be accompanied by action. That action might be calling or writing to elected officials, donating money to organizations that are working for a solution, marching in rallies, voting for candidates who pledge to make change.

This week’s Torah portion is always read the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av, a fast day of mourning that begins this Saturday evening after sundown and lasts until Sunday evening. Tisha b’Av is the Jewish people’s day of mourning for terrible things that have befallen our people, including the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The rabbis of the Talmud say that both the First and Second Temples were destroyed because of sinat hinam—baseless hatred. To me, baseless hatred is hatred of someone based on a group they belong to, not hatred based on the person themselves or some behavior of theirs that has harmed you. Hating immigrants, Jews, women, LGBTQIA+ people, members of a particular race or ethnic group, members of a particular political party—all of these are examples of baseless hatred.

When unchecked or, worse, encouraged, this kind of baseless hatred is closely linked with dehumanization of people based on one part of their identities, and can lead to atrocities like separating children from their parents and holding them in inhumane, unconscionable conditions; mass shootings; murders of individuals; war; and apathy toward people in need.

We have been here before, in the week after a mass shooting. We are going through the same motions as before. What can we do differently so that history will stop repeating itself?

Let us consider our devarim, our words, and the power they have, and the power they don’t have. Let us consider this weekend, on Tisha b’Av, how to counter baseless hatred—remembering also that hatred doesn’t always take the form of burning rage, but sometimes takes the form of dehumanization, turning our back on those who suffer because we don’t care, or because we think they deserve it.

May we work toward the day when history stops repeating itself.
Rabbi Heidi Hoover (AJR ’11) has taught Conversion at AJR. She is the rabbi of B’ShERT: Beth Shalom v’Emeth Reform Temple in Brooklyn, NY.