It is not up to you to finish the work, but you are not excused from your part in it – Pirke Avot
We begin our immersion into the Book of Devarim, Deuteronomy, this week. The first parashah of this book is always the prescribed learning for the Shabbat immediately preceding Tisha B’Av.
Tisha B’Av, literally “the ninth [day] of [the Jewish month of] Av” is a designation similar to “Nine Eleven” in U.S. history. It is a date that everyone recognizes, and that we are urged to learn from, if we would live and thrive.
Even as Yom Kippur offers us a day to contemplate our personal behavior, Tisha B’Av exists to draw our attention to the behavior of our Jewish community. It is, then, no accident that the Rabbis who fixed the passages of our Torah Study chose the first parashah of Devarim, in the wake of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, to seek meaning for our own community.
In Devarim we find Moshe our leader inviting us to consider the long perspective of the Israelite wandering, from a place without agency to the challenge of free will and responsibility. There is no message more urgent for us right now, in the shadow of Tisha B’Av which begins tomorrow evening at sundown.
Even as our ancestors looked at the devastation around them wreaked by Rome (responding to the Jewish rebellion against that empire) and found inspiration in the sacred text, so we look upon the climate emergency, mass extinctions, and civil rights struggle of our time. The long perspective of Devarim asks us to consider what has come to be called the Anthropocene Epoch, defined as the time period of human impact on the Earth’s ecosystems.
On this Shabbat Jewish tradition mandates: we will not contemplate solutions, and we will not yet entertain the encouragement of hope: that will come, next week. Instead we must make room for the contemplation of despair. Our ancestors learned that it is a dead end to pretend that nothing bad is happening. We must summon the courage to recognize that we have feelings of sadness, anger, and fear, and to understand that these emotions are natural. They must be honored and processed before we can truly move beyond them.
When one sees oneself as an isolated individual, cast in the Western mold of what sociologists call sovereign selfhood, there is no reliable Rock to which to cling when one’s own learning and reasoning processes break down. As the social psychologist Roy Baumeister teaches, the self is not meant to carry its own weight.
The message of personal participation in community behavior and fate is rather, as Jewish theology teaches, that we must see our individual selves as irreducibly communal. We will perish as individuals, or we will survive because we come to see that we are part of all of existence. It gives us our meaning even as we “till it and tend it,” as the first mitzvah of Genesis commands.