Last Shabbat, the Shabbat of the Nine Days, we began reading the Book of Deuteronomy: “These are the words which Moshe spoke to all Israel in Trans-Jordan...” (Deuteronomy 1:1).
The entire Torah, from the first word of the Book of Genesis until the final word of the Book of Numbers, has had G-d speaking. To be sure, the Torah tells us countless times what Moshe said; but even on those occasions, we hear the Torah quoting Moshe, not Moshe himself.
And now, at last, when Moshe is 120 years old, after leading the Children of Israel for 40 years, G-d hands him the microphone, so to speak. In these final five weeks of Moshe’s life, he at last gets to say whatever he wants.
As the Ohr ha-Chayim (Rabbi Chayim ben Atar, Morocco and Israel, 1696-1743) puts it:
“‘These are the words...’ – ‘these’, and not the previous ones. As it says, ‘...which Moshe spoke...’ – these are his own words.... These alone are the words which Moshe himself spoke, his own words; whereas of everything that came earlier in the previous four Books, he had said not even one single letter of his own; rather they were the words which he had been commanded to speak, precisely as he had been commanded, with no change at all – not even one letter more or less” (commentary to Deuteronomy 1:1).
And so, when Moshe – “the father of all the prophets” (Vayikra Rabbah 1:15, Devarim Rabbah 3:9, et al.) – began to speak his own words to his beloved people for the first time, how did he begin? Of all the historical experiences which they had shared over the decades – slavery, the Ten Plagues, the Exodus, the Splitting of the Red Sea, the Giving of the Ten Commandments, the Manna, the various rebellions in the desert, the wars and battles they had fought – which did Moshe choose to grab the Jews’ attention?
– “Hashem our G-d spoke to us in Horeb [Mount Sinai], saying: You’ve dwelt long enough at this mountain! Turn and get yourselves going, and come to the mountain of the Amorite and to all its neighbours in the forested flatland , on the mountain, and in the lowlands and the Negev and the coastal plain – the Land of the Canaanite and the Lebanon, up to the great river, the River Euphrates. See – I have given before you the Land: come and inherit the Land!” (Deuteronomy 1:6-8).
So Moshe’s very first words ever to the Children of Israel were G-d’s exhortation to leave Mount Sinai and to come to the Land of Israel.
It is of course deeply significant that ever since the yearly cycle of Torah readings was standardised towards the end of the Second Temple era, and the fixed calendar as calculated by Hillel II (Hillel ben Yehudah, Nasi or head of the Sanhedrin) was adopted in 4119 (359 C.E.), Parashat Devarim is invariably read on the Shabbat of the Nine Days, the time of intense mourning for our lost Land.
And then, the rest of Parashat Devarim is Moshe’s recounting of their journey through the desert to Israel, including his account of the sin of the spies which delayed them in the desert for an entire generation, and concluding with his granting territory in Trans-Jordan to the Tribes of Reuben and Gad, and half the Tribe of Manasseh.
This Shabbat, Parashat Vaetchanan continues Moshe’s first discourse:
“וָאֶתְחַנַּן – I pleaded to Hashem at that time, saying: Hashem my G-d – You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your powerful hand... Please, let me cross and see the good Land on the other side of the Jordan” (Deuteronomy 3:23-25).
When our Sages divided up the Torah into the 54 Parashot with which we are so familiar today, they divided it such that on this first Shabbat after the Nine Days the Torah-reading would begin with Moshe’s pleading to enter the Land of Israel.
This is no idle or capricious happenstance.
Last Shabbat in Parashat Devarim, Moshe reminded his people of the sin of the spies from thirty-eight-and-a-half years previously and its consequence (Deuteronomy 1:19-45) – the sin and its consequence which we commemorated to powerfully last Sunday on the 10th of Av; Parashat Devarim is invariably the Shabbat which immediately precedes the fast of the 9th of Av.
At the time, G-d had specified the punishment that He hereby decreed upon the nation:
“As the number of days that you were spying out the Land, forty days – a day for a year, a day for a year you shall bear your sins, for forty years; thus you will know what it is to defy Me!” (Numbers 14:34).
Though the simple reading is that G-d thereby decreed 40 years of desert wandering on the Children of Israel corresponding to the 40 days that the spies were spying out the Land, there is actually a more sinister meaning.
G-d’s precise words here are: יוֹם לַשָּׁנָה, יוֹם לַשָּׁנָה, “a day for a year, a day for a year”, or more precisely “a day each year, a day each year”. However, if all G-d meant was that they would spend a year in the desert for every day the spies were spying out Israel, then the phrasing should have been שָׁנָה לַיּוֹם, שָׁנָה לַיּוֹם, “a year for a day, a year for a day”.
So why is it the other way round, יוֹם לַשָּׁנָה, יוֹם לַשָּׁנָה, “a day each year, a day each year”?
– The day of the sin was the day each year that the Jews bore their sins; that is to say, every year on the 9th of Av, those Jews who had been condemned to die in the wilderness died (see the Kli Yakar to Numbers 14:34, and compare Hagigah 5b, Tosafot to Sotah 11a s.v. מרים המתינה למשה שעה אחת, and Sifrei, Deuteronomy 2).
Midrash Eichah graphically describes how the 9th of Av was marked year-by-year by that generation:
“Every eve of the 9th of Av, the proclamation went forth: Go out and dig; and then they would lie in their graves. On the 10th of Av, the proclamation went forth: Separate the living from the dead. And in the fortieth year, when the 10th [of Av] came, they saw that no one had died, and they thought that they might have miscalculated the date. So they remained in their graves until the 15th of Av, which [is unmistakable because it] is when the moon is full. And then they made a tremendous celebration, because they knew that the decree [of dying in the desert] had at last been revoked”.
Particularly in our post-Shoah generation, the image of millions of Jews digging their own graves and waiting for death resonates with gruesome familiarity.
The 15th of Av, in Hebrew ט"וּ בְּאָב, Tu be-Av, is a week after the ninth of Av; it is the day about which Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel observed: “There were no better days for Israel than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur” (Ta’anit 4:8).
The Mishnah (loc. cit.) explains why the 15th of Av was such a wonderful day:
“The Jerusalemite girls would go out wearing borrowed white clothes, in order not to shame anyone who didn’t have such…and they would dance in the vineyards. And what would they sing? – ‘Lads, raise your eyes now and see, whom do you choose for yourself? Look not on attractiveness, look rather at the family! “Physical beauty is deceptive, beauty is meaningless; the woman who fears Hashem is the one who is to be praised”’ (Proverbs 31:30); and he would respond, ‘Give to her of the fruits of her hands, and she will be praised within the gates by her own deeds!’ (ibid. 31)”.
That is to say, the 15th of Av was the day for the unmarried young men and women of Jerusalem to find their partners.
The Talmud (Ta’anit 30a) expands upon this: Rav Yehudah quoted his mentor Shmuel a saying that the 15th of Av was the day when men and women of different Tribes could marry each other. That is to say, the 15th of Av is a time for unity among the entire Jewish nation.
It is with this idea that we begin the time of healing after the mourning-period of the Three Weeks and the Nine Days, culminating with Tish’ah be-Av.
And commensurate with this, the Haftarah (the Reading from the Prophets which follows the Reading of the Torah) for this Shabbat is the first of the שֶׁבַע דְּנֶחֱמָתָא, the Seven Haftarot of Consolation, the seven Haftarot from the first Shabbat after Tish’ah be-Av until the final Shabbat of the year:
“נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמִּי, Comfort ye, comfort ye My nation, says your G-d: Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and call to her…” (Isaiah 40:1).
I conclude by offering an observation on the connexion between Tish’ah be-Av, Tu be-Av, and consolation:
As we have seen, Tish’ah be-Av was the date every year in the Sinai Desert when Jews would die; it was therefore the day, year-by-year, when the survivors would begin to sit shiv’ah, the seven-day period of mourning, for their loved ones who had died on the 9th of Av.
Therefore the 15th of Av was the day on which the mourners would complete their period of mourning, rise from the dust, and return to regular life.
And for the rest of our history, the 15th of Av is the day that we begin the healing process after the mourning of the Three Weeks.
And on this Shabbat, the first of the seven Shabbatot of Comfort, the first Shabbat after the 9th of Av, we begin the Torah-reading with Moshe’s pleading to enter the Land of Israel.
 Hebrew עֲרָבָה. The translation “forested flatland” follows Rashi (ad loc.). Targum Onkelos and Targum Yonatan both translate “level ground”. The Radak (Sefer ha-Shorashim) understands עֲרָבָהto mean “desert”. In any event, עֲרָבָהis a cognate of מַעֲרָב, “west”, hence the western part of Israel, meaning the broad, flat expanse of the Jordan Valley.