Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple
Rabbi Dr. Raymond AppleCourtesy


D’varim, the final Book of the Torah, is mostly comprised of Moses’ summing up of his career and his farewell to the Israelite people.

He conveys his message in high-quality rhetoric even though in Egypt he said, "I am not a man of words" and was described as "heavy of speech and heavy of tongue".

Can this be the same Moses? The answer is that a leader goes through many years of crisis and experience, and he develops a competency with words and becomes an orator. Many speakers are not naturally gifted with words, but time makes a difference.

What was it that made Moses "a man of words"? Not genes but life.


The geography of the route from Egypt to Israel is surprisingly interesting.

In the second chapter of D'varim, Moses asks the king of Cheshbon to let the Israelites go through his territory (Deut. 2:26). Moses promises that Israel will keep to the main road and not venture off to the side.

In the Targum the text says, "I will keep strictly to the highway ('b'archa')". Literally these words mean "on the road". Saadya Ga'on goes so far as to say "on the paved road".

Ibn Ezra tells us that the text is telling us that there must have been a well-known highway. So the route to Canaan was no mere brambled wilderness.


Because the haftarah begins "Chazon Yeshayahu ben Amotz", "The Vision of Isaiah the son of Amotz" (Isa. 1:1), this is Shabbat Chazon.

If you take the word "chazon" literally you find the prophet warning the people that he sees only doom if they turn away. But if they accept reproof, the vision of what is ahead will be positive and pleasant.

It is interesting that "chazon" is related to "chazzan", a cantor. Originally the chazzan was the community administrator, who oversaw (hence the link with vision) the community and its worship services.

Gradually the chazzan became the musician/singer/officiant, but the idea of a vision did not disappear as he trained the people to see the visions of spirituality in the prayers.


Tishah B’Av marks the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem and of other sanctuaries as well as countless individuals. It also commemorates the destruction of innumerable books.

The destruction of books is described in the dirge ("kinnah"), "Sha’li S’rufah BaEsh" written by Meir of Rothenburg in the 13th century. Books are regarded in Judaism as people, entitled to respect in life and after death.

The history of literary persecution culminates in the Holocaust but begins in the Bible with attacks on the record of Jeremiah’s prophecies (Jer. 36:23); Maimonides warns that those responsible would have no afterlife. There were many attacks on the Talmud (e.g. in Paris in 1233-4).

The perpetrators sometimes had a bad conscience; for instance, the executioner of the rabbinic teacher Chanina ben Teradyon threw himself into the flames (AZ 17a).

The attackers were often renegade Jews, accusing their former coreligionists of blaspheming Jesus. Such renegades were often abetted by Church Inquisitors.

Jews often went into exile carrying their books; as recently as the Holocaust, the survivors included books.

Our enemies feared our books, our ideas and our ethics. No matter how much force the enemy had, there would be a time when we would prevail and the world would listen to us.

Advice for making a will

Q. I can’t be sure of being sufficiently with-it to tell my family before I die how I hope they will run their lives when I am gone. What do you advise?

A. Write an ethical will. This is a genre of Jewish writing which was widespread for many centuries.

Israel Abrahams published a whole book entitled "Hebrew Ethical Wills", which is not only historically important but practical as guidance for people in your situation.

These wills don’t deal with money or property, or even with philosophy, but with ethical principles.

Though they often begin with the words, "My son", their intended audience is the family as a whole. They express the person’s hope that the family would stay together, pray regularly, be honest in business, deal uprightly with gentiles, and raise their children with moral and ethical principles.

Sometimes they reflect social problems such as the temptation to talk, gossip and distract other people during synagogue services.

Indeed some ethical wills encourage members of the family to stay home and not go to the synagogue in order not to be distracted or led into evil talk.

Often the writer shows a shrewd understanding of his family, for example when he urges them not to be lazy.

We see that earlier generations were not always as pious and learned as we imagine: sometimes a father has to tell his son bluntly not to forget to devote time to his studies and not to give his teacher trouble.

Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple, AO RFD is Emeritus Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem, where he publishes OzTorah, a weekly email list and website with Torah insights from an Australian perspective..