Tonight, the finale of our five-act play begins. As the curtain opens and the Book of Deuteronomy begins, the saga of our ancestors’ wanderings is over. Now, we see Moses standing at the banks of the Jordan River, which he knows God will not let him cross. The people are assembled and awaiting his farewell address.
This is Moses’s last opportunity to impart wisdom, warnings, and blessings to the generation he birthed in the wilderness over forty years. You’d think that the opening scene would be high drama – highlighting Moses as law-giver, as beloved of God. But instead, this is what we get:
א אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן בַּמִּדְבָּר בָּעֲרָבָה מוֹל סוּף
בֵּין־פָּארָן וּבֵין־תֹּפֶל וְלָבָן וַחֲצֵרֹת וְדִי זָהָב: ב אַחַד עָשָׂר יוֹם מֵחֹרֵב דֶּרֶךְ הַר־שֵׂעִיר עַד קָדֵשׁ בַּרְנֵעַ: ג וַיְהִי בְּאַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה בְּעַשְׁתֵּי־עָשָׂר חֹדֶשׁ בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָֹה אֹתוֹ אֲלֵהֶם: ד אַחֲרֵי הַכֹּתוֹ אֵת סִיחֹן מֶלֶךְ הָאֱמֹרִי אֲשֶׁר יוֹשֵׁב בְּחֶשְׁבּוֹן וְאֵת עוֹג מֶלֶךְ הַבָּשָׁן אֲשֶׁר־יוֹשֵׁב בְּעַשְׁתָּרֹת בְּאֶדְרֶעִי:
ה בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב הוֹאִיל מֹשֶׁה בֵּאֵר אֶת־הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת
“These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.—Through the wilderness, in the Arabah near Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and Di-zahab, it is eleven days from Horeb to Kadesh-barnea by the Mount Seir route.—
“It was in the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, that Moses addressed the Israelites in accordance with the instructions that the LORD had given him for them, after he had defeated Sihon king of the Amorites, who dwelt in Heshbon, and King Og of Bashan, who dwelt at Ashtaroth [and] Edrei.
“On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this Teaching. . . . saying…“
No emotion. No reflection. What we get from the text is a GPS readout, and reminders of two recent military victories, before eileh had’varim, before Moses gets a chance to speak.
So of course I sit here and I wonder: why. Why does Torah put the start of Moses’s final sermon in abeyance for a moment to give us this particular information. Why does the Torah re-interate for us these particular details, out of the entire first four books.
So of course I go hunting, scanning these verses for some clue. And I found one. Actually, I found two. Two clues. Two words that might explain it all.
The Torah conjures up two defeated kings, to whom this rag-tag bunch of second-generation former slaves looked like Pharaoh’s army at its most mighty. King Sihon, we are reminded, lived in a place called cheshbon. King Og was from a place called bashan.
Bashan is a form of the word bashnah or ba-yi-shanut, which means “shame” or “humiliation.” Cheshbon is Hebrew for reckoning or calculation – for taking account of something or, in modern Hebrew, for a bill at a restaurant or a ticket at a shop.
In the context of the original story, it makes sense that the two kings that Israel defeated be depicted in their shame and degradation, puzzling over just where they went wrong and taking stock of their losses.
But tonight, in this context, what’s the take-away for us?
As it happens, this introduction to the notions of shame and self-reckoning lead us directly into the saddest and most troubling day in the entire Jewish year.
Tisha b’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, begins twenty-four hours from now, at sundown. It was on this day – according to tradition – that many of the most tragic and calamitous events in Jewish history took place, including the destruction of the First and Second Temples, major exiles through the middle ages, and significant events in the Shoah during World War Two.
Tisha b’Av is a day of fasting and sitting on low stools, reciting prayers of mourning and reading the Book of Lamentations. Lamentations, or Eicha in the Hebrew, was written in the wake of the First Temple’s destruction and the exile of the people to Babylon. Much of it not only recounts the horror of destruction – but acknowledges that it was due to the communal sins of the Jewish people, who beg God to take the penitent back in love.
“Eicha– alas!” – the author cries out!
“The precious children of Zion; Once valued as gold— Alas, they are accounted as earthen pots, Work of a potter’s hands! . . . The LORD vented all His fury, Poured out His blazing wrath; He kindled a fire in Zion Which consumed its foundations. . . . It was for the sins of her prophets, The iniquities of her priests, Who had shed in her midst The blood of the just. . . .The LORD’s countenance has turned away from them, He will look on them no more. They showed no regard for priests, No favor to elders.
“Even now our eyes pine away In vain for deliverance. The crown has fallen from our head; Woe to us that we have sinned! . . . Take us back, O LORD, to Yourself, And let us come back; Renew our days as of old! For truly, You have rejected us, Bitterly raged against us. Take us back, O LORD, to Yourself, And let us come back; Renew our days as of old!”
Reminders of shame and degradation – which open the book of Deuteronomy tonight – are only a prelude to what is to come. For the next seven weeks, leading up to Rosh Hashanah and the New Year, we are going to be taken on an intensely personal emotional and spiritual journey that echoes the way the Haggadah describes our ancestors in the wilderness: from catastrophe to consolation. From disgrace to dignity.
Tonight we get the warning. Tomorrow night, we will be dropped into the abyss of destruction and lament, loneliness and separation. But from then on, we rise from the darkness of our mourning.
We uncover the mirrors of mourning to see ourselves in a different light. We put the shame behind us as we develop our cheshbon nefesh, the accountings of our lives. What did we lose this year, that we need to regain? What did we take on that holds us back?
We think of this as the work we do in the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But, oh no, the work starts tonight.
Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, who was the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in the Land of Israel during the British Mandate before independence, taught that people gave all kinds of chesbonot – all kinds of calculations – as to why they couldn’t move to Israel when they were called. But those calculations were really excuses for not doing anything different. When we write out our cheshbonot – our self-assessments – we must calculate all the reasons why we must change the way we think and the way we behave. Only then can we move forward.
That was the message I think that Moses was trying to send to the Israelites as he prepared them to cross the Jordan and begin their new life in the Promised Land. And that’s the message Torah gives us tonight, as we move, step by step, from darkness to light, from isolation to community, from an old year littered with loss to a New Year full of promise.
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our mission on earth. As we say together: Amen.
©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin
 Deuteronomy 1:1-5
 Torah Gems Vol III, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, translated by Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, Ltd., 1992), p. 173, commentary to Parashat Devarim.