Enjoy four short thoughts and a video adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe on Parshat Devarim.

The Paradox of Descent

There is a saying of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, that this Shabbat, Shabbat Chazon (when we read as the Haftarah, the famous Vision (Chazon) of Isaiah), is a day when we are presented with a vision of the future Third Temple.

This leads us to understand the connection between the “vision” of the Haftorah, and the Sidra of Devarim, which are always read together on the Shabbat before the 9th of Av.

Devarim begins Moses’ recapitulation of the Torah. The book of Devarim differs from the other four books in being addressed to the generation who were about to enter the Holy Land. They needed counsel and caveat in a way that the previous generations did not.

But they were, nonetheless, to reach something unattained by their fathers. Only by the descent into material concerns, the translation of G‑d’s will into practical action, could the fulfillment be reached of “the rest and the inheritance.”

Devarim, tells of the paradox that through descent comes true uplifting: The highest achievements of the spirit are won in earthly and not heavenly realms. This is also the message of the “vision”—even though this Haftarah is read in the “Nine Days” of mourning for the loss of the Temples, nonetheless through the resultant exile will come the true redemption, the vision which we glimpse (in the words of the Berditchever) in the very moment of our loss
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The Uniqueness of Devarim

The book of Devarim is a 37-day-long speech by Moses, beginning on the first of Shevat and ending on the seventh of Adar—the day of Moses’ passing. In his speech, Moses recaps the major events and laws that are recorded in the Torah’s other four books. Moses wrote all five books. But, as our sages explain, in the first four books Moses transcribed everything as he received it from G‑d, while in Devarim he says it “in his own words.”

In Torah there are two dimensions: a dimension in which both the content and the “packaging” are bestowed from Above, and a dimension in which the divine wisdom and will is packaged in “our own words.” And then we have the book of Devarim, in which the two converge: a human being, Moses, attains a level of identification with the divine wisdom and will on which “his own words” are completely in harmony with their divine content—so much in harmony that they are no less G‑d’s words than those which G‑d dictated in the first four books.

G‑d granted the human mind and mouth a mandate not only to shape His world, but also to participate in the formulation of the Torah—the laws, the blueprint, the “source code” of creation. The first to receive this mandate was Moses, who fulfilled it so perfectly that his “contribution” became one of the five books that form the crux of Torah. Moses’ achievement contains the empowering seeds for all subsequent human partners to the articulation of divine wisdom.
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The Power of the Ordinary

In the beginning of Devarim (Verse 5) Moses “began to expound the Torah with thorough explanation.” Rashi explains that “with thorough explanation” means that Moses translated the Torah into 70 languages.

Of what value was that translation? In that era, all the Jews understood Lashon HaKodesh, the Hebrew in which the Torah was written. What purpose was achieved by translating the text?

Among the explanations given is that by doing so, Moses elevated the secular tongues in which he spoke. Our Sages say: “Everything which G‑d created in His world, He created solely for His glory.” No entity, be it a language, a precious metal, or an invention has a separate, independent identity. It was created by G‑d from absolute nothingness for a purpose: to reveal His glory. Otherwise, it would not exist.

The above motif applies not only with regard to other languages, but to the entire sphere of our involvement in material activities. Why do we spend our lives eating, drinking, and earning money? To show how these activities and the material entities that they involve exist for G‑d’s sake. In doing so, we change the nature of the world and enable the purpose for which G‑d brought it into being to resonate within it.
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Ultimate Self Sacrifice

The conclusion of this week’s Torah portion describes how the tribes of Reuven and Gad went “ahead” of the Jewish people in battle: a) they forged ahead of the other Jews as a separate and distinct entity; b) they also placed themselves at the head of the Jewish army.

By going forth ahead of their Jewish brethren, the warriors of Reuven and Gad placed themselves at much greater risk than the rest of the nation — evidence of mesiras nefesh, total self-sacrifice.

The following two aspects of mesiras nefesh reflect the two ways they did battle.

The first is Mesirus nefesh that is enclothed within intellect, emotion, speech etc., so that one’s performance of Torah and mitzvos is fueled by it. The main aspect of an individual’s spiritual service remains the day-to-day study of Torah and performance of mitzvos; mesiras nefesh is invoked merely as a means to enhance this service, and not as an end in itself. At the outset they placed themselves at the head of the Jewish army, referring to this mesiras nefesh that served as the “head” and conductor of the intellect and emotions, etc.

Thereafter they attained a higher degree of mesiras nefesh, wherein the two tribes would forge ahead on their own as a separate entity. This corresponds to mesiras nefesh that is an end unto itself: be it in a situation that requires actual self-sacrifice, or one that requires mesiras nefesh in potentia.
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A Preferred Home

During the three weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av, we mourn the loss of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem. The Torah tells us, however, that when we study the laws of the Temple’s construction, we are already rebuilding it: