When I Left Egypt—When I Left Jerusalem / Dvar Torah, Parshat Devarim

This dvar Torah, translated from this week’s issue of Shabbat Shalom , the weekly Shabbat pamphlet of the religious peace group Oz Veshalom is dedicated to the memory of my father and teacher Sanford “Whitey” Watzman, who left us four years ago on 2 Av.

Can there be two more contradictory statements describing God attending to the voice of his people than the one at the Burning Bush and the one at the Plains of Moab? At the first, God tells Moses: “I have marked well the plight of my people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I am mindful of their sufferings” (Exodus 3:7). In contrast, in this week’s portion, Devarim, when Moses recounts the story of the spies and the Ma’apilim (those who sought to disregard God’s decree that the members generation that left Egypt would not enter the Land of Israel), he declares: “Again you wept before the Lord; but the Lord would not heed your cry or give ear to you” (Deuteronomy 1:45). The first statement prepares Moses for the Exodus from Egypt. The second prepares the Children of Israel for the ultimate destruction of their commonwealth and the Exile.

But the contradiction actually goes well beyond that. On a simple reading of Exodus, the redemption from Egypt seems not to be the result of any good deeds or merits of the Children of Israel. When we left Egypt, we left because the term of the Exile, pronounced to Abraham at the time of the Covenant between the Parts (Genesis 15), had come to an end. Presumably the Israelites were crying out to God throughout their enslavement, and did not begin doing so only when Moses reached the Burning Bush. The same pattern appears later, at the time of the Return to Zion (Shivat Tzion) from the Babylonian Exile. This second redemption begins after the seventy-year term prophesized by Jeremiah comes to an end, not because the Exiled Jews have been righteous: “In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, when the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah was fulfilled, the Lord roused the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia to issue a proclamation throughout his realm” (Ezra 1:1).

But things were quite different when we left Jerusalem, at the time of the destruction of both the First and Second Temples. The Jews go into exile not because the prearranged date for it has arrived, not because a term of years was set in advance for their sojourn in the Land of Israel. The Torah and prophets stress that the Land vomited the people out because of their evil actions.

Read moreWhen I Left Egypt—When I Left Jerusalem / Dvar Torah, Parshat Devarim

Not a Third Time — Dvar Torah in Memory of My Dad

Haim Watzman

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An English translation of the dvar Torah in memory of my father, Sanford (Whitey) Watzman, that appears in this week’s issue of Shabbat Shalom , the weekly Torah portion sheet of the religious peace movement Oz VeShalom, on the third anniversary of his death.

The dawn of sovereignty and the end of sovereignty, divine providence and divine concealment, standing on the verge of the Land of Israel and gong into exile—the first chapters of the book of Deuteronomy, which we read this week in the annual cycle of Torah readings, seem to mirror and contrast the themes of the fast of the Ninth of Av, which always falls in the week after it is read. The cycle is deliberately arranged so that we always begin our reading of Deuteronomy on Shabbat Hazon, the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, the fast that mourns the destruction of the First and Second Temples and the beginnings of the Babylonian and Roman exiles. The most commonly cited connection between the fast and the Torah reading is that the word “eichah,” the exclamation that means “how can this be endured!” (The word also appears in the week’s haftarah from Isaiah and is a refrain in the Scroll of Lamentations read on Tisha B’Av.) But there is much more. The clear message conveyed by the days between Shabbat Hazon and Tisha B’Av is that the Jewish nation was given a chance to establish an independent and moral society, one acting in the name of heaven and not for its own aggrandizement—and that we failed the test badly.

My father worked for many years as a journalist out of a sense of mission and a firm belief that a free press is one of the cornerstones of democratic society. And he believed that democracy was the best (if far from perfect) way of establishing and maintaining a moral human society. Democracy requires citizens to take responsibility for themselves. On the face of it, that seems to be the opposite of what the Torah demands.

Read moreNot a Third Time — Dvar Torah in Memory of My Dad

You’re a Good Man, Bibi Brown — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

illustration by Avi Katz
“Fire! Fire! The Temple’s on fire!” I cry out, waking myself up.

Ilana rolls over and glares at me. “Calm down,” she says. “Your freedoms do not include shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded Temple.”

“Ohmigod,” I say. “I had the weirdest nightmare.”

“It must be something you didn’t eat,” Ilana suggests.

“I was a dog,” I say.

“A dog?”

“In a comic strip. And there was this music …”

“This is the fluff of which dreams are made?” Ilana sighs. “Let’s hear it…”

Read moreYou’re a Good Man, Bibi Brown — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

A Time To Be Icky: Tisha B’Av and James Dickey’s “The Sheep-Child”

Haim Watzman

It’s summer and the Jews are being perverse again. Instead of singing of sand and sea, next week we’ll spend a day fasting and lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem. The lamentation lyrics get pretty sickening—blood flows, people get tortured and burned alive, famished women cook and eat their own children. Why do we need this annual national gross-out?

I’ll answer that question by adducing a stomach-turning, very un-Jewish, all-American poem, James Dickey’s “The Sheep Child,” which you can read and hear Dickey read on the wonderful poetry pages of The Atlantic, here. (If that doesn’t work, try the Poetry Foundation).

The poem is about a myth, an untruth, that becomes true. The monster in the jar becomes true not because it actually can be found in a back corner of a museum in Atlanta, but because it brings about a change in human behavior. There is an effect whose cause is an object fabricated by the human mind.

The reality of the fantasy is underlined by the poem’s structure. The first stanza states the problem, the huge force of the animal instinct that drives boys to copulate with the earth itself. But there’s something that is taboo, so forbidden that it overcomes even that nearly irresistible desire. Animals are off limits.

The second stanza is the story that the boys tell, the object they have created in their minds. The third stanza is the result: the story has directed the boys’ desire to its proper object. Perhaps the story was simply a fairy tale?

. . . Are we
Because we remember, remembered
In the terrible dust of museums?”

Read moreA Time To Be Icky: Tisha B’Av and James Dickey’s “The Sheep-Child”