Heart of Humanity Parshat Devarim

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Just prior to the conclusion of the 1978 Camp David Accords, Jimmy Carter submitted a letter for Prime Minister Menachem Begin that caused the Israeli leader to promptly return it to the leader of the free world unsigned. “But I did not ask you to give up Jerusalem,” said the astonished American president. “I only asked that you put it on the negotiating table.”

Begin answered in his characteristically poetic style: “For 2,000 years, we Jews have been reciting a verse from King David’s Psalms at every wedding ceremony: ‘If I forget thee O Jerusalem, may my right hand lose her cunning: Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I hold thee not above my highest joy.’”

“But does Judaism not state that you must give up a limb in order to save the entire organism?” remonstrated Carter. “Yes,” countered Begin, “but not if the limb is one’s heart. No human being can live without a heart. Jerusalem is the heart of Israel and the heart of the Jewish people.”

As Tisha B’Av approaches, we are especially cognizant of the devastating impact of the destructions of our nation’s heart in 586 B.C.E. and 70 C.E. With this in mind, it is important to note that Tisha B’Av is always immediately preceded by this week’s biblical portion, Devarim. What is the significance of this calendrical juxtaposition?

There is a linguistic connection between Parshat Devarim and Tisha B’Av. In our biblical portion, Moses expresses his exasperation with the Jewish people: “How (eichah) am I able to bear your contentiousness, your burdens and your quarrels?!” To underscore the appearance of the word “eichah,” this verse is publicly chanted with the same haunting cantillations as the Scroll of Lamentations (Megillat Eichah), which is read on the evening of Tisha B’Av.

Going one step deeper, this linguistic connection points to the sin that led to Jerusalem’s first and second destruction and subsequent long exile: internal strife among the Jewish People. Our sages defined this contentiousness as “sinat chinam,” causeless hatred. And since “every generation that does not build [the Temple] is as if they destroyed it” [Jerusalem Talmud, Yoma 1:1], it is painfully evident that we have much room for improvement.

Begin was absolutely correct to insist that Jerusalem cannot be placed on the negotiating table. Jerusalem will one day reunite all of humanity within her bosom, for she is the heart of humanity.

We have an obligation to transform this vision to reality by taking it upon ourselves on a daily basis to do our part to increase love without cause. B’ezrat Hashem, in this merit, we will witness the full rebuilding of Jerusalem speedily and in our days.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chief rabbi of Efrat.

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