On the confluence of the beginning of Deuteronomy, Tisha b’Av, and the shmita year
North Americans often suffer from the affliction of being uprooted from space and time. Out of a historical or philosophical perspective, some of us call ourselves “post-modern,” literally self-labeling as “not of the now.” Likewise, for professional advancement and personal fulfillment, we value our ability to live or work from wherever. Seeing “remote” on a job posting – supposedly a boon these days – is ironic, given that it also means “removed,” “unlikely,” or “having very little connection or relationship.”
This is not true for everyone today, most especially those ancestrally of these lands, who have traditionally cultivated societies built upon deep kinship. But what of the rest of us? In my native Canada, we are getting better – or at least trying to get better – at acknowledging the history of having uprooted indigenous peoples from their intimacy with specific places. In these first acts of civil teshuva, we can also ask ourselves: what could it mean to belong to a particular place in a particular time?
This question already reverberates powerfully in the Jewish consciousness. There is a narrative harmony between parshat Devarim, the beginning of Deuteronomy, the land-based practice of shmita and the upcoming observance of Tisha b’Av – the intense fast-day remembering our own people’s uprooting from our ancestral home. In Devarim Moses offers a sweeping review of the Torah’s events and teachings, beginning by locating us in space and time, as if to say: if you want to learn what it is to be a part of this people, it can’t be remote and abstract. It must be rooted:
These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan in the wilderness, in the Aravah near Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and Di-zahab…(Deut 1:1).
There’s just one problem: As the midrash and Rashi observe, not only were the Israelites not actually “in the wilderness” at that point in the story (see Num. 36:13 and Deut. 1:5), the places Tophel and Laban don’t exist anywhere in the Torah’s own geography!
Our rabbis reconcile this by suggesting that Tophel and Laban are not actual place names, but rather allusions to significant prior events in the Torah. So this historical reflection is not a dislocation, but rather a merging of space and time in a way that could make even Einstein scratch his head. It is as if the Torah is saying to us: You come from particular places and are located within particular stories. Despite your wandering in the wilderness, you do not belong to nowhere; you belong to some-where and some-time.
Entering Tisha b’Av in this time of shmita, we can ask ourselves: what is the message of thousands of years of lamenting our exile from Jerusalem – whether we understand it literally, spiritually, or both – if not that the past is present to us; that we are not meant to be remote, but that we can be close, connected, and related to each other and to the places that we call Home?
Rabbi Jesse Paikin is a teacher, spiritual leader, and strategic consultant. Most recently, he held a Fellowship from the Jewish Emergent Network, through which he served as a rabbi at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, DC. He is currently a Masters candidate in Clinical Psychology, Education and Spirituality at Columbia University, and is a Research Fellow with M², the Institute for Experiential Jewish Education, where he is researching and designing new pedagogies to influence the ways that Jewish educators teach spiritually. He’s also the creator and host of the short-form explainer podcast, Shoot! which features one big Jewish question each episode, plus answers with integrity and inspiration, and the untold stories behind the questions.