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Sefer D’varim/Deuteronomy, Shabbat Hazon, Tisha B’Av, and My Encounter with Congressman John Lewis, of Blessed Memory

“V’Eileh Had’varim asher diber Moshe el Bnai Yisrael…” And these are the words that Moses addressed to Israel on the other side of the Jordan, through the wilderness…” The book of D’varim/Deuteromy begins with these words!  With “words,” Moses our teacher begins his review of the history of the Israelite nation at the conclusion of the forty year period of wandering in the desert on their journey to the Promised Land.  Moses has become a Man of Words!  With a sense of great urgency based on the awareness of his impending death, Moses teaches the new generation of Israelites who have been born in the desert G-d’s commandments. When we first met Moses, he stated that he was not a Man of Words(Exodus 4:10). But after forty years of teaching, cajoling, adjudicating disputes, and criticizing the behavior of the people, Moses has become a Man of Words!

One of the major differences of Deuteronomy from the other four books of the Torah is that much of this book is spoken in the first person.  We learn the three discourses that Moses speaks directly to Bnai Yisrael in his own voice! Moses tells us the exact date on which he begins his farewell teachings and discourses: “It was in the fortieth year(of wandering), on the first day of the eleventh month(Sh’vat), that Moses addressed the Israelites…”(1:3).  He begins his discourses just 37 days before he dies!

Moses is annoyed that the people had refused to enter the Promised Land, after two spies had brought a favorable report. He reminds the people that the Lord decided to punish the evil generation of the desert.  Eventually, they proceed on their journey.  They are confronted with many battles waged by other nations whom they encounter on the way.  At the end of this week’s portion, Moses apportions the conquered lands of the Emorites who did not allow the Israelites to traverse their land to the Israelite tribes of Reuven, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh.  Moses instructs his successor, Joshua, who will take the people into the new Land, since he is forbidden by G-d to go.

This coming Shabbat is called Shabbat Hazon, the Sabbath of “the Vision.” The assigned prophetic portion is taken from the first chapter of the Book of Isaiah:

“The prophecies/visions of Isaiah, son of Amoz, who prophesied concerning Judah and Jerusalem the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, Kings of Judah.” 

Shabbat Hazon always precedes the observance of the Ninth Day of Av, Tisha B’av, the second 25 hour fast day in our calendar.  Tisha B’av is an historic observance, commemorating many national calamities, such as the destruction of the First(586 BCE) and Second(70 CE)Temples, Jewish Expulsion from England(1290 CE), the Spanish Exile(1492 CE), and the beginning of World War One(1914 CE). Tisha B’av will be observed this coming Wednesday evening and Thursday, July 29th and 30th.

During this past week, the United States lost another “Man of Words,” Congressman John Lewis, of blessed memory. In May 2013, I was privileged to have encountered Congressman Lewis while I was serving as Associate Professor at the Miller Cantorial School of the Jewish Theological Seminary. I was conductor of the student chorus of the Miller Cantorial School.  The chorus always sings at the JTS graduation.  Selecting the music for our presentation was a complicated choice that required approval of several administrators.   I had offered an arrangement of a Sephardic melody, featuring a few of our instrumentally trained students along with the chorus.

Earlier in the academic year,  we had been introduced to Richard Smallwood’s “gospel” arrangement of Psalm 121, entitled Total Praise.  Our students sang this arrangement beautifully, and it became part of our repertoire. Congressman Lewis was granted an honorary doctorate at the JTS graduation, and then gave a ringing and moving address about the need for the JTS students to  “make trouble’”-to agitate on behalf of important causes and values that we have derived from our divinely inspired Biblical texts.  He talked about his desire to be a preacher from a very young age, and described “preaching to the chickens in my front yard,” as a young boy!

In the middle of his message, I decided that we should sing Total Praise as our anthem.  The JTS graduation is very meticulously planned and choreographed, and I had literally seconds to make this change.  At the conclusion of Congressman Lewis’s address, i ran to the directors of the Cantorial School and the dean of the department of religious services for their immediate approval.  Next stop was at the stage seat of the Provost since he would have to make the announcement.  After slight hesitation, he approved, and  began, “The music of Congressman Lewis’s address has caused a change in the music to be sung by the Cantorial School Chorus.  They will now sing Psalm 121.”  I told our pianist to be ready and passed the word to the students as they took their places. We then sang Total Praise with energy, precision, and passion!

Our performance was followed by a tumultuous reception that was loud and sustained!

One more hour had to pass before the graduation would conclude and I would be able to speak with JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen about this abrupt change. In the robing area, I approached the Chancellor, feeling contrite, and I apologized for disrupting the protocol of the graduation.

His response was amazing! “Not only am I not upset, I am ecstatic!  Congressman Lewis turned to me following the performance and told me that this version of Psalm 121 was his absolute favorite, and it was sung in his church every Sunday morning!”

I am sure that the heavenly choir sang Psalm 121, “I will lift my eyes to the heavens, the source of my help,” as the Neshamah/Soul of John Lewis ascended heavenward. 

May his memory be for a blessing!

Shabbat Shalom U’m’vo-rach!

Here is the link to our performance.

Hazzan David F. Tilman


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