Parashat Va-ethannan

Shabbat Nahamu
Deuteronomy 3:23–7:11
August 4, 2012 / 16 Av 5772

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Marc Wolf, Vice Chancellor and Director of Community Engagement, JTS.

After focusing 30 pages on the fast days decreed upon the community for drought and other calamities, tractate Ta'anit dramatically switches tone on its final page: "Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said: There never were in Israel days of greater joy than the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur" (30b). What intrigues me most about the departure from the flow of the tractate (in addition to Yom Kippur being classified as a day of joy, which some readers may see as a bit shocking) is the incredible emotional turn we take beginning with this mishnah. Seemingly—in the middle of a discussion of the tragedies the Sages linked to the mourning of 17 Tammuz and 9 Av (and the laws of fasting and mourning decreed because of them)—the Sages move unexpectedly to a discussion about communal celebration.

The Gemara teaches that Yom Kippur is a day of joy—a holiday—because of the expiation from sin that inevitably occurs through our fasting and prayers. Fifteen Av sparks more of a debate, and there are a few reasons why it is classified as a day of happiness. In our own time, these dates have remained days of joy, and in modern-day Israel and throughout the Jewish world, Tu b'Av, as it is known (reading the Hebrew letters for 15), is a holiday of love: think of it as the Jewish St. Valentine's day. 

Stepping back for a moment, what we encounter in the text of the Talmud is the tension between communal mourning and communal celebration. We live our lives in that tension—between joy and sadness, life and death, destruction and rebuilding. All too often our moments of joy are interrupted abruptly by tragedy, and dancing turns to dirge. Just as quickly, we are taken by the hand and out of the depths of our sadness, pulled both emotionally and physically into communal celebration.

That tension is palpable today as we commemorate 9 Av. This year, our observance of the myriad of tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people on this day of mourning coincides with the opening of the 2012 Olympic games in London. These games in particular embrace the tension even more so, commemorating as they do the 40 years since the brutal acts of terrorism at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany, when 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were murdered. Tragedy and celebration, mourning and joy.

The debate of the International Olympic Committee on whether to observe a moment of silence at this year's opening ceremony was well covered in the Jewish and secular press. Bob Costas, true to his word, observed his moment of silence when the Israeli athletes were featured in the Olympic March of the Nations and commented, " . . . Tonight with the world watching is the true time and place to remember those who were lost, and how and why they died."

"Tonight with the world watching." There is a global community that comes together for the Olympic Games every other year, and it makes me think of a midrash on one of the more well-known verses from this week's Parashat Va-ethannan. The verse is recited every week in synagogue as the Torah is taken from the ark and placed on the lectern to be read: "V-atem ha'deveikim ba'Adonai Eloheichem, hayim kulchem ha'yom" (And you who held fast to the Lord your God, are all alive today) [Deut. 4:4]. The midrash departs from the plain meaning of the text, and hears not a statement about the past and the generation standing on the precipice of the Land of Israel, but a question for the future generations—for us. It asks, "When will you all have life? When you come together as a people, together, united." Choosing to focus on the plural language of the statement, the midrash comes to teach us that there is an extraordinary power of a people united for a common cause.

So we can imagine that our world community coming together at the opening ceremony would have been the most appropriate time to honor the lives of the Munich 11 who were lost in 1972, but the Olympic Committee chose other times during the games to commemorate the tragedy. We, however, have not passed up the opportunity to remember the fallen Olympians in our communities, and to come together as one to remember their lives.

This past Friday at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, New York, the education faculty did exactly that. Eleven faculty members—one representing each of the fallen athletes—presented the all-too-short biographies of each Olympian, and asked the assembled campers to remember them. By learning about them together, the athletes' lives continue to teach.

Every year, as my family dropped me off at the Mandel JCC in Cleveland, Ohio, to begin my summer experience at Camp Wise, we would drive past the massive memorial to the fallen victims of the 1972 Olympics terrorist attack that stood outside the JCC. The sculpture of the Olympic rings broken into 11 segments representing the fallen athletes is in memory of David Berger, a native Clevelander who made aliyah in 1970. His body was returned to Cleveland after the tragedy, and as much as the sculpture honors him and the others who were killed, on the memorial is also this prayer: " . . . There is an upward motion in the broken rings to suggest the peaceful intent of the Olympics, a search for understanding, and hope for the future."

My hope for the future is that by gathering as individual communities around the Jewish world, we demonstrate the strength of peoplehood the verse from Va-ethannan recognizes—and gives each athlete another breath of life. Before these Olympic Games conclude and the torch of unity is extinguished, find a way to gather as a community and bring their memories to life—hayim kulchem ha'yom. These are their names: 

David Berger, weightlifter
Ze'ev Friedman, weightlifter
Eliezer Halfin, wrestler
Yossef Romano, weightlifter
Amitzur Shapira, track coach
Kehat Shorr, shooting coach
Mark Slavin, wrestler
Andrei Spitzer, fencing coach
Yakov Springer, weightlifting judge
Yossef Gutfreund, wrestling referee
Moshe Weinberg, wrestling coach 


The publication and distribution of the JTS Torah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (
z"l) Hassenfeld.