Every single year we read from Parshas Devarim on the Shabbos right before Tisha B'Av (the ninth of Av). Obviously there is a connection between parshas Devarim and Tisha B'Av (See Megillah, chap. 4, "Bnei Ha-ir", pg. 31b, Rebbi Shimon ben Elazar; Ezra the Scribe). The question is, "What is that link?"
Before we begin answering this question, let us share some information about the preciousness of Sefer Devarim (the Book of Deuteronomy).
Has anybody ever asked you what your favorite Mussar sefer (book of morals, ethics, virtues, and self-improvement) is? I have been asked that question before. It would be interesting to hear different people's answers and their reasoning. However, the Yid Hakadosh (Rebbi Ya'akov Yitchak Rabinowitz, 1766-1813, Pshischa, Poland) said that his favorite Mussar sefer was Sefer Devarim. So attached was the Yid Hakadosh to Sefer Devarim that he read several verses from it each day of the year.
He explained the reason why. He said that Sefer Devarim has a huge advantage over any other Mussar sefer out there. This advantage can be understood in the following way.
It is more beneficial to hear rebuke from a living person than it is to read it from a book. This is because when a person admonishes another from a place of true care, love, and concern, we can then apply the age old adage which states, "Words which come from the heart enter into the heart" (preface to Likuttei Amarim). This feeling is absent when reading reproof from a text.
This is why it more beneficial to study Mussar from Sefer Devarim than from any other source. This is because the Divine Presence spoke through Moshe Rabbenu's throat (Zohar, Pinchas, pg. 232a). Since God is eternal, it is as if Moshe Rabbenu is still speaking to us right now. The words of Sefer Devarim are emanating from Moshe's heart right now. As such, they are penetrating our hearts this very moment. This live rebuke is something which is missing from other Mussar books.
This is why the opening verse of Sefer Devarim says, "These are the words that Moshe spoke to ALL of Israel" (Dt. 1:1). This does not just mean that Moshe spoke these words to all the Jews that were alive at that time, but it means that Moshe spoke these words to ALL the Jewish people throughout the generations. Every time we open a Sefer Devarim to study from, it is as if we are streaming it live, with Moshe Rabbenu speaking to us directly.
This is why the Yid Hakadosh preferred Sefer Devarim over any other Mussar work, to the point that he would study a few verses from it every single day. When a Jew studies Sefer Devarim, he will not walk away empty handed. Rather, it will have a positive impact on him by opening his heart.
Not only does Sefer Devarim have the capacity to open the heart, but it even has the ability of opening the heavens. Let's see this right now.
The Midrash (Devarim Rabbah, 11:8) says that before Moshe died, he made one request from God. Moshe asked Hashem to open up all the gates of heaven so that everybody could see that there is none other than God.
Rebbi Avraham Galanti (Kol Bochim) says that there is a hint in the Torah that this request was fulfilled. This hint can be understood once we establish that there are 955 firmaments or skies in the heaven. We know that there are 955 skies in heaven from the Hebrew word for "The heaven" which is "Hashamayim." The word "Hashamayim" is numerically 955, indicating that there are 955 firmaments in heaven.
Parenthetically, some of you may be wondering how Rebbi Avraham Galanti can suggest that there are 955 skies when the Talmud (Chagiga, chap. 2, "Ein Dorshin", pg. 12b, Reish Lakish) says that there are only seven skies. Perhaps we could suggest answering this difficulty by proposing that there are seven major skies. However, when broken down to their minor skies contained within them, there are 955 in all.
By now you may be thinking that we made a gross mistake, because "Hashamayim's" numerical value is actually only 395. How did we get to the number 955?
The answer to this is based on the fact that there are five Hebrew letters that change in shape when they appear at the end of a word (Megillah, chap. 1, "Megillah Nikreis", pg. 2b-3a). They are: chuf, mem, nun, phey, and tzaddi. These five letters are known as "ending letters." Since these letters have different shapes, they also have different numerical values. Their numerical values increase proportionately.
For example, towards the end of the Hebrew alphabet, the letter kuf equals 100. The letter reish equals 200. The letter shin equals 300. The letter taf equals 400. We may have thought that the taf is the last letter of the alphabet. It's not. We must continue. The ending chuf equals 500. The ending mem equals 600. The ending nun equals 700. The ending phey equals 800. The ending tzaddi equals 900. Now, go back to the beginning of the alphabet. Take the letter aleph and spell it out. That spelling would be: aleph, lamed, phey. Change the vowels around and it spells "Eleph" (a thousand).
Theoretically, the Hebrew alphabet reaches the number 1,000. If one wants to arrive at a higher number than 1,000, he would then need to join different letters together. In any case, when we look at the Hebrew word "Hashamayim", we will realize that although it has a "regular" mem in it which equals 40, it also has an ending mem in it which equals 600. When you add up all the letters in this way, the sum total is 955. This hints to us that there are indeed 955 firmaments in heaven.
Now, Moshe was the one who spoke the words which later became Sefer Devarim (Dt. 1:1). When Moshe spoke, he orchestrated that there should be specifically 955 verses in Sefer Devarim. Moshe intended that the 955 verses of Sefer Devarim should be able to open the 955 gates of the 955 skies in heaven. Thus, Moshe's request was fulfilled. Moshe wanted that all the gates of all the firmaments should open. He was granted his wish when God accepting his words as Sefer Devarim which forms 955 verses which have the power to unlock the 955 gates.
This explains an ancient Jewish custom of reading the entire Sefer Devarim on the night of Hoshanah Rabbah (Arizal, Sha'ar Hakavanos, Drush Chag Hasuccos, pg. 103). This is because Hoshanah Rabbah is the final day of judgement when the verdicts of life and death, etc., are delivered to us by the angels.
Therefore, we recite the entire Sefer Devarim, which contains 955 verses, on the night of Hoshanah Rabbah, in order to open all 955 gates in heaven, allowing our prayers to reach God. This is a last ditch effort to move Hashem to recall any angel carrying a harsh verdict and change it into a sweet one (Shvilei Pinchas).
Since we require the verses of Sefer Devarim to unlock and open the gates of heaven, one can deduce that the status quo of those firmaments is that they are closed. The reason for this is as follows.
There are four elements in this world. They are: fire, water, wind, and dirt. The Hebrew words of the four elements are: aish, mayim, ruach, and uhfur. The numerical value of those four words is 955! Isn't that interesting?
Moreover, God appointed angels to govern just about everything in this world. The angels that are appointed over the four elements are: Michael, Gavriel, Nuriel, and Rephael. The numerical value of those four names is 955! How do you like that? What does all of this come to teach us?
Every person has been created with all four elements. In some people one element is dominant, while in other people a different element in dominant. Each person has a different percentage of each element within them. These various combinations help shape the person's personality.
The four elements can be abused to generate negative character flaws. For example, fire can generate anger and arrogance. Wind can generate derogatory speech. Water can generate lustful passions. Dirt can generate sadness.
When the four elements (which are numerically 955) are misused in this way, it causes the 955 gates of the skies to close, thus creating distance between ourselves and God.
However, the four elements can be used productively, producing positive character traits. For example, fire can generate humility. (When I first saw this, I wondered how fire is connected to humility. Perhaps we could suggest that fire burns things into ashes. Ashes are a sign of humility, like it says by Avraham, "I am but dust and ash", Gn. 18:27). This humility fixes the dark side of fire which is arrogance. Wind can generate holy speech with words of Torah and prayer, which fixes the dark side of wind which is derogatory speech. Water can generate holiness since we immerse ourselves in water for purity, which fixes the dark side of water which is the pursuit of lustful passions. Dirt can generate happiness because it represents being happy with the bare minimum, which fixes the dark side of dirt which is sadness.
The four angels (whose numerical value equals 955) assist us in using the four elements in a positive way, thus unlocking and opening the 955 gates of the 955 skies (Shvilei Pinchas quoting Mesilos Chachmah).
It is important to mention that our prayers ascend to God through the 955 firmaments. However, when we had a Temple, the prayers did not have to ascend through the skies in order to reach God, because God caused His Divine Presence to rest in the Temple. As such, our prayers went directly to God in the Temple. This is why the Temple was called a "Beis Tefillah" (House of Prayer"; Isa. 56:7). Not only because we prayed from that house, but because our prayers were accepted in that house.
But, when Moshe prophesied about the destruction of the Temples, he realized that the Divine Presence would leave this world and climb to the top of the 955th sky, in order to get as far away as possible from the terrible stench of sin that was created on Earth. The gates of those skies would be closed and locked, thus creating distance between man and God.
Therefore, Moshe orchestrated that his book, Sefer Devarim, would contain specifically 955 verses so that they would serve as the key to unlock and open the 955 gates, thus creating closeness once again between man and God (Shvilei Pinchas based on Megaleh Amukos, Vaeschanan).
This is why we begin reading from Sefer Devarim every year on the Shabbos right before Tisha B'Av. It is because at this time of year we increase our mourning over the destruction of our Temples. This reminds us of our distance from God. We remember how God's Divine Presence left this world to dwell on top of the 955th sky. We feel alone all the way down here on Earth. Therefore, we begin the process of opening those barrier gates by reading from Sefer Devarim. Hopefully, the process will be completed, and we will once again be close to God when the Third and final Temple gets built (Shvilei Pinchas).
The practical application this time would be to read at least one sentence from Sefer Devarim every single day of the year, and say, "May this verse open another gate of my heart, and open another heavenly gate of separation, bringing me closer to God."
So, may we all be blessed that our prayers, coupled with our learning from Sefer Devarim, serve to break through all 955 barriers in our hearts and in Shamayim which were created by our abuse of the four elements, and thereby draw closer to Hashem, in order that we witness the building of the ultimate Beis Tefillah when Tisha B'Av will be celebrated as a festival, not as a day of mourning.