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Vaetchanan 5769

By: Rav David Milston

 
The following essay is an excerpt from the just-released final volume of the 5-volume series of essays on parshat hashavua, The Three Pillars, written by Rav Milston and produced by the Midrasha.  To read more about the series, or to order volumes or the set, please see our website at www.harova.org/three-pillars or be in touch with Leiba at office@harova.org.
 
 
The Comfort of Eternity – Rav David Milston
 
After discussing the connection between Parashat Devarim, the Haftarah of Shabbat Chazon, and Megillat Eicha, we will now study the connection between Shabbat Nachamu (literally the ‘Shabbat of comforting’ named after the opening words of the Haftarah from Yeshayahu, 40) and Parashat VaEtchanan.
 
According to numerous sources in Chazal,[1] the date of Tisha B'Av was designated for Chorban many years ago. The spies come back from their 40-day mission on the evening of the Ninth of Av; they convince the people it is too dangerous to enter the Promised Land. The reaction of the masses is uncontrollable hysteria. The Almighty, again witnessing the faithlessness of the people, immediately tells them that because they had cried for nothing on this night, it would become a night for real crying for generations to come.[2] It is no coincidence the parasha always read immediately before the fast day is Parashat Devarim, in which we read about the spies (Devarim, 1:20-38) – the real source of all our troubles.
 
As we enter Parashat VaEtchanan, we do so in search of comfort. Even though we find some in the words of Yeshayahu, we need not wait until the Haftarah for rejuvenation.
 
This parasha recalls Matan Torah. The Pachad Yitzchak[3] (extending a theme in the Maharal)[4] suggests the Ten Commandments written here were those written on the new tablets, inscribed by Moshe after smashing the first ones. Hence the linguistic differences between the Aseret HaDibrot in Parashat Yitro and the Aseret HaDibrot in our parasha.
 
If we accept this suggestion, we discover a peculiarity in the text. When we read the Aseret HaDibrot, we read them using the wording of the second tablets and not the first, even though the verses in VaEtchanan seem to be talking of the original Ma'amad Har Sinai. [5] Why? 
 
We could suggest Hashem had forgiven the people for the Golden Calf, hence the second set of tablets. By reviewing the new tablets while retaining the context of the original revelation, the people were being told their status had been restored to what it was during Matan Torah.
 
There can be no more comforting a message following Chorban. All is not lost; we have the ability to "renew our days as of old." (Eicha, 5:21) If the destruction of the Beit Mikdash represents spiritual exile, the smashing of the tablets is no less a national disaster. However, with the right leadership and the people's pure intentions – however great the sin – it can be rectified.
 
Imagine the calamity facing the people moments after Moshe Rabbeinu came down from Har Sinai… from the greatest of heights to the lowest of lows. Yet with determination and application, the people were able to pull themselves up and re-ascend the ladder of spiritual excellence, to the degree that our parasha refers to the Second Tablets in the context of the original revelation.
 
There was no greater disaster for Am Yisrael than the destruction of our two Batei Mikdash. Over the last two millennia, the casual observer might think we had been dismissed from the King's Palace for irresponsible behavior. Because of our stubborn insistence to under-fulfill as a people, the locks were changed and we were destined to wander and suffer aimlessly through eternal exile.
 
However, rather than confirm such a dismal prognosis, Parashat VaEtchanan carries on from where the penultimate verse in Eicha (quoted above) left off, by showing us there is a way back. We can "renew our days as of old"; there is hope. Just as the people were able to reverse the dire consequences of the Golden Calf, so too we have it within us to come back and build the third, most glorious and permanent Beit Mikdash.
 
If the reading of Matan Torah immediately after Tisha B'Av was not enough to raise our spirits, we must be inspired further by what is probably the most famous verse of all:
 
“Hear O Israel, the Lord (Hashem) our God (Elokeinu), the Lord (Hashem) is One.”
(Devarim, 6:4)
 
Why does this verse stand out? Why are we specifically instructed to read this verse twice a day?
 
Rashi notes that the first half of the verse refers to Hashem as "our God," whereas the latter part uses the general term "One." He explains that presently, He is only the God of Israel, but the day will come when the entire world will proclaim Him the only One.
 
Indeed, the Midrash in Bereishit Rabbah (41) explains this was the essence of our people’s social and philosophical reality from the outset. Avraham ‘Haivri’ was so named because he took one philosophical side (‘aiver’) whilst the rest of the world stood opposed. He was a minority view constantly fighting to persuade the masses that he held the true key to the meaning of life in this world. His view was never the popular one, but it was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Avraham persisted in the knowledge and belief he would be vindicated at the end of days.
 
That is why we repeat this verse twice daily. To strengthen our convictions. A Jew needs to be reminded he holds the truest beliefs, every day. And the day will come when the ‘giants’ of the world will happily acquiesce to those beliefs.
 
Human nature prefers to flow with the current and not swim against it; how much more so when that current reflects the power and substance of the ‘educated’ and ‘cultured’ western world. For centuries, the Jewish people have stood alone like Avraham, often at tremendous cost. In the shadow of Tisha B'Av, or the Holocaust, there may be those who ask the $6 million question – the "Chosen People" – chosen for what?
 
It was hard enough to take a stand against the majority when the situation was good, but as we struggle through harsh periods of exile, the ability to stand firm becomes increasingly difficult. Our verse comes to remind us our belief is the correct one. Despite the superficial reality that greets us in the streets, we need to stand by our principles. The day will come when the entire world will recognize that Avraham and his descendants were correct.
 
We say Shema Yisrael in the mornings, when the sun shines and the sky is clear. Our beliefs are vindicated. And in the evenings, when we are surrounded by darkness; when the lack of clarity threatens to drive us to despair. It is important to remember this verse and its meaning after the Ninth of Av. Not only were two Batei Mikdash destroyed on this day, but the Spanish Inquisition is said to have begun, and deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka. When we read our parasha in juxtaposition to our day of mourning, we are comforted in the knowledge the day of restitution will inevitably arrive, even though we stand terribly alone.
 
The Kli Yakar's comments on this verse are equally inspiring:
 
As we know, the Torah describes God in many ways. Two of the Almighty's infinite facets are the middot of justice – denoted by the name ‘Elokim’ – and mercy, denoted by the name ‘Hashem.’ Our verse begins by describing the current reality – Hear O Israel – as we experience both mercy and justice (Hashem and Elokeinu.) When we experience ‘too much’ of the latter, we may feel we have lost face forever; the facet of Hashem is a thing of the past. Therefore, the verse ends with "Hashem is One," meaning justice and mercy are not objective opposites. They are two sides of the same coin.
 
The day will soon arrive when we will understand that the Divine justice we experienced over the years was never a sign of rejection or disdain, but rather an indication of His true love for Am Yisrael. As Rav Yosef Nechemia Kornitzer points out so beautifully in his comments to the last verse of Eicha, Hashem only punishes His people because He cares for them. Punishment and justice should not be interpreted as vengeance and hatred but as a legitimate educational medium, applied when mercy and love are unappreciated, ignored and rendered ineffective. We will realize mercy and justice come from the same Source and lead to the same objective.
 
If we can internalize this, we will understand Tisha B'Av is not the end of the story. There is no need for a new testament because what the world knows as the Old Testament is in fact the only testament. Tisha B'Av is not the conclusion. It is the beginning of the final redemption.[6]
 
Perhaps the most refreshing of all the verses we read this week is one we say every week on Shabbat morning, as we prepare to read from the Torah:
 
“But you who cleave to the Lord your God are alive, every one of you, this day.”
(Devarim, 4:4)
 
When relating this verse to Tisha B'Av, one cannot help but recall Rashi's famous words at the beginning of Parashat Nitzavim (29:12) in reference to the verse, “You are standing here today…” (Devarim, 29: 9)
 
Rashi explains the people were in despair. They had just heard all the punishments they would receive if they would not walk in the ways of God (as enumerated in detail in Parashat Ki Tavo, the previous parasha.) Moshe therefore reassures them. Despite their trials and tribulations in the wilderness, they need not despair. They are still “standing here today.”
 
With these words in mind, we can take the same message from our verse. Even though we have just got up from ‘National Shiva;’ even though we seem to have been in exile for eternity, we are still alive today. And not only are we alive after all the chorbanot, but our nation is growing and becoming stronger all the time.
 
Surely now, as long as we endeavor to cleave to Hashem we will see it through. We are so nearly there. Let us pray our final redemption comes soon, speedily in our days! 
 
 
[1] Ta'anit 29a, Sotah 35a, Sanhedrin 104b to name just a few.
[2] An authentic aggadic source often unwittingly paraphrased by frustrated parents – ‘if you don’t stop crying, I will give you something to cry about!’
[3] Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, 1906-1980. Volume on Shabbat – Ma'amar 9:3.
[4] Tiferet Yisrael 45.
[5] See Devarim, 5.
[6] See Megillat Eicha, 1:15 and Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 559:4 as well as the Mishna Berura to Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 559 Seif Katan 1, 17, 42. Tisha B'Av is known as a Moed – a festival; we do not say Tachanun on Tisha B'Av. This halacha supports our theme. This day of mourning is not meant to signify the end, but rather the beginning.

 

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