Assigning Blame

August 7, 2019

19 min read


Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22 )

An in-depth exploration of tragedy and the meaning of Tisha B'Av.

The Jewish calendar and the Shabbat Torah readings were arranged to intermesh. Parshat Devarim is always read on the Shabbat immediately prior to the 9th of Av. The reason for this is related to the special theme of the Parsha, "Tochacha," commonly translated as reproof.

'Tochacha' is a difficult concept to translate into English. Reproof, reproach, rebuke, chastisement are all candidates, but none of them either individually or collectively fully suffices to convey the exact flavor of what is meant by 'tochacha.' We shall explore the subject of 'tochacha' in the context of this essay but before we do that let us attempt to comprehend the connection between 'tochacha' and the 9th of Av.


We read Moses' words of rebuke in public to remind ourselves that the tragedy we are about to commemorate on the 9th of Av, the destruction of both Temples, signifying the withdrawal of the physical manifestation of the Divine Presence from our midst, was a tragedy we suffered needlessly. God didn't inflict it on us; we brought it on ourselves through the failure to correct our sins.

But there must be some added significance to the fact that we read the 'tochacha' before the commemoration of the tragedy. Although sins are no doubt the ultimate cause of the destruction, and indeed of all tragedies, sins are never the immediate cause. The immediate cause of all tragedies is invariably the same: the failure to listen to words of 'tochacha.'

God never retaliates hastily against public sins committed by the Jewish people. Before He initiates concrete corrective measures He sends us messages of 'tochacha.' The destruction only arrives if we fail to react to the words of 'tochacha' and make no move to institute changes in our lives to mend the spiritual flaws that caused us to sin.


Sin is an inevitable phenomenon in human affairs. As King Solomon stated, "for there is no man so wholly righteous on earth that he does good and never sins. (Kohelet 7,20)" Sin alone never brings on destruction. God is just; it is He who made us mortal and fallible and gave us free will. If He were to destroy us for the sins we commit, the destruction could be laid at His own doorstep. That is why he initially sends us 'tochacha', not destruction.

If we pay attention to the 'tochacha' and put ourselves on the track of mending the flaws that led us to sin, even if we never fully manage to correct these faults, we are sheltered against destruction. God takes note of the fact that we have set out on the road to self-correction, and no matter how slowly we proceed, as long as our intent to reach the destination is sincere, that is enough for Him to keep our world going.

When we reject 'tochacha,' our sins become an inherent part of our natures. If we do no work on ourselves our character flaws will never mend; by refusing to listen to words of 'tochacha' we condemn ourselves to remain in a state of sin. The conscious decision to reject 'tochacha' and the implicit choice to remain permanently flawed that lies in such rejection is the factor that kindles Divine anger and brings on the destruction.


God may have fashioned man with flaws that make it impossible for him to avoid sin, but there was a point to creating him this way. His built-in defects allow man the opportunity to perfect himself, so that he can be his own creator. When man rejects the 'tochacha' that impels him to self-improvement, he voluntarily embraces his structural defects and accepts them as permanent parts of his being. The existence of character flaws is neither a tragedy nor does it cause tragedy, but their establishment as permanent facets of one's personality turns them into the sort of Shakespearean 'tragic flaws' that inevitably presage tragic events.

It is therefore important for us to understand exactly what is meant by 'tochacha' and why it is so hard to accept.


We can highlight the problem by examining the actual content of the speech of 'tochacha' that begins our Parsha. Rashi breaks down the words of the first verse and explains how each one serves as a marker that points to one of the places the Jews sinned in the desert. "These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel, on the other side of the Jordan, concerning the Wilderness, concerning the Araba, opposite the sea of reeds, between Paran and Tophel, and Laban, and Hazeroth and Di-zahab."

Wilderness -- a reference to Exodus (17,2-3); The people contended with Moses and they said, "Give us water that we may drink!" Moses said to them, "Why do you contend with me? Why do you test God?" The people thirsted there for water, and the people complained against Moses, and it said, "Why is this that you have brought us up from Egypt to kill me and my children and my livestock with thirst?"

Araba -- a reference to the sin of harlotry with the daughters of Moab and the worship of Baal-peor (Bamidbar 25) -- the locale was Arboth Moab -- hence Araba.

Sea of Reeds -- when the Jewish people encamped next to the sea of reeds saw the Egyptian columns approaching them they said: "Were there no graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness? What is this that you have done to us to take us out of Egypt? Is this not the statement that we made to you in Egypt, saying, "Let us be and we will serve Egypt-for it is better that we should serve Egypt than that we should die in the Wilderness!" (Exodus 14,11-12)

Paran -- a reference to the sin of the spies who were dispatched from the wilderness of Paran -- All the children of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron, and the entire assembly said to them, "If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in this Wilderness! Why is God bringing us to this land to die by the sword? Our wives and our children will be taken captive. Is it not better for us to return to Egypt?" (Bamidbar 14, 2-3)

Tophel -- the complaint against the Manna -- and the spirit of the people grew short on the way. The people spoke against God and Moses: why did you bring us up from Egypt to die in this wilderness, for there is no food and no water, and our soul is disgusted with the insubstantial food. (Bamidbar 14,5)

Hazeroth -- a reference to the dissension with Korach which took place there-Is it not enough that you have brought us up from a land flowing with milk and honey to cause us to die in the wilderness, yet you seek to dominate us, to dominate further? (Bamidbar 16,13)

Di-zahab -- a reference to the golden calf [zahav means gold in Hebrew] -- the background to this sin was Moses' declaration that he would return at the end of forty days. When he was tardy according to the people's calculations, they ran out of patience and fashioned the golden calf to replace him. There is an undercurrent strongly implying that the sin was Moses' fault.

How does a list of one's past inequities constitute chastisement? All the incidents mentioned by Rashi were clearly recognized by everyone in the audience as sins. In most of the incidents referred to, people died at the time as a consequence. In the case of some we still suffer the consequences down to the very present.

The most prominent examples -- the 9th of Av -- is the anniversary of the 'night of tears,' a consequence of the mass lamentation quoted above, the Jewish public's response to the spies' report. As retribution for shedding these pointless tears, we were condemned to shed tears on the anniversary of this event over genuine tragedies. The story of the Golden calf took place on the 17th of Tammuz. Some two thousand years later, the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem on the same calendar date.

The three-week period between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av is referred to as 'bein hamezarim', the period of time between the two constrictions. This period has become a period of mourning; it is forbidden to celebrate weddings or listen to music etc. We are still caught up in the dire consequences of these events. It was clearly unnecessary to remind us of their existence. What then is 'tochahca'?


We can get a glimpse into what Moses was attempting to teach us by considering the way we typically react to tragedies. When we fall victim to cosmic events such as the Holocaust or when we are compelled to confront seemingly insoluble situations such as the phenomenon of suicide bombers, the shock and the horror we experience are invariably accompanied by a feeling of painful perplexity.

We Jews are a nation of believers. Believers never accept events, especially tragic ones as being the result of chance. There must always be someone to blame.

Reish Lakish taught: one who suspects the innocent will suffer bodily harm in retaliation, as it is written, Moses responded and he said, "But they will not believe me and they will not heed my voice for they will say, 'God did not appear to you'." But God knew that Jews are a nation of believers. God said to Moses, "They are believers who are the descendants of believers; whereas you will not believe in Me in the end. They are believers, as it written, And the people believed, and they heard that God had remembered the children of Israel and that He saw their affliction, and they bowed their heads and prostrated themselves. (Exodus 4,31) They are the children of believers, as it is written [about Abraham], and he trusted in God, and he reckoned it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15,6) Whereas you will not believe in the end, as it is written, God said to Moses and Aaron, "Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel...(Bamidbar 20,12) (Shabbat, 97a)

One of the fundamentals of belief in God is that He is just. Although justice requires that actions have consequences, and therefore it is to be expected that sins will be punished, it also dictates that the punishment suffered must be in proportion to the crime committed. When tragedy strikes, the believer is tied up in knots by the contradiction between his ideology and the events taking place in the real world.


Jews are not an evil people nor have they ever been such. If you compare them to the rest of humanity, they generally measure up quite favorably. Statistics show that they give charity out of all proportion to their collective share of the social pie. They tend to be idealistic and are to be found in the vanguard of movements for social justice out of all proportion to their numbers. The list of Jewish merit is quite extensive and everyone knows it; there is little need to spend time trumpeting our virtues.

It is true that we all have faults, and no doubt every individual Jew can afford to tighten up, perhaps even considerably, but no way have we committed the sort of atrocities as a people that could reasonably make us liable to suffer horrors such as the Holocaust or suicide bombers. It is totally irrational to accept such tragedies as deserved acts of retribution for Jewish faults.

This obvious fact accounts for our immediate reaction when such tragedies befall us; they cannot possibly be our fault. As we believe that God is just and tragedy must therefore be somehow proportional with blame, the horrendous tragedies of Jewish history must be someone else's fault. If we sift through the list of sins mentioned by Moses in his speech of chastisement, the theme of shifting blame is a clear thread that runs through the list.


Take the first one for example. The Jews find themselves in the desert without a source of potable water. Do they deserve to be in this situation? Clearly not. What caused them to face this difficulty, after all? They followed God's instructions relayed to them through Moses, left their homes in Egypt and followed him into the desert. For having done this they deserve to die of thirst? Ridiculous! So how come they are in the situation that they have nothing to drink when they are innocent as a people of any major wrongdoing? It must be Moses' fault. Somehow he must have misunderstood his instructions and they landed in the wrong place at the wrong time through his compounded errors.

This feeling of being the innocent victim of circumstances is the theme that unites all the incidents listed by Rashi. In some, it is clearly stated, in others only implied, but the theme of innocent victim runs through them all. This is especially true of the major incidents, the golden calf and the sin of the spies.

Let us attempt to place ourselves back at the scene to imagine how we as a people must have felt.

The Golden calf: Moses, having promised to return, left us leaderless, stuck in the desert with no one to guide us out of it. We had said our final goodbye to Egypt four and a half months before, we had signed our historic covenant with God forty days prior, and here we were, left leaderless and rudderless with no idea where to go or what to do next. A tragic situation we clearly did not deserve to suffer; we were clearly the victims of irresponsible if not downright incompetent leadership. Weren't we entitled to remedy a bad situation that was certainly not our fault? How could anyone think that we were not entitled to attempt to reestablish contact with God to obtain fresh instructions by employing the best means at our disposal? How could anyone judge such an attempt as a great sin, worthy of enormous punishment such as the immediate annihilation that God threatened?

The spies: we left Egypt with the promise of being led to a land of milk and honey where we could live in safety and comfort. God didn't tell us to follow him blindly, He promised through Moses that He was finally fulfilling the oath He made to our forefathers and leading us to the holy land. But when we dispatched our spies to see what would be involved in the conquest we discovered that it was an impossible dream. There was no way on earth we could drive out such powerful nations and settle the land in their place. God Himself had told us that wiping out everyone there was not an option. We did not have either the numbers or the expertise to immediately take full possession of such a large area and make everything work. The population would have to be subdued and enlisted to help us in our initial settlement effort.

We had cut our Egyptian bridges behind us on the orders of God in the mouth of Moses; the land we were being taken to was unattainable; we were stuck in an impossible situation facing a national disaster of enormous proportions through no fault of our own. No wonder we rebelled! How could God possibly place us in such a predicament? It must be someone's fault! How can anyone blame us for our justified resentment and consequent desire to rebel against the One who placed us so unjustly in such an impossible situation? Where is the great sin? How are we supposed to accept Moses' chastisement? Why didn't anyone respond to them with justified outrage?


To begin to understand, we must first learn to relate to the Torah concept of good and evil. We are accustomed to think of evil as something horrendous and gross; Nazis are evil, terrorists are evil, repressive tyrants are evil. Our neighbors are not evil and neither are we. But the Hebrew word Ra, which means evil, doesn't mean evil in this sense. A rasha, one who does Ra, is not necessarily an evil person. Ra means temporary [see Nachmonedes, Genesis 1,4] and a rasha is a person who is entirely focused on the temporary.

Thus said God: If not for my covenant, I would never have made the night and day (Jeremiah 33,25). This maxim is often repeated by the Sages in various ways [see Rashi, genesis 1,31]. The observance of Torah is a condition of creation. The repeated stressing of this idea is meant to reorient our attitude towards Torah observance. Whereas we understand the need to observe as a moral imperative, the sages are attempting to teach us that observance fits into reality in the same fashion as the laws of physics. Observance is like oxygen; a plentiful supply is needed to sustain human life. We can comprehend the implications of this message by focusing on purpose.

Sins do not violate the plan of the universe; they fit into reality as God designed it. All people have free will and must inevitably fall into sin at times. But the universe was created with purpose. Reality is violated by human life lacking in purpose. People who are going nowhere and just getting through life without any goal except to survive in the most pleasant way they can are not evil people. Many of them are good people with nice characters; they fit into society and are often model citizens. But their lives have no purpose. They are not striving to perfect either themselves or the world. They give no thought to what will follow their earthly existence and do nothing to prepare themselves.

Such people do not require this world at all and it was not designed to sustain them. What sense does it make to place human beings into the problematic circumstances of this earthly life whose only positive value is that it offers the potential for the exercise of free will when they are not at all interested? The answer: no sense at all. But if people do not need the world, God withdraws it. Whenever this happens tragedy strikes.


A purposeful life must be seen as a series of tests. Moses' chastisement was precisely this. He was not interested in reminding the Jewish people about its past sins. He was attempting to point out the flawed attitude that led them to commit these sins. Let us attempt to unravel what he might have been really saying. It may have sounded something like this:

When you find yourself being pursued by the Egyptians through no fault of your own don't disassociate yourself and say, "This obviously has nothing to do with me. I have done absolutely nothing to deserve being pursued and slaughtered. Obviously this tragedy cannot be justly addressed to me; I have to discover who is really to blame." No, you are being tested.

You are correct in thinking that you cannot be punished as long as you have done no wrong. But that doesn't shelter you from the shocks of life. In the face of the threatening danger God expects you to say, "Look this cannot be accidental. Here I am, being threatened when I haven't done anything. Something is clearly being demanded of me. What can it be? Perhaps God is trying to teach me not to take life for granted. I should turn to Him and say, 'Look, I realize that You owe me nothing, and that there is no such thing as a right to life. But let me live so that I can accomplish something with my life. Let me raise my children to serve you, let me work on myself, let me attempt to raise the consciousness of mankind to the purpose of life.'" There can be no other reason why a loving, benevolent, God should confront the innocent with potential tragedies they have done nothing to deserve.

Before he died, Moses was anxious to teach the Jewish people to coexist with God in an atmosphere of affectionate co-operation. The secret: neither holiness or purity but living with ambition and purpose; never satisfied with just continuing to be the people we are today but always setting goals to be a different, more noble people tomorrow.


A Jewish people who lives with spiritual goals is always safe. It matters not that they sin, it matters not that they are not so holy or observant right now; the future is all. A Jewish people marching down the highway of self-improvement is a Jewish people safely sheltered from national tragedy. As long as we are marching forward maintaining a purposeful existence, we need the universe for the purpose that God set for it. God is ready and willing to renew it for us with total grace. He is patient and ready to wait a thousand years for the process of self-perfection to reach completion. As long as there is movement forward and the Jewish people are free of apathy and moral stagnation we are safe in the palm of God's Hand.

But when we grow apathetic and fall into the rut of spiritual stagnation, God grows impatient with the world. When it has no purpose, He cannot renew it. He sends people to chastise us, and if there are no people available, He sends us little tragedies. If we pay attention, wake up and take some steps to change, the good times resume; God's patience is reawakened no matter how much improvement is required and no matter how long it will take. But if we ignore the 'tochacha' there is no hope of progress. The stagnation is forecast into the future as continuing indefinitely. In this situation, even a Jewish people who is widely observant, finds little favor in His eyes. We were created to accomplish not to stagnate, at whatever level.

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