Exile and Its Egregious Effects
Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9 )
We may not notice it as much as previous generations did due to the relative good relations with the non-Jewish world (though recent events have shaken us), but we are in exile and have been for almost 2000 years. The prolonged exile has devastated normal Jewish life in numerous ways.
The recent period of the Three Weeks of mourning the Temple's destruction, from 17th of Tamuz until 9th of Av, is designed to remind us of all that we are mourning. While it is true that the Three Weeks have now passed and we have reverted back to our relaxing summer vacations, it is important particularly now to reflect on the growth that we were supposed to have attained.
We do this in the spirit of the Talmud in Brachot 32b, "The early pious ones would prepare for prayer for an hour, pray for an hour, and contemplate their prayers an hour afterwards", in order to apply and bring the growth they just experienced into their regular lives. At the end of our reflections, we will see a strong link to our weekly Torah portion, Shoftim
The Three Weeks determines the "who we are and how we live" as Jews. When we mourn for the Temple, when we feel the pain of its loss and the sufferings that our ancestors experienced during this period, it is not a "pain" that we are mourning. Pains don't last 2,000 years. The most intense and sharpest of pains dissipate. A year later they're weak, ten years later they're weaker, and a thousand years later they're not felt at all. It isn't the pain that our ancestors felt which we are mourning; it is the loss that is affecting us to this day.
This is the recognition and the statement that we make when we fast on 17th of Tamuz and keep the laws of mourning of the Three Weeks and Tisha B'av. It is a statement that not having a Temple renders us a broken people, unable to live a normal life. It means that we have been thrown to a state of spiritual disease and illness, where we cannot think correctly, feel correctly or live correctly.
We are in a state of darkness, unable to reach out and to relate to our Creator as we should to live spiritual, healthy and full lives. It is not simply that extra opportunities are lost to us, but we are crippled and we live as cripples. This is the most important and tragic effect of all. A blind man reaches the point where his blindness is so accepted that he is not aware of a sense of loss. He is not aware that he does not live a normal and full life, that he is handicapped and that there are whole areas of experience and existence that are closed to him. He starts thinking that this is life at its fullest. He doesn't know that the inability to see colors, the inability to see the magnificence of God's creation, is a lack and a loss. He accepts it as being the norm. That is tragic because in doing so, he reduces God's creation.
If this is true in material matters, how much more so is the effect when it comes to accepting a spiritually crippled life as being the norm. If we come to feel that as a people without a Temple we are living a full life, think of the effect this has on our understanding of what existence is all about, of what our relationship with our Creator is all about. We accept as a normal way of living life without God's face turned to us. Somehow it seems to us as though the way we live is perfect. It doesn't make sense to us to go and bring animals, slaughter them in a Temple, put them on an altar and burn up the meat. As a nation, we have begun to feel that maybe sacrifices aren't necessary after all.
We have lost the sense of commitment and service to God, which can only be completely filled by bringing a sacrifice. We have lost the value of being able to physically reach out and show God that we give ourselves to Him with totality and completeness. And if we don't shed our own blood, it's because we substitute the blood of the sacrifice. But we are ready to give ourselves, our bodies, our blood for His sake. (See Temple Full of Blood http://www.aish.com/torahportion/kolyaakov/A_Temple_Full_of_Blood.asp) If I bring a sacrifice even once a year, it transforms my entire year. The knowledge that I have open to me the opportunity, the desire, the decision, that I will bring a sacrifice, makes me prepare many days for it. It's an experience that lifts me up. It's a different and higher form of existence.
The recognition that the loss of the Temple is really something significant, that I suffer now every minute of my life from that loss, is an absolute necessity in keeping our sanity as Jews. This is why the Rabbis instituted the mourning period of the Three Weeks. The Torah given at Sinai included all components necessary to live a full life in the service of God and was not lacking anything. What then are we to make of the holidays and fast days which are of Rabbinic obligation? Why would the rabbis add new laws to a perfect Code given by God Himself?
The only possible solution to this difficulty is to realize that every rabbinic law that we encounter within the framework of Torah does not exist as an ideal. Rather, the existence of rabbinic laws reflect a failing of the Jewish People within particular areas which forced the rabbis to respond and correct these failings. As the first Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) teaches (loose translation): "Assu Syag LeTorah" - "Make a fence around the Torah when you deem it necessary. Add precepts and rituals to the Torah to enhance the performance of each of the 613 commandments."
Ideally, the original Torah given directly by God was designed to be "self-sufficient" in terms of spiritual growth. But the enactment of the Three Weeks was necessary in order for us to keep an awareness of what it is to be a true servant of God, to know and relate to Him. Therefore, we must use the Three Weeks to make us aware again, to keep us from falling into the trap of accepting our lives now as normal.
But it goes even beyond this. Not only do we accept a world without a Temple, a world without the sacrifices, as being a tolerable world, but, worse, we accept a world in which the Jewish people and Torah values are subordinate, as being a normal tolerable world. We're comfortable in America, in Canada, in England and all over. It doesn't feel as though we're in the Diaspora at all. We can speak their language and we can relate to them. We live with their value system that at times is antithetical to Torah.
We accept from them the definition of what a good marriage is, and we start thinking of romance and love as being the basis of marriage. And then marriage becomes primarily a means for self-fulfillment. Shortly thereafter, selfishness becomes ingrained and a part of the very fabric of our existence, instead of the realization that the purpose of marriage is to learn to be concerned one for the other, to be outgoing, to be giving to another.
We learn from them, we take from them because we don't feel the exile, because we feel at home. And if once in a while someone says,"Well, but you're not really at home," we don't want to hear it, we don't want to face it. We feel at home, we're comfortable. This is degradation and falsehood; this isn't the way to live.
Observance of the Three Weeks is more than mourning, it is an acceptance of a commitment that we want a different way of living, and that we understand the purpose of our existence to be an entirely different one than the way in which we are living presently. It is a commitment to seeking a true Jewish existence and a true human existence that requires the awareness of the need for God as an actual presence.
Think for a moment. After explaining here in detail many of the exile's horrific effects upon the Jewish soul and value system, what would be the most debilitating consequence of the exile?
Parshat Shoftim opens with the verse:
"Judges and policeman shall be placed in all of your cities which God, your Lord, has given you - all of your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment." (Devarim 16:18)
The general themes of Parshat Shoftim are the laws of kings, judges and a central authority of justice present with the existence of the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of Jewish law.
This is the most debilitating consequence of the exile - the loss of our judges and Supreme Court. If we had a Sanhedrin, disputes among the Jewish people would cease to exist. While free discussion and questioning has always been encouraged in Jewish learning (as the old expression goes, "Two Jews, three opinions"), as long as a Sanhedrin existed, all Jews followed the same law ruled upon by Sanhedrin as the bottom line. There were no separate groups or factions, observing different laws, customs, or philosophies. The Jewish people were united.
Without a central authority, disputes may begin for the "sake of heaven" and with God's law in mind, but all too often, they end with personal, hate-filled arguments and fights. A Jewish people divided is a Jewish people that cannot achieve great accomplishments and brings upon itself terrible suffering. Our internal fighting removes Divine protection from us, which makes us vulnerable for the attack of our enemies. As the Yerushalmi Peah, Chapter 1 says (paraphrased): "Although undeserving, King Achav (an ancient Jewish king) won many wars because the people of his generation were at peace with one another. The opposite is true as well: if Jews fight among themselves, they will lose wars."
This is what we mean in the Shemoneh Esrai prayer, 11th blessing:
"Restore our judges to the influence they once held and our advisers to the prestige they had in earlier times, and thereby remove sorrow and groans."
All of our sorrows and groans result from discord and fighting, and our fighting comes as a result of the lack of central authority governing Jewish law and practice. This is why non-existence of the Sanhedrin is perhaps the most debilitating consequence of the exile.
We have expressed here the pains and sorrows of the exile. Let us live to see the joys and jubilation of the redemption, speedily and soon.