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Israel, Where Are You?

Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

We always read Parshat Devarim on the Sabbath immediately preceding the 9th of Av. This is due to a combination of two main factors:

One of the major themes of Parshat Devarim is the retelling of the story of the spies. Tradition has it that the public weeping which took place in the aftermath of the spies' report, as recorded in the Book of Numbers (14:1) occurred on the 9th of Av and was the reason that God established this day as a day of national weeping through the generations. (See Talmud, Ta'anit 29a.) On this catastrophic day in Jewish history the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians; the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans; the Jews of Spain were given an ultimatum by the Inquisition -- leave, convert, or die; World War I, the prelude to the Holocaust, began; the Nazi conference that generated the "Final Solution" took place, etc.

In addition, Parshat Devarim is a record of Moses' speech of chastisement to the Jewish people, an especially appropriate prelude to the historic day of Divine chastisement. Moses criticizes the Jews for contentiousness in a verse that begins with the word Eicha, which is also the first word of Jeremiah's lament on the destruction that we read on the 9th of Av. This connection is too powerful to ignore. Parshat Devarim and the 9th of Av clearly belong together.


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Yet there is something very unclear about the spy story, a point of confusion that applies equally to all major historical tragedies including the destruction of the Temples.

Then you spoke up and said to me, "We have sinned to God! We shall go up and do battle according to everything that the Lord, our God, has commanded us! Every man of you girded his weapons of war, and you were ready to ascend the mountain!" God said to me, "Tell them, 'Do not ascend and do not do battle, for I am not among you; so that you should not be struck down in front of your enemies.'" So I spoke to you but you did not listen. You rebelled against the word of God, and you were willful and climbed the mountain ... Then you retreated and wept before God, but God did not listen to your voice and did not hearken to you. (Deut. 1:41-45)

It seems then, according to the testimony of Moses, that the Jewish people repented their sin sincerely. If so, why the continuing punishment?

Jewish tradition teaches that the sole object of all chastisement is to bring the sinner to repentance. If so, repentance should automatically halt tragedy in its tracks!

When major tragedies strike, a nation of believers is almost invariably brought to a state of repentance.

When major tragedies strike, a nation of believers is almost invariably brought to a state of repentance. Thus, the fact that the tragedy continues to unfold and intensify is an indication that God is unwilling to accept their repentance. But why not? Why was God so unwilling to forgive the Jewish people back then in the desert, or in the later tragedies of Jewish history?

The Talmud offers the following comment on the subject:

Repentance is always effective whether it comes before God issues His final verdict or whether it only comes after, as it is written, Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and smear over their eyes; lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart, and repent and be healed (Isaiah 6:10). When does a sin need to be healed? When the final edict of punishment has been issued.

The Talmud then goes on to prove that this is only the Divine policy regarding public transgressions (as opposed to individual transgressions). The doors to repentance always remain open to the Jewish public.

The Talmud then attacks this proposition by citing the rejection of public repentance in the aftermath of the sin of the spies; this rejection appears to demonstrate that God is unwilling to accept any repentance, even of the Jewish public once he has issued His edict.

The Talmud responds:

The Divine policy towards the public is truly never to close the doors of repentance. The edict regarding the sin of the spies was a special case. It was issued with an oath, as it is written, But as I live, and the glory of God shall fill the entire world, that all the men who have seen My glory and My signs that I have performed in Egypt and in the Wilderness, and have tested Me these ten times and have not heeded My voice, if they will see the land that I have sworn to give their forefathers! And all who anger Me shall not see it. (Numbers 14:21) The words as I live constitute an oath made in the name of God. Even for the public, edicts issued with a Divine oath are not revocable. (Rosh Hashana 18a)


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If we follow the principle developed by this passage of Talmud to its logical conclusion, it would appear that in the case of the sin of the spies, God specifically attached an oath to His sentence so that it would prove irrevocable even in the face of anticipated public repentance, which in fact duly materialized, as the Torah describes.

But how does this make sense?

If indeed, in the absence of God's oath, such repentance would have been effective, it seems somewhat vindictive on God's part to take an oath specifically to shut the door in the face of the Jewish people's repentance. Why would God do such a thing?

There are times when repentance has a very heavy price attached to it. Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, the famous student of the Vilna Gaon used to tell people that one has to be willing to sacrifice one's life for the sake of repentance. He based his teaching on a passage of the Talmud (Avoda Zara, 17a).

That passage recounts the story of one Elazar ben Durdaya, who sincerely repented the sin of illicit sex and expired from his regret. But tradition has it that it is only necessary to give up one's life upon repenting the sin of separating Jews from their faith in God. In the case of other sins, repentance should bring life, not death. The Talmud concludes that any sin that has come to seem like a normal part of everyday life to the sinner is viewed in the same light as the sin of leading Jews astray. The Talmud awards Elazar ben Durdaya the title of rabbi for teaching us this profound lesson.

Explains R' Chaim:

The repentant sinner can continue living only as long as his life as a penitent flows in a continuous stream out of his life as a sinner. As long as there was a surviving thread of goodness in him even while he was a sinner, when he repents, he can go on living. His repentant self is not an entirely new creature; he is not totally reborn. But if he had reached a stage before his repentance that what should have felt like sin became a perfectly ordinary activity to him, then a part of him was entirely dead to goodness. For this type of person, repentance is not spiritual revival but spiritual resurrection. A partial resurrection is possible in the world of the present. A total resurrection must await the end of days. Therefore, such a penitent must sometimes die and await resurrection.

Continues R' Chaim:

Unfortunately, we have become accustomed to doing so many things wrong over such long periods of time that they no longer feel like sins to us. Thus, if we were to sincerely repent, we would have to be willing to die. Rabbi Elazar ben Durdaya taught us not only that death can result from repentance, he also taught us that it is worthwhile and permissible to die in order to achieve repentance. [for greater detail consult Michtav M'eliyahu, Vol 1]


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Let us see how this teaching of Rabbi Chaim applies to public repentance. It is one thing for the individual to die in order to achieve repentance. But what if the entire Jewish people are in a state where repentance can only come at the cost of such a sacrifice? If God were to accept their repentance, they would all have to die. But the continued survival of the Jewish people outweighs even the importance of their present achievement of perfect repentance.

Of course, if the Jewish people really did die, we would automatically be at the end of days, and it would be time for the resurrection, and thus they would not really die after all. Nevertheless, as long as they have not yet accomplished what God feels must be accomplished before the present stage of human history ends, it would be premature to bring on the end of the world and start the resurrection. Thus, to prevent all this, God takes an oath not to accept the repentance that is bound to come.

God takes an oath not to accept the repentance that is bound to come.

Actually, this thought is perfectly encapsulated in God's own speech explaining His oath quoted above. God stresses the fact that the Jewish people have now tested Him through their lack of faith ten times; that these tests came in the face of His clear demonstration to them of His omnipotence and His commitment to them both in Egypt and in the wilderness. Thus, God is clearly explaining that this lack of faith was by now a habitual sin, which cannot feel like a sin any more to its perpetrator and has become his natural orientation to the world. Repentance from such an orientation would constitute a brand new departure and could not be considered the natural continuity of a previous state of consciousness. As such, He was forced to make His oath to save the life of the Jewish people.

But there is an even greater depth to the relationship between continuity, sin, and repentance. The lack of rational continuity between the present and the past is always the spiritual mark of tragedy, and this is the emotion expressed in the Hebrew word Eicha, which literally means: "How is it possible?"

Three people prophesied using the expression Eicha: Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah. Moses said, How is it possible that I alone carry your contentiousness ... Isaiah said, [in this weeks Haftorah reading, not by coincidence] How is it possible that she has become a harlot, faithful city that was full of justice, in which righteousness was wont to lodge, but now murderers. (Isaiah 1:21) and Jeremiah who said, How is it possible, she sits in solitude! The city that was great with people has become like a widow. (Lamentations 1:1)

Rabbi Levi taught: "These three prophecies are a metaphor to a great lady with three bridesmaids: one who saw her in all her majesty, one who saw her in the days of her wildness, and one who saw her in the days of her final dissolution. Thus Moses saw Israel in its greatness and said 'How is it possible for one person to support...' Isaiah saw Israel in the days of its wildness and said, 'How is it possible for such an honored lady to become a harlot...' and Jeremiah saw Israel amidst its destruction and said 'How is it possible for such popularity and status to turn into such solitude.'" (Eicha Raba 1:1)

When observing a phenomenon that seems to have no rational connection with the world that precedes it, the natural human reaction is to declare, "This cannot be possible." These three great prophets were expressing their astonishment in the word Eicha. What is more the passage in the Midrash teaches us that the impossibilities which blew them away have a connection to one another.

These three great prophets were expressing their astonishment in the word Eicha.

Moses, who had no trouble facing Pharaoh on his own and leading the Jewish people to their meeting with God on his own, took a look at the same people in the waning days of his rule and declared, "It's not possible for a single individual to lead such a contentious people as you have become. I could lead you when you spoke with one voice, out of a single desire; I can no longer lead you when you are so disunited and contentious. But I am at a loss to understand how such great spiritual unity could disintegrate into the contentiousness I see before me today."

Isaiah addressed the issue of spiritual disintegration in terms of social justice. How is it possible for the Jewish people who had organized their society around the commandment of you shall love your fellow as you love yourself (Leviticus 19:18) and the principle of mutual responsibility have become so tolerant of social injustice? Where is the continuity with the people who stood on Mt. Sinai?


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To fully appreciate the common thread that runs through this sequence of Eicha we must focus on the Eicha of Jeremiah:

How is it possible, she sits in solitude! The city that was great with people has become like a widow. The greatest among nations, the princess among provinces, has become a tributary.

One wonders a bit at Jeremiah. No doubt it is unpleasant to lose one's power and prestige and be reduced to a status of a taxed tributary state but is this how we would have chosen to encapsulate the tragedy of the destruction and the subsequent exile? Wouldn't we have first lamented the tragic loss of Jewish life and homeland? What is the significance of the comparison to a widow? Why not an orphan?

The essence of the Jewish people's role in the world is to serve as an intermediary between God and the nations, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6) A useful metaphor to convey this role would be to compare our situation to the wife of a very important and powerful king, a king who can only be approached through the queen. As long as the king is alive and functioning, there is always a long line of people waiting to see the queen. She is flattered and praised and always surrounded by those who are trying to get close to her. When the king dies, his widow loses everything.

No longer is she sought after or wanted. No one is lining up to see her and she sits all alone, neglected and ignored. For such a woman the loss of her husband represents the loss of everything that gave her purpose and importance and status.

The Talmud (Gitin 56b) tells the following story: When Titus entered the Temple prior to the destruction, he stuck his sword into the curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the sanctuary and blood gushed out of the hole made by his sword. He yelled in triumph thinking to himself that he had succeeded in murdering God.

The Maharal explains:

The departure of the Divine Presence from the world is akin to the death of a human being. The definition of human life, chaim in Hebrew, is a soul inhabiting a body. The departing soul never dies; it is the body that becomes an inert mass once the life leaves it. In the same way as long as the Divine spirit rests on the Temple, the Temple as the heart of creation pulses with the beat of spiritual life, and along with it the Land of Israel and the rest of the world. When the presence of God departs, the Temple becomes merely a structure of bricks and mortar, a building like any other. In a real sense, Israel, the Temple's custodian can be called a widow. God, Israel's husband, has removed His presence from the physical world just like a departing human soul.

As long as the Temple stood, Israel was a spiritual power.

As long as the Temple stood, Israel was a spiritual power. It was the nerve center of the world, a culture that exported ideas. The nations looked to it for guidance in matters of spirituality. The Jewish people were spiritual trendsetters and role models. The destruction of the Temple turned us into a minor tributary along the cultural stream of the world. It is the super powers of the world that export their culture to us instead of the other way around. It is their spiritual agenda that defines what is politically correct.

We are finally able to trace the common thread running through the three instances of Eicha.


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The Jew that stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai did not have an ounce of contentiousness in him. He lived in a world of perfect clarity. He knew that each Jewish life was individually precious and took its own course under the direct vigilance of God. He did not have the slightest desire to contend with anyone over anything. This same Jew had lost some of the clarity of this vision by the end of the forty-year desert sojourn when Moses handed over the reigns to Joshua. It had become habitual for him to question his faith, and as a result, he had permanently lost some of the clarity of his vision. He was no longer perfect in observing the commandment to love his fellow as he loves himself. He had grown contentious.

But he was still fully committed to the concept of mutual responsibility that was his lost love's counterpart. By the time Isaiah saw this same Jew, his clarity had further diminished and he was no longer committed to social justice and responsibility either. Loving your neighbor is a matter of private faith. Maintaining social responsibility is a matter of group vision.

When his clarity of vision dimmed both privately and publicly, the Jew who stood at Mt. Sinai became a thoroughly confused creature. Lacking the clarity of his own vision he began to import other people's ideas. Perhaps the nations had answers to the problems that perplexed him, perhaps he could clear up his own confusion by duplicating their success.

When the Jew began to import foreign ideas, he began to fail in his own mission.

But when the Jew began to import these ideas, he began to fail in his own mission of being a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. When his failure reached a certain point, the Temple, the chief focus of this vision of the Jew was destroyed -- withdrawn by God.

Ever since the Temple's destruction the main struggle of the Jew who stood at Mt. Sinai has been to defend himself against the onslaught of foreign cultures so that he does not entirely disappear off the face of the earth as a distinct cultural entity. As anyone can see by looking around, this struggle has proven to be a difficult one. The Jew who once stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai enjoying total clarity is at best the palest shadow of himself. He has barely survived.

When God does not accept repentance, the spiritual rejuvenation that comes with forgiveness and reconciliation never arrives. The human spirit never recovers. The true meaning of waiting for Messiah is the intense desire for spiritual recovery. In the meanwhile, buffeted by the storms of history, the human spirit keeps shrinking, the clarity of its vision constantly growing dimmer and dimmer.

But he is still the same person albeit smaller. He is still a continuation of what he once was without the slightest break in the chain that binds him to the Jew who stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai in all his majesty. There is still no desperate need to accept his repentance and bring human history to an abrupt end. As long as there is no break between the Jew who stood at Mt. Sinai and the Jew of today, the world can continue despite the lamentation of Eicha.

The ultimate tragedy is the Eicha expressed by God to Adam after his sin.

They heard the sound of the Lord God in the garden toward evening; and Adam and his wife hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. The Lord God called out to the man and said to him "Where are you?" (Genesis 3:8-9)

This "where are you" is written as Eicha, and has no answer. Unlike the Jew who stood at Sinai, who may be a pale shadow, but is still alive, Adam after his sin was no longer to be found.

Rabbi Avohu opens his discussion of the Book of Lamentations (Eicha in Hebrew) thus: "But they like Adam have transgressed the covenant (Hoshea 6:7) this verse is a reference to Adam. God said, I brought Adam into the Garden of Eden, I commanded him and he transgressed; I sentenced him to exile, ejected him and lamented ... Similarly, with his children: I brought them into the land of Israel; I commanded them and they transgressed; I sentenced them to exile, I ejected them and I lamented. Alas! she sits in solitude." (Eicha raba, the 4th opening)

Despite the comparison, our Eicha is vastly different than Adam's. His expulsion from Paradise was permanent. When God looked for Adam, he could not recognize the person He had created at all. When God looks at us, despite all our failings, He can still recognize in us the remnant of the patriarchs. As long as that remains true, our covenant can survive, our historic mission can continue, and we can still wait for the Messiah.

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