Do Not Despair

September 6, 2020

4 min read


Vayelech (Deuteronomy 31 )

Immediately after enumerating the long litany of 98 curses they would face if they disobeyed Hashem, Moshe called together the Jewish people and said, “You are all standing here today.” What is the significance of this sequence of events?

The Midrash, quoted by Rashi, explains that when the Jewish people heard the curses they turned green. “Who can withstand all these curses?” they moaned despondently. “What will become of us?”

Therefore, Moshe called them together to calm them down. “Don’t be so worried,” he said. “You are all standing here today. After forty turbulent years in the desert, after angering Hashem so many times – with the Golden Calf, the Spies, the complainers – you are still here today. Hashem has not destroyed you. So you see, you do not need to despair.”

The commentators are puzzled. Moshe seems to be taking the wind out of his own sails. First, he read off all the horrible curses to scare the Jewish people into obedience, to put “the fear of the Lord” into them. The threat of the curses accomplished their purpose. The people were terrified. Then all of sudden, he relented and told them that it’s not so bad. They don’t have to be so terrified. Wasn’t he defeating his whole purpose by taking the sting out of the Rebuke?

The answer is that there is a vast difference between healthy fear and hopelessness. It is a good thing to be realistically apprehensive about the future. It is unhealthy to live in a fool’s paradise, believing you can do as you please without suffering any consequences. But hopelessness is destructive. It demoralizes, debilitates and reduces a person to a bowl of quaking jelly.

Moshe saw that the Jewish people had gone beyond fear when they heard the curses. They lost hope and threw in the towel. Therefore, he had to calm them down until they recovered their hope and all they felt was a healthy fear.

Our Sages tell us (Bava Metzia 59a) that after the destruction of the Temple “all the gates of prayer were closed, except for the Gates of Tears.” The Gates of Tears are the channel of last resort for prayers, and they are never closed.

But if they are never closed, asks the Kotzker Rebbe, why is there a need for gates at all? Why not remove the gates and leave the entranceway wide open?

There are some tears that do not get through, says the Kotzker Rebbe. The gates screen out tears of desperation and hopelessness. Despair is not considered a prayer to the Almighty. If a person is in a state of helplessness and desperation, if he feels backed into a corner so that Hashem is his only hope of salvation, if he calls forth his innermost feelings and thoughts, if he wrings out the perspiration of his heart and soul and sends his hope-laden tears heavenward, there are no barriers in Heaven to a prayer of this sort. It travels directly to the Heavenly Throne.

The Izhbitzer Rebbe connects this concept with the very essence of Jewish identity. The name Jew is derived from the tribe of Judah, as is the Hebrew name Yehudi. Why are all Jews known by the name of one tribe? Because when the brothers stood accused of theft before Yosef in Egypt, the Torah tells us (Bereishis 44:18) that Yehudah “stepped up” to argue in their defense. When all seemed to be lost, when faced with the overwhelming weight of evidence against them, Yehudah never gave up hope. That is the definition of a Jew, a person who knows that the Almighty will never abandon him. A person who never gives up hope.

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