“And it will be, because you will heed these ordinances and keep them and perform, that the Lord, your God, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers (Devorim 7:12).”
In the opening verse of this week’s Parsha, Moshe creates a simple paradigm – if we live up to the word of God, God will deliver on the promises He made to the Patriarchs. But for the fledging Jewish nation, more important than the promises of livestock and produce, was the promise of protection and victory in the wars against the kingdoms of Canaan. Moshe reminds us that in the same way that God brought Pharaoh to his knees, He can and will do the same with Canaanite kingdoms.
Moshe continues and says, “And the Lord, your God, will drive out those nations from before you, little by little. You will not be able to destroy them quickly, lest the beasts of the field outnumber you (7:22).” The battle for Canaan will not be quick. Not because our enemies are too fierce, but rather, out of concern that if we conquer more land than we can settle, wild animals will overrun these conquered areas and pose a threat to the nearby inhabitants. What a strange statement? Moshe has just told the people that there is going to be Divine protection and intervention, and yet, now we are worried about the beasts of the field? The same God who can bend and manipulate the laws of nature can certainly keep the animals at bay. The same God who will instill fear into the hearts of the Canaanite soldiers could also instill fear within the animals causing them to retreat from before the Jewish people. How are we to understand this statement of Moshe?
The Modgitzer Rebbe (Rav Shaul Yedidyah Elazar of Modgitz) provides an amazing insight. When forced to fight, man must draw on his animalistic instincts. When forced to kill, man gives up (loses) some part of his humanity. Life often calls for such drastic measures. Wars must be waged for the needs of the nation and for the actualization of Jewish destiny. The soldier must be prepared to take the life of another if this is what the mission calls for. However, there is a reality that must be acknowledged. There is collateral damage on a personal level. After fighting a war, after taking a life – the soldier is no longer the same. Once those feelings and instincts that allowed one to kill have been unleashed it is not easy to simply bottle them up. This, explains the Rebbe, is the meaning of the pasuk. Why not just go to war with all of the Canaanite nations at once? Why will God drive them out ‘little by little’? To which God answers, “Pen tirbeh lecha chayas haSadeh (Llest the beasts of the field become too much upon you).” The beasts to which the Torah refers are not the animals that inhabit the land of Israel – but rather, the animal that dwells within. God explains, “If I have you engage in constant fighting, constant bloodshed, constant war – the animal within will overwhelm you and can extinguish your humanity. Therefore, I will clear out the nations slowly – you will have to fight – but you will also have time to heal. The mission will be accomplished but at a slower pace to allow for the preservation of the Tzelem Elokim (the Divine Image) within each and every solider.”
The Rebbe’s insight teaches us a valuable lesson. What we do, determines who we are. The actions we engage in – shape and mold our very character and essence. If we want to become good and holy people we must engage in good and holy behaviors. At times, we engage in certain activities that we know are detrimental (to our body or soul) but we convince ourselves that this action will not color who we are. “Pen tirbeh alecha chayas haSadeh” – if we act like an animal, our inner animal will dominate and eclipse the beauty and holiness we possess within.
There are times when we must unleash the animal within, but we must have a plan to rein it in, assess the damage and create a space in which to repair and heal.
Our actions define us; our actions solidify our identity. Let us find the strength to make the right decisions and choices, but when we fall and when we fail, let us find the courage to rein in the beasts of the field.
“Nachamu Nachamu Ami – Be consoled, be consoled my people (Isaiah 40:1).”
We read these beautiful words of the prophet, Yeshayahu (Isaiah) on the Shabbos immediately following Tisha B’Av. When the fast ends we feel euphoric, excited and optimistic. But why? What is different? The Temple has not yet been rebuilt, anti-Semitism still exists and there is still in-fighting within our people. Why is this Shabbos a Shabbos of Consolation when nothing has seemingly changed?
Rav Ephraim Oshry (1914-2003) provides an amazing insight. Rav Oshry was the Rav of the Kovno Ghetto and answered many questions of halacha (Jewish law) throughout the war. He compiled these heartbreaking, yet inspiring responsa in a work titled, Responsa from the Depths. In his introduction to the third volume he raises an interesting question and provides an incredible insight and explanation. The Torah states:
“You shall remember what Amalek did to you on the way, when you went out of Egypt, how he happened upon you on the way and cut off all the stragglers at your rear, when you were faint and weary…Therefore, it will be, when the Lord, your God, grants you respite from all your enemies around [you] in the land which the Lord, your God, gives to you as an inheritance to possess, that you shall obliterate the remembrance of Amalek from beneath the heavens. You shall not forget! (Devorim 25:17-19).”
“Why must the Torah tell us to “remember” and “not forget”? Is this not redundant? God knew we would remember what Amalek (Rav Oshry relates historical Amalek to the Nazis) did to us. How can we not remember? The fire still burns, the pain is still acute. How can we not remember Auschwitz, the Ninth Fort, and Bergen Belsen? But the Torah explains, ‘when the Lord, your God, grants you respite from all your enemies….In the land which the Lord, your God, gives you as an inheritance to possess;’ God knows that we will rebuild. We will rebuild our families, we will rebuild our wealth, we will rebuild our people, and we will rebuild ourselves. And we will begin to think, why should we hold on to the pain of the past? Let the past be the past. What good does it do to hold on to the pain when all it does is hold me back and anchor us inour heartbreak? God knew that when life would once again become good and filled with happiness and accomplishment; we would try to forget our pain. Therefore, God commands, “You shall not forget.” Even when life is beautiful – never forget your pain.”
But why not? After all, doesn’t there come a point in time when I must let go of the past in order to build a future? Doesn’t there come a point when I should unshackle myself from the heartbreak in order to feel joy? The Torah is teaching us an important lesson. The Jew never forgets or buries his pain – the Jew owns his pain. I look at my pain and I ask myself what can I learn about myself, my life and my world from this difficult situation. I own my pain and use it as a catalyst for growth. I own my pain and use its lessons as fuel for my engine of life productivity and meaning. “You Shall Remember,” is the natural reaction to pain when the wound is open, and the pain is clearly felt. But lest we think that at some point we need to forget to move on – God reminds us “You shall not forget.” Don’t try to bury, conceal or hide your pain – own it, learn and grow from it.
Perhaps, this is the consolation, the nechama (consolation) of Shabbos Nachamu. On Tisha B’Av we allow ourselves to experience the crushing burden of 2,000 years of national and individual pain. At times throughout the day we feel as if our collective heart will burst from the sadness and despair. But then something amazing happens. We begin the process of owning our pain. We begin to learn from the tragedies. From our tears and sadness, we learn the need for compassion, empathy and unconditional love. From our heartbreak, we learn tolerance and respect. From our adversity, we learn that we are resilient, and can adapt and rebound from the most difficult of circumstances. From our loss, we learn that there is no greater force in nature than the Jewish soul. We take these powerful lessons and make them part of who we are. We own our pain and we recognize that nothing and no one can stop us from accomplishing our spiritual goals and aspirations. The moment we learn from our pain and realize that pain is the ultimate catalyst for growth, is the moment we begin to feel a wave of comfort. Those who own their pain are comforted by their pain.
I wish each of you a Shabbos of introspective consolation.
May we merit the ultimate consolation with the arrival of the Moshiach, speedily in our days, amen.
This coming Sunday, we will observe the saddest and most traumatic day on our calendar: Tisha B’av (the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av). It is on this day that we remember the tragedies and catastrophes which have befallen our people over the last few thousand years. But the darkness and sadness of this day can be traced to one, singular episode: the Sin of the Spies. Despite the assurances of God and Moshe we felt compelled to scout out the Land of Israel. The spies came back, delivered their disastro
But did the punishment fit the crime? We as a nation certainly were ungrateful and lacked faith. But to condemn every Jew (over the age of 20) to death in the desert; to mark this day for ongoing tragedy, seems a bit disproportionate. Furthermore, the people tried to do teshuva (repent). The very next morning the Torah relates that the people arose early in the morning and ascended to the mountaintop, saying, “’We are ready to go up to the place of which the Lord spoke, for we have sinned.’ Moses said, ‘Why do you transgress the word of the Lord? It will not succeed. Do not go up, for the Lord is not among you, [so that] you will not be beaten by your enemies (Bamidbar 14:39-41).’” They acknowledged their mistake and tried to right the wrong, yet the punishment was still severe and swift. How are we to understand the nature of their mistake and the Divine reaction?
The Dubno Maggid (Rabbi Yaakov Kranz, 1740-1804) explains this dynamic with a mashal (parable). There was a fine young man who was known to be a Torah scholar with sterling middos (character traits) who was engaged to marry a young woman from a very wealthy family. One day, as the fathers were sitting down to discuss the financial arrangements for the upcoming wedding, the father of the bride told the father of the groom, “I am so happy our children are getting married, we will be happy to pay for the wedding. My only request is that you take care of outfitting your son for the wedding. But it is important that you buy him a suit of the finest materials.” To which the father of the groom responded, “My dear friend, I, too, share your excitement for the upcoming wedding of our children and I have much appreciation for your generosity. I am a man of virtually no means and while I can certainly afford a basic wardrobe for my son, I can’t purchase the type of clothing you are suggesting.” “Well if you can’t provide this one small part, then the wedding is off!” replied the father of the bride. And so, the beautiful match ended. A few months went by and the father of the bride regretted his hasty decision. The groom was such a fine young man with such refined character, how could he justify breaking off the nuptials over a suit. He contacted the father of the groom and voiced his desire to have their children marry. “My dear friend,” replied the father of the groom, “my son is a very special young man who has much potential. Yet, you were willing to cast him aside because of a suit. Any family that would treat my son this way doesn’t truly appreciate who my son is. I no longer wish for my son to be a part of your family.”
The Dubno Maggid explains, when the spies maligned the Land of Israel, it highlighted a fundamental lack of love and appreciation for the Land. This wasn’t simply a lack of proper judgment; this sin represented a fundamental lack of understanding of the preciousness and holiness of the Land. A mistake of this magnitude could not simply be remedied by attempting to march on the Land the next day, nor could it be remedied through a simple apology. It would take another forty years of nomadic existence to cultivate an appreciation for a home, for a land, for a destiny. The real sin of the spies was one of flawed perspective and outlook. All they saw were the problems; they failed see the beauty and good.
Nothing in life is perfect. Everything and everyone has its strengths and weaknesses but if all we see is what is broken and wrong, we end up appreciating nothing. Many of us have struggles with which we must contend each and every day, but we must be careful that these struggles don’t obscure or eclipse our blessings. It is easy to lose oneself in the sadness and despair of difficult circumstances. We must always maintain a healthy disposition and recognize all the beautiful berachos and bounty we possess as well.
This lesson has an important interpersonal ramification as well. There is an amazing Gemara.
“Rabbi Chiya’s wife was a difficult person. Yet, whenever he would come across a nice item, he would purchase it, wrap it and give it to his wife (as a gift). Rav (Rabbi Chiya’s
Apparently, Rabbi Chiya didn’t have a story book marriage. There were complications. Yet, Rabbi Chiya chose to see the beautiful aspects of his wife’s personality. Rabbi Chiya
Tisha B’Av is a day of tears for all that has been lost. We cry for the dreams which never materialized and for those we have lost and whose absence is acutely felt by our nation. Yet, we must remember that even on Tisha B’Av itself, the mourning practices lessen as the day progresses. Because after we cry and after we mourn, we must remind ourselves that all is not lost. We each have beautiful blessings, each of us are beautiful blessings. As we dry our tears, we pledge to ourselves that we will not lose ourselves in the abyss of sadness or despair. We will focus on that which is good. We will strain ourselves to see something beautiful and positive in every person and to actively take stock of our personal blessings. We won’t be spies, living life with a skewed perception. Perhaps, this is the merit we need. If we see the good in the other, ourselves and the world, maybe this will be the last Tisha B’Av marked with mourning.
May we merit to see the coming of Moshiach, the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash and the drying of our tears.
“These are the journeys of the children of Israel who left the land of Egypt in their legions, under the charge of Moses and Aaron.” (Bamidbar 33:1)
In the beginning of Maasei (the second of the two parshios we read this week) the Torah lists the 42 places we camped during our 40 year sojourn in the desert. There are 49 verses dedicated to this geography lesson; a staggering amount of biblical real-estate devoted to listing names of places which have disappeared into the sands of time. Why spend so much time focusing on these places many of which have ceased to exist? Furthermore, the Torah opens this section with the words “Eyleh maasei (these are the journeys)”; a journey reflects movement, yet the Torah then goes on to list the places where we camped (stopped moving). If we are listing the encampments, let the verse state, “These are the encampments of the Children of Israel.” How are we to understand this strange verbiage?
The Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, 1902-1994) explains that in fact the Torah is teaching us a two-part lesson. Eyleh maasei (these are the journeys); life is about perpetual movement. A person must choose between being a holeych (one who walks) or an omeyd (one who stands still). God communicates His preference; life must be a journey, a masa. A person is commanded to live in a state ofhalicha (constant movement) and to never remain in the stagnant state of amida. Eyleh maasei (these are the journeys), is not a historical statement, it is the life mantra of the Jew. I will journey forward, I will constantly move and grow, I will never give in to the temptation of standing in place.
And yet, after stressing the importance of movement, the Torah lists the places our ancestors camped and stopped moving. And herein lies the second lesson. There are times in life when we lose our momentum. There are situations which can sideline and derail our journeys. There are circumstances which leave us standing in place. These 42 stops along the journey represent the set-backs and defeats we each experience throughout the journey in life. The Baal Shem Tov said, “the 42 journeys of our ancestors are the same journeys we each experience from the time we are born into this world until we transition to the World to Come.” There are times ofhalicha and times of amida. However, it becomes our sacred obligation to use the set-backs and defeats as opportunities for growth and development. We learn much about ourselves from the difficult chapters of life. We learn to confront our weaknesses and discover strengths we never realized we possessed. If we find the courage to grow from the moments of amida and failure then even these moments and episodes become part of the halicha, the forward movement of life.
It is in these simple verses that the Torah conveys to us, perhaps, the most important life message. Eyleh maasei(these are the journeys); life must be filled with constant growth and movement. We cannot remain rooted in the present, we must constantly look for opportunities to advance. But know that along the way there will be stops. During the long journey there will be moments of amida which prevent us from moving forward. There will be challenges and failures. But know that if we learn something and grow from these difficulties then these moments of adversity become part of the forward moving journey.