The Book of Deuteronomy
August 2nd-3rd, 2002
25 Av, 5762
In the opening words of this week's Haftarah portion (Isaiah: 54, 11-55,
5), the prophet Isaiah cries out to the Jewish people: "O afflicted,
storm-tossed, unconsoled one…" [Artscroll Rashi translation, my emphasis].
Although the words that follow are meant to comfort our people with the
certainty of the blessings of the Messianic era, we cannot help focusing
this Shabbos on Isaiah's introductory lament. At the present time, after
what we've witnessed this week, we feel decidedly unconsoled.
Not that there is anything really astounding about the specific site of
this week's carnage. I mean, is it really surprising that our murderous
enemies chose Hebrew University as a target? Did anyone naively think that
some places are simply off-limits in their war of terror against the
Jewish people? After two years of seeing pregnant women gunned down as
they clamber off a bus, or old and young blown to bits as they commence a
seaside Passover seder, was there any rational basis in the world to
suppose that an institution of higher education (and a last remaining
bastion of Jewish-Arab peaceful coexistence, according to the media) would
be magically shielded?
The real wonder, in fact, is that it took so long for such a thing to
happen in as hazardously under-protected a place as the Mt. Scopus campus
of Hebrew U. I have no doubt that for every "successful" strike by our
murderers--including this one--there are probably 10 similar attempts
foiled by the Holy One, Blessed be He….Who is still, and always, the
"Guardian of Israel." We should try to keep this in mind.
But it is still hard not to feel desolate, devastated and unconsoled.
Whenever it is American Jews that die, it may strike us a bit deeper since
it is closer to home. And when the slain are such young and idealistic
people--and who but a true idealist, burning with a love of Israel and the
Jewish people choose to study in Jerusalem at this time--, then perhaps it
is especially painful to us. The father of one of the victims (Ben
Blutstein, 25) had these heart-wrenching words to say to a reporter: "It's
apparent that the Palestinians want to destroy Israel and now they've
killed my son…[But] I'm very proud of what Ben did. He was studying in a
place he loved."
"O afflicted, storm-tossed, unconsoled one," cries Isaiah. "You will go
mad from the sight of your eyes that you will see," the Torah tells us in
the frightening passage of rebuke (foretelling the sufferings of Exile)
from the parsha, Ki Savo, to be read in shul in a couple of weeks. We're
pretty much there already, I'd say.
What should our reaction be to this tragedy? And, more broadly, what
should our reaction be to all these tribulations of the pre-Messianic
period that the entire world is undergoing?
I'm not sure there is one simple answer. For sure, we must cry out to
Hashem, and cry out bitterly, asking Him to end our exile (and to put
wisdom in the hearts of the human leaders to hold our enemies at bay). Do
any of us really say the words of Tachanun (a portion of the morning and
afternoon prayer service) with the intense feeling that their simplest
surface meaning dictates?
"O Guardian of Israel, protect the remnant of Israel, let not Israel be
destroyed--those who proclaim, 'Hear, O Israel.'…Our Father, Our King,
be gracious with us and answer us, though we have no worthy deeds; treat
us with charity and kindesses, and save us…We know not what we do--but our
eyes are upon You." (Artscroll Siddur; my emphasis)
It was the heartfelt crying out of the Jewish people to Hashem that set
into motion the redemption from the Egyptian exile: "G-d heard their wail,
and G-d remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob."
(Exodus: 2, 24) A heartfelt cry that reveals our understanding that we as
a nation can't ultimately triumph only on our own (even with the help of a
hundred I.D.F.'s), that we need to turn to G-d for redemption. We know not
what we do--who among us has the surefire solution for the present
situation?!--but our eyes are upon You.
And not just cry out, of course, but cry out AND improve the actual way we
live and the depth of our commitment to serve G-d, "with all our hearts,
souls and possessions." Especially the manner in which we relate to our
fellow Jews--which should be with kindness and love, and certainly not the
baseless hatred and loshon ha'ra--hurtful gossip-- that were responsible
for the destruction of the Second Temple. (This is why the Chofetz Chayim
Heritage Foundation has so nobly championed the daily study of both the
laws of loshon ha'ra, and the accounts in our sources of the awesome
spiritual damage it causes. Contact them for guidance on getting study
We must cry out bitterly, for we are truly in a grave (and afflicted and
storm-tossed) situation…but, at the same time, we must not despair. This
week's parsha gives us a couple of particularly valuable perspectives that
can elevate us above the despair of remaining unconsoled.
"You are children to Hashem, your G-d--you shall not cut yourselves and
you shall not make a bald spot between your eyes for a dead person." (14,
1) The Torah commands us not to follow in the ways of the ancient
Amorites, who in a frenzy of grief and despair over the death of their
loved ones would gash and deface their own bodies. Why should we Jews not
give in to the impulse to wound ourselves in our own agony of grief? The
answer is in the first part of the verse: You are children to Hashem, your
G-d. As the commentaries explain, while it is normal to grieve over the
departure of our loved ones from this world, the knowledge that we (and
they) have an eternal spiritual closeness to G-d in the next world, and
that they are not lost forever, should work to temper our grief somewhat.
It should stop us from wounding ourselves--an act that denies the fact
that we are beloved children to Hashem, our Father, and that bespeaks the
despairing conviction that the deceased is utterly destroyed.
We may not understand why tragedies occur, in such and such a place to
such and such a person, and our grief and sense of loss are warranted.
But, at the same time, the bedrock of our faith as Jews is: "You are
children to Hashem, your G-d," and the words that directly follow the
prohibition of wounding ourselves as well: "For you are a holy people to
Hashem, your G-d, and Hashem has chosen you for Himself to be a treasured
people, from among the peoples on the face of the earth." Ultimately, what
G-d does is for the good, even when He reclaims a precious soul from this
With that first perspective, we will mourn and we will cry out in our pain
and confusion…but we will not despair.
Secondly, we note that the parsha opens with Moshe placing a fateful
choice before the Jewish people:
"See, I present before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing,
listen to the commandments of Hashem, your G-d, that I command you today.
And the curse: if you do not listen to the commandments of Hashem, your
And you stray from the path that I command you today, to follow the gods
Others, that you did not know." (11, 26-28; Artscroll translation)
That the path of Torah and mitzvos leads to true life and blessing, in
both this world and the next, while the path of straying after one's own
desires leads ultimately to negation (and spiritual death) is a crucial
concept, and one repeated later in the Book of Deuteronomy. (30, 15) To
commit ourselves more deeply to the path of life and blessing, especially
in the face of an enemy that elevates negation and death to the center of
its warped religious vision, is an appropriate way to respond to the
tragedies befalling us as a people.
But the verses above tell us something even more. Many of the commentaries
note that the word, See, is in the singular, while the rest of the passage
(before you, and on) is in the plural. The Kli Yakar (a famous Torah
commentary) explains that Moshe was speaking to each individual Jew (See),
and saying that his or her own individual actions have such great
spiritual consequences that they bring a blessing or a curse before you,
plural--i.e., all the Jewish people collectively. Indeed, the Talmud tells
us (and it is quite appropriate to remember, as the Days of Awe approach)
that each of us should have the perspective that the entire world is
evenly balanced between mitzvos and transgressions, and that our next
action will tip the scale in one direction or the other! That is how
cosmically important are the actions of each individual Jew.
Now, don't make the mistake of getting freaked out by that perspective.
(Let's look at the kiddush cup as half full, not half empty.) How much
blessing and holiness each one of us can bring upon the whole Jewish
people (and the world) with each of our good deeds, our kind words, our
chapters or paragraphs of Torah study. See and consider that fact, Moshe
tells us. That is meant to inspire us…and even console us. We have the
mission in this world of choosing the path of life and blessing, through
the Torah and its commandments…and G-d has even given us the great gift of
teshuva (repentance) if, or rather when, we momentarily slip onto the
other path. We are children to G-d, and a holy people. We are not
insignificant, and we are not (G-d forbid) abandoned--even in the darkest
times of Exile.
Another one of the victims of the Hebrew U. bombing, Marla Bennett, 24,
wrote a column several months ago for a San Diego newspaper describing her
experience in Israel: "…the events of the past few months in Israel have
led me to believe that each small decision I make--by which route to walk
to school, whether or not to go out to dinner--may have life-threatening
How clearly she saw things--that is the essential nature of our lives in
this world not only in dangerous times, but even in the most peaceful of
times. This is why our Sages urged us to do teshuva one day before we
die--i.e., every day, since we don't know when our last day will come. We
shouldn't be paralyzed with fear with this awareness, for we must remember
that our lives are in the hands of Hashem (our Father), but we should
treasure each moment.
But Marla Bennett may not have realized (or perhaps she did) that her
words also describe the spiritual reality of our actions. Each small
decision we make (say the hurtful word or not, take the time to do an act
of kindness or not, study some Torah or sit idly) does indeed have
life-threatening consequences. Does it connect me to life and to blessing,
or to curse and negation? Does it bring blessing for the whole Jewish
people, or the opposite?
This is another response to the tragedies we are experiencing, and one
that will greatly elevate our own souls (and the souls of the innocent
martyrs who died because they were Jews): to try to live our lives with
the awareness that everything we do has awesome potential for good.
Everything is in the hands of Heaven, our Sages tell us, except the awe of
Heaven--that is, our free-willed decision to choose between those paths
(blessing or curse) that Moshe laid out in front of us.
May we absorb the perspectives of this parsha, and change our lives for
the better. And may we only know joy from here on in, quickly experiencing
the complete revelation of G-d's glory in this world…when only good will
Starting next week, I hope to be back in Savannah, and reachable either by
my summer e-mail, or by my regular one:
My new e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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