August 1st-2nd, 2003
4 Av, 5763
NOTE: The following is a revised
version of a previous essay, taken from our Archives.
REVIEWING OUR PAST…AND LOOKING
Shabbos, we begin reading the final book of the Torah, Devarim. Our
Sages termed the book, "Mishneh Torah" (Review of the Torah), for although
a few mitzvos
are introduced for the first time here, it is largely a recapitulation of
what has already been taught. You might say that collected in this last
book of the Torah are Moshe's masterful "Final Lectures on Jewish
Fundamentals," delivered in the last five weeks of his life to the
generation about to enter the Land of Israel. (They are still fit to be
part of the divinely revealed Torah, however, for they were recorded for
posterity at the express command of Hashem.)
As Ramban [Nachmanidies]
explains in his introduction to the book, these lectures were meant to
further elucidate certain points of the mitzvos, and to provide earnest,
sometimes severe admonition--especially regarding all forms of idolatry.
(Earlier generations, especially the one about to enter the Land,
obviously needed much urging on that topic, as they lived in a world
steeped in idol worship.) Because the Kohanim were particularly zealous in
performing their duties, Moshe did not need to review the laws of korbanos
(offerings), or of priestly purity, which comprise much of the book of
Ramban goes on to point out that Moshe did not launch straight into his
review of the Torah's laws. Rather, he opened with words of rebuke,
recounting the various transgressions of the Jewish people in the
Wilderness. A good part of this week's parsha, in fact, is devoted to a
lengthy retelling of the sin of the Spies (meraglim) which was the direct
cause of the decree to wander in the Wilderness for 40 years. [See
Numbers, Chapters 13 & 14, for the whole account.]
Why did Moshe open up with a not-always-favorable review of their recent
The purpose was not only to reprimand the Jewish people, Ramban explains,
but also to encourage them! By showing them how Hashem had constantly
dealt with them in a merciful way (despite their transgressions), Moshe
hoped to strengthen them in their desire to follow Him and keep His Torah.
An important concept, often forgotten: Hashem's forgiveness is meant to be
more than just a merciful reprieve from punishment (or annihilation) due
to wrongdoing from the past; it is supposed to be a positive incentive to
serving Him better in the future. Forgiveness (following our own teshuva,
or repentance) is not chiefly about "getting us off the hook," but about
"getting us back in the game, and up to the plate."
Ramban quotes a well-known verse from Chapter 130 of Psalms to support
this idea: "Because with You is forgiveness, in order that You be feared."
For many, this may be a new way of understanding these words (recited very
often in communal supplication on behalf of sick people). The true purpose
of G-d's forgiveness…is to help us fear Him (i.e., have greater awe and
awareness of Him in our lives).
And just how does forgiveness help us fear? Although Ramban doesn't
elaborate, the simple meaning seems to be that Hashem's mercy will inspire
us with gratitude, and lead us to want to increase our awe of Him…and
ultimately to take steps to do so. After experiencing G-d’s mercy (as we
do most vividly on Yom Kippur, say, or perhaps after recovering from a
serious illness), we will more graciously accept the yoke of Heaven on
ourselves in response. Really, the fact that G-d forgives me, despite my
lapses of attention to Him and His Torah (and despite His power over life
and death), creates an obligation in me to live my life with more
awareness of His greatness…and with more attention to fulfilling His
expectations for me.
We need to remember our past transgressions, and how G-d has dealt with us
mercifully despite them (granting us continued life, health, success,
etc.). Then (He hopes) we will learn--or be reminded--to have more awe of
Him. As King David wrote:
"Because with You is forgiveness, [and You allow us to experience that
mercy] in order that You be feared
the verse somewhat differently in his commentary on Psalms. A human being
who wants to be feared will not forgive transgression, since his ability
to inspire fear depends solely on his actually carrying out punishment.
(My own children know that Abba tends to threaten, but Mommy--in her
wisdom--actually carries it out…and that’s why they fear her more!) Yiras
Hashem, the awe of the Almighty, works differently, however. It rests on
the recognition of His inherent greatness, and this is actually revealed
by His very act of forgiveness. How so? Because He thereby demonstrates
that our sins do not cause the slightest blemish to His honor--so exalted
is He above human actions and calculations. His forgiveness does not
weaken His lofty stature; if we think about the meaning (and motive) of
that forgiveness, His lofty stature is confirmed. The result: we grow in
awe of Hashem.
"...with You is forgiveness [since our transgressions do not affect, or
threaten You, in Your essence; and You show us forgiveness, therefore] in
order that You be feared."
Moshe’s goal, then, in recounting the past of the Jewish people (as a
prelude to reviewing the Law with them) was to increase their awe of the
Almighty…to strengthen them in their resolve to keep the Torah more
diligently in the future.
We should take a cue from Moshe Rabbeinu. This Shabbos is known as Shabbos
Chazon, from the opening word of the Haftarah (from the book of Isaiah).
It is the Shabbos directly before the Fast of the Ninth of Av (which
begins this Wednesday at sundown), the tragic day on which both of our
Temples were destroyed. We have a special responsibility this Shabbos (as
well as during the other days leading up to
to recall the sins of our past.
Now, the Talmud states that the reason for the destruction of the Second
Temple, which ushered in our present exile, was sinas chinam--baseless
hatred between Jews. (Sound familiar? "Two Jews, three synagogues" writ
very large--fatally so.) And the Talmud also teaches that any generation
in which the Temple is not rebuilt shares the responsibility for its
destruction…for it proves that the original sin causing the destruction
has not yet been completely rectified. That is to say: our own continuing
sinas chinam, and general weakness in serving Hashem with a joyous heart (i.e,
the sins of our present) need to be corrected.
But we must also meditate on G-d’s kindness with us. Despite being a
"sheep among wolves" throughout history (and taken some lickings), we are
still alive and kicking (do sheep kick?) while the big bad wolves of past
eras have all bitten the dust. (Including Saddam.) So while remembering
our shortcomings this Shabbos, and next week, we must also call to mind G-d’s
forgiveness…and then the result will be (G-d willing) that we will fear
Him more. We will emerge from the fast not just hungry and parched, but
determined to correct the flaws that caused our exile, and to try to serve
G-d with a joyous heart (and treat our fellow man with love and respect).
It’s the start of a new book of the Torah…and a chance to make (once
again) a new start.
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