Pondering the Imponderable

And I petitioned before Hashem at that time saying:  Hashem, G-d, You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your mighty hand – for what power in the heavens and upon the earth can perform actions akin to Your actions and Your might.  Allow me, now, to pass over and see the good land that is on the other side of the Jordan, the good mountain, and the Lebanon.  (Sefer Devarim 4:23-25)

1.  The order of the annual Torah readings

Over the course of each year the entire Torah is read.  The parshiyot – the portions – of the Torah are each assigned a Shabbat.  The number of parshiyot exceeds the number of Shabbatot – Sabbaths.  Therefore, some weeks, two portions are read in order to complete the entire Torah over the course of the year.  However, there are some parshiyot that are assigned to specific Shabbatot.  For example, Parshat BeMidbar is usually read the Shabbat preceding Shavuot; Parshat Nitzavim is read before Rosh HaShanah.  The Shabbat following Tisha B’Av is among the Shabbatot that are assigned a specific parasha. Parshat VaEtchanan must be read on the Shabbat following Tisha B’Av.[1]

It is notable that, in general, these special parshiyot are associated with the Shabbat preceding a festival.  The examples above illustrate this pattern.  BeMidbar is read before Shavuot and Nitzavim is read before Rosh HaShanah.  This suggests that each of these parshiyot is selected to be read on its specific Shabbat as a preparation for the festival or observance that will take place in the coming week.  However, Parshat VaEtchanan is the exception to this pattern.  It is not read before Tisha B’Av; it is read following it.

This presents two problems.  First, why is VaEtchanan different from the other parshiyot assigned to their respective Shabbatot?  Why does it follow the observance with which it is associated rather than precede it?  Second, the rationale for reading a relevant portion in preparation for a festival is obvious.  As explained above, the special reading prepares us for the special event in the coming week.  What is the rationale for reading VaEtchanan after Tisha B’Av?  Tisha B’Av has been observed in the preceding week.  A relevant Torah reading cannot prepare us for an event that has already taken place.

When you will give birth to children and grandchildren and you will become long-established in the land, then you will act destructively and make idols and images of all things.  You will do that which is evil in the eyes of Hashem, your G-d, to anger Him.  I call to testify against you today the heavens and the earth that you shall surely be quickly destroyed from upon the land that you cross the Jordan, there to possess.  You will not enjoy longevity upon it.  For you will surely be destroyed.  (Sefer Devarim 4:25-26)

2.  The Tisha B’Av Torah reading

There is an obvious connection between Tisha B’Av and Parshat Va’Etchanan.  The Torah reading for the morning of Tisha B’Av is taken from the parasha.  This Torah portion is one of the distinctive characteristics of Tisha B’Av.  Other fast days – with the exception of Yom Kipur – share a single reading.  That reading is taken from Sefer Shemot.  It focuses upon Moshe’s intercession on behalf of Bnai Yisrael following the sin of the Egel – the Golden Calf.  It is selected for fast days because its theme is petition, forgiveness, and Hashem’s mercy.  On our fast days we ask Hashem to redeem us from affliction and suffering.  We learn from this Torah section how to petition Hashem.  We adopt Moshe’s model and even employ the words and phrases included in this portion.  We also learn from this portion that forgiveness can be achieved.  Hashem is a G-d of mercy.  He awaits us to return to Him.  When we sincerely repent, we will be forgiven.

This moving Torah portion is not read on the morning of Tisha B’Av. Instead, it is postponed to the afternoon.  The morning reading is from Parshat VaEtchanan.  It begins with the passages above.  Why is this reading selected for Tisha B’Av in place of the usual fast day Torah portion?

How does she dwell alone! A city that was populas is a widow.  Great among nations, a princess among states is a vassal state.  (Megilat Eichah 1:1)

3.  Tisha B’Av recalls an imponderable disaster

Tisha B’Av recalls the destruction of our two Sacred Temples – Batai Mikdash.  It has been designated by our Sages to also commemorate all of the tragedies and disasters that have befallen our people in the long years of our exile and wandering.  The observance begins at night with the reading of Megilat Eichah – Lamentations.  This work was authored by the prophet Yermiyahu in response to the destruction of the first Bait HaMikdash – the Sacred Temple.  This works opens with the above passage.  The first word of the passage and the megilah is eichah – how.  The prophet asks how such a terrible disaster could have occurred.

However, the prophet’s intention is not to formulate an intellectual question.  The sentence is not a quarry.  It is an exclamation.  How is such tragedy possible!  In this very first passage of the megilah an important element of the Tisha B’Av observance is expressed.  Tisha B’Av requires that we experience astonishment.  We are required to relive the tragedy of the churban – the destruction of the Temples.  If we succeed in our task, then like Yermiyahu we will be astonished that such punishment and suffering is possible!  One who can quickly and easily come to grips with the churban and feel that he understands it, simply does not appreciate its magnitude.

Some years ago a Holocaust survivor asked me how I can believe in a G-d who allows His own children to be humiliated, tortured, and exterminated.  Where was G-d’s mercy or justice when six million of His children were decimated!  After a brief discussion I realized that I was not being asked a theological question.  I realized that I was experiencing a declaration of unbearable anguish and horror.  How could the Holocaust be possible!  There is no answer because there is no question – only a cry of intense anguish.

Tisha B’Av requires that we feel that anguish.  We must strive to imagine the horror of the churban – to grasp the imponderable.

And he said:  If now I have found favor in Your eyes, Hashem, let the presence of Hashem be in our midst.  For it is a stiff-necked nation and You will forgive our iniquities and take us as a portion.  (Sefer Shemot 34:9)

4.  A time for grief and a time for consolation

The above passage is taken from the closing of the normal fast day Torah reading.  This is the Torah portion that is read also in the afternoon of Tisha B’Av.  In the passage, Moshe asks Hashem to forgive the nation’s terrible sin – the sin of the Egel.  Moshe’s request is granted and the people are forgiven.

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zt”l suggests that this message is antithetical to the mood of Tisha B’Av morning.  It is a message of consolation, hope, and forgiveness. Tisha B’Av morning’s theme and atmosphere is of inexorable grief.  We are not yet prepared to move beyond our astonishment, horror and anguish.[2]   Therefore, this Torah portion is postponed to the afternoon.  Through reading the kinot – the liturgical lamentations – recited the morning of Tisha B’Av, we give voice to our perplexity and anguish.

5.  The morning Torah reading

Instead of the normal fast day Torah reading, on Tisha B’Av we read a section from Parshat VaEtchanan.  What is the relevance of this portion of Tisha B’Av?

Every festival is assigned a specific Torah portion to be read on the occasion.  These readings are selected on the basis of their relevance to the festival.  Festivals prescribed by the Torah are assigned Torah readings that discuss the festival.  Festivals established by Sages are assigned Torah portions that are relevant to the festival.  For example, Chanukah commemorates the rededication of the Bait HaMikdash.  Its Torah portion discusses the dedication of the Mishcan – the Tabernacle – of the wilderness.

Accordingly, Tisha B’Av is assigned the Torah portion that discusses the occasions that we commemorate – churban, exile, and suffering.  On Tisha B’Av morning we read the portion of the Torah that describes a time at which the nation will become complacent and take for granted its blessings. The people will abandon the Torah. They will be punished with exile, affliction, and destruction.

When you are afflicted and all of these things befall you, at the end of days, you will return to Hashem your G-d and you will listen to His voice.  (Sefer Devarim 4:30)

6.  Parshat VaEtchanan – a message of tragedy and of consolation

The Tisha B’Av morning Torah portion focuses upon three ideas.  The first is that our suffering is not a merely a capricious accident or happenstance occurrence.  Our afflictions are a result of our own choices. Wrongdoing and iniquity are punished.  The punishment can be severe.  Second, Hashem awaits our repentance.  When we return to Him, He will accept us.  Finally, we are assured that we will repent and that we will be delivered from our suffering.  Our relationship with Hashem will be fully restored.

We read these messages on the morning of Tisha B’Av because this is the Torah portion that discusses the events commemorated by the day.  However, we are not ready for its messages.  We are not prepared to hear its rebuke.  When we are overwhelmed in our contemplation of the enormity of our suffering, we cannot accept this message of accountability.  Also, we are not yet prepared to be consoled.  Messages of ultimate redemption cannot be processed by one who is in the deepest most intense level of grief.

However, these messages are fundamental. They provide context for the catastrophes Tisha B’Av recalls.  These messages are harbingers of better times – of peace and an end of all suffering and affliction.  So, as with the passage of time, when better prepared, we must return to this Torah reading and consider its messages.  Therefore, the Sages assigned Parshat VaEtchanan to the Shabbat after Tisha B’Av.

In short, Parshat VaEtchanan differs from the other parshiyot assigned to specific Shabbatot.  These other parshiyot are each read in preparation for the festival to be observed in the coming week.  VaEtchanan is not a preparation for Tisha B’Av; it is a response.  It gives Tisha B’Av a needed context and provides a message of solace and hope.


[1] Rav Yosef Karo, Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 428:4.

[2] Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, The Lord is Righteous in All His Ways, pp. 1-14.