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Torah Attitude: Parashas Devarim: Reflections in the water
Those who pursue the Jewish people have often been able to hurt us during the days between the 17th of Tamuz and the 9th of Av. Throughout our long and bitter exile many calamities have befallen us. On Rosh Chodesh Av we say Hallel where we praise and thank G'd for all of His goodness and lovingkindness. Many people who survived the Holocaust lost their faith in G'd after witnessing the horrors and atrocities of the death camps. If we overcome our challenges we get closer to G'd and our relationship with G'd takes on a new dimension. Moses rebukes the Jewish nation prior to his death and points out all their shortcomings throughout their sojourn in the wilderness. The Sifri teaches that in a relationship between two people, one person may imagine that the other person dislikes him because of his own dislike for the other person. Just as the water reflects the image of a person, so will the feelings of one person towards another be reciprocated with similar feelings by the other person. In general, when someone claims that another person has a certain blemish, the contender often suffers from this very same blemish himself. Whatever blemishes a person sees in others, he should investigate and analyze whether he ought to treat himself for a similar blemish. Anyone who claims that G'd has rejected us, and hates us, should investigate their personal feelings and attitude towards G'd. Moses admonishes and reminds the Jewish people that they have personally experienced G'd's great love and care. Throughout all of our travails G'd has clearly demonstrated His love for the Jewish people. No one is kinder and more caring than the doctor who is taking the necessary steps to save a person's life, despite the pain and discomfort that he causes. In Hallel on Rosh Chodesh Av, we remind ourselves that throughout all our suffering and travails we can discern the loving and caring Hand of G'd.
Three weeks of mourning
In the beginning of the book of Eichah (Lamentations 1:3) it says: "Judah has gone into exile … All her pursuers caught up with her in between the borders." The Midrash (ibid 1:29) interprets this verse as referring to those who pursue the Jewish people who have often been able to hurt us during the days between the 17th of Tamuz and the 9th of Av. That is why these days are known as the Three Weeks of Mourning.
Throughout our long and bitter exile many calamities have befallen us. Right from the time of the destruction of the Temples, through the fall of the fortress of Beitar at the time of Bar Kochba, to our exile in Europe, where we suffered from the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades in the Middle Ages. Later when the Jewish population migrated to Eastern Europe, we went through expulsions and pogroms, one after another. In our own times the horrors of the Holocaust are still fresh in the minds of the aging survivors. Since then there has not been a quiet moment in the land of Israel, where the Palestinians, aided by the Arabic nations, take any opportunity to fight the little Jewish nation through acts of terrorism and outright warfare. During these three weeks our thoughts turn to our constant losses throughout the generations, and we mourn the Jewish blood that has been spilt so freely by our enemies.
Rosh Chodesh Av
During the nine days, as we enter the month of Av, the mourning is intensified. Nevertheless, on Rosh Chodesh Av, the very first of the nine days, we say Hallel where we praise and thank G'd for all of His goodness and lovingkindness. This seems strange. At this time of mourning and sorrow, when we reflect on all the calamites that have befallen us what is there to be thankful for?
Many people who survived the Holocaust lost their faith in G'd after witnessing the horrors and atrocities of the death camps. They either felt that, G'd forbid, the Almighty does not exist or that He has forsaken us and left us unprotected. However, others faced the very same death camps and came out with a strengthened faith in G'd, as they clearly saw the Hand of G'd in judgment. They felt that they experienced what the Torah warned at the end of Parashas Ki Savo (Devarim 28:15-68), that if we forsake G'd and His commandments and the ways of the Torah, our enemies will attack us and commit atrocities against us.
Tests of life
All these calamities are part of our tests in life. Every one goes through personal difficulties and challenges. This is how G'd gives us opportunities to grow. In the same way, we face tests as a community, when our very faith and belief in G'd is challenged. If we overcome these challenges we get closer to G'd and our relationship with G'd takes on a new dimension. We must always keep in mind that this is exactly what our life in this world is all about.
In this week's Torah portion, Moses rebukes the Jewish nation prior to his death and points out all their shortcomings throughout their sojourn in the wilderness. As he discusses their mistakes in sending the spies, and their fateful reaction to the evil report of the spies, he says (Devarim 1:27): "And you spoke evil in your tents. And you said, 'In G'd's hatred He took us out of the land of Egypt to deliver us into the hands of the Emorite in order to destroy us.'"
To this the Sifri (24) comments and says, "Is it then possible to say that G'd hates Israel? Does it not say (Malachi 1:2) 'I love you says HASHEM.' Rather," says the Sifri, "they hate G'd." As the parable goes, what you feel in your heart towards your friend, this is what you claim that your friend feels towards you. And what your friend really feels towards you, you claim to be your feelings towards your friend" (see also Rashi Devarim 1:27). The hatred of the Jewish people towards G'd referred to by the Sifri is obviously not a full-blown feeling of hate and animosity but rather a deep-rooted, feeling of displeasure. Just as in a relationship between two people, one person may imagine that the other person dislikes him because of his own dislike for the other person. The same thing can take place, explains the Sifri, in the relationship between man and G'd.
Reflection in water
This concept is elaborated upon in one of the footnotes to Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner's commentary Nefesh HaChaim on Pirkei Avos (2:1). King Solomon says (Mishlei 27:19), "As the reflection of the face in water so is the relationship of the heart of one person to another." In general, the understanding of this verse is that just as the water reflects the image of a person, so will the feelings of one person towards another be reciprocated with similar feelings by the other person.
However, it can also be understood as a lesson teaching us of a measuring stick with which a person can evaluate his own situation. As the Talmud (Kidushin 70b) says, "In general, when someone claims that another person has a certain blemish, the contender often suffers from this very same blemish himself." For example, a thief claims that everyone steals. On the other hand, an honest person will often naively believe that nobody else cheats either. A person who has no connection to any misconduct will find it difficult to detect misconduct in anyone else. But the one who is soiled from a certain blemish himself will quickly recognize that very same blemish in other people.
This is what King Solomon says. Just like the water reflects the image of the person himself, so should a person be aware that when he sees the blemish of his fellow human being, chances are that he himself suffers from a similar blemish. Whatever blemish he sees in others, he should investigate and analyze whether he ought to treat himself for a similar blemish. For example, if someone goes about feeling that others carry animosity against him, this should trigger a warning that he should check his own feelings towards these people.
Relationship with G'd
The Sifri teaches us that this applies even in our relationship with G'd. Anyone who claims that G'd has rejected us, and hates us, should investigate their personal feelings and attitude towards G'd. When the Jewish people made such a claim after the report of the spies in the wilderness, the Sifri teaches us that what really was happening was, that they bore some form of hatred towards G'd.
Words of comfort
As Moses continues his rebuke to the Jewish people, he shares with them words of comfort, strengthening their spirit. He relates how he responded to their outcry after the return of the spies (ibid 29-32): "And I said to you, 'Don't be broken and don't fear them [the inhabitants of the land of Canaan]. HASHEM, your G'd, Who goes ahead of you, He will fight for you, just as He did for you in Egypt, in front of your eyes, and in the wilderness where you saw how HASHEM, your G'd, carried you as a man carries his son … And in this matter, you don't believe in HASHEM, your G'd?'" With these words, Moses admonishes and reminds them that they have personally experienced G'd's great love and care. So how can they not trust Him and His willingness to protect them?
We have also had a similar experience. Throughout all of our travails G'd has clearly demonstrated His love for the Jewish people. He has chosen us as His special nation, and therefore treats us differently than any other people. He has made a bond with us that He will never forsake us, and He always makes sure that the Jewish people will continue to exist. Any act of strictness and judgment is only for our benefit to ensure that we will persevere and be worthy of His special bond with the Jewish people.
Right up to our days, we have seen how G'd has mercy on us. After the horrors of the Holocaust, the Jewish people have enjoyed a revival that no one dreamt of in their wildest dreams. In addition to this, it is well known that for every one who has fallen victim to acts of terrorism, there have been hundreds, if not thousands, who have been saved from a similar fate. If we look back at the attacks of Hezbollah one year ago in the Galilee, we can only marvel at the Divine shield that protected our brothers and sisters in the northern cities of Israel. It is well known that all the great nations that stood up against us have disappeared from the map; only the lone sheep has survived, despite the constant attacks of seventy hungry wolves through thousands of years. Our suffering is to be compared to a patient on the operating table. To the uninformed, the surgeon appears to be a cruel person cutting into the flesh of his victim. But the truth is that no one is kinder and more caring than this doctor who is taking the necessary steps to save the person's life, despite the pain and discomfort that he causes.
Hand of G'd
This is the nature of our Hallel and thanks on Rosh Chodesh Av, as we enter the nine days of mourning. With these words of praise we remind ourselves that throughout all our suffering and travails we can discern the loving and caring Hand of G'd. We pray and hope that we should soon merit to see, openly, how G'd will take us out of this long and bitter exile to the final salvation with the coming of Mashiach and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network