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Torah Attitude: Parashas Devarim/Shabbos Chazon, Do we really want Mashiach to come?
This Torah Attitude is dedicated to Howard Deverett on his birthday. May he be blessed with all the best that life has to offer!
The coming Shabbos is known as Shabbos Chazon. Moses reviews the various incidents that the Jewish people went through during their sojourn in the wilderness and rebukes them for all their shortcomings and transgressions. The Hebrew word that Moses used when he said "how can I carry alone" is "eichah". "How did all of this come about?" Right from our beginning as a nation, we had shortcomings that slowly developed and grew, like a seed or a root below the surface that slowly but surely grows and brings forth its toxic resins. How can a person mourn a close relative he never met? We are similar to the parable of the wife of the farmer. We find ourselves as part of the Jewish people at large facing many physical dangers and perils. From a spiritual point of view, our situation is no better with problems of assimilation and intermarriage. This is what we mourn during this three weeks' period and throughout the Nine Days up to Tisha B'Av.
Since the fast day of Shivah Asar B'Tammuz (17th of Tammuz) we have observed the three weeks of mourning for the destruction of the Temple and the long and bitter exile that we still suffer from. From Rosh Chodesh Av the laws of mourning are intensified, culminating with Tisha B'Av itself.
Every year we read Parashas Devarim on the Shabbos before Tisha B'Av, known as Shabbos Chazon. In the beginning of this Parasha, Moses reviews the various incidents that the Jewish people went through during their sojourn in the wilderness, and he rebukes them for all their shortcomings and transgressions. Some incidents Moses refers to only with a hint. Others he discusses in more detail. He further tells them how difficult it has been to be their leader (Devarim 1:9-13): "And I said to you … I cannot carry you alone. HASHEM your G'd has multiplied you, and you are today like the stars of the heavens … How can I carry alone your bother, your disputes and your quarrels? Bring yourselves men, scholars who are wise and understanding … and I will appoint them over you."
The Hebrew word that Moses uses when he said "how can I carry alone" is "eichah". It is the custom to read this verse with the tune that we read the Book of Eichah (Lamentations) on Tisha B'Av which starts with the word "eichah". The Midrash (Eichah 1:1) points out that three prophets used the word "eichah" in their prophecies. The first one was Moses, in this week's parasha. The second one was Isaiah (1:21) who exclaimed: "How has she turned into a harlot, the faithful city? She was full of justice, and righteousness used to lodge by her, and now murderers". This is read in this week's Haftorah. And the third prophet was Jeremiah who used this expression as the opening line of the Book of Eichah (Lamentations) (1:1-2): "How does she sit in solitude? The city that was full of people has become comparable to a widow ... She weeps constantly at night … She has no comforter from all her loved ones. " The Midrash says this is comparable to a noble woman who had three close friends. One saw her in her time of ease, the second one saw her in her time of infidelity, and the last one saw her in her time of disgrace. It is obvious that this Midrash wants to teach us something. However, we need to clarify what is the insight the Midrash wants us to learn from these three expressions of eichah.
How come about?
When we read about the destruction of the Temple, and hear about all the calamities that have befallen the Jewish people throughout our exile, we join Jeremiah and ask "how did all of this come about?" But if we analyze the three instances that these great prophets expressed with eichah, we will find that things started to go wrong already at the time of our sojourn in the wilderness. There the Jewish people were provided with all their needs, both physically and spiritually. As G'd says (Shemos 19:4): "And I carried you on the wings of eagles". The manna fell down from heaven, and water was provided by the well of Miriam. In addition, they were protected from their enemies and dangers by the clouds of glory. But already then Moses saw the seeds of trouble in the quarrels and disputes that took place among them.
After the Jewish people entered the Land of Israel, the seeds of trouble developed further. Eventually, they fell from their high spiritual level to the extent that Isaiah found it appropriate to describe them and the City of Jerusalem as a harlot unfaithful to her husband. This might be what the Midrash wants us to internalize. Right from our beginning as a nation, we had shortcomings that slowly developed and grew. As it says (Devarim 29:17): "Possibly there is among you a root that flourishes with gall and wormwood" Generally, problems do not occur overnight. Rather, they start with very subtle, sometimes hidden beginnings. A poisonous seed or root below the surface slowly but surely grows and brings forth its toxic resins that can poison the environment around it. The sooner we recognize such a root and nip it in its bud, the better the chance to avoid major problems. Jeremiah bewails that we did not deal with our problems and G'd therefore punished us and destroyed the First Temple. After just seventy years in exile, the Jewish people were permitted to return to the land of their forefathers and build the Second Temple. However, due to our sins, this Temple also got destroyed, and again we had to leave our homeland and go into exile. This is why we are mourning until today.
Never met close relative
But how can we miss and mourn something that we never experienced? This is comparable to a person who lost a close relative he never met. Even if the mourner goes through the shiva and observes the laws and customs, is it really possible to mourn and miss someone one never knew?
Farmer's wife parable
If we are honest with ourselves, we may find ourselves somewhat similar to the wife of the farmer in the following parable. This farmer was a simple but G'd-fearing person, living on the plains of Russia. One day he came home to his wife and told her that the Rabbi had said that soon Mashiach would come and take them all to the Land of Israel. "This is terrible", said his wife. "Don't we have enough problems already? Who is going to tend to our chickens and look after our geese? You better go straight back to the Rabbi and tell him that we can have no part in this. It will be a real disaster." When the husband returned to the Rabbi with his wife's message, he told the farmer to go home and tell his wife that any day the Cossacks could come and plunder their farm and steal all their fowl. Obviously, they would be much better off when Mashiach comes and takes them to the Land of Israel. The farmer related the Rabbi's response to his wife and she understood that he had a valid point. Suddenly, she exclaimed, "I have a perfect solution. Let Mashiach come and take the Cossacks to Israel and everything will be fine." As we hear this parable, we smile knowingly. But if we are honest with ourselves we are probably not much different than this good wife. Are we totally comfortable and at ease with the thought that when Mashiach comes we will be expected to leave the comfort of our home, and give up the security of our business? Are we really ready to face a somewhat unknown future under Mashiach in the Land of Israel?
Physical dangers and perils
However, this approach is very narrow-minded and self-centered. If we look at the broader picture, we find the Jewish people at large, facing many perils and physical dangers. Despite the recent agreement, the threat from Iran is very real and dangerous, not only for our brothers and sisters in the Land of Israel, but for the security of everyone worldwide. The growing Muslim population all over Europe has created a major threat and danger for the Jewish communities there. Even for those of us who live in North America, there are cells of terrorists who are only waiting for opportunities to strike.
Assimilation and intermarriage
From a spiritual point of view, our situation is no better. Hundreds of missionary groups use every opportunity to ensnare those that are weak in their faith, and try to convert them to Christianity. Thousands of Jewish youths have fallen prey to the various cults of the Far East and elsewhere. Many communities report an alarming rise in assimilation in general, and in intermarriage in particular. This is all a direct result of our prolonged exile that started with the destruction of the Second Temple.
All these situations are a real threat to our future, and this is what we mourn during this three weeks' period. We intensify our mourning throughout the Nine Days to express our distress over our difficult situation. Finally, we fast on Tisha B'Av and read Eichah and the lamentations, and sit like mourners on the ground, to bemoan the perils we face right now. We must rise above our own personal situation and cry out together to our All Merciful G'd, "Please send Mashiach, and let us return to our Homeland in safety and peace, so we can build the Temple in Jerusalem and serve You the way You have prescribed in the Torah."
These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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