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Torah Attitude: Parashas Nitzavim/Vayeilech - Where was G'd?
Moses gave his final speech to the Jewish people on the 7th of Adar 2488 (1273 BCE), the day he passed away. Just as Moses calmed the Jewish people down with his words of appeasement, we find solace in the very same words. If G'd sees that His warnings are not being heeded, he will punish us with afflictions, as a loving father that punishes his child to help the child to do what is right. If G'd sees the Jewish people constantly transgress the laws of the Torah and do not repent, He will bring a wicked king, who issues harsh decrees, like Haman. Who can imagine how immense G'd's pain was during the Holocaust? Where was G'd at the time of the Holocaust? G'd warned the Jewish people for all generations about the terrible things that will happened if we do not follow the Torah's teachings about right and wrong. How did G'd permit that so many righteous people perished in the Holocaust? G'd's blessings are conditioned upon our following His instructions, and if we transgress the commandments we eventually bring curses upon ourselves. Every single Jew is being judged on Rosh Hashanah and we all have the opportunity to repent and improve our ways.
Moses' final speech
Every year we read the parshios of Nitzavim and Vayeilech prior to Rosh Hashanah and it is obvious that there must be a connection. In the beginning of Parashas Nitzavim (Devarim 29:9-14) it says: "You are standing today, all of you, before HASHEM your G'd … that you shall pass into a covenant with HASHEM your G'd … And not with you alone do I seal this covenant … but with whoever is here standing with us today before HASHEM our G'd and with those that are not here with us today." Rashi quotes from the Midrash Tanchuma (paragraph 3) that "those that are not with us today" refers to future generations. On a simple level, these verses are Moses' final speech to the Jewish people on the 7th of Adar 2488 (1273 BCE), the day he passed away. However, the Kabbalists explain that on a deeper level they hint to the day of Rosh Hashanah when the world, in general, and the Jewish people, in particular, stand in judgment before G'd.
Words of appeasement
Rashi quotes the Midrash, which elaborates on the opening lines of Parashas Nitzavim, and explains that they are words of appeasement to the Jewish people. At the end of last week's parasha, Moses warned the Jewish people with ninety-eight curses that would be brought upon them as a punishment if they would not follow G'd's instructions and fulfill the commandments. This made the Jewish people very frightened and they exclaimed "Who can survive these curses?" In response to that Moses said, "You are standing here today - look at yourself, you made G'd angry time and again throughout your sojourn in the wilderness. Nevertheless, you have survived. G'd did not annihilate you. Just like after every night there is a day full of light, so G'd has lit up for you till now and so He will continue to do in the future. The curses and the afflictions will make sure that you will stay with G'd." Just as our ancestors got frightened when Moses admonished them with the curses, so every year when we read these curses it sends a shudder through everyone who understand what is being read. But just as Moses calmed the Jewish people down with his words of appeasement, we find solace in the very same words.
Loving father punishes child
We understand that G'd has absolutely no interest in punishing his beloved children and the purpose of the curses is to warn us in an attempt to ensure that we follow G'd's commandments. If G'd sees that His warnings are not being heeded, he will punish us with afflictions, as a loving father that punishes his child to help the child to do what is right. The sole purpose of Divine punishment is to bring the Jewish people to repent and return to the ways of the Torah.
Wicked king like Haman
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 97b) teaches that if G'd sees the Jewish people constantly transgress the laws of the Torah and do not repent, He will bring a wicked king, who issues harsh decrees, like Haman. One of the great rabbis of Jerusalem once asked why would G'd choose to bring a wicked king like Haman rather than any of the other rulers that arose against the Jewish people in ancient times? Unfortunately, there is no shortage of examples. He answered that there is a significant difference between Haman and everyone else. Pharaoh, the King of Egypt, made decrees against the Jewish people and afflicted them to hard labour and many cruelties. Many other nations stood up and attacked the Jewish people, both during their sojourn in the wilderness and later when they settled in the land of Israel. Haman also rose to might and issued his decrees against the Jewish people. However, these decrees never came into fruition. Under the leadership of the great sage Mordechai, the Jewish people repented and were saved, whereas Haman was killed together with many of his followers. This is what the Talmud says. If the Jewish people do not repent, G'd will bring against them a wicked king like Haman hoping that, just like at the time of Haman the Jewish people repented and nothing happened to them, so the threat itself will be sufficient to bring the Jewish people to return to the ways of the Torah.
When Nazi Germany rose in all its ugliness, they made one decree after another against the Jewish populations in the countries they controlled. No doubt G'd had hoped that these decrees would bring His beloved children to return to their father in Heaven. Alas, this did not happen and the Accuser in the Heavenly Court got permission to do his job. The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 46a) relates how much pain it causes G'd when only one Jew, who has sinned, is being punished. Who can imagine how immense G'd's pain was during the Holocaust?
Where was G'd?
There is a very common question asked by many people: where was G'd at the time of the Holocaust? Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz, better known as the Chazon Ish, once addressed this question with a parable. In Europe it was common that people would make their own preservatives from the fruit of the summer to last them through the long winter. A young boy just loved his mother's preservatives, and although he had been told that he was not permitted to help himself, he could not resist the temptation and often would go to the closet to enjoy the forbidden fruits. The parents tried many techniques to educate their son to understand that this was not acceptable. When nothing seemed to help for more than a day or two, the father sat down with his son and told him that there was a certain danger involved in his consumption of the preservatives. The father explained that the son was not the only one who liked the sweet stuff. The bears of the woods also had a strong liking and when he would take out the jars it might attract one of these bears to the house and it would be dangerous. This scare tactic seemed to help, but after a week or two, the temptation was too great. As the young boy had not seen any bears around, he slowly slipped back into his old habits. When the father saw what was going on he realized that he had to do something more drastic, otherwise there would be no preservatives left for most of the winter. He went to a store and rented a bear costume. The next day, when the son came home from school, the father was ready to take action. As the son climbed up on the chair to reach the closet with the preservatives, he suddenly saw the shadow of a huge animal by the window, and to his horror saw that a bear was about to enter into the house. The boy let out a scream, jumped down and darted out of the room in the other direction, all hysterical. In the meantime, the father quickly hid his costume, and came running to his son and asked him what happened. The boy was still out of breath, but eventually managed to relate to the father what had occurred. The father said, "Didn't I tell you that this might happen? Now you understand that it's dangerous?" The boy promised his father that he would never again help himself to the preservatives. "But Daddy", said the young boy, "can I ask you a question?" "Sure", said the father. "Aren't you suppose to protect me Daddy? Where were you when the bear came?" Said the Chazon Ish, little did the boy understand that the father was inside the bear and it was all an educational tool to teach the son a lesson about right and wrong in life.
Warning for all generations
Let us sum it all up. In last week's parasha G'd warned the Jewish people for all generations about the terrible things that will happened if we do not follow the Torah's teachings about right and wrong. In this week's parasha, Moses explains to the Jewish people that it is G'd's hope that these warnings will suffice to keep us on the right path. If that does not do the job, the Talmud teaches that G'd will send us a wicked king like Haman in the hope that this will help us to repent, so that he will not need to let the bear strike.
There is still an additional question that needs clarification. How did G'd permit that so many righteous people perished in the Holocaust? However, a little later in the parasha, Rashi quotes from the Talmud (Sotah 37b) that when the Jewish people entered the land of Israel they accepted upon themselves mutual responsibility. The Torah (Devarim 29:28) says, "The hidden [sins] are for HASHEM our G'd and the revealed [sins] are for us and our children forever to fulfill all the words of this Torah." Says the Talmud (Sanhedrin 43b) what an individual sins in private, that is his personal responsibility, and only he will be punished for it. However, sins that are transgressed in public, even by individuals, if the community does not react and deal with the problem, it becomes a communal issue, and even the righteous will be punished.
The parasha continues and says (Devarim 30:1-2): "And it will be when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse ... And you will take it to your heart among all the nations that HASHEM your G'd has dispersed you. And you will return to HASHEM your G'd, and you will listen to His voice, as everything that I command you today, you and your children, with all your heart and all your soul." The Torah here reveals to us that the day will come when we will reflect upon our history and realize that G'd's blessings are conditioned upon our following His instructions, and if we transgress the commandments we eventually bring curses upon ourselves. When we internalize this message and seriously take it to heart, then inevitably we will return to G'd and fulfill the commandments of the Torah.
Every single Jew is being judged on Rosh Hashanah and we all have the opportunity to repent and improve our ways. No one is so good that he does not need to ask forgiveness and repent. And no one is so bad that he does not have a chance. These are days of great seriousness and of great opportunity. We can all make a difference, both as individuals and as part of the community. The parasha continues to describe how G'd will accept our repentance and help us to improve and bring us back to the land of Israel, to a life of fruitfulness and abundance. And the Torah concludes (Devarim 30:19): "I take today the Heaven and the Earth to witness against you. I have placed before you life and death, blessing and curse. And you shall choose life that you and your children shall live." Amen.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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