Devarim- Loss and Liberation

This shabbat, aside from marking the last shabbat before our commemoration of the Ninth of Av (commonly known as שבת חזון, named after the הפטרה), also marks our starting the final book of the Pentateuch, ספר דברים. Devarim is mainly divided up into three monologues from משה רבינו to עם ישראל, the first, which we read this week, containing mainly דברי תוכחה against עם ישראל. One of the biggest focuses of this speech is עם ישראל’s biggest stumbling in the wilderness, חטא המרגלים. It is interesting that we read of משה’s retelling of חטא המרגלים this week, as part of the incident took place on the “first” ט’ באב, where עם ישראל mourned after hearing the spies’ report and G-d said “just as you mourned for naught tonight, I will give you reasons to mourn on this date in the future.” This has held to be true, as we know that both Temples were destroyed on the 9th of Av, as well as the destruction of Beitar and the end of the Bar Kochva rebellion, and more contemporary calamities as well, including the First Crusade, the Jews’ expulsion from England (1290 CE), France (1306), and Spain (1492), and Israel’s disengagement from Gaza (2004), to name a few. Suffice it to say that תשעה באב is not a happy day for the Jewish People by any stretch of the imagination.

In our פרשה, as Moshe reminds בני ישראל of the story, he doesn’t use very positive language either. “ותמרו את פי ה’ אלקיכם- And you rebelled against G-d’s command,” Moshe says, speaking to the דור באי הארץ, “and as a result, your parents never saw the land. Do not make the same mistake.” Moshe continues by discussing the חטא המעפילים, those “zealots” who were so anxious to enter ארץ ישראל that they did the opposite of the post-מרגלים Israelites- they headed to the land against G-d’s will, and were punished accordingly. These two stories, showing the worst of both worlds, serve as a stark reminder to עם ישראל of the mistakes that their forebears made that led to them being banned from entering the land. This very fittingly fits the theme of תוכחה and of שבת חזון as we prepare to bemoan all of the tragedies that have hit the Jewish People.

However, there is a deeper silver lining to this תוכחה. Rav Elchanan Samet, renowned parsha structure analyst from Yeshivat Har Etzion, learns from the structure of the stories at the beginning of our sedra that there is a positive message that can be learned from these stories. Looking at the context of the פרשה after the stories of חטא המרגלים and מעפילים, he find the following chiastic structure:

  1. חטא המרגלים- G-d commands בני ישראל to enter and inherit ארץ ישראל- they don’t because of the spies’ evil report.
  2. חטא המעפילים- G-d commands בני ישראל not to enter ארץ ישראל- and they do, against His will

After 40 years in the desert:

  1. אדום ומואב- G-d commands בני ישראל not to enter and conquer the lands of אדום and מואב and they listen to Him and don’t
  1. סיחון ועוג- G-d commands בני ישראל to enter and conquer/inherit the lands of סיחון and עוג, and they listen to Him and do

Rav Samet teaches that from this pattern, we can see that the דור באי הארץ, scarred with the knowledge that the previous generation sinned and wouldn’t enter ארץ ישראל, and that the same could happen to them if they also mess up, learned from the mistakes of the דור יוצאי מצרים and made sure to follow G-d when He told them to go, and when He told them not to go. This change of attitude leaves us, as readers, with an optimistic feeling towards the beginning of נביאים as it appears that עם ישראל did learn their lesson, though this turns out to be bittersweet as our ancestors eventually sinned many times once they entered the land.

This theme is also very appropriate to תשעה באב. On Monday night, we will be mourning the loss of two בתי מקדש. We will be mourning the loss of 6 million Jews in the Shoah, and we will be commemorating many other tragedies in Jewish History. However, above all, our biggest commemoration will not be of the past, but of the present. We will be bemoaning the fact that right now, on our holiest spot in the world, our cousins, who, despite the fact that in our parsha we are reminded about how we did not attack them when we had the chance, ended up stabbing us in the back by continually attacking us and undermining our right to our land, sit and pray to G-d while we are forced to share the small Western Wall. In short, we are mourning over what could’ve been. We lost two בתי מקדש by not treating each other properly, and we currently do not have a third one for the same reasons. However, just as there is a silver lining in the parsha, there is also a silver lining to our sad situation. Tisha B’av is still two days away- that is plenty of time to do תשובה on our בן אדם לחבירו and earn the גאולה. Unfortunately, even if we do reverse the mistakes of ancestors just as the דור באי הארץ did, that will not be enough to have a third בית המקדש in two days. There will still be something missing- us.

One of the biggest transgressions that בני ישראל did at חטא המרגלים was they lost faith in G-d, despite the great miracles that were occurring every day, and they decided not to follow His instruction to go into Israel as a result of this. In our times too, we have a similar problem- G-d has shown us countless miracles, most of them involving the 65 year old אתחלתא דגאולה. But, despite these constant reminders of G-d’s will, we sometimes choose to ignore it in favor of the small voice telling us of the giants and pitfalls that will come in the way of following G-d to the Holy Land. It is undeniable that without עם ישראל being in ארץ ישראל, there cannot be a third בית המקדש, and we will unfortunately be commemorating ט’ באב as a sad day in the Exile, no matter how much we abstain from eating meat 9 days prior and work on our מדיות and our interpersonal relationships. So, as we prepare to once again bemoan our past losses and our gloomy present, there is one thing that we must make sure to contemplate; the possibility of a bright future, in the Holy Land with a בית המקדש. We must think of how we can earn this, through תשובה and through solid action, and with G-d’s help, we will see a reversal of our fortune just as עם ישראל’s fortune was reversed in the desert, and iy”h Monday night will be a night of celebrating the construction of the Third Temple, against all odds, very speedily in our days. Shabbat Shalom and a meaningful Tisha B’av to al.