Dedicated in loving Memory of Yitzchak Zvi ben Asher Aryeh
“G-d became angry with me for your sake, and He did not listen to me, and HaShem said to me, ‘you have enough; speak no more to me concerning this matter.'” [3:26]
Many times previously, Moshe had prayed to G-d after the announcement of a punishment – and Moshe had always received a favorable answer. Here he was refused. Why? “For your sake.” The Malbim explains: HaShem revealed to Moshe that He was not preventing his entry into the land of Israel because he was angry with Moshe [as with the other cases, He could have forgiven him]. Rather, He was doing this for the benefit of Israel.
But what does this mean? How could Israel benefit? The Malbim continues: if Moshe were to have entered the land, even as an ordinary individual rather than the leader, nonetheless the Holy Temple would have been built immediately under his direction. A Temple built by Moshe would never be destroyed – and this would have tragic consequences for Israel. In this situation, when Israel sinned against HaShem and demanded punishment, He would be forced to vent His anger against Israel themselves. But with the Temple built by someone other than Moshe, when Israel sinned, He would destroy that Temple and vent his anger on wood and stones.
Obviously this bears further explanation. Isn’t this cruelty? How can G-d be “angry?” Yet we understand that just as a father punishes his son in order to bring him back to correct behavior, so too does HaShem guide Israel his people – and not only as individuals, but as a single communal body. We can never understand why tragedy strikes individuals, but we can, guided by the Prophets, see every tragedy as a message for the entire Jewish community: improve yourselves. This is not cruelty, but mercy – just as a father corrects his son, so too must HaShem correct us.
And in the end, it is far less painful for the son to have his car taken away, than it is to be hit. All the more so do we see G-d’s mercy when he prefers to have the Holy Temple, His “dwelling in the midst of the camp,” destroyed – rather than see the destruction of Jews.
Later in the parsha, we read a section which is also read on the morning of Tisha B’Av. “When you have children and grandchildren, and have grown old on the Land, and you pervert yourselves, and you create an idol, any sort of image, and you do evil in the eyes of G-d to anger Him; I bring heaven and earth as witnesses upon you today, that you shall be utterly destroyed, quickly…” [4:25-26]
Rashi says that through the word “V’Noshantem” [and have grown old], Moshe hinted to them that their first exile would begin 852 years after their entry into Israel – the numerical value of the Hebrew letters in “V’Noshantem.” Yet we know that historically, the exile actually began after only 850 years. Was HaShem quick to anger, and again – was he cruel with His people?
Rashi answers, based on the Talmud Sanhedrin 38a, that this was, once again, Divine mercy. “He acted charitably towards us, by bringing it two years before its time,” in order to prevent fulfillment of the decree that “you shall be utterly destroyed.”
Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that this was not a random choice of time or response. Given another two years, Israel could have descended fully to the degraded level of the Canaanim who preceded them, and who were destroyed and dispersed forever. HaShem was quick to bring about the destruction of His Temple and our exile, in order not to destroy His people. [Like the Canaanim, individuals might have lived on, but the Jewish people would have come to an end (Heaven forbid).]
The reading continues: “And HaShem will scatter you among the nations, and you will remain few in number among the gentiles, wherever HaShem will lead you.” [4:27] Once again – is this a cruel decree? Once again, quite to the contrary. The Malbim says: “this as well will He do to save you; He will not exile you to one place, but scatter you, in order that you be dispersed among the nations. For then, if they enact decrees and destruction in one place, you will find space and rescue in another place… thus a remnant will always remain; although few in number, nonetheless you shall not be entirely destroyed.”
Yet the parsha acknowledges that the result of exile – inevitably, or so it seems – is an estrangement between HaShem and the Jewish people, or between Jews and our own spirituality. “And there you shall serve gods, the work of human hands, wood and stone, which do not see, hear, eat [taste] or smell.” [4:28]
Nonetheless, the door back to G-d is open, and Moshe says through prophecy that we shall enter that door: “And you shall seek out HaShem your G-d from there, and you shall find him, when you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul.” [4:29] Through everything that happens, we are destined to return to our closeness to G-d and our spiritual lives. For whatever reason, that which we were unwilling to do while in the Land, we will do in exile.
But here, too, all may not be as it seems. The Hebrew word “Ki,” used above in “[Ki / when] you seek Him…” also means “if.” IF you will seek HaShem with all your heart and with all your soul, you will find Him. A big if?
And Moshe says it again. “[Ki / when / if] you will please ask about the early days, which came before you…” [4:32] He is speaking, from the Torah scroll, to the Jews that experience the exile, the dispersal to foreign lands that he prophesied would occur. Says the Ibn Ezra, “when you shall ask – ask now.” In our day. Moshe is speaking to us. If you ask, you will find… “… has there ever been anything like this great thing, or has anything like it ever been heard? Has a nation ever heard the voice of G-d speaking from the fire, as you heard, and lived? Or has G-d ever gone to take for Himself a nation from the midst of another nation, with trials, signs, open miracles, and war, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and with great and terrible things – like all that which HaShem your G-d did for you in Egypt, before your eyes?” [4:32-34]
But why, then, in the midst of his prophecy, when he has so accurately laid our situation out before us, does Moshe say “Na” [please] – “If you will please ask…?” For whom are we doing a favor?
Like everything else, I think the answer is, for ourselves. When Moshe describes the destruction and exile, he uses the plural forms. And he even says that “You [plural] shall seek out HaShem your G-d.” But you – singular – shall find Him when [or if] you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul, and you – singular – must please ask the questions. Whenever tragedy occurs, we – each of us, individually – should ask the questions that turn us to spiritual pursuits and away from tragedy. What better consolation can there be, than recognition of the beauty of our connection to G-d?
King David said, “Precious in the eyes of HaShem is the death of His pious ones.” [116:15] Our generation lives not only after a Holocaust moderated by the destruction of wood and stone… but one that was not. And countless of HaShem’s children were consumed.
We must look past the tragedy – for ourselves. We cannot make the Holocaust the center of Jewish existence, but allow past experiences to spur us to greater closeness to HaShem and Jewish spirituality. Then we can move forward. “You shall surely console my nation, says your G-d.” [Isaiah 40:1, the Haftorah]
Text Copyright © 1996 Rabbi Yaakov Menken and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Director of Project Genesis.